Chinese American International School (CAIS), is the oldest Mandarin immersion school (preschool through 8th grade) in San Francisco and the nation. This is my thorough CAIS review after visiting the school multiple times, speaking to 12 CAIS parents about their kids' experience, and studying their history.
CAIS preschool is located at 150 Oak Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. The street the preschool is on is quiet, which is good for drop-offs and pickups. There are two more buildings that house its elementary and middle school schools. CAIS middle school is located at 888 Turk Street. But the campus is moving to 19th Avenue in Fall 2024.
Overall, I had a positive impression of CAIS and give it 4.5 out of 5 stars. Many families also consider Presidio Knolls School, the other mandarin preschool-8 school in San Francisco. However, I prefer CAIS for the following reasons below.
Chinese American International School (CAIS) Review
This article is mainly a review of the CAIS preschool and CAIS kindergarten. Once you get into the preschool, your child is generally in for the rest of the way if your family and child are in good standing. CAIS goes from Pre-K (two years old) all the way to the 8th grade.
Therefore, if your child gets in and enjoys the experience, you won't have to worry about applying to middle school. Further, if you have a younger child, he or she will automatically be admitted, provided your family is in good standing.
Atmosphere / Facilities: 4.2/5
CAIS has a nice preschool campus with a large indoor area, separate classrooms, and a good sized outdoor playground. The outdoor playground is a plus compared to many other preschools. The school is actively trying to recruit diverse students and families to the program.
In 2024, when the new 6.5 acre campus is ready for students, Chinese American International School will have one of the best atmospheres in all of San Francisco. CAIS has already hosted a number of events there and it's been wonderful to have so much space.
I will likely be upgrading the atmosphere and facilities to a 5/5 once the new campus renovation on 19th Avenue is complete.
Most students are Asian (~40%), half Asian / half Caucasian/Other race ~36%), or Caucasian (~15%). Therefore, there is diversity, but not much among Black and Hispanic students. Further, many of the parents I know who send their kids to CAIS earn a top 25% income. Therefore, the socioeconomic diversity is not that great either.
That said, the school is actively trying to recruit diverse students and families to the program. It’s understandable that many of the students are of Chinese or Taiwanese background given the language immersion.
All independent schools in San Francisco have a diversity issue, so CAIS is not alone.
From what I've seen in person and online, the teachers are fantastic. The average tenure for a teacher at CAIS is about eight years according to the school's intro presentation.
There is a mixture between American teachers and Chinese teachers given the curriculum alternates by day. Preschool is full Mandarin immersion. Kindergarten and up alternate days between English and Chinese.
CAIS is open Monday – Friday and has a very accommodating schedule for full-time working parents. Drop off is around 8:30 am and regular pickup is by 3:30 pm. CAIS also has after school care until 6 pm with all sorts of activities for an extra cost.
Hickory Lane is an alley for drop off and pickup. It can get very busy at 3:15 pm – 3:30 pm and at 5 pm. Plan accordingly and be patient.
The CAIS schedule is great because it accommodates busy working parents.
Attending CAIS is expensive. Tuition for the 2023-24 school year is $39,600 for K-8th and $38,300 for preschool. Not cheap when you can send your kid to public school at places like Star King, Jose Ortega, or Alice Fong Yu for free (if you win the public school lottery).
I fully expect CAIS tuition to continue to go up each year given it paid $40 million for the Mercy High School 19th Ave campus in 2021. Renovations are already underway for an estimated 2024-2025 open at the new campus. As we all know, inflation has also shot up since the pandemic.
Tuition assistance is available to qualified families through the Adjusted Tuition program. One in five families receives some form of aid through the program. If you don't qualify and have to pay full price, ideally your family should try to make at least 5X the net tuition per child.
In this case, we're talking $200,000 per child, if you pay the full tuition. But if your net tuition price is $15,000, then having an income target of $75,000 may be more appropriate.
This is the guidance I have when deciding between private and public schools in my WSJ bestselling book, Buy This, Not That: How To Spend Your Way To Wealth And Freedom. You don't want to overly sacrifice your retirement nested for your child's. There has to be a balance.
There are some very connected and well-to-do parents who send their children to CAIS. If you want to join a community of highly-educated people who care about San Francisco, their family, and the environment, CAIS is a good one.
Parental involvement is extremely high at CAIS, which is a strong signal for the quality of the community.
However, if you cannot comfortably afford the tuition and also donate to their bi-annual fundraisers, you may feel out of place. That said, there is tuition assistance, so please inquire.
It takes effort to make connections and combat loneliness. But you'll be happy to know the more effort you make, the more rewarding connections you will also make.
Location: 4.5/5 Starting In 2024/2025
When CAIS officially moves to its 19th Avenue in Fall 2024, its location score will improve to a 4.5 out of 5. The west side of San Francisco is wonderful for families. It is less dense, has more parks, and is safe. In addition, having Stonestown Mall right across the street from CAIS is a great asset for kids to relax after school and be with their friends.
Economic growth should continue on the west side with the completion of the multi-billion UCSF Parnassus Campus by 2030. In addition, the city wants to upzone the main traffic hubs on the west side to build more housing.
The west side of San Francisco is where you likely want to buy real estate, even if you don't end up sending your kids to CAIS. As a personal finance writer since 2009 and a resident of San Francisco since 2001, I've clearly seen the demographic shift toward San Francisco's west side. The opening of CAIS on 19th avenue will only increase the demand for real estate.
The current location of CAIS on Oak, Waller, and Turk is closer to a 3.75 out of 5. The areas are in robust traffic zones, but the schools are enclosed for safety.
CAIS Review Overall Score: 4.5/5
Overall, I give CAIS a 4.5 out of 5. Chinese American International School has a wonderful preschool, lower school, and middle school. Once you get into CAIS preschool, your child is automatically enrolled in subsequent grades as long as child and parents are in good standings.
CAIS preschool 3 and CAIS kindergarten are the most competitive grades to get into. For CAIS pre-K 3, there were around 80 applicants for around 12 spots in 2020.
Linda Vann-Adibe, Head of Admissions at CAIS, is a lovely woman who unfortunately left at the end of 2022. However, her replacement, Elain Chang is also wonderful and very resourceful. She was a preschool school teacher at CAIS beforehand.
Affording CAIS May Not Be Easy
If you have a flexible work schedule, you may have thought about homeschooling your kids to save tuition and extra driving as well, especially in the early years. You could also invest the entire saved tuition savings into various passive income investments. But homeschooling isn't practical or possible for many families.
If you are considering CAIS, you may find the community aspect, Mandarin exposure, and social practice are well worth the price. There is very low turnover among the teachers and the administrators are attentive.
Please spend the time talking to as many students, parents, alumni, and administrators as possible. Visit the campuses multiple times and attend the various social events, like their ginger bread decorating activity to meet more people.
I highly recommend Chinese American International School (CAIS) for preschool and grade school.
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