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.


  1. You seem to like this one a lot! It sure sounds like a real gem. Wonder if it will make your list for Alice. I may have to check it out myself.

    I wonder if the principal meant Junior Great Books, a program I have seen at other schools. I realize hard to hear the tour guides sometimes without visual aids.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Kate and thanks for taking these helpful notes and writing these reviews for all of us readers out here.

  2. Yes, I think it's probably Junior Great Books. I'll make the change in my write-up and call the school to double-check. I did love this school. It has few bells and whistles but the small size is so nice. I get the sense that the school can more easily focus on teaching and learning because of its size. Also, the leadership and teachers seem strong here. And the kids seem focused and engaged

  3. will you look at sutro too? I hear that the schools are almost "sister" schools due to proximity and similar small size.

  4. If you like Peabody you should definitely tour Sutro. Sutro, Peabody and Frank McCoppin are identical in terms of size and facility (both a plus and a minus - great small size but horrible 1970s era shutters over every single window, what WERE they thinking?).

    I liked a lot of things about Sutro when I toured it four or five years ago; they have a new principal there whom I know nothing about. At the time Peabody was not on my radar but certainly would be today. Anyway, Peabody currently has more buzz but with the right group of dedicated parents Sutro could be right there with it.

  5. Oops and one more thing about Sutro I forgot to mention: one of their K teachers kept an adorable blog last year about what his/her students are doing:
    It doesn't seem to have any posts for this year (a shame) but still great reading for getting a sense of what K at Sutro is like.

  6. Does anyone have any thoughts about so much emphasis on reading and writing in Kindergarten? Seems a little early, a little harsh. We're coming from a play-based co-op preschool. Would this school not be a good fit?

  7. My second grade daughter has been attending George Peabody since Kindergarten. I could fill pages with all of the wonderful social, academic & creative experiences that this school has provided. Although it was not our first choice in 2007, we couldn't have found a better place to send our daughter and she is growing into a confident, responsible young girl because of of it.
    I want make a few additions to the first posting:1) Last year we built an outdoor classroom/garden environment, which is flourishing and has become a wonderful addition to the curriculum and learning experience. 2) Chinese language is no longer an option for after school enrichment. 3) To the comment about the reading/writing emphasis for Kindergartners being too harsh, and to parents who share this concern, I want to comment; Although my daughter had started reading before Kindergarten, I too was concerned about rushing and forcing reading & writing at such a young age. Peabody is small enough to provide a fair amount of individualized teaching, and Kindergartners are allowed enough creative play time to make the transition from preschool to Kindergarten very natural.