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San Francisco Public School lottery explained

by Rob Regan on February 4, 2013

My real estate firm, Pacific Union, does a nice job explaining how the San Francisco Public School lottery system works, and your odds of getting into your preferred school.  Since I have a 4 year old this is a topic I’ve looked into as well and can add a few more tips.

For starters, while statistically 56% of San Francisco elementary school applicants get their first choice, this is likely highly skewed by those who are choosing an undesirable neighborhood school, and by those who have siblings already in a school (since that is the first “tie breaker”).  In addition, if you are choosing one of the most sought after schools your chances fall dramatically.  In other words, don’t expect to get into your #1 choice if you know it is considered a top school.

However, there are ways to improve your odds.  So  what are the tricks to getting at least one of your top 2 or 3 choices.  Well, you could move to a “low test score area” because that is the second “tie breaker”. But barring that extreme decision the trick is to find as many schools as you can possibly see your child attending and put them in the order of your preference.   Hopefully you can list 8 or 9 schools.  Of course you probably have almost zero interest in your 4th through 9th picks, but there is a method to this madness, so stay with me here.  After you “win” the lottery, let’s say with your 8th pick, the system looks at all applicants to see if your 8th pick is someone else’s higher, or more preferred, school pick.  If your 8th pick is someone else’s 3rd and one of their lower picks is higher on your list, you swap “wins”.  As I understand it this is computer algorithm which keeps running until everyone’s picks have been optimized.  This is why it is so important to pick 8 or 9 schools.  If you only list 3 schools the algorithm won’t help you.

So now let’s say you “won” with your 8th pick, and you got optimized to your 4th pick, and you’re still not happy because you really are only willing to accept your first and second picks.  Next is the waiting list.  The Pacific Union article can take over from here.  Apparently quite a few San Francisco kindergarten “winners” don’t show up because they chose a private school or moved out of San Francisco.  After 3 days they assume they won’t ever enroll and the school consults the waiting list.  As time goes on other students leave the school and your chances improve some more.  You might also be in your 4th pick school, and get to move up to your 3rd pick.  I’m unsure if you can keep upgrading, and/or be on multiple waiting lists, but I have heard of students getting into their #1 pick nearly a year later.

All in all this new system, while far from perfect, is much better than the old system.  The biggest benefit of the new system is due to the proximity tie breaker.   Since living near your school is so much more important in the new system more and more “undesirable” schools are being taken over by the local parents and turning them into “desirable” schools.  Parent involvement is one of the most effective ways of improving any school, and the stat I heard is that the number of “desirable” schools has doubled in San Francisco since the new lottery system went into effect.

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