Friday, December 19, 2014

Lessons from How Children Succeed

This is the third in a series of three micro reviews of recent books that are intended to help interested parents discuss the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” More background on the series here.

 Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character has attracted a lot of media, so I won’t focus on an in depth review of the book so much as some key questions it generated for our family. Very quickly, the research supports that character strengths are often a better indicator of longer-term career success than test scores or IQ, and according to William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, long-term personal happiness. For the last decade or so, there have been more and more media stories about charter schools with overt character development curricula, which has helped the topic go mainstream. SFUSD embraces Restorative Practices and grades children on socio-emotional skills for some grades (not sure whether it is across all grades), and some cultural immersion programs are in many ways as much about character skill development via the immersion culture as language skills.

As Deresiewicz points out, character education has existed for most of American schooling history, but was largely confined to schools that served wealthy children. The more recent movement has stemmed from the motivation to equip kids from low income backgrounds with the skills to succeed in a school and job environment that expects certain behaviors, and requires kids to persevere through barrier after barrier to a fulfilling, well-paying career. That excellent impulse has been met from parents and educators who are also seeing the serious downsides of too little focus on character development for upper middle class kids. The case for this problem is laid out in Deresiewicz’ book, Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids and Quanyu Huang’s The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids.

Which Character Values?
Our family has been interested in character learning for our kids for a long time. I am keenly aware of my own character weaknesses, and wish that I had been pushed to work on them earlier in my life. Our question has always been, which character values should be the focus, and how do we know if the school is doing it well? Most of the character values named in all of these books sound good and important. Tough’s book generally makes a strong case for character education in general, no matter what’s in your bank account or mattress. But it doesn’t make a point of recommending specific bundles of character values, and the method of teaching. So I was happy when I stumbled on a podcast with Scott Seider (number 72 on the list), author of Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success. I haven’t read the book (yet!), but my understanding from the interview is that he studied three schools that did different types of character education (moral, behavioral and civic), to understand whether one set of values had a bigger impact on future success and happiness than others.

Seider’s takeaway, according to the podcast, was that it doesn’t matter what the set of character values is, as long as they are organic to the community served and are done well. This makes sense to me, and is a bit of a relief. I am still confused about what good character education looks like in a school setting. Preschools are by nature about character education to a large extent, and I feel like I’ve seen character education done well in that context at my childrens’ preschool (and, on occasion, not so well). I took my eldest child to go to the DeYoung Museum with me a few weeks ago. My son wasn’t super excited about going, to put it mildly, but he got really into all kinds of stuff while we were there. As we were leaving, he turned to me out of the blue and said, “Mom, you know I didn’t really want to go to this museum when you first told me, and now I don’t want to leave because I like it so much. Huh.” That moment really underscored for me the value of character skill education; his preschool really emphasized that sort of self-reflection, and it works.

Our experience thus far in SFUSD TK is that, though the initial and sole focus this semester has been on socio-emotional skills, it has been a hollow, weak attempt because it’s been presented as a stand alone endeavor that isn’t woven into the rest of the curriculum. Definitely a step backward from the excellent character curriculum of his preschool. But I take the TK experience with a grain of salt since it is such an unusual curriculum situation for SFUSD.

Which Schools Do It Well?
In our tours I have tried to get a sense of what character education means at each school. It’s been all over the map, and, unsurprisingly, mostly about socializing the full population to the norms of whatever the dominant culture/class/race is at the school, with some exceptions. For example, Rosa Parks tries very hard to fuse its two dominant population's history and culture. At this point, we would very much like to find a school that is extremely explicit about its character education, whatever it may be, and is deliberate in integrating it into the everyday culture and logistics of the school.

On the one hand, I expect that we’ll be able to see whether character education is working or not by simply talking with and observing our children outside of school. On the other hand, I think most of us known how hard it can be to be unflinchingly honest about our kids’ character. I see value in having a less prejudiced set of eyes on my kids’ character development. Maybe it won’t be as hard to parent teenagers who are good at self-reflection?

Have you seen good examples of explicit character education at particular schools? Bad examples? What character values do you want schools to teach your kids, if any?

This is the end of my review series. It’s been fun to write, and I hope that it’s been helpful for other parents. Best of luck in your school searches and beyond!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lessons from Building a Better Teacher

This is the second in a series of three micro reviews of recent books that are intended to help interested parents discuss the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” More background on the series here.

In my last post, a discussion of Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, I noted that the top schools in the world distinguish themselves with consistently excellent teachers who continue to improve over time. As you might expect, a single teacher can have an enormous impact (positive or negative) on the development of a child and class, with the impact lasting for many years to come.

Even people who have their heads stuck in the sand most of the time are aware of the constant political battles over teachers and teacher quality. So you might think, like me, that that discussion has been at least partly informed by a long and concerted effort over the past century to understand what makes teachers effective, and how to replicate and disseminate those skills. According to Elizabeth Green in Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), you would be wrong.

In fact, Green says, it wasn’t until relatively recently that teaching professionals and policy makers began to think that teaching was a craft that could be learned and improved. Most people and policy makers labored under the assumption that it was a natural talent that you just had or you didn’t. Pretty counterintuitive and shocking to the modern reader! There has been a concerted effort in the last couple of decades to simply develop a basic language about the craft of teaching; what is the specific maneuver or technique even called? Depressing but apparently true.

Key Questions for Parents
For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip over the majority of the completely fascinating content of the book and head straight to what I took as the practical applications for parents.

My read of the book is that, if you’re looking at schools for your kids, you/we should ask:
  • What is the professional development system for teachers? Who meets with whom, how often and what happens with the results of that meeting? What are some examples of changes that teachers have made based on these sessions?
  • How often teachers are observed by peer professionals in their classrooms for the sake of constructive critique and development?
  • How has the principal dealt with underperforming teachers in the past? How has she helped keep top performing teachers going strong?

As you tour classrooms, do you see evidence that teachers have the same high expectations for kids of all backgrounds, or are they assuming that some kids aren’t as capable as others?

SFUSD Schools
For SFUSD schools, union agreements obviously heavily influence the answers to most of these questions. But a principal can still make a huge difference in cultivating a strong professional development culture in a school. My husband went on the West Portal tour recently and was surprised by how disinterested the principal seemed to be in this topic (and academics in general). I know that principals change often in SFUSD and some of the past advice on this blog is to place little weight on your estimation of the principal. While I agree with that in part, that sort of thinking only works if the teachers are already excellent and self-motivated and -organized to continue to be excellent or parents are supplementing/watchdogging school learning with home or outside learning. That’s true of many schools, but not all.

I’ve heard a lot of speculation about Clarendon’s special sauce: what is it? While most people seem to focus on parent involvement and fundraising, what I picked up on the tour and this book is that they have the benefit of an unusually deep roster of effective teachers who have been at the school for a long time, and are being supported and watchdogged by an exceptionally involved parent community. They’re in a virtuous circle.

I went to a new public magnet elementary school when I was growing up and had an insider’s view of how the extremely strong principal of that school, in partnership with the parents, turned a sleepy, not so great school into one of the best schools in the city, still serving an extremely diverse population of kids. The principal made me cry at least once (I forgot to bring in a grant application that my mother had written and was due that day), but she was incredibly focused and effective. The sudden elevation of expectations and energy helped offset the rampant poor teaching happening in that school, over which she technically had very little ability to change. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Private Schools and Public Charter Schools
Private and charter schools operate by different rules than SFUSD. So if you are looking at either of those types of schools, you have more ability to probe deeply into teacher professional development. The schools’ answers to your questions will likely tell you a lot about the mission and level of rigor of the school, per The Smartest Kids in the World. In her book, Green makes it clear that there isn’t necessarily just one way to do teacher professional development well. But a good school will be doing constant professional development, including in-class observations by peers (or by video camera). Schools should be cultivating a culture of constant improvement.

Constant teacher professional development is the mantra of at least two schools that I’ve looked at, AltSchool (private) and The New School of San Francisco (public charter). No doubt there are many more; please shout them out if you’ve seen good examples! I’d say that the ability to actually address and improve teaching excellence is what has shot these schools to the top of our list. I have noticed at our kids’ preschool how much time the teachers spend together reflecting on how they’re nurturing each child, and the constant tweaks that they’re making to be more effective. Our children have really benefitted from type of iteration, especially when they’ve hit rough patches. Of course having multiple teachers in one room of kids also seems to force those conversations and reflections, though Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World points out that the most successful school systems don’t actually have smaller teacher:student ratios (nor do they spend more money on schools than us). That made me think that it is less important to focus on student:teacher ratio than master teacher:developing teacher interaction frequency.

I have gotten to ask the questions I listed above on a few tours of public schools, and have heard some solid though not completely reassuring answers from a few principals and parents, including Sunset Elementary, CIS DeAvila and Alamo. Others look at me like I’ve asked whether the moon is made out of cheese. These are uncomfortable questions to ask, no matter whether you’re at a public or private school. But what I took from Building a Better Teacher (in addition to an even deeper respect for the profession) is that teacher quality and development is probably the most important thing to focus on in evaluating a school if your primary mission for your kid is to ensure that they are challenged to develop their mind to the fullest. Seems like common sense when you take a step back, but I suspect many of us allow ourselves to focus elsewhere because this is the one area of most schools that have the least ability to influence. It’s the one time when “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” really isn’t a good mantra.

What have you learned about teacher professional development practices on your tours? What sorts of questions have been effective for getting useful information? If you’re already enrolled at a school, have you figured out ways to help your school’s teachers do more professional development?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lessons from The Smartest Kids in the World

This is the first in a series of three micro reviews of recent books that are intended to help interested parents discuss the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” More background on the series here.

Quick tip: If you don’t want to read my summary, I highly recommend checking out the appendix in Ripley’s book called “How to Spot a World-Class Education.” It’s a series of questions for parents to use in evaluating schools that best fit their child. As she points out on page 207, “An outstanding school for one child would be hell on earth for another.”

Amanda Ripley is a very successful writer and mom who got tired of hearing policymakers argue about school structures and strategies. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way started with Ripley digging around on her own to figure out what was and should be happening in our country’s schools. She discovered that the U.S. as a whole has been scoring lower than many smaller, less wealthy nations on an international test of critical thinking called PISA for many years, particularly in math and science. Even our wealthiest children (educated in either private or public schools -- didn’t matter) were scoring behind their economic peers around the world. In fact, they were even scoring below the average kid in Canada. PISA is not a test of rote memorization; it is a test designed to test critical thinking skills in math, science and reading.

So Ripley decided to study three of the countries doing extremely well on PISA: Finland, South Korea and Poland. She relied on the experiences of three average American teenagers who spent a year as exchange students in these countries. Their stories are worth reading in full, but I’ll skip ahead to the lessons learned. First, Ripley was reassured that these countries all struggle with many of the same difficult problems the U.S. faces: tensions with teachers unions, parent suspicion and fear, concerns about testing, etc. But Finland, South Korea and Poland also shared four things in common that set their education systems apart:

  • Clarity of purpose.
  • High expectations for all kids (across the full school and home community), and a rigorous curriculum and testing system that mattered to match.
  • Excellent teachers who continue to constantly improve.
  • More independence for the students, in the school and in the world, which “made school more bearable and cultivated more driven, self-sufficient high school graduates.” (p. 191)

I’m going to talk more about teacher quality in a future post when I cover Building a Better Teacher. For now I’m going to focus on the first two qualities.

1. Clarity of Purpose: What is the first priority at this school?
Ripley points out that U.S. schools have confused messages about the purpose of our schools. Schools in successful countries are very clear that the single and overriding purpose of each school is academic education, not sports or clubs, etc.

I see her point about the lack of focus at our schools. I’ve been on so many tours where the parent and administration leaders mostly just talk about how much they value the community of the school, and are deeply uncomfortable with talking about the curriculum, test scores and goals and teacher training programs. On those tours, we’ve spent inordinate amounts of time looking at gardens and computer labs, and almost never get to talk to teachers. Though I largely like this school a lot, Rosa Parks was probably one of the schools I toured that seemed most uncomfortable talking about anything but community. And it barely seemed on the radar of the West Portal principal. In contrast, CIS DeAvila and AltSchool were pretty crystal clear in discussing their academic missions. Sunset Elementary was more about the community message. And strangely, for a school that is known for its focus on academics, the Alice Fong Yu tour was also fuzzy on the topic, though may have been because it was led by just one parent.

In the book, Ripley talks about American school obsession with facilities and screens as distractions to real learning. She points out that these highest performing school systems have bare bones schools with chalkboards and chalk. No screens, no fancy sports fields, etc. Clarendon’s decision not to invest much of its parent fundraising money into core facilities raises eyebrows on their tour, but is very much in line with this international best practice. My eldest child goes to a relatively poor public school right now, and my husband and I frequently talk about what it would take to bring the school to the next level academically. Having spent a lot of time at the school now, we feel quite strongly that it has nothing to do with improving the facilities, and everything to do with teaching excellence and a culture of increased expectations and rigor. Again, it is a school that focuses heavily on its community mission, and not academics.

I am concerned that so many San Francisco schools seem uncomfortable discussing their academic mission and systems. Shouldn’t that be the primary topic? Yes, by all means tell us about the other stuff, too; it has value. But start and focus on academics. How do these other elements of the school tie in to the core mission of developing the minds of our students? I liked that CIS DeAvila proactively shows you homework samples for different grade levels at the beginning of the tour.

I suspect that many parents and principals are, understandably, worried about promoting the rat race to top colleges, and dampening the anxiety about the race for gem elementary schools. They’re likely genuinely interested in making sure that their kids are full, happy people -- certainly deeply important. But isn’t there a way to do that, as in Finland and Poland, without having to avoid a full discussion of the core academic mission? I also suspect that many parents are primarily interested in finding a school community to belong, which is completely reasonable, but if you’re not, like us, you should be wary of schools whose culture is dominated by community-focused parents.

2. Rigor: How deep is the learning?
My child is in an SFUSD TK. He often brings home depressingly inane worksheets, and the time we’ve spent in the classroom has made it clear that he’s being asked to do similarly unchallenging work at school. So I’ve kept a close eye on the kinds of worksheets kids were working on as I’ve toured schools. I’ve been disappointed to see students working on similarly one-dimensional worksheets on most of the tours I’ve done, including the schools so many of us think of as gems. My kid is not even allowed to cut out and assemble most of the “student work” that gets put on the bulletin boards and hung around the room at his school. I have noticed that this is also the case for most schools I’ve toured, judging by the uniformity of the cutting.

I’d love to have been able to talk more with principals and teachers about the context for these worksheets, unwillingness to let kids cut out their own darn pumpkins, and generally whether there’s more substance hiding behind a corner somewhere that we’re just not picking up on the tours. I loved that Clarendon lets us speak directly to teachers about what’s happening in the classroom we’re touring.And lest you think that my critique is coming from a desire to get my children on the rat race to a top college at all costs, I actually very much agree with the points made in William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite about the very real limitations of that kind of thinking. I just want my kids to be challenged to develop their mind to their full potential.

3. Parental Involvement: Not what we think.
I also was intrigued by a section of Ripley’s book that looked at what sorts of parental involvement at schools actually improved academic outcomes. We talk so much on this blog and beyond about how important parental involvement is to make a school work. And when I visit a school I certainly like seeing parent volunteers busy at work, and am impressed by fundraising levels. But it turns out that volunteering at school and fundraising actually have no impact on improving academic outcomes for your own kids. And in fact volunteering as part of an extracurricular activity, like a sports team, actually decreases academic performance for your kid. Ripley reports that the only things that really make a difference are reading to your child at home every day and, when they’re older, engaging them in discussions about topics of the world or a book.

I recently attended an event by The New School of San Francisco. I was intrigued but confused by their claim that they would not be expecting or emphasizing fundraising or in-school volunteerism. After reading Ripley’s book, I think I understand why they are taking that approach. It’s pretty refreshing, though it definitely is a major rethink for me.

4. My Key Take Aways
I ended this book thinking more critically about what messages the schools I toured were sending about their core missions, and whether we had the same mission for our kids. I also continued to leave pretty much every school we’ve toured with questions about whether teachers were finding and embracing more rigor in the Common Core curriculum or if it was the same old, same old in new packaging. Ripley’s book (and our TK experience thus far) is a reminder that humans crave meaningful challenges, and tune out to low expectations. I have many an unhappy memory of teachers at schools I went to growing up who pretty much just babysat us for a whole year rather than believing in us as capable deep learners. And I’m guessing most of us have seen the drag of low expectations at play in our professional lives.

So for our family, we are on a hunt for a school that has a truly rigorous academic and socio-emotional curriculum for T-shaped life-long joyous learners of all economic backgrounds. Whew! That’s a mouthful! (And an easy commute and compatible start time!) But that’s just us.

What mission do you want for your child’s school? If your child is already in a school, does the school have a clear mission?

Beyond Public v. Private: What do we want our children to get out of school?

I’m a new blogger, but long-time reader of SFKFiles. We are a west side family with two kids. The first one is in public TK this year. We’re in the midst of looking for a kindergarten for next year; we don’t plan to keep our child at the same school. We went through the SFUSD lottery process last year, so we’re perhaps a bit less stressed than other families that are figuring it out for the first time. I grew up in a major U.S. city, and experienced both public and private education. My spouse grew up in the Bay Area, and also experienced public and private education.

Our TK choice has been interesting and really great in many ways, but ultimately not a good fit for our kid. He’s unhappy and bored, and our efforts to improve the situation through working with the teacher and school have gone nowhere. We really thought that we had found a hidden gem, but our TK experience has spurred us to research and think more deeply about what we want our kids to get out of their schools so that we can do a better job of evaluating the choices. Does anything make you feel worse than seeing your kid suffer from a bad choice you made? We could afford to have our kids go to private school, though it would be tight, and we’re not opposed to the idea, but I developed a suspicion that public v. private was a bit of a distraction from the core question: “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?”

To answer that question, I hit the books. I’ve spent the last half year or so reading new and old research on learning. I freely admit that I thought that we had it all figured out before; who doesn’t know what a good school is? You know it when you see it, right? But reading and thinking about the questions raised by these books has significantly changed my thinking about school options. The common question of public v. private came to seem like only one key question within a host of other, even bigger questions.

I’ve talked to a lot of friends and parents I’ve met at events over the last couple of years about schools. It’s become clear to me that many of us are hungry for more and better information about how to even begin to evaluate the school options in San Francisco. What are we even looking at on these tours? Hazy, anecdotal memories of our own school experiences only get us so far. So I thought that other parents might appreciate a series of blog posts about some of the books I have found most helpful, and how it has impacted my thinking, with the enormous caveat that we won’t know for quite a while whether we have applied what we learned well in our school selection, and of course that we are just one family with our own particular proclivities and priorities. No doubt many other of you have also read these books, so I look forward to hearing your takes. These are the books I plan to cover:

Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green

I look forward to a discussion about how we each answer the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Junipero Serra TK

Junipero Serra is my neighborhood school.  In fact, we live down the street from the Annex CDC.  I called the office on a Thursday and they set me up with an individual tour on Friday. The school is a series of well cared for bungalows. I arrived at the school and immediately noticed the flower filled garden.  Some of the TK students were outside their classroom painting a mural with a district art teacher.  The classroom itself is relatively small.  Because of its size, there are only 18 children. The classroom itself felt well cared for and cozy. Th TK class is very play-based but also immersed in Spanish literacy.  Student work was posted and there was a word wall.  The students were sitting at tables – doing centers.  One table was working with the teacher, another had iPads set to a literacy game, a different group was working with blocks.   The class is taught in 80% Spanish and 20% English.  I am excited to about this because there is only one other bilingual TK in the district.   The teacher is one of the most experienced TK teachers in the district – this is her 3rd year.  The kids get to go outside and garden at least once a week. The play area is lovely and my daughter would be able to see our house J. I know one family that attends this school and they love it. 

There is an afterschool program that reserves the majority of the spaces for TK students.  It’s on a sliding scale, but for full cost students it does cost over 500 dollars a month. Also, the TK has an 8:45 start time.   These time constraints would be very difficult for my family – the afterschool care is relatively expensive and we would have to find morning care to supplement it.  I feel like this would be a nice place for my daughter to play and improve her Spanish. If this is the school she is assigned to, we will have to figure out a way to make it work.  I do like how close to home it is and the cozy feeling of the class.

Thomas Edison Charter Academy

The worst experience I ever had as a teacher was at a charter school.  I never considered sending my children to a charter school until about a week ago when I had my first parent teacher conference at my daughter's preschool.  Her teacher said with pride, "She's 100 percent ready for kindergarten." He had forgotten that she has an October birthday and won't start Kindergarten until 2016.  I wish we could send her to some wonderful "forest school" where she would just be outside exploring all year next year, or leave her at her wonderful preschool for another year instead of sending her to TK, but we simply can't afford it.  I wish she could just start Kindergarten.

So I decided to tour a charter school. I had beard that TECA was going to have space for 10 students in TK and that they are going to combine their class with Kindergarten. It will be a "bridge class" with mixed ages.  I think a mixed class will be good for my daughter, she can be in reading groups with K and learn the social skills she might need with the TK kids. Another factor is that some of my daughter's friends are siblings and going to go there next year. They also have a 50/50 bilingual program starting in kindergarten.  It's also close to home and almost on my way to work.

I arrived to the school very early because I was worried about parking.  There was plenty of parking right on Dolores so I  decided to walk around the block while I waited.  As I got to the entrance on Chattanooga I saw a familiar face.  One of my former colleagues was greeting students on the curb, along with the principal.  My colleague told me that she loves working at the school.  I expressed my worries about it being a charter and she said, "Oh no, this is a good charter."   I also saw some younger siblings of kids I know, and their parents told me that they love the school, too.  It was nice to see familiar faces and feel part of the community.

The tour began in the Gym.  Since I was one of the first people their I had time to talk to the PE coach.  He loves the school and has been there for something like 12 years, from when it was "for profit" through the transition and beyond. He said the kids love being there.  I also got to meet the drama teacher/ K-2 instructional coach.  She said that she and some of the other teachers are all going to have kids in TK next year, and although it is a new program, they are excited about it.

There were 4 parents giving the tour, 3 native English speakers and one native Spanish speaker.  They talked about their growing PTC, the afterschool program, the immersion program.  They were all very enthusiastic.  They said they write grants to get funding for programs they are interested in, even though the PTC only raised around 20,000 last year.  I personally don't care about fund-raising, I care about community. They also said there are monthly community events and yoga and baile folclorico electives in the afterschool program.

The classrooms we entered had writer's workshop anchor charts on the walls and the teachers were giving phonics lessons.  The kids were engaged in call and response phonics activities.  The writing samples displayed on the walls were in both languages and at grade level. There was also art displayed all over the hallways and Dia de Muertos decorations. We also had the chance to see the cafeteria (sort of dark) and the music class. I was concerned about the fact that Kindergarten has lunch at 10:30! Apparently, they also have an afternoon snack, because it seemed too early for lunch. The music class was dynamic, all the students were rehearsing in rock bands - each with their own instrument.

We met back in the cafeteria to talk with principal.  She answered questions about community, and curriculum. Their immersion program only goes to 3rd grade, but they are hoping to start a Spanish Literature/Culture class for the kids as they get older. She also said something that I liked about charter schools.  She called them "Private Schools in Public Spaces." They are trying to provide academics, arts and athletics to public school kids - a commitment that sadly many district schools have lost.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience at TECA.  I think my daughter would do well in a combined TK/K class.  I wish it was an option in the immersion program too, but we speak Spanish at home and there are only 2 immersion TKs in the district. I like the arts focus and the immersion program.  I liked the Principal more than any I have met so far.

I am genuinely surprised. We will be applying to TECA.  I am not sure if it is my first choice, but it is the first option that has seemed right for my daughter.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

School Tour: Synergy School

Synergy School


Location: 1387 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110, the Mission

Grades: K-8

Total Enrollment: 192

Kindergarten Size: One class of 24, includes 6 Young Kindergarten students. Two teachers.

Times: 8:30am-3:00pm (doors open at 8am); early dismissal at 2:10pm on Wednesdays

Before school care: 7:15-8am

Aftercare: 3-6pm (2:10-6pm on Wednesdays)

Tuition: $17,300 YK-5, $18,000 6-8, for 2014-15

Apologies (again) that there are no photos. The very first thing they told us was that picture taking was not allowed, which is a shame because the space was light and inviting, and there were a lot of great projects up on the walls even though I actually toured way back in early October.

I was really excited to tour Synergy. I know a couple of families there and they love it. I was also curious to see what I have heard is the most diverse independent school in the city, as well as an independent that is not over $25,000 per year per kid. In addition, I wanted to learn more about their approach to progressive education and project-based learning.

We were greeted by two  students - one in 3rd grade, the other in 5th. Both were confident and composed, and talking with them was a nice way to start the tour. They showed us the agreement wall where all the kids acknowledged the school's agreement system (more on that later) and pointed out the different classrooms as they led us to the art room where our orientation was held. The building was bright and open with lots of natural light coming from the big windows.

We had the Q&A first, followed by a tour around the school. A lot of the information presented is also in their admissions packet -

Rita Franklin, Admissions Director, led the Q&A. There is no head of school, but instead 3 teachers share the administrative leadership roles. Rita teaches kindergarten half time in addition to her administrative duties.

Teacher cooperative - The structure of the school is a teacher cooperative, which means teachers have a lot of input into how the school is run. Any teacher who is 80% time or more sits on the Board of Directors of the school, which also consists of 51%+ non-teachers (founders, community members, alumni parents, and alumni students). Teachers also participate in creating the curriculum.

Progressive education - The school's philosophy is progressive education, which to them means learning by doing, using manipulatives, having conversations, teaching different perspectives, etc. Students frequently work in small groups, and have tables not desks - all the way from K-8.

Diversity - The school also has a strong emphasis on diversity - not only does the school reflect the diversity of San Francisco by its enrollment, but they also talk about it in class in ways appropriate to the grade level of the students. For example, in kindergarten they might have a conversation about skin color and look at paints to figure out which color matches each person's skin tone. The older grades might talk about how a text would be different if it were written by someone of a different race or gender or background.

Evaluating prospective students - They accept all kinds of kids with lots of different abilities. In the evaluation of a prospective student, she wants to see if the child can sit still while she reads a book, is not a hitter or a biter, etc. Similarly, the play date is very casual. It is really the parents who tip the scales on who gets admitted and who does not as it is about fit.

There will be 14 kindergarten spots next year, which is actually a lot for the school.

The Agreement System - Synergy utilizes an Agreement System which embodies "[t]he core tenets of encouragement, cooperation, respect, responsibility and logical and natural consequences." Students and teachers agree to these six agreements:

I agree to make Synergy a respectful learning community, free of bias, by...
1. keeping a safe place, without prejudices, for everyone’s body and feelings.
2. respecting all property.
3. participating academically.
4. participating in all other school activities.
5. being in a designated space.
6. agreeing to leave quickly and quietly when waved out.

"Waving out" was explained as a way to help kids learn to self-regulate their behavior. Essentially, if a child is not paying attention or playing around, the teacher makes eye contact and "waves" to the child in a manner where the child knows that s/he needs to get up, walk to the door and touch it, and then return to his/her seat. All this is done without interrupting the lesson. There is no teacher anger and there is no shame for the kids. They practice waving out at the start of the year and by a couple weeks in, the kids get it.

Communication with parents - There is regular communication with parents, including curriculum night before school starts, 2 parent conferences a year, a blog for kids in grades 4-8, Google classroom that allows parents to see their child's homework, e-mails, can call the classroom, a weekly newsletter - the Wednesday Word, and curriculum e-mails.

Homework - With regard to homework, there is none in kindergarten. In first grade, students get a packet of assignments and a time frame to complete them. Only reading and spelling are mandatory for 1st graders - the rest is optional. For 2nd-3rd grade, the kids get a package on Monday, which is due on Friday - it is more work, but manageable. Starting in 4th grade, students start learning self-organization for completing homework on time. By middle school, homework is about 2 hours per night and the kids really have to learn to to manage their time. The assignments are a mix and could be research, reading, work for a group project, etc.

After school - After school programs include yoga, chess, etc. Lots of opportunities for running and jumping.

Combination classes - The school uses combination classes - Young K/K, 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 6-8 together in some classes. Instruction is very individualized, e.g., kindergarten they expect to have some kids reading, some working on sight words, some with nothing. In middle school, math and English language arts are taught by grade but history and science are taught in mixed grade classes.

The curriculum is taught in three year cycles so that a child who is in a 1/2 classroom as both a first and second grader is not re-learning the same material twice. Similarly, middle school students in mixed classes also would get fresh material each year.

Arts, PE, etc. - Each child gets performing arts experience.  Every kid is in a play every year, and the plays are usually based on a book. Every child takes Spanish. The amount of Spanish increases each year.

Tour of Classrooms

I loved this tour because we saw almost every class and kids in every grade.

Lower Grade Classrooms

We first visited the music class where third graders were playing xylophones. It was a simple tune, but they sounded really good! I was impressed that they didn't lose it with all these strangers staring at them, but as each kid participates in a school play each year, maybe the kids just get over the stage fright!

We visited the 2/3 classroom, although all the children were out.  The room was cheery with lots of books. There was a a chart with tips about how to choose books to read. The kids had tables, not desks, and at each child's place his or her name was written.

We then visited the 1/2 classroom. The 1st graders were working on phonics and decoding, while the 2nd graders were out at PE.  The kids were learning about consonant blends, and the ones they had already covered were on the wall (e.g., th, wh, ch, sh, etc.). The wall decorations included a map of San Francisco with what looked like kids' drawings of their homes.

Someone asked how the school decides whether a 2nd grader should be in the 1/2 or 2/3 class. It was clarified that the academically advanced 2nd graders were not automatically put in the 2/3 class. Rather, the school looks at the whole experience for both the children and the classes. They consider the boy-girl ratio, they might split up cohorts, they factor in emotional development, etc. They do not consider academics or parental input.

Next we visited the kindergarten classroom where the kids were having center time in groups of six. They do math in groups of four. Spanish is taught in groups of 12. There are often only 12 children in the classroom at a time.

The kinder class was very loud and busy, but I thought it was great. The kids appeared to be working on reading/language arts. Various kids were writing, using manipulatives, coloring, looking at letters, or reading on their own. Some kids were working with the teachers. The kids rotate stations over the course of center time.

It was noted that the classroom had a dollhouse and a few other things that were a little more like preschool because these are young kids who still need to play. I agree wholeheartedly with that!

Kindergartners start the day outside and have other opportunities for outside time during the day so that there is a balance of sitting and moving.

We visited a 4/5 classroom where the kids were writing in diaries about themselves. We also popped into the other 4/5 classroom where the students were reading books and writing notes about the books.

Upper Grade Classrooms

We visited a 6/7/8 science class. As it was early in the year, they were working on learning good note-taking practices.

We next stopped by the decent-sized library. There is a part-time librarian.

We then visited a 6/7/8 history class. The kids were working on a comic strip of history. Each group of four had a particular era for which they had to draw a panel. The kids work at tables of four with at least one student from each grade. The students were using laptops to research ideas for their panels. The computers are shared at a ratio of one laptop for two students. The teacher explained that his students did get opportunities to use technology, such as for making movies, but for the comic book project he really wanted them to hand draw the panels rather than print out pictures from the Internet. It was a very cool project and the kids were busily engaged.

We next visited a middle school language arts class where the kids were writing poems. The subject was their Farm School visit, and each student was choosing different types of poems to write from a "menu" - literally a menu with certain types of poems listed as appetizers, entrees, or deserts.

Community Trips & Events

After we left the language arts classroom, we were told about some of the different trips that the students make. The Farm School is near Bodega Bay and I think they said that the kids go up there two times per year. It is a week-long trip and they do various different projects there. Every other year the kids in grades 4-8 go camping for 4-5 days, and then in the alternate years they go to the snow. K-3 also alternate snow and camping.  8th graders also go to Costa Rica for 10 days. There are lots of other small field trips. Some trips have parent participation. The camping trip is a family event. All these trips sounded really cool . . . and like more money on top of tuition. Something to keep in mind.

The school also has community service events, such as a vegetable picking day and cooking a Thanksgiving day meal for seniors.

An interesting new thing that Synergy is doing this year is instead of having younger grade students have a buddy in a higher grade, which they did in the past, they have "families." One child per grade plus a teacher constitute each family. The families do events together, such as all going out to dinner. I thought this was a pretty neat way to foster community.

Outdoor Space

We headed outside and first went to the "soft" yard, which had a rubber ground cover and a sand area. There also trees for climbing - I love that. There were clever benches that convert into picnic tables. The yard also had a play structure and an apple tree that the students and teachers can actually pick and eat fruit from. There are usually two teachers per yard for the K-5 students.

The kids eat lunch outside on the soft or hard yard. The school is not nut free but kids are not allowed to share food. Kids are also required to get their hands cleaned with wipes before going inside and then wash their hands once inside. The kids are apparently conscientious about which other kids have food allergies, and some kids choose not to bring nuts to school if their friends have allergies. There is a food delivery service option, and approximately 30-40 kids order food each day.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the younger kids come out for lunch a half an hour early and leave early. But, otherwise, all the grades eat lunch together. After lunch, the kindergartners have quiet time for about 30 minutes per day except Thursday when it is 20 minutes. During quiet time, students are read to and are able to relax. The kindergartners are given an opportunity to finish their lunches later as often kids do not eat their entire lunch during lunchtime.

We then visited the "hard" yard, which was a big asphalt area. There were basketball hoops and the usual yard markings. PE class was happening and the kids were playing various games with balls. There was a lot going on and the PE teacher was actively participating and encouraging the kids.

The school does have several sports teams for kids in 5-8, despite its small size, and the teams do well. The sports include basketball, soccer, indoor soccer, and cross-country.

Final Thoughts

I liked Synergy an awful lot, but I left remembering the words of a friend also currently immersed in the kindergarten search who told me she was not going to tour any private schools because she did not want to fall in love with something she could not afford. I am pretty sure we could afford Synergy for one kid with some careful planning, but, man, that second kid!

I know my kids would love and thrive in Synergy's project-based learning environment. I do not think I would have concerns about diversity as both the faculty and student body were at least visibly diverse. The location and start time work. My impression was also that my kid's late-ish birthday is not an impediment, and I think he would do well at the assessment and playdate, as described. The many things we love about it are strong enough to keep it in the mix, despite the financial concerns.

Readers, what are your thoughts about Synergy?