With a population of over 873,965, San Francisco is one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse cities in the U.S. The city has a robust educational scene that makes it an ideal place to live, work and raise kids in. Bloomberg ranked San Francisco second in cities with the highest density of college graduates in the U.S.
The city’s educational history goes back to the mid-19th century, following a change in the state legislation that mandated the establishment of a public school system. The San Francisco Unified School District was formed in 1851 and remains the only school district within the city.
Today’s article will explore the ten oldest schools in the state, from the oldest to the most recent. The schools cut across different educational levels, including elementary, high schools, and colleges. Discover the school’s unique history, notable figures that attended, academic programs offered, and much more.
Spring Valley Elementary School
1451 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Spring Valley Elementary is the oldest public school in California. The school was founded in 1852 and is the only one still operating among the seven initial public schools. Spring Valley gets its name from the underground springs found in the area.
The school is on Jackson Street in San Francisco. Spring Valley moved to its current location after 1906, with the original buildings destroyed by earthquakes and fires.
Over the years, the school has nurtured many notable alumni, including Lotta Crabtree, a famous actress; Cyril Magnin, a prominent San Francisco businessman and civic leader; Jascha Heifetz, a world-renowned violinist; and Hank Luisetti, a basketball player that revolutionized the game with his one-handed shot.
The school was embroiled in an infamous discrimination case in the 1880s. Marie Tapes, a Chinese-descendent born in America, was denied enrollment in the school. The tapes won the lawsuit, but the San Francisco Board of Education created a “separate” yet unequal school for Chinese students. It wasn’t until after the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education that this segregation was recognized as inherently unequal.
The school currently serves roughly 327 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Spring Valley Elementary notes that the Tates Family history with the school helps to teach the students that the freedoms Americans enjoy result from the courageous stand of those who sought equal opportunity for all.
Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP)
1055 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP), a Catholic high school in San Francisco, was established in 1852 by the Society of Jesus(Jesuits.) The school is the oldest catholic school in California and the first co-ed catholic high school in the state.
SHCP was formed from a merger of two-single sex schools, St. Vincent’s and Sacred Heart High School. St. Vicent was established in 1852 as an orphanage and a girls’ day school. The Christian Brothers founded the Sacred Heart High School in 1868 as the St. Peter’s Parochial School. The two schools were later merged to form SHCP in 1987. Today, SHCP is located at 1055 Ellis Street within Western Addition.
Throughout its history, SHCP has honed numerous accomplished graduates who have made strides to excel within different industries. Some notable alumni include professional boxer James Corbett; Chief of Police of San Francisco William Quinn; Joe Cronin, a professional baseball player; American historian and professor John Patrick Diggins; and Shannon Rowbury, a United States Olympic Runner.
The school has a century-long rivalry with the St. Ignatius College preparatory, another catholic school in San Francisco. The SI-SH rivalry began with a rugby game on St. Patrick's Day in 1893 and has now expanded to include volleyball, football, and baseball. St. Ignatius has a significant lead in the rivalry with a 54-20-3 winning record.
St. Ignatius College Preparatory
2001 37th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94116
St. Ignatius College Preparatory is a private catholic school in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. The school was founded as a single-room schoolhouse by a Jesuit priest named Antony Maraschi in 1955. The school has since changed location more than five times, splitting its high school section to form the current University of San Francisco in 1927.
The school buildings on Van Ness Avenue would survive the 1906 earthquake but would later succumb to the subsequent fires. This forced St. Ignatius to relocate to a new location on Golden Gate Park before moving to a permanent spot on Stanyan Street. In 1968, the school relocated again to the current Sunset District campus.
SI has numerous notable alumni, including Paul Otielini, president and CEO of Intel; John Joseph Montgomery, an aviation pioneer; Dutch Ruether, a Major League Baseball pitcher; and the 32nd and 39th Governor of California, Jerry Brown.
The school offers various college preparatory programs, including accelerated, honors, and advanced placement programs. St. Ignatius also has 66 athletic teams, with 70% of the students participating.
Lowell High School
1101 Eucalyptus Dr, San Francisco, CA 94132
Lowell High School is the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi. The school was founded in 1856 after Colonel Thomas J. Nevins, San Francisco’s first superintendent of schools, persuaded the Board of Education to establish a high school.
The school was first named Union Grammar School to appease board members who rejected the proposed name “San Francisco High School and Ladies’ Seminary.” Union Grammar School was renamed in 1894 in honor of the distinguished poet James Russell Lowell.
Lowell High relocated from Powell Street to Hayes Street between Ashbury and Masonic in January 1913. The school spent over half a decade on that campus before moving to its current location near Lake Merced.
The school has served many notable figures that became experts in their fields. Some of the well-known alumni include Albert A. Michelson, a nobel laureate in physics and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in a science; Eugene Meyer, a financier and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank; William Renwick Smedberg Jr., U.S. Army brigadier general; and Richard Levin, former president of Yale University.
Until 1988, the official mascot for Lowell High School was the Indian. However, the School Superintendent at the time ordered a change to a less offensive school mascot. The current mascot is the Cardinal.
University of California, San Francisco
500 Parnassus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94143
The University of California, San Francisco, is a large, public, land-grant research university dedicated to health and life sciences. The school has an interesting history that traces back to 1864.
Hugh H. Toland, a South Carolina surgeon who found great success after moving to San Francisco, decided to establish the Toland Medical College in 1864. It was the second medical school to be established in the Western U.S. A previous school, the Cooper Medical College, established in 1858, entered a period of uncertainty after the founder passed on in 1964, and its faculty chose to merge with the Toland Medical College.
The University of California was founded in 1868, and the Toland Medical College sought to affiliate itself with the university. The trustees deeded the Toland Medical College to the University of California Regents, transforming it into the “The Medical Department of the University of California.”
The school gained more independence in the 1960s, with the institution gaining full administrative independence and becoming the ninth university under the University of California system.
The school’s faculty team is highly experienced, with seven Nobel Prize winners, 38 NIH Innovator and Young Innovator Awards, nine members of the Royal Society, and more. Some of the notable alumni include Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute; George Whipple, a Nobel laureate; and Ted Wong, United States Army Major General and Chief of the U.S. Army Dental Corps.
2120 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94115
Hamlin School is a private catholic school for girls in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school has a history dating back to 1864 as the Van Ness Seminary School. In 1896, Sarah Dix Hamlin purchased the Van Ness Seminary School. She renamed it Miss Hamlin’s School for Girls.
The original school building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, with Sarah shifting the school to a new mansion on 2230 Pacific Avenue in 1907. In 1928, the school moved to its current location on 2120 Broadway, San Francisco, a three-story baroque-styled mansion.
Hamlin School has experienced a number of changes over the years, including transitioning from a boarding school to a day school and becoming a co-ed school for over a decade before transitioning back to a K-8 girls’ school.
Additionally, the population growth necessitated several expansions and renovations. The school added a Lower School building on Vallejo Street in 1961. The Lower School was renovated and reopened in 2022.
The school has nurtured many successful girls over the last 150 years, including Katharine Bossart, an entrepreneur, and scientist; and Jennifer Dulski; a renowned technology executive.
Lick Wilmerding High School
755 Ocean Ave, San Francisco, CA 94112
Lick Wilmerding High School is a college preparatory private high school in San Francisco. However, the school didn’t always charge tuition fees until the 1970s. The school began in 1874 after James Lick established a trust to fund the California School of Mechanical Arts(CSMA).
George Merrill was hired to create and run the school as its first director. The school opened its doors in 1895 and offered free education to boys and girls. In 1894, Jellis Clute Wilmerding left $450,000 to the University of California to run and administer another school, the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts. The Reagents at the university situated the school next to the CSMA and hired George Merrill as the school’s director.
George Merrill was also asked to establish and run another school, the Lux School for Industrial Training for Girls, which began operating in 1912. The three schools under George Merrill run independently, maintaining their own trusts, boards, and curricula.
In the early 1950s, the California School of Mechanical Arts and the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts merged to form the Lick-Wilmerding High School. The Lux School for Industrial Training was shut down in 1952. In 1955, the new high school moved to its current campus on Ocean Avenue and became a boys-only school.
In 1972, the school became co-ed again and began charging fees to students shortly after. The school has produced notable figures, including Benjamin Wildman-Tobriner, a 2008 Gold Medal Olympic swimmer and former world record holder; Frederick Seitz, a National Medal of Science winner; and C. J. Goodell, an Associate Justice, Court of Appeal of California.
Convent of the Sacred Heart High School
2222 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94115
Convent of the Sacred Heart High School is a private independent catholic girls’ school. The school collaborates with the Stuart Hall High School for Boys in a partnership identified as Convent & Stuart Hall.
The first two years are typically spent in single-sex classes, which become co-ed in junior year and higher-level courses. The Co-ed classes are held in both schools, with the students shuttling by bus to attend.
Convent of the Sacred Heart High School was founded by Mother Mary Keating in 1887, enrolling 30 students in its first year on two rented Victorian buildings at the corner of Bush and Octavia.
The school shifted to a larger building at Franklin and Ellis, which was heavily damaged in the 1906 earthquake. In 1909, the Convent of the Sacred Heart High School purchased the Van Arsdale house on Jackson Street, which served the school until 1939.
The school moved to its current location on 2222 Broadway after Maud Lee Flood donated the house she shared with her deceased husband. The school expanded in 1950 by purchasing the neighboring Grant house, which became the lower school.
A notable alumni of the school is Dianne Feinstein, who served as the city’s mayor and later as the state of California senator.
Mission High School
3750 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94114
Mission High School is a public school under the San Francisco Unified School District. The school is the oldest high school in the state that is still currently on its original site. The school has been on eighteenth street since 1886 when it got a permanent school building.
In the first six years, the school hopped through numerous Mission District locations before the Board of Education bought a piece of land to construct a permanent structure. The original school building was completed in 1898 and withstood the 1906 earthquake.
However, the building went up in flames in 1922. It was reconstructed in two phases, with the new campus unveiled in 1927. In 1972, the school building was retrofitted to meet earthquake standards.
Mission High has a distinguished list of notable alumni who have succeeded in various fields. Some of the prominent individuals that attended the school include;
- Wally Berger, a professional baseball player
- Guy Mitchell, a 1950s pop singer
- Leland Yee, a California state senator
- Joe Cronin, a professional baseball player and Hall of Famer
- Lloyd Leith, a Basketball Hall of Fame coach and referee
The school currently serves roughly 1,076 students in grades 9-12. The student population is highly diverse, coming from over 50 countries and speaking more than 25 distinct languages.
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Ave, San Francisco, CA 94132
The San Francisco State University is a large public research university in the California State University system. The state has an interesting past, with several rebrands to the institution it is today.
San Francisco State University was established in 1899 and was known as San Francisco State Normal School. It was principally dedicated to preparing teachers for the rapidly growing city, specializing in training educators for the region’s public schools.
By 1921, it had transformed into San Francisco State Teachers College, offering a wider range of programs. However, in 1935, additional reforms were made as SFSC became San Francisco State College—the alterations enhanced liberal arts and science ideals.
The school relocated to its current campus near Lake Merced in 1953. San Francisco State College attained university status in 1972, changing its name to California State University, San Francisco. It was renamed to San Francisco State University in 1974.
The school currently serves over 27,179 students on its 172-acre campus. Notable alumni from the school include;
- Stanley Mazor, a co-inventor of the microprocessor
- Willie Brown, the 41st Mayor of San Francisco
- Annette Bening, an award-winning actress
- Yvonne Cagle, a NASA astronaut
- Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist for Metallica
In 2013, the school’s science building was discovered to have “unsafe levels” of airborne mercury, lead, and asbestos, requiring a $3.6 remediation and clean-up process.
Securing a Bright Future for Your Child with San Francisco Schools
San Francisco has a rich educational journey with numerous century-old schools that have served multiple generations. Most of the schools still maintain their traditions, producing hundreds of notable figures that have shaped American history.
Some of the schools in this list, such as Spring Valley Elementary, Lowell High, and Mission High, are top-rated public schools that would be an excellent fit for your child. The schools offer numerous unique course offerings that fit every student’s profile. Remember that the right school should meet your child’s individual educational needs and learning abilities.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Kulinenko.G/Shutterstock.com.