Ask a Canadian: Finding Schools For Your Children

A guide to the school system in the Bay Area

Finding a school for your children here in the Bay Area feels like a big deal, especially if your kids are young and you listen to the chatter on the sidelines of their soccer games or karate lessons.  We thought it might be helpful to lay out, in a general way, what families’ options are to give you a rough roadmap.

 A Disclaimer

We raised two children (now in their late 20s) here and consciously chose having them mix with the hoi polloi at an “Ok” public school versus setting out to get them what some might deem to be the best education possible.  In fact, we used a mix of public, charter, parochial and homeschooling to get them through their twelve grades. We have friends and relatives in Canada that have had children get through school there but my wife but have no direct experience with the Canadian system, so comparisons made here are done so on a second hand basis.

Finding a school for your child can feel like a fraught process; the Bay Area is stuffed to the rafters with high achieving folks who have done well and want the best for their kids.  These parents (and most) are focused on getting their kids into an amazing college and see grade school as a step along the way.

 Very American

The grade school selection process here is very American, in the best and not so amazing ways.  In the best, very American, way, you have lots of choice. In marketing terms, there are lots of segments to choose from and you should be able to find the niche that suits you well.  Below, I’ll discuss the following basic categories:

  • Public
  • Charter
  • Private
  • Parochial
  • Home Schooling

 One not so amazing thing about grade school selection here, is that - like so many things in America - it can get carried away by its own hype and marketing.  You would do well to manage how that hype affects your own decision process and be somewhat skeptical about the message that hype carries.

Public Schools

Public schools in the U.S are funded by local property taxes and so, even though California has standardized funding by pupil across the State, more wealthy municipalities generally have better quality schools.  You’ll see this reflected in home prices: two towns side by side may show a home price differential that is proportional to the increased cost of buying a private school education for a family in the town whose schools have a less than stellar reputation.

In fact, real estate and school seem inextricably linked in may parts of the Bay Area--just visit a real estate website like Zillow, and it will show the rating on a scale of ten for the neighbourhood schools based on standardized test scores, along with other “unCanadian” content like demographics, racial breakdown and socioeconomic information about the student population.

 It is quite possible to find solid elementary and middle public schools in towns that aren’t priced sky high (Hang on!  What house isn’t priced “Sky High” in the Bay Area?).

High schools are a little more tricky; local high schools seemed larger and very sports oriented to us (relative to what we remember from Canada) with a strong focus on getting graduates into college.

You’ll be asked to fundraise for you public school, as this is how they pay for “extras” the public funding doesn’t cover, like arts, science and phys ed at the lower grades, and at the elementary and middle school level, you will be called upon to do a lot of volunteering. A.L.O.T.

Depending on where in Canada you came from, you might be astonished at the amount of volunteer time and money you are expected to contribute to your child’s school and classroom.

Depending on what public school district you end up in, your kids may also have to wear a uniform or follow a dress code. Yes, even here in gentle Northern California there are gangs and school boards try to keep them outside the classroom by enforcing a dress code that removes all gang colours and associations.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are a quintessentially American creation, designed to give public school users additional choices about how their children are educated.  Charter schools focus on a specific “mission” (the school’s charter) - it could be science, or arts or a community focus - are publically funded and have to take all applicants, using a lottery if oversubscribed.  Charters have more flexibility that public schools in how they offer their services. Some charters support school networks regionally and nationally and focus on working in lower income communities (E.g. Networks like KIPP, Aspire, Rocketship runs 100s of schools around the country).

Like elementary and middle public schools, your childrens’ charter will fundraise and expect you to provide volunteer support.

Private Schools

There are more than a hundred private grade schools in the Bay Area, offering a wide variety of learning experiences (e.g. Religious. STEM, STEAM, project based learning) - I break parochial schools out below.  They tend to offer smaller class sizes, and a focus on making their graduates college bound. They can also cost a fair bit of money (annual tuition is usually north of $25,000). If you’ve arrived from Montreal, where private school tuition is modest, this may be a bit of a shock.

One of the positive (and perhaps negative) issues with private schools is that, because for their price tag and focus, you will self select into a market segment that is very like you.  This is super positive if you want your child to build a community of like-parent-minded peers but will not give him / her much exposure to other parts of society.

Parochial (Catholic) Schools

Parochial schools offer a more modestly priced private school experience with a strong traditional values system.  Most are moderate religiously (although spiritual formation is part of the package) and very open to other belief systems.  Like the Catholic church, the schools are run in a very decentralized fashion and some of the Catholic high schools are competitive (and more costly) to get into.

Home Schooling

If Charter schools are an American phenomenon, then home schooling is even more essentially rooted in this country’s do-it-yourself ethos.  This is a country where folks are ruggedly independent and figure things out, with all the benefits and risks that that implies. So it is with schooling your children: “I’m smart enough to figure out how to educate my kids, thank you very much.”  About 1.7 MM children are currently homeschooled in the U.S., about 3.4% of the total school population.

The resources available if you decide to home school are enormous: you can select curriculum that span from religious to atheist, from disciplined to libertarian, from hard science to poetic.  You’ll find lots of groups to join and a large amount of learning material and events offered by local libraries, parks and museums.

Of course, home schooling isn’t for everyone: it requires a time commitment from one or both parents and assumes that you want to spend more (not less) time with your children.

In Summary

Selecting a school for your child is no easy task and we know there is no one size fits all. We pass no judgement here and aim to try and explain some of the basics.  The great thing about schools here in the Bay Area is that there is a huge variety of options available: one size does not fit all. You need to find what is right for you and your child.  If there is more information you seek about schools, by all means, get in touch with us and we’re happy to do some research on your behalf.

Hugh Morgan grew up in Calgary and has lived in the Bay Area for 27 years.  He’d be delighted to answer any questions you have about life in the Golden state: you can reach him at

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies or positions of the Digital Moose Lounge.