There are more than 100 elementary, middle and secondary schools in San Francisco, with new ones opening seemingly every year. Why, then, does education in the city have a reputation among parents for being so daunting that almost a fourth of them bug out for the suburbs by the time their oldest child begins kindergarten? The answer is almost as complex as the city’s famously complex public school application system.

With so many schools, San Francisco’s greatest strength is it’s ability to offer choices. This is also one of the most intimidating factors facing parents of school-age children. City parents can choose from the San Francisco Unified District’s 100-plus campuses, all as different as snowflakes. Public school children can attend schools with bilingual (Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and more) instruction, they can attend charter schools, they can attend schools with a specific curriculum focus (like technology) and they can attend schools with sky-high API scores like Clarendon (934) and Grattan (917). Targeting these schools is easy; getting into them is often not.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, San Francisco is an open enrollment district. Families must apply to the school(s) of their choice in one of two placements rounds ending January 15 and April 8. School assignment letters are sent out in March and May, after which families unhappy with their school assignment may petition for a change, but can only target one school and may not find out their new assignment until the end of August.

San Francisco Unified (SFUSD) is a district of 56,000 students. The diverse student population speaks 44 languages. 26.5 percent speak English as their second language. The district is not without its challenges, one of which is finding ways to keep the local population from sending its children to one of the city’s 30-some private schools or opting out of city living completely in favor of more traditionally successful suburban districts. Another is that the district’s sheer size can make evaluating its individual seem overwhelming. Each SFUSD campus web site has links to its School Accountability Report (SARC) and its Balanced Scorecard, which will help families begin to decode the process, but these scores are only a snapshot. Like Draymond Green, each campus has unique skills and aptitudes that may not show up on a scorecard.

Choosing whether to enter the world of San Francisco public schools or to take on a not-insignificant amount of yearly tuition (it can range as high as $30,000 at some San Francisco independent K-8 schools and up to $40,000 at high schools) is not something to take lightly. Each path has challenges and payoffs. Those choosing to put down roots in the SFUSD will reap the benefits of a free education that promises diversity, committed teachers and an administration with a clear eye toward integrating the latest in classroom theory and technology, but they will also face the impacts of California and San Francisco’s chronic education budget issues and must commit to navigating the bureaucratic challenges endemic to a district that has 100 schools and 50,000 students. Parents who are up for these challenges — and who are comfortable being their child’s advocate during his or her time in the district — are likely to have a positive experience with San Francisco public schools.

There are other options in San Francisco, for families who feel the SFUSD will be an uncomfortable fit. San Francisco’s private school world is vast and complex and offers a dizzying array of options from parochial schools to other religious-focused schools to independent schools of all stripes, private education in San Francisco does an excellent job of meeting the needs of all manner of student. Next week we’ll look into San Francisco’s private and independent school community to help decode a no-less-complex world than that of the city’s public schools.