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
Web site: www.westportalschool.com
School tours: Thursdays at 9 a.m., call to reserve a space
Location: 5 Lenox Way, West Portal/Forest Hill neighborhood
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!