If you have school-age children, odds are “good schools” are a top priority in your home search. Normally (that is, outside the Bay Area), it’s simple: you target the cities and neighborhoods with the most well-regarded, highly-rated schools. Around here, though, it’s not so easy; while there are local cities whose public school systems consistently rank among the state’s best — Marin County communities like Tiburon, Ross, Kentfield and Mill Valley come to mind, as does the East Bay’s Piedmont — school quality often differs in a district, and open enrollment policies  (in which students have the option to attend any school within a district) have at least partially removed “sure thing” neighborhoods from the equation.

Within San Francisco, things get even murkier. The citywide school district serves more than 53,000 students and quality varies wildly from campus to campus. Many schools are tailored to offer a specific area of curriculum — there are charter schools and magnet schools, Spanish and Chinese immersion programs, a High School of the Arts and an Arts and Tech High School. There are a handful of elementary schools (kindergarten through fifth grade) whose reputation is such that demand for them is always high. The process of trying to get your child into Rooftop Elementary, for example, can be as daunting as a bidding war for an unrestored Victorian on a prime Noe Valley street.

This is not to instill panic in homebuyers and homeowners on the precipice of having school-aged children. Though the process can be complex and may require more individual advocacy than required from parents putting down roots in Small Town or Suburbia, U.S.A., the Bay Area is also blessed with a dizzying number of educational options. That the local districts offer magnet and charter schools, immersion schools and specialized schools means that families don’t have to accept “one size fits all” education. Also, the Bay Area has a wealth of private school options.

Though the percentage has been dropping in recent years, parents in San Francisco still send their children to private (independent and Catholic Diocesan) schools at a rate higher than those in all but two U.S. cities (New Orleans and Honolulu). Almost 20 percent of students in the city attend private schools, a level of demand which makes a variety of options a necessity. There are 29 independent grade schools and 15 independent high schools in San Francisco, offering diverse cultures and instruction models, with demonstrated strengths in different areas of study. In Marin County, there are 27 independent lower schools and six high schools, and Alameda County boasts stellar independent schools like Head Royce, Blackpine Circle School, the Bentley School and University High School.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco operates a similar number of elementary schools and six high schools in San Francisco, plus six elementary schools and one high school in Marin County. In the East Bay, the Oakland Archdiocese has 29 elementary schools and eight high schools in Alameda County.

The bottom line is this: school choice in the Bay Area isn’t as simple as it is in some communities but it is navigable. Those who commit to tackling this beast will find that their children’s education can be more than satisfactory; it can be stellar.

Stay tuned next month as we will map out the best public schools in San Francisco, Marin and Alameda counties.