Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hot topic: presidential candidates on education

We can all probably agree that our current president has done little to improve public education in this country. If anything he has made things worse. On my tours of San Francisco schools, teachers and principals blasted Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. Many believe the law, requiring schools to be more accountable by showing yearly progress, has spurred too much testing, narrowed curriculum, deprived children of chances to be creative, and the list goes on and on.

This year we have the opportunity to leave behind the troubled past when we vote in a new president. And on February 5, we have the opportunity to partake in the primary elections. The candidates have many ideas on how to improve education. Which presidential candidate do you think would do the most for our country's schools? Please share.

Not sure about your favorite candidate's eduation platform?
Here are a few places where you can do some research:

Education Election
The Education Writers Association's coverage of the presidential election and candidates' stands on education

USA Today
Candidate positions on education compiled by reporter Ledyard King

Ed in 08
A campaign launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to make education improvement a priority in the 2008 presidential campaign

Finally, please take time to vote in the poll on the right—and to vote on election day.



Monday, January 28, 2008

Dear Gavin Newsom

If I were going to write San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom a letter about schools in San Francisco, what would I say?

This crossed my mind last summer when Ryan and I saw the mayor speak at a small open forum. After Newsom's long response to a question about the 49ers, Ryan jumped right in and asked about schools:

"We have two children who are in preschool and we're starting to look for a kindergarten. Many families move out of San Francisco to the suburbs for better schools. But we don't want to move. Can you please comment on your plans for improving schools in San Francisco."

Newsom talked about all he—and the board of education—have done to support schools. He enthusiastically told us about successes at underperforming schools and the district's rising test scores. But what came next was discouraging. Newsom talked about families fleeing the city. He wondered if it was worth putting efforts into attracting middle class families to the city's public schools because they either attend private or leave the city. He explained the city's unique geography; it allows families to live in the suburbs and send their kids to excellent public schools, and then easily commute into the city for work during the week and fun on the weekends. Newsom said that it's difficult to compete with the geography.

I was frustrated. And I remember wanting to write him a letter to simply say something like, "Hey, You're doing a great job—but I think you're wrong. A lot of families do want to stay, including me, and I think you can compete with the geography."

It's true: families leave this city. A 2005 survey by the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University found that nearly half of parents with preschool-age children planned to leave in the next three years. No wonder San Francisco has the lowest percentage of households with children among the 50 largest cities in the United States. But I think many of us want to stay and we're doing everything possible to raise our families here. I also think many families want to stay but leave because they're scared off by the "supposedly dreadful" schools. They depart before they even step foot into a San Francisco school.

I know Newsom has done a lot for education in this city. As I toured schools, I heard parent guides and principals talk about what Newsom and the board of education had done to improve their schools. I saw pictures of Newsom on school playgrounds with kids gathered round. I've been told he supports Parents for Public Schools. And after his recent re-election, he said that education was going to be one of his top priorities.

What's more, San Francisco is the top-performing large urban school district in the state of California. From what I saw on my tours, the district is full of outstanding schools and up-and-coming ones. With continued support and an extra push, I think SFUSD could be recognized as being one of the top urban districts in the country. And then it wouldn't have to compete with its geography.

I never got around to writing Newsom a letter. But recently I've been thinking about it again. This blog has shown me that a tremendous number of parents want their children to receive their education in San Francisco, and I feel like our mayor should know that.

I'm wondering what you would write in a letter to Gavin Newsom. What would you want to tell him about schools in San Francisco? What have you seen as the successes? What could be done better? What would help stop families from leaving?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reading before kindergarten?

A coworker of mine has a daughter in second grade who is reading Harry Potter. The other day he told me that Marie plowed through 130 pages over the weekend. This same little girl started reading books at age 4, or maybe it was 3. Every time my colleague talks about his early-reader, I can't help but worry, just a little, about Alice.

Alice is 4, actually almost 5, and she's not reading. Well, she can read her name. And she knows, "exit"; she yells it out every time we pass a sign on the freeway. She knows my name and her brother's. And when I say, "It's time for Sam to take an N-A-P," she knows I'm spelling out nap. She can practically read Goodnight Moon—because she has it memorized. She's starting to learn her sounds but when we jump to the next step of actually sounding out words or determining which letter a word begins with—she gets confused. "The word 'see' must start with the letter 'c' " she says. "Or why doesn't 'you' start with the letter 'u'?" I read to Alice every night and throughout the day on weekends. And I know she gets lots of books at school. But she's yet to grasp the overall concept of putting sounds together.

Sometimes when I hear others talk about their kids reading before kindergarten, I think, Their kids were naturally ready and Alice isn't. And I think that I shouldn't push her because I don't want to frustrate her and scare her off from learning. Other times, I can't help but think, Have I screwed up? I should have bought a book on phonics. And sometimes, I even introduce little lessons at breakfast time. I pick a letter of the day and then we come up with words that start with that letter.

A friend of mine has read many books about early reading such as Why Johnny Can't Read, Marva Collins' Way, How to Raise a Brighter Child, Give Your Child a Superior Mind, and Teach Your Child to Read in Just 10 Minutes a Day. She believes that all children are capable of learning to read at a young age. Her son is 1 years old and he can read the word "up." She believes that kids shouldn't learn the names of letters—just the sounds. "It's too confusing if they know the names of the letters," she says. She introduces the sounds in fun ways with songs and clapping.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've talked to parents who send their children to Waldorf Schools where academics are deemphacized in the early years. I've heard that a Waldorf student typically isn't reading until second grade. According to the Why Waldorf Works Web site, "There is evidence that normal, healthy children who learn to read relatively late are not disadvantaged by this, but rather are able quickly to catch up with, and may overtake, children who have learned to read early. Additionally, they are much less likely to develop the 'tiredness toward reading' that many children taught to read at a very early age experience later on."

In public schools, kids tend to learn to read in kindergarten. At the private schools it varies—though most seem to say they teach at the individual child's level.

So where does this leave me? Confused as usual. And then the other day, while Alice was in swim class, I was talking to a mom about this very subject. Her point-of-view? "A child is ready to learn to read when she can skip." So of course, I asked Alice to skip. I wouldn't call what she did a skip—it was more like a hop-gallop-run.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hot topic: switching schools

Let's say you have a child named Joey who is turning five in September. You're undecided on when to start him in kindergarten: this year at five or next year at six? You tour some schools, and in January you opt to apply to both private and public—just to see what happens. Why not?

Jump forward to March: You open your mailbox to find rejections from all the privates and an assignment at a strong public. You're pleased with the public option but you're crestfallen by a "no" from your favorite private. You formulate a plan: Send Joey to public kindergarten this fall; then next year reapply to private, hopefully get in, and have him repeat kindergarten. Good idea? A friend of mine actually asked an admissions director at a private school about this. Her response? Not a wise plan. The school would rather see the child go to a special pre-K program or stay in preschool before starting a private school. I don't know exactly why, nor do I know if this is the case at all private schools. What have you heard?

Here's another scenario: You send Joey to a K–5 public school, let's say Lakeshore. He thrives for six years at Lakeshore but he's a shy, quiet kid and you're reluctant to send him to a big public junior high. You think he'll feel lost and overwhelmed. So you try to get Joey into Rooftop for sixth, seventh, and eighth? Is that possible? What's the likelihood of something like this working out?

And another: In this one, Joey's a lively little guy and so you send him to private because you think he needs extra attention in a small environment. Wrong! He's bouncing off the walls! When he's in second grade, you set out to find him a bigger public school. Can you just sign up over at Clarendon or McKinley or Alvarado? How easy is that to do?

Does it seem premature to start thinking about switching schools—when most of us don't even have our kids in school yet? Yes! But in the past few days, I've talked to so many parents about this topic. Everyone wants to know, what can they do if they pick the wrong school? Or how can they work the system to get the perfect fit for their child? Does anyone have thoughts on this?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

School crushes

In high school I had a huge crush on Stephen Lane. He was an adorable wavy-haired boy who played Frisbee on the school front lawn at lunchtime. As my girlfriends and I munched on rice cakes and sipped Capri-Suns, I watched Stephen jump and dive for the Frisbee. A friend lived around the block from him so I went out of my way to drive by his house, just because it made me feel good. I even called his phone number a few times and hung up as soon as someone answered. Stephen had no clue that I existed, but that was fine. I needed only to look at the guy to calm my screwy teenage hormones.

The other day, Stephen came to mind as I drove out of my way to pass Alice Fong Yu. I slowly circled around the school checking out the red-brick building, the garden at the top of the campus, the newer buildings housing the middle school. In fact, recently I've been going out of my way to pass AFY on a weekly basis. I tote the kids over to Arizmendi Bakery on Irving for pecan rolls on weekend mornings. I make a slight detour by AFY on the way to Golden Gate Park. For some reason, simply looking at the school eases the anxiety I have about this process. I've got a serious school crush.

Just this morning, I dragged the family over to Arizmendi Bakery so we could drop by the school. But today I needed more than a little look. I wanted to get closer.

"We're going to a new park," I told the kids, as we stopped the car in front of the school.

Of course, the school gates were closed and locked. I contemplated climbing over them, but Ryan, the more rational one, stopped me.

While I say that I'd be happy with any of the seven schools on my list, I mainly think about AFY. And I worry about my crush on this one school: my daydreams about what life will be like if my kids go to AFY, my desire to always go to Chinatown, my searches for home exchanges in China this summer.

It's been my experience that crushes typically end badly—and I worry that my obsessions sometimes blind me from reality and the truth.

I did eventually meet Stephen in college. And guess what? He was entirely boring.

But I wonder, Is Alice Fong Yu more than a crush? Could she be the one?

Friday, January 18, 2008

A real moment at Marin Country Day School

Last night I made a difficult phone call.

"Hi Honey, it's me," I said to Ryan on my cell.

"Yeah, I'm on my way. I'll be home in about five minutes."

"Well, I got the time mixed up," I nervously told him. "The bus left at 5:30, not 6:30 p.m. I'm so sorry. I misread the invite."

"You know I'm busy at work and I left early . . ."

"We can still drive over to Marin and go to the panel thing they're having. Maybe one of us can ride the bus back to the city. I'm so sorry."

"It's okay. I'm almost home. I love you," he said.

On Thursday night Marin Country Day School hosted an Informational Evening for parents of applicants. Before the event, San Francisco moms and dads were invited to ride the school bus from Crissy Field to Marin. It's a way to experience the bus ride, which seems to be the most anxiety-inducing aspect of this school for interested San Francisco parents.

I had signed us up to take the bus but I got the time confused so Ryan and I missed the boat—again. This time it was due to my absent-mindedness—a good lesson for me who had gotten upset at my husband for forgetting about a major MCDS deadline. (Now I'm feeling badly about my earlier post that picked on my husband who often stops by the bakery on his way home from work to buy me a chocolate-chip cookie, makes me oatmeal in the morning, rubs my back when it aches, brings home roses whenever he goes to Costco, and always says, "I love you" before getting off the phone, even when he's annoyed.)

Since we missed the bus, we drove to Marin—yet another panicked drive across the bridge. En route, I was thinking, "We could never send our kids to school in Marin and live in the city. This commute would kill us."

When we finally entered the MCDS multipurpose room, some 100 parents were watching a movie on a huge screen. Arriving to a movie late is uncomfortable when it's simply at a multiplex, but at a private school function it's downright nerve-racking. I walked to the back of the room (there weren't any empty chairs) thinking, "We're never going to get in. They must think we're the biggest flakes." But nobody gave us any disapproving "your late" looks. Rather, we got a lot of welcoming smiles. I started to relax.

We caught the end of the video—humorous, touching footage of MCDS students in action. Then the head of the lower school Barbara Kraemer-Cook talked about the second graders' study of San Francisco Bay, conveniently located across the road from the campus. Barbara told a story about a nature photographer, Dennis Anderson, who did a presentation for the second graders. The students were so inspired that they decided they wanted to study the Bay through photography. The tech teacher tracked down digital cameras for all the kids who then went on to photograph the Bay. They eventually put on an art show at the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

Next: a panel of current parents lined up and the audience threw out questions. Of course, the panelists all gushed about the school. The easy commute from San Francisco to Marin. The wonderful parent community. The amazing teachers. The good-natured students. And then a prospective parent asked, "So what's wrong with the place? What do your children complain about?"

"The food is too healthy," a woman on the panel responded, "That's the only thing my kids complain about."

Everyone laughed.

Another panelist added that her children love their school—but they're kids and like all kids they have their problems. They get in conflicts with their friends. They struggle with homework.

This opened the door for other parents to share. A mom talked about her son with ADHD. Another described her child's conflict with a teacher.

They brought up typical kid issues—but with every story about a struggle, there was a story about the school and staff and parents working as a team to deal with the kid's issue. They talked about how the school didn't see problems as problems but as opportunities to grow. They talked about how everyone at the school was open and they were able to talk about things. The panel's open discussion was a perfect example of this. It was real.

I rode the bus back to San Francisco. Ryan followed in our car. The ride was fast, smooth, and relaxing. As we headed out of the rainbow tunnel and down the hill, the Golden Gate came into view and then the city's glittering lights. Not a bad commute, I thought.

New SF K Files feature: listing of school fund-raisers

Is your school putting on a fund-raiser? A carnival? A concert? A pancake breakfast? Alert San Francisco families by posting it on The SF K Files. Email your event details to thesfkfiles@gmail.com, and I'll post it in the right column where you'll find a new feature titled School Fund-raisers. Thanks! Best, Kate

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A dream

Has anyone had a dream about the school process? Last night, I had a terrible nightmare.

The dream started with me opening the "envelope" from SFUSD. My assignment? Spring Valley. This wasn't the Spring Valley in Russian Hill. This school was on Airport Blvd. next to SFO.

I decided to wait list, which, in my dream, required visiting my top-pick school to fill out a form. I set out to find Alice Fong Yu that was in this massive building full of little schools. I got lost in the building and kept asking people, "Where's AFY?" No one knew. Finally, I found it. I walked into the cafeteria where dozens of parents were sitting at tables taking a test.

Getting on AFY's wait list involved taking a 20-page test full of questions about Chinese history. You also had to write an essay in Chinese. I started to cry.

And then I woke up.

At least we don't have to take tests to get our kids into kindergarten.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Kate and Ryan get in a fight over private vs. public

"Mama! Mama! Mamahhhh! MAMAHHHHH!"

At 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, Alice started screaming. This, of course, woke Sam, who also began to cry. The children share a small room that's separated from Ryan's and my room by a paper-thin wall. If anyone makes a sound, we're all awake within seconds.

When the fussing started, I was in a deep sleep. I felt like I was being woken from the dead—everything ached. (I was up until 1 a.m. the night before watching The Wire on Netflix.) But I pulled myself up, grabbed the kids, and lugged them into bed.

When Alice and Sam come into bed, they snuggle up on either side of me, with their heads on my chest and my arms tucked under their bodies. It's sweet and cuddly, but I'm stuck flat on my back and typically my arms fall asleep—while I don't. On the other side of the bed, Ryan sleeps comfortably and restfully. Sometimes I resent him when I look over at him sacked out and happy.

I never fell back asleep on Sunday—everyone else did. And so I sat there thinking about all the reasons my husband was irritating me. Mainly, I was angry because Ryan missed MCDS's deadline to apply for financial aid. I've put so much work into this process; he couldn't meet one measly deadline. I was also infuriated by his slovenly habits, which included leaving his crap all over the house, piling his dirty dishes in the sink, and failing to put down the toilet seat. And I was mad about the Disney princess flashlight he bought for Alice because I hate Disney and because it was on one of those lead-recall lists. And I was mad because he bought a box of sugary cereal. And because he never makes dinner, never cleans up the kids toys, never puts away his clothes, never lets me sleep in, never refills the toilet paper, never, never, never . . . (Please keep in mind: I was sleep deprived and thinking irrationally. My husband is actually a terrific guy and he does do quite a bit around the house, including the laundry sometimes.)

When Ryan and the kids finally started to peep at 8 a.m., I was grumpy. While Alice and Ryan jumped about on the bed, I picked a fight with Ryan.

"At some point, we need to move out of our condo and into a house—something with three bedrooms," I said. Normally, I feel like we never need to leave our cozy pad but on this particular morning I wanted, more than anything, a room where I could escape my family. In our current living situation—nothing like that exists.

Ryan responded, "If we end up at private school, there's no way we're ever leaving this place."

"You don't want to send Alice to private school, I know it!"

"That's not true. I just think it's going to be a huge financial struggle."

"You just want a new mountain bike."

"No, I've given up on the new bike. I'm trying to be realistic. You need to realize that if we send the kids to private school it will be a huge financial commitment and I don't think you've given this a lot of thought. We'll have to make huge financial sacrifices. It won't be easy. We won't take vacations. We won't save for our kids' college or our retirement. And you certainly won't get private school for the kids—and a third bedroom for yourself."

That's when, I hate to admit, I started to dig into him about not being ambitious enough in his career—and not making more money so we could comfortably pay for private school. (My husband actually works very hard and he's a scientist, restoring rivers to make them pleasant places for salmon—something that I'm usually very proud of.)

Our fight on "private vs. public," I'm ashamed to say, was entirely unthoughtful and shallow (the debates between visitors to this site are more sophisticated). Our fight focused on finances. We didn't talk about the differences in curriculum at private and public schools. We didn't talk about the teachers. We didn't talk about our role in this greater society. We didn't talk about how we want to make a difference in the world. And we really didn't even talk about our kids. Of course, we care about these things immensely, but I'm not going to lie: This fight was about money.

After 20 minutes of screaming and yelling, Ryan walked out the door—without saying a thing. I let him go. I needed a break. I brought my—our—kids back into bed and we hugged. Alice smothered me in kisses and said, "It's going to be okay, mama."

I told her that she has the world's best daddy, but sometimes mommies and daddies disagree. She said, "I know, mama. It's okay." She gave me more kisses. (Sometimes I wonder where this loving, nurturing child of mine came from.)

We went on with our day. A morning play date. A birthday party at My Gym in Potrero Hill.

I figured that Ryan had gone for a bike ride. He rides on the weekends, and his bike wasn't in the garage (I checked). But at 2 p.m., when I still hadn't heard from him, I began to worry: "What if he crashed on his bike?" "What if he's really angry at me?" "What if he wants a divorce?" I started to realize that I really loved this man.

After the birthday party, I called Ryan and left a message on his voicemail. "I'm sorry. I regret so many things I said. I know I was mean. We can work this out. I'm just really stressed out about this school thing. Alice's screening at Live Oak got me excited about private school again but I think we need to be open to all our options. I love you. Call me."

He phoned about five minutes later; he was just over the hill. When he arrived home, I was relieved to see him. We talked—this time I was rational. And we realized that we can't make any decisions before we receive word in March. And I'm realizing, that's what is so frustrating about this process—the uncertainty. If only we knew today, what we'll know in March or August or September. The uncertainty can drive you to the edge.

Alice's Live Oak play date

When you overthink a private school screening, you realize that it's insane. You bring your four-year-old to a place she's visited maybe once, or never at all. You quickly introduce her to a group of adults and kids—maybe she knows a few or none of them. And then you leave her with these strangers. You nervously say: "I love you. I'll be back in two hours." Maybe you whisper, "We'll go out for hot fudge sundaes." Most likely, your child transitions easily into the situation but you leave feeling uncertain.

Live Oak seems entirely aware that a private school play date is an awkward, and for some scary or stressful, situation. The school takes a gentle approach to the process. When Alice and I recently visited the school over the weekend, I found that the administrators and staff did everything possible to make us feel at ease. If you've got a Live Oak play date on your calendar, I recommend that you don't overthink it. Forget worrying and get a goodnight's sleep. Show up—in a pair of jeans—and you'll be fine. And your child will have a lot of fun. I promise.

When we arrived—a few minute's early, yeah!—kids, parents, teachers, and administrators were beginning to gather in a play area outside. The kids were throwing balls and building structures with giant blocks, while the parents chatted. Alice, who is always shy in new situations, grabbed hold of my leg. The admissions director, Tracy Gertsen, immediately noticed Alice's shy nature, and approached us. She made clear that they would do everything possible to make the transition easy. Many of the teachers came up and said hello to Alice. If anything, I felt like we were special because Alice was shy. We played outside for about 20 minutes, by which time Alice was comfortably holding my hand.

We gathered in a big room. The kids sat in a circle, and the parents stood behind them. There was a brief explanation of the process and then the mommies and daddies were excused. Alice got a little clingy. I walked her up to one of the teachers who gave her a big hug and sat Alice down in her lap. I looked back at her before I walked out the door, and she was smiling.

The prospective parents gathered with current parents in the upstairs library. We noshed on bagels, drank coffee, and tried to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle. Holly Horton, the head of school, stopped in and casually chatted with parents. Gersten came in to tell me that Alice was doing great in her play date. Gersten also checked in with other parents.

When I went to pick up Alice, she was excited because they served snack. "Yummy letter-shaped cookies," she said. I'm not even going to overthink that one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Benefit Concert for Lakeshore Elementary School

Looking for something to do on Sunday? Is Lakeshore among your list of seven? Want to support a public school?

Hop on over to the benefit concert for Lakeshore Elementary School featuring The Sippy Cups and Charity and the JAMband. It's a rock n roll show for the whole family!

Where? Brava Theater Center (2789 24th St.)
When? Sunday, January 13 at 1 p.m. (doors open at noon)

Tickets: $18

For tickets and info, go to www.jamjamjam.com

All proceeds benefit Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School

Friday, January 11, 2008

Governor cuts $360 million from K-12 schools

So we all spent the past few months giving our all to the public school process, and what do we get? Budget cuts from the public schools.

According to an article by Nanette Asimov in today's Chronicle, Governor Schwarzenegger just announced that he "wants an immediate cut of $360 million from K-12 schools and $40 million from community colleges, although their combined share of this year's deficit is far more--$1.4 billion. For next year, he wants to suspend Proposition 98, the voter-approved law that guarantees a minimum level of school funding. That would mean withholding $4 billion from kindergarten through community colleges."

"'These are the deepest cuts ever proposed for school funding in the history of California,' said Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators."'

Any thoughts?

Kate's list

Congratulations to everyone who has completed the first step in the SFUSD enrollment process and to those who have provided support. I don't know how I would have survived the past few months without all of you. You made me think outside the box. You made me laugh when I was on the verge of tears. You made me realize that San Francisco is a special place to raise children. I feel so lucky to be here and to be a part of this community. Thank you.

So here's my list. I'm already wishing that I put Flynn above West Portal and that Buena Vista was above Miraloma, but it sounds like the order is irrelevant. Also, please keep in mind that this is only one list. These are by no means the top seven schools in San Francisco. These are simply the schools that seem like the best fit for Alice and my family.

Alice Fong Yu (Imm C)
West Portal (ImmC)
Leonard Flynn (ImmS)
Miraloma (Gen)
Alvarado (ImmS)
Rooftop (Gen)
Buena Vista (ImmS)

The blog will continue. I'm bringing Alice to a private school screening tomorrow, so I'll report back. And I have more juicy topics to cover: what do you think Gavin Newsom needs to know about San Francisco schools, what are the presidential candidates' viewpoints on eduction, how to prepare your child for kindergarten (feel free to suggest topics). Come March, let's hope that there won't be much to talk about because all of us will have gotten our top choice. If not, the blog will provide support.

Finally, please pat yourself on the back. Drink a glass of wine. Let out a loud "Roar!" This isn't an easy process and we should all be celebrating now that we have a huge part of the it behind us. Thanks again. Best, Kate

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kate turns in her enrollment form: a story

Before I left my office to turn in my enrollment form, I looked outside to check the weather. Cloudy but no rain. Should I bring an umbrella? No, it's only three blocks from my work to the SFUSD office. So I optimistically hopped out the door with only Alice's birth certificate, address verification, and enrollment form clutched tightly in my hand.

As soon as my foot hit the street, it started to sprinkle, and then pour. Not my lucky day. As I was crossing Van Ness, the enrollment form tucked under my sweater, a huge gust of wind swept Alice's birth certificate out of my hand. I chased after it and then the light changed and the cars started coming. I must have looked ridiculous, or suicidal, dodging traffic on Van Ness. Finally, I was able to get a grip on the certificate and made it safely across the street.

The remaining two-block walk went smoothly, and I even found a shiny penny en route (tails never fails, right?).

The line inside the district office was short (that's lucky). A woman with twins stood ahead of me. She was in a tizzy about getting her kids into a school where one child could be in immersion and the other general ed. And ahead of her was a man who had only one school on his list: Alice Fong Yu. And when it was his turn, he made this very clear to the man behind the counter.

My turn: The man behind the counter looked over my list. "Oh, you've picked all top schools," he said. "Looks good." I was thinking, do you have a problem with that?

Before he took the form away, I ran my hands over it, trying to transfer whatever luck I might have to that long sheet of paper.

I smiled at him and said, "I hope I get lucky."

"I like your purse," he commented.

What? You like my purse? My $30 fake Burberry purse that I'm carrying because the zipper on my favorite black backpack broke? Can't you say something more profound than that, I wanted to ask?

I momentarily thought about giving him my purse, but instead I said, "It's not real."

"Oh," he responded.

And that was that. Done!

Back outside, it was still raining. I looked for a sign, for a rainbow, for a patch of blue sky, for something to tell me everything is going to work out. When I saw the Grateful Dead outside Vegas in college, it was raining and then Jerry arrived on stage and the clouds parted and rainbows circled the stadium. And when my husband proposed to me at Arch Rock in Point Reyes, a pod of dolphins swam past us. And when Alice was born, the sun shone bright, after a dark, stormy night and a long labor. And here on the day I turned in my enrollment form, I was getting only cold, soggy rain. But as I continued to walk the downpour lightened to a sprinkle. And just before I stepped back into my office it stopped, and I think I saw the tiniest spot of blue, just over the district office.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Last chance: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday tours

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are your last days to check out schools. The deadline for turning in enrollment forms is Friday. If you want to publicize a school tour, feel free to do so in the comments section of this post.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Hot topic: working the system

At private schools, applicants are expected to use personal connections to express interest in a school. Letters of recommendation from friends and family are commonplace. When you apply to a school, you're asked if any other family members attended the school. Plus, independent schools are hand-picking their students. They're looking for families eager to give time or money so I imagine that applicants get creative to show that they're willing and able to make a strong commitment to the school. And I can imagine that sometimes applicants get a little carried away in their enthusiasms. Don't we all.

But in the SFUSD, there's a lottery system following specific guidelines and rules. It's supposedly fair and equal, within reason. Yes, siblings get priority. Makes perfect sense. And I imagine that a child can attend a parent's school. I would hope so if that's what the parent wants. Gosh, it really wouldn't even bother me if a child wanted to attend her aunt's school. I've heard of cousins requesting the same treatment as siblings and getting it. Seems fair to me. But an SF K Files visitor has suggested that possibly there are some people who are seriously bending the rules to get into a school. I'd be curious to hear what that's all about.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Un ange

A friend of mine has a staging company. When people sell their homes, they hire Linda to come in and decorate. She brings in furniture, lightens up the clutter, and makes everything look beautiful. Linda's taste is exquisite, somewhat shabby chic. She likes old furniture with chipping paint, and she always finds pieces with amazing intricate details and deep, rich colors. My taste runs along the same lines (though I don't have nearly the same eye), so sometimes when Linda goes on shopping sprees, I tag-along not so much to buy but to live vicariously through her.

Today, we visited Linda's friend Coco who sells French antiques in a warehouse on Bryant. If you were lost in the French countryside, you might expect to bump into Coco who would invite you over to her farm house. She's beautiful and friendly and she has an adorable French accent. Her taste is impeccable, and the linens, bistro chairs, marble-top tables, wrought iron beds, and farm doors filling her space are gorgeous.

Alice, Linda, and I spent about an hour going through the piles of French antiques. Alice found some wonderful garden gnomes, doll chairs, and baby beds. I fell in love with some school workbooks from 1928 in which students had written their lessons in handwriting that was so perfect it's hard to believe a computer didn't produce it. I found one in which a student had written Alice's actual name, which happens to be quite French, again and again and again. I'm a Francophile and I love old things, so I was in heaven.

After about an hour, when all the other shoppers had left, Coco told us that she needed to pick up her children. (She was gently kicking us out.)

"How old are your children?" I asked.

"Three and six," she said.

"Oh, they must go to the French-American school." I said. It seems like all French people who live in the city go to this school.

"No, we could never afford that. He actually goes to Flynn."

"Flynn? Did you say Flynn?" My eyes grew about three sizes.

We proceeded to talk about all the reasons she loves and adores Flynn. "I really can't say a bad thing about the school," said this super-cool French woman who speaks English, French, and Spanish. She went to college in Spain so that's why she's fluent in Spanish as well.

Our conversation ended with her saying, "If you want to go to Flynn, you really need to list it first."

All weekend, I've been stressing about where to rank Flynn on my list. At this moment, I almost felt as if I had encountered an angel.

Friday, January 4, 2008

11 reasons why Ryan likes Flynn

It's a Friday night. The kids are in bed. What do San Francisco parents do?

Talk schools, of course.


Last night, Ryan and I attempted to finalize our list of seven. Our conversation started with Ryan sharing his impressions of Flynn, which he toured on Thursday.

Did he like it? Yes, very much.

On our list, Flynn is the school with the lowest test scores (which I realize aren't that important). It's up and coming. It's a school that hasn't peaked but it's definitely moving upward. When I toured, my instincts said, "This is a great school." But a few weeks later, after over-thinking my choices, I started to feel uneasy. So I asked Ryan to go on a tour, and it wasn't until Friday night that we were actually able to talk about it.

Our conversation went something like this:

"So what did you think of Flynn?"

"I liked it."


"I liked the parents. Seemed like a good school."

"Should we include it on our list?"



"It's a good school."

Sometimes it can be difficult to draw detailed information from Ryan, so I assigned him a task: Come up with 10 reasons why you liked Flynn.

He easily rattled these off, and in fact he gave me 11.

1) Organized, involved parents. "Did you see that play structure they put up in one day? Amazing! I wish the city of San Francisco could do that at our [neighborhood] park."

2) Beautiful old building. "I liked all the architectural details. The inside was colorful and the classrooms were cozy. It reminded me of my elementary school."

3) Spanish Immersion program.

4) Small classes. "I like that they keep the class sizes smaller in the upper grades."

5) Location. "I like how it backs up to Precita Park. Have you walked the streets around the park? There are some beautiful old houses. Hey, maybe we could move over there." (Ryan thought the tour was at 8 a.m. rather than 9 a.m. so he spent a lot of time walking around the area.)

6) Well-behaved and focused kids. "The kids in the kindergarten classes were working in small groups on projects. And it seemed like they were working hard and they were focused on the task at hand. And this was in both the general education and Spanish strand."

7) Positive energy. "I like the idea of joining a school that's building something new, and this school has some serious momentum going. I sensed a positive attitude toward change."

8) Clear vision and goal. "The school has a strong goal with the International Baccalaureate program."

9) Abundance of enrichment programs. "Alice would love the classes with the SF Ballet."

10) United students and parents. "There were parents from both strands leading the tour. It seemed like they were very conscious of any split between the Spanish strand and general education, and they were trying to do everything possible to address it."

11) Friendly tour guides. "I liked the tour guides. I could seem myself being their friends. We're going to spending a lot of time at Alice's school, and we want to be in a place where we feel like we can connect with the other parents."

And then we went on to discuss: Should Leonard Flynn (SI) come before or after Alvardo (SI)? What would we all be doing on Friday night if we didn't have to be making these difficult decisions about schools?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Hot topic: can you judge a school by its principal?

"I love the school, the teachers, the parents, the campus—but I don't know about the principal?"

I frequently hear something along these lines from many parents, who then go on to explain exactly why they didn't connect with the school's leader on a tour. "He seemed too old-fashioned." "He was spacey." "She seemed stand-offish." "She wasn't enthusiastic." "She had a chip on her shoulder." "His office smelled weird."

Just how much emphasis should parents looking at schools put on the school's principal? I wonder. No doubt a principal plays a key leadership role in the school. They hire the teachers. They determine the school's direction. They set the tone.

I wonder if I should discount a school just because the principal rubbed me the wrong way or I heard a piece of gossip from a friend? I doubt that I can judge a principal from a quick 10-minute Q&A session on a school tour—though a gut feeling shouldn't be entirely ignored. And it's hard for me to imagine that any principal could be all that bad. Anyone working in education must have good intentions. They must care about children. But then I think, What if Alice was really struggling in school and I needed to confront the principal? A situation like this would be hard if the principal and I didn't have a bond.

I've also heard from parents with kids already in school that they almost never see or interact with the principal. This makes me think, why am I so concerned about the principal if I'm never even going to see her?

I'm not making this post to solicit gossipy dirt on certain principals. Rather, I'm hoping some parents with kids in school can talk about their experiences and offer their thoughts. What makes a good principal? Should you cut a school from your list if you didn't like the principal? Does your school's principal play a big role in your child's education? And finally, feel free to talk about the good ones.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

More or less work?

Today I took my kids to the park; Wednesday is my day off from work. Alice, Sam, and I met their friend Karlee and her babysitter at Douglas Park. Karlee's mom had called that morning to ask if we could meet Karlee at the park because this was a brand-new babysitter. Karlee's mom was in a pinch at work; preschool is closed and her work was unexpectedly busy, so she had to track down a sitter at the last minute.

I'm going to be in the same pinch on Friday. Ryan was suppsed to stay home with the kids because their school is closed but today he called me on my cell and said, "I have to work on Friday. There's a storm coming through!" He's on a project that requires collecting data on a river when it's raining and "the storm of the season" is hitting in the next few days. I'm on deadline at work so I can't stay home on Friday, but I think we've tracked down Sam's former nanny, maybe, possibly. Errr! Work!

Back to Douglas Park: When Karlee's mom left us all and the unfamiliar babysitter at the park, Karlee grasped onto her mom's leg. And when mom departed, Karlee burst into tears. Within five minutes she was fine, and she played with Alice while Sam made friends with another little boy in the sand box. But the "mom at work" idea didn't entirely disappear.

Alice and Karlee didn't play princess. They didn't play kitties. They didn't swing on the swings or slide down the slides. Rather, they played "work." Alice's office was in one part of the play structure, and Karlee's another. They each picked areas of the playground for their homes. And they traveled back and forth between their offices, where they pretended to work at computers, and home, where they made dinner and went to bed. It wasn't cute. It was pathetic. What have I created? I thought.

When Alice was three months old, I returned to work full-time. For the most part, I enjoy my job and what I do as an editor. I'm the working sort of mom who needs time away from her kids. It's not so much about the adult interaction for me; it's about the solitary time in front of the computer. I need alone time when I'm focused on something, ideally words, or else I get really grumpy. Plus, our family depends on my income. My salary pays for preschool and food while Ryan takes care of our mortgage and other home expenses.

About a year and a half ago, I was able to switch from five to four days a week. Alice was 3 years old and Sam was about 2 years old, and one day I just realized that my kids were irresistably cute and fun and I needed to spend more time with them. And that's when "Mommy Wednesdays" started. I love my Wednesdays at home. The kids and I go to the park, Coyote Point, the Randall Museum, the Musem of Modern Art. We bake cakes, paint pictures, pull weeds in the backyard. While Sam naps, I often take a nap, which annoys Alice who has never been much of a napper. They're fun, relaxed days that I cherish and adore.

If Alice goes to private school, I'll probably have to switch my 75 percent schedule back to full-time to help make ends meet. But if Alice gets into public school, I can keep my reduced hours and a part of me even daydreams of a part-time schedule. I would love to pick Alice up from school every day, especially for the first year and especially if she's in an immersion program. If Alice is in Chinese or Spanish immersion, I think she'd appreciate me picking her up in the afternoon. I imagine that she'll be exhausted, and probably quite irritated the first few weeks.

If Alice goes to public school and I'm working less, I'll also have more time to volunteer at the school. I'll have more time to clean the house. And more time to balance my checkbook. I'll have more time to cook fabulous family dinners. And I'll be available for my kids over the school holidays. And I might even have a little time for me. Imagine that?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hot topic: financial aid

Most private schools offer some financial aid to middle class families. They do this because it creates a student body that represents all socioeconomic backgrounds. Do you think it's fair for a middle class family, especially one who owns a home and has savings, to receive aid?

Here's a little background info: Most private schools are members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), and the organization handles tuition assistance applications. The association's Web site says: "For the academic year 2005–06, 972 NAIS members awarded $957.7 million in financial aid. These same schools reported that 18.7 percent of their students received some financial aid. The average award for boarding school was $17,295 and for day schools, $9,232." (I'm assuming this figure is for both elementary and high schools.) The NAIS doesn't provide any information on salary cutoffs or whether or not you can still receive aid if you own a home—it simply says, "The amount of aid a family receives may vary considerably from school to school. The size of its endowment, its tuition costs, and its philosophy of awarding aid affect how much a school offers."

The Hamlin School's brochure on financial assistance, which includes helpful financial aid case studies to portray the range of eligibility. For example, there's a family with a gross taxable income of $163,000. They own a house and have savings. They receive $9,000 a year toward tuition for two children. And there's a family with a gross taxable income of $73,000, no house, and no savings. They receive $20,000 toward tuition for one child.

A dated (2002) yet informative article in The New York Times, Schools Extend a Hand to Middle-Class Parents. It specifically states that many private schools offer assistance to middle-class families who own homes—and in fact schools are trying to attract these families to help maintain socioeconomic balance. Schools don't want a student body that consists of just rich and poor.

What do you think?

Happy New Year

Public school is back in session tomorrow. The deadline for enrollment forms is January 11, which means there's still time to squeeze in a few more tours. My husband plans to visit Flynn and I hope to get to Clarendon and Starr King. Any other must-visit schools?