Students at Montgomery Elementary School in Chula Vista. / Photo by Megan Wood

This post originally appeared in Voice of San Diego’s yearly publication, A Parent’s Guide to Public Schools. See the full guide, including an interactive map and countywide school data, here.

Lee este artículo en español aquí.

These are terms you’re likely to hear navigating the education world of San Diego County.

Choice Window

This term refers to the dates during which a school district will accept applications to attend a school that isn’t your neighborhood school. No matter what school district you live in, your child will automatically be able to enroll in a neighborhood school.


[column width=”one-third”]

Download the Guide
English (PDF)
Spanish (PDF)

[column width=”two-thirds”]
The choice window exists for families who want something different. In theory, choice windows allow you to apply to any neighborhood or magnet school in a district. But just because you choose another school doesn’t mean you’ll get in. The choice windows in each district work a little differently and at different times. (Some districts operate so few schools, they do not offer a choice window at all.) The general idea is always the same: Rank several district schools you might like to attend. If there are open seats at the school, you’ll be entered in a lottery with everyone else who wanted one of those seats. Those who get chosen in the lottery get a seat. The choice window is only for schools directly managed by the district. If you want to attend a charter school, or a private school for that matter, you have to apply directly to that school.

Choice Lottery Priorities

Say a school has five open seats, but 10 students try to choose into that school. Before any lottery takes place, students are ranked based on choice lottery priorities. San Diego Unified, for instance, has 10 priorities, but some districts have fewer. Typical priorities usually include having a sibling who already attends a school or a parent who teaches at the selected school. Say five of those 10 students in our example have a sibling at the school in question. Those would be the five who get in.

San Diego Unified added a new priority this year: students who leave a private school or charter school to attend a district school now get priority status.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools – funded by California taxpayers, just like traditional schools. They are tuition-free and any student can attend them, depending on space. Unlike traditional schools, they are independently operated by their own board of directors. These schools have leeway to try new curriculums and approaches to education that regular public schools don’t. The types of programs available at charter schools vary widely across the county, as does quality.

Charter schools get approval from a school district (or the County Office of Education or the state of California) to operate for two, five or seven years. They must renew that approval to continue operating. In recent years, some poorly performing charter schools have been shut down by their authorizers.

You must submit a separate application to each charter school you’d like to attend. Each charter school has its own window for accepting applications – usually soon after Jan. 1. Charters are required to select students through a lottery system. Many people apply to both traditional schools they’d like their student to attend and charter schools – if they are lucky enough to get into more than one school, they pick among them.

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are managed by districts. They are not independently operated, like charter schools. But they do try to attract parents and students with a theme or specialized curriculum (think dual-language Mandarin-English program or a science and technology academy). Magnet schools are often, but not always, located in historically poorer areas. In many cases, the student body is made up of people who have choiced into the school, as well as neighborhood kids. They are called magnets, because they pull students from outside the neighborhood. If you’d like to apply for a magnet school, it’s best to submit an application during your district’s choice window. You can apply any time, but your chances of getting in decrease if you apply after the window closes.


This is shorthand for gifted and talented. In San Diego Unified, every student is automatically tested for GATE in second grade and fifth grade. Different districts handle this differently, and some don’t offer GATE at all. If a child is accepted to GATE, the different types of programs out there vary considerably. In a few cases, GATE students are offered a place in an exclusive GATE class. More often, they’ll be grouped into a general classroom where a significant portion of the class is considered gifted. These classes are sometimes taught by people with a special GATE credential.

Interdistrict Transfers

To attend a public school outside of your district, you must complete the San Diego County Office of Education’s Application for Interdistrict Attendance Permit Form 341. You can find it online.

Districts only allow students from outside district boundaries in a few circumstances.

  • If a student moved out of district, but only had one year left in elementary, middle or high school, he or she can finish the final year at the old district.
  • Districts may give permits to certain students out of district for social or academic adjustment reasons.
  • If a course or training is available in one district but not in the district of residence.
  • If the family is planning to change residence.
  • When it is impossible to arrange adequate child care or supervision in the district or residence.
  • If a parent or guardian’s place of employment is within a different district than where they reside.

Transitional Kindergarten

School starts when a child is 5 years old, right? Not necessarily. The oldest one-fourth of 4-year-olds can start school in a program called transitional kindergarten, or TK. That’s right, who gets into a TK class is decided solely on age – specifically, it’s for children who turn 5 after Sept. 2 but before Dec. 2. Most, but not all, districts offer TK.

For those who qualify, it is an extra year of school – fully paid for by the state. Charter schools and high wealth school districts funded through local taxes are not required to provide TK, and most do not.

Stand-alone TK classrooms are usually a hybrid of preschool and kindergarten curriculum, but with many more students and fewer teachers and toys than a typical preschool class. Sometimes TK students are served in regular kindergarten classes, and in that model, the TK students will essentially receive the same curriculum two years in a row.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.