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.


  1. What exactly is an "alternative" school?

  2. Alternative schools are K–8th--rather than K–5th.

  3. It's more complicated than that. The designation is mostly from another time, when we had assignment areas as part of the desegregation consent decree of 1983. Alternative schools would be designated as having some special program to offer--science, arts, technology--and families applied to them outside the normal school assignment that was based on what city block the family lived on. In part it was a way to pacify the opposition to busing by providing, well, an alternative.

    Many of the desirable schools were designated as alternative. They were required to maintain a lower allowable segregation rate (40% of any one ethnicity or race) than was allowed for the other, regular schools (45%). These were the days of camping out to get in line so as to get the spot at Lakeshore, Rooftop, etc.

    I believe assignment areas and their satellite zones still give a slight advantage in the lottery to those who apply to that school. It is my understanding that alternative schools do not have assignment areas and thus do not give that "neighborhood preference" (or "satellite area preference") to anyone. I'm only a little bit wonkish about this subject, though, so I invite correction! Caroline? Anyone?

    In any case, it is generally assumed that the whole system of alternative schools vs. non-alternative schools, and also the specific assignment area/satellite designations (which are the basis for today's school bus runs) are out of date. I think the BOE is supposed to be looking at these in the context of enrollment reform for 2008-09. We'll see what happens, won't we.

    Quite often the assignment areas meant being bused across town--when I lived near General Hospital in the Mission, our school was in Chinatown even though Bryant was down the street. The assigned school was considered unacceptable by our neighbors with kids so they chose to apply to Rooftop Alternative and drive their kids to school each day.

    Later we moved into the Edison School district (now a state-granted charter school run by the odious, for-profit Edison Project), so officially we do not at this point have an assigned school, and when we applied for K a few years back we were told that the first non-alternative school on our list would be considered our "assigned" or neighborhood, school, with thus a slight preference granted to us for that school of our choosing anywhere in the district. FWIW, we did get our first choice, a non-alternative school. At that time as well, we could only put five schools on the list, and no more than three of them could be alternative schools.

    At that time there was also problem with our ability to rank choices so that people were scared to to put lower-down (but acceptable) choices on the list, as the computer was likely to put you where you contributed the most diversity....something like that...rather than in your top-ranked choice of any schools that matched you up. I remember they fixed that the following year after parental outcry.

    See how much easier the process is now?

  4. That's pretty much right. They were partly an experiment in voluntary desegregation; a way to offer schools with specialized focuses; and a way to maintain more SFUSD schools in operation at a time of low enrollment (a baby bust -- the mid-'70s, I think).

    But then after Prop. 13 the specialty focuses fizzled in many cases. Lakeshore, where my kids went, had had a foreign-language emphasis, but there was no remaining foreign language in the curriculum by the time we got there.

    A remaining difference is that non-alternative schools get default assignments (applicants who didn't get any of their choices) and alternative schools are supposedly entirely by request.

    I think all the K-8s are alternative schools, so your impression is logical, Kate (though not all the alternative schools are K-8!).

  5. Kate,

    I know you have interest in immersion but I don't see the 2 new Mandarin programs on your list. Do you have plans to check those out?

  6. My husband is going to Starr King today. I have plans to go next week.

  7. Just a note from a fan of comprehensive middle schools -- it's not really accurate when the K-8s tell you that their 6-8s are providing band and orchestra. Those are mini-ensembles and can't possibly touch the quality of the music programs at the middle schools (those that have them -- sadly, not all do).
    As you can imagine, just the smaller numbers make it impossible to do what a bigger school can do.
    Aptos, my kids' middle school, has a full band and full orchestra for each grade (I mean, real, full-size ones) in the curriculum, with free loaner instruments -- also extracurricular jazz band and chamber ensembles.

    Ditto with honors classes. Obviously a school that isn't selecting for high achievers can't truly provide an "all-honors" program. The middle schools that have large enough GATE (gifted and talented) populations have separate honors classes, which are truly high-level and rigorous. Friends at Rooftop were pretty envious when they realized my kids were getting those separate classes at Aptos -- K-8 sounded really great when they were first applying for their 5-year-old, but later on they realized they were missing out on some benefits.

    And similarily, K-8s' sports teams compete in SFUSD intermural middle-school sports, but are unlikely to be truly competitive because of the much-smaller number of athletes to pick from.

    Anyone who claims otherwise is not being fully honest. It's just impossible due to the smaller scale of the school. That's why some K-8 parents choose to transfer their kids to middle school.

    I was volunteering to help lead a tour of SOTA (School of the Arts, SFUSD's specialty high school, where my son is a junior) a couple weeks ago and met a Lawton family, parents of a band student. They said SOTA is generally not on the radar at Lawton, because Lawton's focus is so academic, so they were unusual.

    1. Ditto with honors classes. Obviously a school that isn't selecting for high achievers can't truly provide an "all-honors" program. " - Seeing that Lawton is an ACADEMIC school from jump, of course their not recruiting high-achievers...they're molding them!!! Please don't believe the above son attends Lawton, & their honors program is just as rigorous as the GATE program. If you wish to quote stats, PLEASE let us know what your Lowell acceptance rate is & we may be able to compare apples/oranges.

      "And similarily, K-8s' sports teams compete in SFUSD intermural middle-school sports, but are unlikely to be truly competitive because of the much-smaller number of athletes to pick from." - this is GARBAGE; Lawton's Boys Basketball team missed the finals this year by 2 games (& just barely...we lost by 3 points to one of the supposedly better teams in the district!)

  8. Re alternative vs. non-alternative. I know a family that was assigned to New Traditions (an alternative school) by default last year. So I don't think all alternatives are by request only.

  9. Caroline, please tell me more about the level of honors classes at Aptos and if you know, at Presidio and Roosevelt (we are in the Richmond). Since I'm focused on kindergarten, I don't know the specific ins and outs of the honors classes offered at the academically focussed K-8's vs. the one offered at comprehensive middle schools. I have to confess that I am very interested in academic performance of schools at the middle school level. Elementary, maybe not so much.

    On the face of it and for what it's worth, the test scores show that Lawton/AFY are excellent. Rooftop and CL have pretty good scores too. And all are more or less better than the comp middle schools. Of course it's more complicated than a straight comparison because there are far more students and a wider range of kids that the comps have to include in their test results. I guess what I'm curious about is whether Aptos honors is comparable to the honors classes that the K-8's offer. From what I gather, you are making a case that they are better because they can be far more selective in the students that they accept into the honors program. In my view, I guess that makes sense, but I also see an advantage in that kids that may be struggling a bit can be brought up to the level of the better students if all the classes are honors. And there is less chance of a kid slipping through the cracks since the middle schools are so small. That can't be a bad thing.

    Also, I was told by the Vice Principal at Lawton that the kids at K-8's tend not to try to act more mature than they really are since they are still in the same environment as when they were kindergarteners. That also seems like a good thing to me though not a deal breaker.

  10. There really is no comparison between the honors classes at Aptos (or Presidio or Roosevelt) and a K-8. K-8s' classes would be "honors classes" in name only. Middle-school honors classes including 100% or almost 100% GATE-identified students, and K-8s' classes include a percentage of GATE-identified kids among a larger group of non-GATE -- the full academic cross section.

    That's why, as I mentioned, my Rooftop friends were envious when their child reached middle school level and they realized mine got separate honors classes and theirs didn't. (And I know a couple of families that transferred from Rooftop to Aptos for that reason.)

    Lawton's profile lists 20.8% GATE (gifted and talented) students overall. Students are identified as GATE in or after 3rd grade. Assuming that the distribution of GATE students is even through the grades (unlikely, but maybe roughly), if all of Lawton's 6-7-8 classes are honors, those classes consist of roughly 20-21% GATE students, plus or minus.

    At middle schools that do have separate honors classes, the students in the GATE classes are entirely or almost entirely GATE-identified, based on the districtwide identification criteria -- that is, Lawton students are identified as GATE based on the same criteria that every other school uses.

    (Aptos' honors classes include a few students screened by the GATE coordinator and identified as "high-potential," though they fell slightly short of officially qualifying as GATE. I don't know if any other middle schools do that.)

    So, you can see that the academic level of the classes would presumably be higher if they are 90-100% GATE-identified students than if they are 20-21% GATE-identified students. If the Lawton principal is saying "all our classes are honors classes," that's semantic, a little bit of marketing.

    Since K-8s simply aren't going to have enough GATE students to fill a class, what they have would be differentiated instruction, same as GATE students get in grades 4 and 5 in regular public schools. The students are in class with kids of all ability levels, but GATE students are supposed to get some extra challenging work.

    In middle schools that have separate honors classes, they are really truly separate -- the higher academic achievers in their own classes. The entire honors class covers the curriculum in more depth and at a higher level than the regular-ed classes, in accordance with the students' higher academic ability.

    So Aptos' honors classes would presumably be considerably more advanced and rigorous than the overall 6-7-8 classes at a K-8, pretty much by definition -- because we're talking about a class with 100% (or close to it) GATE-identified students, compared with a class with 21% or so GATE-identified students. The GATE students at a K-8 will get differentiated instruction, and having no experience with that I can't say how rigorous that is.

    You're correct about the test scores at the K-8s, of course. The comprehensive middle schools have students of all ability levels. All the K-8s you mention are popular schools in high demand, which sends their test scores up -- and mostly westside schools. And they are all alternative schools, meaning officially no default assignments -- someone else mentioned a kid getting a default assignment to New Traditions, which was probably a glitch of some kind (though a happy one, I hope, since it's a good school!). I've heard of that happening occasionally.

    The only way to make a pure comparison would be to compare the scores just of the GATE students. I know that can be done, but I don't know where to find them.

    The few K-8 schools outside the westside have been in lower demand and had lower scores, not to say they're not still good schools. The only one currently that has been around for a while in K-8 form is S.F. Community. Previously, 21st Century Academy off Silver Ave. was a K-8 for some years; it was a low-scoring school and was revamped into a different grade span.

    It's a judgment call about the mature behavior of the kids, case by case. I don't see an overall difference based on the kids I know.

  11. I'm on a middle school search, so I'll chime in here.

    From what I have seen, Caroline is correct that some of the larger middle schools have amazing music programs. For example, A.P. Giannini in the Sunset has band or orchestra class every day, and different levels too (beginning to advanced). I got to see a very impressive strings teacher at work with the orchestra kids. Imagine, a whole period a day studying a string instrument. The kids can get to be very good.

    Alternatively at Giannini, they can take a rotation of studio art, drama, and chorus, and there is a dedicated chorus room and studio arts room as well as an auditorium. I believe the music programs are also very good at Hoover and Aptos. Not sure about Presdio, but they do have orchestra and band there too. Aptos also has the jazz band.

    Smaller schools have the arts programs but not the opportunities of full band and orchestra. James Lick has a rock band program. They study music theory and rock music history (linked to social studies) and they produce rock concerts. This is very attractive to my younger child who is tagging along on some of the tours. Lick provides a unified arts rotaton that includes studio art and dance as well as music. Their Day of the Dead exhibit was on display at the De Young this fall.

    All the middle schools have the same sports teams, and also P.E. every day. Boys' baseball, basketball, girls' softball, basketball, volleyball, mixed soccer and track. The powerhouse teams are the big schools because they have more athletes to draw from, so a good athlete would want to go there. Aptos has a ballfield, and Giannini has a park next to it that they use to practice on. The advantage of the small schools is that there is a better chance of getting on the team for a so-so but passionate athlete. (Let it also be said that small James Lick won the soccer championship last spring, something the whole school seems to very proud about.)

    Honors programs, pro and con. This is what we are trying to decide. Our child will certainly qualify for them, and it is attractive. These programs are rigorous and are designed to prepare the kids for the likes of Lowell. All the kids are GATE-identified (perhaps with a few high-potential kids, as Caroline suggests). The idea of an intellectual peer group is attractive.

    James Lick has a different approach, although the number of GATE kids is increasing there, now to 20% or about the rate of Lawton overall. Like Lawton, they keep the kids together, GATE and not GATE, for language arts and social studies (though the SI kids take language arts and social studies in Spanish and GenEd kids in English). The teachers, several of whom are described as superlative, teach extensions, otherwise known as differentiated instruction, to the GATE kids. The GATE committee and principal have promised to dedicate a teacher's workshop to the topic of differentiated instruction this year in order to better address the growing number of GATE kids.

    Also, the 826 Valencia Writers Workshop, which will soon be onsite, will be able to teach writing to a range of students from struggling readers to the ones who write volumes (like my kid). My kid loves the 826 Valencia workshops so is very attracted to that program and the chance for more one-on-one support as a high-level writer.

    In contrast, math is divided in to high-medium-low at Lick, but the kids take tests every six weeks and can be moved in and out of class levels depending on how they do. The advantage to this method is that it avoid social tracking, or at least, it allows for kids to jump the track.

    Another thing is that James Lick is now requiring algebra of all 8th graders. They are really working on raising expectations of all the kids--this is good. Disadvantage may be that it slows down the pace of learning for the GATE kids who in the past were the only ones who took algebra--that was their only honors class.

    I love the community and passion at Lick and the dedication to raising the educational level of the whole student body. I really love this. Tracking at the middle school level does contribute to the achievement gap. But I am also a little torn about missing out on accelerated honors classes at the high-performing schools that Caroline has described. Those really are accelerated classes with a high-performing peer group. It will be a tough choice.

    Overall, though, we have five schools plus two programs within the schools--that makes 7 choices. I would be fine with any of them though there are location issues and some tradeoffs. I am so happy to find out that my visions of a middle school wasteland were completely wrong.

    On the other hand, I will say that the difficulties of parenting a hormonal middle school child are already turning out to be true, in the 5th grade, but that is another story!

  12. Thanks for the explanation Caroline. It's helpful. My own feelings are that I believe academic success of a school has more to do with a culture of academic achievement that exists within a particular school and maybe less to do with the number of GATE students enrolled. I was a product of the California GATE program (though not in SF) and as far as my own experience goes, the GATE students that were identified in the lower grades were not necessarily the ones who wound up on the honors track in middle school or high school for that matter. I believe academic success has more to do with motivation, being around peers who are similarly motivated, work ethic, family support (read: pressure) and of course teachers. But what you are saying also makes sense to me.

  13. I'm not putting down the K-8s -- just saying that the comprehensive middle schools have resources that they can't offer. I was really happy that my kids were in classes with a cross-section of ability levels K-5 -- there were so many ways they benefited. But in middle school it felt like they could spread their wings and take off with the most academically strong of their peers.

    James Lick is getting to be a very attractive school! It certainly would be on our radar now.

  14. Oh, and in response to this:

    <<< the GATE students that were identified in the lower grades were not necessarily the ones who wound up on the honors track in middle school or high school for that matter. >>>

    That's a valid point, but it doesn't directly address this issue. In the case of Lawton's classes vs. the larger middle schools' separate honors classes, the difference is a class that's all gifted kids vs. the full cross section -- GATE and regular-ed -- mingled in a class.

    It's not as rigid as implied. A student who was GATE-identified in 3rd grade but started screwing up and doing poorly in middle school honors classes would not be left to flounder or drag the class down. If he/she truly wasn't engaged enough to do the honors work he would presumably be moved to regular ed classes, after (I'm sure) rounds of counseling and tutoring and such. It has happened to kids in both my kids' honors tracks.

    In my son's high school, students request and write a small essay every year if they want to be in an honors or AP class, so again, it's not just based on their being identified as GATE in 3rd grade.

  15. Yes, it's K through 8th; I made the change. Thanks for helping me keep the site accurate.

  16. I just find it ludicrous that some of the K-8 schools are claiming that all of their middle school classes are "honors" classes. How can that possibly be? Do they mean their teachers follow the faster-paced, more advanced "honors" curriculum, whether or not their students can keep up? That would affect their precious test scores, wouldn't it?

  17. kate, do you plan on sending alice on the bus?

  18. There isn't a separate honors curriculum -- honors and regular-ed classes study the state-mandated curriculum. It's just that the students work at their own pace and depth, with a teacher challenging them at their level. With a classroom full of high achievers, that's a different level than a class with the full spectrum of academic levels.

    The principal's saying "all our classes are honors classes" is a feelgood remark, like saying "we view all our students as gifted and talented."

  19. so what middle school did you guys decide to send your kids to?
    I'm just curious because I'm a 7th grade student at Lawton.