Reviewed by Kate
You should consider this school 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
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
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
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.