It’s been 5 + months since we have moved to SF. A dear friend visiting last week reminded me that just as I wrote about our experience relocating to India, I need to write about our relocation to SF experience. Plus I have a few friends who have reached out over last few weeks to know about what’s it like to live in the city with kids. They are contemplating a move as well.
So here it goes – about schools, preschools, housing, safety and family life in SF. It’s long but hopefully will be helpful to all those considering a move to the city.
Needless to say, housing in SF is expensive. It is probably the most $$$ that you will budget for if you want to live in the city. But beyond just the money aspect, there are a few things that we learnt after we got here:
- Victorian house while pretty to look at from the outside, have small rooms, are dated and sometimes have pests issues ( think Ants!). Not to mention a steep flight of steps to get up there. On the plus side they probably have a pretty cast iron claw foot that you could soak your worries away in. When your kids finally go to bed.
- Most people downsize and then some to live in a 2 bed/1 bath apartment.
- It’s normal for 2 kids to share a bedroom – just like we did growing up in Bombay.
- Sometimes if a house has a separate dinning room or a sunroom it is converted into a kids playroom or even a bedroom in a pinch.
- Houses are very close to each other – you can hear your neighbors TV and (ahem!) other activities. You can definitely see what is going on their homes even without meaning to pry. And apparently you cant complain about loud parties as its understood that’s what you get for being in the city.
- Some homes come with additional storage and parking but don’t count on it.
- There are a fair amount of houses that are rent controlled ( aka rent there is the same for last 10 years or so). These are usually not updated and not available as no one wants to leave them.
- Most houses don’t have a Washer/dryer in house (unless it is recently remodeled). They have one in the basement or garage. Some folks end up having a hook on washer/dryer that connects to a sink so as not to haul laundry almost everyday (fewer clothes + kids = more frequent laundry).
- Families that have lived here for long time in a rent controlled apartment spend on efficient storage organizers and double duty furniture rather than moving out. Yes, it pays to spend on your rent controlled apartment in the city than move out of the city.
Most people have playdates, birthday parties, other socializing at parks or other outdoor venues. So living in a small house is not that bad.
It sounds daunting when you think about it but is very liberating once you do it. Less space means you are very careful about what comes in and are ruthless about pruning often.
Pac Heights, Laurel Heights, Noe Valley and Inner Richmond are popular family friendly neighborhoods. It just means that there is a park, a coffee shop, a few restaurants and a grocery store in walking distance, It also means chances of drugs, homeless people, stray needles on the ground and other SF craziness is less. It does happen sometimes though.
We had a crazy woman knock on our main door this past Saturday morning. Vipul didn’t allow her in but someone else buzzed her in and she wandered around the building before being chased out. Varun and mom saw her running outside on the sidewalk. It was something he talked about for quiet sometime on Saturday.
There are other neighborhoods in the city that are up and coming as far as families go ( SOMA, parts of Potrero Hill etc) and others that are along the coast and hence foggier ( Sunset, Outer Richmond, Excelsior). Some of them are cheaper than others but not by much.
Almost all neighborhoods are hilly, and chilly once the sun goes down. Pushing strollers around is exercise in itself on these terrains. But on the bright side you don’t need a gym membership!
And almost all neighborhoods have low income housing in their vicinity.
3. Public and Private Transportation
Parking is expensive in the city. Its either paid parking at a garage near your house or street parking. Finding street parking can be a pain especially when you have to park at 90 degrees angle on hills, keep track of street cleaning days and in general drive around the block a few times to find a spot.
You soon get a hang of parking at 90 degrees angle and parallel parking within inch of other car but finding a spot/ moving the car gets old very quickly. Most folks only have a car, if that.
Public transportation or walking is the way to go with kids. You don’t have to worry about car seats/boosters on trains/buses.
The downside is that public transport is dirty and its easy to catch whatever is going around in the city if that is the primary mode of transport. Whooping cough. Hand/Foot/Mouth disease. RSV. Infants are especially susceptible.
Uber, Lyft, Zipcar etc are wonderful resources when you don’t have to worry about kids and their car seats. They will allow kids to travel without car seats/boosters. Parents are fined for not traveling safely in a moving vehicle if caught. The driver is not liable but parents are.
So most folks with kids do have one car. Folks working down in peninsula/south bay have two so that they can pickup/drop off kids easily without waiting for their company provided transportation.
4. Infant day care
Quality infant care is hard to find in the city, or so I have heard. We still haven’t started a search for a care provider for Vihaan. There are a few Bright Horizon or corporate day care centers that do take infants. They are sprinkled across the city, have a long wait ( year plus) and based on location may not be on the way to work. There are in home day cares as well but finding a good fit/location that has opening is again a waiting game.
Schelping an infant on a public transport to get to infant care is my personal No- No. Not till we have immunizations in place for atleast an year.Most folks that I know have a nanny (private or nanny-share) or an Au-pair (if they have a spare bedroom) till the child is 2 – 2 1/2 years old and ready for preschool.
There are many playgroups at parks, libraries, churches for slightly older infants to socialize.
Now, we get into tricky territory. This is the time when parents in the city pull out their ammo. The system in some sense needs it. In some sense it is just hype and peer pressure.
You see, good preschools are not just foundation of child’s journey into play, learning and friendships; it is also a ticket to a great school. Especially if going to a private school. Really good preschools will talk about how their graduating batch got into schools of their choice and how they helped the family with assessment so as to find a right fit and helped the kid learn things that are usually asked in a kindergarten kid interview/observation play date.
Search for a great preschool is one thing parents don’t take lightly.
There are various types of preschools in the city and many of them across different neighborhoods-
- Center based ones ( like Bright Horizons)
- In home ones ( more structured than a daycare with an emphasis to teach things that are age appropriate and not just play because parents want to see kids learn)
- Co-op ( with lower fees and higher parental involvement in class room and field trips)
- School like ones – More structured (at least the good ones) run on a school calendar year ( Sept – June); follow the school holiday calendar.
Almost all of them do fund raising of some sort to raise money for charity/ teacher bonuses/ class room materials etc. Lunch is usually not included in the higher end/ popular ones. But there are services that deliver hot organic seasonal lunch to the kid for a fee.
To get into one of these preschools, parents have to
- Tour the preschool / attend a school’s open house – usually between Oct – Dec of the prior year
- Fill out application with a fee ( upwards of $50 each)
- Attend a play date ( if invited) at the school
- Attend a parent interview
- Optionally attend other school events ( like Holiday event or Fundraiser to express “keen” interest above and beyond others)
We crammed all of the above for the handful of schools that we got to know. I have an Excel spreadsheet that listed the schools, their neighborhoods, its curriculum philosophy ( Immersion, Play based, Project based, Waldorf, Montessori or a combination thereof) with tour and application cut off dates, follow up steps etc
As we were late to the application game we used to call schools just to see if there is an open house that we can attend. In some cases all open houses were full and we were on wait list. Others just asked us to apply without a tour/open house.
Open houses are adults only events; usually in the evenings so I used to stay at home with Varun while Vipul attended these events after work. He used to describe the school, philosophy, and general vibe that he got and we made notes on the spreadsheet.
We targeted about 12 – 15 schools to tour, applied to 5 after we toured. Some schools were too far from home, were in small single classroom mixed age setting ( which seemed like a step back from separate classrooms with focussed age groups/activities to me), had an earlier cut off which meant Varun would be with 3 year old kids again when he was 4 etc.
The forms were all similar – what are your kids strengths, weakness, what do you expect from schools, what is your parenting philosophy etc. It seemed like a grad school application all over again. And we privately joked about it. But nevertheless we tried our best to fill information accurately without going overboard.
I took Varun to playdates to all of them so they could observe him. We attended parent interview at two places.
We got admitted to 1 and are wait listed on 2. Not bad for an intense 1 month preschool search.
We declined the offer at the one we were admitted as Varun is very settled in his current preschool. He has made friends. He loves his teacher. And its walking distance from home. Don’t really want to make any more changes to his routine.
If preschools search is intense, then schools search is even more so. Some say preschool search is a good way to test waters and is a dry run for the schooling search just a couple of years later.
One myth that I dispelled after doing some search and lurking on parenting forums here in the city is that public schooling in the city is not as bad as it is made out to be. There are great elementary schools in the city. Yet many people move away from the city citing schooling as a reason or send their kids to private schools.
The public school admissions process is multi-layered (tour schools, research test scores, list prioritized ranking of schools, furnish proof of address and apply by deadline all while working full time to support the family) and tries patience.
The real issues with public schooling are following:
- Due to unified school district ( which means anyone living in any neighborhood of SF can apply to any school in SF and not just automatically get into neighborhood school) and lottery system on admission there is great unpredictability in which school your kid will get an admission into.
Add to that tie breakers of CTIP-1 (zoned areas that have low income housing /lower test scores which guarantees student applications from those areas get the top choice school they list on the admission form), siblings, attendance area etc very few kids actually go to a school in their neighborhood.
Apparently the system settles itself and kids do get assigned a school as there are multiple rounds of applications (up to 5 that go on till August) and admissions offers. As we all want the best possible school as close to house for our kids this game in waiting is frustating and trying.
Some try it and wait for first round results and choose to go private or leave the city if they have means to do so. Others just push their luck and find a house close to school if they get one to their liking.
- Even though elementary schools are good, middle schools are on shaky grounds. I have not heard anyone (in real life) say that middle schools in SF are good. Middle schools are precarious years with larger size classrooms, awkward pubescent years and social dynamics. In some sense its harder than high school. Dragging your kid from the city to another suburb during those years and making him find new friends is hard. Some folks think that middle schools in the city will change/improve by the time their kid attends one in the next few years. Others simply move away right at the onset in the hope of stable friendships and neighborhood schools for their kids.
- There are groups of parents who volunteer at school to turn it around and improve it for all but not everyone has the time or passion to do that. There is also a school of thought that why should parents be asked to improve a school when it is the govt’s job to provide one like in rest of the country.
Private schools admission (technically called Independant schools) is another process unto itself. There are tours, assessments, interviews as well as evaluations for aid etc. Most folks who go that route cite stronger curriculum, smaller classrooms, instilling a love of learning rather than teaching to common core tests score, life long friendships, similar parenting background and philosophies, better networking/opportunities for children as their reasons to go private. Folks say they are less diverse and stick with a certain profile/brand that they want to project. We are not there yet. Varun won’t be eligible to apply for Kindergarten in private school till the following year so we haven’t delved into them as much.
There are parochial schools which are also independent, subsidized a bit by the parent religious organization with excellent education system. But they equally hard to get into, follow the multi step process and of course have to fit with religious afflictions of the parents).
There are various proposals to make school admissions more transparent and predictable but changes like these need political will and take long to come by in action. And some of us don’t have the patience or time for that.
6. Other Kid Activities
While schools and housing are the first things on any parents mind; with kids; there are other considerations as well.
Its easy to entertain your child in the city. There are plenty of child friendly museums and centers ( Randall museum, Exploratorium, SF Zoo, SF Bay Aquarium) ; kid friendly parades and festivities ( Chinese New Year, St Patricks Day Parade, Cherry Blossom Festival, Cinco de Mayo festivities etc); and tons of unstructured weekend activities ( walk across Golden gate bridge, take a ferry ride to Sausalito, visit the cookie making factory in Chinatown , visit the Golden Gate park, ride the cable car; walk up and down the Lyon street steps, collect sand dollars at Ocean beach or picnic at the local park ) etc.
But joining a structure activity like joining a soccer or a swim class is an exercise in patience. Popular places have long waits, or are not available at the times you want and may not have easy parking.
All in all, if you have housing and school/day care sorted, SF is a great place to be. My parents love it and can navigate the city on their own. They are very independent here unlike in Redmond. Vipul and I love it here. Its very $$ but its very vibrant and alive.
If you are DINK’s or dual income with a baby don’t even think twice. Move to the city. Find a great nanny/ nanny-share and enjoy the city.
A single income in the city is bit tight for a family to get by on. Even with high tech salaries, you will feel the pinch.With 2 kids and single income its even more hard. Being in South bay / part of peninsula or East Bay is a better bet in that case. Better public schools through high schools, lower cost of living, warmer weather albeit at the expense of longer commute and suburban lifestyle.
If I find a job in the city, we will try and find a way to make living in the city work for us. Move to a less expensive neighborhood. Hope and pray to win the schooling lottery or take a hard look at our expenses and apply to a parochial school.
If not, we have some serious thinking to do. We will cross that bridge when we get to that.
Till then, hope for the best!