Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hot topic: Immersion?

An SF K Files visitor is asking for your advice:

"My husband and I are trying to finalize our list for next week's kindergarten lottery deadline. We initially were set on sending our daughter to a Spanish immersion school and toured 5 of the 8 possibilities. Now, as we are drawing up our final list, we are getting cold feet about immersion for our daughter. I am fluent in Spanish (though not a native speaker) and our daughter does comprehend a lot of Spanish, but it is her personality that has us waivering. She is bright and has friends at her preschool (aka, doing fine academically and socially for her age), but she is very slow to warm up, can be fragile and hesitant, and is not a confident kid in new situations and in general. We are wondering if dealing with a new school, teacher, classmates, etc., in Spanish might overwhelm her. Thanks so much for your Web site. It has helped us a lot."

Monday, December 29, 2008

San Francisco Magazine article

I'm receiving a lot of emails from readers about the article in the January issue of San Francisco magazine. Here's a link to the story: http://www.sanfranmag.com/story/post-post-private-school-city.

The online version doesn't include the fabulous sidebar that highlights 20 of the districts public schools--most of them up-and-coming. To see this, you need to pick up a copy of the magazine.

Thank you to local writer Diana Kapp for telling my story. Also, thank you to the dedicated, thoughtful, and passionate SF K Files readers who have made this blog a success. I don't always agree with the comments on this blog but I do think the readers have created transparency within the school system--both public and private. The readers and comments are the heart of this blog.

The San Francisco magazine story is bringing many new readers to the site so I'm pasting some of the blog's most popular stories below. These are in chronological order and summarize the story of my search for a kindergarten. These posts also feature some of the site's most spirited discussions within the comments sections.

My first post: The SF K Files is born:

Public school enrollment 101:

Review of Alice Fong Yu: My top choice in Round I

Review of Marin Country Day School: My top choice private school

Review of Miraloma Elementary: SFUSD's success story

My application essay for Marin Country Day School

My fight with my husband over private vs. public: Most popular post on The SF K Files

My interview with SFUSD superintendent Carlos Garcia

SF K Files visitors share the news about SFUSD Round I assignments:

Kate makes up her mind: My husband and I decide to send our daughter to Jose Ortega

Alice's first day of school at Jose Ortega Elementary: Yeah!

Finally, a string of posts with heated discussions for those who like a heated debate:

Some people have been writing in to ask where they can find the Mommy Files blog on SFGate. Here's a link: www.sfgate.com/moms.

If you would like to donate to Jose Ortega, you can click on the Chip In button to the right. The school is currently trying to raise money for tutoring for kids who are falling behind. The school is committed to closing the achievement gap. Thanks!

If you have questions, you can email me at thesfkfiles@gmail.com.


Kate (Amy)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Close the achievement gap: Donate to Jose Ortega

This evening, I added a Chipin button to the right of the page inviting people to donate to Jose Ortega Elementary School (JOES). I have avoided putting advertising on The SF K Files (seems highly inappropriate), but when the JOES PTA recently voted to launch a fund-raising campaign to close the school's achievement gap, I was inspired to invite site visitors to donate directly to JOES: $10, $15, every bit counts.

Many of us can easily offer our kids extra help if they're reading well below grade level or struggling with math. We can pay for a tutor or we spend extra time with our kids after school helping them catchup. This isn't a reality for all families and so Jose Ortega Elementary School is striving to raise $5,000 to provide weekly after-school tutoring sessions for students who are trailing their peers.

The principal is working with the teachers to identify students who can benefit from tutoring and schedule them into weekly after-school sessions beginning in January. This tutoring program can help students overcome specific challenges and make a real difference in their math and language skills. Through this program we can take another step toward making sure every student is proficient in the core curriculum, and give our teachers more time for in-depth instruction in subjects that inspire and motivate.

A tax deductible donation will ensure that all kids get the attention they deserve. It's our goal to not allow any children to fall through the cracks.

To make a donation, click on the orange 'ChipIn' button to the right or go to joseortegaschool.org/giving.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Open Forum: Happy Holidays

I'm on holiday through the New Year. Feel free to use the comments area of this post for discussion. Round I forms are due soon, so I'm sure some parents are busily creating their lists. Good luck! Happy New Year! Best, Kate

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hot topic: Round I

An SF K Files visitor brought up the following topic:

"I'm wondering how everyone is feeling about Round I. I turned in my form last week. And I mailed in a few private school applications--what a huge relief to have those done. I'm feeling optimistic and assuming that I'll get something but I'm wondering how others are feeling?"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Share your Round I lists

Families are starting to turn in their Round I lists. Feel free to share yours.

If you have questions about the enrollment process, contact Parents for Public Schools by visiting ppssf.org.

Arne Duncan: Obama's Pick for Education Secretary

Yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama announced Arne Duncan, the head of the Chicago school system, as education secretary. Obama declared that failing to improve classroom instruction is "morally unacceptable for our children."

"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," Obama said, making the announcement at a school that he said has made remarkable progress under Duncan's leadership.

"He's not beholden to any one ideology, and he's worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality," Obama said.

I am working on a story for SFGate and GreatSchools.net on Obama's pick. I'm hoping to collect quotes from local principals, teachers, and parents. If you have thoughtful answers to one or both of the following two questions, please email me your responses along with your name and phone number to thesfkfiles@gmail.com. Thanks! Kate

1) What do you think of Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan?
2) What you hope Duncan's top priority will be?
3) How do you hope the new administration will affect schools in the Bay Area? What do you hope will change?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Public schools advocate Sandra Tsing Loh

Last month USA Today ran a Q&A with public school advocate Sandra Tsing Loh.

Here's an excerpt from the interview. To read the full story, click here.
Last June, when Los Angeles performance artist and public radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh helped lead a rally to the California state capitol for more school funding, perhaps no one was more surprised than Loh herself. Her transformation from popular author and comic to public schools activist began four years earlier, when her plans to get her older daughter into a good kindergarten went awry. She eventually started an organization called Burning Moms. Loh recounts the journey in Mother On Fire (Crown, $23). She talks with USA TODAY about her experience:

Q: It's 2004. You, your musician husband and your two daughters live in Van Nuys. Your 4-year-old is in preschool and you begin searching for a kindergarten. What happens next?
A: We're a middle-class family, which feels like we're the last middle-class family in Los Angeles — the last one had packed up the Volvo wagon and gone to Portland a year earlier. When kids hit school age, people just start fleeing the city unexplained. So I didn't have much real information. … I'd go on www.greatschools.net, look at the statistics, freak out and not even visit my local school, which is what many parents do.

Q: You began looking into private schools, but many had "nosebleed tuition."
A: I found that the religious ones were more affordable — the more religious, the more affordable. Catholics were more expensive, Lutherans middle and Baptists were the only ones we could afford. The Quakers were off the charts, particularly if there's the word "Friends" in the title — or if the kids were being taught in an old Quaker wooden schoolhouse with authentic Shaker furniture.

Q: You tried to get your daughter into a Lutheran school, but things didn't work out on the entrance exam. She was supposed to name as many animals as she could in a timed test. What happened?
A: She named animals — lion, tiger, hippopotamus — that's a big word for a 4-year-old! And then it turned out, to my horror, she had flunked the entire test and had to be held back a year because she was "developmentally impaired."

Q: Stopping at "hippopotamus" was her mistake?
A: She was waiting for praise, and the instructor just sat there with a totally flat face and a stopwatch.

Q: I don't want to give away too much, but she ends up at a nice public school where the teachers are great.
A: Many of them, they've taught for 20 years. And I think teachers are very unsung. They don't have any fancy new theory about what they're doing. They've simply moved 20 kindergartners across classrooms, playgrounds — and, of course, in and out of the bathroom! — for 20 years. The children learn, they have fun — there's no fancy new theory, it's just decades of teachers' day-in, day-out experience, the love of their work, the joy. Of course there are headaches. But in my experience, most teachers do love their work — why else would they do it? There are easier ways to make a living.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Teachers are what really matters

The most recent New Yorker magazine features a very interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell about how to select teachers and the impact good teachers have on education versus any other factor. Below you'll find an excerpt from the article. Click here to read the full article. It's long but well worth the read.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

Click here to read the full article. What are your thoughts on the article?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hot topic: Public school budget cuts

An SF K Files visitor suggested a hot topic:

"Does anyone know what impact the state budget crisis is going to likely have on schools? How will it impact specific schools? What programs are most at risk? Is Prop H money safe--and what about other designated funding sources?"

Carlos Garcia on KGO today

Superintendent Carlos Garcia, Head of SFUSD, will be on the air on KGO radio (810 am) from 11 am to noon today, Thursday, Dec. 11.

For those who wish to keep abreast of various plans/changes with SFUSD, you might want to tune in.

FYI: It is a "call in" program so it also offers opportunity for anyone to pose specific questions or concerns.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hot topic: Teacher gifts

What are you giving your teacher for the holidays? What do teachers like? What are some more affordable options? What if you have money to spend? Is cash appropriate?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Something else to consider: A school's air quality

A new investigative series released by USA Today includes a feature that allows you to look up the air quality at 127,800 public, private, and parochial schools throughout the country. The information is based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

It seems like most San Francisco schools are included in the database and the good news is that the air quality is good at all of them. Some schools in the East Bay and on the Peninsula don't seem to have the clean air that we've got.

To search for a school, click here. (Note that the search box is at the top of the page above the map.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Guest blogger: SF mom Leanne Waldal writes about her search for a kindergarten

My daughter will be starting Kindergarten in San Francisco in the fall of 2009 and my wife and I have been stunned by the vast differences between public elementary schools in San Francisco. We expected that private schools would seem comfy and public schools would have less advantages, but that’s not what I’ve seen. I’ve seen huge economic disparities between public elementary schools — something I didn’t expect. I thought most elementary schools would be within a range of economic advantage/disadvantage. I didn’t expect such large differences between schools.

It really makes me feel like a Real Live GrownUp to be touring and researching schools for my kid. I know I’ve been an adult for half my life already but being “grown up” is not always on my radar.

Sanchez Elementary is the school closest to our house so I went to their booth at the SFUSD enrollment fair and signed up for a tour. It’s a school with a high number of children getting free/reduced meals and a high number of english language learners. I wasn’t able to find any information about the school in a blog or elsewhere on the web (which is how I do most of my research - I should, instead, be talking with people in person!).

I asked their parent liaison if there are any gay and lesbian parents at the school. She said she knew there were some gay and lesbian parents and that she’s never heard anything homophobic or anti-gay there. She (the parent liaison) has twins at Sanchez Elementary and while she speaks spanish and english, I think she said her twins chose to speak only english.

When Moya and I showed up for a tour, there was only one other parent at the tour - such a sharp contrast from the packed tours at other San Francisco public and private schools.

The school starts at 7:50am and there’s breakfast available at 7:30am. Their after school program is free and ends at 5pm - academics and P.E. and art and music.

It’s a gorgeous building with high ceilings and a lot of light and the school in general seemed calm and quiet. There are two gardens that the kids work in - one on the public sidewalk and one in their private outdoor play area. There were some new-ish wooden planters in the play area that looked like they used to contain plants. The kids grow vegetables and there’s some involvement with Slow Food and Bi-Rite Market.

The large outdoor play area has a brand new play structure and almost all of the kids were riding tricycles around. There’s a covered area near play area with benches and large clean girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. The fence around the play area has playful wood cutouts of whales (and other things - I don’t remember what all the cutouts were).

They must have recently finished a project about Alexander and The Terrible Horrible Day because kid’s writing and art about that book were on many of the walls.

In the kindergarten classrooms kids were singing alphabet in one room and going through numbers in another room. Most of the kids (almost all it seemed) are hispanic, latino, and/or african-american.

All of the children wear uniforms with a white shirt and khaki pants or skirt.

They have a computer room with 20-30 brand new iMacs and a fulltime technology teacher who seemed to stumble over Moya’s question about diversity but then I overheard her talking with another teacher later about the No on 8 protest rally that would be happening the next day. The Mac lab is used for a reading program to help teach reading to younger grades and they teach word/excel/powerpoint to the older grades, plus they teach how to responsibly use the Web.

Sanchez is a “dream school” which, from what I can tell, means they’ve had low test scores. They’re consistently improving in past 3 years. They have a fulltime nurse and fulltime social worker and a fulltime coach for P.E. One of the teachers mentioned that she gets a lot of professional development there. It’s a “tribe certified” school.

They have a room dedicated to music and a room dedicated to art. Their art room has a new oven kiln.

Their cafeteria/auditorium have gorgeous huge paintings of children on the walls and their library has a mural painted by kids - which covers almost all of every wall - and big stuffed animals on tops of shelves.

I noticed a “women of science” poster in 4th grade classroom. The 1st grade teacher was a bit hostile to us when we walked into her classroom — the school parent said “she’s a bit strict.”

There was a discussion happening in the parents’ room that sounded tense/heated, but it was in spanish so I don’t know what it was about and it might not have been tense/heated. The parent who was giving the tour said sometimes she translates at the parent meetings for parents who only speak english or only speak spanish.

I was quite charmed by Sanchez Elementary after the tour but it doesn’t seem like a good fit for my daughter because their classrooms are only “English Plus” or Bilingual. I’m concerned that my preschool-educated daughter speaking only English would be at a disadvantage in a classroom where most of the kids are just learning English and didn’t go to preschool.

San Francisco Food Bank delivers to Sanchez for parents who qualify (my wife, Moya, charmingly compared this to a CSA, but it’s much different from a CSA — people pay to participate in a CSA and usually the people who participate in a CSA are not at/near poverty levels).

We toured Miraloma Elementary the day after we toured Sanchez. One of the first things I saw when I stepped into Miraloma was a big bin for a food drive for the San Francisco Food Bank. Do the kids at Miraloma realize that their food donations might end up in the homes of the kids at Sanchez? I didn’t pay attention to much of the Miraloma tour because it’s in a location that would be practically impossible for me to get to without a car and their bus doesn’t pickup near our house. Location is super important for a school because we have one car in our family and my wife uses it to commute to work. I rarely, if ever, drive.

We’re unsure which 7 schools to list on our SFUSD application, but we’re pretty sure that they will be schools in convenient locations for our current daily commutes. At the SFUSD Enrollment Fair I talked with a kindergarten teacher and after school teacher from Marshall Elementary School (which is also near our home) and liked what they said.

It’s really difficult to schedule tours of schools when both parents work fulltime. The tours are, for the most part, on weekday mornings and last for 1-2 hours — tour 10-15 public and 3-4 private schools and that’s basically a whole month of mornings given up for kindergarten research. I’m really thankful that Miraloma has weekend and evening tours (even if it’s not a school we’ll consider).

McKinley Elementary and Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy are also within walking distance. I’ve heard that McKinley’s after school program has a wait list that is more than a year “long.” I don’t know what we’d do if Lucy’s school didn’t have an after school program — we both work fulltime and neither of us could pick her up in the middle of the afternoon.

I’m wondering how to manage a 5pm pickup time every day because I’ve heard most after school programs for kindergarten stop at 5pm. If my daughter is at a school that takes me 30minutes to get to (via Muni or BART) from my downtown San Francisco office, then I would need to leave work by 4:30pm at the latest every day. That’s not always possible for me. What do two working parents do? Hire someone to pickup at 5pm and bring your kid home? Or do most families actually have a parent who can leave work at 4 or 4:30pm every day?

I noticed a question on the SFUSD application for Mother’s education level and Father’s education level and then it was suggested to me that leaving the Father’s information blank (my kid has two mothers and no father) might give our kid some “diversity” — I’m not sure I believe that.

We’re touring and applying to 3 private schools too, and they’ve been as I expected — very open/inclusive towards families with gay or lesbian parents (some San Francisco public schools don’t seem very open/inclusive) and almost exactly opposite demographics of the public schools. My olive skinned Irish/Italian daughter would be a minority at just about any San Francisco public school - which is fine by me and I don’t think she’d even notice — she would also be a minority at most of the public schools we’re considering because she wouldn’t qualify for free/reduced meals (but I don’t think she’d notice or care). She wouldn’t be a minority at just about any private school - and I also think she wouldn’t notice or care.

It’s a spaghetti mess of information and questions in my head. I figure we (me, my wife, our daughter) will be okay wherever she goes to Kindergarten and we can always, if necessary, switch schools for 1st or 2nd or a later grade.

Check out Leanne Waldal's blog at leannewaldal.com.

Interested in guest blogging for The SF K Files? Send Kate an email at thesfkfiles@gmail.com.

Friday, December 5, 2008

SFUSD's special education assignment process

An opinion piece in Beyon Chron: The Voice of the Rest, makes the case that SFUSD needs to rethink it's special education assignment process.

Katy Franklin, mother of a 3rd grade student at Creative Arts Charter School and a board member of SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, offers up specific ways the assignment policy should be changed to achieve greater equity for students requiring special needs:

Identify Student Needs First:
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), requires that Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) containing the child's educational needs must be written before placement decisions are made. Once the IEP is completed, the IEP team then chooses the placement. Unfortunately, IEPs tend to be written to fit into the district’s pre-existing programs, instead of to fit the individual student, and what results from that procedural error is a lot of unnecessary conflict and litigation.
Stop Combining Grade Levels: SFUSD’s practice of combining grade levels in its special education day classes is a major concern of teachers and parents. Mixing Kindergarten students with students through second grade, and third grade students with students through fifth grade is problematic. Safety issues and concerns arise because the children are vastly different in size.
Academically, the differences necessary in the curriculum for each student creates a nightmarish hodgepodge teachers must contend with when attempting classroom lesson planning. It is time for the district administration and the teacher’s union (UESF) to discuss possible changes to how these classrooms are currently configured.
Support Individualized Placement Decisions: Placements of children in special education are supposed to be individualized. There is nothing individualized about putting down a list of seven schools and having a computer run a random lottery to decide where your child goes to school. SFUSD special education administrators take the stance that “programs” are decided in IEP meetings, and that the “placements” made by the Educational Placement Office are not “decisions”, they are “assignments”. Such parsing of words only serves to upset parents, and is definitely not in keeping with the new SFUSD objective to “Create a culture of service and support.”

Parents of children with disabilities would like nothing better than for their children not to need special treatment, but having extra needs also means needing extra assistance, understanding, and accommodations in the schools. Too many complicated factors are at play to rely on special education decisions being made by lottery:
Facility Issues: Schools that are listed as meeting ADA requirements often are not fully accessible in terms of practical day-to-day use of the facilities
• Children should not have to wait for chairs and desks to be moved every time they need to move across a room.
• Children on playgrounds should not have to navigate across entire school grounds to find an accessible restroom.
• Not all ramps are safe for children in walkers or wheelchairs to use.
• Not all schools have Disability Transfer Zones for dropping-off or picking-up children.
• Emergency evacuation chairs at some schools are made for adults and are too big to be safely used to evacuate children.
• Not all schools have nurses; some children in special education require the presence of a nurse on campus.

Location Issues: The preferred location of the school is not always the one closest to home; sometimes it could be the school closest to where the parent or caregiver works.
• Parents of children in special education programs get calls from schools much more often than other parents, and have to contend with many more situations that require their presence at the school sites.

Provide Program Information on School Tours: People giving school tours rarely, if ever, mention anything about their school’s special education programs or accessibility issues, and are also unable to answer specific questions when asked. This is not surprising, there is no reason parent volunteers giving school tours should know all those details, but it does make searching for a school extremely complicated.

Ensure that Parents Can See Special Education Classrooms: Parents are routinely told that they may not view a specific special education classroom, because of supposed “privacy issues”, but how many parents would agree to place a child in a class they were not even allowed to look at?

To read the entire article click here.

What do you think of Franklin's proposed changes? Do you agree or disagree?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hot topic: First-grade lottery

An SF K Files visitor suggested the following topic:

"There are so many of us out there who didn't get into a public kindergarten last year. Some of us found private schools, some of us moved out of SF, and others kept our kids in preschool one more year. In any event a number of us will be trying for a public school spot in the SF 1st grade lottery. There aren't any clear numbers on which schools tend to have more 1st grade applications than others."

This Friday: Additional tours of Jose Ortega

This Friday, I'll be helping lead two additional tours of Jose Ortega Elementary School at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. (Tours are typically given on Tuesdays.) If you can, please call the school to sign up: 469-4726. Thanks! Best, Kate

P.S. Please feel free to advertise other school tours in the comments section.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 11/12/08)

Location: 680 18th Avenue @ Cabrillo, Richmond map
School hours: 8:30 - 2:40pm (yard opens at 8:15)
Tel: 750-8460
Fax: 750-8460
Principal: Robin Sharp
Web site: Apparently a PTO website exists but not clear if it is maintained
School tours: Wednesdays, 8:45am
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 70
Total student body: 407

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

An extra 5 weeks of instruction in the summertime; Russian language enrichment; strong arts enrichments; a nice library and computer facility; a variety of on- and off-site afterschool options; a mixed grade classroom option at every grade level.


Argonne is situated in one of the newer buildings in SFUSD, one opened in 1997. At this point it is no longer the newest in the district (see Dianne Feinstein ES) however it is in a relatively new, modern and very clean building. A large multi-purpose room serves as both gym, auditorium and cafeteria.

The large playground at Argonne is almost entirely blacktop, with a large play structure in the middle. It seemed in good shape and neither stood out nor seemed in need of anything. In comparison to other SFUSD schools, there seems to be less greenery, e.g. lack of a garden space. The Kindergarten students have a separate play yard that is connected directly from most of the K classrooms.

After School programs

Three options onsite: YMCA ($320/month), RDASC (Richmond District After School Collaborative, $200/month?), Cantonese After-school (Both RDASC and YMCA have dedicated rooms on site, which appeared to have interesting art and student work displayed.)

Bus service to several additional options: Sutro, JCC, Nihonmachi, Rosa Parks, Presidio

There is also limited before school child care - basically a qualified grad student babysitter (so described by the tour guides) who can provide care from 7-8:15 for families who really need to start early.


Argonne has an active PTO, which raises in the realm of $100k per year. The two major fundraisers are an annual Giving appeal to all families (write a check), and a spring Mayfair community fundraiser event, kind of a carnival and silent auction with fun kid-oriented activities. The funding supports the Reading Team, a tutoring service for targeted small groups of students who need additional literacy support; arts enrichments (see tour impressions); a PE consultant and new this year, a PT computer consultant. And, a discretionary fund for the teachers.

Language program(s):

Russian, introduced in 2008-09 for K-1 with 1 class added each year (e.g. K-2 in 2009-10, etc.). This is a FLES program with 30 minutes of language and culture instruction each week. Also a fee-based Chinese after school program which offers Cantonese in K, and Mandarin in grades 1-5.

Tour Impressions

First off, congratulations* to Rachel Norton, Argonne school tour leader and newly elected member of the SFUSD School Board. It says a lot about her that she is here leading tours, staying involved on the ground. And she, as well as the principal Robin Sharp, seemed likeable, experienced and worthy of trust.

I'm going to be honest, I've toured 8 or 9 schools so far and the fatigue is setting in. A nice hallway of colorful art is just not enough to get me excited at this point in the game. What does get me excited is Argonne Alternative's cool, year-round curriculum. What makes this school completely unique in SFUSD is the 5 week summer program (grades 1-5), followed by a 2 week break, after which the school follows the regular SFUSD schedule (end of August to early June). These kids have 205 school days compared to 108 for the rest of the SFUSD schools. The year round schedule was credited for giving teachers some ability to pace the teaching of the curriculum, having 5 extra weeks to cover the material. It also allows for some of the enrichments and field trips. One tour guide noted it is not a good option for families who plan extended trips to visit family or travel extensively over the summer. The 5 week summer session is real school and not optional. If your kid goes to Argonne, missing the summer days counts as absences!

For incoming K students, the Argonne school year begins with a 2-week "orientation" where the 70 incoming students spend time getting to know each other and the K teachers. After these two weeks, the K classes are built, with an eye towards balancing the classrooms for things such as preschool or not, what kind of learners there are, which kids might develop well together. Rachel argued that this is a big advantage for Argonne compared to other schools, and pays dividends all year round.

It should be noted there are 3 1/2 K classes, the 1/2 being part of a K/1 mixed class. There are mixed grade classes in all levels at Argonne: 1 mixed K/1 and 1 2/3 class. All 4/5 classes are mixed grades (i.e. there is no single 4th or 5th grade class). For kids in these classes, they spend 2 years in the same class with the same teacher. It's the right choice for some kids and perhaps not for others (in the lower grades). Principal Sharp said her teaching experience was in mixed age classrooms and she is a proponent of the method.

Walking into the K classrooms, they felt spacious, well organized, and really like what a prototypical K classroom should include: a rug for circle time, circular table clusters for small group activities, a reading nook, a playing area. The instruction in most classrooms we observed (at all grades) seemed to skew towards individual group work - writing projects or math assignments. One teacher was instructing her K students on capitalization rules. The students mostly ignored the touring group; they were too busy learning.

For some reason the usual touring questions about: bullying; science curriculum; math curriculum did not come up. Relying on the xeroxed information sheets (practically mimeographed), it appears Argonne is a Caring School Community type of school. Principal Sharp said that the kids do a lot of science but didn't relay specifics (it was an offshoot of another question).

New this year is the Russian language FLES program, which is grant funded (didn't hear how long the grant is for). The choice of Russian language reflects some of the school demographics, which like the local neighborhood is heavily Chinese and Russian. (Though Argonne is an Alternative school, it was speculated that there is perhaps a strong neighborhood self-selection in who lists Argonne.)

The arts program is organized into 2 12-week semesters, with some students getting dance and the others getting chorus in the fall, then flipping the other way in the spring. In addition, Argonne uses Art in Action, which is a parent-led art curriculum. Rachel gave an enthusiastic endorsement of it, saying the curriculum is very clear for a parent to lead, and offers activities such as study of a famous work and its technique or significance, followed by a hands-on student activity creating artworks inspired by that study. The resulting artworks in the hallway were generally very aesthetically pleasing, though honestly there was a strong cookie-cutter feeling to it. One wall had 20 van gogh-esque "starry nights", another had a bunch of sunflowers. However it certainly seemed like an interesting addition. (And there was some artwork in the classrooms that had a lot of creativity, particularly some Day of the Dead inspired altar dioramas in the 4/5 class.)

The dedicated computer lab is filled with seemingly brand new Macs. The students visit once a week and the activities are organized by their classroom teacher. As noted above, this year there is a new part-time computer consultant who will, one hopes, assist the teachers in developing computer-based activities that complement the regular classroom studies. One parent tour leader explained that a 2nd grade class had participated in a program to learn typing skills. In this era, that is probably the most practical thing a kid could learn. A 3rd grade class used some software to create comic-book style stories.

The stop through the library was brief; the tour leader said the books are in a digital catalog and had positive things to say but I couldn't hear the specifics. The librarian was engaged in a reading session with a class so we did not get to speak with her.

After reviewing my notes and everything I've written, I'll say that Argonne certainly offers a lot to the students and famliies it serves. With almost 45% free and reduced lunch students, it manages to score in the mid-/upper 800's API every year. It seems like the folks over at Argonne really know what they are doing, have strong and consistent leadership and well, they are onto a good thing.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Are SF private schools thriving in the downturn?

An article in The New York Times reports that private schools in Manhattan are thriving:

Wall Street is down, but the paddles were up, up, up at an auction at Cipriani this month that raised more than $500,000 for the Trevor Day School from parents and friends, off about 15 percent from last year’s record haul.

The day after the auction, Pam Clarke, Trevor’s head of school, sent out a letter reassuring parents that Trevor, a Manhattan private school with a relatively small endowment of $10.6 million, remained in “sound shape financially” because of careful spending and committed fund-raising. “We wanted to let people know that we’re concerned, we’re paying attention, and we’re careful with our resources and theirs,” Ms. Clarke said in an interview.

Dalton, Ethical Culture Fieldston, Packer Collegiate Institute and the Calhoun School have also sent out letters attesting to their financial health in recent weeks. At least three other private schools — Trinity, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory, and St. Ann’s — have issued similar letters, while other schools have relied on parent association meetings and word of mouth to get out the message that it is business as usual despite uncertain economic times.

“We’re not experiencing any signs of impact from the economic downturn,” said Steve Nelson, head of school at Calhoun, though he added, “That’s not to say that we won’t.”

Private schools across New York City say they are thriving this fall, with record numbers of applicants and no significant decline in donations. Yet almost daily, even brand-name schools are finding that they have to reassure jittery parents about shrinking endowments and dispel rumors that requests for financial aid are pouring in, and that economically squeezed families are pulling their children out and enrolling them in public schools.

Trinity’s interim head of school, Suellyn P. Scull, issued a letter taking issue with recent news reports that 45 families had given notice that they were leaving. Trinity, among the most competitive schools in the city, received 698 applications for the 60 kindergarten spots in this year’s class.

The school is not yet releasing admission numbers for next year’s class, but Ms. Scull wrote, “This year’s admissions season has been perhaps busier than usual, and to date we have had no reports of families planning to leave us.”

But the shrinking economy is taking a toll on investment returns at Trinity, whose endowment has fallen to $40 million from $50 million in July, and at other private schools, affecting what they can spend on programs and activities. “There’s no way of escaping it,” said Lawrence Buttenwieser, a former trustee at Dalton. “If it happens at Harvard, it will happen to everybody.”
So that's New York. Is this also the case in San Francisco?

Seattle parents fighting school closures

Please post your thoughts on the below in the comments section:

Dear Kate,
I came across your school blog as I was doing some research to help fight the proposed closure of my son's school in Seattle, and I wondered if you might know of any parents who could offer their thoughts on the GATE program in San Francisco. I'm the mom of a 7-year-old in Seattle who has been attending the public elementary that draws gifted kids from around the city. Now that school is slated to close, and I'm trying to gather as much information as possible about what parents think about the public gifted programs in their own cities. I'd be grateful for any information you might be able to send my way.
Cam Zarcone

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hot topic: Middle school GATE programs

An SF K Files visitor suggested the following topic:

"I just started touring middle schools and would love to get peoples thoughts and experienced based opinions on: GATE tracked classes (where GATE kids are separated from general ed kids, like at Aptos) vs. Integrated classes (where GATE kids are in the same class as everyone else but get differentiated curriculum, like at James Lick).
What are the pros and cons? Do separate classes result in deeper learning? How does each model potentially impact the student? etc?"

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What are you thankful for?

Last Friday, my daughter's elementary school, Joe Ortega, hosted a Thanksgiving lunch. Three classes--Chinese bilingual kindergarten, Mandarin immersion kindergarten, and Mandarin immersion first grade--participated. Parents roasted turkeys, tossed salads, and baked pumpkin pies. They made cornbread and coconut Jello casseroles, and green bean stir-fries. They steamed broccoli and corn on the cob. All of this food covered a long cafeteria table. It was the most colorful and eclectic Thanksgiving spread I have ever seen.

Wearing homemade Pilgrim hats, the kids filed into the cafeteria and parents helped them fill their plates. And then the parents served themselves and everyone sat down for a grand meal. As I sat there eating this wonderful meal with my daughter and all of her friends, I asked Alice, "What does Thanksgiving mean? What's it all about?"

"It's about sharing and friends," she said.

My daughter's school is a special place and it's at times like this that I realize how lucky our family is to be a part of a warm, welcoming, diverse community. When I'm sitting at the Thanksgiving table this Thursday with our extended family and we go around sharing what we're most thankful for, I'll definitely be telling everyone about our other family at Jose Ortega Elementary School in San Francisco.

What are you most thankful for this holiday season?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SF K Files Top 20 Hidden Gems

Last year, when I was searching for a kindergarten, I focused on the most popular schools, where the test scores were high and the PTAs were raising lots of money. I wanted a school with a sound-proofed gym, a garden overgrown with vegetables, and an art room stocked with supplies. I dreamed of getting into Alice Fong Yu, West Portal, Rooftop--those schools where the tours were packed with 40, 60, even 100 other parents hoping to get in as well. My SFUSD enrollment form was filled with these sorts of school in Round I--and of course I didn't receive an assignment at any of them. My husband calculated that we had something like a 1 percent chance of getting our first choice, Alice Fong Yu.

In Round II, I started to look at some less-popular schools, the hidden gems, and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't find as many fancy facilities but I did meet principals and teachers who were equally exceptional as those at the rock-star schools. And I discovered small groups of parents who were planning fund-raisers, planting gardens, hiring reduction teachers. They had the passion and dedication of a grass roots movement. These schools tended to be smaller and more intimate. The communities were close-knit like a family and the children were thriving in these nurturing environments. I was so lucky to eventually end up at a hidden gem. Now that I'm at Jose Ortega, you couldn't pay me to go to anywhere else.

As you finish up your school tours and finalize your list of seven, I'm hoping you will consider some of the hidden gems in the diverse list below. Nearly all of these schools had fewer than 20 families list them as their first choice in Round I. Last year, 238 families put Rooftop at the top of their list, 268 listed Alice Fong Yu, and 284 wanted Clarendon.
  1. Bryant GE
  2. Cesar Chavez GE
  3. Cleveland GE
  4. Cobb GE
  5. Daniel Webster GE and SI
  6. Garfield GE
  7. Glen Park GE
  8. Harvey Milk GE
  9. Hillcrest GE
  10. John Yehall Chin GE
  11. Jose Ortega MI and GE
  12. Junipero Serra GE
  13. Leonard Flynn GE
  14. New Traditions GE
  15. Paul Revere GE and SI
  16. Rosa Parks GE and JB
  17. Sheridan GE
  18. Sunnyside GE
  19. Sutro GE
  20. Visitacion Valley GE
This is not a final list. Rather it's the beginning of a conversation. I hope that you will add more hidden gems in the comments section. And please if you're a parent at any of these schools feel free to share your experiences.

Please keep this string focused on hidden gems. If you would like to bring up other topics, email theskfkfiles@gmail.com and I will start a new thread.



Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jefferson Elementary

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 9/23/08)

Location: 1725 Irving St @ 19th, Sunset District) map
School hours: 8:40-2:40 (breakfast at 8:15; yard monitor at 8:20)
Tel: 759-2821
Fax: 756-2806
Principal: Victor Tam (since 2006-07; prior principal retired after 16 years)
Web site: www.myjefferson.com
School tours: Self-guided tours M-Th from 9-10am or 1-2pm. Starting in October some Tuesdays and Thursdays will have Q&A by the principal, Victor Tam at 10am.
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 80
Total student body: 476

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a calm and inviting environment; an emphasis on arts (visual, theater and music) and on environmental issues; a gardening program; and strong academics.


Separate play yards for Kindergarten and upper grades; both will be upgraded with new structures as part of ADA upgrades. Funding for full-time PE teacher included purchase of PE equipment as well.

After School programs

Jefferson CDC (onsite) has 45 kindergarten spots, as well as spots for grades 1-5; before-care starting at 7:30 .m. and after-care until 6 p.m.; programs on sliding scale (free for qualified income earnings otherwise tuition based $12-22/day)


Active PTA and SSC with a number of volunteer activities for parents including in classroom, office and admin, beautification and gardening, and in the art program.

Language program(s): After-school Mandarin

Tour Impressions

As soon as I popped my head into the classrooms at Jefferson school, it felt like there was a lot to take in. The classroom and hallway walls are covered with student artwork, self portraits and drawings. Wandering the halls on our self-guided tour I overheard a Kindergarten class talking about weather and calendar, a 1st grade class doing addition of multiple numbers, and a 5th grade class studying fine art paintings for a writing activity. All of the classes seemed incredibly orderly, despite the fact that the school is undergoing a year of construction for ADA improvements.

The ADA improvements will also bring updates and new play structures to the Kindergarten and upper grade playgrounds. Since 2007 a full-time PE teacher was hired (thanks to Prop H) to provide two PE sessions per week to all grades. In addition, a program for directed physical activity is offered from noon-12:30 every day.

The school includes a focus on Arts Education which includes working with visiting artists in a particular medium (e.g. drama, ceramics, poetry). In addition a program Art Knows allows parent-led art activities in the classroom. Instrumental music instruction is offered to the 4th and 5th grades in the Auditorium. According to the website all 5th grade students are in the school choir.

A garden is being re-installed in the Kindergarten playground on the Irving Street side of the school, the garden and any educational programs tied to it are strictly parent-led at this point. The school has a pleasant and clean cafeteria in addition to the auditorium.

We were not able to view the library due to the construction but according to the website there is a full time librarian and each class visits the library once a week. We also noted the school is next door to the Sunset branch of the SFPL.

The active PTA raises about $50-60k per year to fund the 5th grade overnight field trip for environmental education, as well as other school resources.

(I’m trying to discover answers to some other questions such as what else the PTA funds, whether the garden is for beautification and by parents only or by the students as well, and a few other details I was not able to observe.)

School Community Summit

Saturday, November 22
8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Everett Middle School
450 Church St., at 16th St.

Spend a morning learning about the district’s new plan to
engage joyful, high achieving learners!

Share ideas for 21st Century schools!

Keynote Speaker: Superintendent Carlos Garcia

For more details visit ppssf.org.

To RSVP, call 249-9293, email parentrelations@sfusd.edu, or register online at

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hot topic: SFUSD might change school calendar

An SF K Files has brought up an interesting issue:

"SFUSD is considering making major changes to the school year calendar for the 2009-10 school year, which would of course have a huge impact on families in the district. I hope you will consider blogging about this. I couldn't find anything about it on the district's web site, but the teachers' union is polling teachers about the proposed changes:


Two of the three proposed 2009-10 calendars have school starting on August 12 with the last day of school at the end of May, the third option is very close to the current schedule.

I am a teacher in SFUSD and only heard about this in the last week at our Union Building Committee meeting. I can tell you that teachers at my school are not very happy with the prospect of a shortened summer break this year, but most seem open to the idea of changing the schedule if they are given a full school year to plan and prepare for it.

We were given very little information about the motivation behind the proposals; apparently it has to do with the new testing requirements for algebra, but that's all we were told."

Here are the three calendars the district is proposing:

Calendar Draft A - Early Start
Monday, August 10th Teachers report back
Wednesday, August 12 First day of instruction
Tuesday, December 22 Fall semester ends
Wednesday, December 23 Friday, January 8 - Winter break
Monday, January 11 First day of spring semester
Monday, March 29 Friday, April 2 - Spring break
Friday, May 28 Last day of instruction/spring semester ends

Calendar Draft B - Early Start
Monday, August 10 Teachers report back
Wednesday, August 12 First day of instruction
Tuesday, December 22 Fall semester ends
Wednesday, December 23 Tuesday, January 5 - Winter break
Wednesday, January 6 First day of spring semester
Monday, March 29 Friday, April 2 - Spring break
Wednesday, May 26 Last day of instruction/Spring semester ends

Calendar Draft C - Traditional
Wednesday, August 19 Teachers report back/ Professional development
Monday, August 24 First day of instruction
Monday, December 21 Friday, January 1 - Winter break
Friday, January 15 End of fall semester
Monday, March 29 Friday, April 2 - Spring break
Tuesday, June 15 Last day of instruction/Spring semester ends

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dianne Feinstein

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 11/5/08)

Location: 2550 25th Avenue @ Vicente street, Parkside map
School hours: 7:50-1:50 (yard opens at 7:30)
Tel: 615-8460
Fax: 242-2532
Principal: Michelle Chang
Web site: http://sfportal.sfusd.edu/sites/feinsteines/default.aspx
School tours: Wednesdays, 10am (by appointment)
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 80
Total student body: currently 377 but will fill to capacity (500) by 2011-12

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a state of the art facility; a Green school; a school with music and art enrichments;


The first thing to notice at DFES (as they call it) is that this is a new, new facility (newest building in SFUSD). The school and program opened in fall 2006. The school architecture features large windowpanes and a lot of natural light throughout. The lines of the 2-story building are clean and not fussy. There is a spacious gym/cafeteria that is used for presentations, with lofty ceilings and a glass window lookout from the second floor. The information distributed stated the playground area is 50,000 sq ft. There is a dedicated play structure for the K classes, and another for the older kids. We didn't venture out too far into the yard but it seemed well, nice. And new.

After School programs

Stonestown YMCA offers the paid onsite after school program. The YMCA also coordinates onsite enrichments including theater, chess, Mad Science, chorus, music (instrument) training, sports/gymnastics, fashion design, table tennis, art and drawing, and French.

Before School programs

Actually there is no before school option, the yard duty starts at 7:30. But they do have an extremely organized drop-off system on Vicente with parent volunteers who walk the children from car to yard. It seems very efficient.


A growing and active PTA is building a strong community for DFES. Activities include fundraising to the tune of $70,000 last year (the 2nd year of the schools existence). They are hoping to raise $85,000. The PTA organized the tour docents, and was extremely organized with sign in, registration of touring parents, and the only school (so far) to send a thank-you-for-touring email to me. Other community building events include family dinner nights and family movie night (both on campus). They received a First 5 grant for two years to support community building and parent leadership development. This definitely feels like a big and warm family.

Language program(s):

None during school; a French enrichment option is available (but no details)

Tour Impressions

Walking into DFES, you feel how pleasant it is to be in a clean, airy, modern building. It is a great feeling and one that permeates the feeling in the school culture. The tour started in a large conference room, which is another feature - having meeting space outside of classrooms for teachers and staff. Principal Michelle Chang shared her background, with past credentials including teaching and administrative positions at Guadalupe and Jefferson Elementaries. She spent a brief stint at Clarendon in 2004 (?) before being assigned to work on the opening of DFES. Principal Chang was personally involved in almost all decisions regarding the school from the furniture to hiring the teaching and administrative staff. She feels great pride in the school, and obviously has given a great deal of herself to building a wonderful school.

Principal Chang highlighted the active parent involvement in the school, and that it is a Caring School Community. She explained that this is a program similar to Tribes which is used by many other SFUSD schools, but with extensions to the home. She's also launching a positive reinforcement program - "Caught Being Kind" which will issue "tickets" to kids who are seen doing good deeds. DFES has an inclusion program and includes a Student Success Team paraprofessional to help with the high need students.

The school uses the district provided science and math curricula - FOSS and Everyday Math. She said that the FOSS kits at DFES are all kept in a dedicated science lab rather than in the classroom, but she said that the teachers also teach science in the classrooms. The school has a Green School program including composting, recycling, gardening, and also usese green cleaners on site. The school was recognized by SF Environment for being a green school.

While walking through the hallways to see the classrooms, we heard a 4th and 5th grade music class - some choral training by the teacher. This is taught in addition to students who take instrumental music. In the lower grades there is enrichment in the form of Orff music classes taught by an artist in residence.

Visits to K, 1, 2 and 3 classrooms all yielded glimpses at students and teachers hard at work. The 1st grade math lesson was using the Everyday math workbook, while the 3rd graders were working on a pen pal letter writing activity. One striking aspect was that we noticed male teachers in every grade, perhaps unusual (and refreshing) for SFUSD?

A garden committee and parent volunteers plant and maintain the garden, and there is a PT garden consultant who has been added this year to assist in development a gardening curriculum. A dedicated art room is used to teach art through the use of an artist in residence, Visual art in K/3 grades, Theater in 1st and 4th, and Dance in 2nd and 5th. The one odd thing was that the "art room" was basically devoid of any displays of student art. Perhaps it's a work in progress... A PE teacher is on site full time and works with all classes 2 days/week. I have heard really positive things about the PE teacher.

The library, another highlight, was unfortunately locked and we could only see through the window. The librarian is on site 2.5 days per week. The library has been supported by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blum, with large donations to purchase and restock the books. There are also computers in the library that are available for student use.

With a great facility, dedicated principal and a well established parent community, DFES is a strong school and will surely grow only better over the years.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunset Elementary School

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 10/23/08)

Location: 1920 41st Avenue @ Ortega, Sunset map
School hours: 8:40a-2:40p
Tel: 415-759-2760
Fax: 415-759-2729
Principal: Sophie Lee
Web site: www.sunset-pta.org
School tours: Wednesdays, 9:00a - 10:45a
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 60
Total student body: 324

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

Sunset has a small-school feel with a balanced curriculum with respect to emphasis across the subject areas. There are a variety of arts programs, science both in the curriculum and through multiple in-school and after-school programs, and opportunities to do multimedia-supported interdisciplinary projects and supported by a full-time consultant. The school has two mobile laptops of computers, the best type of model for full integration of technology into instruction. The principal is a caring, involved person who has been at the school for 6 years and knows all students in the school by name.


The building is older and in modest condition, but on this particular sunny day, felt airy and awash in light. There are large play areas that include a new play structure that the PTA spent several years raising the funds to buy. One of the most striking aspects of Sunset's classrooms were how bright and colorful they were, a wonderful blend of organization and displays of student work. There are two large gardens on campus that are the focus of the science activities. Older grades are in bungalows; one classroom this year is having to use the library as a classroom while the district builds a new bungalow. The library will be restored as a library next school year. The cafeteria is smallish, requiring the school to have three separate lunch periods.

After School programs

Sunset has multiple options for after-school programs. A full-time (5-day) pay program is available for $428 per month through the Stonestown YMCA (that is offered onsite). Excel offers free afterschool programming that is somewhat more academically focused. In addition, there is a science program called Tree Frog Treks that one parent I talked to really loved. A highlight is the programs for language; Mandarin and Spanish are offered 1 day per week. There is currently also a program in Chinese instrumental music offered afterschool.


The PTA's presence was felt immediately on the tour, with touring parents being greeted by a group of parents numbering about the same as the touring parents. They were friendly and enthusiastic about the school, if not particularly informed about instructional matters or things like the cost of different afterschool programs. The PTA raises over 100K per year. Their fundraising helped the school purchase its big play structure and consultants in science and art. In addition, the PTA gives out minigrants to teachers for different projects.

Language program(s):

Though the school is not an immersion program, it does offer language after school, one day a week. Mandarin, Cantonese are popular; Spanish was not offered this past semester due to lack of interest among the parents/children.

Tour Impressions

Instruction observed in the school was varied. In the very first class we visited, we saw the technology consulting presenting a KidPix multimedia story the students had collaborated to produce; the kids were mostly listening, but clearly excited, and the work they had done impressive for this group of kindergartners. The topic pertained to the outdoor gardens, so this project was a great example of integrating language arts, science, and technology. In the other K class, students were practicing creating tallies, an activity from the new district math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics. This was the first math lesson I've observed on a tour, though this may have as much to do with the time of day of the visit. The second graders were also working in the new math curriculum. I was impressed with students in fifth grade doing character sketches as part of a response to literature lesson. In another classroom, though, students were working in centers on worksheets focused on drill and practice with letter recognition. And in the third grade class, we saw students taking a test, for which the teacher simply used the textbook test.

The approach to discipline used in the school is called "Caring School Community," which emphasizes the need for all teachers to hold class meetings, where issues may be discussed related to getting along, making and keeping friends. The program also includes cross-age buddies and something called "star students." Every student is recognized for a positive quality at some point during the year. This approach seems like a positive approach to discipline; the principles emphasized in the program seem like good fundamentals for character education, such as honesty and responsibility. There wasn't a strong, explicit focus on diversity and justice in how the community was conceptualized; however, the extracurricular programs really are quite responsive to the diversity of the school community.

The principal provides for common planning time for teachers to work together. She provides them with focal topics (a good structure, to ensure that there is focus to the meeting times) and across the year, this year will focus principally on mathematics, since there is a new curriculum. I thought the principal had a quite realistic expectation about common planning time, that it would focus a lot on instructional planning but also that teachers needed to use some sessions to coordinate logistics for field trips, etc. Though one could not tell, I had the sense that there was a good relationship between the principal and her faculty.

The members of the parent organization in attendance were quite enthusiastic about the school; the amount of money raised by the association was impressive, and it seems like that the organization's ability to raise funds will continue to grow as the school becomes popular. The parents seem particularly involved in the garden projects in the school.

Upcoming public school events

What to Expect in Kindergarten event

Tuesday, November 18, 5-7pm
Junipero Serra Elementary, 625 Holly Park Circle

Featuring a special performance by the Junipero Serra first grade choir.

This free presentation includes information on enrollment, a presentation by a Kindergarten Teacher about Kindergarten Readiness, Parent Ambassadors from various schools, and an opportunity to get one-on-one help with enrollment, special education, parent involvement and kindergarten readiness. Free dinner and childcare is available. You can also turn in your applications at this event!

If you can't make it to this event, there will be others like it on the following days and locations.

Tue, December 2nd, 5-7pm Bayview YMCA, 1601 Lane Street
Tue, December 9th, 5-7pm Tenderloin Community Elementary, 227 Turk St.
Thu, December 11th, 5-7pm Jose Ortega Elementary, 400 Sargent St.
Thu, December 18th, 5-7pm El Dorado Elementary, 70 Delta St @ Harkness St.
Wed, January 7th, 4-7pm Malcolm X Academy, 350 Harbor Rd @ Middle Point Rd

Parents for Public Sschools-SF Coffee Chat this Friday, November 21 at 9:30-10:30am

PPS-SF Office, 3543 18th Street between Guerrero and Valencia

Join us in the PPS office this Friday for our monthly Coffee Chat. Our past Chats have been well attended, with many schools represented. Parents searching for a school are welcome to attend to meet parents from different schools and talk with PPS staff. It's a great way to connect with other PPS members and share tips and stories about the great things happening at your school!

This month's Chat is sponsored by Huntington Learning Center. They will be supplying the coffee and food, and will have a representative available to give more information. For more information on Huntington Learning Center, please see their website at http://san_francisco.huntingtonlearning.com/.

School Community Summit

Saturday, November 22, 8:30am-1pm
Everett Middle School, 450 Church Street
; Free parking entrance on 17th Street; Muni 22, 33, 37, J
RSVP (and reserve childcare), call 249-9293, email parentrelations@sfusd.edu

Keynote speaker: Superintendent Carlos Garcia

Make sure your school is represented at this important event. The Balanced Scorecard, which will be replacing the Academic Plan, will be presented at this event, with workshops to support SSC's in planning their Balanced Scorecard for the next year. This event is open to all parents and community members, especially those who serve on School Site Councils, ELAC, and SACs.

For more details, visit the Parents for Public Schools Web site: ppssf.org.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good news: More families are staying in the city

From the City of SF Dept. of Children, Families and Youth:

Did You Know …
After Years of Decline, Estimates Indicate SF Child Population Stabilizing
Recently released data from the US Census reveal that in 2007 there were 109,718 children ages 0 to 17 living in San Francisco, which shows little change from the 2006 estimate of 109,636 children. Also notable is the stabilization of the child population after experiencing steady decline since the 1960s. The proportion of children to adults appears to be increasing. Other highlights from new Census data:
· Children are present in one out of five San Francisco households
· Median income of families with children is $87,111
· 25% of children under 18 live in single parent households
All data is from the 2007 American Community Survey, an ongoing survey of the US Census, at www.census.gov. The national project, KIDSCOUNT, hosts a more accessible data portal specific to children, www.kidscount.org

Friday, November 14, 2008

Commodore Sloat

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 10/21/08)

Location: 50 Darien Street @ Juniperro Serra, St. Francis Wood/Ingleside Terrace) map
School hours: 8:40am - 2:40am (supervised yard duty starting around 8:25am)
Tel: 759-2807
Principal: Dr. Deborah Faigenbaum (4th year)
Web site: www.sloatparents.org
School tours: Tuesdays at 9am, call for appointment
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 60
Total student body: 360

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a strong gardening program; a spacious campus with separate play yards for K, lower elementary and upper elementary; an innovative team teaching approach in 4/5; and a strong and focused principal.


The school campus is striking in its spaciousness. The large, expansive blacktop wraps around two sides of the school. The lower yard has a separate play yard for the K students, and an area for the upper (4-5 students). The upper yard is used by the 1-3 graders. The school is built as several clusters of buildings with most of the openings facing the building exterior; windows line all of the classrooms. As a result the feeling is very open and bright, in comparison to some other schools. The K classrooms are all in one cluster and each have their own bathroom (used for emergencies only, according to the parent tour guide). The other grades have clusters and each cluster has a shared common area with a kitchen facility and a small patio.

There are several gardens in the school as well. The upper yard garden was built to create a path and soft scape in through the blacktop, and includes an outdoor classroom (basically a seating area). There is a learning garden in a courtyard, where many of the plants are California native species, with herbs, and some vegetables in evidence.

While the 70's style of architecture does seem to infuse the campus layout, it's not unpleasant and the school does seem to have a lot of light and airiness.

Link to school site map.

After School programs

The on-site after school options are the fee-based program run by the Stonestown YMCA (cost $392/$428 for 5 days/week depending on YMCA membership) and the free Excel program (2-5) for students who qualify. The parent tour guides had praise for the YMCA program though specifics were a bit lacking. The program has both before school care (starting at 7;30am) and after school in the cafeteria until 6:30.

There did not appear to be any enrichment options other than the Y program, though a few are mentioned on the Sloat Parents website.

Parents' Club

Commodore Sloat does not have a PTA but rather a Parents' Club. The tour guide felt this was largely established due to state PTA dues and bylaws. The PCO is very active and raises in the range of $50-60k per year through activities including a straight cash appeal, eScrip and a few smaller scale events, as well as grantwriting.

The parents' club provides support for the gardening program, a PE specialist, poetry, vocal music in the lower grades (now paid for by Prop H monies). The school is very open to parent volunteers both in classrooms and otherwise. The parent community feels like it is really trying to create a whole school community.

Language program(s):

None - probably one of the biggest deficits at an otherwise very strong school.

Tour Impressions

The Commodore Sloat tour started in the auditorium/MP room, a large spacious room with a stage. The principal, Dr. Deborah Faigenbaum, addressed the parents for about 30 minutes to outline what she felt were the schools vision, strengths, and to answer questions. She appeared to be a very genuine, smart person with a very calm demeanor and a no-b.s. delivery. You felt like she was someone who would give you real answers and not sugar coat anything. For example, I really appreciated her noting which program features are available at ALL SFUSD schools (e.g. instrumental music in 4/5, and the SF Symphony's Adventures in Music program) where some schools either claim these as special features, or at least don't point out that they are not distinguishing features. She said there was extremely low turnover in the teaching staff, something to be very proud of. The school has about 45% students who qualify for free/reduced lunch, and has a healthy ethnic diversity (about 50% asian, 15% white, 15% latino and 25% everything else).

She spoke quite a bit about the science and gardening/environmental focus at Commodore Sloat. The school has implemented the FOSS science curriculum, which is a district wide curriculum, but again at Commodore Sloat it seemed like the principal actually knew that this was being used (where at some schools the word FOSS is just a buzzword). In the 4th and 5th grades each have 2 teachers per class. One teacher focuses on language arts and the other focuses on math and science. The rationale is that at these grades, the material is becoming deeper and more complex, and allowing teachers to become experts in fewer subjects will allow them to be better teachers. It made sense to me.

An artists in residence program offers an art rotation in each grade. The disciplines offered include Drama (K, 1, 5); visual art (2, 3, 4), music - vocal in grades K-2 and instrumental in 4/5, and poetry in 3, 4, 5.

The library is centrally located and fairly nice, with the same 70's architecture resulting in an interesting amphitheater-style group reading area. The library is in the process of having the card catalog digitized. The librarian is part time and all classes visit once per week.

Areas for improvement she identified technology - there is not a separate computer lab at the school though they recently acquired a mobile mac lab which is used in the 4th and 5th grades. This is an area that Principal Faigenbaum is interested in investing in with input from the School Site Council in the next few years.

Visits to the classrooms revealed quite a few of the lower grades participating in "centers." The K classrooms were very large, though also crammed with a lot of stuff which made it feel perhaps a little more cramped than it might. There were a number of play areas in evidence. At CSS, K students still have a rest/nap time and are encouraged to express themselves through play. In the upper grades the students seemed engaged in a science lesson, alert and attentive to the teacher.

Commodore Sloat has a lot going for it, from a diverse student body to a spacious facility to experienced and dedicated teachers, with a healthy amount of extras thrown in. The program doesn't feature every bell and whistle out there, but the ones it does offer appear to be really solid and thoughtful in the choice of how and where to use the school's resources. All in all, a very nice school.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Clarendon Alternative Elementary

Reviewed by Meredith (toured 10/29/08)

Location: 500 Clarendon Avenue, Twin Peaks, map
School hours: 9:25am - 3:25pm
Tel: 759-2796
Fax: 759-2799
Principal: Mark Barmore
Web site: http://www.clarendonJBBP.org, http://www.secondcommunity.org
School tours: Wednesday at 9:45am, call tour hotline 759-2782 to check specific dates
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 80 total, mix of GE and JBBP programs varies by year
Total student body: 534

To truly understand Clarendon Alternative Elementary, you have to understand that it is organized as essentially two small schools within one campus. The tour guides and principal all said that it is separate programs, with separate teaching staffs, and separate parent communities with separate fundraising programs (and priorities).

Second Community Program (SCP) AKA General Education is a rich and enriched program with high academic focus, and a number of enrichments including Italian language, art, and science. The program also focuses on attention to the childs social and emotional relationships to their community.

Japanese Bilingual/Bicultural Program (JBBP) is a multicultural education program taught in English but with a strong theme of Japanese language and culture throughout the program.

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a late school start time; a heavily involved parent community (both programs); a program with many enrichment additions (SCP) or a program with a strong language and culture component (JBBP) that includes a strong art strand; a central location.


Clarendon's campus and facilities were nice, not overwhelming, perhaps because the outdoor space is cut up by the shape of the buildings, and also because we did not venture out to the upper yard. There is a separate blacktop area for the younger students (K-1?) that features a nice big play structure. The older kids play in a lower yard that is wrapped around a few buildings and bungalows, and the third upper yard appears to be a spacious blacktop though again, we did not see it.

Before/After School programs

There is an onsite childcare program called Second Community Childcare. Presumably kids from both programs can attend the childcare, which offers before school care (critical for a school with a 9:25 start!) as well as after school care. The fee ranges from $175/month for morning care only to $300 for full coverage on both ends of the school day, with a variety of drop in combinations available. The parents had positive things to say about the childcare, but few specifics about the program.


There are two separate parent communities, but both are clearly very active. The SCP program is philosophically based on parent participation at all levels, from classroom help to assistance in planning, and in administration.

Language program(s):

Italian language enrichment is taught in all grade levels (to SCP only, not JBBP students) for 90 minutes per week.
Japanese language and culture enrichment (NOT immersion) in JBBP.

Tour impressions

This is a very popular school! The parents interested in seeing what a cream of the crop school in SFUSD looks like clearly all showed up for the first tour of the season. There were probably 100 parents crowded into the auditorium. Principal Mark Barmore greeted the tour group. He noted that the origins of Clarendon were based on a co-op model, with its inherent desire and access for heavy parent participation. And we did see parents volunteering in many capacities throughout the school, from creating communications (Wednesday envelopes?) for the students to take home, to helping in the classrooms, to selling homebaked pastries and coffee to grateful, overwhelmed touring parents. Principal Barmore said that the educational philosophy is to educate the whole child, and also that he really feels that though there are two small schools in the one campus, at the same time it feels like a whole school community as well. That being said, the rest of the presentation definitely felt like we were hearing about two very different school experiences.

Second Community Program
One of the parent docents introduced Second Community - meant to signify the relationship to the child's first community, their family. The program has heavy fundraising to the tune of $230,000 per year (SCP only!), to fund a variety of consultants in art, PE, computer skills, Italian language, and music using an Orff method. They also fund field trips and a handful of paraprofessionals, and class size reduction in the 4/5 grades.

The parents touted the diversity of the school population though frankly it didn't strike me as especially diverse (and the school profile showed a relatively low % of free/reduced lunch students). Very few of the tour guides spoke of it but the flyer indicates a project-based learning philosophy as well. (Could have been the madness of 100 touring parents that made it impossible to get as much information about these programs.)

The classrooms we observed had interesting lessons happening. The K students were coloring and their classroom seemed to be a grand pre-school room with a lot of play options and a cooking station (!). The 2nd graders were discussing a story and learning to use and interpret the action, in what seemed to be a very meaningful way.

The art bungalow was impressive in the creativity of the art. The art teacher (whose name I did not catch) has been with Clarendon for 13 years and tries to tie the art she teaches in with exhibits and events happening locally, for example tying a program of self portraits to the Frida Kahlo retrospective. She seemed passionate and enthusiastic about the school. The children in both programs take art classes but the frequency varies (reportedly every week for the SCP and every other week for JBBP, with the explanation that JBBP weaves art into much everyday teaching).

Music is taught twice a week starting with an Orff percussive based music program in the lower grades, leading to the instrumental music classes in the 4th and 5th grades.

The library was another highlight of the school, with a librarian who has been with the school for 25 years. The space was not the most luxe library space we've seen on tours, but the librarian clearly put a lot of thought into innovating on ways to challenge and interest eager and not-so-eager young readers. She raised $20k with an annual book sale last year, and has a reading pajama day, and a birthday book program (the birthday child donates a book and gets their name on a name plate).

The computer lab next door to the library is full of iMacs was in use during our tour with a 1st or 2nd grade class doing KidPix. I didn't get a lot of detail on the computer instruction at Clarendon.

Japanese Bicultural Bilingual Program
The JBBP program is base on a model called FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School). All of the teachers have Japanese language and cultural backgrounds and teach Japanese to the students 30-45 minutes per day. However, it is not immersive in that the general curriculum is taught in English. Nonetheless, a visit to a 4th grade JBBP class showed students writing and reading sentences in kanji.

The program emphases cultural awareness and teachers weave in Japanese themes in the curriculum where opportunity arises. The JBBP also includes a strong parent participation theme. The parent group for JBBP raises approximately $180,000 per year (goal for this year) which brings the total fundraising for both programs to over $400k. The JBBP funds support Japanese culture and curriculum enrichments, art consultant, PE, music, computer consultant, and class size reduction in the upper grades.

Walking out of Clarendon, I felt the school's high popularity and reputation were well deserved. With a hard working parent community, heavily funded enrichment programs, and a dedicated and loyal staff, this school really feels like a place that will nurture and grow strong, creative children.