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.


  1. Kate,
    Thanks for your wonderful write-up! I'm particularly struck by the prinicpal's comments about not teaching to the test and teaching the whole child instead. How refreshing! It's so tempting to just look at the schools with the highest test scores, and his comments highlight one of the many reasons why that approach would lead you to miss some wonderful schools (not that Miraloma test scores are low). As a parent, I feel that I can't complain about teaching to the test and then use test scores as the main determinant of where we apply.

    Also, thank you so much for this blog. I do not have the ability to tour all of these schools, and you are providing a really valuable service by helping me refine my decisions about where to tour.

  2. My oldest child is in 5th grade, and I remember well when some of our preschool cohort got into Miraloma, and were intially shocked and horrified. One year later they were bragging about the poetry workshops. Two years later they were crowing about how the school was up and coming, and how great it was to be a part of the change. By that point it was considered a "hidden gem" in PPS terms. Now I think we could safely say it has arrived!

    Some of the best options, I think, are the ones on the upswing, if you can figure out which ones those are. In any case, I'm glad you found one you love so much.

  3. Thanks, Kate. Miraloma does seem like a wonderful school, and I met Mr. Machado once and he's great.

    Question -- so which schools are considered the next up-and-comers? Is there inside dirt on such things? Anyone know anything? Thanks much.

  4. One thing about Gen. Ed. vs. Immersion is that the former may have more room in the curriculum for differentiated learning, especially in language skills. Our daughter spent K at Mckinley, which has individualized learning plans for reading, and then transferred to Lilienthal Korean IP in 1st and found herself reading a bunch of books all over again. The little bookworm had worked ahead in reading in K, but the Korean IP curriculum wasn't as flexible (I don't see how it can be, with one class per grade in the whole SFUSD).

    We were definitely impressed with Mckinley's K reading program. The kids are flooded with teaching resources: teacher, assistant teacher, and tutor for 1 on 1.

    A good measure of diversity performance is how well the school brings the K kids up to speed, given that some kids didn't have preschool, ABC's etc., and they did a very thorough job.

  5. question for the previous poster who had their daughter at McKinley: did you leave McKinley because you wanted her to be in the immersion program at CL? Or did you have issues with McKinley itself? I ask because I have McKinley on my list of schools to tour, but I haven't spoken with any actual parents there yet. I went there one day by mistake, on the wrong tour day (duh!), but the principal was very gracious and showed me around for a bit anyway, which was lovely. It seemed like a sweet little school.

  6. We just moved to Sunnyside a few months ago, and I was wondering if anyone had a child at Sunnyside Elementary or had toured the school yet or knew anything of it in general. I know Miraloma seems to be the shining star in this neck of the woods these days, but I wanted to give our "neighborhood" school a look too. It looks cute from the outside ...

  7. I have a 5th and 3rd grader at Miraloma - it brought tears to my eyes to read your review of Miraloma! You really captured what it's all about. Miraloma is everything I'd hoped my kids would have in elementary school - public or private. We have been so happy there. To top it off, we have made some wonderful family friends that we'll have for life.

    Important to remember is that Miraloma, like many other public schools, was underenrolled and not a popular school until recently. A handful of parents started a PTA (12 parents five years ago, it's over 200 today) and started giving tours to change enrollment trends (245 kids five years ago, 360 today.)

    When my oldest was in kinder I wore a Miraloma T-shirt to Tower Market. A parent in line asked if I was a teacher there. When I said I was a parent she said with distaste "I can't believe anyone would send their child there by choice". Two years later, same shirt, same store I'm cornered by parents wanting to know how to get into this fantastic school.

    The point is: sometimes people have to just check it out for themselves and help create the community school you want. The principal, teachers and parents at Miraloma did just that.

    There are so many examples of this successfully happening all over the school district: McKinley, Grattan, Peabody, Grattan, Sherman, Lafayette, Flynn, Sheridan,Starr King, Marshall --- I could go on and on!

    To find out more about 'hidden gem' schools contact Parents for Public Schools (who put Miraloma on our radar to begin with) and they can get you hooked up with Parent Ambassadors from almost every school in SFUSD to answer your questions about their experience.
    A Parent Ambassador spent 2 hours on the phone with me 6 years ago to answer all my questions - and I've done the same since for dozens of families - many are now the leaders and volunteers at Miraloma.

    PPS can be reached at or 861-7077.

  8. I have been told that some of the up and comers now include:

    - Fairmount
    - Flynn
    - Marshall
    - Monroe (all of which are SI)
    - McKinley
    - Grattan (is pretty up there already)

    Schools that have already come include:

    - Sherman
    - Miraloma
    - Alvarado

    I'd be curious to hear more.

  9. I'd agree with:

    - Fairmount (SI, already lots of requests)
    - Flynn
    - Marshall (SI, heart, great activist parents)
    - Monroe (SI)
    - McKinley (for several years)
    - Grattan (is pretty up there already)
    - Peabody
    - Lafayette
    - Sherman

    as mentioned, new "top schools" in the last six years:
    - Alvarado
    - Miraloma

    don't forget these up-and-comers of the last year or two:
    - Starr King
    - Jose Ortega (both new Mandarin immersion programs)
    - Daniel Webster--some parents were working on this in Potrero Hill; don't know how it's going but worth checking out or making a phone call at least.

    It's important to mention:
    - Harvey Milk has had wonderful leadership in the last few years, has done some amazing work building community, several mixed-race families I know swear by it
    - SF Community, not for everyone but an amazing bunch of people over there, project-based learning, very committed community, has been this way for a long time
    - New Traditions has its boosters
    - Paul Revere is in turn-around mode, and has SI, worth checking out though still raw

    And oldie but goodies with good academic reputations on the west side:
    - Lawton
    - Jefferson
    - Commodore Sloat
    - Ulloa
    - Alamo
    - Sunset

    new Dianne Feinstein seems to be performing well.

    this list is actually leaving out the Big Ones that so many will say are the "only good ones": Clarendon, Lilienthal, Rooftop, Lakeshore, and additional top-performing Chinese immersion schools Alice Fong Yu and West Portal

    There. I've mentioned 31 schools. These are the ones I know about from friends, so I hope others will write in with their faves.

    I'm looking at middle schools myself and am actually impressed with the list I can comfortably put down for my kid there. (Now if we could feel as confident about parenting in the teenage years, that would be great!).

  10. We left Mckinley only because of Korean (family reasons), and we were quite happy there. We got a wait-list spot in first, after missing in K. Mckinley was our second choice.

    Bonnie was actually a principal or assistant principal at Lilienthal before Mckinley, so she gave us some tips.

  11. I live in Sunnyside and have older kids. I highly recommend this school (if my kids were just coming into kinder, I'd have no hesitation about going there.) There are many families in the neighborhood walking there and it's a sweet community with a growing parent group. The families I know there really love it. You can talk to them as PPS Parent Ambassadors by calling 861-7077 or emailing

  12. Yick Wo is also a great school and increasingly popular in the last few years.

  13. Kate, I received a postcard that there is a MCDS "coffee" on Thursday night, if I remember correctly, at the Bay School (?), at, I think, 6.30? I'd call the school if interested, as I can't find the postcard.

  14. sorry, I meant to post that to the 'events' post. I'm sleepy!

  15. I think the revolution is happening. Years ago I said that the school options in SF just weren't reasonable. We don't want to pay $15,000 a year for kindergarten (when we should be saving for middle school - ha ha), and we don't want to leave the City. What if we all sent our kids to public school? We'll help and we'll fundraise and we'll donate and then public schools will be viable options again!

    Schools need parent involvement and the up-and-comings and the not-there-yets truly benefit from the investments of money, energy, organization and time that often come with middle class families. Some schools already have tons of help, money and enrichment programs. Consider that whatever help you offer a school helps beyond your own child's education. You make a valuable contribution to the lives of so many other kids while you're at it. And that's a big deal.

  16. kathy b, when I was looking for kindergarten for my oldest I saw more options than I had anticipated. We chose what was then an up and coming school, not yet wildly popular though. At the time I told my husband that we could at least be glad we could send our kid to public school through elementary and save our money for middle school, just as you say. Or move out of town at that point, which neither of us wanted to do.

    I also thought then we would only have one child, so many plans have gone out the window with "surprise" #2 kid. So now we're looking for middle school and also elementary again (no sibling preference as the older is moving on). There are so many more options for elementary this time, really wonderful ones.

    And, another surprise, we will be sending kid #1 to public middle school. Not only because of the money factor (okay, two kids=less money), but because we have five middle schools we are more than happy to put down on the form. They are different from each in some interesting ways, but all viable for our family.

    Our daughter has participated in that search by going on tours, as have many of her friends, and they are actually excited about some of the programs offered at that level, ranging from comprehensive music and other arts programs to the new salad bars.

    I agree, the revolution is happening. I've seen it happen with one "generation" of elementary kids. It seems to be happening at the middle school level too.

    Also agree with you too about the benefits of participating in turning around a school. It's actually a lot of fun, too. We have all learned a lot, including my daughter, and I mean that in a good way. She's also done more than fine academically.

  17. I too am surprised and heartened by the middle school situation. When we went to public elementary school, we assumed it would just be K-5 because "everyone" said the middle schools were awful.

    But lo and behold, I haven't even toured any private middle schools. Why should I when I've got three good public choices relatively close to my house? The teaching I've observed on tours has been first rate. And, the middle school enrichment opportunities just can't be matched by any K-8 public or private.

  18. Our family has been at Miraloma for many years now, starting when it wasn't making the grade. Since Ron Machado has taken over, and my dealings with him, he has lied to me, refused to deal with bullying issues at the school, and made some very racist comments to me.

    I am highly disappointed because he tends to do this in one on one conversations. I was even more shocked when I have been approached by a great number of parents regarding similar issues with him.

  19. Miraloma has changed the school tour schedule significantly this year (Fall 2008). Here are the notable changes:

    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 school 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 video 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.

    As an aside, my family has been at Miraloma for 4 years (2 children), and we couldn't be happier with the school, the teachers, the staff, or the amazing principal Ron Machado.


  20. I too find that comment about Ron Machado interesting. We are new at Miraloma with a kindergartener. We have nothing but fantastic things to say about the school. Our daughter is absolutely thriving there! And I've been very impressed with Ron Machado. About a month ago, there was an incident where an openly gay teacher noticed some derogatory graffiti on a poster in his classroom. Mr. Machado immediately held a meeting with all the parents about it, and I thought he treated the issue seriously and with nothing but respect. I for one was impressed with how immediately, directly, and respectfully this was handled. To me it communicated that Miraloma welcomes everyone and it established Mr. Machado as a strong leader.