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.
Web site: www.mcds.org
School tours: by appointment only
Location: 5221 Paradise Dr., Corte Madera
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
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.
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?