Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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:
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?


  1. I was also impressed with Buena Vista and all of the opportunities offered there. The only real "con" for me is the location. It's sandwiched in between the 101 freeway which is clearly audible from the play yard. This said, it doesn't outweigh the many "pros" you mentioned.

  2. Do we really need opera and ballet on a weekly basis in Elementary School? I'm all for new experiences, broadening minds, but I'd prefer my kids to hone their thinking and reasoning skills, not learning folklorico every week.

  3. My daughter started K this year at Miraloma (amazingly, we received our first choice on the first round). My husband and I toured 17 schools, all public, and we were pleasantly surprised that we had to actually narrow our list DOWN to seven. One word of encouragement, eveyone I know, including those who got NONE of their choices on the first round, ended up at the school of their choice. Through persistence - 2nd and 3rd rounds and waiting lists, and a few had to wait out the ten day count, but it happened. About touring - Almost all of the schools offer the same basic stuff. The things to really look at are all of the "extras". Is the PTA active and raising money? What are they spending their money on? Is the principal motivated? Be sure to look at all of the grades at the school, not just K.
    One thing that really helped me get through the process - We got together several times for dinner (and drinks!)with a core group of other parents and talked about the schools and the process. It was so helpful to bounce things off of eachother and share information, and really helped all of our stress levels. Good luck!

  4. In response to Chenerypops, this is a perfect example of why different families like different kinds of schools -- and the upside of the fact that SFUSD is an all-choice school district.

  5. For language programs, you might want to consider the the difficulty of each language for English speakers. The difficulty can also be broken down into the classic components: speaking/listening, reading/writing, vocabulary, grammar, and cultural references.

    Chinese is hard mainly because the writing system takes hundreds of hours of character memorization. The grammar isn't too hard, but vocabulary and speaking also take more effort than average.

    For non-native languages you should ask how well they assess the kids' progress, since you won't be able to do so yourselves very easily.

  6. Can anyone speak to the homework challenge faced by families who speak only English at home but send their kids to an immersion program? I'm not interested in micromanaging my kids' homework, but realistically, I know that they will sometimes need a little help. How can I do that when I don't speak the language they are learning? I love the idea of immersion but am wondering how families stay engaged with what their kids are learning when they don't speak both languages.

  7. I toured all 7 Spanish programs in SFUSD. What struck me about BV is that the test scores seem to be going DOWN. Now, I'm not using test scores as a primary criterion for choosing a school, but nearly all of the other Spanish immersion programs have shown an improvement over the last 5 years. I asked the principal about this and he implied that the other programs may not be 'sticking with' the immersion program when it comes to test preparation.

    I'm curious to hear others' thoughts on the academics at BV.

  8. In case any current parents are reading this thread - do younger siblings get any priority placements in the pre-school attached to BV if an older sibling attends Kindergarten (or older grade) there?

  9. I know Buena Vista has this great "buzz" and all. Just to again warn parents that they need to look behind the buzz, let me give you a real experience of a K parent at Buena Vista this year. She was dropping her kid off when the principal came running after her. A first grade teacher was absent and her sub had failed to show. So, she asked, could this person take over the class? Moreover, this is not the first time that this supposed top notch school has ben so disorganized that it has found itself without teachers to run classes. If that story troubles you -- and it should -- it is indicative of the fact that some schools with supposed "buzz" are just not living up to their rep. Again, buyer beware -- ask the tough questions!

  10. Oh, how I love a third-person account from an anonymous source!
    Don't get me wrong--that's a horrible story. How common or particular it is to one school over another would be excellent to find out.

  11. I just found this site in response to reading the Sups letter to the 23 families affected by the Alvarado/Flynn snafuu.

    In response to Anonymous questioning how to support kids in immersion when the parents don't speak the language: My kids are now in middle and high school and attended immersion elementary schools. In kindergarten and 1st grade, it's pretty easy to help the kid with homework. We bought a dictionary and asked the teacher with any questions. I also encouraged my kids to get to know the Spanish speaking kids for help on homework. Then, when they started reading (1st/2nd grade), they were able to read the instructions themselves and tell me what they needed to do.

    Immersion worked for us beautifully. My kids appreciate the opportunity they got to learn another language.


  12. In response to amermoop about the downward trend of test scores at BV, that trend is mostly due to the influx of newcomer students that enter BV in the upper grades without having any prior English and to its changing population over the years. BV is now a title one school that services a much more diverse population than it had previously. The test scores also show that except in rare cases BV students make at least one year's growth every year and often make 2+ year's growth. The difficulty of straight test scores is that they don't account for the students' history to show positive change. That said, I suggest you judge the academic rigor/ atmosphere during the tours and talk to current parents- especially in the upper grades- at ALL the schools you are considering. (Full disclosure: I am a BV teacher and will send my child there.)

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