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:
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.

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?"


  1. Kate, thanks again for the great post. Will Alamo be making your list? I hope you post your selections here!!

    Also, I don't want to be a downer, but: even though Alamo has 80 slots, odds there are not good. According to Dudley Adams, it receives 601 applicants, so odds are less than 1 in 10:

    Alamo Elementary GE 80 56 601 577 9.7%

    (copy-pasted from his spreadsheet.)

  2. Did anyone notice that one teacher whose classroom was bare? Nothing at all on the walls. Stark contrast to all the other public school classrooms.I was wondering what the deal was?

  3. Pure speculation here, but if the previous poster was touring Alamo last week, it may have been a transition week for many teachers in terms of pulling down art and writing from the first few months of the year and sending it home with the kids, and making room for the new art and writing to be done starting in January. That doesn't explain why no posters or other more permanent stuff, though.

    Another possibility is that the teacher was going on leave, for example to have a baby, or maybe was she was a long-term sub for the permanent teacher who is about to return from maternity leave.

    Otherwise, it would seem very, very odd to have a classroom that is completely bare! Something I have never seen.

  4. Could someone explain to me how, even when the numbers say that the school only has 45% or so Chinese/Asian, when I go into the school and count the non-Asian kids, I usually can't count more than 2 or 3 in each class? I thought Alamo was amazing, but my own unscientific analysis of diversity (confirmed by people w/ kids there -- a dad laughed when I asked him what it was like culturally given that roughly half the families were Chinese -- he said "Half? Try 99%!") was that there wasn't any...

  5. Some of the reasons are: decline to state, mixed race families, and non-Chinese Asian/Pacific Islander families. I also think we humans tend to notice and exaggerate (in our mind's eye) majorities when we are in the minority and vice versa. Not sure any of this explains the whole discrepancy though.

    From personal experience, I would say the Spanish Immersion schools have a high percentage of mixed race/ethnicity kids relative to the city at large.

  6. Re; 12:49 am Anon's comment. Was wondering same thing re privates. They all claim they are 25 to 35 % minorities, yet many of them seemed vastly Caucasian. Are they counting LGBT and single-parent families as minority families to boost their minority yield?? Maybe some mixed children who didn't look conspicuously African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic, but not enough to explain the disparity between the private school's high diversity stats with the kids you actually see in the classrooms.

    We trusted our observational counting of children rather than public or private school's statistics, due to the decline to state and mixed stats factor. Alamo didn't make our list of choices for several reasons, including because it did not seem diverse (was overwhelmingly Chinese-American).

  7. The private school percentages are for "people of color" which includes African American, Asian/Asian-American, Latino/Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Multiracial. LGBT is not included in that percentage. Visit Bay Area People of Color in Independent Schools ( for more info. In any case, mixed race fits the definition, and half-color is better than no color at all. People seem to think that private schools don't want people of color. They do! Come on over! The simple fact is that most people (whatever color) are uncomfortable being in the minority.

  8. Our son is in a private school and we are comparing publics, looking for "diversity" and good scores...I would suggest looking for schools where there is "no majority" racial group as younger kids do feel left out when they are not the majority. Research has shown that kids feel much more comfortable when there is a noticable number of kids that "look like me"; it doesn't mean they'll all be "best friends"; it just makes the children feel comfortable.

    Good luck to all.

    I know a Caucasian kid at a mostly Chinese American public school and he gets very mad/angry that he can't speak Chinese.

  9. Alamo is a wonderful school with an incredible principal and staff. I have 3 children. My eldest finshed Alamo and is at Presidio Middle School, my other two are in 5th and 1st grade. Our family has been a part of the community for 8 years and 4 more to go.

    As for the bare-walled classroom, that is an end result of the downsizing of the school. The room is currently being used for pull outs for the at risk (performing at below proficient) kids during the school day. Alamo is still in process of seeing the full effects of the downsizing and hopefully going back to the original "large" classrooms designed prior to class size reduction.

  10. What do parents of K students do about aftercare?

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  12. "Alamo is a wonderful school with an incredible principal..."

    Wow are you misinformed. Things have improved considerably since the new peincipal took over.

    The school is being completely remodeled and will be finished this summer.

    Great school with dedicated parents, staff and students.