Tell me everything I need to know about the SFUSD public school lottery
By Parents, For Parents
This guide was compiled by a number of amazing parent volunteers and public school advocates brought together by SF Parent Coalition, which advocates for thriving, equitable schools. It was reviewed by SFUSD’s Enrollment Center for accuracy.
Your child is eligible to enroll in SF’s public schools for kindergarten or transitional kindergarten (a.k.a. “a free year of preschool”) based on these age eligibility guidelines from SFUSD. For reference, this is the official SFUSD page about enrollment: www.sfusd.edu/schools/enroll
Key dates for starting school in Fall 2024
- Anytime: Sign up for school enrollment updates from SFUSD.
- Thursday October 12, 2023 Pop into the “Lunch and Learn” hosted by SF Parent Coalition and parent advocates from across SFUSD, joined by a representative from SFUSD’s enrollment center.
- Saturday October 21 2023, Don’t miss the SFUSD Enrollment Fair!!!, 10am-2pm at John O'Connell High School. Each school will have a table and 1-2 representatives present; ask questions! There's also food, music, and free books. Stop by our SF Parent Coalition table to say hello, and pick up a free bookmark!
- December 15, 2023: Deadline to apply for 9th grade at specialized high schools (Ruth Asawa SOTA and Lowell)
- February 2, 2024: Round 1 enrollment application deadline
- More detailed schedule here: www.sfusd.edu/schools/enroll/apply/key-dates
What is the Lottery?
In many places outside of San Francisco especially suburban and rural areas, people attend a specific school based on where they live. In S.F., a highly segregated city, there is a lottery system so that families living in segregated, historically underserved neighborhoods have the opportunity to attend school outside of their neighborhood. KQED has an explainer. Still curious about why school integration is important? Check out the Integrated Schools podcast. Need a visual on how the assignment system works? This 8-minute video from SFUSD outlines how the “lottery” works.
How much do I need to care about this?
Schools throughout the district have the same curriculum, access to special education supports for children in general education, and even breakfast and lunch menus. Schools might have different hours, aftercare programs, and special programs like language immersion and special day classes for some children with higher support needs. Learn more about the common programs and resources across every elementary school. You have to apply through the lottery no matter what, but the amount of effort you put into making your ranked list of school choices depends on your priorities.
Step 1: What are your priorities?
Figure out what's important for you in a school. For example, you can use the SFUSD School Finder to identify:
- Schools you can walk to. You can also check the name of your local neighborhood (“Attendance Area”) school with this tool.
- Schools with a start time that works for your family. Elementary schools start at one of three times: 7:50am, 8:40am, or 9:30am.
- Schools that are of the size you are looking for. Elementary schools in SF range from fewer than 200 students to more than 600 students. Schools can start with PreK, TK, or K, and go through 5th or 8th grade. Schools can have anywhere from one to five classes in each grade level.
- Schools with after care programs that have space for everyone. Some schools have multiple aftercare programs, while other schools only have one. School administrators don’t always know about afterschool programs that are available to students but operate off-site; it may be best to talk to current parents to learn more about those options. See a list of before and afterschool programs by school here.
- Schools with a specific language immersion program.
Note that school ratings most closely correlate to how well-resourced the families who send their kids to that school are, rather than how good that school is at teaching. This video has an explainer. This parent-developed guide has some info on how to examine test scores based on parental education level for a particular school. SFUSD, as a whole, has higher learning rates than national and state averages, based on research from the Stanford Education Data Archive’s Educational Opportunity Project.
Step 2: Choose schools based on your priorities
If you can't figure out if a school fits your priorities by looking up the school online, you could:
- Reach out to the school's Parent Teacher Association, if the school has one, with any questions; you can usually find this contact information on each school’s website.
- Ask parents on social media what the school is like. San Francisco parents can be found in Facebook groups such as: 1) SFUSD Lottery Support Group, 2) SFUSD Families Forum, by SF Parent Coalition, 3) Main Street Mamas, 4) Mom / parent / family groups specific to the neighborhood of the school
- Tour the school. Tours are generally run by the school's Parent Teacher Association, and the vast majority take place during work hours.
- Attend the SFUSD Enrollment Fair! Check out “Key Dates” on P.1 for details.
Step 3: Figure out if you need to add more schools
By now, you should be able to compile a ranked list of schools you would want your child to attend. If the schools you've listed are in high demand, you may want to list extra schools to make it more likely to get into something on your list.
How difficult will it be to get a seat at your preferred schools?
If a school has not historically had enough spots for everyone in the neighborhood (AA) who applies, it may be difficult to get a seat there. You can check if that's the case for your school on this spreadsheet, with (anecdotal) data crowdsourced from parents in the SFUSD Lottery Support Group. Schools with language immersion programs and schools on the west side of San Francisco have historically had a higher number of applicants per seat. If you are prioritizing these schools it would be wise to include some less in demand choices. TIP: Talk to families at lesser known schools – you will hear they are thrilled with their child’s teachers and the community!
What "tiebreakers" does your family have?
A “tiebreaker” is something SFUSD applies to the pool of applicants for a school when the number of requests for that school is greater than the number of seats available. In most cases, SFUSD gives the highest priority for seats to students who have an older sibling attending a school. After that, there are several considerations for assigning spots at a school with more requests than available seats:
- The test scores of students living in your neighborhood. The idea is to allow students in underserved neighborhoods – identified by low test scores – to attend other schools. These students have priority. You can check if you have the Test Score Area Tie-breaker here. (This is also referred to as living in CTIP1 area.)
- Whether or not you live in the school's neighborhood, called the Attendance Area. You can see the Attendance Area borders for each school here.
- For language programs, a percentage of seats are reserved for students who are fluent in the target language, and other seats are reserved for non-fluent students. Historically, the demand for fluent speaker seats is somewhat lower. In order to show that your student is fluent, they will be tested via an interview. Also, students who have attended an SFUSD language program PreK or TK have the highest tiebreaker for a seat in an immersion kindergarten.
If you have picked only competitive schools and you also do not have any tiebreakers, it may be worth adding a few more schools. You might add some schools that fit most of your priorities but not all. Consider poking around in the SFUSD Lottery Support Group, for example the thread on "unknown" schools that parents love. If you don’t get a seat at any school you’ve listed, the district will assign you to the school geographically closest to your address, that has more spots than applicants. So decide if there are schools you’d prefer over this randomized assignment, and add those to your list.
Don't add a school that you really don't want to attend just to have more schools. This won't help you get into the schools you actually want. A more detailed description of the enrollment algorithm is here.
Step 4: Apply!
You can submit an application online, or you can complete a paper application and email it to [email protected], or drop it off in person to the SFUSD Enrollment Center at 555 Franklin St. Room 100 or the satellite location at 1520 Oakdale, Room 30 (Oakdale is open only on Tuesday and Thursday).
Step 5: (Optional) Enter the next rounds
Most people (over 60%) are assigned their first choice school, nearly 90% are assigned one of their other listed choices, and nearly 95% of people who choose their neighborhood school as their first choice are assigned to it. Most applicants will be able to complete the application process after the first round and enroll in the assigned school online, through ParentVue.
If you want to remain in the lottery to get a different school assignment, SFUSD offers multiple chances to be assigned to a different school.
- Round 2: shortly after the first round of assignments has been made, you can submit a new ranked list (or the same list) of schools for the second lottery round. This round works the same as the first, except that there are fewer seats available. Only list schools that you want more than the school to which you were assigned in Round 1. If you are assigned one of the choices on your Round 2 list, you will lose your first round assignment. If you do not get an assignment from your Round 2 list, you will keep your first round assignment.
- Wait pool: After round 2, you can request to be waitlisted at one school. Around the start of the school year (usually during the two to three weeks of the year), you may be assigned to your waitlisted school if there is room. You would then withdraw from your previously assigned school and enroll in the newly-assigned one.
- Open enrollment: During mid-summer, the Enrollment Center opens up the opportunity to enroll at any school that has open spots and no wait list. You may request to change your assignment to any of those schools. Note that you can request one of these schools AND keep your name in the waitpool of another school.
What else should I know?
- The district has spent the past decade building a new assignment process. The current plan is for the new system (which will divide the city into zones, and will limit the number of schools a family can apply to) to go into effect for families applying to the ‘26-’27 school year. That date has been changed several times, and could change again.
- Transitional Kindergarten: California is in the middle of expanding eligibility for (free, public) transitional kindergarten. Previously it was only available to students with certain birthdates; by 2026 it will be available for all 4 year olds. The district is adding TK classrooms, and adjusting the policies around TK applications and assignments as the eligibility expands. For the 24-25 school year, students who will turn 5 between September 2, 2024 and June 2025 are eligible for TK.
- Want more information on the assignment system from an SFUSD parent, documenting her process? A parent lead at Marshall Elementary developed this longer guide; which includes examples of school rankings that parents chose with explanations.
I need help!
Confused and need to talk to a person? The SFUSD Enrollment Center provides help to parents navigating the process. Reach them by email ([email protected]), phone (415-241-6085) or visit in person at 555 Franklin Street, room 100 of 1520 Oakdale, room 30 (Tuesdays and Thursdays). Also, the Facebook Lottery Support Group is a great place to get questions answered by real parents who have gone through this before; there's tons of misinformation out there but the administrators share accurate, helpful information.
Huge thanks to the parents who volunteered their time to put this guide together, including parent advocates from SF Community, Marshall, Alvarado, Flynn and Sloat elementary schools, and Aptos middle school at SFUSD.