Thursday, November 29, 2007

You say tomato, I say tomahto

Have you ever hurled your phone across the room after finishing a conversation with your spouse? I did that once and broke the phone—so I swear I'll never do it again.

But when my husband, Ryan, called me the other day, I practically had to hold my right hand back with my left to prevent myself from doing it again. I was so frustrated! I sent him on a tour of a school that I had already visited. It's one that I like and I'm trying to determine how to rank it on my list. I asked him to help me make the decision.

He called me on my cell right after the tour. "I can't picture Alice there," he said. "I don't think we should include it on the list."

What? Why? Are you serious? Tell me why? I wanted an explanation.

He struggled to explain. "It seems like a good school but I don't see Alice there," he kept saying again and again.

Thus far, Ryan and I have been on the same page. He's only toured about a quarter of the schools I've visited but we've shared the same opinions on those we've both seen. He's Alice's father and the love of my life, so I have to take his feelings into consideration—but I told him that I can't simply cut the school from my list. And so he came up with the idea that we'll both visit the school a second time. It was his idea, honest.

Has anyone had a similar experience with a partner or spouse? What do you do when one person loves a school and the other hates it?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lawton Alternative School

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: strong academics; high test scores; a middle school (K–8); great sports program in middle school; involved parents

The Facts
Web site: Lawton Web site
School tours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; call for an appointment at 759-2832
Location: 1570 31st St., outer Sunset
Grades: K–8
Start time: 9:30 a.m. (K–5th); 8:55 a.m. (6th–8th)
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: separate playground for lower grades
Before- and after-school program: K.E.E.P, fee-based program, K–8th; P.R.I.D.E., free program, 4th–8th.
Language: after-school Mandarin and Spanish
Highlights: Artists-in-residence; monthly spirit assemblies; field trips; partnership with SF Ballet; computer lab; library; winter music concert; science night; spring carnival; middle school dances; Halloween haunted house

Kate's impressions
"My monster is named Coconut Moo Moo.
Her head is a big cloud.
She has a curly wig with a fruit loop belly button.
Her arm has three stems with holes in it.
Her feet are bugs that get food for her.
She likes to eat mud with lead and bats."

As I waited for my Lawton tour to begin, I strolled the school's downstairs, where the kindergarten and first grade classes are located. I like to arrive early so I can peruse the hallways. When I first started touring, they all looked alike with murals, artwork, Day of the Dead decorations in October, turkeys in November. But now I'm noticing that the displays are actually quite different and they say a lot about a school.

At Lawton, stories written by children paper the walls. The one excerpted above, written by a student named Katie, had me laughing out loud—especially when I read that the monster eats lead. There was also a story about a turkey named Angelina who ate all the vegetables in her farmer's garden so the farmer moved to the farm next-door (a logical solution). There was a piece on how to not have a bad Christmas: "Put lights on your tree and be sure to put the tree close to the window so Santa can see it when it's dark." There was a series of stories starting with the phrase, "I am thankful for..." The writing was rich, clever, touching, and funny. Yes, there were some art projects mixed in and drawings accompanied all the stories—but the walls were primarily covered in beautiful, youthful handwriting.

I immediately fell in love...the tour hadn't even started.

Deborah Gordenov, Lawton's counselor, led the tour, which started in the teacher's lounge. She was a smart, friendly lady who seemed to know everything about the school. She provided an overview (school start time, after-school care, PTA) and then opened it up to questions.

What I got out of Gordenov's talk is Lawton is an academic school. Yes, they have arts—artist-in-residence program and a partnership with SF Ballet. And sports—the girls volleyball team won some big championship. And music—band, orchestra, chorus. But the bottom line is the curriculum is rigorous, the teachers are dedicated, and the parents have high expectations. The test scores are some of the highest in the district and Gordenov says that's a result of the teachers and the parents. The middle school is an all honors program. Gordenov says they have special tutors, a resource specialist, psychiatrist, and so on to help struggling students.

"Very few of our kids fall through the cracks," Gordenov says. "I think that's largely because we're a K-though-8 school. In nine years, we get to know all of our students very well."

I asked Gordenov about drugs and alcohol in middle school. In seven years, she hasn't been faced with any incidents—except for a student spotted smoking a cigarette at a sporting event. And this was a really big deal, she said. The middle school has only 197 students so it's small, intimate, close-knit—and easy for administrators to manage.

Last year, 38 percent of the students went to Lowell. Gordenov guessed that maybe two percent went to private. Lincoln and Wallenberg are popular choices with students.

After Gordenov's talk, we were let loose on a self-guided tour. I made a beeline for kindergarten and parked myself in Ms. Tam's class. When I first arrived the kids were scattered about the room and engaged in different activities: a little girl was doing a Polly Pocket jigsaw puzzle, another was using a Leap Frog, a group was drawing pictures at a table. And then Ms. Tam said, "1, 2, 3. Hands on head. Eyes on me." The kids placed their paws on their heads. Ms. Tam said nicely, "Please, let's clean up." And as she counted to 10, the kids wrapped up their activities and gathered on the rug at the eraser board, where she taped a big white sheet of paper.

"Okay it's time to do the daily news," she said. "Who can spell the word 'TODAY?' "

And then the kids proceeded to spell out "Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007," as Ms. Tam wrote it out the letters on the piece of paper.

A little boy named Khang was called to the front. The kids spelled his name and then Khang was invited to share something with the group. "Tell us what you feel, what you see, what you did yesterday," Ms. Kim said. There was a moment of silence. And then, "I went to the park" Khang said. The students spelled out the phrase as Ms. Tam wrote it under the Daily News heading.

Next stop: First grade. The kids were sitting at their desk writing stories. I peered over the shoulder of one little girl who was writing, "I really like dance class. I like to dance to the song 'Nothing But a Hound Dog. ' "

On up to third and fourth, where I observed some students learning math. "How many degrees are between 100 degrees and 260 degrees?" the teacher asked.

I stepped into a third grade class where a sweet girl named Christine greeted me. "Hi! We're doing centers. We're reading and writing and doing math. Those things hanging from the ceiling...those are art projects we made. And over here, this is the closet where we put our backpacks." Thanks for showing me around Christine.

On up to the third floor, junior high. I arrived when the students were changing classes and pulling binders out of their lockers. Some lockers were messy and stuffed; others were perfectly organized with labeled binders. The kids wore jeans and sweatshirts—no Brittney Spears wannabes in this crowd.

I dropped in on a science class where the students were going over the cell cycle and DNA replication process—interesting stuff that I've long forgotten. I observed an English class in which the teacher, sporting a coat and tie, was a spitting image of my Chaucer professor at Berkeley. And I watched an algebra class—in which the teacher just kept saying things related to "x." All students at Lawton take algebra.

And then I sneaked into Gordenov's office—as the door was open. I don't have any numbers, but the student body at Lawton looked largely Asian to me. I was curious to ask Gordenov how a non-Asian student might feel at the school. She said, "I honestly don't think our students even notice a difference." she went on to explain that the students at Lawton really support each other. "We have a zero tolerance bullying policy," she said.

Downsides? For me, it was the building and atmosphere. There's little that's cozy or charming about the actual building. It's big and expansive compared to the small student body—so the overall campus feels weirdly quiet. Plus, it's a long haul from my house to Lawton. Nonetheless, this one will make it on my list.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Great minds think differently

How can two people visit the same school and have entirely different experiences?

That's what I wondered as my friend Summer talked about her tour of Alice Fong Yu. She recently visited the school based on my recommendation, and she found it oppressive, rigid, and systematic. She visited all three kindergarten classes, one after the other, and noticed that the teachers and students were doing the exact same thing in all three classrooms. "It was almost freakish," she said.

Summer talked about watching some kids run laps around the playground in a perfectly straight line. It sounded as if she was describing soldiers. She talked about the lack of diversity among the students. "I didn't see one child with blond hair," she said. Summer was especially shocked by the school's claim that in middle school, all classes at AFY are honors classes because all of its students are honors students. "What if your child isn't an honors student?" Summer wondered.

As Summer was describing her experience I was thinking, "What is wrong with me?" I loved AFY. Was I wearing rose-colored glasses on my tour?

While Summer saw a lack of diversity among the students, I saw focused, engaged students. While Summer felt the school lacked arts, I was impressed by the ceramics program. While Summer saw systematic teachers, I saw animated, nurturing ones. While Summer saw rigidity, I saw organization.

Vexed by the rather annoying personality trait that tends to question oneself rather than challenge others, I started to doubt my perception of the school. Am I too rigid myself? Is the school overly academic? Will Alice fail in a school like AFY?

And then Summer smartly pointed out that her daughter Sally and my daughter Alice are entirely different people. They're great friends. In fact, Alice is practically lost at preschool on the days when Sally isn't there. But their personalities, interests, and emotions are as different as vanilla and chocolate. And so wouldn't it make sense that Alice and Sally's moms would be interested in different schools?

As we refine our lists of favorite schools, we'll likely start to look for validation of our choices from our friends. Don't be surprised if your lists aren't similar. Great minds can think differently!

Hot topic: label lust and dress codes

Her name was Tracy Larsen, and she was the prettiest girl in my elementary school. She had bright blue eyes, silky blond hair, and adorable little freckles sprinkled across her nose. She was also the best dressed—at least in my opinion.

I attended elementary school in the 1980s in the South Bay at the height of the Esprit fashion craze. If you wore the San Francisco-based brand's bold-colored, Euro-chic fashions, you were cool. And, of course, Tracy was a walking Esprit advertisement. I'm embarrassed to admit that I remember specific outfits she wore in the fifth and sixth grade. A matching blouse and skirt made from a fabric with pink frogs leaping off green lily pads. A fluorescent yellow and navy blue striped dress and top. (I can remember showing my Mom the same outfit at Macy's, and she said, "If you wear that, you'll look like a jail bird!")

I owned a few pieces of Esprit clothing: I wasn't entirely deprived. My Mom's work required her to go to San Francisco once a month, and so I would encourage her to drop by the factory outlet. But my Mom also traveled to London once a year to see plays, and so she picked me up wool kilts, argyle knee-highs, and itchy sweaters. And the majority of my clothes came from Ross and Marshall's, places where I happily shop now but didn't so happily back then.

Tracy introduced me to label lust, which is a horrible, awful feeling when you're only 9-years-old and incapable of realizing that buying something because it's tagged with a specific logo is actually quite superficial. And I've already observed label lust in Alice. The other day she told me that she needs a pair of sparkley shoes because so and so at her preschool has a pair.

And so the idea of uniforms and dress codes makes sense to me. Though I would never pick a school just because it has uniforms. Rather, I see uniforms as an added bonus. But a friend of mine says she'd rather not send her child to a school with a dress code because she feels her daughter is able to express herself creatively by choosing her own clothes. And I can understand this point of view because I let Alice wear whatever she likes (though I don't buy her whatever she likes). And she definitely reveals her creative spirit by wearing dresses over skirts over pants, and mixing florals and stripes and polka dots.

I'm wondering how others feel about uniforms and dress codes? What have your experiences been?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kindergarten screening and parent interview

I received an important phone call on Wednesday afternoon—right when Sam knocked over a tall tower Alice had built with blocks and both kids were screaming. The admissions director from an independent school phoned to set up Alice's screening appointment and a parent interview. As the woman started to tell me about the process, I was waving my hands at my kids trying to quiet them down. Finally, I gave them pieces of Halloween candy that I had stashed away for myself.

Anyway, the woman was incredibly nice and she actually apologized for the school's requirement that children go through a screening. I asked her if there was anything I could do to prepare Alice or my husband and myself, and she said that we should just all be ourselves. (As I write this, I'm looking at my husband sitting on the couch. He definitely needs a haircut before the interview.)

The admissions director also told me that Alice's screening is from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. I cluelessly commented, "Oh, so it's an hour and a half." That's when I started shoving Halloween candy into my mouth.

Later that day, Ryan carried up the mail and handed me a letter from another independent school with news of another screening appointment and parent interview. The letter specifically notes that preparation and coaching are discouraged for the kindergarten screening. And that's when I decided to cancel the PISS (Preparation for Independent School Screening) classes I had signed Alice up for. (Just kidding!)

Of course, I'm starting to stress—well, okay, freak out—about the screening and interview. Actually, I'm assuming that Alice will do fine. She's bright and creative and typically she's outgoing and social, except around people she doesn't know....oh dear, I'm worried. I'm wondering what goes on in these screenings? What if Alice breaks down when I drop her off? What if she forgets how to spell her name? What if she shows them the tattoo on her right arm? I could really use some advice. I'm not an expert in the "interview" category.

At my first interview out of college with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, the lady interviewee asked a few questions and then she sprung a "pop current events quiz" on me. Do you know what I did? I ran . . . right out the door. The lady chased me down the hallway calling, "Kate, Kate, Kate," and I continued to sprint with tears running down my face. I hopped back on Cal Train to San Jose, where my dad picked me up.

"How'd it go?" my Dad asked.

"Not so good, Dad."

"Oh, it couldn't have been that bad." he said.

"Yes, it was that bad."

Luckily, Alice is more poised and composed than her Mom. I doubt she'll be running out of the screening—and I'll have my husband to pin me down in the interview.

I know some of you are going to passionately attack and scrutinize the screening and interview process. But I'm sure that some of you have been through it and can offer advice and some of you will be going through it and can empathize with my anxiety. So please share your thoughts and experiences.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


This morning, Alice, Ryan, Sam, and I loaded up in our station wagon and zipped across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin. We decided to get some exercise before the big turkey meal. It was a glorious day, and as we approached Mill Valley Alice squealed, "It looks so magical over here, Mama."

We drove up to the railroad grade on Mount Tam. Wearing a pink fairy costume and black patent leather shoes, Alice marched up the mountain. Ryan ended up carrying Sam most of the way. The kids collected rocks and pieces of colorful lichen. We talked about redwood trees and hawks. And we took in dazzling views of virtually the entire Bay Area.

After the hike, we stopped by Old Mill, a public elementary school, at the foot of Mount Tam. The kids climbed on sparkling new playground equipment. The yard was landscaped with Mexican sage, native grasses, and big, old sycamore trees. There was an outdoor amphitheater and a lovely courtyard with Japanese maples, their leaves bright oranges and reds. We peeked inside the gym with shiny hardwood floors, basketball hoops, and California Distinguished School banners.

I wondered, "Would I want to live over here?"

My husband, Ryan, would move in minute. His passion is cycling, and he rides his bike to Marin nearly every weekend. And I certainly have an appreciation for the outdoors.

But then I thought back to our family dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant on Geary the night before. The restaurant was filled with people speaking different languages, and Alice and Sam nibbled on seaweed, tofu, pickled sprouts. They cooked chicken on a barbecue in the middle of our table. I'm not ready to give that up, at least not yet.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

George Peabody School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
an emphasis on reading and literacy; a small, intimate environment; a neighborhood, community feel; a bright, dedicated principal; the opportunity for parents to request a specific kindergarten teacher; fabulous kindergarten teachers; free after-school care

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Tuesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m., no appointment necessary
Location: 251 6th Ave., at Clement; Richmond District
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 40 students, two classes of 20 children
Total student body: 225 students
Playground: playground structure recently painted in a rainbow of colors
After-school program: Free after-school program funded by the Richmond District Neighborhood Center; 2:40–6 p.m.; art classes in poetry, music, visual art and performing arts, tutoring and homework assistance, structured recreational activities, nutritional snacks; no before-school care; 83 students in program; if you sign up before school starts, you'll get in; also after-school enrichment classes based on interest
Language: after-school Cantonese
Highlights: Sports 4 Kids funds full-time coach for P.E. and coordinated games at recess; music, art, and P.E.; resource specialist to help kids who fall behind; lots of family gatherings on weekends such as a Skate Day when everyone comes out to roller-skate on the playground (Gavin Newsom attended last year)

Kate's impressions
In a big urban city, it's amazing that a tiny school like George Peabody exists. Tucked away on a neighborhood street in the inner Richmond, the school has only 225 students. I'm assuming it's one of the smallest in the district. There are two classes in kindergarten, two in first, two in second, two in third, and then one in fourth and one in fifth.

Because the school is so small everything about it feels intimate. I waited for the tour to begin in the office. Kids and parents came in and out and the secretary greeted them by name. It felt like a small town where everyone knows everyone.

The principal, Willem Vroegh, led the tour. Vroegh (pron. "vroo") looks as if he stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. He's got that East Coast boyish look with well-trimmed blond hair, and on the day of my tour he was wearing gray wool slacks and a V-neck sweater. Vroegh (pron. "Vroo") came on board a few years ago after completing a one-year administrator internship at Alice Fong Yu. Before that, he was an elementary school teacher. Vroegh is smart, dedicated, and sincere. And he's passionate when he's talking about his school's curriculum and teachers.

When Vroegh started at Peabody, he had the opportunity to replace some retiring teachers and a few who were moving. This was at the time when the district was closing schools, so Vroegh made some calls to make sure he hired those schools' best teachers. What's more he has two teachers with MBAs, and one of his kindergarten teachers is a former principal and literacy specialist.

So he sounds great. Is he sticking around?

"I just signed a three year contract," he said.

Vroegh started the tour by giving us some background: the school was founded in the 1900s, but the current structure was built in the 1970s. It's basically a concrete box with no charm—but the students and teachers make it feel like a warm, cozy nest. We walked to the small playground with a play structure painted in a rainbow of colors. Murals and paintings of sea creatures brighten a stretch of blacktop. A bungalow sits on one end of the school yard and this is where kids eat lunch and attend assemblies. Vroegh says some parents hope to raise money to eventually build a multipurpose room to replace the bungalow—a project that will require millions to complete.

Stepping into Ms. Krey's kindergarten classroom, we were greeted by giggles. Ms. Krey was singing a song about turkeys with her class, and the kids found it hysterical. On the kids' tables, fat smiling turkeys made from paper bags and construction paper were drying. The room was messy—as Ms. Krey was getting ready for some new shelving—but it was filled with cheer.

In neighboring Ms. Levett's kindergarten, students were engrossed in their journals. They were drawing pictures and writing words; one little girl had written a story about volcanoes and lava and dinosaurs. On Ms. Levett's page on the school's Web site, she says, "I believe in offering a program that is rich in literacy—where reading and writing take place all day in one context or another."

Outside the classrooms, Vroegh explained that the district's core curriculum requires kindergartners to know 18 words by sight and all the letters in the alphabet. "But our children know much more than this," he said. In fact, the curriculum at George Peabody emphasizes reading and literacy. Vroegh talked about a reading program called SIPPS that's overseen by Ms. Krey; it's outside the district's required curriculum.

On the side of the building, Vroegh pointed out a poster featuring the school's four values: Respect, Responsibility, Kindness, and Effort. Under each one, kids had written examples of the values. Their writing was cryptic but I liked that the students had created the poster themselves.

Back to the tour: Vroegh covered PTA details. Over half the families are members. The budget is about $68,000 a year.

PTA funds music for kindergarten through fourth. The district pays for music programs for fifth graders. In fourth and fifth grade, students get to pick from three instruments. There's also a chorus in fifth. In kindergarten and first, students focus on dance movement; in second and third, it's visual arts, and in fourth and fifth, it's performing arts. These classes are taught by outside consultants and of course students get art from their primary teachers.

We wrapped up with a questions-and-answers period with Vroegh.

What percentage are English language learners?
20 to 25 percent. The school does have a large Chinese populations but it seems to be more dominant in the upper grades. The kindergarten classes looked more diverse.

Test scores?
In 2007, Peabody fourth graders scored 74 in English and 78 in math. For comparison, Lawton fourth graders scored 93 in English and 97 in math. Alvarado fourth graders scored 58 in English and 66 in math (Note: Alvarado has Spanish immersion). So Peabody is actually quite strong. And you have two take into account that the school has two classes for kids with special needs. They make up 13 percent of the school. Those kids have to take the same test as all other children. The school also regularly assesses students for reading comprehension, which isn't required by the district. This is so teachers can adjust curriculum.

Special programs?
There's a Junior Great Books program, which is basically a book club for kids—though I imagine that they're not reading Oprah books! And then once a month, teachers lead their students in a Visual Thinking Strategies lesson, that uses art to teach thinking, communication skills, and visual literacy.

Will the school increase in size?
The school can increase from 225 students to 240 students. The upper grades will eventually grow from one fourth and one fifth to three fourth-fifth combos. Why three combos? "Because then you have a team of three teachers who can collaborate," Vroegh says.

Where do kids go to junior high?
Presidio and Roosevelt

Have requests for the school gone up?
Last year they went up 88 percent.

We ended where we started, in the office. Vroegh pointed out some of the photos of special days at the school: "Twin Day," "Pajamas Day," "Red Day."

"I want kids to enjoy coming to school," he said.

The photos brought back memories for me. My elementary school had these same sorts of theme days. In fact, I remember the pants my best friend Isabel and I wore for Twin Day: matching white pants decorated with splashes of colorful paint. I'm sure we looked ridiculous but we were definitely enjoying ourselves.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hot topic: parochial schools

The comments posted by SF K Files visitors are what's making this site an interesting and engaging place. So I've decided to introduce a weekly "Discussion Topic." Every Monday, I'll post a new topic for visitors to discuss and debate. Let's start with parochial schools as I've received several emails from visitors interested in these.

Lincoln High School Teacher makes The New York Times

I hate to even bring up high school—many of us are so far off from it. But it's worth reading an article, "English, Algebra, Phys Ed ... and Biotech," in the Sunday Times that features a science teacher at Lincoln High School. It talks about a biotechnology course he started about 10 years ago. It's a perfect example of the outstanding programs you can find in San Francisco's public schools. And before you know it, we'll all be looking for high schools.

Here's the lead into the article by G. PASCAL ZACHARY:

"MORE than a decade ago, after George Cachianes, a former researcher at Genentech, decided to become a teacher, he started a biotechnology course at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. He saw the class as way of marrying basic biotechnology principles with modern lab practices — and insights into how business harvests biotech innovations for profit.

If you’re interested in seeing the future of biotechnology education, you might want to visit one of George Cachianes’s classrooms. “Students are motivated by understanding the relationships between research, creativity and making money,” he says.

Lincoln has five biotech classes, each with about 30 students. Four other public high schools in San Francisco offer the course, drawing on Mr. Cachianes’s syllabus. Mr. Cachianes, who still teaches at Lincoln, divides his classes into teams of five students; each team “adopts” an actual biotech company.

The students write annual reports, correspond with company officials and learn about products in the pipeline. Students also learn the latest lab techniques. They cut DNA. And recombine it. They transfer jellyfish genes into bacteria. They purify proteins. They even sequence their own cheek-cell DNA.

Cool, eh? And very, very important."

To read the full story click on "English, Algebra, Phys Ed ... and Biotech."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Some things never change

In kindergarten, my Mom and I were in a carpool with two other families who lived on the next street over. There was Cindy and her daughter Jenny, and Mary and her son Nick. The moms took turns driving the three kids to school, which was a public school in the South Bay. Cindy was one of my Mom's closest friends; and Jenny was one of my best friends. We were a happy friendly group who often did things together on weekends. Anyway, kindergarten came and went, then summer, and soon it was time for first grade. My Mom assumed that she'd be a part of the same carpool but the day before school Cindy called to say she was sending Jenny to a private school. And then Mary called to say that she was sending Nick to the same private school. My Mom had no idea this was coming. She was surprised, confused, hurt. "Why hadn't they talked to her about this?" she wondered.

My Mom has told me this story many times over the years and it came to mind when I was at the MCDS coffee night last week. I was talking to a woman who reads this blog. She said that the blog was helping her because, "I can't even talk about schools with some of my friends." Some things never change.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

West Portal Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
Cantonese immersion (some exposure to Mandarin); dedicated teachers (average length of stay is 14 years); a lovely location and building; project-based curriculum; top test scores; student teachers in classrooms; perceptional motor program for kindergarteners (once a week); a rest/nap time after lunch

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Thursdays at 9 a.m., call to reserve a space
Location: 5 Lenox Way, West Portal/Forest Hill neighborhood
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 90 students, two general education with 20 students each, one Chinese immersion with 20 students, and one kindergarten-1st split with 10 kindergarteners and 10 first gradersStudent body size: 547
Playground: overlooks Pacific Ocean; separate play structure for kindergarten; adjacent city park where kindergarteners play on Fridays
Before- and after-school program: GLO
Language: one-third of the students are in a two-way Chinese immersion program; the other two-thirds are in general education with no language
Highlights: perceptional motor program for kindergarteners (once a week); P.E. for 1st to 5th twice a week; classroom music for all grades; instrumental music for grades 4th and 5th; dance for upper grades; computers in all classrooms; community service projects include food bank and adopt-a-beach program; overnight backpacking trip in 5th grade; 1st to 5th grade attend SF Symphony performance in spring; spring musical put on by students; school participation in the Chinese New Year parade

Kate's impressionsWhile I waited for the tour to begin, I walked the hallways of this lovely school set in a leafy neighborhood. I peeked into several classrooms and what did I see? Focused and engaged children. In many classrooms, the students were working in groups at tables. They were reading, writing, stringing necklaces, making Thanksgiving cornucopias. No one was staring into space or goofing off. If your child thrives in a focused environment, this is a school to consider.

The principal, William Lucy, was unable to address our tour group because his wife recently gave birth to their third child (he must like kids!) and he's on paternity leave. If you're seriously interested in West Portal, I recommend visiting when Lucy returns. Gayline Tom, the parent who led our tour, was sweet and soft-spoken—and she seemed overwhelmed by the 50 intense parents she was in charge of herding around the school.

Two-thirds of West Portal students are in a general education program and one-third are in two-way Cantonese immersion. This year, the school introduced Mandarin enrichment for immersion students—for example, the first graders sing Mandarin songs once a week.

In a two-way Chinese immersion classroom, about one third of the students should speak Chinese at home, one third English, and one third should be bilingual. When our parent guide explained the breakdown a prospective parent asked, "So that's the ideal, but what's the reality?" Tom replied, "You'll notice a lot of Asians in the classrooms but that doesn't mean they all speak Chinese." And indeed, I did see a predominantly Asian population in this school. In the kindergarten-first split immersion class, I counted four Caucasians, one African American, and fifteen Asian Americans. I don't think this is unusual for a Chinese immersion program; I observed the same thing at Alice Fong Yu.

The immersion students receive 80 percent of the curriculum in Chinese and 20 percent in English in kindergarten and first grade. Each year, the amount of English increases.

Our tour visited only the kindergarten classrooms. There are 90 kindergartners: three general educations classrooms with 20 students each; one Chinese immersion class with 20 students; and one kindergarten-first split with 10 kindergarten students. In Mrs. Briesach's general education class, the kids were studying patterns. She started by going over picture patterns—star, diamond, circle, star, diamond, circle—on the eraser board. Then she sent the kids to their tables to make their own patterns.

In another general ed class, the kids were also studying patterns and creating them by making beaded necklaces. I stepped into a Chinese immersion class where the kids sat round the teacher who was speaking in Chinese—so I haven't a clue what was going on. But the teacher was animated and waving her hands all over the place; the kids were engrossed. The other immersion class was on a field trip, which are common at this school. The kids go to the zoo and the West Portal Library and other spots around town.

The kindergarteners have 30 minutes of quiet time after lunch. They actually rest on cots. This is the first school where this was mentioned and I'm wondering if it's unique.

West Portal parents are involved. They volunteer in the classroom, on field trips, in the library, at Exploratorium science nights, and in the game room that's open to kids during lunch. There's a major fund-raiser every year—but no small-scale fund-raising projects that involve bake sales or selling wrapping paper door to door. Instead, the school asks each family to make a monetary donation. West Portal raises $100,000 a year—$40,000 comes from the fund-raising and $60,000 comes from parent donations.

Every year, the teachers help the students put on a musical. It's done by the teachers on their own time. Some 200 students participate and they can choose to sing, act, dance, help manage the stage, and design sets and costumes. Another highlight: the Chinese New Year parade, which involves students, parents, teachers, and alums. "Our school takes up an entire city block," says Tom. Now that shows a lot of school spirit!

A tale of three teachers

Yesterday, I attended a coffee night for San Francisco parents interested in Marin Country Day School. Wearing a thick layer of antiperspirant and my mingling shoes, I was feeling confident and ready to chit-chat. I talked to several current MCDS parents. One delivered the great news that the school's buses are converting to biodiesel. Another told me about the number of Noe Valley families attending the school.

And then a prospective parent asked, "Are you the K Files blogger?" I was a little taken back, but said, "Yes." It turns out that she and her husband had been on my Live Oak tour and noticed that I was writing down everything. "And then when we saw you here tonight, my husband said, 'You have to go talk to her,' " she said.

They were friendly and we got to talking about schools, the search, comments on this blog—and then she said, "What really matters are the teachers. If a school has good teachers, then your children will get a good education." I think she's entirely right. This is an excellent point that often gets lost.

And I think her words were especially meaningful at a Marin Country Day School event. The average teacher stays at the school for 16 years. And that night three teachers spoke. Here's a brief rundown:

Doug is one of the school's three kindergarten teachers. He looks a bit like Harry Potter. He's got the same wire glasses, sweet face, and hair, only his is gray. His voice is calm and gentle; it could soothe a colicky baby. And when he talks about kindergarten, his words are thoughtful and heart-felt.

I first observed Doug on an MCDS tour. I actually mentioned him in an earlier post. He's the one who brought tears to my eyes as he played his guitar and sang a song with students gathered round. A few weeks after the tour, I attended a coffee night for MCDS where Doug spoke. I remember thinking, "I've found the perfect kindergarten teacher for Alice." And so I was excited to see him again.

This time, Doug talked about a past need to bring together the school's three kindergartens. His solution? To simulate a farming community. One class is the dairy, another the orchard, and so on. The kids grow plants in their classrooms and roll weather dice. If they don't roll rain, then the plants get no water. The classrooms conduct "business" amongst each other. And the kids actually have little tractors to pedal and pull around compost and produce harvested in the garden.

Doug also talked about the Reggio Emilia Approach, an education philosophy born in northern Italy. The town of Reggio Emilia is supposedly home to the world's best primary education schools and educators from all over the world (including Doug) visit to learn about the innovative approach to learning. In a nutshell, Reggio Emilia is based on the belief that children are equipped with the means and tools to construct their own learning about the world. As a result teachers build their curriculum around the children's ideas and interests. The teacher is a collaborator; not a transmitter. Doug didn't explain all of this as he ran out of time. I tracked down the information in a 1991 Newsweek article, which further piqued my interest.

Jenny—first grade
Jenny talked about a People Study unit. Her students learn to respect differences. They learn about adoption and various family structures. She told us about science and how the kids study snails, and about Math Mania on Wednesdays. And then she went on to reading. "Children really learn to read this year," she said. "There's nothing better than seeing a child read their first book." As she said this, her eyes lit up and you could tell she truly meant it.

Jenny's students primarily learn through phonics. They're reading independently, in groups with a teacher, with a partner. They're also doing lots of writing in their journals. They might read a story and then ponder it in their journals.

Another highlight: the first grade library. The first graders in all three classrooms work together to build an actual library. They write and publish their own books, and file them on shelves. And then they set up a system so they can actually check out books.

Claire-second grade
When Claire's students are conducting a science experiment, they don't pull a kit out of their desks and follow directions in a textbook. Rather, they lie on their tummies, their heads hanging over the edge of the MCDS dock jutting out into San Francisco Bay. They observe sea anemones, barnacles, and rays—and then they start talking amongst each other about what they see. Together, they decide which creature to study. And this is how the class study of San Francisco Bay begins.

Once they've got a creature—Claire said her most recent class chose muscles—they ask questions: What's inside the muscle? Who eats it? What do muscles eat? How does it get stuck to the rock? What temperature water do muscles like?

Next: Divide these questions up into two categories: those you can answer through research and those you can answer by setting up an experiment. And then the kids actually set up experiments: writing a procedure, conducting the experiment, and sharing conclusions. "It's a completely empowering experience for kids," Claire said.

Back at home
When I got home, my kids were in their beds but still awake. "Mama," they cried as I walked into their room. I smothered them in kisses and sat down on Alice's bed.

"Where were you?" Alice asked.

I told her that I had attended a school event. She asked me what I did. As usual, she wanted details. I told her about Jenny explaining how children learn to read.

At that moment, I practically saw a lightbulb appear above Alice's head. Her eyes grew wide and she earnestly said, " I know how I can learn to read. I'll write letters down on a paper and then I'll practice the sounds for those letters. When I want to learn more letters, I'll write down more."

As she explained how she wanted to learn to read, I immediately thought of Reggio Emilia.

"Okay, honey. We'll try that," I said. "That's a great idea."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sweaty armpits, inquiry-based science, and more on independent school applications

Last night, I attended an open house at Live Oak. Six teachers spoke about the school's inquiry-based science curriculum. The event was designed to give prospective parents a deeper understanding of Live Oak's approach to learning.

The kindergarten teacher, John Michaud, introduced his classroom pets, a guinea pig named Eleanor Roosevelt and Speedy the tortoise. The first grade teacher, Danny Montoya, who could also make it as a stand-up comedian, told a story about a student who was convinced a horse is a fish. The third grade teacher, Holly Berg, talked about how her students concluded as a team that objects change weight depending on where you put them on a scale. The sixth grade teacher, Karen Bush, showed some photos of kids conducting experiments with dry ice. And the seventh and eighth grade science teacher Jennifer Spaeth talked about her students discovering the Doppler effect. "The idea is to guide them without spoon-feeding them answers," Spaeth said.

The science they talked about is hands-on. Kids work in groups and discover the world themselves. Textbooks don't play a key role. Tests aren't introduced until middle school—and they're never true and false or multiple choice. These are tests that require students to use reasoning.

I found the panel informative and enlightening. I like how independent schools emphasize the curriculum. A lot of thought is put into how children learn—private schools aren't restricted by state mandates.

After the teachers' presentation, there was a mingling period so prospective parents could chat with current parents and administrators. A roomful of strangers makes me nervous. My voice trembles, my hands shake, my mind goes into a tizzy—and, especially annoying, my armpits sweat.

I carpooled to the event with some friends, who knew a handful of people. I didn't know a soul but I forced myself to adventure out into the crowd, drips of sweat starting to trickle down. I visited the hors d'oeuvre table a few times (where the Rice Krispies treats were heavenly), checked out the students' artwork on the walls, and killed some time in the bathroom drying my armpits with toilet paper.

Most of the parents were engaged in conversation with one another—or jockeying to talk to the head of school, Holly Horton, who seems to be a friendly, warm, entirely unintimidating lady. Should I try to go talk to her? No, I immediately thought—but my subconscious was urging me otherwise: "Okay, count to three and then go." "You can do this. You're a big girl." "If Alice meant that much to you, you'd go talk to her." I was finally about to approach Horton—honestly, I swear, I was only 10 inches away from her. But then a friendly current parent approached me—and thank goodness because we bonded. She had a third grader and a kindergartener at the school. We had lots in common. She also toured all the public schools and applied to only two private. We chatted for a long time as Horton moved to the other side of the room. Oh well!

And this brings me to the topic of application essays, which have received flack in this blog's comments section. I love the essays—because it gives people like me the opportunity to thoughtfully express my interest in a school using the written word. I flounder when it comes to communicating verbally but I can usually throw something together in writing.

It seems to me that the independent schools offer a variety of opportunities for families to get acquainted with a school. Tours, applications, intimate coffee hours, open houses. While some may see the essays as a way for the highly educated (which I'm not) to express themselves, I see them as a way for blundering schmoozers to get themselves heard.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Filling out applications

I spent the weekend filling out independent school applications. Well, two of them. Yes, they're a pain. I'm exhausted. I felt like a senior in high school applying to colleges. I even cried for about an hour on Saturday morning because I was feeling so overwhelmed.

But I understand and respect the process. Imagine if independent schools didn't require applications? More people would apply. Eight hundred families would be applying for 22 spots rather than 250 families. Because I have to fill out an application and write essays, I'm applying only to those schools that truly seem like the right fit for Alice.

And as I wrote the essays, I was forced to think, What am I really looking for in a school? Who is this daughter of mine?

Also, as I wrote my essays, I couldn't stop my mind from going wild . . .

What are your child's strengths and interests? This seems to be the most common essay question. When you think about it, this really is a funny question to ask about someone who is only four years old.

Alice can crack an egg without getting any shells into the batter. She can do a backward somersault, sometimes. She can write nearly every letter in the alphabet—except an uppercase N, which she draws backward. She can swim. She can pinch her brother. She can do downward dog. She can dry wet lettuce leaves with a salad spinner though she would never eat salad.

Alice knows that Pluto isn't a planet. She knows that bats are nocturnal. She knows that Pink Ladies are her favorite variety of apple. She knows right from wrong, most of the time. She knows it's nice to share. She knows her phone number, usually. She knows that she wants to be a ballerina-artist-mommy when she grows up. She knows that Paris is in France. She knows the difference between a guitar and a ukulele though she can't play either.

Alice can identify several types of flowers: camelias, alyssum, nasturtiums. She can eat spoonful after spoonful of peanut butter. She can cry tears that are so big I sometimes start crying myself. She can say hello in Italian, "Ciao!" She can count to 60. She can hop on one foot. She can gallop. She can walk backwards. She can run really really fast. She can name nearly every Disney princess. She can tell funny jokes: "A comb sat on a mouse that turned purple."

Alice likes play dates. She likes preschool. She likes bread. She likes the Boxcar Children books. She likes to watch Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly. She likes to play with dolls. She likes to paint. She likes baking banana poppy seed muffins. She likes visiting Frida Kahlo at the SFMOMA. She likes walking in the rain with her umbrella and jumping in puddles. She likes to go to the park and the science museum. She likes merry-go-rounds. She likes kittens.

Alice can chew five pieces of gum at once. She can tie a knot but not a bow. She can pick beautiful bouquets of flowers. She can play a sweet tune on a harmonica. She can find the mouse on every page in Goodnight Moon. She can pack her own suitcase for sleepovers at grandma and grandpa's. She can make her own bed. She can peel an orange.

Alice says, "Mama" in a sweet voice that melts my heart every time I hear it. She says, "Please, can I have some chocolate?" She says, "May I please be excused," when she's done at the dinner table. She says, "Mom, you need to clean the house." She says, "Monsters, wild onions, and George Bush—those are the bad things in the world." She says, "Leaping lizards" and "Oh, my goodness." She says, "We should take the train instead of the car because it's better for the environment." She says "I love you."

Alice can ride a tricycle. She can scream, stomp her feet, and slam a door louder than anyone I know—and she's not even married. She can create almost anything out of a single piece of paper and a roll of tape: a birthday hat, a slipper, a baby bed, fairy wings. She can dress herself and wear a dress, a skirt, pants, tights, and three tops all at once. She can say big words: "Mommy, you're infuriating." She can help her brother put on his shoes.

Alice gives the world's best hugs—long tight squeezes that always make me feel like everything is going to be OK. She gives friends her toys and clothes to borrow for "one week." She gives her brother kisses and licks. She gives Santa cookies and milk and the Great Pumpkin all of her Halloween candy. She gives her Daddy the raisins in her cereal. She gives her baby dolls haircuts. She gives her family and friends love.

Alice is Alice. She's one of a kind—just as all children are.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Miraloma Elementary

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: emphasis on teacher collaboration and professional development; differentiated learning in all grades; small, intimate environment; a neighborhood, community feel; involved, motivated parents; curriculum that doesn't teach to the test; a wonderful music programs; clean, tidy, cheerful campus with cafeteria, gymnasium, and auditorium; a dynamic, dedicated, innovative principal

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Reservations are made via the school web site (eVite registration) not by phone.
Four tour options are available to accommodate as many schedules as possible:
* Self-guided tours: Oct. 17 and 24 (can be accompanied by video podcast, details below)
* Saturday morning guided and self-guided tours: Nov. 15
* Early-evening guided tours: Oct 14, Nov. 18, Dec. 1
* Thursday morning guided tours: Oct. 23, Nov. 6, Nov. 20

Additional tours in Dec. and Jan. will be posted on the Web site as they are scheduled. One great new feature this year is the self-guided tour and video podcast (which you can view and download from the web site This option provides flexibility for those who enjoy exploring on their own, whether it's a quick walk through the school in a few minutes or taking your time to read what's posted on the bulletin boards. The podcast can be downloaded to your MP3 player (iPod) and used to guide you through the school. Otherwise, a guide booklet will be provided to assist and inform as you walk through the school. Parent volunteers will be available to answer your questions.

Location: 175 Omar Way, on Mt. Davidson off Portola Dr.
Grades: K–5
Start time: 7:50 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: cozy kindergarten playground; larger big kid area; neighboring city park where kindergarteners play on Fridays
Before- and after-school program: MEEP for K–5; program available through YMCA starting in 3rd grade; also, chess club, Girl Scouts, basketball league
Language: After school Spanish (beginning and intermediate) and Mandarin offered two times a week.
Highlights: Smaller class sizes in 4th and 5th; poet in residence; kiln and cermacist; art show once a year; full-time coach for P.E. and coordinated games at recess; chorus for grades 3–5; school-wide annual fair; UC Berkeley math consultant; science with Lawrence Hall of Science; gardening with credentialed instructor; social worker; speech therapist; resource specialist; USF interns for children dealing with death in family, divorce, and so on; LGBT family eduction

Kate's impressions
If you go to Miraloma's Web site and click on the "About Miraloma" section, there's a photograph of the school perched on the side of Mount Davidson—with a rainbow rising above it. It's as if Miraloma were a little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And as I toured this school, I kept thinking, I've found a treasure.

No doubt, this is a special school. When I first stepped through the entrance, I was welcomed by the sound of children—lots of them—singing. In the auditorium, some 160 students were bellowing out "Great green gobs of greasy, grimy, gopher guts" as a teacher played the piano and two students strummed guitars. They sang other songs such as "Hey, now. Hey, now. Iko iko an nay." And as they sang, they clapped and snapped and moved their hands about.

At Miraloma, the third through fifth graders have sing-along every Thursday, 8–8:30 a.m. There's also a sing-along for kindergarten through second, on Fridays 8–8:30 a.m. If you're interested in this school, attend a Friday morning sing-along. It's something I plan to do with my daughter Alice. You just need to drop by the office beforehand so you can get a visitor pass.

Okay, so now let's get to the actual tour. It started in the library. When I walked in, I was immediately greeted by a parent named Carol Lei—who is best described in one word "awesome." She's the person who started the Mandarin after-school program at Miraloma and somehow she's involved in bringing Mandarin to Starr King and Jose Ortega. She's a real go-getter: "The one thing I really like is if you want to change something, you can speak up and make it happen."

Lei had four other parent guides helping her greet prospective parents. We split into groups; I was in Lei's. She started by telling us about the library, with over 6,000 books. It sounds like a few years ago the same room housed only 2,000 tomes. But through read-a-thons the children raised money to stuff their library with books. This is the sort of story I kept hearing again and again at this school, which has taken great steps forward in recent years. The library is always open during school hours and classes visit once a week.

As we walked by the auditorium where the kids were still singing, Lei told us that the symphony performs for the kids a few times a year on the stage. They also have two talent shows a year. An international cultural day. And other assemblies and performances.

Next stop: Cafeteria. The interesting story here is that Miraloma was the pilot program for the district salad bar—that means kids who buy their lunch, which costs only $2, also get to pick from fruits and veggies in the salad bar. The hot lunch includes things like macaroni and cheese, bean and cheese burritos, and cheese pizza. No, it's not organic but what do you expect for $2? To meet the families interest in organic produce, the school has a relationship with Eat Well Farms, so parents can pay for and pick up a box of locally grown organic produce on Thursdays.

The full-size gymnasium, with a climbing wall, is connected to the cafeteria. The dance teacher, who looked like a British pop star, greeted us. Kids were moving around to techno-sounding music. The teacher would stop the music and the kids froze their bodies in interesting poses.

As we walked through the hallways, I admired the artwork and displays adorning the walls: pictures of the school's participation in a sandcastle-building contest, a community service board, paintings, tons of quilts, murals, a parents' corner, Day of the Dead art projects, jokes and riddles written and illustrated by students, poems.

We stepped into the computer lab with 33 purple iMacs. The school doesn't have a tech instructor; teachers bring kids into classroom once a week, sometimes more. However, the computer lab will be dissolving next year—because the school has grown. As I understand it, the upper grades weren't filled to capacity so there were only two classes but in recent years the school has become more popular so they need an additional classroom (Please someone correct me if this is wrong). While we're on the topic of class size: Miraloma has three kidnergartens, first grades and second grades. Each class has 20 students. There is one fourth grade, one fifth grade, and two fourth-fifth combo classes to keep upper grades smaller with only 25 or so students.

Into a classroom: Ms. Huang's first grade. The kids were all working in small groups at tables. One group was doing some simple math, another writing, another was reading along with a Book-on-Tape, and another was doing an art project, tracing their hands and coloring them like turkeys. Outside the classroom, a snack sign-up sheet indicated which parents were brining snacks each week. "Families bring snack for everyone so no one goes without," Lei explained.

Next: Ms. Shivers's second grade. We walked into the room and a happy kid said, "We're making comic books."

We dropped by the school garden with sunflowers, lettuces, herbs. Lei explained that they had recently harvested pumpkins for Halloween. Her daughter was involved in a project where she had to count all the seeds in a pumpkin. The classes visit the garden once a week.

The kindergarteners were at recess when we walked into their rooms, which sit right on their little play yard. The classrooms are cozy and full of fun stuff: bean bags, dress up, puppet theater, piano, guitar. Outside in the playground, where lush green vines grew over the fence, some kids were jump roping while another group played soccer. The school staggers recess so kindergarteners get some alone time and then the first graders come out and join them. Same thing with the upper grades. A parent asked Lei how the school deals with bullying. "It's not so much an issue because we stager recess and because there's always a coach out there to organize the children," she said.

The tour wrapped up in the library where the principal Ron Machado addressed the parents. This guy is truly amazing; he wins my prize for the district's best principal. He reminds me a bit of Adam Sandler, and I mean that in a good way. His voice is sort of nasal like Sandler's—and he's funny and animated and youthful and absolutely darling—now I can see why so many Moms were hanging around the halls. He struts around the school in a coat and tie and as we toured the school he was walking in and out of classrooms. He seems to be comfortable with all sorts of parents and teachers—there's no chip on the shoulder of this principal.

Machado gave us a little background on himself. He's in his second year at Miraloma. He started out as a teacher and then went through the principal leadership program at UC Berkeley. Next year his contract is up and he plans to sign another three year contract. Yeah! He has two young children; I think he said four and 20 months and he hopes to see them go through Miraloma.

He initially went into education as a teacher because he wanted to make changes in children's lives. And he wanted to become a principal because as a teacher he realized that administrators aren't always supportive of their teachers. "I'd heard too many teachers talk about principals who weren't supportive."

So what's Machado doing to support his teachers at Miraloma?
Every month, the teachers get a half day away from their kids to develop class curriculum and collaborate. Also, teachers visit other classes so they can teach the same lesson plan several times. For example, one of the kindergarten teachers has a specialty in science so she might teach a science unit to each of the three kindergarten classes. "This allows her to teach the assignment three times rather than just once and she can actually learn how to improve on the assignment."

A parent asked, What's been your biggest challenge?
He said that when he arrived at the school recess was chaotic. He changed that by staggering recess so the older kids are grouped together. And he came up with the idea for kids to play first and then eat and then return to class. "When they arrive in class after eating, their heart rates are lower and they actually eat more," Machado said. "Before we made the switch, we had so much compost because the kids weren't eating their lunches."

Teacher turnover?
The average teacher stays at Miraloma for seven years, he said.

What about GATE?
This year the school has 300 percent more kids in GATE. He estimated that there are 70 students in the program that's offered to grades third through fifth. He mentioned that the GATE students are in the process of launching a school newspaper.

A parent pointed out that the older grades looked more diverse than the lower grades. She was concerned that the school is losing some of its diversity due to its increasing popularity.
He responded that the upper grades are 35 percent other white; the lower grades are 45 percent other white.

What's your guiding philosophy?
We're focused on the whole child, he said. "We're making sure that we're developing these children in all aspects."

Then he went on to say, "We'll never be a school that teaches to the test. We're not aspiring to be a school that scores 1,000."

The questions kept coming. Even the hard ones he answered quickly and confidently. Machado knows his stuff.

How many students on free and reduced lunch?
Last year, it was 29 to 30 percent.

Why do you no longer work with Sports 4 Kids?
Because you need to have 50 percent or more of your kids receiving free or reduced lunch.

How much money does the PTA raise?
Last year, $135,000.

What's your dream project?
I want Smart Boards in every classroom because some kids are visual learners. I want laptops for teachers. LCD projectors.

He ended by telling parents that he knows the SFUSD process is tough. And he said, "You'll know with your heart what's right." And I'm thinking, this guy knows in his heart what's right.

This school is fabulous. The only thing missing for me is immersion—but even though it doesn't have Spanish, I'm putting it on my list. It's irresistible.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Is anyone tiring of tours?

This morning a friend called to tell me that she skipped out on her scheduled Live Oak tour. "I just don't think I can go on another tour," she said. "I'm so tired."

I could entirely relate.

I've enjoyed this school search much more than I ever imagined. I'm amazed by all the excellent schools in this city—they're far better than I expected. For the most part, I've felt nothing but energized and excited.

But this evening, I'm tired! Maybe it's the flu that I came down with over the weekend or maybe I'm just tired of listening to principals explain that every public school has a librarian due to Prop H. So far, I've toured 10 schools. I have about 10 more to go. Hopefully, I don't get fired at my day job for all the work I'm missing. This morning, I toured Miraloma and stayed on longer than expected because I loved the school and wanted to talk to the parent guides. When I arrived at work at 11 a.m., I raced past my boss's office, hoping he wouldn't see me. One of my co-workers spotted me and said, "If this is the amount of time you're putting into kindergarten, I can't imagine what college is going to be like." He lives in Alameda, so he doesn't understand the complicated SF school system.

So here it is 5:30 p.m. I've been up since 4 a.m. when three-year-old Sam woke up screaming. I then picked up the toys strewn about the house, did a load of laundry, made breakfast, threw together lunches for my kids, and then dropped the kids off at school. Did I shower? No way! There's no time for that. After dropping off the kids, I toured Miraloma. Then I drove around my work for 30 minutes looking for a no-permit-required street parking space because I can't afford the steep prices at the lot. Put in five hours at work (not enough to fulfill my responsibilities so I'll be working tonight), then picked up my kids. Back at home, I wolfed down a quick bowl of cereal—and now it's time to hop in the car to go to an open house at San Francisco Day School. I'm so tempted to blow it off. But I gotta go. Who knows? It could be the one.

Sorry for whining!

Learn how to support your child's transition to kindergarten

Attend a community event sponsored by PPS-SF, First Five San Francisco, and the SFUSD Educational Placement Center and Child Development Centers to hear directly from Kindergarten and Preschool Teachers about how to support your child's transition to Kindergarten.

·Meet principals, teachers, and parents from different schools!

·Hear from teachers about how to prepare for kindergarten!

·Get help with your child’s application from enrollment counselors!

·Turn in your child’s application and avoid a trip downtown!

Translation in Spanish and Cantonese available at each event. Free dinner and childcare! Contact 750-8535 to register for childcare.

Date: Thursday, November 15, 2007
Time: 5:30pm-7:30pm
Location: Sanchez Elementary, 325 Sanchez @16th St.
Parking in school yard on Sanchez Street
MUNI: 22, 33, 24, J, F, Church Street Station lines

Date: Thursday, November 29, 2007
Time: 5:00pm-7:00pm
Location: Sheridan Elementary, 431 Capitol @Farallones St.
Street parking only; MUNI: M, 29, 54

Date: Thursday, December 6, 2007
Time: 6:00pm-8:00pm
Location: Guadalupe Elementary, 859 Prague @Cordova St.
Street parking only; MUNI: 43, 9X, 9AX, 9BX, 54

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Attending school events

By now many of us have visited a handful of schools. Maybe you already know which ones are your top choices, or maybe, like me, you're still confused.

To help sort through my confusion, over the weekend our family made the trip to Corte Madera to attend a book fair at Marin Country Day School. As my husband pulled the car out of our garage, I looked at the time. En route, we passed by Alice Fong Yu; we had been in the car for 12 minutes at that point. We then inched through some traffic on 19th Avenue, and zipped across the Golden Gate. After 40 minutes, we arrived at MCDS.

The drive was actually pleasant. Free to Be You and Me was blaring on the stereo; the kids were relaxed and quiet; my husband and I actually got to talk. What concerned me more was the CO2 our Volkswagen Jetta, which was supposed to get good mileage but doesn't due to SF's hilly terrain, was spewing into the air. Ever since I saw an Inconvenient Truth and read Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker series, "The Climate of Man," I get a guilty feeling every time I'm in the car.

Once we pulled into the parking lot, my guilt subsided. My children hopped out of the car and ran around on an expansive soccer field that sits right on San Francisco Bay. The day was glorious and it felt good to be out of the city. We walked over to the book fair, where a wide selection of new and used books were for sale. I found a load of used Boxcar Children books for Alice and my husband bought me a beautiful new cookbook, Chocolate & Zucchini, by my favorite blogger, Clotilde Dusoulier.

We spent most of our time playing at the kindergartener's playground. Alice and Sam ran in and out of a little red barn, climbed a tree, and walked along a dry creek bed. No doubt, they enjoyed themselves. My husband and I talked to some other parents. All very nice, down-to-earth people.

The point of this post is to say that if you're seriously considering a school, you ought to go to more than a tour. Many of the independent schools offer events specifically designed for prospective parents. With the public schools, it's a little harder. You have to dig and make some phone calls—as they don't send out fliers alerting you of events. To help you out, I've tracked down some upcoming events at independent and public schools (be sure to call ahead to confirm dates and times). And if you know of others, post them in the comments section and I'll add them to my list. Thanks!

School choir performance, Thursday, November, 1–1:45 p.m.
Silent auction in March

Winter Fair, Wednesday, December 5, 6 p.m.
Winter Peace Assembly, December 14, morning

Buena Vista
Posadas, Friday, December 14, 6 p.m.; singalong, potluck

Winter Celebration, Thursday, December 6, evening

George Peabody
Winter Singalong, Thursday, December 13, evening (tentative; check back first week in December)

Leonard Flynn
Kinder Info Night, Thursday, November 29, 6–7 p.m.

Open House, Saturday, November 17, 10 a.m.–noon; Informal setting in the
library with talks from the Principal, PTA officers, on-going school tours and Q&As

International Potluck and Talent Show, Friday, November 16, 5:00 p.m.

Starr King
Movie Night, Thursday, November 8, 5:30 p.m.; movie and dinner for $2

Live Oak
Open House, Tuesday, November 13, 7–9 p.m. (adults only)
All school open house, Saturday, December 8, 1–3 p.m. (adults and children)

Open House, Saturday, December 1, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The homework question

Tonight, my husband picked up my kids from preschool so I could get my eyebrows waxed at a nail salon (I can't believe I'm sharing this). In a back room, an aesthetician—whose daughter happens to go to Lawton—turned my bushy brows into skinny rainbows. With my new and improved look, I returned to the main area where ladies were enjoying manis and pedis—and two young children, sporting sweatshirts from a private school I won't name, sat in chairs getting foot massages. My "brow designer" whispered in my ear, "These children come for foot massages at least once a week." The boy and girl, who were probably about 10 years old, were doing their homework while women rubbed their tootsies. I didn't know what to make of the whole scene, and I'm still processing it—but I immediately recalled my first massage, which I got on my honeymoon in Costa Rica at 25 years old. And I thought, These kids are spoiled!

And then I kicked myself for being judgmental because things like massage and yoga are healthful and relaxing—and so zen. And then I tuned into the fact that these children were doing homework. I wondered, Are these kids so stressed out by homework that their parents have to pay for foot massages?

The most frequently asked question on my school tours is: What's your homework policy? Parents ask this again and again and again. They ask the parent guides leading groups through classrooms, and then they attack the teachers with the question. And then the principal and the assistant principal. I heard parents asking about homework at the enrollment fair. What's up with homework?

So far all the schools I've toured—both independent and public—have very light or no homework in kindergarten and first grade. There's only one exception? That's Alice Fong Yu, where every parent I've talked to has painted a picture of piles of homework. If my kids go there, I guess we'll be investing in a hot tub and yoga lessons and acupuncture. Gosh, I can't afford any of that. Maybe it's time to return to school to become a masseuse. (Please, excuse me while I poke a little fun at AFY, which happens to be my top choice public school these days. It's my way of dealing with the fact that I might not get in.)

Getting a little flustered by all this deep thought, I turned to my favorite place for information, The New York Times, to help me sort through the confusion.

Coincidentally, last week The Times ran an article titled: "Less homework, more yoga, from a principal who hates stress." The story by Sara Rimer focuses on high school, but it's still relevant. And so what am I thinking after reading it? Those kids getting foot rubs, they should have left their homework at home.

The New York Times on Chinese immersion

I'm still mulling over the Chinese immersion programs. I contacted a mom with children at Alice Fong Yu. She and her husband are Caucasian and their two boys have done well at the school. "We love the school and we feel lucky to have gotten our two sons in," she said.

I asked about Mandarin versus Chinese. "If we had a choice, I think Mandarin is the better language to learn," she said. "However, both are written the same, and Cantonese is the local dominant language spoken in the Bay Area." Then she went on to say, "The AFY Mandarin classes in Middle School are exceptional. I hear that when AFY students go to Lowell High School, their Mandarin is better than other students." Hmmm...

In the midst of my confusion, I came across this November, 2006, article in The New York Times, "Non-Asians Showing a Growing Interest in Chinese Courses." The author, Winnie Hu, mentions the private Chinese-American International School in San Francisco, and writes, "Five years ago, the school was 57 percent Asian-American, but this year it is only 49 percent Asian-American...more non-Asian-Americans have been applying in recent years." Hu goes on to talk about public schools across the country that are adding Mandarin programs.

Has anyone toured the private Chinese-American school? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Live Oak School

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: a small, close-knit student body; a curriculum that's adjusted according to a student's abilities and interests; teachers who view each of their students as individuals; an approach to teaching that emphasizes critical-thinking and real-world application; financial aid for families who can't afford full tuition; diversity (29 percent students of color); teachers' assistants in classrooms; parent involvement (kindergarten families required to donate 60 hours of time); a modern, urban campus with a library, science lab, art studio, music room, Grand Hall, theatrical stage, half-court gymnasium, play yard, and extended care room.

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: by appointment only
Location: 1555 Mariposa St., Potrero Hill (see map)
Grades: K–8
Start time: 8:30 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 22 students, one class
Average class size lower school, K–5: 21, one class per grade
Average class size middle school, 6–8: 17, two classes per grade
Total student body: 250 students
Tuition: $18,800 (lower school), $19,500 (middle school)
Financial aid: 29 percent of families receive need-based tuition assistance (up to 75 percent of tuition)
Morning bus service: Lake and California streets, Noe Valley and surrounding neighborhoods
Before- and after-school program: Roots and Branches; 7:30–8:15 a.m., until 6 p.m.; $7.15 an hour or $120 for block of 20 hours; cooking, piano, fencing, hip hop, paper mache, capoeria
Language: Currently, Spanish starts in 5th grade but the school plans to offer language in lower grades by next year
Highlights: kindergarteners go on a field trip every Friday; grandparents and special friends day; school-wide trip to Camp Jones Gulch near Pescadero with archery, canoeing, rock climbing, talent show; drama for middle schoolers (they put on two plays a year); fabulous library stocked with thousands of books.

Kate's impressions
"Every child comes into this world with their own blueprint," said Live Oak head of school Holly Horton to prospective parents gathered in the library. "Our job is to figure out exactly what that blueprint is."

Horton was explaining the school's philosophy to treat every child as a unique individual. She talked about embracing each child's unique learning style and differentiated instructional methods. She told us that teachers customize curriculum based on a particular student's needs, interests, and abilities.

The approach resonated with me. Through this school process, I've realized that I'm in search of a school that will allow my daughter, Alice, to be herself. I'm not looking for a place that will mold and sculpt Alice, as if she was a soft lump of clay.

"We want children to know who they are," Horton said. "We want to make sure that no child has to leave any piece of themselves at home."

And so began my tour of Live Oak, which is housed in the former Hills Brothers coffee plant in Potrero Hill. It's a retrofitted industrial building with spacious rooms, lots of skylights, concrete floors, exposed infrastructure, and tall windows framing downtown's skyscrapers. It's the sort of building that could be a fabulous modern art museum but instead it's a school that's been made cozy with carpets and couches and beautiful displays of children's artwork.

After Horton's welcome, the parent guides went on to introduce themselves and tell us where they live: Glen Park, Excelsior, Jordan Park, Pacific Heights. They represented a broad swath of the city. Some spoke with accents; another mentioned that her family is Jewish. We broke up into groups, each led by a parent guide.

First stop: the sparkling new half-court gym with a rock climbing wall. The kindergarteners go to PE twice a week. There's also a city park across from the school where the upper grades recreate.

Next, we stepped into a kindergarten room, where a lively teacher danced about with a bird perched on her shoulder. The children were circled around watching and they were in awe! The room was full of fun stuff: a two-story wooden play house, a dress-up corner, a compost pile, and cages and tanks full of critters. I later saw this same teacher doing sign language with the kids in the Grand Hall. And then I saw her strumming a guitar, leading her students in a song that involved growling and ohhing and ahhing.

In a second grade classroom, a wall was plastered with stories written by the children. At the end of their stories, the students included brief autobiographies. One boy had written that he has four pets and likes to read books by Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. I could see how this exercise helped the children express themselves as individuals.

We walked into a fifth grade class. The students were at Spanish but the teacher sat at a desk reading papers. A dad in our group asked the teacher how she adjusts the curriculum based on her students abilities. She easily responded to the question with endless examples. She talked about meeting one on one with students regularly. She explained how students involved in group projects are each assigned a job—say project manager or fact checker—that supports their strengths. This teacher was obviously in tune with school's philosophy.

We made a quick stop in the music room packed with xylophones, drums, and glockenspiels. The students start music in kindergarten. Then into the art studio, where Calderesque mobiles and Noguchi-like wire sculptures hung from the ceiling. The uberhip teacher, sporting faded Levis and checkered Vans, welcomed our group. He showed us some paper lanterns his students were making, and he told us about the need for children to use art as a way to express themselves. "Even the older kids just need to sit down and doodle sometimes," he said.

What about computers? Yes, shiny white Macs in a brand-new lab. Students start on the computers in the first grade. They don't visit the lab on a regular basis. Their visits are linked to larger projects they're working on in class.

The tour came to a close in the library. The assistant head Virginia Paik talked about homework. "It's a way for students to hone skills that have been introduced in the classroom," Paik said. "It offers the opportunity to practice in a quiet place." "Real" homework starts in the second grade when students have about 30 minutes. Then it goes up each year about 15 minutes. By middle school, kids have about two hours a night. There was some discussion about finanical aid, which is offered to those in need, and teacher turnover rate, which was described as normal.

And the grand finale: four eighth graders quietly walked in front of the audience of eager parents. The students faced the group—and their eyes and smiles lit up. They casually introduced themselves as if speaking in front of 75 people was an everyday occurrence. One student said she had transferred from Hamlin; one from Tenderloin Community School; one boy said he had entered in kindergarten; and the last was from Discovery Center.

After the introductions the parents were invited to throw out questions:

What don't you like about your school?
"I wish it went through high school."

Where are you applying for high school?
"Drew, Convent, Lick, Taft, Kent, Lawrence. I want something similar to Live Oak because I know that I do well in an environment like this."

How do parents get involved?
"They chaperon field trips. And they come with us to Camp Jones Gulch."

What makes Live Oak unique?
"Well, I don't think there are any other schools quite like Live Oak," said the boy who had started in kindergarten. "I get a special feeling every time I walk into this school. I feel comfortable here. It feels like home to me."

By this point if anyone on the tour wasn't convinced that Live Oak is an amazing place, they were all persuaded by the boy's heart-felt words. And it was then that I realized I'm not looking only for a school for Alice—I'm looking for a home, a place where she feels safe and nurtured.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Bye, bye, apples!

Recently, I've received some comments questioning my apple ratings. I've been thinking a lot about what the ratings mean and I haven't come up with solid justification for them. I like that they provoke comments because I think the visitors' postings are what's making this site especially informative. But I don't like that they're hurting the feelings of some people who actually attend the schools—or that they're distracting from the write-ups that offer up a much more thoughtful overview of my impressions of a school. So bye, bye, apples!

And please keep the comments coming. I appreciate the tremendous response to this site. It's the variety of opinions and thoughts that are making it an interesting place to visit.