Should I move to Redwood City and send my kids to its Public Schools?

A coworker recently asked me the following question:
I have a 2 year old daughter and we're considering buying a house. Redwood City is more affordable than other communities, but I'm worried about the public schools. So, should I consider moving to Redwood City?

The short answer is a resounding "yes!". I have two daughters, ages 13 and 11 who have experienced the Redwood City Public School system first hand and all the way through. For elementary school, both went to Orion, a wonderful, very small school based on parent participation. The school is cozy and beautiful, the teachers are great, and the community is incredible. A fantastic experience.

Orion, ends in 5th grade and before High School you have to pick a Middle School. The default choice is Kennedy Middle School, the largest middle school in Redwood City. Both my daughters are now at Kennedy, one in 6th grade, the other one in 8th. Kennedy is a completely different experience. It's large and diverse, admitting kids from many other schools in Redwood City. In a way, it provides a realistic sample of our population, with a majority latino contingent and kids from various socio-economic backgrounds. My kids have had a great time at Kennedy, enjoying the greater variety and opportunities that a larger school can provide. They've had some great teachers and have been challenged academically.

Yes, funding issues affect our schools, but teachers and the administration make heroic efforts to provide the best education possible. We're happy with the results and see that are kids are well prepared to face the High School experience.

So, sure, you don't need to worry about our schools and if Redwood City with its great geography, location, revitalized downtown are and more sound good, go ahead, move in.

That said, I want you to move in with your eyes wide open, so here's some additional information you should know...

School Funding is Unequal and Unfair

The first thing you'll find out, is that Redwood City spends much less money per student than all the surrounding districts: Woodside, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, etc. The reason has to do with how school funding works. School funding comes from local property taxes. The State guarantees minimum funding per student. If your property tax revenue divided by the total number of students in the district is below this number, the State makes up the difference. If the number is greater, you get to keep the difference. So, a district like Woodside, with few students and large, expensive houses, gets much more per student than a district like Redwood City, with a large student population and more middle class houses. The difference in funding, it turns out, can be enormous, thousands of dollars per kid.

Putting aside the debate over teacher evaluation, unions, etc, funding inequities do matter. School districts with better funding have better physical installations, better resources, more enrichment programs (a euphemism for programs we used to take for granted in schools, such as PE, music, art, etc.) and the ability to retain their best teachers. School districts that cut funding every year, like Redwood City has been forced to do during this period, are at a disadvantage. Funding is unpredictable, with levels fluctuating based on complex formulas at the State level. Districts with lower State funding are more vulnerable to loosing their best teachers. After all, if I was a teacher in Redwood City and every March I got a pink slip, just in case I might have to be laid off in the summer, I would look for a different district at the first opportunity, and many great teachers already have.

Why does all this matter? Because the High School district encompasses more than Redwood City. It also covers Atherton, Belmont, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood Shores, San Carlos and Woodside. So, when your Redwood City educated kids get to high school they will be meeting kids who've had access to a richer education, and this sad fact might bother you.

So, make sure you can stomach how unfair this system is before you choose to move here.

Local Sources of Funding

Since being at the mercy of the State for funding is at best unpredictable, school districts have a couple of options to get funding through local support: a local education foundation and passing a Parcel Tax.

In addition to being surrounded by districts with much higher funding through property taxes, Redwood City is the only district in the area without its own Parcel Tax. A parcel tax is a fixed amount that's added to property taxes. By passing a parcel tax, a district provides a predicable source of funding for itself. Parcel Tax initiatives typically designate funds for specific purposes, like music, art, PE, etc, allowing districts to keep providing "enrichment" programs in the face of continuing cuts from the State. Passing a parcel tax initiative is hard, requiring a 2/3 super majority as dictated by Prop 13.

Now, check this out: Redwood City has no parcel tax and every other district around us does. And their parcel taxes are significant, in the hundreds of dollars per year. Instead, in Redwood City we've failed to pass a parcel tax 2 times in recent years and for amounts that get smaller every time. Yes, getting a super majority is hard and we were close, but still, other districts all have been able to achieve it. So, something is inherently wrong with Redwood City. Every time this happens you can't avoid thinking that this community, which does not value public education, is not your community.

We'll be trying again, and soon, but our parcel tax will be measly, only $67 per year per parcel. Can we convince enough voters to donate the cost of 1 dinner per year to support our public schools?! I hope so, but I'm not optimistic after experiencing the previous 2 failures. The rationale is that once a parcel tax passes people see the world has not ended and further, and hopefully more substantial parcel taxes can be passed in the future. For now just assume it won't pass, and you won't be disappointed.

So, if it bothers you at a fundamental level that Redwood City does not have a Parcel Tax when all other districts do, you might want to reconsider your decision.

We do have a local education foundation, the Redwood City Education Foundation, and they do a great job, but compared to surrounding districts the percentage of parent participation is lower and the resulting total funds collected per student are much, much lower.

Racism is alive and well

Redwood City is a unique school district with a diverse population that aligns geographically to a large extent. West of El Camino Real are the more affluent areas which get more and more affluent as you hit the hills. To the other side is the less affluent, mostly Latino area.  This diversity causes problems that other districts don't have to face.

Here in Redwood City, parents are very happy donating large amounts to their kids' school, but when you ask them to donate to the Redwood City Education Foundation, which benefits all kids, they're not as inclined. I have heard in public forums parents asking: "why should I give money to them?" Them? Who's "them" exactly?

To elucidate this question it's instructive to look at the mix of public schools. Districts typically choose one of two approaches: K-8 schools where kids complete their elementary school in a single place or K-5 + Middle Schools, where elementary schools up to grade 5 are followed by grades 6, 7 and 8 in the Middle School. Interestingly Redwood City has chosen both approaches. The most affluent neighborhoods have K8 schools (eg. Roy Cloud and Clifford) while other neighborhoods have K5 schools that feed the two large Middle Schools (Kennedy and MIT). The conclusion from this is obvious: if you live in an affluent area your kids stay in your K8 school and don't have to mix with "them". You can provide funding to your own school and completely ignore the other kids in the district.

Here's another date point, from personal experience. Orion, a California Distinguished School based on Parent Participation, is a small but very diverse community with kids from all backgrounds. And even there people are terrified at the prospect of sending their kids to Kennedy. Orion has an informational meeting for 5th grade parents where Orion alumni that have gone on to Kennedy try to assuage their fears. Many Orion 5th grade parents treat Kennedy as a last resort, trying to get their kids into one of the K8 schools, North Star Academy, even leaving the public school system altogether.

In other districts, like Palo Alto, you cannot donate to your own school PTA to pay for "staff", additional teachers. Instead you must contribute to their educational foundation which distributes funds equitably to all schools. This approach would not fly in Redwood City. Here individual school PTAs fund additional teaching resources, meaning that schools with strong PTAs are able to provide further enrichment and educational opportunities other schools won't have. And not surprisingly, the schools with strong PTAs and fundraising are the ones you would expect. Inequality to other districts and also inequality of schools within the district. Sigh.

So, if you'd rather avoid all these nasty, uncomfortable issues you need to consider another district.

What about North Star and their phenomenal test scores?

Ah, yes. No overview of the Redwood City School District can ignore North Star Academy. North Star is a grades 3-to-8 school open to all kids in the district. The basic idea is that it's a special school for "high achieving" kids. By only taking these kids, North Star claims they can cover the standard curriculum more quickly and leave time for enrichment activities. Their test scores are fabulous, almost as high as they can go, and many people want to send their kids there. Too many, in fact.

To get into North Star you need to apply during second grade. Your kid will need to take a special test as part of the admission process.  A final score is computed based on the results of this test and other factors and if the aggregate score is over the minimum threshold, your child enters a lottery. There is no guarantee of getting in, even if you satisfy the requirements. Furthermore, there's no guarantee that all siblings get in either and I know many families where only one child makes it. Since many families frame North Star admission as a signifier of higher intelligence or aptitude, the self esteem blow to the sibling that does not get in must be quite significant.

So, if your plan is to move to Redwood City, attend Orion, then North Star, you should know there's no guarantee of getting into either of those schools.

Final Thoughts

My original answer does not change. If you like what Redwood City has to offer in terms of housing, location, infrastructure, you should not hesitate to move here because of the public schools. Yes, our K8 school system is not as solid as it is in surrounding districts, but it's doing fine. Test scores are going up all the time and kids are properly prepared to enter high school.

When you get to high school it's a completely different story. Our High School District encompasses more than Redwood City, its sources of funding are quite different and some of the High Schools have a great reputation. To a large extent, the High School District has not been facing repeated cuts year after year, and the high schools still resemble the high schools you remember from 30 years ago, with great installations and many exciting enrichment activities for the kids.

We moved to Redwood City more than 10 years ago and don't regret the decision. Yes, it's been hard to deal with the school cuts year after year. It's been even harder to deal with the repeated failure of the Parcel Tax initiatives. And yes, the world would be a better place if we cared more about raising educational levels for all kids in the district. Due to inadequate funding we don't have the resources to do enough to support kids from more disadvantaged families and tragically many of them will be left behind.

But your kids won't have that problem, they have all the support they need from you and they will do just fine in the Redwood City School District.



  1. Diversity is good as long as you can actually get a decent education. Options are limited in rwc for tier 1 college bound students.

  2. What exactly do you mean? Are you saying that kids that attend the RWC public schools all the way through high school can't make it into "tier 1" colleges?

  3. No, some kids may just do well and be "happy". The problem with that is at some point they have to compete with those kids that are better prepared. CA school cuts don't leave much room for the gifted and talented either, GATE program barely exist in the richest regions such as MP, PA, etc. Debate all you want but parents will CA schools come in 2nd to last in spending per child, that's a challenge when you need to perform.

  4. My three kids, ages 7-23, have all attended RWC public schools. Two of my children attended Northstar Academy, which is an amazing school for those that are highly motivated academically. My older kids attended Sequoia High School and participated in the excellent IB program, before going on to UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley, graduating with highest honors and summa cum laude. So...I have lived in RWC school district for 23 years, and I am pleased with the schools, the teachers and how they prepared my children for "tier 1" colleges.

  5. My kids attended Redwood City public schools. They attended North Star Academy and Sequoia High School. I was very pleased with North Star and Sequoia. My children applied to and were accepted to many "tier 1" colleges. They attended and recently graduated from the top "tier 1" universities. I think the Redwood City public schools prepared them very well.


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