Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Henrietta's List: A Little from Column A, A Little from Column B

Sorry this took so long to post - once tours were done and our application in, there was a lot of life to catch up on!

Our final list is a little bit . . . nuts, so I thought I would make a post just so I could explain the less than obvious reasoning behind our final order. We submitted our application over winter break, though I toured a couple more schools afterward. Thankfully, none of the tours changed how I would have ranked them.

As is clear from my reviews, my impressions of the schools I have toured have been generally positive. To me, it was not a huge surprise as, given my limited touring time, we picked schools that we thought would be a good fit. I also believed (and continue to believe) that there are an awful lot of great schools in the district, and that our family would be happy and successful at lots of different schools.

Our final list reflects conflicting tensions and issues, but I believe it does reflect schools we like in our true order of preference.

The competing issues:

1) All of the concerns listed in my first post still apply, including proximity, diversity (but tempered), math, arts, etc.

2) While we are still leaning toward sending our late summer birthday boy to kindergarten this year, our preschool director suggested we consider a third year of preschool to give him more time to develop socially and emotionally. So we will wait a little longer to decide about kindergarten. That, I think, took some urgency out of the application process.

3) Our preschool director also recommended considering immersion programs for our son. Unfortunately, the only immersion school we had time to tour was Fairmount (which I really liked, and hope to post a review for eventually). We have some friends at a few other immersion schools and mined them for information and advice.

I wish I could mash up all my favorite things from each school into one super-school, but, alas, that is not an option.

So with all that, here is our list (sort of broken into tranches):

1. Miraloma 
2. Sunnyside

Going into this, we expected that Miraloma would be the top school as it is our neighborhood school, and Sunnyside was a likely second. Miraloma has a great community, and it is so close to our house. We hope the fundraising can be sustained to keep smaller class sizes in 4th and 5th grade, as that is important to us. (I wish every school in the district could do at least this, not just those who can “afford” it, but that is a discussion for another time and place). Sunnyside was actually a very close second place. It is nearby, with a great community, and is also doing a lot of really exciting things. We had a pretty serious debate about whether it should be number one, especially given the better (for us) start time, but Miraloma squeaked ahead.

3. Rooftop
4. Clarendon JBBP
5. Clarendon GE

Okay, so we did not tour either of these schools. Also with a less foggy brain than when I submitted our application, I later realized listing Clarendon GE makes no sense no matter how much I like it – last year, unsurprisingly, no one living outside the AA (and with no tiebreakers) who listed it below first place got a spot (http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/S-F-school-assignments-have-predictable-odds-6018732.php). But that realization was not worth going back to the EPC!  We have several friends with children in each of these three programs and have talked with them about the schools in addition to researching them. We knew both schools would be high on the list, so we chose to skip touring them in favor of schools we were less familiar with (other than Miraloma, of course). Proximity, diversity, strong academics and enrichment, great communities, etc. are what landed them here. And, yes, I am well aware these programs appeal greatly to many, many, many families!

6. Fairmount 
7. Alvarado Spanish Immersion
8. West Portal Cantonese Immersion

So this is where the list really goes sideways. Initially, we did not anticipate that any immersion programs would make the top 10 because we are still a bit ambivalent about going that route. But we decided to place them higher after researching the programs and talking with a few friends at immersion schools. Proximity influenced their ranking and all are about equidistant (though as I mentioned, I did tour and was impressed by Fairmount, which is the most convenient of the three). My husband and I are a little more comfortable with Spanish immersion, having both taken Spanish (though not since high school!), but we did not think that disqualified Cantonese immersion programs for us.

9. SF Community – Great school and I am excited by the project-based learning focus. I liked that the community is small without being too small. Smaller class sizes in 4th-8th is also a plus.

10. Chinese Immersion School (CIS) – Part of the immersion bump up, but less convenient. I love the approach of balancing immersion with enrichment.

11. Glen Park
12. New Traditions
13. Lakeshore
14. Sloat

But for immersion, these would have rounded out the top 10. Glen Park is by far the most convenient, but the rest are not bad. I did not tour Sloat, but I had a very long and encouraging conversation with a Sloat parent at the enrollment fair, and she had a child very much like mine in a lot of ways. I also compared notes with a friend who toured Sloat and is looking for similar things in a school.

15. Peabody – I actually toured Peabody (though I have not had a chance to blog about it), and it was one of the schools I liked most, but it is so very inconvenient. If it was half as far, it would have been in our top 5.

16. Grattan
17. Sunset
18. West Portal GE
19. Sherman
20. Feinstein 

Though we did not tour these schools, we believe they could be good fits based on our research and discussions with and recommendations from other touring friends or attending families. But these schools are generally not as convenient as our higher ranked schools either due to location or start time or both, which is also why they did not make the tour list.

And at the bottom of the list, we had 15 more schools, primarily for swap value. Honestly though, we tried to only put down schools we believe are very solid to great for our kids and technically doable for our family, except for one or two where start time and distance make attendance completely impractical.

Charters

We did apply to TECA (actually on the first date so before even touring any SFUSD publics) and Creative Arts Charter, but I would probably rank them toward the end of our top 15, partly due to proximity and feeling a bit stronger about the fit of some of the other schools.

Independents

We decided not to apply to any independent schools, including Synergy, for a variety of reasons that were mostly about us and not the schools. If we do a third year of preschool, we probably will apply to a couple of independents. I really liked San Francisco Schoolhouse (which I toured before signing up to do these notes), which is a wonderful progressive school in the Inner Richmond. Sunset Progressive School is also a very interesting progressive school starting in Fall 2015 – the school actually has a few more information sessions (http://sunsetprogressiveschool.org/information-session-and-tour-sign-ups/) coming up so families looking for more progressive education options should check them out.

And now we wait . . .

Thursday, January 15, 2015

School Tour: New Traditions Elementary School

New Traditions Elementary School

Website: http://www.newtraditionssf.com/

Location: 2049 Grove Street, San Francisco, CA 94117, NoPa

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: Approximately 253

Kindergarten Size: 44 – two classes of 22

Time: 9:30am-3:30pm

Before care: YMCA (fee based, scholarships available)

Aftercare: YMCA (fee based, scholarships available); PTA-coordinated enrichment

New Traditions was a last minute addition to the touring calendar, and a bit outside the radius of some the other SFUSD schools we toured. I decided to tour because a couple of friends independently suggested it might be a good fit, and, consulting the map, we realized it was pretty familiar and not too a bad drive.

The reminder e-mails advised that street parking would be tough and parking in Golden Gate Park was a good option. It took longer to find a spot and I underestimated the length of the walk so I was a few minutes late and missed the beginning of the Q&A. So travel time is a serious consideration.

The Q&A was held in their cafeteria, which had a stage and looked like it could also be used as an auditorium? The school building and grounds are small (as it has a small population), but it is a great-looking building in a nice location.

Q&A

The opening presentation and tour were led by several current New Traditions parents.

Garden Education

As I walked in, the parents leading the presentation were explaining that students get outdoor class one time per week all year long in their garden as opposed to only for a semester. The garden teacher is from Education Outside. As with other schools, in their garden classroom, the kids explore math and science concepts and the lessons are integrated into the curriculum.

Aftercare and Enrichment

There are two after school options. First, there is PTA-coordinated after school enrichment which includes things like Spanish, chess, engineering for kids, ceramics, yoga, soccer, Tree Frog Treks, etc. There are three different sessions each year. It is fee based but scholarships are available.

The other aftercare option is the YMCA, which does before care and aftercare. It is also fee-based and there are scholarships available. It sounded like everyone who wants a spot in the YMCA program can get in. I believe kids in the YMCA aftercare can also participate in the PTA-coordinated enrichment.

Arts Focus

The school has always had an arts focus and so they do many art projects that are meant to supplement the curriculum. As an example, a few years ago, when the fifth grade was a learning the U.S. states and capitals, they made a quilt of the United States, and each child was responsible for a state.

4th and 5th Grade Classes Breakdown

The tour leaders noted that because they only have 2 kindergarten classes of 22 (and classes 2 each for grades 1-3), those numbers do not work out neatly into 4th grade classes of 33 students as class sizes are bumped up at that point. Normally, the 4th and 5th graders would break down into one 4th grade class, one 5th grade class, and one split 4th/5th grade class. However, because of attrition, it does not always work out that way. For example, this year there are two 4th grade classes and one 5th grade class. They are not sure what will happen next year because they do not know yet how many 4th and 5th graders they will have.

Fundraisers

New Traditions has four big fundraisers. There is the Dragon Walk (a walk-a-thon) in the fall, a community fund drive which starts in the fall and continues for a few months, a winter auction, and a spring carnival.

Tour

We then broke into smaller groups for the tour of the school. They noted in particular that we should pay attention in the classrooms to how the children were broken out into centers, which are utilized for differentiated learning. The centers allow kids to work on different things at different levels at the same time. I thought it was interesting (in a good way!) that they noted this, as effective differentiation seems like it should be important to everyone and all schools should be touting their efforts.

Garden

We started in the nice-sized garden. The garden teacher described some of the work the students do, including that the fourth graders are currently learning about decomposition and first graders are about to start learning about the garden animals, including worms. She noted that the science in the garden is aligned to the standards in the curriculum. Students who help tend the garden get cooking lessons and eat the food produced by the garden. The school also has two additional green spaces – habitat gardens – in the school as well.

Second Grade Bungalows

We next walked by the second grade bungalows. They were painted the same color as the rest of the school and I would not have realized they were bungalows if that was not pointed out.We did not actually enter the bungalows, but we were told that they are bright rooms as they have a wall of windows on the far side that we could not see from the path.

Just outside the bungalows we walked by the butterfly garden, which was one of the other green spaces.

Outdoor Play Space

We then saw the main play yard which is L-shaped, and actually seemed rather large given the school’s small footprint. There is a small play structure for climbing and with slides. There are also the usual yard markings, foursquare, etc. The recesses are staggered K/1, 2/3, and 4/5, as with the other schools I have seen. K-3 students have three recesses – a morning recess, lunch recess, and an afternoon recess. Kids in 4-5 only have one recess in addition to their lunch recess.

Students primarily play on the main yard for recess. There is a lower PE yard, although that is rarely used for recess. The main yard is large enough to accommodate the 88 kids who would be out at recess at any given time. There is a PTA funded recess monitor.

There is also very small upper yard, but it is not used for recess. It is the site of the staffed drop-off that starts at 9:15 AM and where morning circle is held.

Classrooms

We only visited two classrooms – a first grade and a kindergarten.

In the first grade class, students had small desks put together as tables. Most of the students appeared to be doing math and were going through Everyday Math workbooks. However, some students were working on reading, while others appeared to be writing. The teacher was helping some kids individually. The kids all seemed pretty on task.

We then went into a kindergarten class where students were working again in different groups on different things. There was a small group of students who had headphones on and were presumably listening to audiobook versions of the physical books they were each flipping through. A few kids were actually working on the computers that were at one end of the classroom. The teacher was going between a group of students working together on the rug – they seemed to be doing something related to English Language Arts as they had small cards with one word on each – and another group who were sitting at a table.

Given that New Traditions is now over 50% white, I was a little surprised (though pleasantly so) at how diverse the kids in both classrooms appeared.

Computers

We were told there are computers in the classrooms, as we observed. There are also computers in the library as well as a laptop cart.

Art Room

We then visited their dedicated art room. They do have one art teacher supplied by the district and then they fund a ceramics teacher. We were able to view the neat United States quilt referenced during the parent presentation before the tour.

Library

The last stop was the library. It seemed small and did not appear to have a lot of books, as they only filled half the room. There were indeed several computers at one end of the library. I did see books in the classrooms, so perhaps the total number of volumes is much higher than it looked.

Q&A

The Q&A itself was fairly brief. The parents leading the tour answered some questions, brought in some 4th graders to answer questions, and then the principal, Maria Luz Agudelo, spoke with us.

We were told that there are a lot of long term teachers and the principal has been at the school for about 10 years.

Mini Q&A with Fourth Graders

Four fourth-graders came and answered questions about the school, similar to what happened at Miraloma. As with Miraloma, obviously kids who could make a great impression were selected, but again it was a nice twist because these kids were awesome and unfailingly honest. All the kids were overall satisfied with the school. The one funny moment was when someone asked if bullying was a problem and the two girls said “not really” and the boys were like “uh, yeah, sometimes.” However, all the students felt their teachers help them work through conflicts, including with bullying.

The parents on the tour mentioned that the school is starting to use Response to Intervention as part of conflict resolution.

At this point, the kids left and the principal came and fielded a few questions.

Differentiation

The principal again emphasized that they are really focused on doing differentiation, particularly using centers. Because a class does not work on the same subject at the same time every day, given that there is enrichment on certain days (e.g., garden, art, etc.), the teachers are able to be flexible and have students working on different things at different levels at the same time. She really hammered home their efforts at differentiation.

Common Core & Balanced Literacy

The principal noted that they are implementing Common Core as is the rest of the district. She added that they are also using Reader’s Workshop, Writer’s Workshop, and Balanced Literacy.

How Can the School Improve

The one thing principal said the school wants to work on is to have even more integration of art into the curriculum.

Grade Promotion/Skipping

Asked about grade promotion (meaning grade skipping, not end of the year promotion), the principal noted that it was something that could be considered, but was obviously always decided on a case-by-case basis. She noted that it is not only about the academics, but it was important that it was appropriate weighing social and emotional issues. She said the same considerations would go into an assessment for grade retention.

Final Thoughts

New Traditions seems like a great school, and the arts focus is unique and appealing. I appreciated that they really emphasized that effective differentiation was important to them as it is important to me too! While it will be on the list, I think there will be schools listed higher that we like just as much that are a little bit closer or more convenient.

School Tour: Glen Park Elementary School

Glen Park Elementary School

Website: http://www.glenparkschool.org/

Location: 151 Lippard Ave., San Francisco, CA 94131, Glen Park

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: Approximately 329

Kindergarten Size: 66 – two General Education classes of 22, one Spanish Biliteracy Pathway class of 22 (for native Spanish speakers only)

Time: 8:40am-2:40pm

Aftercare: ExCEL and SF Arts & Ed

As expected, it did not take me long to get to Glen Park Elementary. Familiar as I am with the area, I decided not to bother trying to find parking super-close to the school. So I drove halfway – just far enough to get me down the hill – and then walked the rest of the way. It was about 12 minutes all in. Not too bad, though it would be a slower walk with my son.

Unfortunately, I missed the Morning Circle out in the yard, although it must have been rather short because it started at 8:40 and I walked up to the yard at about 8:44!

The formal tour did not start until 9, so after I checked in at the office, I looked at some of the information and colorful art and projects on the hallway walls.  The hallways were wide and open with lots of bright sunshine coming in – it all set the tone of a very warm and inviting space.

Tour

Principal Jean Robertson, who is in her third year, introduced herself and started the tour. She may be my favorite SFUSD principal this touring season. She seems like she really loves the community and has big goals for the school. She answered questions and discussed various topics during the tour and at the brief Q&A at the end. We were joined for the whole tour by Michael, a special staff person, and were joined by the PTO president partway through the tour.

Literacy Lab

The first stop on our tour was the literacy lab. They use an online program called RAZ, which is a leveled literacy program. Each student has an account and can use the program when they visit the literacy lab and at home. Small groups of students work in the literacy lab in the morning, and an entire classes can visit the lab in the afternoon. The school specifically identifies first and second grade students who are not reading at grade level, and those students in particular get daily literacy intervention in the lab so the school can get those kids to grade level as early as possible.

We entered the literacy lab where the literacy specialist was working at a table with four students. There also happened to be a group of biliteracy pathway students working in another area of the room.

The literacy specialist is half time, although they are trying to get her funded full-time next year.

Kindergarten Classrooms & Yard

The school has three kindergarten classes. Two are General Education and one is the Spanish biliteracy pathway for native Spanish speakers. In each K-3 grade there are 2 GE classes and 1 biliteracy class. At 4th grade, the biliteracy pathway students are combined with the GE students. We were told that the school and district are moving toward trying to have a biliteracy period for 4th and 5th grades so that while these students are still mastering English, they do not lose their native language and literacy. Apparently, SFUSD is working on plans to try preserve some biliteracy through 12th grade.

The first kindergarten we visited was the biliteracy class. The classroom was generously-sized and had big windows. When we walked in, the students were on their backs on ground counting and moving their legs like they were riding bicycles while the teacher was singing and banging on a drum. The kids were clearly enjoying it. They then gathered on the rug with the teacher and began working on days of the week in Spanish, reciting the names while looking at the words on cards the teacher was holding. The teacher was really lovely and the kids were so responsive to her, though my kids would not be lucky enough to be her students if we landed at Glen Park.

We then visited one of the GE kindergarten classrooms. The classroom was a corner room so there were big windows taking up much of two of the walls, making it very bright and cheerful with all that natural light. I believe there was a bathroom in the classroom and that all the K classrooms have their own bathroom. We were told that once the kids get to first grade, they use the main hallway bathrooms with all the other children.

The teacher was about to begin reading Jack in the Beanstalk. She was talking with the kids about how the day before they had read a different version of the story and that day they would see how a different author and illustrator told the same story. This was apparently in part in preparation for them to go see a live performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, and to think about differences they might see in the version of the story in the play. The kids were engaged and so focused. They were seated on the rug, and there were rectangular tables in the room with their names at their places.

We then visited the kindergarten yard, which seemed a bit small. The principal noted that she thought it was kind of small when she first arrived, but she said the kids do not seem to mind and both parents and teachers find it to be a good size for the kindergartners. There was a climbing play structure with a couple of slides. The kindergartners also have their lunch recess in this yard.

The principal emphasized that there should be a balance of play and academics for kindergartners because they are still kids and play is learning. For her, kids should stay kids as long as possible. I absolutely agree with that.

We did visit the third kindergarten (other GE) classroom even though there was a substitute, as the teacher was out doing professional development. The substitute was one that teacher regularly uses. The students were gathered around the teacher on the rug discussing a story they had just read. The kids were incredibly sweet and focused even with the substitute, answering questions from the principal and even thanking her when she complimented them on how nice their classroom looked. This class was a corner classroom as well so it also featured big windows on two sides and lots of natural light.

Grades 1-5 Yard and Garden Space

We then went out to look at the big yards for the older kids. There were several sections to the yard space and, along with the garden, which is between two parts of the yard, the main outdoor space stretches the length of the Brompton Avenue side of the school. I love that there is a huge amount of space for play.

The first section of the yard was large with basketball hoops and various yard markings. We saw the Playworks coach setting up for recess. Playworks is funded by the PTO. They Playworks coach monitors recesses and students have “game time” with her once per week where they play cooperative games. There are also fourth and fifth graders who are selected to be junior coaches and given special training so that they can help at recess.

The next stop was the nice-sized garden. Currently, the PTO funds the garden teacher, who is subsidized by Education Outside. Although next year, that fee will increase. We briefly listened in to a first grade class that was learning about meteorology in the garden. The school is also planning to continue to expand the garden to other parts of the outdoor space.

Past the garden was another play yard, and then a third lower yard. That third yard area had a large canopy, which was apparently required by the bond money used to renovate the school. But there was no money provided to put anything under the shade so the school applied for and received a grant from Lowe’s for picnic tables. That seating area is used for a variety of activities, including chess club meetings.

We did not see it, but we were told that there is another small yard on the Bosworth side of the school with a play structure, but only one grade at a time has access to it. So, for example, first and second grade will be at recess together and all will be on the big yard. But, for the first recess, perhaps only the first graders have access to that smaller yard and structure, and then, at lunch recess, the second graders get access to it, etc.

There also outside bathrooms accessible from the yards.

Cafeteria & Aftercare

We next visited the cafeteria, where the students have lunch and the after school program starts. It did not look that big, but it sounded like they had up to three grades having lunch at a time. For K-2, the kindergartners come down first and get about 10 to 15 minutes on their own in the cafeteria. Then the first and second graders come down for lunch. After this point, the kindergartners are slowly moved out to their yard for after-lunch recess as they finish eating. The first and the second graders get escorted out to yard in groups, as different tables finish up. And then the same thing is done with the third through fifth graders.

Aftercare starts in the cafeteria. The after school program is fee-based and generally everyone gets in. There are currently 255 kids in the aftercare program. The program is run by SF Arts and Education. Lots of enrichment is offered, including photography, movie making, tae kwon do, cooking, STEM, and knitting.

Auditorium

We then moved to the school’s lovely auditorium, which had a stage and an open floor. They use it daily for aftercare, for big physical activity on rainy days, and for assemblies, including author visits, the SF Symphony (which visits all the SFUSD schools), etc. When Principal Robertson arrived, the school did not have many assemblies.

They have a weekly Tootle Tuesday assembly. Tootles are the opposite of “tattles”, and are notes from teachers thanking students for doing good things. The tootles are presented at the assembly. They also have two kids per month who get to be the mascots, dressing up as Tootles. They have an inspirational speaker at the Tootle Tuesday assembly, and it is usually someone from outside the school who comes to speak to the kids.

Fifth Grade Classroom

We also were able to visit a fifth-grade classroom, which was huge and possibly the least crowded-looking public school upper grade classroom that I have seen on a tour (though lots of school do not really let us see those upper grade classes). The room was rather long, but not that narrow. The students had the big rectangle desks, organized into tables of 2 to 4 desks. There were also computers in the classroom.  The classroom just had a great vibe and the kids were buzzing about actively learning.

Library

We ended the tour at the library, which upon entering I realized was actually twice as big as I had initially thought when I peeked in before the tour. It was huge and packed with books. They have a half time librarian, supplemented by parent volunteers.

Q&A

PAX & Restorative Practices

The school is a PAX school. PAX is a program for teaching “self-regulation, self-control, and self-management while collaborating with others for peace, productivity, health and happiness.”

The school is also starting to implement restorative practices and restorative circles.

Michael, the staff member who accompanied the principal on the tour, has a unique role at the school. His job is a stipend position where he supports the kids in third through fifth grade as an additional adult encouraging positive behavior. He writes the grants that fund the position. He is also the activities director for the mascot so he helps pick the two kids each month for the role and works with them for the assemblies and other appearances. He supports the PAX program as well as the restorative practices efforts. He previously worked in other public schools, including at Harvey Milk in their aftercare program. His role seemed like a great extra source of support for the school and its students.

Differentiation

Regarding differentiation, they do assessments throughout the year, and I did see Fountas and Pinnell chart in the literacy lab. In terms of lessons about phonics for kids who are already reading, the principal noted that it is still valuable for early readers to sit through those lessons. Sometimes when students do group work, it is with kids of the same skill level but sometimes the groups are heterogeneous because that can be useful for learning too.

At this point, the principal had to leave and the PTO president and Michael took over.

Homework Policy

For the two GE kindergarten teachers, one assigns one sheet per day and the other class gets one packet per week. The PTO president’s first grader gets a weekly packet. They noted that in the fifth grade classroom we visited, for some of the homework, the kids have the choice and the opportunity to either complete it in class or at home. Aftercare does include homework help although it is not meant to be an academic program.

PTO Fundraising & Involvement

Last year the PTO raised $60,000. They anticipate they are going to raise a lot more than that this school year. The PTO’s big priority is supporting Playworks. They also fund some field trips, 4 Family STEAM nights, and technology. The PTO also just gave teachers $1000 per grade level to fund whatever the teachers need.

Parents volunteer quite a bit in the classrooms, in the library, and on field trips. Parent involvement tends to be highest in kindergarten and first grade, and as kids get older there seems to be less in-classroom involvement as parents go back to work.

No Sugar Policy

The school has a no-sugar policy. The PTO also has a Healthy Families Committee that is working to get healthy snacks into the classroom.

Recent Changes in School Population and Leadership

The PTO president was asked how the school has changed since she has been there. She noted that there was a big change from the old principal to the new one, as well as the school becoming more of a neighborhood school. She noted that Principal Robertson is very open to parent involvement and proposing ideas.

Final Thoughts

I left wondering whether I should have put Glen Park a little higher on my list. It is definitely an exciting school with a growing PTO and what appears to be a pretty fantastic principal with a great vision. We are just outside the neighborhood, but close by enough to hopefully not feel out of place as it becomes more of a neighborhood school. And as with some of the other schools I have toured, we know a few families, and the built-in community is a plus – I even ran into a Glen Park Elementary parent I knew on the tour! Overall, it would another great place to land.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

School Tour: Miraloma Elementary School

Miraloma Elementary School

Website: http://www.miralomasf.com/

Location: 175 Omar Way, San Francisco, CA 94127, Miraloma Park (West of Twin Peaks)

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: Approximately 365

Kindergarten Size: 66 – three classes of 22, starting in 2015-16

Time: 7:50am-1:50pm (early release one Thursday per month at 11:20am)

Aftercare: MEEP until 6:30 p.m. (full or part time, fee based), YMCA until 6:00 p.m. (full or part time, fee based), SF Rec & Park until 5:30 p.m. (fee based)

Miraloma is the school of my dreams – well, at least the dream of walking my kids to school. As it is our Attendance Area school, my husband came with me on this tour. It took us about 5 minutes to walk there, which we expected as we often visit Miraloma Playground next door. So refreshing to not have to allow extra time to find parking!

The Miraloma tour was self-guided, which made it a little bit different than most of the other tours I have attended. The tour document was very detailed and there were parents at every stop ready to answer questions, but at the end of the walking tour portion, I was not really sure what I had gotten out of it. We were not able to enter any classrooms – I was glad we were not interrupting any instruction (I always feel bad about that), but at the same time I missed having that chance to get a peek at the classroom experience (even though I am the first to admit it is a random snapshot that does not tell you much at all). You can review the Miraloma tour document here - http://www.miralomasf.com/newsletter/docs/miralomatour.pdf.

We were very rushed at the end of the tour because we were told (and the information in the confirming e-mail says this too) that the principal’s Q&A would start at 9:30, but at 9:10 when we were about to view the kindergarten classrooms and yard, we were told that the principal was about to start. We did not want to miss seeing the kindergartners, so we ended up missing the beginning of the Q&A.

Tour

Because the tour document is pretty thorough and the in-progress construction obscured some of the physical appearance of the school, the tour recap will be brief.

Library & Auditorium

The tour started outside the library, which appeared to be decent-sized but maybe smaller than Lakeshore’s. We were not able to enter the library as there was actually a woodwind music class taking place inside.

Across from the library was the auditorium. The auditorium is apparently only large enough to fit about half the school at a time, which sort of makes its existence a bit curious.

Garden

We went outside to visit the huge garden, which runs almost the entire length of the school on one side. We also got to visit the four chickens, who my kids already know well from our post-Miraloma Playground visits.

Kindergarten Classrooms & Yard

We went downstairs to look at the kindergarten classes. Again, unfortunately we were not allowed to enter the classrooms. The kindergarten classes are all on one end of the building and two of the three classes face the kindergarten/1st grade yard where we could view them through their large windows. From the windows we could see that the kindergarten classrooms are very large, and looked well-stocked and decorated.

Their yard is great with a slide and climbing structure, and some imaginative play structures. During recess, the kindergarteners share the yard with the first-graders. On Fridays, half of the kids go to Miraloma Playground next door for their recess, and that is staffed partly by parent volunteers and paid monitors.

Upper Yard

We then saw the upper yard where the 2nd-5th graders play in staggered recesses. The yard is big and open with basketball hoops, a play structure, and a slide. Currently, part of it is taken up by three portables that will be going away at the end of the construction over the summer.

During the Q&A we could see recess going on and despite the fact that there were lots of kids in a variety of activities, the yard seemed spacious.

Cafeteria and Gym

The school has a separate cafeteria and gym. As with other schools, they stagger lunches. The cafeteria is nice and bright as it has one wall of windows looking out onto the upper yard. The gym was small but seemed appropriately sized for elementary school students.

Notes/Comments from Current Parents Along the Tour Path

Regarding aftercare, we were told that are enough spots for all the kids who want to do an afterschool program, as there are three – MEEP and YMCA, which are both held on campus, and SF Rec and Park’s program, which is held next-door at Miraloma Playground. Unfortunately, there are currently no language programs as part of aftercare enrichment. The Rec and Park program is mostly free play so most people do not choose it for kindergartners as it is a bit much for them.

There is a rolling drop-off in the mornings staffed by parents as parking is somewhat hard in the neighborhood.

As for technology, some of the teachers have iPads, and some have other computers. There is no computer lab, but according to the tour document, there are computers in the classrooms. Students do get some of their homework via Google docs and some work is required to be done online, including some research, so they do learn to use technology.

Q&A 
The tour ended with a Q&A in the cafeteria with the principal, Sam Bass. As I mentioned, there was conflicting information about when the Q&A was supposed to start so we missed at least the first few minutes.

This is the principal’s first year. I had heard great things about the school’s very popular and well-regarded former principal, but friends touring earlier this season told me that they really liked Mr. Bass. I could see why – he seemed quite personable and dynamic.

Loss of QEIA Funding

The first question we heard asked about the impact of the school losing its QEIA funding, which is a big part of why the school has been able to have smaller class sizes. The principal responded that in the past eight years, there has been a lot of improvement at the school, partly due to the leadership of the prior principal and partly attributable to the QEIA grant. That grant plus money raised by the PTA helped fund reduced class sizes, a K-2 reading specialist, a full-time social worker, a PE coach, a garden teacher, etc.  Next year (2015-16), the grant is going away, and the school has been having discussions about how to prioritize what they want to keep. They have decided that smaller classes are the most important priority. Starting next year K-3 will increase from 20 to 22 students, as in the rest of the district, but for 4th-5th grade, class size will stay at 25 or fewer students rather than going up to 33 students.

It was disappointing to hear that the school is going to lose the smaller class size in the lower grades, which was definitely appealing to us and many others I am sure, but it is great that they are planning to maintain the reduced class sizes for 4th-5th grades. Although I wish I knew how feasible it is for the school to really afford to do that long-term (though I know Miraloma has been one of the top fundraising schools), and it was not clear which extras are going away.

The upside of the increased lower grade class size is that there will be six more spots in kindergarten next year, increasing the odds of getting in, assuming interest remains the same.

Mini Q&A with current 4th Graders 

At this point, four fourth-graders came in to talk about the school and field questions. While they obviously picked kids who would make a good impression, it was a nice twist and they did great. Two boys, two girls, racially diverse. They talked about how they really love their teacher – apparently they have a teacher with a very dry sense of humor. The kids noted that they sometimes work in large groups, sometimes small groups, and some things are done individually.

They talked about the different afterschool programs, cementing the impression that the Rec and Park program really is mostly playtime. The YMCA program is a mix of homework and recess and MEEP is a mix of homework, playing, and enrichment.

For homework, they said in third-grade they got a packet on Monday that was due on Friday. Now that they are in fourth grade, they received longer-term assignments that are more substantial, such as reports and essays.

The students all said they enjoyed getting to work in the garden, and three of the four kids loved eating things out of the garden while the fourth loved the chickens.

Diversity

At this point, Principal Bass took over again and was asked about diversity.

He noted that the school only has 16% percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, which he states was unusual for the district. It was interesting to me that he did not elaborate what made it “unusual” is that it means Miraloma has a significantly less economically disadvantaged population than the district average. The principal noted that they have a small number of English language learners. As for racial and ethnic diversity, he stated that the school is 50% white, 18% Asian, and then approximately equal proportions of other ethnicities. There was no further comment about racial diversity. There are lots of LGBT families and staff (including the principal). He considers it very inclusive population.

He noted that the school also has students on the gender spectrum and the teachers go through gender sensitivity training. The younger students get presentations about differences. The school’s social worker, who they call the feelings teacher, also works with students regarding these issues.

Common Core

Regarding Common Core, the school anticipated the changes and started moving toward the new standards in English Language Arts before the curriculum was adopted. Moving towards the math standards has been more recent. Principal Bass noted that the school understands the challenges for parents with the Common Core teaching being very different than how parents learned in school, and so they are trying to help parents better support their children. For example, two nights before the tour, the school hosted a math night for parents to help them understand how to support math learning when students are home.

Curriculum & Differentiation

For math, the school uses the district curriculum of Everyday Math, but also uses Singapore Math, which they believe is a more effective way to teach math so kids have a depth of understanding.

For several years, the school has been using the Readers’ Workshop Balanced Literacy program from Teachers’ College Columbia, which ensures that students are reading at the right level. The school also uses Fountas and Pinnell assessments for K-5 and does three reading assessments year. This is the third year that the school is using Writers’ Workshop. The PTA has sent teachers to Teachers’ College for more professional development.

Even kindergarten students generate written product, and learn about narrative versus opinion writing. One of the parent volunteers noted that even though it sounds very daunting and academic for kindergarten, she feels it is taught in a manner very appropriate for their level. She gave the example of her daughter, who at the end of her kindergarten year wrote four-sentence letter to Barack Obama about an issue she was very passionate about.

Regarding differentiation, teachers are trained to provide it in the classroom, and the principal felt that where kids need more of a challenge, the teachers can provide that in the class. An example he gave was a class where they were working on “10+_”, i.e., adding 10 to other numbers that were less than 10 (10+5, 10+6, 10+7, etc.). Some kids have already mastered that and so the teacher can have those students work on adding 10 to numbers above 10. Other kids might not be ready to do “10+_”, and so with those children the teacher will have them working on adding within ten. Teachers also have resources to send additional material home.

Inclusion

Regarding inclusion, they have a new K-2 special day class. They have paraprofessionals weaved into the classroom for students with IEP warranting that support.

Special day kids are mainstreamed into PE, garden, and recess.

Care Team

The school has a care team made up of the principal and certain other staff, including the social worker, who meet when there are students who have issues warranting greater intervention and support. They try to come up with a plan to resolve the issues and work with parents.

Conflict Resolution

The school uses RTI (Response to Intervention). The staff has had a lot of training and teacher professional development on this approach. It is focused on motivating positive behavior. Tier 1 is school wide tools to motivate everyone’s positive behavior. Tier 2 is students who perhaps need a daily check in with an assigned staff member to make sure that things are going well and they are on track. Tier 3 would be students who need even more support than that.

Kindergarten Orientation

The kindergartners usually have an orientation the Friday before school starts. The first couple of weeks of school are all about structure and easing the students into the routine.

Cell Phones

One parent asked whether cell phones are a problem. The principal said that it has not been a problem. A couple of kids have them for special reasons. For example, if they walk home by themselves or they take MUNI. He noted that he used to be the assistant principal at Denman, and cell phones were a big problem there.

Student Population

More and more of the younger grade kids are from the attendance area. The current parents encouraged families to stick it out through the start of school if they really want the assignment. Last year, there were six spots open on the first day and four new kids came in after the 10 day count.

Social-Emotional Curriculum & Bullying

Regarding the social-emotional curriculum, they use Second Step, which is a once per week class where they address different issues like bullying or trying to be a better friend.

The principal stated that he deals with discipline maybe one time per week. They also use restorative practices. He again talked about how much easier things were at Miraloma than at Denman Middle School where he dealt with fights, phones, and bullying.

I was a bit amused by how much he was not selling Denman in comparing it so unfavorably to Miraloma given that Miraloma now feeds into Denman. That is the place where next year’s K parents are supposed to send their kids in six and a half years (and current Miraloma parents in even fewer years!), so if you are freaked out by the middle school feeders, all that talk probably did not help.

Principal’s Final Thoughts

Principal Bass described Miraloma as, to him, "a magical place on the hill”. He feels there are no weak links on the staff and that they have a very supportive PTA, not just regarding the money they raise but the high level of parent involvement and volunteering. And he goes home happy every day.

My Final Thoughts

So I definitely am a bit smitten with Miraloma. The proximity is a huge plus – seriously, walking to school would be amazing. We know a few families there, including a couple siblings starting K in the fall, and having visited the playground next door and the chickens in the garden for years makes us feel we can fit right in. But the assignment system and the fact that our attendance area has way more kids than kindergarten seats make it dangerous to get too attached. And I agree with one of the parent volunteers we talked to who wished the school was not a 7:50 start time school and that there was language in the aftercare programs. The diversity is definitely a consideration too, though I have come to be a bit more flexible about that by necessity.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Parents, Post Your Lists (and a Few Questions from Readers)

Happy New Year everyone!

The SFUSD application deadline is approaching very quickly: the last day to turn in your form at the EPC for Round 1 is January 16, 2015. Please feel free to post the lists you have already submitted or are planning to submit or in the comments.

We also have a few reader questions that have come in, including:

1) From a reader applying for SFUSD schools, we have a question about language immersion programs. Does anyone know what score one needs to pass the language assessment test and if there are levels above just passing, such as fluent, proficient, etc. Does one have to get a classification of a certain level (say, fluent) in order to be put in the lottery pool for speakers of the target language?

2) We also have reader questions about parochial schools! We haven't seen too many comments about those schools lately, but we know there's perennial interest. Is there anyone who can weigh in on parochial schools, particularly St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Monica?

3) Finally, from a reader in the South Bay, we have a question about any progressive schools in San Jose or nearby. The reader who wrote in has recently moved from another state and writes that her family has found the schools in Bay Area very academic (perhaps too much in the early grades). She has one child in preschool at a private school and all seems to be going well, but for kindergarten this parent is hoping to find a school that might have a better mix of academics and play-based curriculum. Any suggestions for her?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

School Tour: San Francisco Community School

San Francisco Community School

Website: http://my-sfcs.org/

Location: 125 Excelsior Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112, Excelsior

Grades: K-8

Total Enrollment: Approximately 290

Kindergarten Size: 33 – three K/1 classes of 22, with 11 kindergarteners and 11 first graders

Hours: K–5: 9:15am–3:30pm, Grades 6–8: 8:45am–3:35pm, early dismissal for all grades at 2:15pm on Tuesdays

Before care: The schoolyard is staff-supervised starting at 8:20 a.m.

After care: ExCEL until 6:30pm, 5:30pm on Tuesdays (full time, free – but funded by SFUSD so cost may change); Boys and Girls Club until 7:00pm (full or part time, fee based)

SF Community is a small, public K-8 located in the Excelsior neighborhood. I was shocked that it only took me a little over 5 minutes to drive there. I had not appreciated how close it was, which is a huge plus.

The tour started in the yard where the kindergarten and first grade students were playing before school began. We then saw “morning lineup” where the students lined up single file to enter the school building. One of the teachers led them in a little call and response about how they were all ready to go in and to learn. I don't remember the exact words but it was very cute.

We then went into the library, which was a large bungalow. The library was nicely painted on the outside with murals and it was a big room with just tons and tons of books.

Presentation and Q&A

The Q&A was led by the principal Nora Houseman.

She has been at SF Community for seven years. She spent four years as a middle school math teacher at the school, and this is her third year as principal.

SF Community is the smallest K-8 school in the district. They pride themselves on their small, personalized learning community. There are 289 students total. There are 33 students per grade. And with such a small student body everyone knows everyone else.

Looped Classes

Students loop teachers for two years, meaning that they have the same teacher, e.g., for kindergarten and first grade, for 2nd and 3rd grades, etc. The school also tries to match siblings to teachers so that teachers really get to know families. I like that idea that teachers, students, and families would have the time to build deeper relationships.

There are 100 middle school students. Similar to the lower grades, a student often has the same teachers for all three years. Each student has an advisor who s/he stays with all through middle school.

Project-Based Learning

SF Community is the only project-based learning public school in San Francisco. That has been the school’s approach since it opened in the 1970s. Their pedagogical philosophy is to take an inquiry approach to learning, i.e., doing rather than being told. They employ a workshop model. For example, for math, rather students being told algorithm, practicing the algorithm, and then being tested on it, the students are led to understand why they need an algorithm, then work to develop the algorithm, and then defend what they think is the right approach. They do have tests, but students also develop portfolios that they are evaluated on.

The second and fourth quarters of each school year are project quarters. The projects are science-focused, and focus on one area deeply. At the time of the tour, the school was in the second quarter, and the K-5 students were doing projects in the physical sciences.

The principal described several past projects and passed around a copy of a flier from an earlier Project Open House, which is a project night where the students show off what they have done to parents and friends.

For example, last year one of the projects for the fourth grade was to design a car that lit up and moved. So while on that project, they were also working on math elements such as Distance = Rate x Time. There was an expository writing element, which was that the students had to write a how-to manual for their cars.

The K/1 students last year did projects related to states of matter. Their projects included cooking, which was a way for them understand solids, liquids, and gases. The students also learned about measurements, which was a math component, and they wrote cookbooks for the writing aspect.

An example of a project that middle school students did was to re-write Romeo and Juliet. Another project required them to design rockets, and then they were asked to improve their original rockets to make them go further and faster.

The teachers align what reading the students are doing to the subject matter of the project. Math is usually not as aligned as the amount of the math that has to be covered is so great so math class proceeds on its own track.

As the second and fourth quarters are so science focused, the first and third quarters tend to have more emphasis on social science work.

Dual-Grade Classrooms

The school believes that mixed age classrooms allow kids to be challenged more. The school has three kindergarten/first grade classes. In each K/1 class, there 11 kindergartners and 11 first graders, so there is a range of development, but they believe this helps them meet students where they are. Having a mixed age class helps with mentorship and modeling because the first graders do that for the kindergartners and, then, the next year, the new first graders are able to do that for the new kindergartners. The school also has reading buddies, pairing up younger grade and older grade students.

English Language Arts

The school uses the Balanced Literacy program from Teachers’ College Columbia. The principal noted that many SFUSD schools are moving toward the program. The system has students read texts at their proper reading level because students progress when they are reading exactly where they are at and can comprehend the material. For Readers’ Workshop, first, the teacher teaches a skill or concept to all the students while they are sitting on the rug. Then the kids work in pairs on that concept. Then the kids practice the skill independently with a book at their level, which means that students are reading different books. During that independent reading time is when the teacher works with kids in small groups on specific things that they need to work on. SF Community teachers do a lot of assessment to ensure that students are always reading at the right level.

SF Community uses A-to-Z levels for books, and they use that from kindergarten through eighth grade. After Z is adult level books. It is very resource intensive to have a range of books in all the areas necessary, but the teachers really put in the time to make it work.

Fostering Community

The school has eight Virtues that are posted in every classroom and throughout the school – Propriety, Respect, Balance, Perseverance, Justice, Harmony, Community, and Truth. The virtues help everyone have a common language for praise and expectations.

Every month there is a K-8 assembly with a Virtue of the month, and they celebrate students for exemplifying that particular virtue.

There are community circles every day. They find that getting to know each other reduces conflict. They also do reactive circles to address and resolve conflict.

As mentioned above, the school has reading buddies between older and younger students so that older students can be mentors and models for younger students.

Conflict Resolution

SF Community uses restorative practices, which is spreading throughout SFUSD as well. When harm occurs, the student who caused the harm stops, reflects, and then takes responsibility. The school rarely uses detention and almost never suspends. They apply discipline that is related to what happened.

In other schools, a kid might be sent out of class for doing something wrong and they return the next day with shame, anger, and no reflection about what happened. The restorative practices model asks what happened, what the student was feeling, and what the student thinks needs to be done to fix the situation. The person who caused the harm sits down with the person the conflict was with, takes responsibility for what happened, and helps come up with a consequence. For example, last year there was an eighth grader who painted graffiti in the library and a restroom. The consequence was that he apologized to his class, apologized to the librarian and the janitor, and helped clean school one time per week for a month.

Class Sizes

Almost all the funding the school gets goes to teacher salaries. In kindergarten through third grade, SF Community has the same 22 students per class size maximum as the rest of SFUSD. But for 4th through 8th grades, SF Community caps their class sizes at 24 students per class. In the rest of SFUSD, there is no maximum so classes are generally around 33 students in those grades. Keeping the class-size low is a big priority for the school so that they can continue to provide differentiated instruction to students.

Specials

Students visit the library one time per week. Students also visit the garden one time per week, and the lesson is tied in with the science they are working on in their regular class. The school has a PE teacher and has always had a K-5 PE teacher. Students get PE three times per week. For arts, K-5 students get instruction one time per week, alternating between dance, music, and visual arts.

The middle school students actually came up with 10 arts classes they wanted to have.

Students in 4th-8th grades can learn to play a musical instrument. They can also opt into choir.

Students take many field trips, often tied into their projects. For example, students go to the Excelsior Science Lab often, which is just two blocks away.

There is basketball, soccer, and track in middle school for sports.

Aftercare

The principal raved about their afterschool program, ExCEL, which is through the district, and has been free to any students who wanted to participate. It may not be free in the future as it depends on what SFUSD wants to do. The structure of ExCEL is 1/3 enrichment, 1/3 academic, and 1/3 being active. There is a wide range of enrichment activities, and apparently they have a very capable and wonderful director.

The afterschool program ends at 6:30pm Monday-Wednesday and Friday. It ends at 5:30pm on Tuesdays because of early dismissal. Technically, aftercare is supposed to be for the full three hours because of how it is funded, although the minimum this year is three days per week.

As an alternative, the Boys and Girls Club, which is next-door, has a fee-based drop-in program that is popular with students who do not need the full-time program.

Staff

School ends at 2:15 on Tuesdays so that the teachers can have three hours of planning time.

The teaching staff’s jobs are very resource and time intensive. Because of the project-based learning focus, teachers that are at the school really want to be at the school and are excited by that approach. They generally do not have a lot of turnover.

The school was founded by teachers and parents. It has always had a teacher-selected principal, formerly known as the Head Teacher, and who is unanimously elected by staff and the school site council. The school continues to have a teacher-run model, with consensus, and all teachers need to take a leadership role. It is not for teachers who want to be siloed in their classrooms.

The principal position is not for a fixed term but it just ends whenever it is the right time for the principal to move on and a new person is ready to move into the role. The principal plans to stay in the role for a while. She described moving into the role as a year of slow mentorship as she had to get another credential and work with the outgoing principal and others.

There are no dedicated aides in the classroom, but they have paraprofessionals as required for the kids with that in their IEP. The school also has a behavior specialist.

The school has a literacy coach.

Parent Involvement

The SF Community parent volunteer on the tour noted that both she and her husband work full-time, but she was there for the tour and her husband was going to be at the school later that day. The principal agreed that parents are very involved. There is a wide range, of course, given that different people have different outside obligations.

As far as some specific opportunities for involvement, they include the ELAC (English Learner Advisory Committee), the PAC (Parent Action Committee, which is SF Community’s version of the PTA), and the School Site Council.

The school holds intentional community building events, such as a potluck, a festival, and a silent auction. With regard to fundraising, there are events but they do tend to focus on unity building. The school really is quite small and there are only about 150 families because of all the siblings. They do not believe in fundraising through kids, i.e., they would rather families write a check than sell wrapping paper.

Students with Food Allergies

Some of the touring parents had children with allergies so there was an extensive discussion about how the school assists such students.  SF Community has a no nuts policy, and a no sharing policy. They do have a part-time nurse. There is a list of kids with allergies, and even the specials teachers know which kids have allergies. The classroom teacher is the point person. The nurse trains teachers and the secretary is the keeper of things like EpiPens in the office. The current parent on tour had kids who had allergies and other medical issues, and she said within 10 days everyone on staff knew about her kids’ allergies or medical needs and were on top of it. She felt very comfortable with how that it is handled.

Safety

One of the visiting parents asked about the safety of the school. The principal assured us there had never been an incident with an outside person coming onto campus. The principal noted that they close the front door during the day and use a video to buzz people in. The front gate that opens to the yard is not locked, although the school has been asking SFUSD for a lock.

Technology

Regarding technology, the school just got a cart of Chromebooks and iPads. The school has not really had that kind of technology before so they are now making decisions about how to utilize them best.

Tour

The school is actually the oldest public school building in San Francisco, but it has been retrofitted and renovated.

Garden and Outdoor Space

We walked through the garden where there was a class going on. Generally, the garden and the class teacher are both together with all the kids in the garden.

We walked through the upper yard where the kindergartners and first graders play. The yard has a slide and a climbing structure. The very large lower yard is for the second through fifth graders, but also the 6th-8th graders. The recesses are staggered, although K-1 and 2-3 have recess at the same time, just on different yards. The lower yard is shared with the Boys and Girls Club but SF Community uses it during the day, while the Boys and Girls Club uses it after school and in the evening.

Kindergarten/First Grade Classes

We first visited a K/1 class.  On the walls, there were a lot of posters about reading, such as sorting vowel patterns. This classroom also had a discipline chart with the clothespins with each student’s name and the different colored levels. Individual teachers have the latitude to decide what to use in the classroom so some might have a chart and others will not. The classroom was big and open with tables for the kids.

The students were sitting around the teacher on the rug as she gave a lesson with an oversize book. She appeared to be talking about using pictures to predict the text. Most of the kids were focused and paying attention, and a couple kids were a little antsy, but they were responsive when she asked the students what they thought the accompanying text might be based on the different pictures.

We went to the second K/1 class and similarly the kids were also sitting around the teacher on the rug, discussing what skill they would be working during individual reading in their books.

We then visited the third and final K/1 class, whose posters I noticed included math (e.g., “Ways to make 7” and would list 0+7, 1+6, 2+5, etc.) and science (e.g., about states of matter, e.g. solids, liquids, gases). We walked in right as the teacher was finished talking about the skill they were working on and the students were moving to work in pairs.

All the classes were big and bright with a rug in the front center and tables throughout the rest of the classroom. It was great that we were able to see all three teachers, with their different styles but applying similar lessons.

Upper Elementary Classes

Then we visited a 2/3 class. The students were also doing Readers’ Workshop, but had already moved to independent reading at tables, with each student reading text at their own reading level. The teacher was working with small groups.

We stopped into another 2/3 class with lots of posters about science, including energy, light, sound, and heat. Both 2/3 classes we popped into had tables for the students to sit at and a rug at the front of the classroom.

We also visited a 4/5 classroom where the students were gathered around the teacher who was using a projector and appeared to be teaching how to write more detailed and descriptively. The teacher had them do a lot of talking to their partners during the lesson, which appeared to be a way to reinforce the lesson. But when she was talking, the kids were definitely focused on her.

In terms of how classes are sorted at the end of the year when students at a grade where they move to a new teacher, SF Community looks at the scores, gender, and race; does a blind sort; and then tries to balance the classrooms as much as possible.

Middle school classrooms

We were able to stop in to a couple middle school classrooms. I wish all tours included upper grades as the touring parents will eventually have older students even though we have kindergarten on the brain.

We saw a 6/7 humanities classroom although the students were quietly reading at tables so there was not enough action to make much of an impression.

We visited a middle school science class where the teacher was talking about genetics and the potential future of genetic modification. He was very dynamic and most of the students appeared pretty engaged. It was actually too bad we were not able to stay longer.

Cafeteria

We walked through the cafeteria. The 4th and 5th graders eat together, then the 6th-8th graders, then the 2nd and 3rd graders, and finally the kindergartners and 1st graders. Lunch is 25 minutes in the cafeteria followed by 25 minutes of recess. The K-1 and 2-3 students also get a 20 minute a.m. recess.

Final thoughts

I really liked SF Community. Although we are open to either K-5 or K-8, the idea of not having to worry about middle school has its benefits. I also am drawn to the smaller class sizes all the way through 8th grade. A small school where everyone knows everyone else is a nice idea in the middle of the big city. Finally, a school with a long tradition of project-based learning is appealing as I really think my kids would thrive in that environment. It definitely will be on our list, it is just a matter of where.

Monday, December 29, 2014

School Tour: Lakeshore Elementary School

Lakeshore Elementary School

Websitehttp://lakeshoreelementary.org/  

Location: 220 Middlefield Drive, San Francisco, CA 94132, Lakeshore (near Lake Merced)

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: Approximately 500

Kindergarten Size: 88 – four classes of 22

Hours: 9:30am-3:35pm

Before school care: Multiple options, starting at 7:30am

Aftercare: Multiple options, the latest ending at 6:30pm

I arrived at Lakeshore after about a 15 minute drive. The parking was pretty easy, although the tour was scheduled about half an hour after school started. Lakeshore is fairly convenient on the map, right by Stonestown. However, the most direct route involves that horrible Sloat Blvd./Juniperro Serra Blvd./Portola Dr./West Portal Ave./St. Francisco Blvd. intersection that also includes MUNI streetcars, so waiting through at least one light cycle for five minutes or so is not unusual. The idea of sitting through that every day is not appealing, and, if we ended up at Lakeshore, I would definitely explore alternate routes.

The tour that day was atypical for the school as the principal was offsite. One of the kindergarten teachers (I will call her the “K Teacher” for convenience and because I unfortunately did not catch her name) was leading the tour in his place. I would have liked to meet the principal, as I have definitely found that principals can influence my feelings about a school – even though I know that it is possible that the principal will not be there the entire time my family attends the school or even by the time my child starts. Another downside was that the K Teacher was not always familiar with the upper grades, and the parent helping on the tour was a kindergarten parent with the same limitation. The tour was also a bit all over the place with no formal Q&A, but lots of different topics discussed and questions answered as we walked around.

The upside of a teacher as tour leader was that we got an interesting perspective that we may not have otherwise received.

The K Teacher was in her 14th year at the school. Her daughter attended the school, and their experience inspired her to change her career plans and obtain a teaching credential. On the tour she mentioned a few other teachers who had been at the school a very long time and who had also had their children attend Lakeshore.

General Information

As I mentioned, there was no formal Q&A on this tour, so below is some interesting information that was shared on the tour or in response to questions.

Teacher Professional Development – As with all the schools, Lakeshore has been implementing the Common Core, and the teachers have been working with a consultant and getting a lot of professional development surrounding that. Last summer the teachers all were trained in Readers’ Workshop from Teachers’ College Columbia. The teachers also have a literacy coach. With regard to implementing Common Core math, they have received many new tools and, among other things, are being trained in how to increase number sense.

Teachers have a Wednesday Meeting with the principal where they get together in groups and share strategies that have been effective.

Homework – Homework is about 20 minutes per night for kindergartners, although it is mostly reading.

Arts Enrichment – Students receive eight weeks of music instruction. Fourth and fifth graders have the chance to play musical instruments. The school has a Native American consultant who teaches dance. The students get studio art for eight weeks per grade level.

Student teachers and aides – The school tends to have a lot of student teachers because they are close to San Francisco State University. All the classrooms generally have one or two student teachers. Paraprofessionals are also in the class where required for students with a designated need in their IEP.

Field trips – The kindergarten students have at least have one field trip per month.

After-school Enrichment – After-school enrichment classes include Mandarin, Cantonese, chess, drama, and keyboard.

Diversity – As we sat in one of the gardens during the tour and watched the kindergarten students have recess, the K Teacher noted that we could see that Lakeshore is one of the most diverse schools in the district. It definitely looked like one of the most diverse schools I have seen and the official stats bear that out.

Tour

Community Room

We started the tour inside the main entrance to the school, which was just outside the Community Room. We peeked in to see a strings instruments music class in the large, open room. The room is also used for motor class for K-3 students. It is used as well for the Halloween parade, multicultural night, the school potluck, the winter concert, and also math and literacy nights for families.

Cafeteria

We then went to the cafeteria, which was bright and open. The school has staggered lunches, but the four kindergarten classes all have lunch together along with the K-3 special day students.

K-1 students all eat lunch in the cafeteria whether they buy it or bring it from home. Students in second grade and up can eat outside if they bring their lunch from home.

Outside Space

There are 3 yards – one for kindergarten, one for first grade, and one for second through fifth grade, although their recesses are staggered.

We went outside and saw the large top yard which is for the older students. It had a blacktop, a track, a play structure, and basketball hoops. We saw a PE class. The big kindergarten and first grade yards also had nice, large play structures.

There were also a few portables, although we were told that they are newer portables that comply with ADA requirements. There is at least one kindergarten class in a portable.

Kindergarten classes

We poked our heads into two kindergarten classes in the main building. The classes shared a bathroom that was between the classrooms. The rooms were quite large, and, in both classrooms, the children were gathered around the teacher and sitting on rugs while the teacher was explaining something to them, but I did not catch the subject matter. The children appeared interested and engaged. The rooms also both featured several rectangular tables for the students. In one class the teacher was using what I assume was an ELMO.

Garden & Garden Classroom

We saw the large, main garden (of the 7 gardens!), and spent a few minutes sitting on the benches asking questions. We also visited the impressive garden classroom where the consultant was with what I believe was half of a kindergarten class. Although it was a portable, the classroom was vibrant and decorated with great posters and other items. The children were learning about the season of autumn. The other half of the class was with their teacher back in the classroom doing a different science lesson. The garden consultant was energetic and dynamic, and was a former Lakeshore parent. She explained to us that one of the things she teaches the kids is about the roots of the words they use, and she had a big chart on the wall about many of the words. For example, they learn about temperature and so she shows them how each part of the word is derived from its Latin roots. No pun intended, but that seemed like a great way to plant the seed for a skill that will be so useful to them in the future.

Library/iPad lab

The library was one of my favorites so far. It was big and open and bright. The library is a double classroom with books in one half and an elab with tables for working on iPads in the other half. Students visit the library weekly. In grades 1-5, students alternate between books one week and working in the elab the next. Kindergarten students visit the library every week but only for books.

The K Teacher was frank about why the school did not have an actual computer lab. She noted that with the cycle of budget booms and then budget cuts, what happens is the school gets a nice computer lab with a computer teacher when times are good. When budget cuts roll around, the computer lab teacher is the first person to go, and eventually you have machines that are older and need to be repaired or updated but the funds do not exist for that to happen.

Grade 1-5 Classrooms

We visited or peered into a few 1st-5th grade classrooms briefly, but in most the students were out at recess or some other activity or we just looked from the doorway. Unfortunately, that meant we did not have much chance to see classes in action. Most of the upper grade classes are single grade, but there is one 4/5 class because of how the numbers shake out when class-size increases from 22 students after 3rd grade.

Most of the classrooms had rectangular desks, pushed together to make tables, as seems typical of the public schools I have toured. One of the 3rd grade classes we saw had tables instead of desks, while one of the 4th grade classes arranged the desks such that they were placed touching each other side-by-side in rows. It looked crowded, but as we could not look all the way into the classroom, it was hard to tell how the whole space had been utilized.

I was quite impressed by one of the fifth grade classrooms we were able to walk through where there were shelves on one wall filled with baskets of books organized by levels and by categories. There really appeared to be lots of choices for every child at his/her reading level. Hopefully, all the teachers will embrace Readers’ Workshop as enthusiastically though it definitely requires a lot of teacher preparation and effort.

Art Classroom

We ended our tour at the art classroom and spoke with the art teacher. It was a very exciting space, and the art teacher has been at the school for several years and has started art programs at other schools as well. They have a kiln room too. The art teacher emphasized that they do “art for art’s sake” and it is meant to be very hands on. She takes half of a class at a time. She was preparing for upper grade students who had been studying Rothko – both his life and his art – and they were going to do paintings in his style.

Final thoughts – Overall, I really liked Lakeshore. I came away with a very positive impression of this warm and welcoming school. Lakeshore has a small attendance area despite having four kindergarten classes, so, if you really want the school but live outside the attendance are, it would seem you have a good shot of getting the assignment. We also happen to know more families at Lakeshore than any other school (none of whom live in the attendance area), so, for us, the built-in community is a plus.

It is definitely going on our list - still need to figure out where though! It is a school that could be a good fit for lots of families, including ours.

What are your thoughts about Lakeshore, readers?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Got immersion questions?

Got immersion questions?
Glen Park parent Elizabeth Weise’s book “A Parents Guide to Mandarin Immersion” came out in November. She’s offered to answer parent questions about language immersion in general for those who are considering it for their children. A little information from her:
Hello all. We signed up for SFUSD’s Mandarin immersion program back when it began in 2006. It’s been quite the ride and overall an excellent (if at time bumpy) experience.
My day job is as a reporter (I cover computer security for USA Today) so I couldn’t help myself and started researching and writing about Chinese immersion when we first started out at Starr King. That morphed into a 458-page book, which came out in November.
During the past three years I’ve read dozens of books and academic papers on immersion about multiple languages, visited schools, interviewed parents and attended conferences. The focus for my book was Chinese, but because there was almost nothing available on Chinese immersion, I ended up doing a lot of study about immersion in general.
I’d be happy to answer people’s questions about the science and data on how language immersion works, as well as how it functions in other school districts and schools nationwide.
SFUSD is not alone in creating a network of immersion programs. Los Angeles has a ton and Utah has become the national leader, creating a state-wide program that includes Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Portuguese.

Good luck to everyone pondering their Kinder choices. I turned in my oldest’s high school form last week!