Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sweaty armpits, inquiry-based science, and more on independent school applications

Last night, I attended an open house at Live Oak. Six teachers spoke about the school's inquiry-based science curriculum. The event was designed to give prospective parents a deeper understanding of Live Oak's approach to learning.

The kindergarten teacher, John Michaud, introduced his classroom pets, a guinea pig named Eleanor Roosevelt and Speedy the tortoise. The first grade teacher, Danny Montoya, who could also make it as a stand-up comedian, told a story about a student who was convinced a horse is a fish. The third grade teacher, Holly Berg, talked about how her students concluded as a team that objects change weight depending on where you put them on a scale. The sixth grade teacher, Karen Bush, showed some photos of kids conducting experiments with dry ice. And the seventh and eighth grade science teacher Jennifer Spaeth talked about her students discovering the Doppler effect. "The idea is to guide them without spoon-feeding them answers," Spaeth said.

The science they talked about is hands-on. Kids work in groups and discover the world themselves. Textbooks don't play a key role. Tests aren't introduced until middle school—and they're never true and false or multiple choice. These are tests that require students to use reasoning.

I found the panel informative and enlightening. I like how independent schools emphasize the curriculum. A lot of thought is put into how children learn—private schools aren't restricted by state mandates.

After the teachers' presentation, there was a mingling period so prospective parents could chat with current parents and administrators. A roomful of strangers makes me nervous. My voice trembles, my hands shake, my mind goes into a tizzy—and, especially annoying, my armpits sweat.

I carpooled to the event with some friends, who knew a handful of people. I didn't know a soul but I forced myself to adventure out into the crowd, drips of sweat starting to trickle down. I visited the hors d'oeuvre table a few times (where the Rice Krispies treats were heavenly), checked out the students' artwork on the walls, and killed some time in the bathroom drying my armpits with toilet paper.

Most of the parents were engaged in conversation with one another—or jockeying to talk to the head of school, Holly Horton, who seems to be a friendly, warm, entirely unintimidating lady. Should I try to go talk to her? No, I immediately thought—but my subconscious was urging me otherwise: "Okay, count to three and then go." "You can do this. You're a big girl." "If Alice meant that much to you, you'd go talk to her." I was finally about to approach Horton—honestly, I swear, I was only 10 inches away from her. But then a friendly current parent approached me—and thank goodness because we bonded. She had a third grader and a kindergartener at the school. We had lots in common. She also toured all the public schools and applied to only two private. We chatted for a long time as Horton moved to the other side of the room. Oh well!

And this brings me to the topic of application essays, which have received flack in this blog's comments section. I love the essays—because it gives people like me the opportunity to thoughtfully express my interest in a school using the written word. I flounder when it comes to communicating verbally but I can usually throw something together in writing.

It seems to me that the independent schools offer a variety of opportunities for families to get acquainted with a school. Tours, applications, intimate coffee hours, open houses. While some may see the essays as a way for the highly educated (which I'm not) to express themselves, I see them as a way for blundering schmoozers to get themselves heard.


  1. Kate, you express yourself beautifully by written word. Since you are choosing to apply to a couple of private schools, I am glad you have the chance to do so in the essay format as well as by schmoozing the headmistresss, the admissions director, the board members, and so forth. I would guess you are in fact more articulate in person than you think or are saying here, but there is no question you can do it with pen and paper (or computer keys).

    I think the flack on the previous thread is more about the role that parental resources and capacities for expression *of any kind* may play in who gets admitted to private schools--whereas public schools will take all kids, and the process is by lottery. In your public school applications, Alice will not be rejected or accepted based on any deficiencies or gifts you may bring to the process, whether these are sweaty armpits or fine descriptive writing! In the private school process, they are accepting and rejecting based in part on familial self-presentation, so again, it sounds like it is good for you that essays are a part of it.

    Someone else wondered if you are feeling upset about the commentary on private schools. Many have commented that the public-private discussion is overall a thoughtful and important, if sometimes difficult one, and I find so too. In fact, that's why I keep returning to those threads, but YMMV.

    In any case, good luck with the essays--and the personal schmoozing that you may have to do. And good luck with the lottery too!

  2. I totally get why public school advocates feel the way they do. And I really admire how many of them are turning around lesser-known schools and helping families make more educated school decisions.

    That said, I do get kind of tired of the constant public-private debate. I feel like I've heard the same pros and cons over and over again. Perhaps the context is different but the fundamental issues (to me) seem about the same.

    Why don't we focus on what we all care about: The quality of each school, public or private? Are the students engaged? Do some schools go through academic material at a different speed than some others? Are some schools better for look/listen kids and others better for tactile learners? I would love to hear more on these kinds of subjects.

  3. I'm also very interested in the private/public debate. Reading the comments surrounding this issue has been enlightening. I went into this school search not thinking very deeply about the larger implications of private vs. public schooling and now half-way into this process, feel very differently about things than I did when I started.

    I suppose it can get easily tiresome when you've heard the arguments before but it really amazes, no, COMPLETELY BLOWS ME AWAY how misinformed people still are about public school options and the lottery process. Not many consider how their choices will affect community.

    But in the end this is a personal blog and I worry a bit about whether or not Kate feels like she being taken to task every time she posts about a private school. It's her blog after all.

  4. As a newbie to the enrollment system I have found the discussion fascinating. I have also liked Kate's descriptions (will search out any information on these schools I can find, but Kate's little details are particularly helpful).

    However, the discussion is what has kept me coming back. I've learned a lot. I've liked the descriptions and comments and details from parents already in the schools, and I've liked the debates about public schools. Definitely feel more informed about particular schools, about the enrollment process, and I am thinking more deeply about our choices. I haven't found it tedious, but instead rather enlivening. The passion is great, the issues are real.

    So, I hope Kate keeps hosting the discussion in such an open and generous way. I hope people keep posting.

    Just think, on January 12 most of us will have cast our dice. By March we will begin sorting our options. A year from now we will be the experienced ones who have been through the process and can talk about our child's experience at this or that school. I hope I can be as generous with my time for the new folks as some of the "already there" parents have been on this blog.

  5. Please don't hold back. I appreciate the comments on this site. I think they're making it an interesting place to visit. I think it's good that we're challenging each other. It shows that we're passionate and that we care. And don't worry about offending me--though I appreciate just how sensitive some of you have been. When we can put ourselves in other people's shoes and actually try to understand their situation, I think we make our arguments stronger. Anyway, thank you for making my site a place for open discussion.

  6. I've found this whole blog fascinating and very constructive! I wish something like this had existed when I was going through the process.

    I would also point out that for lots of families public/private is not an either/or. My kids started out in Catholic school, then transferred to public school. Now I've got one daughter in a private independent school, and another heading off to public middle school. I imagine #3 will also continue in public school but who knows? She's only in second grade.

    Some friends send their children to private school for elementary, and then public for high school. Others do the opposite.

    We're lucky to live in a city with a huge variety of options, even though choice can bring a lot of anxiety. To me it's better than not having any choices! Keep up the good work Kate!

  7. I can't quite wrap my head around the private school bashing by posters to this blog. Democracy is about freedom of choice. Families who choose private schools are not siphoning off support for public schools but rather keeping more kids in San Francisco. Rejoice! More choices = More kids in SF = More resources for all kids in SF!

  8. anonymous last poster, "bashing" seems strong as i think the arguments have been pretty nuanced. democracy in america is not only about freedom of choice, but has always been about finding the right balance between individual freedom of choice and social equity. many of us feel the system has gotten way of out whack in the last 30 years or so in favor of consumer choice and away from social equity. the gaps are widening and in the long run that will threaten our democracy.

    actually, choosing to leave the public system does take away real money (money is awarded per student) and also time, resources, energy, and overall support and advocacy that we parents bring to the system. if you live in a gated community on a hill, are you as likely to care about the well-being of the town down in the valley? possibly, but not with the same level of investment.

    i'm not sure i buy the argument that more kids = more resources for all kids, or the resources the majority of our kids need most. all our kids need way more resources for education, resources most of their parents cannot provide without public investment. how is the very existence of the families who are attending the various private academies in the city helping them get more resources?

    i think most of the public advocates here have also made it clear that we all have friends who have gone private. maybe some of us have considered it. we still like our friends. we get that there are tough choices. we are parents too. still they are ethical choices and worth debating.

  9. Kate, on the next public school tour you go on, ask about the new FOSS science curriculum that has been adopted district-wide. It is also a hands-on science curriculum and from what I have seen, it's quite sophisticated.

  10. Re private sch "bashing." Every parent want others to make the choice they made - that's human, so we all need to take others' comments with a grain of salt, as we try to make the best decision for each of our unique children. For eg, under "Bye, bye apples!" an MCDS person said that SF public education is in a "sorry state" and that the SF lottery system is "crazy." I disagree, but the comment is SO interesting, as it reflects the views held by many priv sch parents who seem to need to justify their decision, by imagining SF publics to be bad. (Also saw this reflected by the private sch mom who wrote the SF Magazine article re Private Schools Gone Wild). For many of our friends in private, their decisions were based upon sincerely wanting the best for their child and the incorrect belief that only a few select SF publics would offer a strong education and not getting into those. It wasn't based upon a nefarious intent to be elite or to widen the growing gap betw rich and poor.

    I don't have an issue when families choose either public or private based on accurate information. What is SAD, though, is that the decision to go private seems often to be based upon inaccurate info or perceptions about the SF public's supposed "sorry state." The misinformation ranges from both the affirmative glitzy marketing that privates engage in (very hard for publics to compete with) to the negative stereotypes about the SF publics schools or the lottery. Sure, it's sad for society at large by diverting parental participation and funds from the publics, but it can also be sad for that individual family and child. We are all poorer, when SF families overlook or don't investigate and choose good public options, but that family loses too -- when it stretches financially to go private because they incorrectly believe "they have to" in SF or if the kids are being deprived of the real-life values and education gained by not being coddled or by going to school w/diverse classmates (socio-economically, special needs kids, racial ethnically), that they might have had, while still getting a good academic education.

    We chose SF public, even though we are fortunate enough to be able to afford private. (We were not scared off by public, due to our experiences with public-educated kids that went on to excel at the Ivies and life, while knowing some private kids (not all) that didn't fare so well as adults). It can be difficult to do, as there is some peer pressure (and a little bit of ego) in some circles to do what everyone else is doing and send your kids to private. But we have been impressed by SF public, so far, esp. given the context that publics are educating a much wider range of kids and with far fewer resources. While the facilities and extras in a private will be more impressive, no doubt, the teachers themselves seemed to be more experienced and just as good (or better) in the publics, overall. (We have since learned that this is because the teacher credentialing process is more rigorous in public than in priv). This good news about SF public needs to get out, which is why PPS and this blog is providing an important service. Keep up the good work, Kate!

    As parents get more accurate data about all their options, hopefully, they will make better-informed decisions. And, yes, it's my hope that that process will lead more middle class and affluent families to choose SF publics, as a win/win choice that's good for their child and family that also happens to be good for our larger SF community and beyond.

  11. I'm the author of the original "sorry state" comment, which was indeed written in haste and in response to a lot of the uncomfortable things being said about private schools in general, mine in particular. If you reread my comment, though, it's not about SFUSD in particular...it is more a reflection of my frustration with our current national emphasis on high-stakes testing. And yes, I think I'm going to have to stand by my opinion that the lottery system is a bit crazy -- watching my friends take time out of their work schedules to tour dozens of schools nowhere near their homes that they probably won't get into feels a bit crazy -- but I am at a loss to come up with a more equitable system. (And I do love that parents have so much choice.) I'm another product of 1970's public schools who walked to the school across the street from my home.

  12. Barbara, good to have you back.

    I find myself in disagreement on several counts with your statement that the lottery is crazy because it makes parents tour dozens of schools outside of their neighborhoods that they probably won't get into.

    Well, okay, it does feel a little crazy (I'm touring middle schools at the moment). And this whole process, as has been noted, is much more inaccessible to people from certain neighborhoods, less flexible work schedules, no cars, language barriers. But for professional and educated families, I can't see why it is any crazier than touring private schools, which many seem willing to do. I've also been delighted to see more schools offer open house tours after work hours or on weekends. I believe that was a recommendation of the big panel report that came out last spring on the enrollment process.

    There are now so many better-performing schools, some in every neighborhood except a few, and within a mile of all neighborhoods that are likely where a professional and educated families is likely to live. Someone made a list of at least 30 potential choices. Too many to tour, but enough to give more options in every neighborhood than the original Big 5 That Were the Only Ones Acceptable back in the day (some of those are now in the second rank as others have superceded them in test scores).

    As far as "probably won't get into," that is likely true only if the families put fewer than seven and/or list only the most wildly popular schools (though it's been known to happen). The famous Adam spreadsheet available at PPS can help provide a guide to (though not guarantee) the odds.

    Someone wrote that the best strategy is to put your top choices (whatever their popularity) up top, but try to include an acceptable though less inundated option as 6 and/or 7. I think this is good advice. Many good combinations using this advice will yield probabilities of over 50%. There really are some charming neighborhood schools that may not have the reputation but are absolutely lovely programs--as good as or better than I ever had in my neighborhood school in the 70's when there was no such thing as choice.

    And of course there is the waitpool process, which if families stick with it will almost always provide a happy choice by September. Again, it can be onerous and and anxious time but no more so than with private (at least from my mileage; maybe there is a secret code to breaking through the 5-10% acceptance barrier at most privates around here? We evidently didn't know it.)

    Also, I would say the process is much improved since we were applying for kinder (5 choices only, no ability to rank choices as I recall, so we all stressed about even including acceptable but lesser choices on our list. That was fixed).

    Guess what I'm saying is, you're right, it is crazy but certainly not more crazy than the private school application process. Also, it is crazy but for good reasons. If we returned to neighborhood schools we would lose flexibility and choice of programs, and also penalize people in certain neighborhoods (and segregate a lot more).

    And, yes it is crazy but then it will be over. It's a phase, like teething and diapers and the terrible twos and (I am fervently hoping at this point) adolescence.

  13. Last Anonymous poster, Which of the original Big 5 have receded to the second rank? I am touring and liked some of the second rank "hidden gems" better than some of the alternatives everyone talks about, so would like a second opinion or more information if there are some schools that are losing momentum and why (perhaps the opposite trend of the number of public schools that seem to be getting better and better). Thanks

  14. I had long imagined Synergy as my dream school and visited it when looking at the "Young K" year for my son. We didn't apply then, but planned to apply there in earnest for kindergarten in the Fall of 2006.

    BUT, during the summer of 2006, we went to Germany for 3 weeks to visit some of my husband's cousins. We had such a good time that I said to him on the way back to the airport to fly home "We have to send Miles to public school." "What?" Frank asked. "If he goes to public school we could do this every year, and have money left over for home repairs or whatever else." That was that. I didn't go any where near the private schools during my search last year. I didn't want to want them. I didn't want to desire their new volleyball nets and cooking classes and science labs. I knew if I started touring them, I would covet everything they were and had.

    It's like anything else. If given a choice you have to weigh a bazillion factors whereas if there weren't any choice (say the kids all went to their neighborhood schools like in the old days) they would likely all do FINE.

    So that's another way to look at it. Pick your schools, make your spreadsheets and roll the dice. With the many good choices there are now in public (and private too if you want them) your children will do just fine.

    For us, I am LOVING not spending the $900 a month we spent for pre-school. Costa Rica 2008!

  15. I'm not the one who posted about 5 Acceptable Schools but I am from that era. Clarendon, Lilienthal, Lakeshore and Rooftop come to mind. maybe Alice Fong Yu would've been next? or Lawton? Families that liked Spanish would try for Buena Vista, this being before the proliferation of SI programs.

    I don't think any of these schools have dropped in value, actually, but Lakeshore, which was a campout in the schoolyard to be first in line type school (yes that was the system), is now one of many good options, and unless you live in the west/southwest quadrant of the city, I think schools like Miraloma and Alvarado are now probably higher up on the list of requested schools by reputation and location combined. Someone could check that on Adam's spreadsheet; sorry, I'm being lazy.

    I know people find the lottery difficult, but just know that the old system was much harder and crazier. We all had school assignments per the consent decree, many of them not in our neighborhoods, or they were not the best schools, and then the idea was to fight like crazy to get into one of the few alternative schools considered good. And there was a lot of behind the scenes politicking and hanging out at 555 Franklin to wrangle a coveted spot. It was awful. We we were lucky with our "low-income" 94110 zip code (funny as there are many low incomes but also many high incomes in the zip code, which includes Bernal as well as the Mission). But, ugh.

    I also realize how great the concept of "neighborhood" schools sounds. But only if you happen to live on a coveted block. Have folks here ever read Sandra Tsing Loh's humorous essays (or seen her show, Mother on Fire, or heard her NPR sketches) on LA Public Schools? Public education is based on real estate (aka neighborhood schools), and it does not make life less crazy there! Just puts it in a different area of craziness. You may think you are getting a good school, turns out you are on the wrong side of the street; hundreds of thousands of dollars difference in home value depending on the school rep. Yikes. I like the fairness of the lottery better.

    Anyway, I do highly recommend Sandra Tsing Loh--just google her--she is hilarious on the topic of school searching.