Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I just got back from trick-or-treating with my kids in the upper Noe Valley neighborhood. The houses were decked out with creepy decor and the streets were teeming with parents and kids, most of them under five years old. This was actually our first year walking our neighborhood streets on Halloween. I was overwhelmed and excited by the number of families. I couldn't help but think, Wouldn't it be great if we all went to our neighborhood school, which happens to be Fairmount? We all had so much spirit tonight and I can only imagine what we'd accomplish if we were all together at the same school. I know it's unrealistic, but it's nice to think about. Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fairmount Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
Spanish immersion; genuine, dedicated principal; hard-working teachers; large, spacious library; small student body; small class sizes in 4th and 5th (4th/5th combo class allows for this).

The Facts
Web site: www.fairmountschoolpta.org
School tours: Tuesdays at 9 a.m.
Location: 65 Chenery St., at Randall St., upper Noe Valley/Glen Park
Grades: K–5 (also pre-K program)
Start time: 8:35 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: three separate play areas: one for kindergarteners, another for 1st–3rd, and another for 4th–5th
Before- and after-school program: GLO
Language: Two-way Spanish immersion; the school is in the process of converting the entire school to Spanish immersion; all kindergarteners are in the program
Highlights: Ballet folklorico; school camping trip; science through gardening; organized games at recess and P.E. through Sports 4 Kids; recorder in 3rd; ballroom dancing for 4th and 5th; instrumental music for 4th and 5th

Kate's impressions
The highlight of this tour occurred at the end when the principal Karling Aguilera-Fort spoke to our group in the cafeteria. Karling is a young, wiry Venezuelan man with a cute gap between his front teeth. He talks with an accent and a slight lisp—and he talks from the heart. He's genuine and candid and honest. "If you're looking for a school that looks perfect and where the scores are superhigh, this isn't your school," he said. "I'm not here to sell this school. This isn't a market. But if you're looking for a school that believes in children and that works for children and that always puts children first, then you're in the right place." Karling would make a horrible car salesman, but I can tell that he's an outstanding principal.

Karling went on to say, "I'm not going to answer the question, 'Why should I go to your school?' I'm not going to compare this school to Buena Vista or Flynn or any others because that's not respectful. All of us, all schools are trying our best." His words resonated with me. And in fact, I started to feel guilty because in a sense with my blog I'm comparing schools. This guy immediately gained my respect and I liked what he had to say.

A parent asked about the school's relatively low test scores. Karling went over the history and logistics, talking about a former state sanction and some federal targets the school has been required to meet. It's complicated and I'm not going to get into to it. But what I did get out of his explanation is: the scores are improving; Karling doesn't require his teachers to teach strictly to the test, there's some flexibility; and a huge majority of the students are native Spanish speakers and they're taking tests in English so of course their scores are going to be a little lower. Imagine if native English speakers had to take the tests in Spanish? They wouldn't do so hot either. Plus, you have to keep in mind that the native Spanish speakers are great models for the English speakers learning Spanish.

Karling also talked about his goal to increase the school's emphasis on arts. Currently, there are several enrichment programs, such as ballet folklorico dancing, which the kids rotate through—and there will be more offerings in the future.

The other highlight of the tour happened at the very beginning. I walked to this school! I live about a two-minute walk away. My morning was relaxed and I didn't have to drive or take public transit.

I waited for the tour outside the office and eavesdropped on a group of parents chatting. They talked about the school's harvest fair, which took place over the weekend, and a nice comment about the school posted on GreatSchools.net. I looked up the comment, and I'm including it below:

"My daughter began kindergarten here in September. I have been very impressed with her teacher, the staff, the families, and the principal. Her teacher has been extremely communicative both in person, by telephone and e-mail. She is learning Spanish, and math, and a great deal of socialization! The PTA is extremely well organized and the families are very involved. It is truly a community school. The principal is remarkable. The only thing the school lacks is proper city, state and federal funding. But, the PTA through school fund-raisers is doing its best to make up for government's neglect. Neither a well stocked library or a bank of computers could stack up against the school's obviously motivated and committed staff; it's just too bad that they don't have the these additional tools to aid their instruction. I recommend this school highly. We are very satisfied with the instruction our daughter is receiving."
Submitted by a parent on GreatSchools.net

Back to the tour: we walked through the three kindergarten classes, housed in pentagon-shaped rooms with shiny blue linoleum tiles. The school was built in the 70s so it's a modular set up with classrooms circling central rooms, which they call pods. There are kitchens in the pods, which they sometimes use for cooking projects. In each class, the teachers were all singing the days of the week in Spanish with the students. I see this as a good sign when the teachers are following the same curriculum because that means they're working together.

We moved through the other grades. I was impressed by the fifth graders who were discussing a story they read about a boy who sang La Bamba in a talent show. They were talking about what it's like to be embarrassed and perform in front of a group. They were engaged and enjoying themselves.

The two-way Spanish immersion program takes the same approach as those at other schools. More Spanish is spoken in earlier grades, establishing less dominant language. 50/50 by third grade. Careful attention is provided to ensure Spanish-speaking children get to grade level in English reading. About a third of the students are native English speakers, a third bilingual, and a third native Spanish speakers. Karling is the former assistant principal at Buena Vista so he has prior experience with immersion.

If you live in Noe Valley, Bernal, Glen Park, or the Mission this is a place to visit. Fairmount does lack some of the bells and whistles that other city schools have such as an art studio and computer lab. But the principal, teachers, and Spanish program are outstanding. It may lack flash, but it has a whole lot of heart.

Marin Country Day School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a teaching philosophy blending progressive and traditional practices; generous financial aid for families who can't afford full tuition; diversity (27 percent of the students are children of color; variety of family structures; curriculum draws from many cultures); a campus surrounded by nature; an emphasis on the environment; small class sizes; outstanding technology; a lovely art studio; community service (children help at homeless shelters and nursing homes); teachers' assistants in classrooms; parent involvement; light homework in kindergarten and first grade.

The Facts
Web site: www.mcds.org
School tours: by appointment only
Location: 5221 Paradise Dr., Corte Madera
Grades: K–8
Start time: 8:20 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 54 students (three classes of 18)
Average class size for all grade levels: 18 students
Overall student-teacher ratio: 9:1
Total student body: 540 students
Tuition: $500–$24,095
Playground: It's an outdoor paradise set on 35 acres. Several playgrounds with beautiful equipment. Lots of trees. Organic gardens.
Before- and after-school program: P.M. Program for K–5; runs until 6:15; $10 an hour/indexed fee; sports, music, art cooking, hiking, and special events such as the Gobble Games in November and Root Beer Float Day in the spring.
Language: Spanish, twice a week starting in the third grade; goes up to six times a week in sixth grade.
Highlights: marine science pier on San Francisco Bay, hot lunch and organic salad bar (included in tuition); buddy system so kindergarteners are paired with older students; kindergarteners enjoy energy time (blend of Aikido, music, and stories) three times a week, art studio twice a week, library time once a week, P.E. in the gym three times a week, and music twice a week.

Kate's impressions
I toured Marin Country Day School (MCDS) last year and one of the highlights occurred in an eighth grade drama class. A student was explaining a play she wrote and the teacher challenged her with tough questions.

"What's the deeper meaning of the plot?"

"How do you want the audience to react to your main character?"

"How can you incorporate more suspense?"

The student threw back intelligent answers in defense. She was well-spoken, confident, and poised. She was in a deep discussion with an adult. I remember the parent guide nudging me to move along with the tour, but I didn't want to leave that room. I was mesmerized by the conversation. Here was a young girl who was ready to go out in the world and talk eloquently about her ideas. I was impressed!

I visited MCDS last year because a friend, who was a principal at an independent school on the peninsula, said, "You've got to go check out MCDS. What they're doing over there is special and different from everyone else." I specifically remember him telling me to closely observe the kids in middle school. He said, "These teenagers aren't jaded. They still enjoy learning. They're confident, and they're ready to head out into the world." I was intrigued—and that's how I found myself on a tour of MCDS two years before my daughter would even start kindergarten.

The drama class was one highlight. But there was another. It occurred in a kindergarten class. The teacher Doug was strumming his guitar and a group of children sat around him singing a song about an alligator. Their voices were sweet and beautiful and their eyes twinkled and smiled. I envisioned Alice sitting among the kids and tears started to trickle down my face. This was the first kindergarten I observed and I was moved by the thought of my daughter adventuring off to school. The classroom felt safe and cheerful and I was comfortable with the idea of Alice being there.

So, that was last year. I obviously fell in love with the school. And now I'll jump forward a year later. I toured MCDS again last week, and this time my husband tagged along.

Well, I loved it again. And my husband, Ryan? He was ready to move in. He liked the campus. Ryan is a scientist who restores salmon habitat on rivers and if it weren't for me, he'd be living out in the woods. He's passionate about trees and rocks and rivers. MCDS sits on 35 acres in Corte Madera, sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and a nature preserve of rolling grassy hills dotted with oaks. Clusters of single-story brown-shingle buildings stretch across the campus filled with trees and patches of grass. There's even a stream that runs through it. In the winter, the kids slip on galoshes and tromp around in the flow. One year, the kids observed a salmon trying to swim up the creek, our guide told us.

I'm fond of the idea of my children living in San Francisco's urban environment and going to school in the country. To many this seems insane, but to me it's seems like a great opportunity.

Fifty percent of the MCDS kindergarteners come from San Francisco; school buses cart them between the city and the country. There's actually a bus pickup close to my house. It would take about 50 minutes for Alice to get to school. Sound crazy? Parents at the school say the children love the bus. There's a buddy system so older kids pair up with the young ones. Together, they read stories, sing songs, do homework. "There's a bus culture," the parent guide said.

Our tour started with an introduction from the head of school, Lucinda Lee Katz, a bright, inspired lady who was formerly the head of University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. She talked about the school's mission: inspiring, nurturing, and challenging children. And she touched on the school's emphasis on environment and teaching children to live lightly. I especially connected with Katz's explanation of the curriculum, which draws from the best of progressive and traditional teaching practices. In this school search, I've found that I'm torn between progressive and traditional. I worry that my daughter won't learn enough with a purely progressive approach or that she won't enjoy learning with a strictly traditional one. I felt as if Katz was speaking directly to my concerns and presenting a solution.

We broke into groups led by parent guides. We started with the middle (3–5) and upper schools (6-8). We walked into a full-size gymnasium where kids play volleyball and basketball, and into a computer lab outfitted with shiny Macs. And we stepped into an advanced math class where the professorial teacher posed the question, "All integers are negative, true or false?" The classroom wall was plastered with plaques won in math competitions. The upper school extends to the foot of a grassy mountain, where kids hike around with their science teachers and collect plants and bugs.

We continued on to the lower school. In a lovely art studio with big picture windows, third graders sculpted clay and painted with watercolors. I was touched by a little girl's picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, which she possibly crosses over every day. We observed a music class where the teacher Maggie pounded rhythmically on a bongo drum and called out yoga poses: "Downward facing dog!" "Warrior 1!" Warrior 2!" She then hopped over to a grand piano, moving her hands across the keys as the kids sang, "One potato," "Two potato," Three potato," "Four!" Our guide told us that the children learn about music from all over the world, Japan, Middle East, Africa.

Off we went into the kindergarten classrooms. We observed all three. Each had a teacher and a support teacher. The curriculum in kindergarten is based on the theme "Growing our garden and growing ourselves." Outside the classrooms, apples and oranges piled up in big boxes so the kids always have a snack on hand. Inside, jars filled with flowers from the Lower School's organic garden brightened up the kids' tables. Seedlings were growing in pots; bulbs and cuttings in cups of water. In one room, kids were counting the lines circling pumpkins. Another class was outside sticking their hands in dirt and harvesting potatoes. I saw a child carting his classroom's compost to the pile in a little tractor powered by pedaling.

While the school helps kids develop a deep connection with the natural world, they also have a fantastic computer program. Students work on Macs in kindergarten through fifth and then switch to PCs in sixth, so they graduate knowing how to use both operating systems. Some classrooms are equipped with Smart Boards; kids can write on the large screens with digital ink. They're incredibly cool!

Our tour ended with a Q&A session with directors of admission. Parents asked about diversity, the screening, financial aid, and the difference between coed and single sex schools. But all I wanted to know is, How do you get in?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reporting back from the enrollment fair

I'm lost! Can anyone relate to the feeling of not knowing which school you want your child to attend? It's this really uneasy feeling. You have a deep pit in your stomach. Possibly you're on the verge of tears. You're anxious, afraid to go to bed because you know you'll just lay there worrying. You feel like everyone else knows exactly which school is the perfect fit for their child—but you feel unsettled, nervous. Maybe you're starting to think about moving to the suburbs, fleeing the country. Well, that's how I'm feeling tonight. Sorry to be such a downer; I'm sure it will pass.

Before I went to the enrollment fair, I had a list of schools set in my mind. I was thinking Alice Fong Yu first, Buena Vista next, probably Alvarado immersion third. I was silly to rank schools in my mind so early because I have many more to visit but it was comforting to know which schools were my top choice. To stay sane, I needed something to hold onto.

But then I went to today's enrollment fair, which was an overwhelming, packed, chaotic event—though informative. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I toured Alice Fong Yu, a Cantonese immersion program, and loved it. When I arrived at the fair at 9 a.m., I made a beeline for the AFY booth. I was disappointed to find that the principal wasn't there so I chatted with a kindergarten teacher. She was nice but spent most of the time talking about the homework that the school piles up on students. And then a parent chimed in with, "It's an insane amount of homework. The one thing your child learns at this school is how to study." I started to wilt.

So I headed for the booth for Starr King, a Mandarin program that I'd heard was up-and-coming. I talked to a parent, and she basically said Cantonese is a useless language. "It's like learning Latin," she said. She went on and on about why Mandarin is the better dialect to learn. In my opinion, no language is useless. Anytime you learn a language, it stimulates your mind and gives you a broader perspective on the world. But Latin—that's one I'd probably skip. Should I be considering Starr King over AFY, I wondered?

Off to Leonard Flynn. The group of parents and principal at this booth were so warm, friendly, and intelligent that I would have enrolled on the spot if they would have let me. I felt like they truly wanted me to be a part of their community. They were bending over backward to tell me about their school and it felt good to be wanted. Flynn has a Spanish immersion program, and I definitely plan to tour. And I'm thinking, Might this be my first pick?

Buena Vista. Chatted with the principal, Larry Alegre, and this school is still a favorite. Alegre explained how BV is different than the other immersion programs. They're not a Title One school, which means they have more freedom with their curriculum. "We don't bow to the mandates of No Child Left Behind," Alegre said. BV teachers can spend more time on Spanish and the arts. I'm not entirely clear on this, though it sounds good.

But it was the Miraloma booth—with a bouquet of gigantic balloons hanging high above it—that blew me away. Energy was radiating out of this booth; you could feel it. The parents were jazzed and talking a mile a minute with huge smiles on their faces about the warm family community at the school. The principal was so animated and pumped up that I thought he might start break-dancing. I imagined everyone gathering around him cheering, "Miraloma! Miraloma! Miraloma!" Okay, another school that I'm looking forward to visit. But wait, this isn't even an immersion program? Initially, I thought I wouldn't even consider a non-immersion program. Now, I'm second-guessing that. I feel like my whole world has been turned upside down.

And then there's Lawton, lovely Lawton. A small school that goes all the way through eighth grade. Solid test scores, actually some of the highest. Solid academics. Solid teachers. The science program is so strong that the assistant principal told me the new Academy of Sciences is looking to Lawton to help them create children's programs for the museum. And again, no immersion.

Talked to Claire Lilienthal. The PTA raises a whopping $200,000 a year. It's too far from my home but it sounds like they certainly have their act together. The assistant principal Amanda was formerly working in a district outside LA. She went on and on about how much better the SF district is. "I've never seen anything like it," she said. "If I need lines repainted on the playground, I just call the district and they come out and do it. That never would have happened in LA." Good to hear.

Peabody. Supersmall with only two kindergartens. Emphasis on reading. If you're child is already reading in preschool sounds like this is a school to consider. They cater to individual students—mold the curriculum to a child's level. Sounded like private school speak. This one is also too far from my home.

I also attended two workshops: one on enrollment and the other on immersion programs. I'll report back on those in separate posts.

My husband picked me up at 3 p.m. I spent an entire six hours at the fair and I was tired and depressed. I slid into the car and the first thing my husband said was, "I've had a terrible day with the kids."

Alice and Sam were sitting in their car seats in the back. They hadn't napped and their eyes were tired and droopy.

"You can't say that in front of the kids!" I said.

"Well, they were the ones who were difficult all morning," he replied. "It's not my fault!"

Errrrrrr! Not what I needed! (My husband is a great guy, but like all of us, he has his bad days.)

I started to spill out all my feelings about the fair. I don't know if he was even listening but I needed to vent. We decided to drive by Starr King on our way home. To get to Starr King, we drove through a seemingly endless stretch of projects. At one point, I told my kids to duck because I thought a guy trying to cross the street was holding a knife (I've been held up at gun point so I get paranoid at times). It turns out the sun was reflecting off his cell phone. We finally got to the school, which sits on a ridge at the edge of the projects development. I'd heard the neighborhood was rough but I wasn't prepared. Regardless, I'll still tour. You can't judge a school by its neighborhood.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't forget: tomorrow is the public school enrollment fair

Tomorrow's the SFUSD enrollment fair. It's from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, near City Hall. Every school in the district should have a booth where you can talk to the principal or teachers. It's a great opporuntity.

Note: The San Francisco Police Department has informed the school district that there will be a planned anti-war protest on Saturday at Civic Center Plaza, near the building where the SFUSD Enrollment Fair will be held.

Take BART or MUNI if possible!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lawton kindergarten teacher's Web site

While cruising around the Internet, I came across this sweet and simple Web site, www.stefcmoore.com, created by Ms. Stephanie, a kindergarten teacher at Lawton Alternative School, one of the city's most popular public options. A visit to the site offers a picture of life as a kindergartener at Lawton. Ms. Stephanie lists her class rules, homework policy, field trips, daily schedule, teaching philosophy. If you're interested in this school, I recommend checking out the site.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Grattan Elementary

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
teachers who are truly engaging the students; intimate, cheerful environment; awesome computer teacher (he actually helps the students make films); pre-K program; early start time; parent involvement; diversity.

The Facts
Web site: www.grattanschool.org
School tours: Tuesdays, 8:30–9:30 a.m., no appointments necessary
Location: 165 Grattan St., Cole Valley
Grades: K–5 (also pre-K program run by CDC)
Start time: 7:50 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: Separate area for kindergarteners
Before- and after-school program: Grattan After-School Program and Exel; other nearby off-campus options
Language: After-school Spanish club
Highlights: Computer science multimedia program, composting and recycling programs, gardening, choral music, mural projects, library studies, film festival fund-raiser.

Kate's impressions
Grattan's two-story building encloses a courtyard that's filled with flowers and greenery, colorful murals, and children's art. It's cheery and cozy—and honestly, when I walked into that courtyard, I felt like I was transported to Europe. This was all too charming for San Francisco!

I was greeted by a parent—a sweet lady with a European accent—who handed me some information on the school and started asking about my child and my school search. She was thoughtful and kind and seemed truly interested in my situation. More and more parents started to show up—our group reached nearly fifty. And then the principal, Jean Robertson, a lively woman wearing glasses with purple frames and an Obama button, stepped out. She greeted us all, and started to tell us about Grattan's huge improvement in test scores. Last year, their scores went up 50 points, apparently a significant jump. Jean actually led the tour—all 50 of us—and walked us through the classrooms. I was impressed.

We started with kindergarten. There are three classes, 20 kids each. When Jean walked into the room, the kids all cheered and she gave some high-fives. They obviously adore this woman. In one classroom, they were sitting at various tables set up with activities: rubber-stamping, mixing food coloring in cups of water, observing tadpoles with magnifying glasses. The teacher wore a voice amplification device around her neck so her voice was slightly amplified when she spoke. Jean explained that they use these in classrooms where a child might have mild hearing loss and studies have show that all children benefit from them because they help kids listen. I think it must have been working because these kids were amazingly engaged in the activities at their tables.

The kindergarten rooms are spacious and airy. They all have separate little play areas with kiddie houses and kitchens, puppet theaters, and lots of dress-up clothes. Parents were helping out in the classrooms and Jean encourages their participation, but she definitely made clear that the classroom positions are serious. Parents can't goof off! They need to follow the teachers' instructions and focus on the kids.

Two of the kindergarten rooms are joined by a clean little bathroom. The rooms open out to a kindergarten-only playground with a structure and huge sandbox. The third kindergarten is on the other side of the building. Kindergarteners get a 20-minute recess in the morning; 25 minutes at lunch; and another 10 minutes at the end of the day.

The kindergarteners go to motor perception twice a week, and I observed one of those classes. This was actually one of those tour moments when I was emotionally moved. The kids were hopping around in a big gym and instrumental music was playing. Kids were shaking their hips in hula-hoops, doing log rolls across a mat, walking on stilts, skipping rope. They were being kids and having a great time.

It's important to know that there's a pre-K program on site that's run by Children's Development Center. For info, you can call 759-2850. Pre-K kids have to go through the same application process to get in to Grattan. Generally, pre-K CDC kids who want to attend Grattan's kindergarten can, but this school is a rising star, so it might become more difficult to get in.

We walked by a classroom for the school's program for autistic children. All of the kids are at recess together, and Jean says this is a great opportunity for teaching the kids in the regular program how to be accepting, sensitive human beings.

Next, we headed upstairs to the tech lab, which is best described with one word—awesome. Planets and rocket ships hang from the ceiling. Robots and astronauts stand behind the rows of computers. I felt like I was walking into a movie set—and actually the computer teacher teaches the kids movie making. One of the school's fund-raisers is a film festival.

We walked through a second grade classroom where the kids were creating pictures with geometric shapes and a fifth grade where the kids were sitting quietly in a circle reading a novel titled The Westing Game. Honestly, the kids in these classrooms were engaged. It was truly apparent.

The older kids share two additional connected play areas outside. There are two bungalows in the corner of the playground and these are used by after-school care. It sounds like this school has myriad after-school options on campus and off. And actually the on-campus Excel program for third through fifth graders is free. There's Jubilee Montessori right across the street. A bus to the JCC. They're all outlined online.

The tour ended in the library that's on the second floor and overlooks the courtyard with picture windows—very nice. Jean opened it up to questions. A parent asked, "How's Grattan different?" and "What are you doing to improve?" Not sure why, but Jean's responses were fuzzy and I left without a clear view of Grattan's direction forward. Surprising because her heart is obviously in it and she's turned Grattan into a great little school.

That said, this is a lovely school and it's one that everyone should check out. I would call it a hidden gem.

What have I learned from writing this blog?

The other day my friend asked me what I've learned from writing this blog and immersing myself in the school search. I've learned a lot—about progressive education, motor perception, language immersion, Orff music, the Reggio Emillio approach, the SFUSD lottery system (though I have to admit I'm still perplexed by some parts of it). But there's one thing that I've learned more than anything: All families are different.

We're all unique. Our backgrounds are different. Our financial situations. Our values. Our priorities. Our willingness to drive across town or to get up at the crack of dawn. This means we're all interested in different schools. And I think we need to respect that. The school search is hard enough and I think we can make the process easier by encouraging our friends when they find schools they love—even if we're not in love with the same schools. Even if one of us is set on private and the other wants to support public schools.

But I think we all have one thing in common: We want the best for our children. We're all trying our hardest to find a school that's suited to our unique child. We're in this together and we need to remember that.

There's a flaw in my poll!

A frequent visitor to The K Files pointed out a huge flaw in the way I worded the question for my poll. I appreciate her careful reading.

My question says, "Should San Francisco change the lottery enrollment process so children can to to neighborhood schools?" Yes, children CAN go to their neighborhood schools—it's just that they're not guaranteed their neighborhood schools. I will reintroduce the poll with new wording—though you all have to vote again because I can't make the change without losing the votes.

And please, I welcome anyone to point out mistakes on this blog. I'm doing a lot of the writing late at night after going to work all day and caring for my children in the evening. By the time I get to writing, my mind is tired. Plus, I'm definitely not an expert on the school situation in San Francisco. I'm just trying to create a space where we can all learn from each other and I'm hoping to introduce topics that will get people thinking. Thanks everyone for reading this blog!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Poll: should San Francisco change the public school enrollment process?

We all complain about the public school enrollment process. But if you could do away with it, would you want to? Let's say the alternative would be that you go to your neighborhood school, the one that's closest to your house—the one you can walk to.

You wouldn't have the option to go to any other school in the city (unless it was private). That means no choice—no choosing between Spanish or Chinese, arts or technology, small or big. You couldn't try to get into the top-performing school or the one that's close to your work.

I've posted a poll in the upper-right corner of the page that allows you to make this decision.

But before you place your vote, here's a little refresher on the current system and some background info to help you choose wisely:
The current system was created to diversify San Francisco schools. If a school has more families wanting to get in than it can accommodate, the district's "diversity index" kicks in. The index uses five factors—but not race—to determine how to create classroom diversity. The factors include the following: the family's socioeconomic status, academic achievement of the student, whether the student's mother graduated from high school, and whether the student speaks English at home. Students living near the school get a preference as long as their socioeconomic factors would diversify the school. The idea is that the schools are mixed with all different sorts of people from various backgrounds. And it can allow a child from a difficult inner-city neighborhood to go to a school surrounded by a supportive community.

This school-assignment system was established in 2001. Before then, race was a determining factor and parents were less likely to get one of their seven schools. Some claim the change in the system has led to resegregation. And it is believed that schools would become even more segregated if everyone went to the school in their community. Last spring, the Chronicle ran a story, With more choice has come resegregation, which provides an overview on this complicated issue.

Ready to place your vote? Should San Francisco change the lottery system so you can go to your neighborhood school? Or do you think it's important for children of various backgrounds to learn together?

Do I need to list seven schools?

I'm confused! Parents for Public Schools advises parents to enter seven public schools on the enrollment application. The organization says that filling out the maximum allowance of seven choices increases the likelihood of receiving a school of your choice. I guess this makes sense because if you fill out seven schools then you're more likely to get a match with one of those seven. But then I keep hearing from moms who have already gone through the process that they listed only four or three—one mom who has a child at Alice Fong Yu says she listed only that school. All of these families got their top choice. And what about the lady who advised my husband to put your first choice down in all seven spaces? Let's start a conversation on this topic. I'll also ask Parents for Public Schools to address the issue in the comments section. Thanks!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Adams's amazing spreadsheet: check the odds of getting into one of your seven public schools

Dr. Adams Dudley, a Peabody Elementary parent, created an amazing spreadsheet of all the public schools. You can sort the schools by start time or by neighborhood. And he includes percentages for your chances of getting into a school in the first round. There's also an online tool that allows you to list your seven school choices and then check your odds of getting one of them. He recently updated the spreadsheet so it includes last year's enrollment data and also factors in an average of 30 percent sibling priority. You can access this cool tool on the Parents for Public Schools Web site.

Friday, October 19, 2007

My daughter will likely remember nothing from kindergarten: does that matter?

I remember two things from kindergarten. One, Stephen Yap, an intelligent boy in my class who could read chapter books. I had a crush on Stephen, so I asked my Mom to arrange a playdate. He came over and we turned on the hose and created an "ocean" in the driveway. We sat in front of the pool of water and he read me Jaws. I thought we were in love but Stephen never invited me over to his house and I have no memory of ever talking to him again. I was crushed by my crush.

My other memory is that I couldn't read—no wonder my relationship with Stephen never went anywhere. My teacher recognized the readers in the class with a big chart—all the kids' names neatly printed in rows. When you read a book, the teacher gave you a shiny star to put next to your name. I remember looking at that chart and feeling a pit in my stomach because my name didn't have any stars next to it. I was actually punished in public for my illiteracy. At the annual Spring Sing, all the kids lined up and sang a sweet little song, except for me and two other nonreaders—Franco and Lupe—who stood off to the side banging on pathetic triangle instruments.

I was thinking about these memories the other day when I was trying to recall my kindergarten experience. Surprisingly, I could remember little. I know my kindergarten teacher's name but that's because my Mom has repeated it to me over the years. And I have a fuzzy picture of Mrs. Kauai in my mind because I bumped into her throughout grade school. I was actually shocked to realize that for me kindergarten consisted of a doomed romance with the class brain and my struggle to read. And that got me thinking, What will Alice remember?

I tried to track down some scientific research on Google that says how much one typically remembers from kindergarten, but I had no luck. (If there are any memory specialists out there who happen to be reading this blog, please feel free to comment.)

I asked a girlfriend what she remembered, and she said, "Nothing." I asked another, and she said nothing, too. Nothing! Their first years in school must have been void of deep loss and humiliation! I asked my husband, and he remembers some cute girl who always wore pigtails.

In a perfect world, Alice will remember her sweet classmates who she plays ring-around-the-rosy with at recess; her beautiful, light, airy classroom decorated with children's artwork; and the world's nicest, smartest teacher who treats her students equally. I hate to be pessimistic, but if Alice remembers anything it will probably be the day she peed in her pants in front of the class or the day when an earthquake struck and the students all crouched under their desks (these are first grade memories for me).

Why am I putting all this time and thought into finding my daughter a kindergarten when all she's going to remember is the day her mom made her wear a pair of itchy wool plaid pants to school (a fourth grade memory for me)? Because I think kindergarten is more than a memory. It's a foundation. It's what's going to launch my daughter into the world. It's where she'll learn right from wrong, and how to treat her friends kindly. It's where she'll build new friendships and where she'll learn to deal with losses. It's where she'll interact with people from different places and backgrounds and learn to appreciate their differences. It's where she'll work as a member of a team and where she'll survive on her own. She may not remember any of this but it will be ingrained in her, a part of her subconscious—much more than a mere memory.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Private school tuition comparison

Here's a rundown of the cost of tuition at many of the city's popular private schools. Please keep in mind that nearly all private schools offer some sort of financial assistance to families who can't afford tuition.

$12,250 Synergy
$16,377 Ada Clevenger
$18,800 Live Oak
$19,350 The San Francisco School
$19,550 Brandeis Hillel (K-7; goes up in 8th)
$20,200 Convent and Stuart Hall
$20,540 San Francisco Friends school
$20,805 Marin Country Day School
$21,090 San Francisco Day School
$21,225 Hamlin
$22,555 Nueva

Thanks to the parent who helped me track down these numbers! Also, please note that many of these numbers go up after kindergarten or in middle school. And let me know what I've left out. Thanks!

Synergy School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a welcoming, homey, warm, cheerful environment; a commitment to teaching children social skills (respect, responsibility, encouragement, cooperation are four important words at this school); an emphasis on learning through hands-on projects (even in middle school geometry, students were using manipulatives); curriculum focused on thematic units/project-based learning (for example kindergartners study apples for several weeks, making apple pies, singing apple songs, reading apple stories); combination classrooms (students stay with same teacher for two years); a pre-k program; a private education at a reasonable price.

The Facts
Web site: www.synergyschool.org
School tours: by appointment only, call 567-6177
Location: 1387 Valencia St., at 25th
Grades: K–8
Start time: 8:30 a.m. (doors open at 8 a.m.)
Kindergarten size: 24 students (six of the 24 spaces are reserved for young kindergartners who stay in the class for two years); 2 teachers
Total student body: 184 students
Tuition: $12,500
Financial aid: 33 percent of families receive some aid, no full scholarships offered
Playground: two small, nicely landscaped play yards with fruit trees (children bake pies made from apples grown on campus)
Before- and after-school program: before-care, 7:15 a.m.–8 a.m.; after-care, 3:30 p.m.–6 p.m.; full-time extended care is $220 per month
Language: kindergartners, once a week; 1st–8th, twice a week
Highlights: students have music and P.E. twice a week; art, music, and drama is regularly integrated into the curriculum; new, networked Macs in most classrooms; lots of field trips; elective classes for middle school students include yoga, Web design, yearbook, fine art, dance.

Kate's impressions
A private school for the middle class? Yes, it exists.

Synergy offers a progressive private school education at a fair price: $12,500 a year. The tuition is among the lowest five percent in the Bay Area.

"We focus on middle income families so we don't have a lot of really wealthy families and then a lot who are on full financial aid," says Elena Dillon, the director of admissions.

How does Synergy keep tuition low? The school doesn't pay for full-time administrators. Elena Dillon is the director of admissions, but she also teaches middle school. It's a teacher cooperative—i.e., everyone teaches, everyone's involved. The teachers all serve on the board with a group of parents—a collegial outfit that works together.

The school is committed to diversity. Current student body's racial diversity: 13 percent African American, 1 percent African, 9 percent Asian American, 12 percent Latino, 7 percent multi racial, 58 percent Euro American. But Synergy isn't only about ethnic diversity—it opens its arms to unique family situations: two moms, two dads, single parents, grandparents, foster parents. When it was founded 35 years ago, it was one of the few schools in the city to welcome gay and lesbian families.

The education is progressive. What does that mean? Children are learning through hands-on projects; they're working collaboratively in groups; and they're focusing on one theme or project for several weeks. In the classroom, I observed fully engaged kids moving around and doing stuff. In one classroom, they were making tamales, in another they were learning about force and motion by moving around little cars, in another they were practicing Spanish vocabulary by playing a game. At Synergy, a science teacher would never perform in front of the class mixing potions. Rather, the kids would get their hands dirty and do the experiments themselves.

The kids are learning math, science, humanities, and language arts in their classes but they're also learning social skills. Respect, responsibility, encouragement, cooperation—these are four key words in the school's philosophy toward behavior. They also stress logical—rather than punitive consequences. A parent of a former student told a story about her child forgetting to bring a library book back to school and so she couldn't check out another book, a logical consequence. The child was disappointed but it was healthy for her to learn that when you forget your responsibilities, there are consequences. When a student acts out of line, teachers quietly wave her out of the classroom rather than addressing her, disrupting the class, and drawing attention to the child. All teachers take this approach.

I was impressed by the students—in fact, a confident, well-adjusted eighth grader greeted me when I entered the door and walked me to the art studio where the tour started. Later, I was struck by a classroom of middle schoolers who gleefully sang happy birthday to Elena the admissions director when she walked into the classroom (it was her birthday). These kids weren't "too cool" to be kids.

One of the most unique aspects to this school is its combination classrooms—i.e., most of the classrooms are a combination of two grades: pre-k/kindergarten, 1st/2nd, 2nd/3rd, 4th/5th, middle school, 6th/7th/8th. It's a difficult concept to get your head around but once you look at the school's explanation online, you'll understand it. This approach allows students to have the same teacher for more than one year—so the teacher develops a longterm relationship with your child and fully understands his learning styles. Also the combo classes allow kids to develop a broad group of friends so they're not with the same group nine years in a row—a plus at a small school.

The music program is outstanding. Throughout the tour, wonderful music permeated the building. At first, I thought it was playing over a loudspeaker, and I thought, "Oh, this must be 'progressive music' that helps kids focus." But then I realized that kids were making the rhythmic sounds. In a big gym, they were pounding on xylophones and glockenspiels—having the time of their lives. Music is part of the regular curriculum for all students. The music teacher uses the "Orff approach," which incorporates movement, language, and drama. The kids perform concerts throughout the year and sometimes they play at venues off campus.

The Farm is another must-mention. One of the cofounders owns 180 acres in Healdsburg, and starting in fourth grade all kids spend a week at The Farm. They camp out and cook their own meals. Some parents tagalong. They learn botany and California history; they harvest their own pumpkins. There are also adventures to the snow and a Mexico trip in the eighth grade.

Synergy is housed in a former funeral home. Sound depressing? It's not. They entirely rebuilt the former structure and created a bright, cheery, cozy space. Big windows and skylights let in sun, which is often shining in the Mission District. Rooms are labeled with colorful ceramic letters; walls are pasted with all sorts of art work.

So it all sounds quite wonderful? How in the world do you get in? They're looking for parents who want to get involved and give time to the school. "If you're looking for a school where parents can participate, then this is one of those schools," Elena Dillon says. Parents are required to participate in the two annual fund-raisers but the opportunities to work on committees and in the classroom seem endless.

Any further insights into this school? Please post your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Alvarado Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
small class sizes in 4th and 5th grades; an early start time; a Spanish immersion program and an English-only strand; an emphasis on arts ("One of the best in the city," the tour guide said); a lovely location in the heart of Noe Valley; parent involvement (nearly every class I visited had a parent helping); working technology (computer lab staffed with teacher; networked computers in all classrooms); diversity.

The Facts
Web site: www.alvaradoschool.net
School tours: Tuesdays at 8:15 a.m., reservations recommended
Location: 625 Douglas St., Noe Valley
Grades: K–5
Start time: 7:50 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 80 students, four classes of 20 children
Total student body: 480 students
Playground: Shiny, new play structure; expansive blacktop area; little greenery but lots of colorful murals
Before- and after-school program: Growth & Learning Opportunities (GLO); impacted (this year, a few parents who wanted their children to attend the program were unable to get it in)
Language: Spanish only for 50 percent of students in the immersion program; other 50 percent are in an English-only strand
Highlights: Ceramics (clay studio with kiln), music, dance, theater, separate science classroom with teacher, computer lab, PG&E solar school, Sand Tray (free play therapy for children who might be struggling emotionally with something such as a sick sibling, loss of parent or friend; only school with this program)

Kate's impressions
It's popular! Two guides herded some 50 parents through the school (apparently all the tours are packed). My girlfriend who accompanied me lives in the neighborhood and knew half the people. Definitely a Noe Valley crowd. If you live in Noe Valley, and you want your child to attend a school with a strong neighborhood feel, then Alvarado is probably it.

This school offers a little bit of everything: arts, science, technology, language immersion. While some schools seem to focus on just the arts or technology or language, Alvarado is doing it all. A separate science classroom has its own teacher. The school's wired with networked computers in all classrooms and a separate computer lab with a teacher.

The arts program (funded by the PTA) was originally founded by Ruth Asawa, whose children attended the school. Asawa recently had a show at the de Young Museum, and she and her children painted many of the murals circling the Alvarado playground. She started the school's artist-in-residence program so there's always a talented body teaching the children clay, painting, and sculpture in the school's studio.

Half the students are in a Spanish immersion program; the other half are in an English strand. Spanish classes aren't offered to the English strand—but there is an after-school Spanish program. "A parent wanted her child to take Spanish and so she organized a class. That's the way our parents are here," our guide said.

Huge plus: the fourth and fifth grade classes are smaller than most schools in the district. There are only 28 kids in the classes while other schools have about 33. How do they manage this? They pay for an extra teacher. In fourth and fifth grade, there are two fourth grades, two fifth grades, and a fourth/fifth combo—each with 28 students.

While our guide said that the PTA membership is actually quite low, the school raises $160,000 a year. This is how they're able to pay for a lot of the extras.

The building is big and old and beautiful. A PE class hopped around on lovingly worn hardwood floors; intricate molding circled the cafeteria ceiling; children practiced for a play on a stage like the one at my childhood school. The hallways are wide and the ceilings must be at least 18 feet high. Big picture windows in the classrooms look out at the neighborhood's Victorians.

The building houses a large student body—480 students. But because the rooms are spacious, airy, and light, it doesn't feel crowded.

The principal was unavailable to address the tour but the guides gave us some background info on Robert Broecker, who's new to the job. He's worked in education for some 25 years—at both public and private schools. He has immersion experience at a French school in Minnesota. He was most previously the computer teacher at Alvarado and when the children found out that he was going to become principal, they were elated. For more on Broecker, go to www.alvaradoschool.net/principal.html.

Alvarado has a reputation for principals who come and go—apparently the past few years were rocky. But the parent guides assured our group that Mr. Broecker is here to stay.

Will Alvarado make it on my list of seven? I live in the area—we could practically walk to school. It'll be on my list. I'll definitely apply to the Spanish program—as I'm still stuck on immersion. But I think I would prefer a school where the entire student body is learning a second language—where everyone is in it together. At Alvarado, the Spanish program seems separate from the rest of the school.

Please post your thoughts on the school. Have you gone on a tour? Does your child attend Alvarado? Any insight into the school's immersion program?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why all the name changes?

A friend called me tonight and said, "What's up with all the name changes on your blog? You keep changing your daughter's name?"

I apologize: I'm new to blogging. I started this blog avoiding the use of any names and then I included names that were similar to our actual names. Later, I realized that it's common practice to use pseudonyms—especially when you're writing about kids.

So I've finally decided upon our official pseudo titles (I assure you, there are real people behind these names):

Kate: Mom
Ryan: Dad
Alice: Daughter
Sam: Son

I initially tried to come up with uberhip names. I was considering Paris for my daughter and Dante for my son—but I thought about it and realized that we're not cool people. And then I was trying to come up with something superclever—like we could all take on names of the Peanuts characters such as Lucy, Charlie, Sally, and Schroeder.

In the end, I decided to give us straightforward, simple names because we're really just an ordinary San Francisco family—scraping by. My husband is a scientist. I'm an editor. My daughter likes to play with dolls and dress up like a princess (much to my dismay). My son is into trains and dinosaurs. We go to the park on the weekends and sometimes we host a family over for dinner or brunch. We live in a little condo and own only one car. We definitely don't have the lifestyle that calls for names like Apple or Hopper or Jaz or Pilot. Anyway, please take note of the names.

I wasn't prepared when my daughter asked me . . .

Over the summer, my kids and I were playing on the jungle gym at a public elementary school one block from our home. I was showing Alice how to play hopscotch, when she asked, "Mommy, is this where I'll go to kindergarten?"

"Woah! Wait a minute!" I remember thinking, "I'm not prepared for this question."

At that point, I hadn't started my frenzied search—kindergarten wasn't on my mind 24/7. But I was reading Alice Ramona the Pest, a book in which Beverly Cleary's central character starts kindergarten—so this is what was on Alice's mind.

I can't remember exactly how I responded to Alice's question. I'm sure I stumbled through a lame explanation: "Well maybe, but I'm not sure. I . . . uh . . . I'm figuring that out. Ask me again in a month."

Alice's question makes a strong point. She used logical reasoning to assume that she would go to the kindergarten that's a two-minute walk from her house. She also assumed that all the kids on our street would go to the same school because she went on to tell me that she would be attending school with the twin boys living next door. "We could walk to school together, Mama," she said. Alice's vision is logical—but unrealistic in our city.

It makes me sad that Alice won't go to the school down the street with the neighborhood kids. This is something that I enjoyed in a suburb in the South Bay. I walked to grade school with a group of kids. On the way, we hid in the bushes from Doberman pinschers, collected rocks, and ran through sprinklers. After school, we gathered at one of the kid's houses and ransacked the refrigerator before heading outside to make mud pies or build forts. I don't keep in touch with any of these kids or have a clue where any of them are, but they helped define who I am today.

If we stay in San Francisco, which I'm 99.9 percent sure we will, Alice and her brother won't ever experience that neighborhood school community. It's unfortunate but actually I think I'm OK with it. I'm trying to be enthusiastic about the fact that I have many options and that I can find a school that's a great fit for my family. I can send my kids to a Chinese immersion program or an arts-based school or a place that emphasizes reading—the choices are endless. Plus, Alice can always meet the kids next door at the park on the weekend.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

When should a kid start kindergarten?

My daughter will be five and a half in September 2008. That girl's starting kindergarten next year—and I have no doubt that she'll be ready.

My son, Sam, who is now three and a half, has one of those September birthdays. He could start kindergarten the year after his sister in 2009 when he's about to turn five. Or he could wait a year until he's nearly six.

What am I going to do?

He's redshirting—an easy decision.

Sam is petite (10th percentile) and he was slow to walk (first steps at 17 months) and talk (his speech is still unclear at times and I've witnessed older children mocking him at the park). By starting him late, I hope to shield him from social and emotional hurt. My husband, who was also a late bloomer, tells a sad tale about some bullies dumping him into a trash can at recess.

It's not this easy for everyone to determine when to send their children to kindergarten. What if you have a precocious "September birthday" child who's tall for her age? I've talked to many parents who are on the fence, and I understand why. In California, a child is eligible to enter kindergarten at age four as long as she is turning five by December 1. (Different rules may apply at private schools.) But a parent can choose to start a child late—and those with kids who were born between August and December often do.

If you're grappling with the birthday cutoff dilemma, you might want to check out an article, "When should a kid start kindergarten?", that recently ran in The New York Times.

And please share any thoughts or knowledge you have on this topic.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What's up with the soft reviews?

This morning my kids and I went to the park and met a friend. "I read your blog," she said, "Why aren't your reviews more critical?"

On tours, I notice a lot that's wrong. We all do. We hear a child say a naughty word in a class or we observe a teacher who looks worn and tired or we walk across a bleak school yard that's an endless stretch of asphalt. One mom told me she saw two teachers getting into an argument; others have talked about out-of-control, disengaged students. It's easy to criticize, and we're all familiar with the negative.

This blog is about finding the good. I figure every school has something it's doing right—whether it's stocking a library with new books, keeping class sizes small, going on tons of field trips, immersing the kids in another language, renovating the playground. I'm digging for the good. We're all going on these tours and hoping that we'll connect with something—an animated principal, a teacher singing songs with kids, a group of students tending to an organic garden—and I'm hoping I can help direct parents to the bright spots.

Friday, October 12, 2007

San Francisco magazine on private schools

The new October issue of San Francisco magazine includes a hefty feature on private schools, "Schools Gone Wild." Have you read it?

Writer Diana Kapp, who lives in San Francisco and sends both her kids to private schools, delves "inside a new world of hyer-frentic building campaigns, over-the-top curricula, and relentlessly well-meaning parents at the mercy of market forces no one seems able (or willing) to control." She asks the question, "Is money ruining private schools?" It's a juicy read loaded with food for thought:

"San Francisco leads major U.S. cities in the percentage of kids in private school—a whopping 29.3 percent in 2005, or nearly twice the national (and almost four times the statewide) average."

"Marin Academy and Branson parents will pony up almost $30,000 per kid this year—just a shade under what they would spend on tuition at Harvard. The average Bay Area first-grade tuition is $18,080, second only to the New York metro area; parents of 12th-graders pay an average of $27,355, the highest in the nation. By contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District had $8,900 per kid to work with last year."

"The cost of attending Bay Area private schools has jumped 70 percent in a decade, twice the U.S. rate. High school tuition now tops $27,000 a year—surpassing even New York."

For more, pick up a copy of the magazine.

Do I know my child?

When I first started my school search, my dear friend Kimmy told me that I need to find the school that's right for Alice. She said that when I tour that school I will know it—I will feel it. She's not the only person who has told me this. In fact, everyone is telling me this. They're saying things like, "When you walk into the school of your dreams, you'll feel butterflies fluttering in your stomach"; "You'll definitely start to cry because you'll be elated"; "You'll see a group of kids doing something like playing a friendly game of four-square and you'll picture your little joey with those kids." Okay, I'm exaggerrating but everyone is saying, "You know your child best. You will know which school is right for her."

But do I know my child? My husband and I met with Alice's teacher yesterday. Alice has a smart, thoughtful, energetic teacher. And as she sat there telling stories about my daughter, I started to tear up because I could see that this woman truly loves my child. She knows her. She's aware of her strengths and she appreciates her quirks.

Of course, we asked about schools. She had a lot of great suggestions and generally thought that Alice would do well anywhere. But she did say that Alice is very social and she has leadership qualities. She thought she would particularly thrive at a school with two or more kindergartens because she might need more stimulation than a school with one could provide.

Wait? What? This never crossed my mind. In fact, my perspective had been entirely different. In my posting on my strategy for finding a school, I specifically talk about Alice needing a small, intimate environment because she gets overwhelmed by big groups. I'm intentionally touring a few private schools with only one kindergarten.

Guess who definitely gets overwhelmed in crowds? Uh...uh...that would be me. Am I projecting my personality on my daughter? At school, it sounds like she does great in a group. When she comes with me to an event with a bunch of people, I notice that she gets a little uneasy—but is that only because she senses her mom's stress? Something to think about.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mandarin vs. Cantonese

This is Alice. Should she learn to say "ni hao" or "nei hou ma"?

I almost skipped the Alice Fong Yu tour because it's a Cantonese-based program—and Mandarin is the official language in China. Mandarin is actually the most widely spoken language in the world when you consider all the various dialects, and it's what the Chinese business world uses. Cantonese is supposedly more complex and difficult to learn than Mandarin. But I'm glad I took the tour because right now AFY is at the top of my list.

So why would I ever want to send my daughter to a Cantonese school? Well, 100 million people speak Cantonese—it's the second most used language in China. It's also the common Chinese language in San Francisco and the de facto language in Hong Kong (where Alice has actually visited and says she would like to live some day). And those who speak Cantonese can easily pick up Mandarin. AFY introduces Mandarin in junior high—i.e., children graduate in the eight grade speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese.

The differences between Cantonese and Mandarin are much more complex than what I've outlined above and apparently some even dispute whether or not they're languages or dialects. If you want to learn more, I recommend checking out Wikipedia.

Here's a rundown of the Chinese immersion programs in SF:

Cantonese
Alice Fong Yu
West Portal

Mandarin
Starr King
Ortega

Please offer up any information on Chinese immersion? Did I get all my facts straight? Did I leave out any schools?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who's in charge?

In my household, I'm in charge of finding a kindergarten. I won't attempt to explain how my husband would approach the process if he were overseeing it—but I will say that when our daughter was born he entered diaper changes and feeding and sleeping times into an Excel file and created bar graphs. If he was doing the school search, I'm sure it would involve lots of math, which makes sense because he is a scientist.

A few weeks ago my husband and I agreed that I'm the head of the school search and we developed a simple plan: I'll scout 15 to 20 public schools throughout October and early November, and then I'll pick my top seven, which he'll visit at the end of November. We also decided to look at four private schools and attend those tours together.

This week we already deviated from our plan because I'm enamored with Alice Fong Yu and I wanted him to visit it asap. I was terribly nervous when he was gone on the tour yesterday. What if he hates it? I kept thinking. I've heard from so many people who have been through the process that partners often don't agree.

We got lucky and Ryan also loved Alice Fong Yu. Though he asked entirely different questions during the tour's meeting with the principal. While I asked about field trips, the PTA, and arts programs, he asked how many siblings are hoping to get in next year, how many kids got in last year, and so on. And then he did lots of math and he determined that we have a 10 percent chance of getting into the school. Now, I'm depressed!

Anyone have stories about going through the school search with a partner? Any tips?

Buena Vista Alternative Elementary














Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
an established Spanish immersion program; an emphasis on arts (the 5th graders put on an opera with members of the San Francisco Opera); an intimate, loving environment (I observed a teacher giving a hug to a child who was feeling sad); a playground with grass; enriching before- and after-school program; late start time; and a smart, motivated, welcoming principal (on my tour, Larry Alegre actually gave his email and phone number to all the parents).

The Facts
Web site: www.bvpta.org
School tours: Wednesdays at 10 a.m.
Location: 2641 25th St., at Potrero, Potrero Hill
Grades: K–5
Start time: 9:30 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: There's grass! Adjacent to a city park with a stage, soccer field, skate park, and play structure, which the school frequently uses for activities and assemblies
Library: Yes, with a wonderful new librarian who is bringing in computers and lots of new books. Children visit on a weekly basis.
Technology: Computers in some classrooms, no computer lab, principal is working to improve technology
Before- and after-school program: Yes
Language: Spanish immersion (instruction primarily in Spanish K–1 with a gradual increase in English instruction 2–5. By 5th grade children can read, write, and speak both Spanish and English.)
Highlights: Extraordinary arts program with a full-time arts coordinator; program for parents to teach art in classrooms; ceramics kiln; organized games at recess such as four-square, dodgeball, and basketball; acrosports for K-3; dance program for K–3; classes with SF ballet for 3rd graders; ballroom dancing for 4–5; instrumental music instruction, recorder for 3rd graders and clarinet, flute, violin, trumpet for 4–5; 3rd graders take field trips to the SF Ballet and go on a camping trip in Point Reyes; 5th graders put on opera with members from the SF Opera and attend a week-long camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Kate's impressions
Spanish and art—these are the things this school seems to focus on. The entire student body is in the immersion program. I was impressed by the kindergartners who were already speaking Spanish to their teachers and the first graders who were writing in Spanish in their journals. In kindergarten and first grade, 90 percent of the curriculum is in Spanish and 10 percent in English. In second and third grade, the amount of English increases and in fourth and fifth, it's 50/50. By fifth grade, the children are fluent in both Spanish and English. They can write, read, and speak in both languages.

The school's other emphasis is on the arts. The hallways are pasted with self-portraits, collages, watercolors—and the children were involved in creating the ceramic mosaic on the front of the school (pictured above). There's actually a kiln on site, which all classes can use to fire ceramics projects. The full-time arts coordinator Bob Armstrong spoke to our tour group and he's an artsy, groovy guy who sent both of his children through Buena Vista. He's got the SF Ballet coming in to work with the third graders on a weekly basis, the SF Opera putting on an actual opera with the fifth graders, lots of field trips to arts events, weekly classes with a Mexican folklorico dancer for early grades, ballroom dancing for the fourth and fifth graders ("They're hesitant at first by they get into it," Bob says), and the list goes on and on. Parents even have the opportunity to pull out their paintbrushes and teach art in the classrooms.

This tour confirmed that I want to send my kids to an immersion program. Now, the big question is Spanish or Chinese?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Alice Fong Yu Alternative School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
an established Chinese language immersion program; a K–8 program; rigorous academics; high test scores (some of the best in the district); enriching before- and after-school program; late start time; and a smart, motivated principal.

The Facts
Web site: www.afypa.org
School tours: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m., no appointment necessary
Location: 1541 12th Ave. at Lawton, Inner Sunset
Grades: K–8
Start time: 9:30 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: Expansive blacktop area surrounded by school buildings so it feels safe and secure. It's courtyard-like.
Before- and after-school program: Growth & Learning Opportunities (GLO)
Language: Chinese immersion (instruction primarily in Cantonese K–3 with an increase in English 4–5. By 5th grade children are fluent. Mandarin is introduced in junior high)
Highlights: Ceramics, music, gardening, Chinese cultural events and festivals, 8th graders have opportunity to travel to China, competitive basketball in junior high, energetic P.E. instructor

Kate's impressions
My first impression: This school is clean, tidy, and organized. The school grounds are immaculate, the classrooms are uncluttered, the organic garden is manicured, the parent tours run seamlessly, the teachers are focused, even the kids seem to walk in straight lines. I was instantly impressed and loved everything about this systematic school. Why? I'm still trying to sort that out but I think it's because everything in my own life is a complete mess. You should see the mounds of paper on my desk at work or open one of the closets in my house (Careful! A bunch of junk will probably fall out on you). My calendar is cluttered with too many appointments, meetings, and activities, and my things to do list is an overwhelming 10 pages long. While walking around this school I felt calm and at ease—I never feel this way. And I think my daughter would do well in this neat environment. She's strangely tidy herself. She folds her clothes, makes her bed, picks up her toys—and gets mad at me when our house is in disarray. She likes structure and routine. She likes to eat the same thing for breakfast and for lunch and for dinner and to go to the same parks and museums. She would feel comfortable here.

The Chinese immersion component to this school is an even more important factor to consider. The entire student body is in the immersion program. Ninety percent of the kindergarten instruction is in Cantonese—with only 10 percent in English. The amount of English increases each year and then Mandarin is introduced in middle school. By fifth grade, most students are fluent in Cantonese and English. What an opportunity? You definitely can't get this experience in Walnut Creek!

I love the immersion aspect and I'm comfortable sending my child to a Chinese school even though my husband I don't speak the language (we're both Caucasian with English as our first language; I also speak French and he speaks Spanish). The kindergarten class was fascinating. The teachers were speaking loudly to their groups of 20 kids, using lots of facial expressions and moving their hands all over the place. They were working hard to keep the kids engaged. The kids were sitting attentively. The children seem to understand a lot of what their teachers were saying but they weren't speaking Chinese. They would respond to their teachers in English. Apparently, most kids don't actually start speaking Chinese until first grade.

I will definitely consider this as a top pick. My only concern is the lack of emphasis on the arts—because my daughter loves to paint and draw and dance and sing. She always tells me she wants to be a ballerina who paints when she grows up—not a businesswoman making serious deals with companies in China. Hmmm...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Lakeshore Alternative Elementary










Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a loving, nurturing environment; a beautiful location (lake views from the campus); an active PTA; a strong reading program that's viewed as one of the district's best; solid test scores; fabulous library (it's nicer than many of the city branches); true diversity; enriching before- and after-school program; late start time; and a motivated, accessible, smart principal.

The Facts
Web site: www.lakeshoreelementary.org
School tours: Wednesdays at 10 a.m., no appointment necessary
Location: 220 Middlefield Dr., Outer Sunset, across from Lake Merced, next to Lowell High School
Grades: K–5
Start time: 9:30 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 80 students, four classes of 20 children
Library: Yes! Big and well-stocked with a full-time librarian
Computer lab: Yes, but not staffed
Playground: Separate intimate playground for kindergarteners
Before- and after-school program: Everyday Magic,
Language: Cantonese and Mandarin classes offered before and after school for a fee
Highlights: Weekly motor perception class for K–3 students, P.E. program with nearby Stonestown YMCA for 4–5, resident poet, pen pal program with nearby Commodore Sloat, competitive kick ball and cheerleading squad, students from SFSU and Lowell High School helping in classrooms, PG&E solar energy program

Kate's impressions
Parents and children walking hand-in-hand to school—sound like something you'd expect see in San Francisco? This is what I observed on my tour of Lakeshore Elementary, when I happened to visit on walk-to-school day. The tour started at 10 a.m. and I got there a half-hour early so I watched the kids arrive for the start of school at 9:30 a.m. (I recommend doing this.) The children—and many parents—gathered on the expansive schoolyard and lined up by class. Then the principle came out with a megaphone and greeted everyone. She thanked the children for walking to school, touched on a few upcoming activities, and talked about some naughty kids who were stomping on cartons of milk earlier in the week. I was impressed. It was charming and folksy.

Our tour of the classrooms started in some portables that looked dingy from the outside. But once inside, the rooms were spacious and the walls were covered in children's artwork. The kids were engaged—experimenting with magnets at one table and writing letters at another, sitting in a small reading group or gathered around a teacher who was helping them measure one another. Lots of activity! While the school says the ratio is 20 to one in the kindergarten to third-grade classes, I noticed more than one adult in nearly every classroom—sometimes three. SFSU students and Lowell High School students help out in the classrooms and there were many parents running around as well.

The main playground for the older grades consists of a massive stretch of blacktop with one play structure and a small garden. A special area for kindergarteners is cozy and cheerful with its own little play set and sweet garden area with raised beds overflowing with vegetables (cared for by the children) and flowers. As the kids get older, the teachers bring them across the street for outdoor adventures around Lake Merced.

I loved this school and I definitely think it's a must-visit. For me, the only things keeping it from the top of my list is the lack of an immersion program. But it's also my first public school tour so my priorities could change.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Let's talk strategy

So here's the deal
My husband, Ryan, and I have two kids—both currently in preschool. We need to find our daughter, Alice, a kindergarten for the 2008–09 school year. In two years we hope to send our son, Sam, to the same school. We're looking at both public and private schools. Our total income is low and we own a condo, which means hefty mortgage payments. We can't afford to pay full tuition for both children to attend a private school. I've done some research on financial aid at private schools, and our family would likely qualify for a small amount help (if we get into the school).

Our plan
My husband and I decided that I will be in charge of the search. I'll tour 15 to 20 public schools and then rank my top seven. Ryan will visit the top three to offer feedback, and together we'll decide on—or fight over—our first choice.

As for private schools, I actually toured a few last year and I fell in love with one, Marin Country Day School. I will revisit MCDS and also go to Live Oak, Synergy, and San Francisco Day School. I hope to narrow down that list and apply to only two private schools so I can put a lot of energy into those two—i.e., attend all the functions and write thoughtful essays for the applications. I will apply for financial aid.

I may visit some parochial schools; I'm still figuring out which ones. I hope to tour a few public schools in Marin and the East Bay because I think it will help me evaluate the public schools in San Francisco.

San Francisco Public School strategy
San Francisco Unified School District consists of a whopping 80 kindergartens. Only a really neurotic parent—definitely not me—would visit them all. So how will I develop a list of schools to tour? I’m considering many factors:

Language immersion Habla Espanol? Ideally, I'd like a Spanish immersion program and I'm also considering Chinese. I figure this is something that's unique to the city. You can't get it in the suburbs and I believe in exposing my children to other cultures.

Size of student body I'm hoping for a small school—no more than three kindergarten classes. My daughter picked up one of my many inconvenient phobias—fear of large groups.

Location I'm going to start by looking at schools that are within 15 minutes of my home in upper Noe Valley—but I may branch out.

Start times Some schools start at 7:50 a.m. and others start at 9:30 a.m. Start times don’t matter to me; I'm an early riser. But if you like to sleep in, this is something to consider.

After-school program I work and so this is a definite must-have.

Test scores Honestly, I’m suspicious of public school with superhigh test scores—I figure it means either they're teaching to the test or the school lacks diversity. What I want is a school with solid test scores.

List of public schools I hope to tour
Alice Fong Yu
Alvarado
Buena Vista
Clarendon
Fairmount
Grattan
Lakeshore
Lawton
Leonard R. Flynn
Miraloma
Rooftop
Stevenson
West Portal

Are there others schools I should add to this list? Let me know. Thanks!

Public school enrollment 101

No clue how the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) enrollment process works? Heard horror stories about parents quitting their jobs to homeschool their children who didn't get into an SF kindergarten? Friends in the suburbs asking you to explain why you don't know where your child is going to kindergarten next year? This post is for you.

SFUSD uses a "school choice" system. That means families may apply to any school in the district regardless of where they live. A family in Noe Valley can apply to a school in the Outer Richmond or in Pacific Heights or in Noe Valley. Freedom of choice doesn't sound so bad, but there's a catch.

Just because you want to go to a school doesn't mean that you automatically get to drop your little spawn off there on the first day of kindergarten. Actually, a lottery system assigns you to your school. Here's how it works:

The district consists of some 80 schools. Parents pick seven schools where they'd be happy sending their child. Usually, they come up with their list of seven by visiting schools on organized tours. Parents actually fill out a form, ranking their choices in order of preference. They turn in their forms by January 11—and hope for the best. On March 7, they receive a letter with a school assignment. If they're dissatisfied with their assignment, they can go through a waiting list process.

Sound insane? Actually, the odds of getting one of the seven schools are quite good: for the 2007-08 school year, 87 percent of families who applied on time received a school of their choice, and 67 percent got into their first choice. The district tries to accommodate a family's preferences or at least to get them into schools close to their homes. Those who aren't lucky the first time around usually get in through waiting lists.

Why do you have to play the lottery to send a child to school in San Francisco? Diversity. SFUSD uses what it calls a diversity index lottery system to achieve a blend of students of different backgrounds throughout the district. The index isn't based on race but rather parents' academic achievement, family income, and English proficiency. The diversity index kicks in only when there are more applicants than spots. So for example, there were 855 total requests for Rooftop (one of the more popular schools) last year but only a few dozen available spots.

For more information on the process, visit the San Francisco Parents for Public Schools Web site.

For those who have been through the process, please post your stories in comments.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A blog is born

Every few nights my sleep gets disrupted by a recurring nightmare. I go to drop my daughter off at school on her first day of kindergarten. It’s our dream school—the one I ranked first among the seven on my San Francisco Unified School District enrollment application or the private school where I'm certain my daughter will thrive. We walk up to the front door, I’m holding her little hand, and the school suddenly grows legs and runs away from us. We chase after the school, running as fast as we possibly can, but we’re unable to catch up. Finally, we give up, our tired bodies flopping down onto the ground.

Have you had similar scary dreams about the kindergarten search in San Francisco?

I’ve had several. After waking up in a feverish sweat the other night, panicked about where my daughter was going to end up next fall, I realized that I had to start a blog about my kindergarten search. “The SF K Files” was born.

I’m not launching this blog to feed the frenzy. I don’t want to whine, gossip, scare, exaggerate, overhype, or compete (please, let me know if I do). Nor do I want to brag endlessly about my precious little spawn who only deserves to go to San Francisco’s very best school (that would get really annoying). Rather, I want to recount my experiences while also offering tips on the kindergarten search and directing you to helpful resources. I’m also hoping to provide a place where parents can ask questions and empathize. Finally, I want to make sure my nightmare never comes true!

So let the search begin.

Tomorrow, I’m off on my first public school tour at Lakeshore. I’ll report back.