Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Community & Society
Published on October 22, 2020
SF's notable public and private high schoolsGeorge Washington High. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With Lowell High School and its noted prestige among San Francisco residents making headlines lately, we thought it might help both newcomers to the city and longtime residents who don't have kids to understand the ecosystem of SF's public and private high schools. As a San Francisco native, I have a catalog of these schools and their personalities well engraved in my consciousness. So here goes.

There are 25 public high schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, some of which only enroll a few hundred students. Below are some insights into and history of the 10 biggest and most well known, along with 10 private schools.

Public Schools

Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts

Anybody remember 'Fame'? Resting atop the northernmost bank of Glen Canyon, SOTA is an alternative SF public school focused on the visual and performing arts, with an eclectic student body of nearly 750. Established in 1982 after an ongoing campaign from Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa and others to open a public high school devoted to the arts, SOTA provides its students with an experience that is rooted in dynamic arts programs intended to reflect the city’s diversity. Students at SOTA have to audition or submit portfolios in order to be admitted, and while there they are "pushed to explore and develop their personal identity through art, studying the ways in which art, academics, and authenticity influence civic engagement and social justice in their communities." Famous SOTA alumni include comedian Margaret Cho and actors Aisha Tyler and Sam Rockwell, and they will remember the school’s values of respect, openness, safety, and engagement.

Abraham Lincoln High School

The red and gold Mustangs of Abraham Lincoln High School hail from the center of the Sunset District, deep in the fog. Lincoln does not require special applications or testing for admissions, rather using the diversity index for its process. The student body boasts a community based on diversity and belonging, where achievement and a high self-image are encouraged. Each year, various clubs perform in the Brotherhood/Sisterhood Assembly to emphasize and celebrate the diversity around the school, with the theme being based on current issues at Lincoln and in society. Lincoln just recently won two state championships in football, a Dragon Boat World Championship, and academically offers a rigorous and AP honors program, as well as Special Education and English Language Learner services. Law & Order SVU stans will be excited to know that this is where actor B.D. Wong earned his high school diploma.

Lowell High School

Founded in 1856, making it the oldest public high school in the US west of the Mississippi, Lowell has a rep from many outsiders for being somewhat elitist. The students who attend are smart, driven kids with goals to go to elite colleges and be successful — and as we learned in the recent controversy over the admissions program, the student body is currently just over 50% Asian American, around 30% are white, 10% are Latinx, and 2% are Black. An atmosphere of extreme competition among peers can be stressful for some and motivating for others at the school, and Lowell offers a wide array of clubs and activities with a storied athletic program. The place has had a perhaps inaccurate reputation as a school for smart kids whose parents couldn’t afford private school, because there are many Lowell students and parents who could never see themselves anywhere else.  

George Washington

One of only two schools in San Francisco with a marching band, George Washington High School in the Outer Richmond, enrolls nearly 2000 kids with a student-to-teacher ratio of 23:1. ‘Wash’ was founded in 1936 and the curriculum includes a variety of advanced visual and performing arts classes, including a dance company, computer science, computer art, and robotics. With over 100 course offerings, 50 campus clubs, and 22 sports teams, Washington teachers hope their students will grow to be resilient, productive, and contributing members of their communities. Just ask Johnny Mathis, Danny Glover, and San Quinn how that worked out.

Galileo Academy of Science and Technology

Located between Russian Hill and the Marina District in San Francisco’s historic north end, Galileo High provides students with career pathways in biotechnology, environmental science, health, hospitality and tourism, computer science, and creative media technology. Once known mostly for poor test scores and criminal activity, Galileo has more recently become one of the most improved public schools in the district with its own internal television network G-House TV, and a four-star rating on SchoolDigger. With nearly 1800 current students, Galileo has primed the minds of some past heavy hitters, from Joe Dimaggio and O.J. Simpson to Andre Nickatina, Raymond Chow, and Dave Toschi.

Mission High School

Originally constructed in 1896, Mission High School sits on 18th Street between Dolores and Church, directly across from Dolores Park. The proximity to DP has shaped Mission High School in many ways, with a student body full of resilient learners coming together to overcome a lot of things going on outside the school’s walls. “Beginning in the Fall of the 2007/08 school year,” as stated on the school website, “the Mission faculty collectively created a working definition of Anti-Racist/Equity education: Anti-Racist/Equity Teaching promotes respect for diversity and creates a context within which students' experiences can be understood, appreciated, and connected to the curriculum.” Mission is well known for its Academic Scholars Advancement Program and cultural assemblies, and is the alma mater of Carlos Santana as well as Leland Yee.  

Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School

Founded in 1981 in honor of a renowned Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School is located in the heart of San Francisco. Wallenberg’s student enrollment of 670 affords it much smaller class sizes, translating to a supportive faculty and staff as well as more equitable educational outcomes. In years past, Wallenberg has registered at 92% minority enrollment with nearly 13% of the entire student body being African American, the highest in the city, and past students highlight assemblies and spirit week as pillars of their social experience to never be forgotten.

Balboa High School

Balboa High School is located in the Excelsior District of the Mission Terrace neighborhood, and has a student body population of 1200 students. Founded in 1928, ‘Bal’ is one of two historic landmark schools operating in SF and became a historic landmark in 1995 — the other being Mission High. In 1999, after firing the entire faculty, Balboa abandoned its traditional teaching methods instead adopting a concept of small learning communities. Balboa is also credited with piloting the original grab-and-go meal program within the SFUSD. And once you’re done checking out the decades worth of graffiti carved into the gym bleachers, you can walk a block up Onondaga and grab a burrito from two of the best spots in the city.

Gateway High School

In 1998, six parents dreamed of a school that could be a gateway to college for all students, regardless of race, income, or learning style, and founded Gateway High School on the paired principles that all students can learn at high levels and that all students learn differently. More than 96% of students at Gateway graduate, with an overwhelming number to California schools via the UC and CSU systems. Located at Scott and Geary, the student body of nearly 500 embodies values of personal integrity, responsibility, and respect in order to inspire students to contribute to their communities for a lifetime.

Philip & Sala Burton High School

Tucked away in Visitacion Valley, Burton was established in 1984 as the pilot for National Academy Foundation’s wall-to-wall model in San Francisco to transform the high school experience. Burton is best known for its diversity, with less than 3% of the entire school population of nearly 1200 identifying as white. Graduates all cite the administration’s desire for its students to succeed, with over 75% of the student body attending higher education upon graduation. Burton High School also boasts that it admits students from every background and every neighborhood in San Francisco, offering its students a unique high-school experience.  

Private Schools

Lick-Wilmerding High School

Lick-Wilmerding moved to its current campus on Ocean Avenue in 1955 but has a special history that dates back to the late 19th century as a trio of schools that combined general intellectual preparation and vocation instruction including building trades, architecture drafting, sewing and textiles, art and more. This long tradition of valuing and integrating the liberal arts, sciences, technical arts, visual arts and performing arts means that Lick continues to offer technical courses that would otherwise be uncommon at most high schools in the city. Prospective students are drawn to award-winning chamber music and jazz singing programs, amazing educational and college prep resources, as well as the one-acts festival and annual basketball game at Oracle Arena (now moved to Chase Center) against rivals UHS.

University High School

Founded in 1975 and sprawled across four campuses amidst one block in Pacific Heights, University High School claims to value inquiry, care, integrity, agency, and interconnection. 52% of students self-identify as students of color, and an enrollment of just over 400 enjoys a 6:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Known for its strong athletics and extremely rigorous academics, many graduates of UHS attend their first-choice college, and notable alums include comedian Ali Wong, musician and poet George Watsky, as well as author Louise Aronson.

Urban School

In 1966, Urban School was founded as the first coeducational private high school in San Francisco by a group of Marin Country Day School parents who desired curriculum and values that were more student-centered. With 420 students smack in the Haight, the school has a long history of equity and inclusion and working towards them. Until 2011, Urban did not show students letter grades until their senior year, believing their evaluation system discourages competition and comparison, and the faculty aspire to be supportive and offer opportunities for growth by establishing trust between students and teachers. The Blues have never been very good in athletics, minus a few years of girls volleyball, but they’re known to have the police show up to break up a Saturday night.

The Bay School of San Francisco

Even if you don’t need financial assistance, you are going to want it, as Bay will run you over 50K in tuition each year. Established in the picturesque Presidio in 2004, Bay is an experimental, authentic, and aspirational school focused on inclusion and real-world inspired academics. Bay was founded on the notion that education could be experiential and connected to the world, and the school’s unique academic program helps students develop the skills that allow this kind of investigative learning. With immersive programs, a revamped athletic presence, and increasing opportunities for experiential, project-based, and interdisciplinary learning, The Bay School’s innovative schedule continues to drive the student experience and push young adults in new ways.

St. Ignatius College Preparatory

St. Ignatius College Preparatory is a Catholic, Jesuit school committed to the value of service to self, service to society, and service to God. Students at S.I. are challenged to lead lives of faith, integrity, and compassion, and are enriched by a diverse and loving Christian community. S.I. might be the closest we get to a stereotypical, "all-American" high school in San Francisco, with pep rallies, a dress code, and the Bruce-Mahoney, an annual sports competition series between Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory and St. Ignatius that draws huge crowds and features a large trophy. With a commitment to intellectual excellence, leadership, service, and justice, Saint Ignatius is well known for its history of legacies, as well as sending kids to Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount University. It's also known for graduating former CA Governor Jerry Brown and SF society figure Gordon Getty.

International High School

Students that graduate from International High School do so with a regular high school diploma as well as either the French Baccalauréat (Bac) diploma or International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, both of which are considered among the most prestigious and rigorous programs in the world. ‘IHS’ explains on their website, “We call ourselves ‘International’ for a reason. The international element is present in all of our classes and activities.” French by inclination, with teachers and students from all over the world from differing backgrounds, and global travel programs that are second to none. But you may pay $48,100 a year for your kid to turn out to be a Francophile who loves pate and cigarettes, so there's that.

Drew School

Drew School moved to its current location on Broderick St. in 1911, where it currently holds an 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio with 280 currently enrolled. Drew says it is a school where relationships matter, and students are free to explore and share their interests and values as they develop a true sense of self. "Drew knows and believes in teenagers," their mission states. "We engage each student in a process of intellectual discovery to develop an individual voice, the confidence to express it, and the empathy to understand its impact." The school made some headlines last fall when a Black student called out the administration for being soft on racism among the students, which they denied, and they would likely hope that doesn't happen again.

Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory

Located on Cathedral Hill, Sacred Heart, or SHC, is committed to serving San Francisco’s diverse youth and providing an academically rigorous, Catholic education. The community is vibrant and close-knit, and teachers strive to develop the unique talents and passions of each student while holding a commitment to service and social justice, innovative curriculum, and cutting-edge classroom technology. Most kids at St. Ignatius might say that SH was their ‘backup’, and SH might be historically unlucky when it comes to bringing home The Bruce-Mahoney. But word on the street is that SH wins the fight every year at ‘The Grove’. What matters more to you?

Convent/Stuart Hall

While Convent and Stuart Hall technically offer gender-divided education, there is a healthy amount of interaction between the young men and women of these now mostly integrated academies, with combined classes on separate campuses as well as dances and sporting events. Athletics are a big part of life at both schools, as are the Sacred Heart roots that lend to “a progressive, child-centered pedagogy that is always evolving,” as stated in the schools’ strategic vision. Both schools offer an extremely comprehensive college counseling department to help their students get ready for AP courses, college selection, testing, etc. Known for being largely white and wealthy in terms of the overall demographic of the student body, Convent and Stuart Hall are both devoted to instilling in their students' personal faith, a love of learning, as well as the importance of serving others and building community.