SFUSD, Planning Department prepare together for new student enrollment due to residential development

It's no secret that San Francisco is growing by the day.

In fact, the Planning Department expects the Bay Area will increase by 2 million people in the next 25 years, about 15 percent of whom — or a little more than 200,000 people — will end up in San Francisco.

That translates to about 92,000 more housing units needed by 2040, Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning, said at a first-of-its-kind meeting in October between the Planning Department and San Francisco Unified School District to discuss how the agencies can plan together for student enrollment due to new residential development in The City.

“Increasingly, both millennials and [baby] boomers are wanting to live in The City,” Kelley said. “Of course, the millennials are having children. The question is, 'Will they stay?'”

If nationwide trends are any indication, the answer is yes. Many of the young parents flocking to the region most likely will stay in San Francisco.

“The sprawl phenomenon appears to have peaked in this country and people are moving back to the urban cores,” Kelley explained. “That's a megatrend that we're feeling the results of [in San Francisco].”

But with each large-scale development project that emerges in The City, from Mission Bay to Parkmerced, the question remains: Where will families send their children to school?

“The San Francisco Unified School District, by law, must educate every student with a free and public education if they do so choose,” Sandra Fewer, president of the Board of Education, said at the committee hearing Oct. 23.

“Our obligation I feel compels us to … collaborate with The City as we are looking at an increased [residential growth] in San Francisco that is unprecedented,” she said.


The conversation between the Planning Department and school district stemmed from a mixed-use development at 1979 Mission St., adjacent to Marshall Elementary School, said Hydra Mendoza, a Board of Education commissioner and Mayor Ed Lee's senior adviser on education and family services.

“The Mission has not had any really large development in 20 years,” Mendoza said. “The number of schools we've had has either remained the same or we've closed schools.”

But plans for a 351-unit building at that site have raised questions about whether more space at neighborhood schools will be needed. Marshall Elementary has a capacity of 250 students.

Such a conversation is necessary throughout The City, district officials noted, because the SFUSD for its student assignments typically gives priority to students living in areas with the lowest test scores over those living in a school's attendance area.

“The school district interestingly has never really sat with a city team to say, 'So, where else are you guys building? What other economic development corridors will you be focusing in on? Where will affordable housing be?'” Mendoza said.

That has prompted the school district to team up with the Planning Department to discuss how the two agencies can prepare together for the continued growth expected in The City.


At least since the 1980s until the mid-2000s, the SFUSD had a declining student population, said Supervisor Jane Kim, also a former school board member.

The district's enrollment steadied during the Great Recession, around 2007 and 2008, when more parents opted for public school during tougher financial times. And then enrollment began to grow, though the increase is also attributed to a rising number of births in San Francisco beginning in the 2000s.

“Birth numbers have been an excellent predictor of future kindergarten and subsequent enrollments,” said Orla O'Keefe, executive director of policy and operations for the SFUSD. Data from the school district show that about half the children born in San Francisco will attend public schools.

The number of elementary, middle and high school students are expected to grow in the next several years, according to an enrollment forecast from SFUSD. Perhaps most drastic is the projection for 2025, which shows a 5,000-student increase at the high school level for a total of more than 23,000 high school students in 10 years.

But just because births have helped to indicate how many children will enroll in SFUSD, that doesn't necessarily mean that where families live is potentially where schools should be built or expanded, district officials noted.

“There's a mismatch between where our students live and where our schools are located,” O'Keefe said.


Much of the housing growth is expected in the eastern part of The City, Kelley said, though he emphasized that won't be an exclusive phenomenon.

While a roadmap for potential housing in the next two decades is laid out, the Planning Department wants to further understand the demographics of who is expected to move to San Francisco in the next 25 years, said Kelley.

“We need to understand more about what are the preferences of the millennials with school-age children,” Kelley said. “What they [are] looking for besides good schools. That's got to be part of our planning work.”

The Planning Department is still trying to figure out how to project for student population growth. Housing costs, infrastructure demands, diversity and economic cycles will need to be factored in, said Kelley.

That way, the school district will know whether it needs to revert to property previously unused for instruction or, in more drastic situations, build a new school.

“It takes three to five years to build a school,” Mendoza said. “Having the school district be part of that conversation will enable us to be prepared for what the demographics are going to be looking like three years [to] five years down the road.”

The Planning Department and school district intend to meet quarterly as the collaboration moves forward.

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