A Dream Deferred:

How San Francisco schools leave behind the most vulnerable students

Lewis Stringer

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In San Francisco, around 25% of all school-age children are enrolled in private schools, much higher than the California average of 9%.26 One family’s experience sheds light on some of the factors that can lead families to make that decision.

“All of us, collectively, have made that decision, because we think opting out is worth it. There is a culture here that allows people to go to private school. It allows so many people to bail out.” – Lewis Stringer

When Lewis and Alana Stringer were getting ready to send their daughter, Dahlia, to kindergarten, they thought they’d send her to a public school. Both had attended public schools and felt they received a good education. But in the end, they chose a private school for Dahlia.

Like most San Franciscans, what the Stringers care about most are “the community, locality relative to where we live and work, and the educational stuff –– how strong is the school,” Lewis said. “We base that on the rankings we see online and what other parents say.”

The Stringers participated in SFUSD’s lottery and Dahlia was admitted to New Traditions, a highly-ranked public elementary school (rated nine out of 10, according to GreatSchools) near their home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood.27 They were satisfied with their choice, but they soon began hearing chatter about the school losing its principal and that it was going downhill.

Concerned, they decided to opt out of the public school system and chose the private Presidio Hill School, because they felt it was a sure thing.

“Our decision is like a lot of San Franciscans who are middle-class, have some kind of resources backing us up, and a desire to have a great school,” Lewis said. “This was a big debate between my wife and me. My only regret is that all of us, collectively, have made that decision, because we think opting out is worth it. But, whatever the reason, there is a culture here that allows people to go to private school. It allows so many people to bail out.”

About 25% of students who live in San Francisco Unified School District attend private schools, one of the highest rates in the country.28

Enrolling Dahlia in Presidio Hill wasn’t an easy decision for Lewis and Alana, and it came with a hefty price tag: $23,000 per year.

“We like her school,” Lewis said. “It’s relatively small with a great community, and it’s been great for Dahlia for the most part.”

Lewis knows many parents who made the same decision. Unfortunately, the Stringers are now left with a nagging feeling about having opted out.

“Personally, I do have a certain amount of guilt around the fact that we’re participating in something that isn’t possible for other people,” Lewis said. “It’s part of the nature of the circumstances in San Francisco, where the majority of people we know are relatively affluent, they have quite a bit of choice in where they send their kids, and are generally happy where their kids are going to school. While Presidio Hills is a great school, and we enjoy the community, there’s a very distinct difference: it’s still culturally a private school in that it’s a community driven by people who can afford to have their kids go there.”

When it comes time for Dahlia to attend high school, the Stringers plan to explore a district option. “The most likely scenario is we’ll continue to have her go to this school until eighth grade, and then we’ll look for other schools in the public system,” Lewis said. “I’m totally up for that.”

One hurdle they’re up against when they opt back in is San Francisco’s lottery system.

“It’s complicated and takes a lot of effort to understand and to participate in if you want a school that works for you,” Lewis said. “I understand what SFUSD was attempting to do, as far as balancing a lot of priorities: neighborhoods with bad schools and kids who want to be able to go to schools in their neighborhoods. It attempts to blend a lot of goals, so that lends to the complexity and challenge that I think ultimately makes it a hard system, but I honestly wouldn’t know how to make it better.”

26San Francisco Unified School District. (2015, November 23). Demographic Analyses and Enrollment Forecasts for the San Francisco Unified School District. Prepared by Lapkoff & Gobalet Demographic Research, Inc. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from http://www.sfusd.edu/en/assets/sfusd-staff/about-SFUSD/files/demographic-analyses-en-rollment-forecast.pdf

27New Traditions Elementary School. (n.d.). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.greatschools.org/california/san-francisco/6415-New-Traditions-Elementary-School/

28San Francisco Unified School District. (2015, November 23). Demographic Analyses and Enrollment Forecasts for the San Francisco Unified School District. Prepared by Lapkoff & Gobalet Demographic Research, Inc. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from http://www.sfusd.edu/en/assets/sfusd-staff/about-SFUSD/files/demographic-analyses-en-4roll4ment-forecast.pdf

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