SAN RAMON -- The tents in front of the Shapell Homes office spoke volumes about the trend affecting San Ramon Valley schools.
Potential buyers at the new Gale Ranch subdivision camped out last month for as long as two weeks for a chance to bid on new homes starting at $700,000.
Although the housing market is doing poorly in many parts of the country, school district officials say people still want to move to the San Ramon Valley, and the school district is a big reason why.
It's a trend also being experienced by the growing neighboring city of Dublin.
About 900 more students than last year began school this fall in the San Ramon Valley's 35 schools -- several hundred more than expected, district officials said. Since 2008, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District has grown by about 1,000 students a year.
School board President Greg Marvel has dubbed San Ramon Valley Unified a destination district.
"Experts said we would be declining in students," he said. "But that's not the case. People are coming here for the quality of the schools. They are coming here because they have kids."
The district, which straddles Interstate 680 under the shadow of Mount Diablo, takes in Alamo, Blackhawk, Danville, Diablo and San Ramon. The area is known for sunny weather, great scenery and a family-oriented lifestyle.
It's also known for great schools. San Ramon Valley's four high schools all boast a 96 percent graduation rate, with 94 percent going on to college.
The district's California Academic Performance Index score ranks eighth in the state and is the top score for districts with enrollments of 9,000 or more. In the Bay Area, only the Sunol Glen, Piedmont City and Palo Alto unified districts have higher API scores, but those are much smaller districts -- tiny in the case of Sunol, with less than 200 students.
And while housing is expensive in San Ramon, it is lower than in Palo Alto, Piedmont and Sunol.
"I spend a lot of time talking to people moving to our community," said San Ramon Mayor Bill Clarkson, a real estate broker. "They come from the East Bay and South Bay and find they can get a newer, bigger house in a school district where they don't have to pay for private school.
"It's literally a tsunami of families with young children coming to the San Ramon Valley."
There were 26,941 students in the San Ramon Valley district in 2008. That number has risen to 30,798 this school year.
"There are more coming," said Gary Black, the district's assistant superintendent of business services. "New housing is being built. And empty-nesters are downsizing and selling to families with kids."
Dublin, where new homes are being built to the east, saw a jump of about 500 students this year.
This growth is happening at a time when most other districts in the state are seeing flat or marginal increases, and even declines in the number of K-12 students.
While there have been pockets of growth in the state, the number of students in California has been falling since it hit a high of 6.3 million in 2004-05. There are 6.24 million students enrolled in the state for the 2012-13 school year.
Much of the growth in the San Ramon Valley, as in Dublin, has been from Asian students. Asians, both East Asian and South Asian, have increased in number from 4,909 in the 2007-08 school year to 8,149 in 2011-12. Hispanic students increased over the same period from 1,256 to 2,432. Filipinos and African-Americans showed slight increases, while the majority white student population fell from 16,129 to 15,628.
Mona Keeler, an algebra teacher at Iron Horse Middle School and the district's teacher of the year, said parents here put a high priority on education. "If you are going to be a successful teacher at San Ramon Valley Unified, you have to have good relationships with the parents," she said. "They're vocal, and they're very present. They are very involved in their students' education, and you hear from them."
Many new students in the San Ramon Valley are the children of high-paid professionals, many working in Silicon Valley, but Keeler recalls a parent who was a janitor who moved to the valley from Hayward. He rented a one-bedroom apartment in San Ramon to get his daughter into the district's schools. His daughter slept on the couch.
"Parents here will go to amazing lengths for their kids," Keeler said.
Amy Hu, who moved to the U.S. from China in 1996, said she and her husband pay about $1,800 a month for a San Ramon two-bedroom apartment so their two children can attend the schools. Hu and her husband, a mechanic, had lived in Fremont, where they paid $20,000 a year to send their son and daughter to a private school.
Hu said she worked as a waitress and sometimes held a second job to save money to open a restaurant in San Ramon. Her restaurant was short-lived, shutting down last month after two years due to the bad economy and a landlord dispute. Despite the setback, they will remain in town.
"I very much want to stay here and buy a house here and have my kids in San Ramon schools," she said.
Her son, Terry, 15, is a California High School student and dreams of going to UC Berkeley or Stanford.
"Cal High is a big school with technology and Apple devices and stuff," he said. "And the teachers are good. I like the environment. San Ramon just has more resources."
Contact Jason Sweeney at 925-847-2123.