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.


  1. Kate, thanks for these write-ups. They're very helpful. I have a question for you. My biggest concern for my child is probably safety. I'm not really as worried about academics because I feel that we can make a success of most places we'd consider in that respect. Same goes for arts, sports, social networking - we can make those things work. Having a safe haven in a school is extremely important to me. You would think that elementary school kids wouldn't have to worry about violence at school so much, but I've read recent posts in various places that sadly point out the fact that it does exist, and that some schools do not handle it well. So my question - in your research so far have you gotten any sense of a difference between public and private schools in that regard? Because, honestly, super-enrichment programs come second to my child's basic sense of well-being and comfort. I'd love to support the public schools, and I will if at all possible, but if violence is an issue at any school, I absolutely will put my child's welfare first. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Poster #1, are you worrying about external safety issues, i.e., keeping kids safe from violence that might come in from outside the school, or about internal violence such as bullying, and how schools address it? Or both? I can offer some reflections from my kids' school experience, but it would help to know what you are thinking about. Thanks.

  3. I was thinking of violence within the schools - bullying, fighting, etc. And yes, how the schools deal with it. I'd love to hear your experiences. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for clarifying.

    Our public elementary school (Alvarado) implemented the Tribes curriculum. I think Fairmount teaches this as well. It teaches behaviors such as attentive listening and mutual respect. Several teachers are very passionate about this program and probably they implement it more intentionally than others, but it is taught schoolwide.

    A significant part of the school curriculum involves sharing of stories and culture. I think this teaches values of inclusion within a context of diversity. The human story is always more compelling than theory.

    I also know that before gay pride/family diversity day, at least in the past, there have been classroom discussions about certain derogatory terms, and also family sharing.

    Both from the classroom and afterschool program, my children have been both recipients of and subjects of apology-making in response to hurtful behavior. The teachers (both school and after-school) have been on it pretty fast; there are standards. Certainly any rare incidents of physical violence (kicking, hitting, mainly, both on purpose and perhaps by accident) have been jumped on very quickly in my experience.

    Hurtful words are harder. My daughter was teased a bit in kinder, but the teachers worked hard with the offending kids and also with my daughter to help her find her niche. My son's second grade teacher was extremely responsive to a report of my son being left out on the playground--she worked hard on building classroom community and found ways both to talk to the kids about teasing and also to help my son find pathways to inclusion.

    For kids with deeper emotional stresses and issues that manifest in behavioral issues, there is the Sandtray program and referrals to outside help for the family. We went through that process with one of my kids at one point (long story); the help is there.

    All that said, there is inevitably hurt (teasing) that happens on the playground that the adults do not see. Of course, part of growing up is also learning how to handle this--I have done some strategizing with my super- sensitive youngest child; because adults will not always be around, especially in the upper grades. Still, overall, the environment has been positive and the adults see this as part of the mission.

    I think it would be very naive to say that any school avoids this, but schools can set the tone with expectations, by enforcing clear standards of behavior, and through programs like "book buddies" that pair older/younger kids; or Tribes programs; or culture sharing; or Sandtray.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Hi Kate,

    So you were on our tour! You saw everything we did in the order we did. Agreed on everything you say in your review. It's very accurate.

    My husband saw a woman on our tour scribbling notes furiously and was convinced she/you was/are the blogger. He kept bugging me to approach her/you but I couldn't quite summon the nerve to ask.

    Love the blog. I've really enjoyed it. Hope this comment doesn't freak you out!

  6. This wonderful (!!!) post actually makes me miss the apples. I'm curious, do you rank this, in terms of fit for Alice, higher or lower than MCDS?

    Also, are you still planning on going to SF Day?

  7. Interestingly, my son is in a music program with many Live Oak kids and, it may be the particular kids that happen to participate in this particular program, but I'm alarmed at the 'loose' parenting style I see with parents from this school. I'm no strict disciplinarian, but do feel that parameters are a good thing.

    I spoke for a long time with a parent of two girls at Lowell who went K-8 at Live Oak. He was lamenting how 'hard' Lowell's structure was on their girls and that he wished the teachers were more accomodating because they'd come out of such a nurturing environment. The thought running through my head at the time was that it sounded a bit like privileged parents feeling their kids were special and shouldn't be held to standards of everyone else.

    Again, it's a parenting choice and style. Some families prefer 'loose' and others not so much. I find the parents at my kids' own public school to be a bit more on-top of managing their kids (and recognize that this can vary widely depending upon culture, socioeconomics, ethnicity, etc.)

    My 2 cents.

  8. As the parent of a student who attends both Live Oak School and the "music program" referred to in the above post (namely, the Paul Green School of Rock Music), I am happy to respond to any posts here with questions about either of these schools.

    Both Live Oak and School of Rock encourage each of its students to push beyond apathy, self-doubt, peer pressure, and naysayers to discover the talented, disciplined, and confident kid within.

    At Live Oak, parents, kids, and teachers alike embrace extra-curricular activities (from soccer games and track meets to theater productions and music concerts) as an opportunity to meet families from other schools throughout the city and to cheer on one another's kids towards the common goal.

    Find out more about Live Oak School at Find out more about School of Rock at Both schools offer financial aid in order to cultivate student populations that reflect the socioeconomic diversity of San Francisco.

  9. I'm a parent of a Live Oak kindergartner. Your description of the school tour matched ours very closely, and so far I'd have to say the school has lived up to all our expectations.

  10. I had a very different experience with Live Oak. I thought they were disorganized and arrogant. Ours is a Latino family and we found Live Oak's attitude towards families of color to be patronizing and their process absolutely counterproductive to building diversity. I'll bet those 29% of families of color are mixed families--families with one white parent--because our experience (we are from Venezuela) was quite alienating, even though my husband and I are highly educated and acculturated to the US way of doing things. I felt like they stole that application fee from us. Needless to say, my daughter did not get in to Live Oak.

  11. Bullying and violence are much more of a problem in the private schools than in the public schools. Maybe stems from the parents who feel they can buy anything - including behavioral exceptions for their children. Public schools much better at dealing with these issues, while private schools just cover up.

  12. Bullying and violence are much more of a problem in the private schools than in the public schools.

    Well, that's a convincing and well-supported statement... NOT. Please publish your data.

  13. LOWER SCHOOL TEACHERS AT LIVE OAK.....dont get me started

  14. Huh? Care to elaborate?

  15. Seriously -- Oct. 20 @ 10:19:
    You can't just drop a bombshell like that and not tell us what's on your mind. Please do provide more info!

  16. Elizabeth (who has yet to write a full review!)November 25, 2008 at 9:23 PM

    Yes, please expand upon your comment. We really liked Live Oak and - yes, I've read about the lack of spots - will be applying there. We spoke with a few of the lower school teachers on our tour - no red flags for me.