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).
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
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."
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.