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:
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?


  1. What is the deal with only 14 spaces in the afterschool program??? What do working parents who send their children to Rooftop do? This is a huge deal. I don't get it. Any Rooftop parents here?

    Also, Rooftop's test scores are "solid" but aren't as high as some of the other top-listed schools. Did they address that? (YES I know that test scores merely reflect the socio-economic status of the parent body! But they are the only quantitative measure we have!)

  2. No language k-8? Any thoughts on missing out on that?

  3. I heard that language is offered in the after school program. Which apparently there is no space in. So, nevermind.

  4. at the tour i was on, they spent a chunk of time talking about the buses and pumped it up like it's a plus ("kids love the bus!") i believe if you can't get onsite aftercare you will need to find it somewhere else (a parent suggested aftercare closer to your home).

  5. So, um, not to belabor the question, then you have your 5 year old take a bus to some other place near your home? Or hire a nanny to pick up and take somewhere? Come. On. Can't they fix this?

  6. There used to be kids from Rooftop at the GLO afterschool program at Alvarado; they would take the bus there. Not sure if they are still there since GLO is getting filled up. Other Alvarado kids attend various afterschool programs that are on the Alvarado bus lines--GLO has a list of these. I assume the Rooftop folks have a list like that as well. These are not long bus rides, just 5-15 minutes into Diamond Heights, Glen Park, and the Mission.

    I know some parents are freaked out about their kinders taking the yellow school bus. Our daughter started the third day (first day of school we drove her, of course; second day I rode the bus with her; third day she declared she could do it herself). There are seat belts on the bus, something I never had as a kid. In the afternoon the kinder teachers bring the kids to the correct school bus and also pin notes on their kids with the bus stop and parent's number (or afterschool number). The bus driver look to see that the kids are getting picked up or that they get inside their child care place. Most kids can handle this routine after a few days or weeks and are proud of it. It's worked for us and lots of other families.

    Regarding test scores you have to check out the sub-groups to see what it going on. Rooftop's scores reflect their diversity. I think with them (and Alvarado for that matter) you get the best of both worlds, a milieu where your kids can achieve that also has real diversity. The advantaged kids in these schools are obviously not having a problem since their sub-group scores are in the 900's. The other kids' scores have been rising, but not to that level (yet...closing the achievement gap is an objective), so the overall scores, while okay, hover below those of the primarily Chinese American schools on the west side.

  7. I toured Rooftop last year and got a poor impression of their ability around differentiated instruction and "reaching each child" in K-5. The prinicpal, who did seem lovely, spoke a lot about supporting kids with special ed needs and other learning challenges, which, of course, is wonderful and muh needed. However, when I asked about what Rooftop provides K-5 kids who might be ahead in an area, such as math, she simply stated that all the classes were challenging and they they really didn't provide anything beyond that. Also, I remember during the tour the word "standards" being used quite frequently, giving the school a "teach to the test" kind of feel for me. Did you (or anyone else) get a different sense? Also, while I understand that funding is an issue, the idea that the school wants kids to think globally yet does not teach a language other than English falls a bit flat.

    On the other hand, the garden program was amazing, and I loved the garden names.

  8. Talk of "standards" is probably not about teaching to the test, at least not in the way most parents think about drill and kill methods.

    California has content standards in each area, including each of the art disciplines. This is what California schoolchildren expected to know in each subject area, at each grade level. A few years ago I read through standards matrices for the lower grades standards and they are quite comprehensive. There is content (perhaps in the arts and science sections esp) that I never got as a child or perhaps ever.

    Yes, the kids are tested on these standards via the CST. But the subject matter is wide-ranging and covers the fundamentals what you would want your child to be learning in terms of content.

    I was glad to realize there are minimum standards for content so that schools aren't just making it up as they go along. It's true different teachers and schools may approach the content in different ways, or place more emphasis on one subject than another, especially when choosing to go deeper into the material.

  9. My kids don't go to Rooftop, but I know that Rooftop kids go to afterschool programs throughout the city. The buses deliver them right to the front door. Many go to Mission CYO and various Rec & Park latchkey programs (Douglass Park, Miraloma Park, Glen Park.)

    I think Rooftop is definitely on the radar of every parent in the city, regardless of socioeconomic status, and their scores probably reflect that.

  10. Kate, I have to beg to differ with your impressions of Rooftop. I went expecting to be "wowed" by all of the amazing reviews and comments I had heard and I have to say I was truly underwhelmed! For a school with as much hype as this school gets, what the deal with all of the run down bungalows? - with so much praent involvement you think that would be an issue. With the mostly dreary weather on Twin Peaks, I think travelling between these structures would be an invitation to more colds and less motivated students. Plus the play yard for the younger kids was absolutely miniscule and the play structure, which is a critical feature for the comfort level of Kindergartners and First Graders, was almost non existent. The younger kids' library was pathetic and they talked about a technology classroom but never showed it. As far as the art goes, I've toured several schools where I thought the student artwork on the walls and the creative arts that students were involved in were far more impressive. I have to admit, the principal, Jane, is a real gem - she knows her stuff, and definitely knows how to motivate parents -but, this is only a small facet of what makes a great school. I guess it all comes down to what exactly you are looking for in a school and how well you think you child will fit in. I expected "magical" at Rooftop and all I got was disappointment.

  11. Hey, "dad of two", what schools have wowed you?

  12. he's put up a great review on the Fairmount post....maybe he can say more about any others if he is around.

  13. Does anyone know if there is a listserv or other such resource for Rooftop parents?

  14. I am a Rooftop parent and would be happy to respond to any further posts/questions about the school for those who are interested. My children (and I) have been very happy there and have experienced truly differentiated instruction for our kids - every year teachers have made extra efforts to make sure that our children are appropriately challenged intellectually and have had their social-emotional needs met as well. Regarding other questions posted here: yes, there are listservs for families; the afterschool program is fantastic and in my experience most can get a spot by 1st grade (they are taking more than before so I don't think lack of space is a problem anymore); and kids (including mine) take the bus no problem to other sites/schools around the city. The bus drivers my kids have had are parents at the school, and look out for them so well that my 5 year old (and I) have been very comfortable with the school bus. The school bus drops them off right at the door of Alvarado, JCC, other excellent afterschool programs. And we have a new play structure this year. Overall, it has been a great community and we feel fortunate to be a part of it.

  15. While Rooftop has been touted as one of the best public schools in the district I have heard some alarming stories about one of the kindergarten teachers humiliating and yelling at the kids. Can anyone verify that? My husband toured this school preemptively last year and loved it. I really liked what I've read about it, but very nervous hearing these stories.

  16. If you wish to tour Rooftop, it's best to sign-up online via the website. Tours run from Oct 27-Jan 5 from 8-9:30am. If you have any questions about the school, feel free to email me at Good luck with your tours!