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.
Web site: www.synergyschool.org
School tours: by appointment only, call 567-6177
Location: 1387 Valencia St., at 25th
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
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.
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.