Saturday, December 22, 2007

Are the schools in the suburbs really better?

Tonight, I had dinner with an old friend in Rockridge. Tanya lives in San Ramon, so we picked a half-way point.

Tanya and I met in seventh grade French class. We instantly bonded because she had a crush on my younger brother's best friend's older brother (I know it's complicated). Over the years our lives have been parallel in many ways: We were roommates our freshman year in college, married our husbands within two weeks of each other, and gave birth to our first children within two weeks of each other—which means we're now both starting to get ready for kindergarten. But enrolling for kindergarten in San Ramon is quite different than in San Francisco—and so as we chowed down on burritos, it was interesting to compare notes.

In January, Tanya will be picking up her kindergarten packet at the school where her son will be attending—yes, she already knows where Tyson is going to school and she has known ever since they moved into their house about one year ago. Like in most suburbs, kids in San Ramon go to their neighborhood school. I have to admit that I was feeling envious when she told me they'll soon even know which teacher Tyson will have next fall. I feel so far away from that!

But what really surprised me was when Tanya started to tell me about all the bells and whistles at her son's school. "There's a full-time P.E. teacher," she told me. "The kids get P.E. twice a week. At most public elementary schools, the classroom teacher does P.E. with their own students." Okay, wait a minute: Nearly every school I toured in San Francisco had a full-time P.E. teacher offering class once or twice a week. Or there's a Sports 4 Kids program. As my friend went on and on, I began to realize that the public schools in San Francisco have most of the same special extras as the schools in San Ramon. I was surprised. And when I told Tanya that the schools in SF also have P.E. programs, she seemed surprised.

Why do many people assume the urban public schools have less to offer than suburban ones?

Yes, in the suburbs you can typically walk to school, which seems nice, though I wonder how many people actually do that. And the test scores are higher, though we all know why that's the case.

You hear that many people leave the city for the suburbs because of the schools—but I'm beginning to wonder why. If you want a big house, that might be a reason to move to the suburbs. Or maybe you're seeking ample street parking. Or maybe you're hoping to settle in one of those beautiful suburbs nestled against a verdant mountain or perched above the sea. But leaving SF just because of the schools? I'm not sure that's a strong reason. (Though who knows how I'll feel when I don't get one of the seven schools I select.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hot topic: public school picks

By now, many of us are starting to develop a list of our top seven public schools. I've got seven—though I've yet to finalize the rankings and I'm still hoping to visit a few more schools the first week in January.

Here's my current list:

Leonard Flynn (Spanish)
Buena Vista
Alvarado (Spanish)
Alice Fong Yu
West Portal (Chinese)
Miraloma
Rooftop

I hope to tour Clarendon and Starr King in January. If I lived closer to George Peabody, Alamo, Lakeshore, or Lawton, I'd include them on my list.

Please share your top picks. Parents who have already gone through the process, feel free to share your lists from years' past.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Private school parent interview tips

I hate to admit this but the night before our first private school parent interview, I couldn't fall asleep because I was worried about what to wear. Superficial, I know. Jeans—comfortable, most representative of me, but are they too casual? Skirt—fun and cute but way too fancy. I could wear a jean skirt with tights? What about that black sweater? Oh yeah, that has a big moth hole in the sleeve.

Finally, I decided on some gray wool pants and a black sweater that doesn't have a moth hole.

I also worried about what Ryan was going to wear, what I was going to say, what Ryan was going to say. I was treating the situation as if the admissions directors were judges at a dog show, examining our questions, responses, hand movements, facial ticks, and lipstick color.

All I can say is the admissions directors were the farthest thing from that. Rather they were friendly and laid-back. After one of our interviews, Ryan said, "I felt so comfortable with the admissions director that I wanted to hug her when we said goodbye."

I won't go into specifics about each one but I will offer some tips for those of you with upcoming interviews:

1) Don't worry. Don't stress. Be yourself. And wear jeans if that's what you want to wear.

2) Brainstorm some questions to ask the admissions director. I guarantee that you'll be asked, "Do you have any questions about the school?"

3) Be prepared to answer a few questions: Why are you interested in this school? What other schools are you considering? Tell me about your child?

4) Re-read your application essays before the interview. The interviewer might refer to the essays and it's a good way to re-fresh your memory on what you like about the school and why it's a good fit for your child.

5) Talk to your partner about the interview the night before. Make sure you're on the same page—in terms of what you like about the school, your child's strengths, and so on.

6) Don't forget: You're also interviewing them to see if the school is the right fit for your child.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Alamo Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a well-rounded curriculum offering rigorous academics and an equal emphasis on art, music, and P.E.; high test scores; strong PTA; friendly, dedicated principal; developmental approach to teaching; good odds (80 kindergarten spots!)

The Facts
Web site: www.friendsofalamo.org
School tours: Fridays at 9 a.m., call 750-8456
Location: 250 23rd Ave., between California and Clement; outer Richmond
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 80 students total, four classes of 20 students
Playground: expansive black-top area; big play structure; roof-top garden
After-school program: No after-school program for kindergarten; Richmond District After-School Cooperative offered for 1st–5th
Language: after-school Chinese for 1st–5th
Highlights: vocal music for K–5th; P.E. for K–5th; SF Ballet in 2nd grade; ceramics and on-site kiln; Shakespeare program for 4th and 5th; Junior Great Books; talent show; back-to-school picnic; performing arts assemblies

Kate's impressions
A father of one of Alice's friends teaches at Alamo and I bumped into him on the tour. I asked him what he likes about the school.

"I get to teach," he said. "I really don't have to deal with discipline issues. The kids who go to Alamo tend to have good habits and they're well-behaved."

As I wandered through the classrooms, I could see what my friend was saying. Alamo kids are an attentive, focused bunch.

The tour began in the hallway outside the main office. The principal, Pamela Gire, greeted us all. "We're happy to have you be a part of our family this morning," she said. Gire, who resembles Cybill Shepherd, is upbeat and charismatic. As she talked about the school, a student gave her a box of chocolates (I toured the day before winter break). Gire returned the gift with a great big hug.

Gire explained that Alamo teachers use a developmental approach, so the kids are learning through hands-on activities and playing with manipulatives and blocks. Students are reading and writing at the end of kindergarten—though their levels vary. "One child might be able to write a whole paragraph, another is writing, 'The dog ran fast,' and another is only writing 'dog'," Gire explained. "Our teachers reach children at all levels."

She touched on the wide range of enrichment programs. The school has a full-time choral director, part-time librarian, and a full-time P.E. teacher. When the P.E. teacher Annie joined the staff a few years ago, the fifth grade physical fitness scores shot up. She told a story about Annie singing at the winter arts festival. After her performance, she shouted, "Does anyone out there like P.E.?" The kids went wild, screaming "Yes."

Gire opened it up to questions:

After-school program?
No on-site options for kindergartners but some kids take buses to the JCC or other schools. After-school starts in first grade. There's an arts-based program as well as a Chinese one.

How much does the PTA raise?
There's actually both a PTA and a foundation and together they raise $160,ooo. The spell-a-thon brings in $22,000. There's also an auction and other fund-raisers.

Diversity?
Sixty five percent of the student body is Asian, 6 to 8 percent Latino, and 30 percent other white.

One criticism of the school is that it's too big. Can you address that?
"We've actually been downsizing," Gire said. She explained that the school had 720 students at one time, with six classes in each grade. Several years ago, they started to pare down to four classes per grade. Eventually, the school will have only 480 students.

The president of the PTA, Jackie Choy, led us through the classrooms. Choy got her child into Alamo through the waiting list (there's hope!).

We started in Sharon Yow's kindergarten class. The kids sat in a circle around a pile of random stuff: a little car, a carrot, a candy cane, a plastic crab. "Put all the things that you find in the kitchen into a pile," Yow said. "Put all the things that can move into a pile." The kids were loving the game. And then Yow noticed that she recognized one of the prospective parents, and it turned out to be one of her former students. It was a very emotional moment as the two reconnected.

In the other kindergarten classes, the kids sat in groups at tables, practicing letters, coloring in pictures of Santa, creating a book about elves.

Next stop: auditorium where a group of fourth and fifth graders played ear-piercing music on clarinets and trombones. And then into some upper grades: a fifth grade class was graphing data and fourth graders were taking a spelling test. In one class, I noticed that all the kids and the teacher were sporting red—kind of cute. And the fourth grade classes were all equipped with electronic wipe boards—very cool. "When the teachers turn on the boards, the kids eyes light up," Choy said. "These are the kinds of things that keep kids excited about coming to school."

Before I left, I stepped outside where the kids were running around the playground at recess. The kindergarten teacher Sharon Yow stood watching and I walked up and introduced myself. She said that she had been teaching at the school since 1970 and that she had taught all the grades. She was friendly and kind and she asked me about Alice—it's always a good sign when teacher is interested in your child. She told me that Alamo is an excellent school, and then she grabbed my hand and said, "I hope you come back and see us. You're welcome here anytime. You should come visit in the afternoon and at the end of day. You need to visit a school more than once before you make a decision—you know?"

Friday, December 14, 2007

What's this blog about?

The other day, I bumped into a friend, a dad who knows that I'm the one writing this blog. He and his partner have been primarily looking at private schools but he told me that the blog inspired him to check out Miraloma. He absolutely loved the school and said he could envision his children there. He seemed surprised to be so smitten with a public school.

At times, I wonder what this blog is all about. I started it as a way to cope with the overwhelming process. I never expected others to contribute—except my dad who posted one of the first comments. But then it turned into this community, and the blog became more about the interaction between visitors than my emotional outlet—which is a good thing.

I think this blog is about nudging one another to think outside the box—whether it's convincing parents who were only considering Clarendon to visit Leonard Flynn and Starr King, or encouraging parents who steered clear of private schools (because they seemed prohibitively expensive) to apply for financial aid. This city is full of excellent schools and it seems that our children could thrive at many of them.

Please share, if you've looked at schools that have pleasantly surprised you or if you plan to apply to or list schools that you never imagined you'd consider.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hot topic: tour improvement

Today, a friend emailed me about her frustration with the touring process. She works full-time and she's struggling to find time to visit schools.

She wrote: "One thing I've been thinking about this process—be it public or private schools—is just how down-right hostile it is to working parents. Why do these tours need to be two hours long? Why are they all in the morning? (What would otherwise be my most productive time?) Have you had this reaction at all? Doesn't it all seem a bit insane?"


Luckily, I have a flexible job. I can work on a Sunday night and then skip a few hours on a Tuesday morning for a tour. Plus, I work only 30 hours a week. But still I feel like I'm running around nonstop trying to fit in work and the school search. I can't imagine how challenging the process would be for someone who's working over 40 hours and has to be in the office during core business hours. Or what about parents who are at home with a baby? They have to pay a babysitter or bring the little one along, which makes it difficult to focus on a school tour.

Does anyone have ideas for ways schools could improve the tour options? I know that some schools offer events in addition to the tours. I believe that Flynn offered a kindergarten night, and I know that Miraloma welcomes parents to attend the Friday morning sings. Does anyone feel like all the tours are on the same day—Thursdays? Would anyone attend a weekend open house? Most of the private schools host these. Please share your thoughts—but please try to offer constructive criticism rather than mean complaints. A lot of school parents are pouring tons of time and energy into leading prospective parents on tours. And I know we all appreciate that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Live Oak Open House

Over the weekend, our family loaded into the wagon and headed to Potrero Hill for the Live Oak Open House. It was a short and unstressful drive.

We arrived right on time and the school was already packed with teachers, families, and kids. Alice was initially overwhelmed but once she spotted her best friend from preschool she was entirely at ease. The two little girls scurried about as if they owned the place. In the kindergarten room, they cuddled in a nook under the stairs of a loft. They played grocery store with a play cash register and they painted pictures. Alice spelled her name incorrectly across her picture—and I felt so comfortable that I didn't even care. Parents with children at Live Oak have been telling me that their school is laid-back, and at this open house, I really felt it.

We ended up in the art room where Alice plopped down on a stool next to the teacher and made a "theater book." This time she spelled her name correctly. She probably sat there for 30 minutes, cutting and gluing and drawing. At work in this great big art studio, Alice seemed all grown up.

The open house was meant to get Alice acquainted with the school before her screening in January. It also reassured me that Alice is ready for kindergarten. It took her only 10 or 15 minutes to warm up to a school that's probably 50 times as big as her current preschool. As she was bopping around in the kindergarten room, it really started to sink in that my little girl will be going off to school next year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hot topic: single-sex education

After I had my son, Sam, I started to read everything on raising boys. I have a younger brother who has struggled through life, and I feared that my son would follow suit. I wanted to make sure that I started Sam on the right path. One of my favorite books was the best-seller Raising Cane: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, written by child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. In this book, Kindlon and Thompson identify the social and emotional challenges that boys encounter in school—and they address the benefits of all-boys schools. Last night, I re-read sections of the book and tracked down the following passage on page 48. It touches on why Kindlon and Thompson are advocates for boys schools.

"Boys benefit from the presence of male teachers and authority figures as role models of academic scholarship, professional commitment, moral as well as athletic leadership, and emotional literacy. The presence of men can have a tremendously calming effect on boys. When boys feel full acceptance—when they feel that their normal developmental skills and behavior are normal and that others perceive them that way—they engage more meaningfully in the learning experience."

After reading this book, I remember thinking that I would send Sam to an all-boys school such as Town or Cathedral. And so I decided to explore all-girls schools for Alice since she was the one who would be starting school first. Last year, two years before Alice would even start kindergarten, I toured Katherine Delmar Burke.

My tour of Burke was a year ago and so the details are fuzzy. I remember a beautiful campus, a new gym, tennis courts, and an amazing enthusiastic science teacher in the middle school. In fact, I think she's one of the best science teachers I've observed. She had the girls constructing chain reactions (a match would light a string on fire that would break and then a car would race down a ramp and fall into a bucket of water that would tip over...), and I thought it was so cool to see a woman teaching science. During the Q&A session, I recall someone asking why the school didn't introduce language at an earlier grade (I think they start in 5th or 6th grade). An answer was given about studies showing that language instruction at an early age is ineffective unless it's an immersion program. But what I remember most of all were lots and lots of girls. It was quite awesome to see so many girls of all ages working together in one place, but it was also overwhelming.

***

As Sam grew older, he developed an incredibly tight bond with his sister. When Sam fussed in his crib at night, Alice would crawl in with him and rub his back. When Alice was scared and couldn't sleep, Sam would reach his hand through his crib and grab Alice's hand. I can remember walking into their room once: they were asleep holding hands. These days, Alice and Sam attend the same small preschool where they're in the same class together. I don't think they play together all that much at school but I think they take great comfort in knowing the other one's there. At home, they're always engaged in "Baby" or "Kitty" or "Peaches in the Meadow," a game they've created that involves tearing all the covers off Mom and Dad's bed and jumping around. As the bond between the two grows tighter, I've realized that there's no way I'm sending them to different schools. I've entirely given up on my dream of sending Sam to an all-boys school. And so I didn't even consider any of the single-sex schools this year.

I'm sure many of you have lots of thoughtful things to say about single-sex education. Please share!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alice's first private school screening

Alice was a wreck the night before her screening at Marin Country Day School. Generally, she's a good sleeper but sometimes, she simply can't fall asleep. We have a regular bedtime routine: bath, jammies, books, a song, hugs and kisses, back rub, a few more kisses, more hugs. And then I walk out the door and Alice and her brother, Sam, usually chat and giggle for a few minutes and doze off. But every now and then, Alice can't get to the Land of Nod. She'll lie quietly in her room for a while—sometimes an hour. I'll think she's fast asleep until she walks into the living room and says, "Mommy, I'm having a hard time. I can't sleep." This is just what happened last Wednesday night. And of course, when she said she was struggling to sleep, I got tense—because this was an important night for rest.

I walked Alice back to her bedroom and gave her more kisses and hugs—and then as I walked out of the room, she started to sob, uncontrollably. I tried to remain calm, taking lots of deep breaths, counting to 10 repeatedly in my head. I rubbed her back. I sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, 30 times in a row. I told her a story about a rabbit who ate apples instead of carrots. And then I just lay down next to her, my body completely frozen while my heart pounded rapidly and my mind raced. I was thinking, "Fall asleep. You must fall asleep. What if she doesn't fall asleep? Okay, fall asleep now. I'm going crazy. Fall asleep!" Finally, by 10 p.m., Alice was fast asleep. (Alice usually goes down between 7 and 8 p.m.) Exhausted, I collapsed into my bed and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning: I woke up and the bedroom was filled with light—usually it's dark when I rise. I look over at my husband and said, "What time is it?"

"If it's after 8 a.m., we're screwed!" (Our screening is in Corte Madera at 9:15 a.m.)

Ryan raced into the kitchen to check the clock, and sure enough it was 8:05 a.m. Our children never ever sleep this late. They're always up by 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m. I started to freak out but Ryan assured me that this is a good thing because Alice needed the sleep. A few minutes later Alice walked into the bedroom; she's smiling.

"Mommy, are we going to the kindergarten today?"
she asked.

"Why yes, why don't you go pick out something to wear," I said in my calmest voice ever. "We're in a bit of a hurry dear, as we all slept a little late. We'll need to eat breakfast in the car."

Alice, my baby little girl, proceeded to go into her bedroom and put on navy blue tights, pink-striped bloomers over the tights (so they don't fall down), a polka-dot skirt, a flowery top, a peach colored sweater, and her black patent-leather shoes. She then brushed her teeth and hair, washed her face, and put a barrette in her hair. She did this entirely by herself. "I'm ready Mom! Let's go!" (Talk about rising to the occasion.)

By 8:30 a.m. and we were all in the car. Sam wasn't even wearing shoes—and my hair and teeth were both unbrushed. Ryan was at the wheel; his hair sopping wet. But Alice—who is an extremely careful particular little girl—was sitting neat and pretty in her car seat, her hands folded in her lap. There was no time to drop Sam off at school so the plan was that Ryan would drive us over to Marin and drop off Alice and me. Then Sam would drive back to the city to drop off Sam and then he would drive back to Marin to pick up Alice and me. Insane!

About a week ago, I had told Alice about the screening. I said, "I've visited lots of kindergartens and I found one that I really love and I want you to go check it out to see if you like it." I didn't have her practice writing her name; I didn't try to teacher her to read in a week. I didn't go out and buy her a new outfit. Really, the only preparation we did was visit MCDS a few weekends earlier for a book fair, so Alice was familiar with the school.

In the car, Ryan and I were getting a little stressed. The traffic was some of the worst we had ever experienced in the city—of course. We moved at a snail's pace along 19th and then we were entirely stopped on the bridge. I was convinced that we were going to be late—and I'm one of those people who is almost never late. Ryan called the school and left a message with the admissions director to say that we might be a late. Meanwhile, Alice sat quietly in the back of the car.

When we finally pulled up, it was 9:13 a.m.—and pouring down rain. Alice and I raced through the school to the screening room. Three other kids and their parents stood outside; we had made it just in time. We were let into the small room where there were some 10 adults and toys. Alice immediately became very shy. She clung to my leg; she sat in my lap; she wrapped her arms around my neck. We played a bit with some blocks on the carpet—but she wouldn't let go of me. Some of the teachers—who were all warm and friendly—asked her questions and Alice wouldn't say a word.

And then one of the school's admissions directors, Jeff Escabar, said that he was going to read a story and the kids needed to give their parents goodbye hugs and kisses. He spoke in one of those sweet friendly voices that kids love.

As I hugged Alice, I started to feel tears well up in my eyes, and I thought "If she starts to cry, we'll just run. That's what we'll do. We don't have to go through this. I love this school and it's like a dream for her to go here, but we'll run." And then Alice started to release her grip. Ever so slowly she removed her arms from around my neck and she looked deeply into my eyes and whispered, "Bye, bye Mama. I can do this."

Alice stayed in the room until 11 a.m.—and when I went to pick her up she was as happy as a clam. She was wearing a name tag with smiley face stickers on it. She said that she did activities with the teachers and afterward they gave her a sticker. She said that she drew a picture of herself, wrote her name, jumped on one leg, and played—and that's all I was able to get out of her. During the car ride home, she was quiet, but as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, she said, "Mama, I liked that school. I'd like to go there."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hot topic: language immersion

A visitor has requested that I add an immersion discussion topic. Here tis...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this scho
ol if you're looking for a place with: a Spanish immersion track; developed arts program; three on-site after-school programs offering flexibility and options; inquiry-based teaching; smaller class sizes in 4th and 5th (25 students); a motivated and growing PTA

The Facts
Web site: www.flynnelementary.org
School tours: Thursdays at 9 a.m. (extra tour added: Monday, December 10 at 9 a.m., for those who can't make Thursday tours)
Location: 3125 Cesar Chavez, Bernal Heights/Mission District
Grades: K–5
Start time: 8:35 a.m.
Kindergarten size: two immersion classes (20 students each); two general education classes (currently under 20 students each)
Student body size: 450
Playground: brand-new play structure for 1st–5th, separate structure for kindergarten
After-school program: three programs: Child Development Center from the district, Mission Learning Center, and Mission YMCA.
Language: Spanish immersion strand
Highlights: Fabulous library with new books and computers and a full-time librarian, arts programs offered by San Francisco Symphony and Ballet, schoolwide Morning Welcome at which the principal welcomes the students and everyone stretches together

Kate's impressions
The Flynn tour started outside on the playground. Parent guide Vali Govier gathered our small group around a sparkling new play structure with bridges, tunnels, twisty slides, and rock climbing walls. "Parents put that up in one day," Govier said proudly. Over 400 people attended the work party, including Gavin Newsom, Tom Ammiano, and Cesar Chavez's grandson. The structure is the perfect metaphor for this school that's making great leaps forward at a rapid rate.

When Govier toured the school three years ago, she was told parent donations amounted to some $3,000 that year (there wasn't even a PTA). Last year, the newly formed PTA raised $35,000. The goal for 2007–08 is $55,000. If Flynn can erect a play structure in a day (it takes the city of San Francisco at least a year to do this) and increase its parent donations by one-thousand percent in about three years, you can only imagine what's going to happen in the future.

Flynn's current project is petitioning to become an International Baccalaureate (IB) school. The French American International High School is currently the only other IB school in the city. "At the heart of the program’s philosophy is a commitment to structured, purposeful inquiry as the leading vehicle for learning," says the IB Web site. This means kids learn by asking questions. So let's say a class is studying marine life. The students might visit an aquarium to observe fish or maybe they put together a tank in the classroom. Then they learn about the fish by asking questions. "Does a fish have blood?" "When does a fish sleep?" "How do fish reproduce?" The next step is to answer the questions—either through research, asking experts, or simply asking more questions.

IB is also about encouraging students to think globally and to think about how they can make the world a more peaceful place. It promotes intercultural understanding and respect. The program would require Flynn to introduce a language component in the general education track.

Half of the Flynn teachers have gone through IB training and this year teachers are introducing one IB unit based on the theme, sharing the planet. The complete IB program includes six themes of global significance: who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, and sharing the planet.

The idea to adopt this program is brilliant. I think it will help solve one of the primary problems with this school—the division between the Spanish immersion strand and the general education strand. Four years ago, Flynn introduced Spanish immersion. This track is hugely popular with middle class families. The immersion classes are truly diverse with a mix of Caucasians, Latinas, African Americans, and so on. But the general education track is less popular. Some of the classes are underenrolled and there are few, if any, Caucasian students in those classes. The IB program will draw interest as it offers something unique. And it's a way to improve test scores without "teaching to the test" as IB students tend to test well. Also, both tracks would incorporate the IB curriculum so this would help bring everyone together. (Please, Flynn parents and staff, correct me if my assessment seems inaccurate.)

There's no guarantee that Flynn will become an IB school but they're on the right track to do so. The commitment to the program shows that the school is striving to grow and improve.

So let's get back to my actual tour that started out on the playground. Vali Govier and another mom named Kathy (not sure if that's with a "C" or a "K") were the guides. Both have children in the immersion strand. Interestingly, Govier's daughter was accepted at Friends and Flynn. She went with Flynn and is entirely happy with her choice.

Govier talked about the school's rich arts program. Music, dance, and visual arts are offered kindergarten through fifth. There's drumming, dance with San Francisco Ballet, music with the symphony. The school's emphasis on arts is apparent in the artwork plastered in the hallways and the murals adorning the school yard.

Govier also raved about the P.E. teacher who runs the kids around the play yard, and the full-time certified librarian. She said Flynn is only one of two schools in the district with a full-time librarian. "It's like gold dust," Govier said. The library sits in the heart of the school and it's huge. Thanks to an $80,000 grant from Gavin Newsom, it's stocked with an up-to-date collection of books and equipped with computers. Students visit the library once a week. Flynn has also been awarded Prop H funding in the amount of $125,000 for greening the school yard. This means more trees and a garden. Currently, the school has some containers and raised beds filled with plants.

Govier said goodbye and Kathy took us inside. Flynn is housed in a three-story building that was built in 1924 by the same architect who designed UC Berkeley. It's a grand, old school with lots of original details and hallways painted in bright, cheerful colors. We walked into the cafeteria with intricate molding, red velvet curtains, lovingly worn hardwood floors, an antique piano, and a large stage. It's the sort of room that every school should have.

Next stop: a general education kindergarten class. Among the 12 students, I spotted one Caucasian. The students were engaged in a lesson on the difference between upper and lower case letters. In Teacher Gretchen's Spanish immersion class, with 20 students, the kids were writing stories. "Me gusta mi Papa," wrote one boy. Gretchen is a warm lady with a genuine smile. She happened to know one of the prospective parents on our tour and she greeted her with a friendly hello and a kiss on the cheek. In the other immersion class, Teacher Erin, a gorgeous Latina woman who wore her hair like Princess Leah, read a story. Her students sat cross-legged on the carpet, fully engrossed.

Our tour wrapped up in the principal's office. We sat around a table and principal Charles Addcox greeted us. "I certainly want to welcome you," he said. Addcox came to Flynn three years ago. Before that he lived in Los Angeles, where he was a teacher for 18 years and an assistant principal for four. He moved to San Francisco because his own children live in the area. He's Venezuelan and speaks fluent Spanish. He isn't one of these super-high-energy, animated principals who tells lots of jokes. But he does seem thoughtful, honest, dedicated, and open to change. And I think if your child was struggling, you could go to him and he'd listen and help you work through the problem.

Addcox told an interesting story about a Flynn teacher who is a lesbian. When the teacher and her partner had a baby, a student went home and told her Catholic parents that her teacher's baby has two moms. The parents complained to Addcox, and so he brought the teacher and the parents together for a meeting. They talked through the issue and worked it out together. "It was an enlightening experience for all of us," Addcox said.

Addcox addressed Flynn's status as a STAR school, which means it's under-performing (in terms of test scores) and receives some extra support and resources from the district. Addcox says test scores went up 36 points last year. And it seems like things are only going to get better.

He excitedly talked about the possibility of becoming an IB school. Field trips are a big part of inquiry-based learning and Addcox told a story about the third graders studying urban development. The class walked to the recently shuttered Kelly Moore store on Cesar Chavez and came up with ideas for redeveloping the space. They ended up with a plan to turn it into a homeless shelter.

He told us that the student body is 62 percent Latina and then one of the parents asked about the division between the immersion and general education families and students. "If there is a gap, it's not intentional," Addcox said. "And we're making efforts to bridge what gaps do exist." He believes the teachers are equally strong in both tracks—even if there are differences among parents and students. Teachers from each grade level meet with Addcox once a week. They closely look at teaching and curriculum and identify holes. Together, they make sure that they're reaching every student.

In a sense Flynn is conducting a great social experiment (like many of our city's schools). They've taken a school that wasn't diverse—that was primarily Latino—and they've introduced programs such as immersion to draw middle-class families. Flynn's experiment will undoubtedly succeed. And I think it would be an amazing experience for any family—both parents and children—to be a part of it.

If you're still searching for your hidden gem, check out this school.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hot topic: charter schools

I can't offer an intelligent explanation on charter schools or speak eloquently on the issues involving them—but I do know they're controversial and typically either praised or scorned.

In a nutshell, a charter school is a public institution, planned and organized by groups of educators, community members, parents, and others. They were initially conceived as laboratories for reform, meant to instill competition and choice in the public school system. As a result, charter schools were given more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.

We have a few elementary charter schools in San Francisco. Those include:
Creative Arts Charter School
Edison Charter Academy

Have you toured a charter school? Does your child attend one? Do you think they're the savior or spoiler of public education in America? Please share your knowledge and viewpoints.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Rooftop Alternative School

Reviewed by Kate

You should consider this scho
ol if you're looking for a place with: art-based curriculum; solid test scores; a middle school (K–8); woodsy campus; community environment; diversity; parent involvement (PTA raises $250,000); an early start time

The Facts
Web site: www.rooftopk8.org
School tours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; call for an appointment at 759-2832
Location: 433 Burnett Ave., eastern slope of Twin Peaks
Grades: K–8
Start time: 7:50 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 students, three classes of 20 children
Playground: Lovely! Woodsy and surrounded by trees; colorful murals; sweeping city views
After-school program: only 14 spaces for incoming kindergartners
Language: none
Highlights: outstanding sensory motor program for kindergarten through second; lunch time art "Yard Art" program; hands-on science/garden classes; computer lab; family art evenings; performing arts for K–8th; visual arts K–8th; instrumental music K–8th

Kate's impressions
Have you ever avoided a movie or a book because a friend told you the plot? That's how I was feeling about Rooftop. Other parents had built up this school so much that I assumed I could only feel disappointed.

I was wrong.

Rooftop enchanted me. Perched on the side of Twin Peaks' eastern slope overlooking the city, this school feels magical. My husband dropped me off on the hill above the school, and I walked down a skinny dirt path, which Alice would have called a fairy trail, through a grove of trees to the entrance. Inside, bright, bold artwork wallpapered the walls and parents and children buzzed about. The school felt alive—and it was bursting at the seams with energy.

The tour started in an auditorium, where some 200 eager parents gathered. A current parent, Elizabeth, with sons in seventh and fourth and a three year old daughter, greeted the crowd. "I will spend 18 years at this school," she said, as if she was the luckiest person on the planet.

Elizabeth provided an explanations for the fabulous artwork adorning the school hallways. "Rooftop has a focus on art," she said. "We believe that art enhances learning. We integrate arts with academics."

She went over logistics: There are three classes of 20 through third grade. In fourth it jumps to two classes of 30. There are two neighboring campuses: Burnett is kindergarten through fourth, and Mayeda is fifth through eighth. She talked about the school's diversity. "There's no 'other' at this school. There's no this type or that type," she said.

PTA? They raise a whopping $250,000. How? Through two primary fund-raisers: the Rooftup Run, where students get sponsors and then run around the track at Lowell, and an auction, which involves more than 400 parent volunteers. "We don't say everyone is expected to give this amount of money or this amount of time," Elizabeth said. "you can do what you want to do."

And then Elizabeth introduced the principal, Jane Bieringer—and I immediately adored her.
Bieringer is funny, bright, and genuine—and as she explained her clear, focused vision for the school she smiled and laughed and danced around a bit. She's the sort of person who I'd love to chat with over a cup of tea—or a glass of wine.

Bieringer's children attended Rooftop and she was the president of the PTA. She's also a former teacher, learning specialist, and assistant principal.

She explained that art, music, and drama are considered an integral part of the school experience. "This school was founded in the mid-70s, with the idea that kids would be better problem solvers and critical thinkers if we developed a curriculum that mixed arts and academics" Bieringer said. Parent volunteers teach art in the classrooms regularly and teachers integrate it into curriculum.

She went on to say that Rooftop students are encouraged to take positive risk and face challenges with confidence and optimism. "We expect you to act as if it's impossible to fail," she said. The students are involved in community service and they think globally. "Today, our kindergartners are holding a 'Healthy Snack Sale' for children in Guatemala."

"This is so much more than a school," Bieringer said. "It's a community." Parents are encouraged to volunteer and be present at the school. "Rooftop students flourish in this extended family environment," she said. Bieringer's children still talk about their friends and families from Rooftop.

Every year the school hosts an artist-in-residence. This year jazz musician Marcus Shelby meets with every class, grades kindergarten through eighth, once a week. Shelby is a renowned artist who you might have seen on advertisement posters for the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Shelby recently helped students in seventh and eighth grade English class understand mood and tone in writing by playing different musical sounds. "There were students who understood mood and tone for the very first time," Bieringer said.

Discipline? The school takes it seriously. "Be safe, be responsible, and be respectful" are three values that all students learn. Bieringer believes that good behavior is something that can be learned and practiced.

How do the two campuses stay connected? "We are one school," Bieringer emphasized. All grade levels come together many times a year for events and community service. Also, Bieringer spends Monday through Wednesday at the Mayeda campus while the assistant principal is at Burnett. And then they swap on Thursday and Friday—so they're both familiar with the two sites.

She opened it up to questions:

Where do students go to high school?
Eighty to 90 percent of the kids who apply to Lowell get in. The acceptance rate at private schools is high.

Honors classes and GATE?
No standalone GATE classes (only separate curriculum) in lower grades, but, yes, honors classes in middle school.

Biggest challenges? "We have a vision that we have a differentiated group of learners—and we want to make sure we're reaching every single child," she said. And Bieringer added that No Child Left Behind has introduced its own set of challenges.

Bieringer wished us all luck and we broke into groups to tour the school.

We walked through the playground, encircled by trees. I loved all the greenery. Several bungalows sat squat in the yard but they were bright and cheery with murals. Painted bird houses hung from the trees. Art was everywhere.

We stepped into the sensory motor classroom, where children whisked across the room on a zip line and slid down a slide on a cart with wheels. And into a library, housed in a brand-new bungalow. Kids visit the library once a week, and it's also open at lunch three times a week. The librarian picks out special books for lunchtime readers. And then we strolled through the garden, where artichoke plants grew tall and trees were weighted down with apples. Groups of 10 kids visit the garden once a week, and all children have their own "garden names." The garden teacher goes by Coral Bells.

Back inside, to a second grade classroom where the teacher was talking to the students about Harriet Tubman, an African American slave who escaped and rescued many other slaves throughout her life. The teacher explained that Tubman was a true heroine and she talked about her struggle narcolepsy. One of the students spoke up and said, "My Dad used to have that sickness. Yeah, it was because he worked so much overtime and then he would just fall asleep at home."

This was my last stop because I had to make a meeting at work. But I saw enough of Rooftop to know that it's a special place. The kids were enjoying themselves; they were smiling. Maybe it's the art? Maybe it's the principal? Maybe it's the trees? Whatever it is, this school has come up with a formula that allows its children to learn and have fun. Isn't that what being a kid is all about?