Why Your Definition of a “Good School” Should Influence Where You Live

This post is in partnership with Suburban Jungle.

good schools bay areaI started to freak out about the San Francisco kindergarten admissions process last fall. From the moment we thought about raising kids in the city, we knew that getting them into a good school would be one of the biggest obstacles we’d face. It had been in the back of our minds for over four years, and now here we were. The time had come to start researching, touring, and applying.

The pressure on parents to enroll our kids into “good schools” is immense. I think we mostly put it on ourselves. Isn’t our job to provide our children with “the best” that we can? Just as I was starting to spiral with anxiety over the kindergarten situation, one of our contributors wrote an article about her experience attending an elite New York City private school. She explained how it really wasn’t the right fit for her, even though, on paper, it was the ticket to a successful life. Her experience got me thinking about a conversation I had a few years earlier with a strategist from Suburban Jungle.

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband and I reached out to Suburban Jungle to learn more about which Bay Area suburbs might be a good fit for us – a preemptive move to avoid the chaos of San Francisco kindergarten placements. During that conversation, our strategist, Barbara, asked us to describe what we considered a good school. The question made me pause. Was there more than one way to define it?

It turns out, there is, and it may influence where you ultimately settle down. For my husband and me, a good school means access to lots of extracurricular activities and sports teams, a sense of community, and a safe environment. For some, it means having schools that accommodate children with special needs. For others, having an alternative school that puts little to no emphasis on grades is preferred. Then there are the parents who want academics and test scores to reign supreme.

My mind jumped again to a different conversation I had. I was making small talk somewhere with a father of a 6th-grader who attended one of the prestigious all-girls private schools in San Francisco. He was boasting about how the academics there were so rigorous that an alumnus from the school, now a doctor, said the only thing more challenging than her middle school years was medical school.  

To him, this highly competitive academic environment was ideal, and, hey, it obviously turns out doctors.  Personally, I’d be concerned that this kind of pressure cooker environment would give my daughter an ulcer before she hit puberty, and it turns out this isn’t much of an exaggeration.

Dr. Mercedes Kwiatkowski is a pediatric psychiatrist working on the Peninsula who treats students coping with the stress of competitive academic life. She says,

Pressure cooker school environments are a good fit for some, but not for many. If your child thrives on competition, is very driven, resilient, and easily motivated, then consider a pressure cooker school. However, many kids I see in these types of school environments struggle and go on to develop low self-esteem, lack of confidence, fatigue, irritability, and poor sleep habits because they are staying up late to keep up with the excessive homework load.
Many times, these students become overly focused on academics, missing out on friendships, extracurriculars, and many of the other very important adolescent milestones. I have had patients comment to me that they are stupid if they make a grade less than an A, worrying that one bad grade will prevent them from getting into one of their “acceptable college” choices, which are inevitably all Ivy League schools. I see kids trying to force themselves into a mold that doesn’t suit them, rather than finding a school, teacher, or environment that best accentuates their academic strengths and works to improve their weaknesses.
I see parents pressuring kids to stay up late doing work, and even doing the work for their kids so that they can “make the grades” they need to get into certain colleges. I see other parents worry that their kids are putting insane pressure on themselves to be perfect, even when the parents don’t mind average grades and performance. I see kids turning to drugs to cope with the stress, and unfortunately, I also see kids develop anxiety disorders, depression and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors due to all the pressure these environments put them under. 
My advice to parents considering these school environments is to have an honest talk with their kids and their current school to decide together if a pressure cooker environment is right for their child. And really listen to what your child has to say. Many times kids do know themselves well enough to recognize whether they will thrive or struggle in a very high-pressure school. 
If your children are young, like mine, we have time before we have to worry about (or seek out) highly competitive schools for our kids. Things really seem to heat up in the middle and high school years, but it’s a consideration nonetheless, especially if you plan to set down roots in one place for your child’s K-12 academic career. 
The benefit of living in San Francisco is that it offers a variety of school styles, but there’s no doubt that the process to actually enroll in any of them, whether public or private, is a hassle at best and a nightmare at worst. My family literally hit the lottery and my daughter got assigned to our first choice public school in the first round, but other families are anxiously navigating the waitlist process or scrambling to move out of the city altogether.
If you’re ready to make a move and “good schools” are a priority for you, let Suburban Jungle help. When we spoke with our strategist, she gave us so much insight into the local schools of the towns we considered, shared statistics and figures on the school districts, and even offered to connect us with local parents who could tell us first hand what it’s like to raise a family in our towns of interest. This information is invaluable when making a big decision like relocating your family.
My definition of a “good school” might be different than yours, and that’s okay. What’s most important is that each of us finds the right place for our family to call home with schools that help our children learn, grow, and thrive, whether it’s here in San Francisco or out in the ‘burbs.


  1. Love this article! It is crazy to think how big the impact of good quality schools can have on a child’s life. Thanks for sharing so many different factors that parents should consider!


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