Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reporting back from the enrollment fair

I'm lost! Can anyone relate to the feeling of not knowing which school you want your child to attend? It's this really uneasy feeling. You have a deep pit in your stomach. Possibly you're on the verge of tears. You're anxious, afraid to go to bed because you know you'll just lay there worrying. You feel like everyone else knows exactly which school is the perfect fit for their child—but you feel unsettled, nervous. Maybe you're starting to think about moving to the suburbs, fleeing the country. Well, that's how I'm feeling tonight. Sorry to be such a downer; I'm sure it will pass.

Before I went to the enrollment fair, I had a list of schools set in my mind. I was thinking Alice Fong Yu first, Buena Vista next, probably Alvarado immersion third. I was silly to rank schools in my mind so early because I have many more to visit but it was comforting to know which schools were my top choice. To stay sane, I needed something to hold onto.

But then I went to today's enrollment fair, which was an overwhelming, packed, chaotic event—though informative. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I toured Alice Fong Yu, a Cantonese immersion program, and loved it. When I arrived at the fair at 9 a.m., I made a beeline for the AFY booth. I was disappointed to find that the principal wasn't there so I chatted with a kindergarten teacher. She was nice but spent most of the time talking about the homework that the school piles up on students. And then a parent chimed in with, "It's an insane amount of homework. The one thing your child learns at this school is how to study." I started to wilt.

So I headed for the booth for Starr King, a Mandarin program that I'd heard was up-and-coming. I talked to a parent, and she basically said Cantonese is a useless language. "It's like learning Latin," she said. She went on and on about why Mandarin is the better dialect to learn. In my opinion, no language is useless. Anytime you learn a language, it stimulates your mind and gives you a broader perspective on the world. But Latin—that's one I'd probably skip. Should I be considering Starr King over AFY, I wondered?

Off to Leonard Flynn. The group of parents and principal at this booth were so warm, friendly, and intelligent that I would have enrolled on the spot if they would have let me. I felt like they truly wanted me to be a part of their community. They were bending over backward to tell me about their school and it felt good to be wanted. Flynn has a Spanish immersion program, and I definitely plan to tour. And I'm thinking, Might this be my first pick?

Buena Vista. Chatted with the principal, Larry Alegre, and this school is still a favorite. Alegre explained how BV is different than the other immersion programs. They're not a Title One school, which means they have more freedom with their curriculum. "We don't bow to the mandates of No Child Left Behind," Alegre said. BV teachers can spend more time on Spanish and the arts. I'm not entirely clear on this, though it sounds good.

But it was the Miraloma booth—with a bouquet of gigantic balloons hanging high above it—that blew me away. Energy was radiating out of this booth; you could feel it. The parents were jazzed and talking a mile a minute with huge smiles on their faces about the warm family community at the school. The principal was so animated and pumped up that I thought he might start break-dancing. I imagined everyone gathering around him cheering, "Miraloma! Miraloma! Miraloma!" Okay, another school that I'm looking forward to visit. But wait, this isn't even an immersion program? Initially, I thought I wouldn't even consider a non-immersion program. Now, I'm second-guessing that. I feel like my whole world has been turned upside down.

And then there's Lawton, lovely Lawton. A small school that goes all the way through eighth grade. Solid test scores, actually some of the highest. Solid academics. Solid teachers. The science program is so strong that the assistant principal told me the new Academy of Sciences is looking to Lawton to help them create children's programs for the museum. And again, no immersion.

Talked to Claire Lilienthal. The PTA raises a whopping $200,000 a year. It's too far from my home but it sounds like they certainly have their act together. The assistant principal Amanda was formerly working in a district outside LA. She went on and on about how much better the SF district is. "I've never seen anything like it," she said. "If I need lines repainted on the playground, I just call the district and they come out and do it. That never would have happened in LA." Good to hear.

Peabody. Supersmall with only two kindergartens. Emphasis on reading. If you're child is already reading in preschool sounds like this is a school to consider. They cater to individual students—mold the curriculum to a child's level. Sounded like private school speak. This one is also too far from my home.

I also attended two workshops: one on enrollment and the other on immersion programs. I'll report back on those in separate posts.

My husband picked me up at 3 p.m. I spent an entire six hours at the fair and I was tired and depressed. I slid into the car and the first thing my husband said was, "I've had a terrible day with the kids."

Alice and Sam were sitting in their car seats in the back. They hadn't napped and their eyes were tired and droopy.

"You can't say that in front of the kids!" I said.

"Well, they were the ones who were difficult all morning," he replied. "It's not my fault!"

Errrrrrr! Not what I needed! (My husband is a great guy, but like all of us, he has his bad days.)

I started to spill out all my feelings about the fair. I don't know if he was even listening but I needed to vent. We decided to drive by Starr King on our way home. To get to Starr King, we drove through a seemingly endless stretch of projects. At one point, I told my kids to duck because I thought a guy trying to cross the street was holding a knife (I've been held up at gun point so I get paranoid at times). It turns out the sun was reflecting off his cell phone. We finally got to the school, which sits on a ridge at the edge of the projects development. I'd heard the neighborhood was rough but I wasn't prepared. Regardless, I'll still tour. You can't judge a school by its neighborhood.


  1. Glass half-empty vs. half-full...

    I read this blog and other forums where parents of young kids are talking schools to each other, and one piece of advice I see shared is often: You'll know the right school; you'll just feel it.

    That implies that there's ONE right school.

    This post gives me the opening to say -- you know what? Based on being in my 21st kid-year as an SFUSD parent, no, there ISN'T one right school. There are any number of schools where your child will thrive.

    If you can't decide because so many seem appealing, that's hardly a bad thing. If you see 20 schools that you like and agonize about how to narrow it down to seven, that's saying something pretty good about our schools!

    I wouldn't blow off the issue of neighborhood safety, though. That does matter. On the other hand, here's some perspective. My husband's longtime friend and co-worker had three kids go through Buena Vista, older than my kids (mine are in 11th and 8th grade now). The friend had told my husband over the years of a couple of incidents of gunfire outside BV and the school going into lockdown -- again, we're talking about long ago, 1980s to mid-'90s. So my husband refused to even consider BV because of its "dangerous" neighborhood. Since we have many friends with kids our kids' ages who did choose BV, we know quite well that the "violent" neighborhood has not been a problem for any of them.

    My own preference is for a school where I can drop the kid and go out nearby for a good coffee. In our time at Lakeshore, there were many families who dropped an older kid at one of the surrounding middle schools (Hoover, Giannini and Aptos all start at 9) and often stopped at Tully's in Lakeshore Plaza to kill the half-hour till we could drop our Lakeshore children for the 9:30 start. It's true the nearly-daily coffee is one of those frivolous expenditures. But it was worth it when all these parents who had kids in both Lakeshore and middle school would congregate for a brief social/coffee interlude (depending on health-consciousness, kids would get cocoa or steamed milk). Oh, the school is good too, but maybe it's those Tully's mornings that really matter!

  2. I concur with Caroline. I find it reassuring that there are so many good choices out there. I've been very impressed with what I've seen at the school tours. (I've been to about eight so far.) What I've been amazed to discover is that there is a real disconnect with general public perception and what's really happening at the schools. It's been such an incredibly positive experience.

    I am taking to heart some advice imparted by Dr. Adams Dudley of the famous Adams spreadsheet last week at the Enrollment Event at Francis Scott Key. He said not to marry yourself to just one school because you may not get it. But feel reassured that each school you list will be a good school and will offer a unique experience that may be as good as any other.

  3. It's interesting that you find Peabody and Claire B too far from your home, but you would be willing to consider Marin Country Day, which is much, much farther (and SF Day, which is almost as far). We tend to take the opposite attitude: If a school costs $20K/year, it should be close. But we would drive to get to a free school!

  4. One other thing. I studied Latin for three years in high school and found it foundational. The grammar in particular helped me both in language acquisition and in math (there is a link between grammar and math skills). My sister and brother studied Latin as well. Both are fluent in more than 4 languages each currently, including Japanese (learned as an adult). I have to think that Cantonese might be similar.

    That said, the homework and pressure of AFY is something to consider. Each family needs to figure out what is the appropriate amount of homework and pressure for their children - too much or too little.

    Personally we are probably going to give AFY a skip because the women in my family are too prone to self-pressure, eating disorders and anxiety as it is!

  5. I love your blog! I went through enrollment last year, and remember being overwhelmed and confused and stressed after visiting several schools and not knowing what ingredients were were more important in choosing a school... one has a great principal, but not a great staff or location. Another has a great staff but horrible test scores and facility. Still another has an awesome PTA but horrible diversity. And if you consider after school care, well... We used a great tool from for prioritizing our values in choosing a good school. Using that tool was a good exercise that brought much needed clarity to the process and it made me feel better about the selection, also. I highly recommend it.
    Keep blogging!
    Oh, I should tell you. We only applied to Spanish Immersion schools and *my favorite* was Marshall, but we got into Flynn and are quite happy.

  6. The MCDS bus picks up the kids several blocks from our house--so that's why it makes sense.

  7. Rosi from Flynn. I'd love to hear more about your school. I plan to tour soon and I'll post a review. I hope you'll contribute in the comments section. I've heard really wonderful things about Flynn and I loved the group of parents at the enrollment fair.

  8. Kate, if you're coming to tour Flynn in the next few weeks, I'll likely be (co-)leading the tour. I'm easy to spot - I'm 6'6". Introduce yourself and I'll find Rosi for you.

    ... dave

  9. I couldn't agree more with what Rosi said. Prioritizing is key. If immersion is very important then focus on the immersion schools, if small schools are important, focus on the small schools, etc.

    Otherwise, in my opinion, you'll find yourself needlessly overwhelmed.

    I think it helps to make a list then as Rosi suggested,use the Great Schools tools.

    Best of luck with everything.

  10. I have to say it's kind of amusing that one family would be considering both Marin Country Day and Starr King.

    This reminds me of some years ago when I was at a party in Marin given by friends who were Marin Waldorf parents. A dad who was a fellow party guest asked me what school my children attended, and when I said San Francisco public, he visibly recoiled. I refrained from telling him not to worry because my kids had left their firearms and gang insignia at home.

    Not a fan of private schools in any case, I admit to having a particular bias against MCDS. That's because I grew up in Mill Valley myself at a time when California public schools were really well-funded, so there was no reason to flee to private school. MCDS was the school chosen by the super-elite and super-snobbish. Back then there were working-class families in our nearly-all-white Mill Valley schools, so MCDS families would be those who didn't want their children associating with anyone below their social class, no matter how white.

    Maybe it's not fair to dredge up reminders of what private schools used to be all about. But I'm not really convinced that's not still what they're all about, with a little superficial spiffing up to look diverse and egalitarian for the 21st century.

  11. Agree with Anon re: distance for publics vs priv. Considered Hamlin & MCDS (we are south of GG Park), yet initially not SHERMAN right next to Hamlin in Cow Hollow/Pac Hts. Go figure. We chose Sherman for our K'er & are THRILLED.

    Kate, Consider SHERMAN. Amazing school, strong academics (API scores rival Lilienthal's), lots of enrichment (art, music, computer, dance, gardening etc), awesome principal, enthusiastic warm parent participation, esp in K-2, beautiful bldg & new gardens/waterfall. Educated prof'sl families have "discovered" this jewel, some selecting it over privates. Tours are Fri 9 am.

  12. Caroline,

    I teach at MCDS and would encourage you to come take another look at our school before casting aspersions based on your own admitted biases on a blog.

    Is MCDS a community with many affluent families who chose to opt-out of public school? Certainly. But 40%+ of our students come from San Francisco, we have indexed tuition ranging from $500-$20,805/year, and with 540 kids, we certainly have a wide variety of families who are here for a wide variety of reasons.

    I'd refer you back to Kate's insightful "What have I learned from writing this blog?" post and ask you to remember that families choose schools and communities based on many different factors.


  13. I know, Barbara. My bias is based on MCDS' history. But you have to admit that's a pretty loathesome history to overcome.

  14. Barbara,

    We hope to have time to visit MCDS. Our work schedules and need to drop off two children at preschool (we don't have a nanny) make it difficult to get out to Marin to take a look. (Although that could weed us out. We live in a southern, lower-'class' socio-economically SF neighborhood.)

    I will say that I know of quite a few EXTREMELY wealthy people, including those worth tens of millions of dollars, and I know that it remains actually quite true that MCDS remains the school of choice for the wealthiest of wealthy, including children of billionaires. Of course, this is the Bay Area, so highly wealthy children attend all private schools. But MCDS, as wonderful as it is, remains the top choice for the truly top-most unattainable elite.

    I'm sure it is a nice place, though! And I applaud its efforts to diversify.

    If we won the lottery, we'd like to go there too.

    BTW, we hear that SHERMAN is great!!! We hope to check it out. (Note comments about work schedules above.)

    For better or for worse, we receive a lot of our information here on this blog. And I'm happy that Caroline posts a lot. She represents a point of view that is not often heard, and deserves to be.

    And FWIW, we are looking at both private and public, and are making our decision in part by how we perceive the parents and people involved with all schools.


  15. In past years I have volunteered to be a live, in-person parent peer counselor at enrollment sessions. I can't do that this year, so I'm trying to offer the veteran's perspective online as much as possible. This is a great forum for that.

  16. While I'm unsure about MCDS' "loathesome history," I'm completely sure (in response to Anonymous) that the Admissions folks would be more than happy to schedule an off-hours tour for parents who are unable to attend the regular tour dates.


  17. Well, all longtime private schools have the same legacy to overcome. They didn't exactly seek out diversity a couple of generations ago -- au contraire -- their entire purpose was the opposite.

    (A friend who attended Hamlin long ago tells me its original name was "The Sarah Dix Hamlin School for Fashionable Young Ladies," though I haven't been able to confirm that.)

  18. I'm a product of both private and public schools and both have there merits. I was a scholarship kid and living proof that private school can be attainable for lower middle class families, or a single mom in my case. I think we should try and keep the comments positive and free of rants on this blog. I'm a parent trying to find a school in SF and appreciate this form, but let's keep it positive and useful. I'm looking for a school next year not 20 to 30 years ago.

  19. Honestly, what I think is not useful is too much "positive" and too little ranting!

    It's nice to have people state their opinions, no matter how strong. It just goes to show how strongly people feel about the issues. It makes me sad how people always feel pressured to hold back their true feelings.

    Here are some of my true feelings:

    1. There is a lot of snobbery in San Francisco, some of it associated with private schools.

    2. There is some racism in San Francisco. Some people prefer private schools because they fear that minorities drag down scores or make schools more dangerous.

    3. Some private schools offer incredible educational opportunities that many public schools can't offer. That said, with enrichment, public schools can offer perfectly fine experiences too.

    4. Some people just can't afford private schools, and scholarship money may not be enough to cover it.

    5. When a person has a choice, choosing one school over another can be a political choice, not just a personal choice.

    6. People are free to make their own choices. Other people are free to criticize them. It's a free country!

  20. I, too, appreciate a little "ranting" if it is intelligent and opens up good lines of argumentation. I believe Caroline meets that standard and keeps us honest, and we should thank her for her persistence and also her willingness to identify herself publicly. The point of this blog is to help Kate and others (thank you, Kate, for providing this forum) make intelligent decisions about schools. I'm guessing we do not want to make bad decisions because others were quiet to spare our feelings; the point is to gather information and opinions that we can evaluate and use.

    The thrust of the public-private debate, as I have read it here, is not make individuals feel guilty. At least, I don't read most of the pro-public comments that way. I am seeing several separate arguments:

    1) Individual benefit. The idea that public school may be the better choice for our families because there are many, indeed increasing numbers, of wonderful public schools in SF that will provide a very good, and on some indices perhaps even superior, education to many of the privates and at the impossibly low price of free (compared to upwards of half a mil for two children K-12 in private). Why pay so much more for benefits that may not be benefits? Some of the public schools have programs that many of the privates do not have, including SPED programs, language programs, etc., plus wonderful diversity that even the most determined and progressive privates have never attained.

    2) Public benefit and civic responsibility. That making a choice for public boosts education for all, and is a contribution that middle and professional class families can make to our democracy by helping to educate all our kids. Keeps resources (time and talent) in the common sphere, and counteracts the trends in our country toward separate but equal for different classes of folks, aka in our era, privatization.

    3) Combining 1 + 2 somewhat, the suggestion that public school may be better for our own kids because it inculcates democratic values of supporting, and learning from, the commons. Not "specialness" compared to everyone else, but "we're all in it together, in all our diversity." That there is a value in that for our kids, an issue of character really, and what kind of values we want them to hold dear; also what kind of society / world we want them to be helping to lead someday.

    These are important ideas, and the time to think about them is exactly when looking for schools for our kids, so I'm glad they are being expressed.

  21. I also appreciate the debate. Education choices are not value-neutral. Along similar lines, think about environmentalist efforts to get all of us reduce our carbon footprints. Like most Americans, I am not a saint here: I own a car, though I try to walk and BART as much as possible, and with the fog that descended on the city last night I caved in and turned on the heat. And I take an annual long airplane trip. But beyond my little pieces of guilt (who cares), one could argue that we have responsibility, as a community, to our children to put the information out there (for a few examples) about the the impact of SUVs over smaller cars over hybrids over bicycles; to change our lightbulbs to the new fluorescents; to eat locally; and above all to advocate for broad policies to push for and create incentives for change in use of fossil fuels. One might especially argue for these on a blog dedicated to making decisions to secure a good environmental future for our child(ren).

    Well, similar issues apply, though they may be more hidden, in school choices. The issues are much broader than whether our own little Janeys or Juanitas will thrive in a particular kindergarten and elementary, although of course that is a very important factor. There are bigger issues at stake here and I am glad they are being unmasked here. Going private is a little like buying a Hummer. Again--I'm no saint-I do things every day that benefit only me but really, in the big picture, probably harm the community and my kids' future. I consume more than my share. So I'm not trying to guilt anyone, just call it like it is. The parents on this blog who are seeking a school are facing choices that involve mixing the individual needs of their families with community impact. There are values to be considered.

    Too often this is presented to us as a simple consumer choice (you know, like buying a car--doesn't have anything to do with anyone else....except it really does.)

  22. I compare choosing private school to living in a gated community or driving an SUV -- a personal choice with a negative social impact that an ethical person needs to weigh.

    I have a purebred dog purchased from a breeder, so that's a similar case in which I made the choice that has negative social impact. Just so it's clear I can't be totally holier than thou! (My 13-year-old has a guilt-inducing bumper sticker on her trombone case: "Don't Buy or Breed -- Adopt." Though of course she loves our Lab.)

  23. Those of us who have had a good or even great public school experience can attest to the power of a healthy public school system. I went through public school in the east bay and cannot complain. I didn't need a private school education because I got an equitable one. I'm not bitter, nor do I scorn private schools for providing education to those who can afford their schools. I want every school to meet the educational needs of children. Since all schools are not equal, it's different and parents need to be more strategic in choosing a school. The interest in this blog attests to the importance you all place on the process.