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.
Web site: www.liveoaksf.org
School tours: by appointment only
Location: 1555 Mariposa St., Potrero Hill (see map)
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.
"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.