Saturday, December 22, 2007

Are the schools in the suburbs really better?

Tonight, I had dinner with an old friend in Rockridge. Tanya lives in San Ramon, so we picked a half-way point.

Tanya and I met in seventh grade French class. We instantly bonded because she had a crush on my younger brother's best friend's older brother (I know it's complicated). Over the years our lives have been parallel in many ways: We were roommates our freshman year in college, married our husbands within two weeks of each other, and gave birth to our first children within two weeks of each other—which means we're now both starting to get ready for kindergarten. But enrolling for kindergarten in San Ramon is quite different than in San Francisco—and so as we chowed down on burritos, it was interesting to compare notes.

In January, Tanya will be picking up her kindergarten packet at the school where her son will be attending—yes, she already knows where Tyson is going to school and she has known ever since they moved into their house about one year ago. Like in most suburbs, kids in San Ramon go to their neighborhood school. I have to admit that I was feeling envious when she told me they'll soon even know which teacher Tyson will have next fall. I feel so far away from that!

But what really surprised me was when Tanya started to tell me about all the bells and whistles at her son's school. "There's a full-time P.E. teacher," she told me. "The kids get P.E. twice a week. At most public elementary schools, the classroom teacher does P.E. with their own students." Okay, wait a minute: Nearly every school I toured in San Francisco had a full-time P.E. teacher offering class once or twice a week. Or there's a Sports 4 Kids program. As my friend went on and on, I began to realize that the public schools in San Francisco have most of the same special extras as the schools in San Ramon. I was surprised. And when I told Tanya that the schools in SF also have P.E. programs, she seemed surprised.

Why do many people assume the urban public schools have less to offer than suburban ones?

Yes, in the suburbs you can typically walk to school, which seems nice, though I wonder how many people actually do that. And the test scores are higher, though we all know why that's the case.

You hear that many people leave the city for the suburbs because of the schools—but I'm beginning to wonder why. If you want a big house, that might be a reason to move to the suburbs. Or maybe you're seeking ample street parking. Or maybe you're hoping to settle in one of those beautiful suburbs nestled against a verdant mountain or perched above the sea. But leaving SF just because of the schools? I'm not sure that's a strong reason. (Though who knows how I'll feel when I don't get one of the seven schools I select.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hot topic: public school picks

By now, many of us are starting to develop a list of our top seven public schools. I've got seven—though I've yet to finalize the rankings and I'm still hoping to visit a few more schools the first week in January.

Here's my current list:

Leonard Flynn (Spanish)
Buena Vista
Alvarado (Spanish)
Alice Fong Yu
West Portal (Chinese)

I hope to tour Clarendon and Starr King in January. If I lived closer to George Peabody, Alamo, Lakeshore, or Lawton, I'd include them on my list.

Please share your top picks. Parents who have already gone through the process, feel free to share your lists from years' past.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Private school parent interview tips

I hate to admit this but the night before our first private school parent interview, I couldn't fall asleep because I was worried about what to wear. Superficial, I know. Jeans—comfortable, most representative of me, but are they too casual? Skirt—fun and cute but way too fancy. I could wear a jean skirt with tights? What about that black sweater? Oh yeah, that has a big moth hole in the sleeve.

Finally, I decided on some gray wool pants and a black sweater that doesn't have a moth hole.

I also worried about what Ryan was going to wear, what I was going to say, what Ryan was going to say. I was treating the situation as if the admissions directors were judges at a dog show, examining our questions, responses, hand movements, facial ticks, and lipstick color.

All I can say is the admissions directors were the farthest thing from that. Rather they were friendly and laid-back. After one of our interviews, Ryan said, "I felt so comfortable with the admissions director that I wanted to hug her when we said goodbye."

I won't go into specifics about each one but I will offer some tips for those of you with upcoming interviews:

1) Don't worry. Don't stress. Be yourself. And wear jeans if that's what you want to wear.

2) Brainstorm some questions to ask the admissions director. I guarantee that you'll be asked, "Do you have any questions about the school?"

3) Be prepared to answer a few questions: Why are you interested in this school? What other schools are you considering? Tell me about your child?

4) Re-read your application essays before the interview. The interviewer might refer to the essays and it's a good way to re-fresh your memory on what you like about the school and why it's a good fit for your child.

5) Talk to your partner about the interview the night before. Make sure you're on the same page—in terms of what you like about the school, your child's strengths, and so on.

6) Don't forget: You're also interviewing them to see if the school is the right fit for your child.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Alamo Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a well-rounded curriculum offering rigorous academics and an equal emphasis on art, music, and P.E.; high test scores; strong PTA; friendly, dedicated principal; developmental approach to teaching; good odds (80 kindergarten spots!)

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Fridays at 9 a.m., call 750-8456
Location: 250 23rd Ave., between California and Clement; outer Richmond
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 80 students total, four classes of 20 students
Playground: expansive black-top area; big play structure; roof-top garden
After-school program: No after-school program for kindergarten; Richmond District After-School Cooperative offered for 1st–5th
Language: after-school Chinese for 1st–5th
Highlights: vocal music for K–5th; P.E. for K–5th; SF Ballet in 2nd grade; ceramics and on-site kiln; Shakespeare program for 4th and 5th; Junior Great Books; talent show; back-to-school picnic; performing arts assemblies

Kate's impressions
A father of one of Alice's friends teaches at Alamo and I bumped into him on the tour. I asked him what he likes about the school.

"I get to teach," he said. "I really don't have to deal with discipline issues. The kids who go to Alamo tend to have good habits and they're well-behaved."

As I wandered through the classrooms, I could see what my friend was saying. Alamo kids are an attentive, focused bunch.

The tour began in the hallway outside the main office. The principal, Pamela Gire, greeted us all. "We're happy to have you be a part of our family this morning," she said. Gire, who resembles Cybill Shepherd, is upbeat and charismatic. As she talked about the school, a student gave her a box of chocolates (I toured the day before winter break). Gire returned the gift with a great big hug.

Gire explained that Alamo teachers use a developmental approach, so the kids are learning through hands-on activities and playing with manipulatives and blocks. Students are reading and writing at the end of kindergarten—though their levels vary. "One child might be able to write a whole paragraph, another is writing, 'The dog ran fast,' and another is only writing 'dog'," Gire explained. "Our teachers reach children at all levels."

She touched on the wide range of enrichment programs. The school has a full-time choral director, part-time librarian, and a full-time P.E. teacher. When the P.E. teacher Annie joined the staff a few years ago, the fifth grade physical fitness scores shot up. She told a story about Annie singing at the winter arts festival. After her performance, she shouted, "Does anyone out there like P.E.?" The kids went wild, screaming "Yes."

Gire opened it up to questions:

After-school program?
No on-site options for kindergartners but some kids take buses to the JCC or other schools. After-school starts in first grade. There's an arts-based program as well as a Chinese one.

How much does the PTA raise?
There's actually both a PTA and a foundation and together they raise $160,ooo. The spell-a-thon brings in $22,000. There's also an auction and other fund-raisers.

Sixty five percent of the student body is Asian, 6 to 8 percent Latino, and 30 percent other white.

One criticism of the school is that it's too big. Can you address that?
"We've actually been downsizing," Gire said. She explained that the school had 720 students at one time, with six classes in each grade. Several years ago, they started to pare down to four classes per grade. Eventually, the school will have only 480 students.

The president of the PTA, Jackie Choy, led us through the classrooms. Choy got her child into Alamo through the waiting list (there's hope!).

We started in Sharon Yow's kindergarten class. The kids sat in a circle around a pile of random stuff: a little car, a carrot, a candy cane, a plastic crab. "Put all the things that you find in the kitchen into a pile," Yow said. "Put all the things that can move into a pile." The kids were loving the game. And then Yow noticed that she recognized one of the prospective parents, and it turned out to be one of her former students. It was a very emotional moment as the two reconnected.

In the other kindergarten classes, the kids sat in groups at tables, practicing letters, coloring in pictures of Santa, creating a book about elves.

Next stop: auditorium where a group of fourth and fifth graders played ear-piercing music on clarinets and trombones. And then into some upper grades: a fifth grade class was graphing data and fourth graders were taking a spelling test. In one class, I noticed that all the kids and the teacher were sporting red—kind of cute. And the fourth grade classes were all equipped with electronic wipe boards—very cool. "When the teachers turn on the boards, the kids eyes light up," Choy said. "These are the kinds of things that keep kids excited about coming to school."

Before I left, I stepped outside where the kids were running around the playground at recess. The kindergarten teacher Sharon Yow stood watching and I walked up and introduced myself. She said that she had been teaching at the school since 1970 and that she had taught all the grades. She was friendly and kind and she asked me about Alice—it's always a good sign when teacher is interested in your child. She told me that Alamo is an excellent school, and then she grabbed my hand and said, "I hope you come back and see us. You're welcome here anytime. You should come visit in the afternoon and at the end of day. You need to visit a school more than once before you make a decision—you know?"

Friday, December 14, 2007

What's this blog about?

The other day, I bumped into a friend, a dad who knows that I'm the one writing this blog. He and his partner have been primarily looking at private schools but he told me that the blog inspired him to check out Miraloma. He absolutely loved the school and said he could envision his children there. He seemed surprised to be so smitten with a public school.

At times, I wonder what this blog is all about. I started it as a way to cope with the overwhelming process. I never expected others to contribute—except my dad who posted one of the first comments. But then it turned into this community, and the blog became more about the interaction between visitors than my emotional outlet—which is a good thing.

I think this blog is about nudging one another to think outside the box—whether it's convincing parents who were only considering Clarendon to visit Leonard Flynn and Starr King, or encouraging parents who steered clear of private schools (because they seemed prohibitively expensive) to apply for financial aid. This city is full of excellent schools and it seems that our children could thrive at many of them.

Please share, if you've looked at schools that have pleasantly surprised you or if you plan to apply to or list schools that you never imagined you'd consider.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hot topic: tour improvement

Today, a friend emailed me about her frustration with the touring process. She works full-time and she's struggling to find time to visit schools.

She wrote: "One thing I've been thinking about this process—be it public or private schools—is just how down-right hostile it is to working parents. Why do these tours need to be two hours long? Why are they all in the morning? (What would otherwise be my most productive time?) Have you had this reaction at all? Doesn't it all seem a bit insane?"

Luckily, I have a flexible job. I can work on a Sunday night and then skip a few hours on a Tuesday morning for a tour. Plus, I work only 30 hours a week. But still I feel like I'm running around nonstop trying to fit in work and the school search. I can't imagine how challenging the process would be for someone who's working over 40 hours and has to be in the office during core business hours. Or what about parents who are at home with a baby? They have to pay a babysitter or bring the little one along, which makes it difficult to focus on a school tour.

Does anyone have ideas for ways schools could improve the tour options? I know that some schools offer events in addition to the tours. I believe that Flynn offered a kindergarten night, and I know that Miraloma welcomes parents to attend the Friday morning sings. Does anyone feel like all the tours are on the same day—Thursdays? Would anyone attend a weekend open house? Most of the private schools host these. Please share your thoughts—but please try to offer constructive criticism rather than mean complaints. A lot of school parents are pouring tons of time and energy into leading prospective parents on tours. And I know we all appreciate that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Live Oak Open House

Over the weekend, our family loaded into the wagon and headed to Potrero Hill for the Live Oak Open House. It was a short and unstressful drive.

We arrived right on time and the school was already packed with teachers, families, and kids. Alice was initially overwhelmed but once she spotted her best friend from preschool she was entirely at ease. The two little girls scurried about as if they owned the place. In the kindergarten room, they cuddled in a nook under the stairs of a loft. They played grocery store with a play cash register and they painted pictures. Alice spelled her name incorrectly across her picture—and I felt so comfortable that I didn't even care. Parents with children at Live Oak have been telling me that their school is laid-back, and at this open house, I really felt it.

We ended up in the art room where Alice plopped down on a stool next to the teacher and made a "theater book." This time she spelled her name correctly. She probably sat there for 30 minutes, cutting and gluing and drawing. At work in this great big art studio, Alice seemed all grown up.

The open house was meant to get Alice acquainted with the school before her screening in January. It also reassured me that Alice is ready for kindergarten. It took her only 10 or 15 minutes to warm up to a school that's probably 50 times as big as her current preschool. As she was bopping around in the kindergarten room, it really started to sink in that my little girl will be going off to school next year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hot topic: single-sex education

After I had my son, Sam, I started to read everything on raising boys. I have a younger brother who has struggled through life, and I feared that my son would follow suit. I wanted to make sure that I started Sam on the right path. One of my favorite books was the best-seller Raising Cane: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, written by child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. In this book, Kindlon and Thompson identify the social and emotional challenges that boys encounter in school—and they address the benefits of all-boys schools. Last night, I re-read sections of the book and tracked down the following passage on page 48. It touches on why Kindlon and Thompson are advocates for boys schools.

"Boys benefit from the presence of male teachers and authority figures as role models of academic scholarship, professional commitment, moral as well as athletic leadership, and emotional literacy. The presence of men can have a tremendously calming effect on boys. When boys feel full acceptance—when they feel that their normal developmental skills and behavior are normal and that others perceive them that way—they engage more meaningfully in the learning experience."

After reading this book, I remember thinking that I would send Sam to an all-boys school such as Town or Cathedral. And so I decided to explore all-girls schools for Alice since she was the one who would be starting school first. Last year, two years before Alice would even start kindergarten, I toured Katherine Delmar Burke.

My tour of Burke was a year ago and so the details are fuzzy. I remember a beautiful campus, a new gym, tennis courts, and an amazing enthusiastic science teacher in the middle school. In fact, I think she's one of the best science teachers I've observed. She had the girls constructing chain reactions (a match would light a string on fire that would break and then a car would race down a ramp and fall into a bucket of water that would tip over...), and I thought it was so cool to see a woman teaching science. During the Q&A session, I recall someone asking why the school didn't introduce language at an earlier grade (I think they start in 5th or 6th grade). An answer was given about studies showing that language instruction at an early age is ineffective unless it's an immersion program. But what I remember most of all were lots and lots of girls. It was quite awesome to see so many girls of all ages working together in one place, but it was also overwhelming.


As Sam grew older, he developed an incredibly tight bond with his sister. When Sam fussed in his crib at night, Alice would crawl in with him and rub his back. When Alice was scared and couldn't sleep, Sam would reach his hand through his crib and grab Alice's hand. I can remember walking into their room once: they were asleep holding hands. These days, Alice and Sam attend the same small preschool where they're in the same class together. I don't think they play together all that much at school but I think they take great comfort in knowing the other one's there. At home, they're always engaged in "Baby" or "Kitty" or "Peaches in the Meadow," a game they've created that involves tearing all the covers off Mom and Dad's bed and jumping around. As the bond between the two grows tighter, I've realized that there's no way I'm sending them to different schools. I've entirely given up on my dream of sending Sam to an all-boys school. And so I didn't even consider any of the single-sex schools this year.

I'm sure many of you have lots of thoughtful things to say about single-sex education. Please share!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alice's first private school screening

Alice was a wreck the night before her screening at Marin Country Day School. Generally, she's a good sleeper but sometimes, she simply can't fall asleep. We have a regular bedtime routine: bath, jammies, books, a song, hugs and kisses, back rub, a few more kisses, more hugs. And then I walk out the door and Alice and her brother, Sam, usually chat and giggle for a few minutes and doze off. But every now and then, Alice can't get to the Land of Nod. She'll lie quietly in her room for a while—sometimes an hour. I'll think she's fast asleep until she walks into the living room and says, "Mommy, I'm having a hard time. I can't sleep." This is just what happened last Wednesday night. And of course, when she said she was struggling to sleep, I got tense—because this was an important night for rest.

I walked Alice back to her bedroom and gave her more kisses and hugs—and then as I walked out of the room, she started to sob, uncontrollably. I tried to remain calm, taking lots of deep breaths, counting to 10 repeatedly in my head. I rubbed her back. I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, 30 times in a row. I told her a story about a rabbit who ate apples instead of carrots. And then I just lay down next to her, my body completely frozen while my heart pounded rapidly and my mind raced. I was thinking, "Fall asleep. You must fall asleep. What if she doesn't fall asleep? Okay, fall asleep now. I'm going crazy. Fall asleep!" Finally, by 10 p.m., Alice was fast asleep. (Alice usually goes down between 7 and 8 p.m.) Exhausted, I collapsed into my bed and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning: I woke up and the bedroom was filled with light—usually it's dark when I rise. I look over at my husband and said, "What time is it?"

"If it's after 8 a.m., we're screwed!" (Our screening is in Corte Madera at 9:15 a.m.)

Ryan raced into the kitchen to check the clock, and sure enough it was 8:05 a.m. Our children never ever sleep this late. They're always up by 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m. I started to freak out but Ryan assured me that this is a good thing because Alice needed the sleep. A few minutes later Alice walked into the bedroom; she's smiling.

"Mommy, are we going to the kindergarten today?"
she asked.

"Why yes, why don't you go pick out something to wear," I said in my calmest voice ever. "We're in a bit of a hurry dear, as we all slept a little late. We'll need to eat breakfast in the car."

Alice, my baby little girl, proceeded to go into her bedroom and put on navy blue tights, pink-striped bloomers over the tights (so they don't fall down), a polka-dot skirt, a flowery top, a peach colored sweater, and her black patent-leather shoes. She then brushed her teeth and hair, washed her face, and put a barrette in her hair. She did this entirely by herself. "I'm ready Mom! Let's go!" (Talk about rising to the occasion.)

By 8:30 a.m. and we were all in the car. Sam wasn't even wearing shoes—and my hair and teeth were both unbrushed. Ryan was at the wheel; his hair sopping wet. But Alice—who is an extremely careful particular little girl—was sitting neat and pretty in her car seat, her hands folded in her lap. There was no time to drop Sam off at school so the plan was that Ryan would drive us over to Marin and drop off Alice and me. Then Sam would drive back to the city to drop off Sam and then he would drive back to Marin to pick up Alice and me. Insane!

About a week ago, I had told Alice about the screening. I said, "I've visited lots of kindergartens and I found one that I really love and I want you to go check it out to see if you like it." I didn't have her practice writing her name; I didn't try to teacher her to read in a week. I didn't go out and buy her a new outfit. Really, the only preparation we did was visit MCDS a few weekends earlier for a book fair, so Alice was familiar with the school.

In the car, Ryan and I were getting a little stressed. The traffic was some of the worst we had ever experienced in the city—of course. We moved at a snail's pace along 19th and then we were entirely stopped on the bridge. I was convinced that we were going to be late—and I'm one of those people who is almost never late. Ryan called the school and left a message with the admissions director to say that we might be a late. Meanwhile, Alice sat quietly in the back of the car.

When we finally pulled up, it was 9:13 a.m.—and pouring down rain. Alice and I raced through the school to the screening room. Three other kids and their parents stood outside; we had made it just in time. We were let into the small room where there were some 10 adults and toys. Alice immediately became very shy. She clung to my leg; she sat in my lap; she wrapped her arms around my neck. We played a bit with some blocks on the carpet—but she wouldn't let go of me. Some of the teachers—who were all warm and friendly—asked her questions and Alice wouldn't say a word.

And then one of the school's admissions directors, Jeff Escabar, said that he was going to read a story and the kids needed to give their parents goodbye hugs and kisses. He spoke in one of those sweet friendly voices that kids love.

As I hugged Alice, I started to feel tears well up in my eyes, and I thought "If she starts to cry, we'll just run. That's what we'll do. We don't have to go through this. I love this school and it's like a dream for her to go here, but we'll run." And then Alice started to release her grip. Ever so slowly she removed her arms from around my neck and she looked deeply into my eyes and whispered, "Bye, bye Mama. I can do this."

Alice stayed in the room until 11 a.m.—and when I went to pick her up she was as happy as a clam. She was wearing a name tag with smiley face stickers on it. She said that she did activities with the teachers and afterward they gave her a sticker. She said that she drew a picture of herself, wrote her name, jumped on one leg, and played—and that's all I was able to get out of her. During the car ride home, she was quiet, but as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, she said, "Mama, I liked that school. I'd like to go there."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hot topic: language immersion

A visitor has requested that I add an immersion discussion topic. Here tis...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this scho
ol if you're looking for a place with: a Spanish immersion track; developed arts program; three on-site after-school programs offering flexibility and options; inquiry-based teaching; smaller class sizes in 4th and 5th (25 students); a motivated and growing PTA

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Thursdays at 9 a.m. (extra tour added: Monday, December 10 at 9 a.m., for those who can't make Thursday tours)
Location: 3125 Cesar Chavez, Bernal Heights/Mission District
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:35 a.m.
Kindergarten size: two immersion classes (20 students each); two general education classes (currently under 20 students each)
Student body size: 450
Playground: brand-new play structure for 1st–5th, separate structure for kindergarten
After-school program: three programs: Child Development Center from the district, Mission Learning Center, and Mission YMCA.
Language: Spanish immersion strand
Highlights: Fabulous library with new books and computers and a full-time librarian, arts programs offered by San Francisco Symphony and Ballet, schoolwide Morning Welcome at which the principal welcomes the students and everyone stretches together

Kate's impressions
The Flynn tour started outside on the playground. Parent guide Vali Govier gathered our small group around a sparkling new play structure with bridges, tunnels, twisty slides, and rock climbing walls. "Parents put that up in one day," Govier said proudly. Over 400 people attended the work party, including Gavin Newsom, Tom Ammiano, and Cesar Chavez's grandson. The structure is the perfect metaphor for this school that's making great leaps forward at a rapid rate.

When Govier toured the school three years ago, she was told parent donations amounted to some $3,000 that year (there wasn't even a PTA). Last year, the newly formed PTA raised $35,000. The goal for 2007–08 is $55,000. If Flynn can erect a play structure in a day (it takes the city of San Francisco at least a year to do this) and increase its parent donations by one-thousand percent in about three years, you can only imagine what's going to happen in the future.

Flynn's current project is petitioning to become an International Baccalaureate (IB) school. The French American International High School is currently the only other IB school in the city. "At the heart of the program’s philosophy is a commitment to structured, purposeful inquiry as the leading vehicle for learning," says the IB Web site. This means kids learn by asking questions. So let's say a class is studying marine life. The students might visit an aquarium to observe fish or maybe they put together a tank in the classroom. Then they learn about the fish by asking questions. "Does a fish have blood?" "When does a fish sleep?" "How do fish reproduce?" The next step is to answer the questions—either through research, asking experts, or simply asking more questions.

IB is also about encouraging students to think globally and to think about how they can make the world a more peaceful place. It promotes intercultural understanding and respect. The program would require Flynn to introduce a language component in the general education track.

Half of the Flynn teachers have gone through IB training and this year teachers are introducing one IB unit based on the theme, sharing the planet. The complete IB program includes six themes of global significance: who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, and sharing the planet.

The idea to adopt this program is brilliant. I think it will help solve one of the primary problems with this school—the division between the Spanish immersion strand and the general education strand. Four years ago, Flynn introduced Spanish immersion. This track is hugely popular with middle class families. The immersion classes are truly diverse with a mix of Caucasians, Latinas, African Americans, and so on. But the general education track is less popular. Some of the classes are underenrolled and there are few, if any, Caucasian students in those classes. The IB program will draw interest as it offers something unique. And it's a way to improve test scores without "teaching to the test" as IB students tend to test well. Also, both tracks would incorporate the IB curriculum so this would help bring everyone together. (Please, Flynn parents and staff, correct me if my assessment seems inaccurate.)

There's no guarantee that Flynn will become an IB school but they're on the right track to do so. The commitment to the program shows that the school is striving to grow and improve.

So let's get back to my actual tour that started out on the playground. Vali Govier and another mom named Kathy (not sure if that's with a "C" or a "K") were the guides. Both have children in the immersion strand. Interestingly, Govier's daughter was accepted at Friends and Flynn. She went with Flynn and is entirely happy with her choice.

Govier talked about the school's rich arts program. Music, dance, and visual arts are offered kindergarten through fifth. There's drumming, dance with San Francisco Ballet, music with the symphony. The school's emphasis on arts is apparent in the artwork plastered in the hallways and the murals adorning the school yard.

Govier also raved about the P.E. teacher who runs the kids around the play yard, and the full-time certified librarian. She said Flynn is only one of two schools in the district with a full-time librarian. "It's like gold dust," Govier said. The library sits in the heart of the school and it's huge. Thanks to an $80,000 grant from Gavin Newsom, it's stocked with an up-to-date collection of books and equipped with computers. Students visit the library once a week. Flynn has also been awarded Prop H funding in the amount of $125,000 for greening the school yard. This means more trees and a garden. Currently, the school has some containers and raised beds filled with plants.

Govier said goodbye and Kathy took us inside. Flynn is housed in a three-story building that was built in 1924 by the same architect who designed UC Berkeley. It's a grand, old school with lots of original details and hallways painted in bright, cheerful colors. We walked into the cafeteria with intricate molding, red velvet curtains, lovingly worn hardwood floors, an antique piano, and a large stage. It's the sort of room that every school should have.

Next stop: a general education kindergarten class. Among the 12 students, I spotted one Caucasian. The students were engaged in a lesson on the difference between upper and lower case letters. In Teacher Gretchen's Spanish immersion class, with 20 students, the kids were writing stories. "Me gusta mi Papa," wrote one boy. Gretchen is a warm lady with a genuine smile. She happened to know one of the prospective parents on our tour and she greeted her with a friendly hello and a kiss on the cheek. In the other immersion class, Teacher Erin, a gorgeous Latina woman who wore her hair like Princess Leah, read a story. Her students sat cross-legged on the carpet, fully engrossed.

Our tour wrapped up in the principal's office. We sat around a table and principal Charles Addcox greeted us. "I certainly want to welcome you," he said. Addcox came to Flynn three years ago. Before that he lived in Los Angeles, where he was a teacher for 18 years and an assistant principal for four. He moved to San Francisco because his own children live in the area. He's Venezuelan and speaks fluent Spanish. He isn't one of these super-high-energy, animated principals who tells lots of jokes. But he does seem thoughtful, honest, dedicated, and open to change. And I think if your child was struggling, you could go to him and he'd listen and help you work through the problem.

Addcox told an interesting story about a Flynn teacher who is a lesbian. When the teacher and her partner had a baby, a student went home and told her Catholic parents that her teacher's baby has two moms. The parents complained to Addcox, and so he brought the teacher and the parents together for a meeting. They talked through the issue and worked it out together. "It was an enlightening experience for all of us," Addcox said.

Addcox addressed Flynn's status as a STAR school, which means it's under-performing (in terms of test scores) and receives some extra support and resources from the district. Addcox says test scores went up 36 points last year. And it seems like things are only going to get better.

He excitedly talked about the possibility of becoming an IB school. Field trips are a big part of inquiry-based learning and Addcox told a story about the third graders studying urban development. The class walked to the recently shuttered Kelly Moore store on Cesar Chavez and came up with ideas for redeveloping the space. They ended up with a plan to turn it into a homeless shelter.

He told us that the student body is 62 percent Latina and then one of the parents asked about the division between the immersion and general education families and students. "If there is a gap, it's not intentional," Addcox said. "And we're making efforts to bridge what gaps do exist." He believes the teachers are equally strong in both tracks—even if there are differences among parents and students. Teachers from each grade level meet with Addcox once a week. They closely look at teaching and curriculum and identify holes. Together, they make sure that they're reaching every student.

In a sense Flynn is conducting a great social experiment (like many of our city's schools). They've taken a school that wasn't diverse—that was primarily Latino—and they've introduced programs such as immersion to draw middle-class families. Flynn's experiment will undoubtedly succeed. And I think it would be an amazing experience for any family—both parents and children—to be a part of it.

If you're still searching for your hidden gem, check out this school.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hot topic: charter schools

I can't offer an intelligent explanation on charter schools or speak eloquently on the issues involving them—but I do know they're controversial and typically either praised or scorned.

In a nutshell, a charter school is a public institution, planned and organized by groups of educators, community members, parents, and others. They were initially conceived as laboratories for reform, meant to instill competition and choice in the public school system. As a result, charter schools were given more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.

We have a few elementary charter schools in San Francisco. Those include:
Creative Arts Charter School
Edison Charter Academy

Have you toured a charter school? Does your child attend one? Do you think they're the savior or spoiler of public education in America? Please share your knowledge and viewpoints.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Rooftop Alternative School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this scho
ol if you're looking for a place with: art-based curriculum; solid test scores; a middle school (K–8); woodsy campus; community environment; diversity; parent involvement (PTA raises $250,000); an early start time

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; call for an appointment at 759-2832
Location: 433 Burnett Ave., eastern slope of Twin Peaks
Grades: K–8
Start time: 7:50 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: Lovely! Woodsy and surrounded by trees; colorful murals; sweeping city views
After-school program: only 14 spaces for incoming kindergartners
Language: none
Highlights: outstanding sensory motor program for kindergarten through second; lunch time art "Yard Art" program; hands-on science/garden classes; computer lab; family art evenings; performing arts for K–8th; visual arts K–8th; instrumental music K–8th

Kate's impressions
Have you ever avoided a movie or a book because a friend told you the plot? That's how I was feeling about Rooftop. Other parents had built up this school so much that I assumed I could only feel disappointed.

I was wrong.

Rooftop enchanted me. Perched on the side of Twin Peaks' eastern slope overlooking the city, this school feels magical. My husband dropped me off on the hill above the school, and I walked down a skinny dirt path, which Alice would have called a fairy trail, through a grove of trees to the entrance. Inside, bright, bold artwork wallpapered the walls and parents and children buzzed about. The school felt alive—and it was bursting at the seams with energy.

The tour started in an auditorium, where some 200 eager parents gathered. A current parent, Elizabeth, with sons in seventh and fourth and a three year old daughter, greeted the crowd. "I will spend 18 years at this school," she said, as if she was the luckiest person on the planet.

Elizabeth provided an explanations for the fabulous artwork adorning the school hallways. "Rooftop has a focus on art," she said. "We believe that art enhances learning. We integrate arts with academics."

She went over logistics: There are three classes of 20 through third grade. In fourth it jumps to two classes of 30. There are two neighboring campuses: Burnett is kindergarten through fourth, and Mayeda is fifth through eighth. She talked about the school's diversity. "There's no 'other' at this school. There's no this type or that type," she said.

PTA? They raise a whopping $250,000. How? Through two primary fund-raisers: the Rooftup Run, where students get sponsors and then run around the track at Lowell, and an auction, which involves more than 400 parent volunteers. "We don't say everyone is expected to give this amount of money or this amount of time," Elizabeth said. "you can do what you want to do."

And then Elizabeth introduced the principal, Jane Bieringer—and I immediately adored her.
Bieringer is funny, bright, and genuine—and as she explained her clear, focused vision for the school she smiled and laughed and danced around a bit. She's the sort of person who I'd love to chat with over a cup of tea—or a glass of wine.

Bieringer's children attended Rooftop and she was the president of the PTA. She's also a former teacher, learning specialist, and assistant principal.

She explained that art, music, and drama are considered an integral part of the school experience. "This school was founded in the mid-70s, with the idea that kids would be better problem solvers and critical thinkers if we developed a curriculum that mixed arts and academics" Bieringer said. Parent volunteers teach art in the classrooms regularly and teachers integrate it into curriculum.

She went on to say that Rooftop students are encouraged to take positive risk and face challenges with confidence and optimism. "We expect you to act as if it's impossible to fail," she said. The students are involved in community service and they think globally. "Today, our kindergartners are holding a 'Healthy Snack Sale' for children in Guatemala."

"This is so much more than a school," Bieringer said. "It's a community." Parents are encouraged to volunteer and be present at the school. "Rooftop students flourish in this extended family environment," she said. Bieringer's children still talk about their friends and families from Rooftop.

Every year the school hosts an artist-in-residence. This year jazz musician Marcus Shelby meets with every class, grades kindergarten through eighth, once a week. Shelby is a renowned artist who you might have seen on advertisement posters for the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Shelby recently helped students in seventh and eighth grade English class understand mood and tone in writing by playing different musical sounds. "There were students who understood mood and tone for the very first time," Bieringer said.

Discipline? The school takes it seriously. "Be safe, be responsible, and be respectful" are three values that all students learn. Bieringer believes that good behavior is something that can be learned and practiced.

How do the two campuses stay connected? "We are one school," Bieringer emphasized. All grade levels come together many times a year for events and community service. Also, Bieringer spends Monday through Wednesday at the Mayeda campus while the assistant principal is at Burnett. And then they swap on Thursday and Friday—so they're both familiar with the two sites.

She opened it up to questions:

Where do students go to high school?
Eighty to 90 percent of the kids who apply to Lowell get in. The acceptance rate at private schools is high.

Honors classes and GATE?
No standalone GATE classes (only separate curriculum) in lower grades, but, yes, honors classes in middle school.

Biggest challenges? "We have a vision that we have a differentiated group of learners—and we want to make sure we're reaching every single child," she said. And Bieringer added that No Child Left Behind has introduced its own set of challenges.

Bieringer wished us all luck and we broke into groups to tour the school.

We walked through the playground, encircled by trees. I loved all the greenery. Several bungalows sat squat in the yard but they were bright and cheery with murals. Painted bird houses hung from the trees. Art was everywhere.

We stepped into the sensory motor classroom, where children whisked across the room on a zip line and slid down a slide on a cart with wheels. And into a library, housed in a brand-new bungalow. Kids visit the library once a week, and it's also open at lunch three times a week. The librarian picks out special books for lunchtime readers. And then we strolled through the garden, where artichoke plants grew tall and trees were weighted down with apples. Groups of 10 kids visit the garden once a week, and all children have their own "garden names." The garden teacher goes by Coral Bells.

Back inside, to a second grade classroom where the teacher was talking to the students about Harriet Tubman, an African American slave who escaped and rescued many other slaves throughout her life. The teacher explained that Tubman was a true heroine and she talked about her struggle narcolepsy. One of the students spoke up and said, "My Dad used to have that sickness. Yeah, it was because he worked so much overtime and then he would just fall asleep at home."

This was my last stop because I had to make a meeting at work. But I saw enough of Rooftop to know that it's a special place. The kids were enjoying themselves; they were smiling. Maybe it's the art? Maybe it's the principal? Maybe it's the trees? Whatever it is, this school has come up with a formula that allows its children to learn and have fun. Isn't that what being a kid is all about?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

You say tomato, I say tomahto

Have you ever hurled your phone across the room after finishing a conversation with your spouse? I did that once and broke the phone—so I swear I'll never do it again.

But when my husband, Ryan, called me the other day, I practically had to hold my right hand back with my left to prevent myself from doing it again. I was so frustrated! I sent him on a tour of a school that I had already visited. It's one that I like and I'm trying to determine how to rank it on my list. I asked him to help me make the decision.

He called me on my cell right after the tour. "I can't picture Alice there," he said. "I don't think we should include it on the list."

What? Why? Are you serious? Tell me why? I wanted an explanation.

He struggled to explain. "It seems like a good school but I don't see Alice there," he kept saying again and again.

Thus far, Ryan and I have been on the same page. He's only toured about a quarter of the schools I've visited but we've shared the same opinions on those we've both seen. He's Alice's father and the love of my life, so I have to take his feelings into consideration—but I told him that I can't simply cut the school from my list. And so he came up with the idea that we'll both visit the school a second time. It was his idea, honest.

Has anyone had a similar experience with a partner or spouse? What do you do when one person loves a school and the other hates it?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lawton Alternative School

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: strong academics; high test scores; a middle school (K–8); great sports program in middle school; involved parents

The Facts
Web site: Lawton Web site
School tours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; call for an appointment at 759-2832
Location: 1570 31st St., outer Sunset
Grades: K–8
Start time: 9:30 a.m. (K–5th); 8:55 a.m. (6th–8th)
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: separate playground for lower grades
Before- and after-school program: K.E.E.P, fee-based program, K–8th; P.R.I.D.E., free program, 4th–8th.
Language: after-school Mandarin and Spanish
Highlights: Artists-in-residence; monthly spirit assemblies; field trips; partnership with SF Ballet; computer lab; library; winter music concert; science night; spring carnival; middle school dances; Halloween haunted house

Kate's impressions
"My monster is named Coconut Moo Moo.
Her head is a big cloud.
She has a curly wig with a fruit loop belly button.
Her arm has three stems with holes in it.
Her feet are bugs that get food for her.
She likes to eat mud with lead and bats."

As I waited for my Lawton tour to begin, I strolled the school's downstairs, where the kindergarten and first grade classes are located. I like to arrive early so I can peruse the hallways. When I first started touring, they all looked alike with murals, artwork, Day of the Dead decorations in October, turkeys in November. But now I'm noticing that the displays are actually quite different and they say a lot about a school.

At Lawton, stories written by children paper the walls. The one excerpted above, written by a student named Katie, had me laughing out loud—especially when I read that the monster eats lead. There was also a story about a turkey named Angelina who ate all the vegetables in her farmer's garden so the farmer moved to the farm next-door (a logical solution). There was a piece on how to not have a bad Christmas: "Put lights on your tree and be sure to put the tree close to the window so Santa can see it when it's dark." There was a series of stories starting with the phrase, "I am thankful for..." The writing was rich, clever, touching, and funny. Yes, there were some art projects mixed in and drawings accompanied all the stories—but the walls were primarily covered in beautiful, youthful handwriting.

I immediately fell in love...the tour hadn't even started.

Deborah Gordenov, Lawton's counselor, led the tour, which started in the teacher's lounge. She was a smart, friendly lady who seemed to know everything about the school. She provided an overview (school start time, after-school care, PTA) and then opened it up to questions.

What I got out of Gordenov's talk is Lawton is an academic school. Yes, they have arts—artist-in-residence program and a partnership with SF Ballet. And sports—the girls volleyball team won some big championship. And music—band, orchestra, chorus. But the bottom line is the curriculum is rigorous, the teachers are dedicated, and the parents have high expectations. The test scores are some of the highest in the district and Gordenov says that's a result of the teachers and the parents. The middle school is an all honors program. Gordenov says they have special tutors, a resource specialist, psychiatrist, and so on to help struggling students.

"Very few of our kids fall through the cracks," Gordenov says. "I think that's largely because we're a K-though-8 school. In nine years, we get to know all of our students very well."

I asked Gordenov about drugs and alcohol in middle school. In seven years, she hasn't been faced with any incidents—except for a student spotted smoking a cigarette at a sporting event. And this was a really big deal, she said. The middle school has only 197 students so it's small, intimate, close-knit—and easy for administrators to manage.

Last year, 38 percent of the students went to Lowell. Gordenov guessed that maybe two percent went to private. Lincoln and Wallenberg are popular choices with students.

After Gordenov's talk, we were let loose on a self-guided tour. I made a beeline for kindergarten and parked myself in Ms. Tam's class. When I first arrived the kids were scattered about the room and engaged in different activities: a little girl was doing a Polly Pocket jigsaw puzzle, another was using a Leap Frog, a group was drawing pictures at a table. And then Ms. Tam said, "1, 2, 3. Hands on head. Eyes on me." The kids placed their paws on their heads. Ms. Tam said nicely, "Please, let's clean up." And as she counted to 10, the kids wrapped up their activities and gathered on the rug at the eraser board, where she taped a big white sheet of paper.

"Okay it's time to do the daily news," she said. "Who can spell the word 'TODAY?' "

And then the kids proceeded to spell out "Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007," as Ms. Tam wrote it out the letters on the piece of paper.

A little boy named Khang was called to the front. The kids spelled his name and then Khang was invited to share something with the group. "Tell us what you feel, what you see, what you did yesterday," Ms. Kim said. There was a moment of silence. And then, "I went to the park" Khang said. The students spelled out the phrase as Ms. Tam wrote it under the Daily News heading.

Next stop: First grade. The kids were sitting at their desk writing stories. I peered over the shoulder of one little girl who was writing, "I really like dance class. I like to dance to the song 'Nothing But a Hound Dog. ' "

On up to third and fourth, where I observed some students learning math. "How many degrees are between 100 degrees and 260 degrees?" the teacher asked.

I stepped into a third grade class where a sweet girl named Christine greeted me. "Hi! We're doing centers. We're reading and writing and doing math. Those things hanging from the ceiling...those are art projects we made. And over here, this is the closet where we put our backpacks." Thanks for showing me around Christine.

On up to the third floor, junior high. I arrived when the students were changing classes and pulling binders out of their lockers. Some lockers were messy and stuffed; others were perfectly organized with labeled binders. The kids wore jeans and sweatshirts—no Brittney Spears wannabes in this crowd.

I dropped in on a science class where the students were going over the cell cycle and DNA replication process—interesting stuff that I've long forgotten. I observed an English class in which the teacher, sporting a coat and tie, was a spitting image of my Chaucer professor at Berkeley. And I watched an algebra class—in which the teacher just kept saying things related to "x." All students at Lawton take algebra.

And then I sneaked into Gordenov's office—as the door was open. I don't have any numbers, but the student body at Lawton looked largely Asian to me. I was curious to ask Gordenov how a non-Asian student might feel at the school. She said, "I honestly don't think our students even notice a difference." she went on to explain that the students at Lawton really support each other. "We have a zero tolerance bullying policy," she said.

Downsides? For me, it was the building and atmosphere. There's little that's cozy or charming about the actual building. It's big and expansive compared to the small student body—so the overall campus feels weirdly quiet. Plus, it's a long haul from my house to Lawton. Nonetheless, this one will make it on my list.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Great minds think differently

How can two people visit the same school and have entirely different experiences?

That's what I wondered as my friend Summer talked about her tour of Alice Fong Yu. She recently visited the school based on my recommendation, and she found it oppressive, rigid, and systematic. She visited all three kindergarten classes, one after the other, and noticed that the teachers and students were doing the exact same thing in all three classrooms. "It was almost freakish," she said.

Summer talked about watching some kids run laps around the playground in a perfectly straight line. It sounded as if she was describing soldiers. She talked about the lack of diversity among the students. "I didn't see one child with blond hair," she said. Summer was especially shocked by the school's claim that in middle school, all classes at AFY are honors classes because all of its students are honors students. "What if your child isn't an honors student?" Summer wondered.

As Summer was describing her experience I was thinking, "What is wrong with me?" I loved AFY. Was I wearing rose-colored glasses on my tour?

While Summer saw a lack of diversity among the students, I saw focused, engaged students. While Summer felt the school lacked arts, I was impressed by the ceramics program. While Summer saw systematic teachers, I saw animated, nurturing ones. While Summer saw rigidity, I saw organization.

Vexed by the rather annoying personality trait that tends to question oneself rather than challenge others, I started to doubt my perception of the school. Am I too rigid myself? Is the school overly academic? Will Alice fail in a school like AFY?

And then Summer smartly pointed out that her daughter Sally and my daughter Alice are entirely different people. They're great friends. In fact, Alice is practically lost at preschool on the days when Sally isn't there. But their personalities, interests, and emotions are as different as vanilla and chocolate. And so wouldn't it make sense that Alice and Sally's moms would be interested in different schools?

As we refine our lists of favorite schools, we'll likely start to look for validation of our choices from our friends. Don't be surprised if your lists aren't similar. Great minds can think differently!

Hot topic: label lust and dress codes

Her name was Tracy Larsen, and she was the prettiest girl in my elementary school. She had bright blue eyes, silky blond hair, and adorable little freckles sprinkled across her nose. She was also the best dressed—at least in my opinion.

I attended elementary school in the 1980s in the South Bay at the height of the Esprit fashion craze. If you wore the San Francisco-based brand's bold-colored, Euro-chic fashions, you were cool. And, of course, Tracy was a walking Esprit advertisement. I'm embarrassed to admit that I remember specific outfits she wore in the fifth and sixth grade. A matching blouse and skirt made from a fabric with pink frogs leaping off green lily pads. A fluorescent yellow and navy blue striped dress and top. (I can remember showing my Mom the same outfit at Macy's, and she said, "If you wear that, you'll look like a jail bird!")

I owned a few pieces of Esprit clothing: I wasn't entirely deprived. My Mom's work required her to go to San Francisco once a month, and so I would encourage her to drop by the factory outlet. But my Mom also traveled to London once a year to see plays, and so she picked me up wool kilts, argyle knee-highs, and itchy sweaters. And the majority of my clothes came from Ross and Marshall's, places where I happily shop now but didn't so happily back then.

Tracy introduced me to label lust, which is a horrible, awful feeling when you're only 9-years-old and incapable of realizing that buying something because it's tagged with a specific logo is actually quite superficial. And I've already observed label lust in Alice. The other day she told me that she needs a pair of sparkley shoes because so and so at her preschool has a pair.

And so the idea of uniforms and dress codes makes sense to me. Though I would never pick a school just because it has uniforms. Rather, I see uniforms as an added bonus. But a friend of mine says she'd rather not send her child to a school with a dress code because she feels her daughter is able to express herself creatively by choosing her own clothes. And I can understand this point of view because I let Alice wear whatever she likes (though I don't buy her whatever she likes). And she definitely reveals her creative spirit by wearing dresses over skirts over pants, and mixing florals and stripes and polka dots.

I'm wondering how others feel about uniforms and dress codes? What have your experiences been?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kindergarten screening and parent interview

I received an important phone call on Wednesday afternoon—right when Sam knocked over a tall tower Alice had built with blocks and both kids were screaming. The admissions director from an independent school phoned to set up Alice's screening appointment and a parent interview. As the woman started to tell me about the process, I was waving my hands at my kids trying to quiet them down. Finally, I gave them pieces of Halloween candy that I had stashed away for myself.

Anyway, the woman was incredibly nice and she actually apologized for the school's requirement that children go through a screening. I asked her if there was anything I could do to prepare Alice or my husband and myself, and she said that we should just all be ourselves. (As I write this, I'm looking at my husband sitting on the couch. He definitely needs a haircut before the interview.)

The admissions director also told me that Alice's screening is from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. I cluelessly commented, "Oh, so it's an hour and a half." That's when I started shoving Halloween candy into my mouth.

Later that day, Ryan carried up the mail and handed me a letter from another independent school with news of another screening appointment and parent interview. The letter specifically notes that preparation and coaching are discouraged for the kindergarten screening. And that's when I decided to cancel the PISS (Preparation for Independent School Screening) classes I had signed Alice up for. (Just kidding!)

Of course, I'm starting to stress—well, okay, freak out—about the screening and interview. Actually, I'm assuming that Alice will do fine. She's bright and creative and typically she's outgoing and social, except around people she doesn't know....oh dear, I'm worried. I'm wondering what goes on in these screenings? What if Alice breaks down when I drop her off? What if she forgets how to spell her name? What if she shows them the tattoo on her right arm? I could really use some advice. I'm not an expert in the "interview" category.

At my first interview out of college with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, the lady interviewee asked a few questions and then she sprung a "pop current events quiz" on me. Do you know what I did? I ran . . . right out the door. The lady chased me down the hallway calling, "Kate, Kate, Kate," and I continued to sprint with tears running down my face. I hopped back on Cal Train to San Jose, where my dad picked me up.

"How'd it go?" my Dad asked.

"Not so good, Dad."

"Oh, it couldn't have been that bad." he said.

"Yes, it was that bad."

Luckily, Alice is more poised and composed than her Mom. I doubt she'll be running out of the screening—and I'll have my husband to pin me down in the interview.

I know some of you are going to passionately attack and scrutinize the screening and interview process. But I'm sure that some of you have been through it and can offer advice and some of you will be going through it and can empathize with my anxiety. So please share your thoughts and experiences.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


This morning, Alice, Ryan, Sam, and I loaded up in our station wagon and zipped across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin. We decided to get some exercise before the big turkey meal. It was a glorious day, and as we approached Mill Valley Alice squealed, "It looks so magical over here, Mama."

We drove up to the railroad grade on Mount Tam. Wearing a pink fairy costume and black patent leather shoes, Alice marched up the mountain. Ryan ended up carrying Sam most of the way. The kids collected rocks and pieces of colorful lichen. We talked about redwood trees and hawks. And we took in dazzling views of virtually the entire Bay Area.

After the hike, we stopped by Old Mill, a public elementary school, at the foot of Mount Tam. The kids climbed on sparkling new playground equipment. The yard was landscaped with Mexican sage, native grasses, and big, old sycamore trees. There was an outdoor amphitheater and a lovely courtyard with Japanese maples, their leaves bright oranges and reds. We peeked inside the gym with shiny hardwood floors, basketball hoops, and California Distinguished School banners.

I wondered, "Would I want to live over here?"

My husband, Ryan, would move in minute. His passion is cycling, and he rides his bike to Marin nearly every weekend. And I certainly have an appreciation for the outdoors.

But then I thought back to our family dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant on Geary the night before. The restaurant was filled with people speaking different languages, and Alice and Sam nibbled on seaweed, tofu, pickled sprouts. They cooked chicken on a barbecue in the middle of our table. I'm not ready to give that up, at least not yet.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

George Peabody School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
an emphasis on reading and literacy; a small, intimate environment; a neighborhood, community feel; a bright, dedicated principal; the opportunity for parents to request a specific kindergarten teacher; fabulous kindergarten teachers; free after-school care

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Tuesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m., no appointment necessary
Location: 251 6th Ave., at Clement; Richmond District
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 40 students, two classes of 20 children
Total student body: 225 students
Playground: playground structure recently painted in a rainbow of colors
After-school program: Free after-school program funded by the Richmond District Neighborhood Center; 2:40–6 p.m.; art classes in poetry, music, visual art and performing arts, tutoring and homework assistance, structured recreational activities, nutritional snacks; no before-school care; 83 students in program; if you sign up before school starts, you'll get in; also after-school enrichment classes based on interest
Language: after-school Cantonese
Highlights: Sports 4 Kids funds full-time coach for P.E. and coordinated games at recess; music, art, and P.E.; resource specialist to help kids who fall behind; lots of family gatherings on weekends such as a Skate Day when everyone comes out to roller-skate on the playground (Gavin Newsom attended last year)

Kate's impressions
In a big urban city, it's amazing that a tiny school like George Peabody exists. Tucked away on a neighborhood street in the inner Richmond, the school has only 225 students. I'm assuming it's one of the smallest in the district. There are two classes in kindergarten, two in first, two in second, two in third, and then one in fourth and one in fifth.

Because the school is so small everything about it feels intimate. I waited for the tour to begin in the office. Kids and parents came in and out and the secretary greeted them by name. It felt like a small town where everyone knows everyone.

The principal, Willem Vroegh, led the tour. Vroegh (pron. "vroo") looks as if he stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. He's got that East Coast boyish look with well-trimmed blond hair, and on the day of my tour he was wearing gray wool slacks and a V-neck sweater. Vroegh (pron. "Vroo") came on board a few years ago after completing a one-year administrator internship at Alice Fong Yu. Before that, he was an elementary school teacher. Vroegh is smart, dedicated, and sincere. And he's passionate when he's talking about his school's curriculum and teachers.

When Vroegh started at Peabody, he had the opportunity to replace some retiring teachers and a few who were moving. This was at the time when the district was closing schools, so Vroegh made some calls to make sure he hired those schools' best teachers. What's more he has two teachers with MBAs, and one of his kindergarten teachers is a former principal and literacy specialist.

So he sounds great. Is he sticking around?

"I just signed a three year contract," he said.

Vroegh started the tour by giving us some background: the school was founded in the 1900s, but the current structure was built in the 1970s. It's basically a concrete box with no charm—but the students and teachers make it feel like a warm, cozy nest. We walked to the small playground with a play structure painted in a rainbow of colors. Murals and paintings of sea creatures brighten a stretch of blacktop. A bungalow sits on one end of the school yard and this is where kids eat lunch and attend assemblies. Vroegh says some parents hope to raise money to eventually build a multipurpose room to replace the bungalow—a project that will require millions to complete.

Stepping into Ms. Krey's kindergarten classroom, we were greeted by giggles. Ms. Krey was singing a song about turkeys with her class, and the kids found it hysterical. On the kids' tables, fat smiling turkeys made from paper bags and construction paper were drying. The room was messy—as Ms. Krey was getting ready for some new shelving—but it was filled with cheer.

In neighboring Ms. Levett's kindergarten, students were engrossed in their journals. They were drawing pictures and writing words; one little girl had written a story about volcanoes and lava and dinosaurs. On Ms. Levett's page on the school's Web site, she says, "I believe in offering a program that is rich in literacy—where reading and writing take place all day in one context or another."

Outside the classrooms, Vroegh explained that the district's core curriculum requires kindergartners to know 18 words by sight and all the letters in the alphabet. "But our children know much more than this," he said. In fact, the curriculum at George Peabody emphasizes reading and literacy. Vroegh talked about a reading program called SIPPS that's overseen by Ms. Krey; it's outside the district's required curriculum.

On the side of the building, Vroegh pointed out a poster featuring the school's four values: Respect, Responsibility, Kindness, and Effort. Under each one, kids had written examples of the values. Their writing was cryptic but I liked that the students had created the poster themselves.

Back to the tour: Vroegh covered PTA details. Over half the families are members. The budget is about $68,000 a year.

PTA funds music for kindergarten through fourth. The district pays for music programs for fifth graders. In fourth and fifth grade, students get to pick from three instruments. There's also a chorus in fifth. In kindergarten and first, students focus on dance movement; in second and third, it's visual arts, and in fourth and fifth, it's performing arts. These classes are taught by outside consultants and of course students get art from their primary teachers.

We wrapped up with a questions-and-answers period with Vroegh.

What percentage are English language learners?
20 to 25 percent. The school does have a large Chinese populations but it seems to be more dominant in the upper grades. The kindergarten classes looked more diverse.

Test scores?
In 2007, Peabody fourth graders scored 74 in English and 78 in math. For comparison, Lawton fourth graders scored 93 in English and 97 in math. Alvarado fourth graders scored 58 in English and 66 in math (Note: Alvarado has Spanish immersion). So Peabody is actually quite strong. And you have two take into account that the school has two classes for kids with special needs. They make up 13 percent of the school. Those kids have to take the same test as all other children. The school also regularly assesses students for reading comprehension, which isn't required by the district. This is so teachers can adjust curriculum.

Special programs?
There's a Junior Great Books program, which is basically a book club for kids—though I imagine that they're not reading Oprah books! And then once a month, teachers lead their students in a Visual Thinking Strategies lesson, that uses art to teach thinking, communication skills, and visual literacy.

Will the school increase in size?
The school can increase from 225 students to 240 students. The upper grades will eventually grow from one fourth and one fifth to three fourth-fifth combos. Why three combos? "Because then you have a team of three teachers who can collaborate," Vroegh says.

Where do kids go to junior high?
Presidio and Roosevelt

Have requests for the school gone up?
Last year they went up 88 percent.

We ended where we started, in the office. Vroegh pointed out some of the photos of special days at the school: "Twin Day," "Pajamas Day," "Red Day."

"I want kids to enjoy coming to school," he said.

The photos brought back memories for me. My elementary school had these same sorts of theme days. In fact, I remember the pants my best friend Isabel and I wore for Twin Day: matching white pants decorated with splashes of colorful paint. I'm sure we looked ridiculous but we were definitely enjoying ourselves.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hot topic: parochial schools

The comments posted by SF K Files visitors are what's making this site an interesting and engaging place. So I've decided to introduce a weekly "Discussion Topic." Every Monday, I'll post a new topic for visitors to discuss and debate. Let's start with parochial schools as I've received several emails from visitors interested in these.

Lincoln High School Teacher makes The New York Times

I hate to even bring up high school—many of us are so far off from it. But it's worth reading an article, "English, Algebra, Phys Ed ... and Biotech," in the Sunday Times that features a science teacher at Lincoln High School. It talks about a biotechnology course he started about 10 years ago. It's a perfect example of the outstanding programs you can find in San Francisco's public schools. And before you know it, we'll all be looking for high schools.

Here's the lead into the article by G. PASCAL ZACHARY:

"MORE than a decade ago, after George Cachianes, a former researcher at Genentech, decided to become a teacher, he started a biotechnology course at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. He saw the class as way of marrying basic biotechnology principles with modern lab practices — and insights into how business harvests biotech innovations for profit.

If you’re interested in seeing the future of biotechnology education, you might want to visit one of George Cachianes’s classrooms. “Students are motivated by understanding the relationships between research, creativity and making money,” he says.

Lincoln has five biotech classes, each with about 30 students. Four other public high schools in San Francisco offer the course, drawing on Mr. Cachianes’s syllabus. Mr. Cachianes, who still teaches at Lincoln, divides his classes into teams of five students; each team “adopts” an actual biotech company.

The students write annual reports, correspond with company officials and learn about products in the pipeline. Students also learn the latest lab techniques. They cut DNA. And recombine it. They transfer jellyfish genes into bacteria. They purify proteins. They even sequence their own cheek-cell DNA.

Cool, eh? And very, very important."

To read the full story click on "English, Algebra, Phys Ed ... and Biotech."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Some things never change

In kindergarten, my Mom and I were in a carpool with two other families who lived on the next street over. There was Cindy and her daughter Jenny, and Mary and her son Nick. The moms took turns driving the three kids to school, which was a public school in the South Bay. Cindy was one of my Mom's closest friends; and Jenny was one of my best friends. We were a happy friendly group who often did things together on weekends. Anyway, kindergarten came and went, then summer, and soon it was time for first grade. My Mom assumed that she'd be a part of the same carpool but the day before school Cindy called to say she was sending Jenny to a private school. And then Mary called to say that she was sending Nick to the same private school. My Mom had no idea this was coming. She was surprised, confused, hurt. "Why hadn't they talked to her about this?" she wondered.

My Mom has told me this story many times over the years and it came to mind when I was at the MCDS coffee night last week. I was talking to a woman who reads this blog. She said that the blog was helping her because, "I can't even talk about schools with some of my friends." Some things never change.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

West Portal Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
Cantonese immersion (some exposure to Mandarin); dedicated teachers (average length of stay is 14 years); a lovely location and building; project-based curriculum; top test scores; student teachers in classrooms; perceptional motor program for kindergarteners (once a week); a rest/nap time after lunch

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Thursdays at 9 a.m., call to reserve a space
Location: 5 Lenox Way, West Portal/Forest Hill neighborhood
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 90 students, two general education with 20 students each, one Chinese immersion with 20 students, and one kindergarten-1st split with 10 kindergarteners and 10 first gradersStudent body size: 547
Playground: overlooks Pacific Ocean; separate play structure for kindergarten; adjacent city park where kindergarteners play on Fridays
Before- and after-school program: GLO
Language: one-third of the students are in a two-way Chinese immersion program; the other two-thirds are in general education with no language
Highlights: perceptional motor program for kindergarteners (once a week); P.E. for 1st to 5th twice a week; classroom music for all grades; instrumental music for grades 4th and 5th; dance for upper grades; computers in all classrooms; community service projects include food bank and adopt-a-beach program; overnight backpacking trip in 5th grade; 1st to 5th grade attend SF Symphony performance in spring; spring musical put on by students; school participation in the Chinese New Year parade

Kate's impressionsWhile I waited for the tour to begin, I walked the hallways of this lovely school set in a leafy neighborhood. I peeked into several classrooms and what did I see? Focused and engaged children. In many classrooms, the students were working in groups at tables. They were reading, writing, stringing necklaces, making Thanksgiving cornucopias. No one was staring into space or goofing off. If your child thrives in a focused environment, this is a school to consider.

The principal, William Lucy, was unable to address our tour group because his wife recently gave birth to their third child (he must like kids!) and he's on paternity leave. If you're seriously interested in West Portal, I recommend visiting when Lucy returns. Gayline Tom, the parent who led our tour, was sweet and soft-spoken—and she seemed overwhelmed by the 50 intense parents she was in charge of herding around the school.

Two-thirds of West Portal students are in a general education program and one-third are in two-way Cantonese immersion. This year, the school introduced Mandarin enrichment for immersion students—for example, the first graders sing Mandarin songs once a week.

In a two-way Chinese immersion classroom, about one third of the students should speak Chinese at home, one third English, and one third should be bilingual. When our parent guide explained the breakdown a prospective parent asked, "So that's the ideal, but what's the reality?" Tom replied, "You'll notice a lot of Asians in the classrooms but that doesn't mean they all speak Chinese." And indeed, I did see a predominantly Asian population in this school. In the kindergarten-first split immersion class, I counted four Caucasians, one African American, and fifteen Asian Americans. I don't think this is unusual for a Chinese immersion program; I observed the same thing at Alice Fong Yu.

The immersion students receive 80 percent of the curriculum in Chinese and 20 percent in English in kindergarten and first grade. Each year, the amount of English increases.

Our tour visited only the kindergarten classrooms. There are 90 kindergartners: three general educations classrooms with 20 students each; one Chinese immersion class with 20 students; and one kindergarten-first split with 10 kindergarten students. In Mrs. Briesach's general education class, the kids were studying patterns. She started by going over picture patterns—star, diamond, circle, star, diamond, circle—on the eraser board. Then she sent the kids to their tables to make their own patterns.

In another general ed class, the kids were also studying patterns and creating them by making beaded necklaces. I stepped into a Chinese immersion class where the kids sat round the teacher who was speaking in Chinese—so I haven't a clue what was going on. But the teacher was animated and waving her hands all over the place; the kids were engrossed. The other immersion class was on a field trip, which are common at this school. The kids go to the zoo and the West Portal Library and other spots around town.

The kindergarteners have 30 minutes of quiet time after lunch. They actually rest on cots. This is the first school where this was mentioned and I'm wondering if it's unique.

West Portal parents are involved. They volunteer in the classroom, on field trips, in the library, at Exploratorium science nights, and in the game room that's open to kids during lunch. There's a major fund-raiser every year—but no small-scale fund-raising projects that involve bake sales or selling wrapping paper door to door. Instead, the school asks each family to make a monetary donation. West Portal raises $100,000 a year—$40,000 comes from the fund-raising and $60,000 comes from parent donations.

Every year, the teachers help the students put on a musical. It's done by the teachers on their own time. Some 200 students participate and they can choose to sing, act, dance, help manage the stage, and design sets and costumes. Another highlight: the Chinese New Year parade, which involves students, parents, teachers, and alums. "Our school takes up an entire city block," says Tom. Now that shows a lot of school spirit!

A tale of three teachers

Yesterday, I attended a coffee night for San Francisco parents interested in Marin Country Day School. Wearing a thick layer of antiperspirant and my mingling shoes, I was feeling confident and ready to chit-chat. I talked to several current MCDS parents. One delivered the great news that the school's buses are converting to biodiesel. Another told me about the number of Noe Valley families attending the school.

And then a prospective parent asked, "Are you the K Files blogger?" I was a little taken back, but said, "Yes." It turns out that she and her husband had been on my Live Oak tour and noticed that I was writing down everything. "And then when we saw you here tonight, my husband said, 'You have to go talk to her,' " she said.

They were friendly and we got to talking about schools, the search, comments on this blog—and then she said, "What really matters are the teachers. If a school has good teachers, then your children will get a good education." I think she's entirely right. This is an excellent point that often gets lost.

And I think her words were especially meaningful at a Marin Country Day School event. The average teacher stays at the school for 16 years. And that night three teachers spoke. Here's a brief rundown:

Doug is one of the school's three kindergarten teachers. He looks a bit like Harry Potter. He's got the same wire glasses, sweet face, and hair, only his is gray. His voice is calm and gentle; it could soothe a colicky baby. And when he talks about kindergarten, his words are thoughtful and heart-felt.

I first observed Doug on an MCDS tour. I actually mentioned him in an earlier post. He's the one who brought tears to my eyes as he played his guitar and sang a song with students gathered round. A few weeks after the tour, I attended a coffee night for MCDS where Doug spoke. I remember thinking, "I've found the perfect kindergarten teacher for Alice." And so I was excited to see him again.

This time, Doug talked about a past need to bring together the school's three kindergartens. His solution? To simulate a farming community. One class is the dairy, another the orchard, and so on. The kids grow plants in their classrooms and roll weather dice. If they don't roll rain, then the plants get no water. The classrooms conduct "business" amongst each other. And the kids actually have little tractors to pedal and pull around compost and produce harvested in the garden.

Doug also talked about the Reggio Emilia Approach, an education philosophy born in northern Italy. The town of Reggio Emilia is supposedly home to the world's best primary education schools and educators from all over the world (including Doug) visit to learn about the innovative approach to learning. In a nutshell, Reggio Emilia is based on the belief that children are equipped with the means and tools to construct their own learning about the world. As a result teachers build their curriculum around the children's ideas and interests. The teacher is a collaborator; not a transmitter. Doug didn't explain all of this as he ran out of time. I tracked down the information in a 1991 Newsweek article, which further piqued my interest.

Jenny—first grade
Jenny talked about a People Study unit. Her students learn to respect differences. They learn about adoption and various family structures. She told us about science and how the kids study snails, and about Math Mania on Wednesdays. And then she went on to reading. "Children really learn to read this year," she said. "There's nothing better than seeing a child read their first book." As she said this, her eyes lit up and you could tell she truly meant it.

Jenny's students primarily learn through phonics. They're reading independently, in groups with a teacher, with a partner. They're also doing lots of writing in their journals. They might read a story and then ponder it in their journals.

Another highlight: the first grade library. The first graders in all three classrooms work together to build an actual library. They write and publish their own books, and file them on shelves. And then they set up a system so they can actually check out books.

Claire-second grade
When Claire's students are conducting a science experiment, they don't pull a kit out of their desks and follow directions in a textbook. Rather, they lie on their tummies, their heads hanging over the edge of the MCDS dock jutting out into San Francisco Bay. They observe sea anemones, barnacles, and rays—and then they start talking amongst each other about what they see. Together, they decide which creature to study. And this is how the class study of San Francisco Bay begins.

Once they've got a creature—Claire said her most recent class chose muscles—they ask questions: What's inside the muscle? Who eats it? What do muscles eat? How does it get stuck to the rock? What temperature water do muscles like?

Next: Divide these questions up into two categories: those you can answer through research and those you can answer by setting up an experiment. And then the kids actually set up experiments: writing a procedure, conducting the experiment, and sharing conclusions. "It's a completely empowering experience for kids," Claire said.

Back at home
When I got home, my kids were in their beds but still awake. "Mama," they cried as I walked into their room. I smothered them in kisses and sat down on Alice's bed.

"Where were you?" Alice asked.

I told her that I had attended a school event. She asked me what I did. As usual, she wanted details. I told her about Jenny explaining how children learn to read.

At that moment, I practically saw a lightbulb appear above Alice's head. Her eyes grew wide and she earnestly said, " I know how I can learn to read. I'll write letters down on a paper and then I'll practice the sounds for those letters. When I want to learn more letters, I'll write down more."

As she explained how she wanted to learn to read, I immediately thought of Reggio Emilia.

"Okay, honey. We'll try that," I said. "That's a great idea."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sweaty armpits, inquiry-based science, and more on independent school applications

Last night, I attended an open house at Live Oak. Six teachers spoke about the school's inquiry-based science curriculum. The event was designed to give prospective parents a deeper understanding of Live Oak's approach to learning.

The kindergarten teacher, John Michaud, introduced his classroom pets, a guinea pig named Eleanor Roosevelt and Speedy the tortoise. The first grade teacher, Danny Montoya, who could also make it as a stand-up comedian, told a story about a student who was convinced a horse is a fish. The third grade teacher, Holly Berg, talked about how her students concluded as a team that objects change weight depending on where you put them on a scale. The sixth grade teacher, Karen Bush, showed some photos of kids conducting experiments with dry ice. And the seventh and eighth grade science teacher Jennifer Spaeth talked about her students discovering the Doppler effect. "The idea is to guide them without spoon-feeding them answers," Spaeth said.

The science they talked about is hands-on. Kids work in groups and discover the world themselves. Textbooks don't play a key role. Tests aren't introduced until middle school—and they're never true and false or multiple choice. These are tests that require students to use reasoning.

I found the panel informative and enlightening. I like how independent schools emphasize the curriculum. A lot of thought is put into how children learn—private schools aren't restricted by state mandates.

After the teachers' presentation, there was a mingling period so prospective parents could chat with current parents and administrators. A roomful of strangers makes me nervous. My voice trembles, my hands shake, my mind goes into a tizzy—and, especially annoying, my armpits sweat.

I carpooled to the event with some friends, who knew a handful of people. I didn't know a soul but I forced myself to adventure out into the crowd, drips of sweat starting to trickle down. I visited the hors d'oeuvre table a few times (where the Rice Krispies treats were heavenly), checked out the students' artwork on the walls, and killed some time in the bathroom drying my armpits with toilet paper.

Most of the parents were engaged in conversation with one another—or jockeying to talk to the head of school, Holly Horton, who seems to be a friendly, warm, entirely unintimidating lady. Should I try to go talk to her? No, I immediately thought—but my subconscious was urging me otherwise: "Okay, count to three and then go." "You can do this. You're a big girl." "If Alice meant that much to you, you'd go talk to her." I was finally about to approach Horton—honestly, I swear, I was only 10 inches away from her. But then a friendly current parent approached me—and thank goodness because we bonded. She had a third grader and a kindergartener at the school. We had lots in common. She also toured all the public schools and applied to only two private. We chatted for a long time as Horton moved to the other side of the room. Oh well!

And this brings me to the topic of application essays, which have received flack in this blog's comments section. I love the essays—because it gives people like me the opportunity to thoughtfully express my interest in a school using the written word. I flounder when it comes to communicating verbally but I can usually throw something together in writing.

It seems to me that the independent schools offer a variety of opportunities for families to get acquainted with a school. Tours, applications, intimate coffee hours, open houses. While some may see the essays as a way for the highly educated (which I'm not) to express themselves, I see them as a way for blundering schmoozers to get themselves heard.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Filling out applications

I spent the weekend filling out independent school applications. Well, two of them. Yes, they're a pain. I'm exhausted. I felt like a senior in high school applying to colleges. I even cried for about an hour on Saturday morning because I was feeling so overwhelmed.

But I understand and respect the process. Imagine if independent schools didn't require applications? More people would apply. Eight hundred families would be applying for 22 spots rather than 250 families. Because I have to fill out an application and write essays, I'm applying only to those schools that truly seem like the right fit for Alice.

And as I wrote the essays, I was forced to think, What am I really looking for in a school? Who is this daughter of mine?

Also, as I wrote my essays, I couldn't stop my mind from going wild . . .

What are your child's strengths and interests? This seems to be the most common essay question. When you think about it, this really is a funny question to ask about someone who is only four years old.

Alice can crack an egg without getting any shells into the batter. She can do a backward somersault, sometimes. She can write nearly every letter in the alphabet—except an uppercase N, which she draws backward. She can swim. She can pinch her brother. She can do downward dog. She can dry wet lettuce leaves with a salad spinner though she would never eat salad.

Alice knows that Pluto isn't a planet. She knows that bats are nocturnal. She knows that Pink Ladies are her favorite variety of apple. She knows right from wrong, most of the time. She knows it's nice to share. She knows her phone number, usually. She knows that she wants to be a ballerina-artist-mommy when she grows up. She knows that Paris is in France. She knows the difference between a guitar and a ukulele though she can't play either.

Alice can identify several types of flowers: camelias, alyssum, nasturtiums. She can eat spoonful after spoonful of peanut butter. She can cry tears that are so big I sometimes start crying myself. She can say hello in Italian, "Ciao!" She can count to 60. She can hop on one foot. She can gallop. She can walk backwards. She can run really really fast. She can name nearly every Disney princess. She can tell funny jokes: "A comb sat on a mouse that turned purple."

Alice likes play dates. She likes preschool. She likes bread. She likes the Boxcar Children books. She likes to watch Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly. She likes to play with dolls. She likes to paint. She likes baking banana poppy seed muffins. She likes visiting Frida Kahlo at the SFMOMA. She likes walking in the rain with her umbrella and jumping in puddles. She likes to go to the park and the science museum. She likes merry-go-rounds. She likes kittens.

Alice can chew five pieces of gum at once. She can tie a knot but not a bow. She can pick beautiful bouquets of flowers. She can play a sweet tune on a harmonica. She can find the mouse on every page in Goodnight Moon. She can pack her own suitcase for sleepovers at grandma and grandpa's. She can make her own bed. She can peel an orange.

Alice says, "Mama" in a sweet voice that melts my heart every time I hear it. She says, "Please, can I have some chocolate?" She says, "May I please be excused," when she's done at the dinner table. She says, "Mom, you need to clean the house." She says, "Monsters, wild onions, and George Bush—those are the bad things in the world." She says, "Leaping lizards" and "Oh, my goodness." She says, "We should take the train instead of the car because it's better for the environment." She says "I love you."

Alice can ride a tricycle. She can scream, stomp her feet, and slam a door louder than anyone I know—and she's not even married. She can create almost anything out of a single piece of paper and a roll of tape: a birthday hat, a slipper, a baby bed, fairy wings. She can dress herself and wear a dress, a skirt, pants, tights, and three tops all at once. She can say big words: "Mommy, you're infuriating." She can help her brother put on his shoes.

Alice gives the world's best hugs—long tight squeezes that always make me feel like everything is going to be OK. She gives friends her toys and clothes to borrow for "one week." She gives her brother kisses and licks. She gives Santa cookies and milk and the Great Pumpkin all of her Halloween candy. She gives her Daddy the raisins in her cereal. She gives her baby dolls haircuts. She gives her family and friends love.

Alice is Alice. She's one of a kind—just as all children are.