How to navigate the private school process in San Francisco

Preparing to Apply To Private School in San Francisco

I get a lot of questions about schools as I’m selling real estate in San Francisco. And as a parent I have questions too. So I thought it would be helpful to have a Q&A session with Paula Molligan, an educational consultant and co-founder of Little and Molligan.

 

Since 2003 she and her team have offered professional, personalized school placement services for over 2,000 families. She helps parents in the Bay Area to select preschools, public, private and parochial day schools as well as boarding schools throughout the US and Canada. She shares a lot of great information about how to prepare for and navigate the private school process.

 

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Hi, Paula. Thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Paula Molligan:

My pleasure, I’m glad to be here.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Awesome.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Well, I wanted to take a chance to talk to you because I get a lot of questions about schools as I’m selling real estate, and I know this is the time of year, correct me if I’m wrong, where people start to think about school choices.

 

Paula Molligan:

You’re exactly correct, this is the time of year. And actually, it’s appropriate. Right now, it’s September 21, people are looking for the admission season for fall 2022. And the admission season essentially runs for most schools from September through December-January.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Okay. So the people listening to this are probably going to be looking at next year, would be my guess. So moving into that, if someone was watching this well in advance, what are the things that they should be thinking about in order to prepare themselves to be ready for this?

 

Ruth Krishnan:

I worked with you and Betsy directly last year, thank you so much.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yes, we enjoyed that.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And I have to say it was probably… I mean, I feel like I deal with a lot of stressful things and it was one of the more stressful things I’ve dealt with.

 

Paula Molligan:

Well, I think that’s always true when you’re dealing with your children, because obviously you’re a parent, you want the very best for your children and you want to do the very best you can do for them, so that always adds another layer of stress. I think what parents need to do is, if they want to start investigating schools, there are lots of private schools in San Francisco as well as good public schools, they should really look at both.

 

Paula Molligan:

For the private school, they need to start looking at schools that have the appropriate grade levels for their children. And they can investigate those schools by going on their websites and looking, learning a little bit about the schools. All of the websites have a section about admissions, which explains the process to them. And they can begin to sort of dive in.

 

Paula Molligan:

Right now, schools have on their websites, parents can sign up for tours and/or open houses. Now, this year, because of COVID, most of the activities for parents are virtual, which is good and bad for parents. Because the good news is they often have many more of them. Because they’re virtual, it’s easier to schedule. So hopefully, it’d be more convenient for parents and their schedule. Of course, it’s not the same as being there in-person. And we all understand those constraints, but they’re trying to keep their children safe, and we all appreciate that.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Absolutely. I mean, one of the reasons why we ended up hiring you guys was because we were looking at this also in COVID and we found it… I created a spreadsheet, of course, I’m a big spreadsheet person, but looking on the websites and stuff, we also found it very difficult to determine what the personalities of the schools were, what were the pros and cons of the schools? So having an expert to guide us through and talk to us about what are our values for our family, and what schools did you guys feel lined up? That was really helpful because there’s a lot to choose from.

 

Paula Molligan:

And that’s essentially why we provide the service that we provide; our whole goal is to familiarize ourselves with the schools. And of course, Betsy and I have been, gosh, combined we’ve been in education over 70 years. But I’ve been in education here in the Bay area since, oh gosh, for over 50 years. And I know the schools very, very well. We visit the schools on a regular basis and stay in contact with them. So we feel like we do know sort of the ethos and personalities a little bit more about the schools, and hopefully we can match that to what parents are looking for. And that’s pretty much what our service does, I mean we try to individualize it. We listen to moms and dads about their children and what they’re looking for, for their family, and then try and match them with schools that would work for them.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

So let’s pretend that we’ve fast-forwarded and we’ve narrowed this down to five or six schools.  What are some things that parents can be doing if they are looking at this a year or two years in advance prep the child? Are there academic things, or social service things, or what are the schools looking for that can help them set themselves apart? At least I felt like, for a lot of the schools that we wanted to go to, it seems there were like 200 applicants and six slots. So how do you differentiate yourself from all those 200 people?

 

Paula Molligan:

Well, the first thing we always advise, if you’re applying to a school that’s a good match for your family, that helps narrow it down because they will also recognize that the family is a good match for their school, just philosophically, and value-wise, and ethics, and all of that. It depends on age groups… especially young children preparation. We really sort of frown on that. Schools are really looking for developmental readiness for young children. Let’s say, if you’re looking at kindergarten, they’re really looking at developmental readiness. There are no skills per se that a child must have. We always reassure parents that if you’re looking for a kindergarten placement, there isn’t one school that we know of that really cares or bothers to even check whether a child is reading, so you want to take all that pressure off. They are children, they’re still growing. Lots of things are coming, bells and whistles are coming in at different times, so we don’t worry too much about that.

 

Paula Molligan:

I think what you can do is make sure that your child is working up to their abilities, so you want to make sure that you’re providing them opportunities to develop in all different areas, and social, emotional is a big part of it. It’s not just academics. Our schools are looking for kids that are ready to be part of a classroom, and be able to collaborate, that kind of thing.

 

Paula Molligan:

Now, for the older children, academics are important, but so are their extracurricular activities and interests. Remember that no school that we know of is looking for a cookie cutter kind of student. They’re looking for a variety of children from a variety of backgrounds that bring them different aptitudes and skills to the table. Actually, admissions is a lot of fun because it’s sort of like you’re a painter and you’re bringing them all these different colors to bring into your classroom, all these different interests, and all these different aptitudes to make an interesting palette.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

So you worked in admissions before in a school, correct?

 

Paula Molligan:

I didn’t, Betsy did. I worked as a head of a school and also I worked as the high school placement person for the school.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

What would be some red flags that you guys would see that a parent could just totally accidentally botch the interview process?

 

Paula Molligan:

For parents, entitlement; coming in thinking that they’re entitled to admission at the school is the biggest red flag. So I think you have to be earnest about it, you have to take it seriously. We’ve had occasions where parents actually took phone calls during their interview to make a dinner reservation. That actually happened. So that doesn’t speak well to how seriously the parents are taking the process. But also to be honest about your child.  We all look at children, they’re not finished products, and neither are we, but we’re all growing. And yes, they’ve got areas of challenges and they’ve got areas of strengths, so be honest and forthright about it. If you try and cover something up about your child, you don’t want to tell them that they’ve got this issue or that issue, that’s probably not the right way to start a relationship with a school. And plus, you want a school that’s willing to understand your child, and if your child has some special needs of some kind or special aptitude for something, you want the school to know about it and serve your child.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

It sounds like it’s important for the schools to know that the parents are going to be involved. So both parents should plan to show up?

 

Paula Molligan:

Exactly.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Having your executive assistant book the meeting?

 

Paula Molligan:

It’s not a good idea.

 

Paula Molligan:

The other thing we always say is, it’s important that parents get on the same page as a school wants a family that’s happy with them. They want a family that knows what their philosophy is and is going to be able to support that. It’s very, very important. So it’s important that parents talk about what kind of education they want for their children and agree upon that before they begin in the process, because we’ve had many situations where it’s clear dad is looking for one thing and mom’s looking for something else. And as a school, we’re not going to be able to satisfy both parents.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Right.

 

Paula Molligan:

Now, one more thing I should tell you to prepare your child, one of the things that you want to make sure as a parent is you’ve been respectful of school programs that you’ve been involved in before. So if your child is dropped off late to school on a regular basis, that doesn’t bode well for the next school. They’re going to say, “These people don’t take school very seriously, they never dropped their child off on time.” Another warning.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

So making sure that if you have been late –

 

Paula Molligan:

Follow the rules.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

If you’re a few years out, maybe start cleaning up your tardiness.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And also we had to get recommendations from teachers sometimes going back many years, so maybe making relationships with those teachers, if you haven’t already.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yes, being a good supportive parent, I mean that’s really what we want. We want parents who are going to collaborate with us, raising children… That whole idea of, it takes a village, it’s not far off. And I can tell you, I worked with middle school children for over 20 years, and anyone who’s had a middle school aged child knows sometimes there are a few bumps in the road. And what I can guarantee you is, any time the school and the parents were working together as a team, we were able to get any little bumps smoothed out. When we had problems is when we were on different sides.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

So I remember when I was… My kids are now 9 and 12, so we were working with you on the middle school process. But I remember when I was first interviewing preschools and I had a friend, who we know as a mutual acquaintance, was in admissions for a private school. And I was telling her about my spreadsheet checklist for interviewing. And I was like asking about the earthquake evacuation plan, so that was one of the things that you schooled us on. My friend was like, “Hey, you might not want to seem like the most type A parents at that moment.”

 

Paula Molligan:

Needy. Yeah. And that’s true. And remember, the schools are looking, at this point, sort of in a general sense, if you want to get into specifics about the school, there’s plenty of time to do that later. But we need parents who are going to be able to be competent in our program and feel secure in the way we’re doing things. And we always tell our parents or advice our parents, look at the students at the school, especially the older students at the school if you’re looking at K-8, look at the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, observe the way they behave, observe what’s happening in class, the kinds of assignments they’re getting, the way they’re relating to one another, the way they relate to their teachers. And if you like what you see, it’s probably going to be a good match for you. So you can put your kindergartner in with lots of confidence that when they graduate in eighth grade, they’re going to be something you’re going to be particularly happy that you chose that school.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Right, right.

 

Paula Molligan:

We work hard.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And the schools probably don’t want to take on a parent that looks like they’re going to be micromanaging them.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And it’s similar to when you go to buy a house and you start asking about everything…

 

Paula Molligan:

Exactly.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

The buyers are like “Oh, tell me about all the structural integrity.” And they’re digging in and asking the listing agents…

 

Paula Molligan:

Yeah, you know they’re not going to be happy.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And the listing agent is like, “Oh, I think this person is really nervous.” So it’s understanding when that time is. And I really didn’t understand that. I don’t think a lot of parents do.

 

Paula Molligan:

And remember too, these schools do a really good job, and they do like parent input. I mean, most of the schools welcome parent input, but it has to be at the right time and the right place.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

That’s a really, really good tip.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And then what about during the interview process, again, back to… Is it 200 to 6? I mean, what kind of odds are we looking at for one of these schools?

 

Paula Molligan:

It depends on the school, and some schools have more applicants for openings than others, and that isn’t necessarily indicative of the quality of the school. It’s just some schools may be  located in a place that’s more convenient for people, so they get a lot more applicants than others. It can be a mixture of reasons for that, but it depends on the year and the school. But honestly, it can be as high as seven applicants for every opening here in San Francisco. So it can be a very competitive environment, but that shouldn’t scare people off. Because what we always tell our clients is, someone’s going to get those spaces. And if you don’t apply, it won’t be you.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Right.

 

Paula Molligan:

And some schools are not as competitive, some schools only have maybe one or two applicants per opening, it just depends. It also depends on the year. Now, there are entry year points. Typically, kindergarten is an entry point. Typically, sometimes around fifth, sixth grade of middle school is entry point. And then of course, ninth grade is entry point for the high schools.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Right.

 

Paula Molligan:

So in those cases, those are built-in entries. Otherwise, to get a space in a private school, you’re going to be depending on attrition.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

We weren’t in a position financially to put our kids in school and kindergarten in a private school, we just weren’t there in our lives at that time. But one thing that I did realize, and I think that a lot of parents probably are like me too where even if they have the money, sometimes they’re like, “Ah, how much does K-5 really matter? Maybe they can go to public school for that time.” But in the process of interviewing, I realized there was one school that we were very interested in that was very, very competitive to get in. And I thought, “Oh, well, if we had the money back in kindergarten, that would have been the better time to get in there because they have all the slots. And it seems like those kids were just carrying on through eighth grade.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yeah. But we don’t like to put a lot of pressure on parents that way and feel this guilt, “Oh my gosh, if I can’t afford to put them in private school in kindergarten, that’s it.” The poor kids, oh, their path to higher education has been destroyed. Not at all. We always tell everyone, there are lots of paths to get to the same end point, and not any one path is the absolute input, absolutely necessary for any given family. So it depends on your circumstances. And if in fact, public school is what you’re opting for K-5 perhaps, everyone should be confident, there are schools that have built-in openings for middle school, for typically sixth grade, some even have some in fifth. But most open up some spots in sixth grade. So if you decide you want to switch at that point and go into a private school at that point, you could.

 

Paula Molligan:

The same is true for high school, so the high schools take students from both private and public, there isn’t a prejudice involved in that. So there are always ways, different paths like as I said, different options for parents, and they shouldn’t feel guilty.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And I think we all believe public school is a great thing.

 

Paula Molligan:

It is.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

I went to public school.

 

Paula Molligan:

Me too.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

I really wanted my kids to go to public school. We moved them primarily during COVID for those reasons. But so in the event that you actually prefer public school, but only want a specific one because it’s a lottery in San Francisco, how do you juggle that? How does that work?

 

Paula Molligan:

It’s honestly a lottery. Now, the thing about the public schools is any parent can go to the website, and the website for the San Francisco Unified School District is very, very informative. So it tells you all the steps, everything’s there, the schools are listed there. Before COVID, they actually had days you could go visit, but they have other ways of getting information on them. And you go ahead and then you can list every single school in San Francisco. You can put the 70, whatever, grade schools on your list, but you put them in the order of your preference, and hope for the best.

 

Paula Molligan:

They do give weight to the neighborhood schools, so if you would really like to attend the school that you are assigned to in your neighborhood, there is weight given to that, but that’s not a guarantee. But certainly, parents should pursue that. They should look into it. We always encourage our parents to look at the public schools, and also if they want go ahead and look at the private and parochial schools.

 

Paula Molligan:

The good news for parents in San Francisco is the announcement of what public school you’ve been assigned to for round one, the first round, is announced at about the same time that the private school admissions acceptances are announced. So at that point, it’s usually mid-March, parents will have that information, they will have the knowledge, “This is where my child would go to public school if I choose to pursue that.” And then you also know what private schools you’ve been accepted to. So you can make a very informed decision at that point. So that’s the good news, that is good for parents.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

I mean, I just can’t even imagine adding on the public options to the… I mean, for us, even though-

 

Paula Molligan:

It’s hard. And I tell parents, just take a deep breath and know it’s going to be two or three stressful months. There’s just no way around it.

 

Paula Molligan:

We have been told by many, many people and, Ruth, you would probably say the same thing, that they spent more energy on looking at schools and writing out applications for their grade school child than they did for college and/or graduate school.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Yes.

 

Paula Molligan:

So just be prepared, it’s arduous.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

It definitely is. And with the two, it really adds to the complexity. It’s mind boggling.

 

Paula Molligan:

The thing is, well, you did two at the same time. Now, the good news is, if parents want to start with their older sibling, and then a couple of years later, the younger sibling, the schools do have strong sibling policies. So that is good news for parents with more than one child. It’s not automatic, but there is a strong policy for acceptance.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

So with the public schools, and I haven’t been through the public school process in San Francisco because I live in Pacifica, but with the public schools in San Francisco, there’s no applications. It’s really a job just touring the schools, figuring out which are your choices, and then listing those choices. Correct?

 

Paula Molligan:

Well, a little bit. Yes, you’re right. The application does require you’ve got to register. It requires some paperwork, that kind of thing. It’s all explained on the website. There are a few schools that you sort of apply to separately, but they don’t have essays and application fees and that kind of thing. But it does take a little bit of paperwork on your part, that’s pretty much what it is. It’s not just getting your applications in for each of the different schools.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Got it. And then so let’s say you have your sights set on a school, you really, really want to get in there, at this point you’re in the process, what are the things… You don’t want to be entitled, but what are the strings that you can pull, if any, in either the public or the private space to help increase your odds of getting in?

 

Paula Molligan:

I don’t know of any strings for the public schools because it’s actually done on a computer program and it’s all laid out like that for you, so good luck. And private schools, interestingly enough, and one of the things that’s always made me feel good about being in this whole business is, for the most part… Betsy and I have done literally thousands of students, we feel that the integrity of the process is intact. The decisions are made on the student’s file, not who their parents were, who their parents knew, or anything like that.

 

Paula Molligan:

Of course, reality-wise, if you’re maybe a world known figure of some sort, and highly respected, and your child is applying, let’s face it, they’re probably going to give them a couple of extra looks. But we can verify for you that there have been children whose parents did fall into that category who were not taken at a particular school because the school did not feel they could serve their child. In fact, at one of the schools, I remember one time that the school did invite the child back for a second time to take one more look, to give them a little extra… And then said, “You know what? This isn’t going to be a good placement. It’s not a good match.”

 

Ruth Krishnan:

What about letters of recommendation, do those factor in?

 

Paula Molligan:

It’s interesting, many of the schools will say on their website during admissions that letters of recommendation are not necessary, nor are they really welcome. We used to take letters of recommendation at my former school, and we gave that up about 20 years ago because we realized every letter of recommendation we got was pretty much the same thing, they were friends of the family and they said the family was great. You didn’t learn anything from it. So we sort of felt like these are useless and it’s just more paperwork. The recommendations that typically schools require are from the student’s teacher, and it’s typically their current teacher for whatever year they’re applying. As you mentioned, sometimes, especially with COVID, they’ve asked for maybe two years, the last year’s teacher and the current teacher. So those are important, those teacher recommendations are very helpful for them. Parents will not see those recommendations, those are confidential. And parents should want that to be, because you want a teacher to be able to be absolutely honest and forthright about the student’s strengths and possibly any challenges they might have.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

What about etiquette? When you have an interview for a job, there’s certain etiquette, following up with the thank you note, things like that. What are schools looking for, what’s common?

 

Paula Molligan:

Well, our recommendation is not to inundate the schools with thank you notes. We’ve had stories from admission directors where parents have gone so far as to thank the person that opened up the front door for them. Little overboard. I think it doesn’t hurt to, after an interview, after a one-on-one meeting, to write a thank you note saying how much you enjoyed speaking with them and how much you appreciate the time and energy they spent getting to know your family. That would be fine. But again, don’t inundate them with 20, 30 thank you notes. What happens is, when you’re reading the file, there’s an admission committee. I mean, if there’s too much in there, people don’t look at it.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

So no gift baskets.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yeah.

 

Paula Molligan:

We always tell the story, Stanford used to have the saying, “The thicker the file, the thicker the kid.” And that’s a good advice for parents, don’t give schools more information than what they’ve asked for. If they wanted that information, they would’ve asked for it.

 

Paula Molligan:

So one time I had a family send an art portfolio for Kindergartner, I mean maybe 30 pages of artwork from the child.  It did not work. It did the opposite. It was like, “Really? Seriously? Why are these parents so concerned, they think they have to give us all this information? What is it about their child that they think we can’t see?”

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Right.

 

Paula Molligan:

So we would say do not give them more information than what they ask for.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And what’s the deal with all the first choice thing and that kind of language, can you talk about that a little bit?

 

Paula Molligan:

For the most part, it doesn’t make any difference. So again, a lot of parents think that’s necessary. It used to be, if you go back 20 years. And sometimes you’ll get advice from people who had children in schools 15, 20 years ago, “You have to write them, you have to say…” I don’t think it makes that much difference. So again, cases vary, and we get into nuances and subtleties with our clients about that. But I think for the most part, just let the process play out. And if that indeed works out… What we found is a lot of parents, who will write the first choice, do not get as many acceptances as people who don’t. Because what might happen is an admission director knows that parent A has said this is the first choice. So they might’ve go ahead and send an acceptance to parent B thinking maybe we’ve got a shot at getting parent B because we’ve always got parent A, we’ll put them on the wait.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Interesting, interesting.

 

Paula Molligan:

And so in some ways, sometimes it can also work against you. It’s not always a sure deal because then they’d sort of keep you in the back pocket because they know you’re coming, and if they need to go to you from the waitlist, that you’ll be there.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Interesting.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Okay, last question… I don’t want you to have to give away everything… is, if you are put on the waitlist, is that a nice way of them just saying, “We actually hate you.”? Or, are you really on the waitlist, and does it vary by school?

 

Paula Molligan:

It varies by school. There are some schools that keep a very, very small waitlist. Other schools, the waitlist is much larger. But quite honestly, I think the waitlists are true in many ways. They can be big waitlists, so I mean, there might be 70 people on the waitlist. But to tell you the truth, a lot of times those are all kids and families the school would have liked to take. It isn’t like they just did it just to make you feel good or anything. It’s unfortunate.  What used to happen was, we would make piles; accept piles, waitlist piles, no piles. And then what happens is, when it comes down to make final decisions, that accept pile is three or four times bigger than you’ve got space. And then it becomes a very hard space… really, there are tears shed sometimes in admission decisions, “Oh, we can’t believe we’re not going to be able to take that family? Oh my God, I loved that family.” And that happens.

 

Paula Molligan:

And so that group was all originally accepted, now they’re waitlists, but they were an accept. We would have loved to have had them, it’s just space. And again, they have to then make decisions based on so many things. They take into consideration zip codes, and cultural diversity, and ethnic diversity, and socioeconomic diversity. And then they’re looking for all different kinds of kids, they take some extroverts, and some introverts, and some little engineers, and some artists, and that’s how it works.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Okay. That’s really, really helpful. So I said it was the last question… This is really the last question. So is there advice on getting yourself up off the waitlist in the event that you’re on the waitlist?

 

Paula Molligan:

I think at that point, if you want to, you obviously contact the admission people and let them know that you really, really, really would still like to go to that school. At that point, you might look for some families that you know at the school, if possible, to put in a good word for you, and just to let them know, “Look, we’re here, and if you were to give me a call, I will be down there immediately with an acceptance.” And just hope for the best. I mean, the schools really try and work with you as parents, but it is hard. And sometimes there’s just no room. What happens if they send out acceptance letters and they get a higher yield than they had, and they don’t go to a waitlist. There are years that many of the schools have never touched their waitlist. That’s the way it is.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Awesome. Well, this has been so helpful. So those of you out there listening, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for watching.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yes.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

And if you’re a very busy professional, then having someone that you can brainstorm with, like Paula and Betsy, where it’s like, “What schools do I choose?” just to save yourself some time. And I think it’s such an emotional process, so having a professional that you can trust, that’s like to gut check you and also give you some tips on interviewing and your child interviewing and different things like that, I think it just makes the stressful process a little less stressful to help you feel security in how you’re proceeding forward. So I’ll add the information so that you guys can contact Paula if you want to chat further.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yeah. Thank you, Ruth. I really appreciate it. And we so enjoyed working with you and your family last year and your darling little boy.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Likewise.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Thank you for your help. We had a successful situation and outcome, so thank you so much.

 

Paula Molligan:

Yes. It’s been a busy fall so far.

 

Paula Molligan:

Bye-bye. Thank you.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Yes. Thank you.

 

Ruth Krishnan:

Bye.

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September 28, 2021
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