San Francisco Preschool and Elementary School Admissions


This week I went to two events where I learned a lot about the schools in San Francisco. The first was a preschool and elementary admissions information night at Sprout this past Tuesday night. There were only two schools that were represented at this meeting: Stretch the Imagination and Hamlin Girls School. The second was a debate by the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Board of Education candidates. This blog post will primarily summarize the information I learned from the first event, though I will also draw on information about the SFUSD.


In San Francisco preschool can be from age 1 to 5.5 years old and there are over 200 preschools in San Francisco.  Preschools can be accredited through the NAEYC program but this is relatively rare as it involves a large amount of paperwork.  These preschools are either private, public, or special ed preschools.  Private preschools generally fit into one of the following categories: independent preschools, preschools affiliated with a specific organization, religiously affiliated preschools, cooperative nursery schools, montessori preschools, and schools with preschool through grade school.  Public preschools are either in the San Francisco Unified School District or part of the State Preschool Program.  Preschools generally teach children through one of three ways of learning.  San Francisco does not have feeder schools.  In other words you don’t have to go to x preschool to go to y kindergarten.  At the event I attended at Sprout, they called these three: academic-based, project-based, or play-based learning.  “In a play-based program, children choose activities based on their current interests. The term “play-based” is often interchanged with “child-centered,” which could be used to describe the majority of available preschool programs. The play-based classroom is broken up into sections, such as a home or kitchen, science area, water table, reading nook, space with blocks and other toys, or other areas. Teachers encourage the kids to play, facilitating social skills along the way. […] Alternatively, there are academic programs, considered didactic, “teacher-directed,” “teacher-managed.” In these classrooms, teachers lead the children in a more structured way, planning the activities, then guiding the children in doing them. This design is aimed at preparing kids for the kindergarten setting. For the most part, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, distinguishing shapes and colors, telling time, and other skills.”


Stretch the Imagination has a toddler program for those under 2 years old to go one hour a week to get to know each other and whether the school and child are a good fit.  Once the child turns two they can go to preschool for half a day each day until they turn four and then the school takes them for a full day.  They follow a Reggio Emilia philosophy, “Reggio Emilia schools are known for a project-based approach, which many preschool programs have borrowed. In a project-based curriculum, lessons are based on the interest of the students. […] Reggio Emilia programs are also known for documenting what children do, taking photos, making videos, writing observations. Then children and teachers can review what they’ve done throughout the year.”  At the event they described Stretch as a program where each day threads into the next.  The school brings in different experts from the area, for example an archaeologist, and has kids work through projects on given topics including a strong nature (forest) component.

Elementary School

Elementary schools in San Francisco are generally kindergarten through eighth grade, rather than twelfth. Kindergarten starts at age five. The classificiations of elementary schools are very similar to preschools. Private schools may be independent, most are nonprofits but some are proprietary.  If it has a board of trustees it is likely a nonprofit school.  

Before looking into schools more here are some things you need to think about:  

  • How many hours do you want to put your kid in a preschool? (full day, half day, year round, summer camp, etc.  For example Marin Day is truly a full day of preschool.)

  • Where are you looking to put them in preschool?  (for example, by your home, work, or somewhere in between)

  • How old do you want your kid to be when they first go to preschool?

  • What are the values you want your kid to learn in school?

  • How does your child learn?  Does the school you’re applying to embrace that form of learning?

  • What philosophy do you think would be best for your child’s learning?   

  • How important is it for the school you’re looking at to stick to that philosophy?  (Some schools are Montessori but not Maria Montessori.)

  • How much are you willing and able to pay for education?


General Things to Know about the Application Process

Most schools will only let you apply the year before your child is eligible.  The application process at Stretch begins with the tours in September and then the application due February 1st.  A large majority of preschools in San Francisco follow a similar schedule.  Kindergarten applications are generally due in December.  San Francisco Unified School District has an enrollment fair and is open for tours each year in October.  In November and December they have enrollment workshops and applications are due in early January. Some schools interview parents during the application process, some interview kids.
As for the application process here are some things that you should, and shouldn’t, do.  While these were mentioned at a preschool and kindergarten admissions information event from my experience this applies to a large number of application processes in general (including applying to masters or PhD schools).

  1. Be sure you visit regardless of what others say, even if they’re your close friends and family.  What’s right for them might not be right for you.  Especially don’t listen to strangers, they don’t know you or your kids.  Tour widely & focus reasonably.

    • Stay organized.  Go to things that speak to you.  Keep a spreadsheet.

    • Have fun!  Enjoy preschool!  Don’t miss this special time.

    • Trust your Instincts.

    • Applying to preschool & elementary school are the only times you’ll be applying where you have the majority of say as to where your kid goes.  Applying to high school & college they have to want it in addition to you.  

  2. Ask the same questions at all schools to see how they respond differentleep an open mind.

  3. Look at classrooms.  How are they set up?  What are teachers like?

Questions to ask on the Tour

        • does diversity look like at your school?

        • What does interaction between teachers and parents look like at this school?  Are there opportunities for parents to be in the classroom?

        • What isn’t going well?

        • What does school do if something goes wrong?  (ie child bites another child)

        • What is your expel rate?  How does someone get expelled?

        • What is the teacher to student ratio?  (1:12 is the state requirement, 1:4 or 1:5 is common for 2 year olds)

        • Does the school change diapers?  If you’re still breastfeeding what is the school’s process around this?


Application Process

  1. Applying to around 5 schools is ideal, 2 or 3 might be too few.  Only apply to schools you could see your kid going to.

  2. Interview

    • Baking cookies won’t get you in, be your authentic self

    • if you’re going to miss your appointment for whatever reason call or email, don’t no show

    • if child is sick, reschedule

  3. Application

    • make sure your application sounds like your kid is the age they are (ie sounds like a 2 yo)

    • Write a letter as specific to the school as you can.

    • Schools are looking for mission aligned families, get to know their mission.

    • First Choice Letters: These are letters stating that a particular school is your “first choice”. Only write one of these, better yet don’t write them. 

    • If you know people on the school’s board it won’t make a difference.  2 recommendations at most is ideal.

  4. Apply for financial aid right away (don’t wait till year two).  Hamlin Girls School has an affording Hamlin brochure that they send with the admissions package as well as a workshop.

  5. Don’t have a million people pester the admissions office

Resources I used while writing this article: