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:
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

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?


  1. looking forward to it!

  2. Kate, does Alvarado start at 8.15 or at 7.50? I thought that the SFUSD site said that the start time was 7.50. Is it later for kindergarten?

    Also, was there any discussion about what they are going to do about oversubscribed GLO? Is the answer just that some kids will go unserved?

  3. Oops! The start time is 7:50 a.m. Thanks for pointing that out. I'll make the change. It sounded like they didn't have a plan for dealing with the oversubscribed program. The guide said that parents were sending their children to other programs. She advised parents who got in the school to immediately sign up for GLO. Those who waited until the first day of school were the ones who missed out. Thanks! Kate

  4. Hi! Thanks for the blog, i'll be reading it regularly. i'm in the search as well and thought i'd comment on the class size. you'll find all K classes in around 20 because it's state mandated and all the schools are full i believe. Also, the upper grades (4th adn 5th) are kept smaller (alvarado boasts 28 per on average) in about 1/2 the school (again, i've only been told this.) You sounded very excited about this stat,so i wanted to say you'll find it elsewhere. will you tour Leonard Flynn? I go today...Thanks!!

  5. I am an Alvarado parent with two kids in the immersion program in the upper grades. We have been really happy with the school, with the main exception of the principal changes of just the last few years that you note. Last year was the nadir and everyone in the community knew it. We skated along with an organized parent community and experienced teachers, but now we are delighted to have Mr. Broecker, who is dedicated and caring and understands the school (e.g., site council funding issues) from the inside out.

    Some additional notes:

    On top of the two main strands, Alvarado has two special day classes for special ed (SPED) students (K-2, 3-5), and also has an inclusion program.

    In addition to GLO, Alvarado hosts a free, extended learning ExCEL program after school to support "at-risk" kids, along with the Alvarado Writers Workshop to build literacy skills. This is the first year I can remember that there was a significant wait list for GLO. I know there is a bus to some other programs, including the Catholic one at Guerrero and 23rd and several others. But obviously, anyone who really needs after school care should sign up as soon as the assignment letter arrives from SFUSD. In the past GLO has been able to accomodate part-timers by taking some kids 2 days, other kids 3 days; don't know if they still do. The majority of kids at GLO are full-time.

    More than Sand Tray, which is amazing, there is a social worker on staff. There are also several literacy teachers who do intensive work with kids who need extra help with reading from the earliest grades onward.

    One of the challenges, and also one of the wonderful aspects, about Alvarado is that it brings together a mix of Noe Valley kids (or similar, i.e., white, Anglo, socially advantaged in terms of education and resources) with primarily new immigrant Latino kids from the Mission and Excelsior who are socio-economically disadvantaged. I'll tell you it is not easy being a multi-cultural (and multi-class) school--we have our ups and downs--but it is worth it to keep trying. I think we get the best of all worlds.

    My relatively advantaged kids do very well in school and I am glad to say that their teachers do a good job of assigning "extensions" for them to keep them challenged, especially with the bigger homework projects, such as assigning more difficult books to read and requiring more detail and length in their writing than the norm. I love that they are in diverse classrooms; they are not hothouse flowers and there is a lot they do not take for granted. I think they will make better citizens in the long run for this.

    I take your point about the two strands. The school does a lot to bring all the kids together (e.g., many of the grade levels have classes that mix the kids up amongst all strands on certain days of the week), all-school assemblies, joint field trips, and shared curricula in science, all the arts classes, and computers. After school, GLO mixes all the kids together. It all seems to work okay and it does allow for more diversity, e.g., to have the special day program (which is not immersion, and is included in the much of the mixing described above) and to include families that for various reasons choose not to do immersion but who appreciate the school's special focus on Latino culture, such as the Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos commemoration, and also the arts curriculum. We have some families who have one kid in one strand and one kid in the other. There are wonderful teachers in both strands, such as Luis Sierra in the 3rd grade (immersion) and Laurie Baker-Flynn in kindergarten (general ed--we don't usually call it English only), though historically I would say the immersion teachers are really excellent at all levels.

    One last Alvarado note: we were one of the first schools to develop a family diversity/gay pride program. Principal Broecker was one of the original movers behind it, along with another teacher, and also several of our LGBT families. The school has done a well-received, and age-appropriate, series of workshops and an annual assembly on this topic for a number of years now.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this blog and share your impressions. I am translating some of your ideas for organizing the search to our own quest for a public middle school--yes, your kids will get to that point too, sooner than you can imagine!

    But enjoy the elementary years--I'm thinking of the great field trips that your not-yet-adolescent kids actually still hope you will go on with them (e.g., the one next month is a four-hour boat trip on the Bay to study aquatic life in the water and mud, and there is an overnight trip in May); volunteering in the classroom if you can; and also sharing the wonderful chapter books that the kids suddenly start to pick up and read voraciously--we pass them around the family and discuss plot developments over dinner. I think life gets better and better as the kids grow into older children.

    By the way, the cliche about doing fine wherever you end up for school really is true (perhaps a few terrible exceptions aside); the other parts of their lives (esp at home) are far more important. I realize knowing that won't stop everyone from stressing, but I will say I'm much less anxious about the school search this time around. There are challenges everywhere, and no perfect schools; the thing is to support your kids at home, and then to dig in to support the school community as a whole.

  6. They also have a motor skills program for the K - 1st graders. That's unique nowadays. And, something I really appreciate and many of the 4,5, and 6 year olds need.

  7. There is also a sunny library with books in English and Spanish. Each classroom gets weekly library time that the teachers use in different ways. Also there is a "Book Buddies" program that pairs older kids with the kindergartners for a period of reading aloud.

  8. Will you be looking at Leonard Flynn, Marshall, and Monroe since immersion is a high priority for you? Their Spanish immersion programs are newer, but good things are happening there. In particular, I hear the teaching staff at Flynn is great, and I know there is a strong parent community at Marshall (also carpools from the Bernal Heights area, which sounds close to where you live?) and free afterschool program. Also, what about Starr King and Ortega for Mandarin? Thanks

  9. Fairmount is converting to all immersion, year by year. This year's kinder is all Sp/Eng dual immersion. Active parent community, not as established as Alvarado, but a good place to be.

  10. I think Sherman also have the Sandtray - I recalled it being metioned on the tour and there is some detail on their website

    I was at the Monroe Fall Festival which was fun.

    If you are near Bernal and after Spanish Immersion you should include Paul Revere if you get time.

  11. Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback on Alvarado!

  12. Does anyone know what kind of music offerings there are at Alvarado at each grade level? Also, does anyone else out there find it troubling when a school has no PE teacher or consultant and therefore the regular classroom teachers are expected to teach PE?