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.


  1. Kate, can you be more specific about why this school only merited 3.5 stars? I know you don't want to be negative, but maybe you can share what it seems to lack.

  2. I'm going to give your question more thought before I fully answer it as I want to provide you with a thoughtful response. But I do have a few things to initially share: Please, don't get caught up in the apple ratings; I think the write-ups I provide in the impressions section is more important and telling. Also, every school that I review and post on this site, I'm recommending. If I were to tour a school where I think a child would get a horrible education or that I think is entirely unsafe, I'm not going to include it on my site. Though I don't think these sorts of schools exist in our city. Plus, I think a rating of three and a half stars for a school that's up-and-coming. one that's considered a hidden gem, is very strong. This isn't the lowest rating that I've given a school. Another thought: My absolute favorite restaurant in this city is La Ciccia, a place that only garnered one and a half stars in San Francisco magazine.

  3. If the apple ratings aren't meaningful, then why do them?

  4. I loved the principal's answer to the quesiton "why should I go to your school?"

    I worked at the school fair and heard this question numerous times. I wish I had heard his answer, I'm going to use it from now on.

    This isn't about them selling schools to us, it's about finding the best match for our children.

    What excites me about a school, what I find valuable isn't going to resonate with everyone else.

    A question on the apple ratings, what is your scale? Is six the highest (I understand this is subjective)

  5. Not paying attention to the apples would be in keeping with the principal's talk.

    Fairmount's not exactly a hidden gem though--I believe it gets more applicants than seats every year.

    Low tests scores do definitely affect teachers' focus and scope. But our family's experience is congruent with what you report. The principal encourages teaching the whole child and most of the teachers know how to do that. And I think the scores are high enough this year that some of the heat is off.

    And, of course, this system of test and punish is just WRONG.

    We--my husband, daughter and I-- have a very sentimental attachment to Fairmount. As my daughter graduates this summer, we'll probably get even more sentimental. We will remember the community spirit, the sweet moments between teachers and kids, the opportunity for us learn to work with people of very differen backgrounds than our own. And we have worked very hard. along with others, to help the school improve access to arts and technology. You saw, though, there is a ways to go.

    It's another systemic problem: chronic lack of resources in publc education. Parents should not have to spend so much time and effort providing the basics. For one thing, it only widens gaps between haves and have-nots. Consider the differences between schools where parent groups raise 5K, 50K or 500K. And consider this: to address chronic asthma among our students, a large group of parents got and installed those blue linoleum tiles you saw.

    Ok, off my soapbox temporarily set up at your blog. Good luck in your search.

  6. Kate, thanks for this blog.

    I'm an SFUSD parent of two who now looking at middle schools for my oldest. Based on our time in elementary, I would say the factors of great principal, great teachers, great parents and overall great community are the most important. Really, the kids whose parents are motivated to check out this blog are going to be fine in terms of academics and enrichment, because family--the most important factor for success--will provide it. The school is more of a context for pulling learning together in a coherent and more formal way, and if that context is a good one, the stuff will cohere.

    The thing is, you can't reverse this equation. I mean, a well-resourced school that lacks supportive community and good leadership will not be a good learning environment for most kids. I'm not implying that any school you have written about is not supportive, but you have highlighted Fairmount as having this in spades. So in that sense, it sounds to me like Fairmount is a winner.

    The bells and whistles of computers, arts, etc. are certainly important and worth fighting for in terms of resources, especially since not all kids have access to them through their families. Making a fabulous public school helps to level the playing field--creates more equity for all the kids there. But it has to start with leadership and community.

    I also wouldn't underplay the fact that Fairmount is walkable, just two minutes away from your home. Location is a factor for me in choosing middle schools, even though it will drop some good ones off the list. I work and I have a commute already. Adding 45-60 minutes each way to my drive, or to my kid's MUNI bus trip, just doesn't seem sustainable to our family life. While MCDS sounds amazing, I know my kids would not love spending 100 minutes every day for six or nine years on a bus, even one with a cool bus culture. That's a lot of time for a kid, especially a little one. My kids at least would rather be hanging at home (most of all), or running around playing capture the flag or somesuch at afterschool. Maybe I should mention that my family has strong personalities and low frustration thresholds, so I really have to plan for that....maybe you all are more serene and would tolerate the long day and commute better?

    It must be easier on the MCDS kids who live near 14th and Lake (Laurel Heights, Seacliff I guess), as I guess their daily commute is as little as half that of the kids who get off in Noe.

  7. Kate, do you still intend to tour Flynn? What about Marshall or Monroe (other immersion schools)? I have friends who are big Marshall boosters.

  8. Yes! I plan to visit Flynn. Looking forward to it. I've heard wonderful things and I loved the group of parents at the table at the enrollment fair. Thanks!

  9. I would just like to second the comment of the poster who said that location has to be important: I limited my K search to the schools closest to our home and four years in, BOY am I glad I did that.

    I am at school all the time. I pop in to teach an art class or lead a tour - today my husband and I made two or three round trips to school : he helped in one classroom for an hour this morning, then I showed up and took pictures of our daughters at the Halloween parade, then he came back and dropped off our party contribution, then I came back and helped clean up after the party - it was kind of a tiring day and we don't do that all the time but if my daughters were attending a school across town there is no way I would be there as often as I am, and volunteering would be a much bigger deal than it is now.

  10. My daughter is a recent Fairmount graduate, and I wanted to say a little about our experience of elementary school.
    First I should say that I love Fairmount, and the best thing about it for us was the community. I'm also tending to think that the community is the most important thing in any elementary school. Certainly my daughter was lucky to have great teachers every year, and she very much enjoyed the arts and PE programs that the parents worked so hard to raise money for. Also the school site is spacious and pleasant, with views out over the city and plenty of trees and sky visible from every window.

    But I think the thing which made the biggest difference for her was that she felt the school belonged to her. Having your parents and your friends' parents doing projects at the school, talking about the school (often worrying about the school), picking up trash, weeding the garden--and all those many other things we did together for six years--sends a clear message that school matters and that it isn't something separate from real life.

    It also shows a young person that it's possible to be powerful in the world, and to make things right by working together with other people. After a couple of years of not-very-good principals, the parents and teachers got together to recruit a good one (Karling) and lobbied the school district to let us have him.

    There were a lot of times when I complained about how much work it all was, and wished we could just go someplace where there was plenty of money and everything worked well. But the truth is that doing worthwhile work with other people is what pulls you together, and we were lucky to have that chance to get close to so many good people.

    Test scores were not an issue for us. Like most children of well-educated middle-class parents, our daughter did well on the tests. Making sure that children from families without the same resources can do as well is a challenge that Fairmount (along with all other schools in this country) has to deal with.

    And one last comment: the school was close to our house and it was nice being able to walk to school, but the best thing was that many of her friends were also close by, so it was easy to arrange playdates and carpools.

    What I don't know, of course, is whether this community will continue. I think school cultures change, or maybe cycle through different levels of involvement. It all depends on getting enough active parents there each year, to make new committments to each other and to the school.

  11. I'm posting this comment as a Fairmout parent, not as a reader of this blog . . . I don't know what the apples mean, I don't really know anything about the blogger or her criteria. As a window into the Fairmount community, links to this blog have been posted a few times on the school-wide listserv; we are proud of our school and we are committed to letting parents know about the great scene we have.

    I think the post was fairly accurate insofar as it noted the strengths of the school -- amazing community, fabulous staff, energetic principal who acts as an advocate for the kids and for his staff -- and to some extent the weaknesses -- the lack of some of the bells and whistles.

    I also second (or third, or more) some of the sentiments of the commenters: you cannot overstate the warmth of the community at fairmount and the degree to which the kids feel as though the school is for them and belongs to them; in my experience, location is very, very important; that parent involvement is always a challenge but that the parents at Fairmount always pull through and get done what is needed to get done!

    The before and after care program at Fairmount is excellent and provides a great deal of enrichment activities--art and sports and academics and fun.

    My biggest piece of advice to any prospective parent is to listen as little as possible to what other parents have to say and to stick to your own criteria and to see things for yourself. Our four main criteria were: spanish immersion, location, start time, and vibe. Fairmount was our first choice--obviously it met the first three (we live blocks away and were only looking at schools with 8:40 start times), but the vibe put Fairmount at the top of our list.

    Another thing to keep in mind, prospective parents, is that things can change rapidly at a school as kids graduate and their parents are no longer involved. The school your kid goes to will be the place you make it.

  12. It can be a great experience for all (including the kids) to be a part of a school that is pulling itself up. There is so much energy and passion and pride in a group that would self-select that sort of school. Once has school has gotten "there" in terms of test scores and reputation, you have to keep the energy going, and not all those who jump onto that wagon are willing, and in some cases able, to contribute as much energy. If you have the courage, seems to me the best time to join is when it is on the way up, but still looks a little scruffy around the edges. If you have time and energy to give, I think it would be an attractive option to be part of a community that is working so hard to improve and has so much "heart." Seems like Fairmount is in this situation.

  13. Will you be visiting Paul Revere? Even though I live steps from Fairmount, my "neighborhood school" is Paul Revere. I've heard fantastic things about the principal and the school in general over the last 2 years (since the last principal left), but would love to see your take on it.

  14. I agree with the person on Nov 1 who noted location, start time and vibe as factors that were important to them. It was the same for us last year. I understand the tempatation for one to go for the best school in their mind's eye, whatever that might be. But I was really aiming for sanity in the day to day.

    Our first 3 choices were Flynn, then BV, then Fairmount which are the 3 closest public schools to our house with SPI.

    When we bought our house in 1997 I NEVER would have guessed that our public school (Flynn) would have been an option. When I learned of the immersion program beginning (4 years ago when my son was 2) I knew what that would mean to the school and always had Flynn in the back of my mind.

    It wasn't like the school blew me away when I first visited it last year (my son is in K now) because it is a poorer school which means fewer programs (Flynn cannot compete in programs with a school whose PTA raises $250k.) But in randomly interviewing parents taking their kids to school past my house - of all races, they universally said they liked it.

    As one of the posters here said, I think being a part of something on the way up is so exciting.

    And, I love the walk back and forth to school. For us it means a walk past Precita Park and I have TWO cafes to choose from on my way back home! I feel very much a part of the neighborhood and it plays into so many romantic notions I have - walking my kindergartner to a grand old neighborhood school, recognizing the people we pass along the way, getting to know the rhythms of the neighborhood, the woman who sweeps in front of her house daily, the UPS guy making his rounds, the people walking dogs.

    Walking to school has enriched our lives for sure.

    I was impressed with Fairmount last year, and if it's close to your house, that is a big gift.

  15. Hi Kate,

    As a Monroe parent I'd urge you to tour our school--there are several Bernal families there (including us) and we love it. Our older daughter is in 2nd grade Spanish immersion there and our younger will be starting kinder next fall. It's got a really great parents' community, lots of enrichment as well as academics and a smart & dedicated principal, among other things. Give it a look if you can! It's 8 minutes door to door from our house in Bernal.

  16. After visiting Fairmount this week, I was certainly impressed by the sense of community and the commitment of the parents -- things that are crucial to my search. Many of the posters have echoed this description of Fairmount.

    But what do I do if I am on the fence about Spanish Immersion? What I really want is a good school with a great community for my child. But I'm concerned that it would be too challenging for me (a non-Spanish speaker) to feel connected to a Spanish Immersion program.


  17. Shannon, both my children are in a Spanish immersion program. We are an English-speaking family. It is ultimately a personal choice, of course, but I would say go for it!

    Most European countries routinely teach their schoolkids multiple languages, but we Americans have lagged behind in that; now it seems there are more communities trying to provide it (did you see the USA Today article that was posted on Mandarin education....somewhere on this blog).

    As for the challenge, it can be an adjustment at first. Some kids take to it like ducks to water, others take a few weeks or as much as two months. Within a few months, the vast, vast majority are speaking the target language with amazing good accents. Really, these kids just soak it up at their age. Occasionally there are kids who need to focus in other areas, and leave the program, but that is really rare.

    As for your own ability to connect....well, I'm not at Fairmount, but I'm sure they send home instructions and news to parents in both languages. The teachers are bilingual, so parent-teacher conferences will be in your language. Many other parents will be in your situation, so it will be multicultural context that includes your culture, not you fitting in to someone else's culture.

    Homework in kinder will be easy for you to follow. Basically, you will be learning vocab along with your kid via pictures. In the upper grades (unless you take Spanish, which for various reasons I did not) it will be harder, since the kids' Spanish will far surpass yours. We have well-thumbed dictionaries in our homework area, and sometimes we all look up unfamiliar words together (recent example: oviparo= egg-layer as opposed to animals who do not lay eggs outside themselves...). But of course, there is more English taught in the upper grades too, so only half the homework is in Spanish at that point.

    Learning a second language is worth the effort. In our more and more inter-connected world, you will be giving your child a gift. It's also a gift of multiculturalism, because language aquistition is a door into a culture. You may learn some things yourself, even if you do not study Spanish on your own. And if you found Fairmount to be a great community, to me it's a no-brainer; it is really so important to have that context for learning.

  18. Kate - I have to agree with you about the "heart" of this school and the fact that the principal, Karling, is genuine and honest. I really like this school and even thought the scores aren't where I'd like them to be. For Spanish immersion, this school seemed to fit the bill for me. I was impressed by Karling's answers to my questions about how the school teaches and promotes family and cultural diversity. I also was impressed to walk into a first grade classroom and hear the teacher in Spanish helping the students learn about Chanukah - very enlightened, very San Francisco! This school is really a unique gem with a wonderful separate play yard for the Kindergartners with a tremendous play structure. I also loved the pods and the 4th grade social studies class I observed had a teacher who was awesome. Another strong factor to consider is that this school has made a point of having more male teachers, there is at least one in every grade. This is very responsible given the trend these days is to overlook male teachers.

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

  20. Hey, I just heard that Karling got promoted and will be working for the District next year. Placements are going to be mailed this week...and Fairmount was number one on my list in large part because of him. I can't explain how disappointed I am, and second guessing different placement letter scenarios.

  21. Jennifer - did you get Fairmount? I'm guessing if you did not you will not be reading this, but if you did please let us know what you are going to do. We did get it and are wondering what to do next.