Saturday, November 17, 2007

West Portal Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
Cantonese immersion (some exposure to Mandarin); dedicated teachers (average length of stay is 14 years); a lovely location and building; project-based curriculum; top test scores; student teachers in classrooms; perceptional motor program for kindergarteners (once a week); a rest/nap time after lunch

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: Thursdays at 9 a.m., call to reserve a space
Location: 5 Lenox Way, West Portal/Forest Hill neighborhood
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 90 students, two general education with 20 students each, one Chinese immersion with 20 students, and one kindergarten-1st split with 10 kindergarteners and 10 first gradersStudent body size: 547
Playground: overlooks Pacific Ocean; separate play structure for kindergarten; adjacent city park where kindergarteners play on Fridays
Before- and after-school program: GLO
Language: one-third of the students are in a two-way Chinese immersion program; the other two-thirds are in general education with no language
Highlights: perceptional motor program for kindergarteners (once a week); P.E. for 1st to 5th twice a week; classroom music for all grades; instrumental music for grades 4th and 5th; dance for upper grades; computers in all classrooms; community service projects include food bank and adopt-a-beach program; overnight backpacking trip in 5th grade; 1st to 5th grade attend SF Symphony performance in spring; spring musical put on by students; school participation in the Chinese New Year parade

Kate's impressionsWhile I waited for the tour to begin, I walked the hallways of this lovely school set in a leafy neighborhood. I peeked into several classrooms and what did I see? Focused and engaged children. In many classrooms, the students were working in groups at tables. They were reading, writing, stringing necklaces, making Thanksgiving cornucopias. No one was staring into space or goofing off. If your child thrives in a focused environment, this is a school to consider.

The principal, William Lucy, was unable to address our tour group because his wife recently gave birth to their third child (he must like kids!) and he's on paternity leave. If you're seriously interested in West Portal, I recommend visiting when Lucy returns. Gayline Tom, the parent who led our tour, was sweet and soft-spoken—and she seemed overwhelmed by the 50 intense parents she was in charge of herding around the school.

Two-thirds of West Portal students are in a general education program and one-third are in two-way Cantonese immersion. This year, the school introduced Mandarin enrichment for immersion students—for example, the first graders sing Mandarin songs once a week.

In a two-way Chinese immersion classroom, about one third of the students should speak Chinese at home, one third English, and one third should be bilingual. When our parent guide explained the breakdown a prospective parent asked, "So that's the ideal, but what's the reality?" Tom replied, "You'll notice a lot of Asians in the classrooms but that doesn't mean they all speak Chinese." And indeed, I did see a predominantly Asian population in this school. In the kindergarten-first split immersion class, I counted four Caucasians, one African American, and fifteen Asian Americans. I don't think this is unusual for a Chinese immersion program; I observed the same thing at Alice Fong Yu.

The immersion students receive 80 percent of the curriculum in Chinese and 20 percent in English in kindergarten and first grade. Each year, the amount of English increases.

Our tour visited only the kindergarten classrooms. There are 90 kindergartners: three general educations classrooms with 20 students each; one Chinese immersion class with 20 students; and one kindergarten-first split with 10 kindergarten students. In Mrs. Briesach's general education class, the kids were studying patterns. She started by going over picture patterns—star, diamond, circle, star, diamond, circle—on the eraser board. Then she sent the kids to their tables to make their own patterns.

In another general ed class, the kids were also studying patterns and creating them by making beaded necklaces. I stepped into a Chinese immersion class where the kids sat round the teacher who was speaking in Chinese—so I haven't a clue what was going on. But the teacher was animated and waving her hands all over the place; the kids were engrossed. The other immersion class was on a field trip, which are common at this school. The kids go to the zoo and the West Portal Library and other spots around town.

The kindergarteners have 30 minutes of quiet time after lunch. They actually rest on cots. This is the first school where this was mentioned and I'm wondering if it's unique.

West Portal parents are involved. They volunteer in the classroom, on field trips, in the library, at Exploratorium science nights, and in the game room that's open to kids during lunch. There's a major fund-raiser every year—but no small-scale fund-raising projects that involve bake sales or selling wrapping paper door to door. Instead, the school asks each family to make a monetary donation. West Portal raises $100,000 a year—$40,000 comes from the fund-raising and $60,000 comes from parent donations.

Every year, the teachers help the students put on a musical. It's done by the teachers on their own time. Some 200 students participate and they can choose to sing, act, dance, help manage the stage, and design sets and costumes. Another highlight: the Chinese New Year parade, which involves students, parents, teachers, and alums. "Our school takes up an entire city block," says Tom. Now that shows a lot of school spirit!


  1. Looking forward to this!!!

  2. Now I REALLY miss the apples. How good of a fit is West Portal for Alice?

  3. West Portal is a great fit. I will probably put it in my list of seven. I do think it's a little more academic--like an Alice Fong Yu, Alamo, or Lawton. I will likely return to meet the principal. The parent tour guide was nice but she was unable to answer many questions. Hopefully, some parents with children at the school will comment.

  4. Thanks! Do you know when the principal will return?

    BTW I heard he is called "Principal Hottie" or something because he is so good looking. He also must be doing something right - West Portal generally receives rave reviews (and is hard to get into!).

  5. bill is great but "hottie"? please. i toured west portal before he left and i was impressed with him (and the fact that he led the tour and answered questions for a good 40 minutes after). the issue of the percentage of asians was raised and bill said it's about 60% asian (though it seemed like 90% to me). i wish the school were more diverse. on the plus side, the school is preparing for a significant prop a greening improvement that bill thinks should be ready next year.

    kate, it seems like you are applying to schools regardless of promixity to your home -- do you plan on having alice take the bus?

  6. west portal is actually very close to noe valley - less than 10 minutes, up clipper to portola to vicente.

  7. I found interesting the comment about how West Portal PTA structures its fundraising (annual gift drive and one big event, no plethora of smaller efforts). Each community must decide this for itself, of course, but for what it is worth:

    We have found in our Spanish Immersion school (Alvarado) that in addition to the pledge drive and big silent auction that it has been useful to have smaller efforts as well, both to raise that extra money--every dollar is put to use!--and also in order to have activities that all families can participate in across the spectrums of class and culture.

    Certainly e-scrip (everyone has to go grocery shopping) but also raffles, read-a-thons, gift wrap sales and a Carnival with activities for a buck, a cake walk and Mexican food for sale. It seems that some of these are more accessible to some of the families than the big silent auction where the wonderful class art projects sell for $1000-2000 apiece. It is made clear for the pledge drive that no donation is too small, but it is also good that some families can create bigger donations through a raffle/rifa by selling tickets for a buck. There are families that probably can't make a 3-figure gift but might be able to bring in that much by selling raffle tickets in their communities.

    Again, each school community has to figure out these issues as appropriate, just as they also have to figure out allocations of district money through site-based budgeting. It has its pros and cons but overall, local control does work, I think.

  8. rooftop makes a big deal out of the fact that their fundraising is limiting to 2 big events like west portal. i guess some parents don't want to be hassled with a bunch of smaller events. i can see pros and cons with each.

  9. I'm the parent of a kindergartner at Grattan and I've noticed that many smaller fund raising events can have a dual purpose. We just had a book fair a few weeks ago in the school library. I think we raised a few thousand dollars and it was a lot of work, especially for the couple that took primary responsibility for making it happen. But it was also a great way to get the kids excited about reading and the end of the week literacy night was a great community event. Not all small fundraisers have to be wrapping paper selling drudgery.

  10. My Alice is in K at West Portal, we started her in the Chinese immersion program but had to transfer her to Gen Ed, as it just did not work for her. Her teachers and Mr. Lucy have been incredibly helpful through the process but our K-garten adjustment has been very difficult. Feel free to email me directly if you would like us to share our experience

  11. i was sorry to hear about the last poster's difficult K transition. that must be hard. i was wondering about immersion programs and whether there are any theories (or cold hard facts) on what kind of kids do best with them -- style of learning, etc. truth is, i'm not quite sure what my 4-year-old's style of learning is. i know her preschool teacher (who thought she wouldn't be hurt by a year in a preK setting -- she's a young 5) said she does well with "hands-on learning" and places where the activity changes frequently. did that make sense? she's a high-energy kid for sure, so sometimes i do worry she'll be bouncing off the walls in regular school (although i found adda clevenger to be slightly odd in some ways -- with all the tchotkes everywhere, it had a slightly "eccentric old lady's apartment" feel to it -- i can get behind the "academic subject" followed by "dance" followed by "academic subject" followed by "gymnastics" set up ... this last part was not meant as a dis on AC. Family friends have their daughter there and love the school.)

  12. I'm responding to the previous poster, even though it was a while ago....
    I did tour West Portal when principal Lucey was there and he has very strong opinions about "young fives". He basically thinks the cuttoff for kindergarten should be sept.1 and that ALL children shoudl be 5 before they enter. I happen to agree, which is one of the reasons I loved the school so much.
    Anyway, as for the immersion program and which kids are best suited: generally, what I have heard is that children need to have a great command of the english language to do well, which means most kids fo fit into this category. A child who might not is a child who has speech/language delay or a child who is at risk for such a delay (such as a child who has had multiple ear infections or severe allergies leading to multiple ear infections).
    I love the fact that immersion is an option in SF. My feeling is that most parents are either really into it, or they have serious doubts. My philosophy is: if there is doubt, then maybe it's really not the best fit for your family, even though everyone around you might be really into immersion.
    just my two cents...

  13. There are many great thing to say about West Portal. I won't repeat them.

    What is not said here is the problem of racisim at West Portal. It is not overt but it is prevelant and "hottie" Lucie wants to sweep it under the carpet. I encourage any parent considering WP or a current member to address this with Mr. Lucie.

    And don't think this you're immune to the social elitism at WP. Most parents with children here are making 6 figures of income. They will snub you subtly: what good is eScript if you don't have a credit card? How do I say no to my children when they ask for money for a pumpkin at school?

    While the SFUSD makes great effort to create diversity, they ignore creating the sensitivity that must be present from the staff (Thank God there are only a few so far in my experience).

    Bottom Line: Great Academic School with many social and racial problems unlikely to be addressed by the current administration.

    P.S. THe WP Parents Club is a social elitist group with too much control over the school. Mr Lucie is a coward to stand up to them as they control the majority of the $$$ contributed to the school. This is the same pervasive disease controlling our olitical leaders.