Thursday, October 18, 2007

Synergy School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a welcoming, homey, warm, cheerful environment; a commitment to teaching children social skills (respect, responsibility, encouragement, cooperation are four important words at this school); an emphasis on learning through hands-on projects (even in middle school geometry, students were using manipulatives); curriculum focused on thematic units/project-based learning (for example kindergartners study apples for several weeks, making apple pies, singing apple songs, reading apple stories); combination classrooms (students stay with same teacher for two years); a pre-k program; a private education at a reasonable price.

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: by appointment only, call 567-6177
Location: 1387 Valencia St., at 25th
Grades: K–8
Start time: 8:30 a.m. (doors open at 8 a.m.)
Kindergarten size: 24 students (six of the 24 spaces are reserved for young kindergartners who stay in the class for two years); 2 teachers
Total student body: 184 students
Tuition: $12,500
Financial aid: 33 percent of families receive some aid, no full scholarships offered
Playground: two small, nicely landscaped play yards with fruit trees (children bake pies made from apples grown on campus)
Before- and after-school program: before-care, 7:15 a.m.–8 a.m.; after-care, 3:30 p.m.–6 p.m.; full-time extended care is $220 per month
Language: kindergartners, once a week; 1st–8th, twice a week
Highlights: students have music and P.E. twice a week; art, music, and drama is regularly integrated into the curriculum; new, networked Macs in most classrooms; lots of field trips; elective classes for middle school students include yoga, Web design, yearbook, fine art, dance.

Kate's impressions
A private school for the middle class? Yes, it exists.

Synergy offers a progressive private school education at a fair price: $12,500 a year. The tuition is among the lowest five percent in the Bay Area.

"We focus on middle income families so we don't have a lot of really wealthy families and then a lot who are on full financial aid," says Elena Dillon, the director of admissions.

How does Synergy keep tuition low? The school doesn't pay for full-time administrators. Elena Dillon is the director of admissions, but she also teaches middle school. It's a teacher cooperative—i.e., everyone teaches, everyone's involved. The teachers all serve on the board with a group of parents—a collegial outfit that works together.

The school is committed to diversity. Current student body's racial diversity: 13 percent African American, 1 percent African, 9 percent Asian American, 12 percent Latino, 7 percent multi racial, 58 percent Euro American. But Synergy isn't only about ethnic diversity—it opens its arms to unique family situations: two moms, two dads, single parents, grandparents, foster parents. When it was founded 35 years ago, it was one of the few schools in the city to welcome gay and lesbian families.

The education is progressive. What does that mean? Children are learning through hands-on projects; they're working collaboratively in groups; and they're focusing on one theme or project for several weeks. In the classroom, I observed fully engaged kids moving around and doing stuff. In one classroom, they were making tamales, in another they were learning about force and motion by moving around little cars, in another they were practicing Spanish vocabulary by playing a game. At Synergy, a science teacher would never perform in front of the class mixing potions. Rather, the kids would get their hands dirty and do the experiments themselves.

The kids are learning math, science, humanities, and language arts in their classes but they're also learning social skills. Respect, responsibility, encouragement, cooperation—these are four key words in the school's philosophy toward behavior. They also stress logical—rather than punitive consequences. A parent of a former student told a story about her child forgetting to bring a library book back to school and so she couldn't check out another book, a logical consequence. The child was disappointed but it was healthy for her to learn that when you forget your responsibilities, there are consequences. When a student acts out of line, teachers quietly wave her out of the classroom rather than addressing her, disrupting the class, and drawing attention to the child. All teachers take this approach.

I was impressed by the students—in fact, a confident, well-adjusted eighth grader greeted me when I entered the door and walked me to the art studio where the tour started. Later, I was struck by a classroom of middle schoolers who gleefully sang happy birthday to Elena the admissions director when she walked into the classroom (it was her birthday). These kids weren't "too cool" to be kids.

One of the most unique aspects to this school is its combination classrooms—i.e., most of the classrooms are a combination of two grades: pre-k/kindergarten, 1st/2nd, 2nd/3rd, 4th/5th, middle school, 6th/7th/8th. It's a difficult concept to get your head around but once you look at the school's explanation online, you'll understand it. This approach allows students to have the same teacher for more than one year—so the teacher develops a longterm relationship with your child and fully understands his learning styles. Also the combo classes allow kids to develop a broad group of friends so they're not with the same group nine years in a row—a plus at a small school.

The music program is outstanding. Throughout the tour, wonderful music permeated the building. At first, I thought it was playing over a loudspeaker, and I thought, "Oh, this must be 'progressive music' that helps kids focus." But then I realized that kids were making the rhythmic sounds. In a big gym, they were pounding on xylophones and glockenspiels—having the time of their lives. Music is part of the regular curriculum for all students. The music teacher uses the "Orff approach," which incorporates movement, language, and drama. The kids perform concerts throughout the year and sometimes they play at venues off campus.

The Farm is another must-mention. One of the cofounders owns 180 acres in Healdsburg, and starting in fourth grade all kids spend a week at The Farm. They camp out and cook their own meals. Some parents tagalong. They learn botany and California history; they harvest their own pumpkins. There are also adventures to the snow and a Mexico trip in the eighth grade.

Synergy is housed in a former funeral home. Sound depressing? It's not. They entirely rebuilt the former structure and created a bright, cheery, cozy space. Big windows and skylights let in sun, which is often shining in the Mission District. Rooms are labeled with colorful ceramic letters; walls are pasted with all sorts of art work.

So it all sounds quite wonderful? How in the world do you get in? They're looking for parents who want to get involved and give time to the school. "If you're looking for a school where parents can participate, then this is one of those schools," Elena Dillon says. Parents are required to participate in the two annual fund-raisers but the opportunities to work on committees and in the classroom seem endless.

Any further insights into this school? Please post your thoughts.


  1. I have good friends who are happy with Synergy, and their kids are great, and I wish them well. Still, $12.5K is still not affordable on my close-to-median salary of $60K, especially as a single parent with 2 kids! "Middle class" surely means in this case either higher-than-median salaries or double incomes, at least for the 66% of Synergy families who are not even on on partial scholarship (notwithstanding how
    Synergy compares favorably to the atmospheric tuition at the other private schools in town). Even with partial scholarships, it would not be a realistic option for me.

    So I hope it's not just sour grapes to confess that it makes me sad to think of all that parental energy going to a smaller, middle class subset of San Francisco kids who are separated out from the mix of all classes of kids, rather than to improving public schools for all. In the public schools our kids can learn what it means to be part of a larger community, with middle and working class families along with the professional class ones, and what it means to be white in SF and California (i.e., a minority).

    Maybe this is part of a larger philosophical conversation about what are our responsibilities, as parents, to the larger community, but I do think some of the private school atmosphere of "specialness" (versus the public school atmosphere of "we're all in this together") gets communicated to the kids, and not necessarily in a positive sense. I mean, wasn't Synergy founded around the time of mandated desegregation in SF, and wasn't it a sort of "progressive" response, or refuge, for families who didn't want to deal with it?

    Not meaning to attack you, or any individual family including my friends, or the Synergy of today with its wonderful progressive values, but I think it's worth asking what subtle message gets inculcated in even the best private schools, especially in this era of intense pressure to privatize the commons (social security, medicare, education, military, etc. etc.).

  2. Many of the public school music programs also use the Orff method in the lower grades (transitioning to instrumental and choral music in the older ones). I think Alvarado is one but there are others. For way down the road School of the Arts public high school is a top-notch program for artistically driven students. Admission is by audition and/or portfolio.

    Hooray for Proposition H which is bringing the arts and libraries back to our public schools, beyond what PTA bakesales and silent auctions could ever do.

    Have you ever checked out Sandra Tsing Loh's website? She writes humorously (but seriously) about LA Public Schools. The admissions process is different there, but many of the underlying parenting anxieties are the same, so it's very worth reading. Plus, she's hilarious. Her guide to schools is at

  3. first commenter: thank you for your eloquent and insightful argument in favor of educating our children in public schools. you have articulated all the ideas that have been floating in my head since this process began.

    i am in complete agreement with you on all points.

    you got me thinking: which would i rather gift my kids with -- an unearned sense of entitlement (i.e. specialness) or the idea that they are a small -- but crucial -- part of a larger whole? it's a valid question, and you are right that it undercuts this whole private vs. public thing. which is better for a child? clearly a personal paradigm question.

    p.s. i am shocked and disgusted by the SF magazine statistics on SF's private school enrollment. gross. yuck. somehow, in spite of my own crass and pedestrian public education in the state of california, i have managed to become a productive human being/wife/mom/published novelist. privatization means writing off human beings. why are san franciscans siding with republicans on this issue?

  4. last poster: there are actually a lot of republicans in san francisco! I think I remember reading somewhere that 25% of SF'ers voted for Bush (but don't hold me to that statistic). A good way to avoid the republicans is to avoid the schools they attend. The irony, of course, is that the schools that they go to -- Hamlin, Burkes, Town, Cathedral, Stewart Hall, SF Day, etc -- actually have mission statements that are wholeheartedly egalitarian and progressive in nature. Maybe someday a Ph.D. student will write a dissertation to explain it all!

  5. A lefty friend whose two academically advanced kids attend Synergy once confided, "I love everything about Synergy except for the academics, which are pretty weak." Although I would feel much more socially comfortable around the Synergy parents than I do with those at my kids' SFUSD school (many of whom are recent immigrants and not fluent in English), IMO academics trump social comfort.

  6. Thanks for your great review about Synergy. These school reviews are tough - you may see a bad moment at a great school - public or private - and totally discount it. We have to put together these little snap shots during the tour. I like Synergy because of the progressive teaching approach and it's size and the proximity to my house. The people who attend the school are very down to earth. The people really are middle class - I applied to Live Oak, a great school, but felt a little outclassed listening to other applicants talk about their houses in France. Also, diversity is a real thing at Synergy - including the staff. I think we should all be a little more open minded about the public vs. private issue. There's no reason for public school folks to make private school folks feel guilty about their choice and vise versa. This is a crazy place for schools. I did the lottery and applied to Synergy. I feel really lucky. I wish you all luck with your search. There are many good schools in the City, and they are all so different. I hope you get one that suits you and your family!

  7. Good posts here. I left SF for the East Coast, partly because we wanted to put our kids in schools that we thought reflected our value set and that we could afford, either by a purchasing or home or by paying tuition. The SF school scene is really, really troubling, public or private and though you have options, you also have a system and a community so absorbed with itself it is not able to see that it really doesn't function. Like the city itself, the schools and application process are unique, exclusive and at times humiliating. Beautiful city for sure, but don't fool yourselves, the schools don't measure up. SF may be a wonderful place, but it is not an easy place to raise a family. It's just not, and we will continue to see more public schools struggle, private school tuitions increase and the number of school age children evaporate. The data and statistics from leading universities and policy centers all show it and most all experts agree it will only accelerate in the coming years. Good luck and hang in.

  8. What do you get by spending $12.5 K at Synergy that you don't get for free at a public school? Are you paying for smaller class sizes? Are you paying for the project method? Are you paying for a particular kind of community?

  9. Hey Kate,
    We had a similarly favorable impression of Synergy until our "roundtable interview" at the school recently. While our child was having a "playdate" downstairs, a group of us parents were ushered into a classroom and then asked a series of questions about our families, preschool experience and the reasons for applying to Synergy. Neither myself nor my partner have any problem with talking in front of an audience, (even in situations where we are all competing for the same spots for our children), but I do take serious issue when one of the school administrators rolls her eyes openly to the other administrator across the room while one parent is speaking, as if to say "what a crashing bore!" Irrespective of how unimaginative, haulting or belabored a person's comment is, I would hope that the staff at a school such as this would be sensitive and professional enough to know that every parent there has a sincere interest in the school and is simply trying to do what is best for their child. Every parent at the interview is giving up time, energy and emotion to put their best foot forward. To riddicule them publicly in front of others is rude, judgemental and just plain awful. It goes completely against what this school should be standing for. It was a complete turn off.

  10. Responding to Anonymous posting about the parents' rountable at Synergy, I didn't see an eyeroll but was uncomfortable with the whole experience. I wonder if you were in my group. It felt awkward to me and I felt kind of stupid actually trying to succinctly sum up my interest in the school when we are all competing with one another for spots and we are trying to be mindful of each other's time. My husband thought that they weren't really evaluating our comments and that what really matters is what happens with the kids downstairs, but I am not so sure. We are still interested in the school but I strongly disliked my experience there on Saturday. My daughter really enjoyed hers though, so we'll see.

  11. My daughter goes to Synergy School. We have been extremely happy with the Synergy School Community. Our daughter loves her school, but I have never seen her express anything approaching an attitude that she is "special" or "superior" to other kids who don't attend Synergy School. Such elitism is just not a concept within the Synergy School mindset. I know there is growing animosity toward parents who choose private school by those who advocate for public schools. I understand their arguments and respect them. I also appreciate and support the alternative cooperative structure at Synergy School. I think the answer may be in creating more Synergy-type school cooperatives so every family that wants to attend such a school would have the opportunity. I realize that cost can be a problem, but sometimes that is a matter of choice. In our family we buy everything second hand, never take vacations, work more than we might like, and made the difficult choice to have only one child. Valuing education begins at home. The government budget clearly doesn't prioritize education. Does our own personal budget? Synergy School is 35 years old this year. It is a successful model of how to organize and run a cooperative school. It seems odd to me in a town as progressive as San Francisco that there aren't more school co-ops around.

  12. Although I liked the school, I didn't like the group interview either. It just seemed like the group was attempting to stroke the ego of the interviewers. Unlike a previous commenter's spouse, I do believe all the interviews for these private schools are of the parents not the children.

    With regard to Public schools in SF versus private - the lottery system makes some of us a mess and we just want to do what we feel is best for our kids.

    One of the parents mentioned that they wanted the City experience for there child, and I was thinking to myself that I would not call private school the urban experience.

  13. I just received word that my daughter will be attending Synergy this coming school year as a "young k" kid, and we could not be more excited. The group interview didn't bother me too much, as it definitely was a test to see how the families as whole units would contribute to the school experience. Was it competitive in nature? Absolutely, but if you have your mind set on getting your kid into the school of your family's choice, so be it.

    I grew up in public school in the city, at Rooftop to be specific, while my husband grew up in all Catholic schools. Synergy encompasses our values completely in the sense of community raising these children. Because we live right outside of the city, private school is really our only hope in getting our little girl into a San Francisco school that we would want to choose - and if there is one thing we were absolutely set on, it was getting her educated in this incredibly diverse lovely city that we grew up (and still work) in. Cost was a major concern, and I am so thankful the Synergy family reached out their hands to make it possible for our family.

    Kate, this was a great post- I am totally excited for the next 9 years of our lives being a part of the community you described so well.

  14. We like Synergy for their small community, progressive teaching style, how close they are to our home, and their art/music/language program.

    However, we were told that being part of the physical community was important to getting in. We've been long time Mission residents. Now I've heard to two folks who got in (we did not) who don't live near the Mission (one not even in the City.)

    Private vs. Public? How about offering a good, solid choice first.

  15. Anon March 19th:
    Sorry to hear that you were told being part of the physical community was perhaps most important to children being accepted into Synergy. As with many private schools, if your child is not accepted, you will most likely never know exactly why.

    Having several family members that teach preschool, I've heard the scenario many times. Because the schools are encouraged (or forced- by funding standards etc.) to have a particular mix of students from a range of backgrounds, (family structure, ethnic and economic) your physical proximity to the community may have weighed in your favor, but something else may have not. Hope that might be a better explanation, and you do not feel as though you have been singled out.

    good luck in your search!

  16. I pulled my child from Synergy and it was the best decision! The Synergy parent who told you the academics were weak was not exxagerating - get ready to pay a tutor in Middle School 'cause your child will, most likely, have a hard time getting into a good High School. As I tell my neighbors, friends, & other soccer moms research and visit, visit, visit the public schools - you would be amazed at the quality out there. And yes, they do admit on the basis of the parents not the child! I should know I was on most of Synergy committees thru my child's years there.

  17. I am replying to anonymous who pulled his/her child from Synergy. Both my children attended Synergy since Kindergarten. The older one is a junior at The Urban School. She was well prepared for all of her subjects in high school and did not require a tutor or any assistance to do so. Nor did any of the 4 other Synergy students who entered Urban with her. My younger child is in 8th grade and just attended a panel discussion about high school hosted by Synergy. Alums from 17 different high schools spoke. All of them had successfully made the transition from grade school to high school, attending public, private and parochial schools. None mentioned not being prepared for high school. In addition to strong academics, both of my children have emerged from Synergy as confident, self-aware young people with a sense of what they do well, where they need help and how to ask teachers for help when they need it. In addition, Synergy has fostered a love of learning that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. If you are considering private school, I would highly recommend Synergy.

  18. My daughter attended Synergy from K through 8 and is now a junior in high school. She was accepted at 6 of the 7 public and private schools where she applied, including Lowell, so I would disagree that middle schoolers need extra tutoring or that academics are weaker than at public schools -- though my daughter says kids at her college prep high school who come from wealthier, more traditional private schools had better academic backgrounds.

    I was a single parent and received enough financial aid to make it affordable.

    We loved Synergy because of its small size, because it was supportive and loving and encouraged individuality. I also like that the teachers have such a strong role in running the school. It wouldn't be right for everyone. No school is.

    My best advice to school seekers is that there's no perfect school and that there is more than one "right" fit for every child. There are many good schools, private and public. You have to go with your gut.

  19. We're waiting to hear from Synergy for our daughter who will be entering 3rd grade next year. We're in the close suburbs, which for some students provides a far inferior education to what you can get in San Francisco public schools, surprisingly.

    Synergy seems like it would be a good place for our daughter, one who is both very bright and sensitive but who has some learning issues that could cause her problems later on if she doesn't learn in a hands-on environment. She cannot get any support in public schools because she's not yet failing.

    If you want your kinesthetic or visual child to thrive and be able to use those modes to learn and not have to experience failure to get support, my opinion is that one may need to leave public school. While they should serve all children, they don't. And while I believe wholeheartedly in public schools, when my child has needs, I will do anything in my power to give her what she needs.

  20. We came to Synergy in a very dramatic and emotional way. My child was 13 when I was able to get custody of him. He is very smart but his math, reading and writing skills were all one to two years behind. He was emotionally traumatized and withdrawn. I was afraid that a public school would track him in low level classes that would bore him and he would lose interest all together. Because of his background I knew he would suffer some measure of teasing no matter what public school we got into.

    Synergy did not have space for him and even though I only made about 30K a year at the time I laid my soul bare to the administrators and teachers. They gave us a chance. I borrowed money from friends and family and paid full tuition that first year. After one month my child told me it was the first school he had been at that he did not feel like he was being judged.

    He went on to develop his acedemic abilities and become an A student. His confidence grew and he actually enjoyed learning. When it came time to move on to high school, he was accepted at his top choices for public and private schools. He settled on the college prep public high school because of the interaction between the teachers and the students. He is on the honor roll and finds the school fairly easy and we are now working on his college goals.

    Synergy builds good people, it is so much more than the academics. If you want your child to perform to a certain academic level than you must work with your child and the teachers. And they will tell you to back off if they feel it is putting too much pressure on your child. They don't aspire to create A machines they aspire to create thinkers and confident individuals.

    This is our fourth year at the school and we have two other children attending Synergy.

  21. I have two children at Synergy, and we could not be happier. My oldest is in middle school and the academics are rigorous.

    We're one of the lucky ones. He doesn't have learning issues. He's able to keep up, but it's not a piece of cake. He works hard.

    My son is on the shy side and he's never one to raise his hand in class. But with the gentle prodding of teachers who know him well, he's coming into his own. He's grown confident and comfortable asking for help when he doesn't understand something.

    I wish I felt comfortable sending my kids to public school, but I don't. The class sizes are too big and the enrichment programs are lacking.

    It's a struggle financially to send them to a private school, but we make sacrifices to make it happen.

    Good luck to everyone searching for a school. Your involvement in whatever school you choose is what will make it work for your child and family.

  22. Hi,
    I'm comparing Synergy and Presidio Hill School. Both schools are progressive school and have about total students in the school. Which one do you think is better? Presidio Hill's tuition is higher than Synergy. Is PHS's facility better than Synergy?

  23. Synergy has been a magical place for our family. My child comes home from K saying "school is so fun" and stands by the door in the morning, excited to go to school. I think the secret to the magic is the autonomy that the teachers have - the school is entirely run by teachers. They are an extraordinary group - diverse, talented, motivated, experienced, kind. I feel inspired by how they put their heart and soul into teaching - and obviously my child does as well.

    In making this decision, we wondered what exactly we were paying for in choosing a private school. It turns out that the most important thing for us was a school where teachers are completely free from bureaucracies and hassles, and instead are able to practice their craft.