Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What's to come

I have a few parents lined up who want to write reviews and share their stories of going through the school process. I will introduce them later this week and then I'll be passing the torch off to them. Thanks! Kate

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hot topic: PTA

A topic idea from an SF K Files visitor:

"How about some sort of call for effective methods/approaches people have used in PTAs around the school? That is, What works? What doesn't? What does it take to be an effective PTA member or contributor? How does one do that if one is not really an alpha PTA type? (not that there's anything wrong with that...but many aren't, but still might want to help out...)"

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Should SF K Files require registration?

I'm getting lots of questions about registration.

To clarify: I didn't introduce registration to kill the heated debates on this site. And I didn't introduce it to discourage negative comments. I did it because someone has been posting highly inappropriate comments. We might have a creepy troll (someone who doesn't even have kids) lurking on the site and since we're discussing our children I think it would be best to block this person. The SF K Files has grown into a large community; we're getting anywhere from 500 to 1,200 unique visitors on the site a day. Last year, when I was in the midst of the process only 200 people visited a day. It's very common to require registration when you have such a large, active community. Also, keep in mind that you can come up with a very generic username such as "Mom" and no one will have a clue who you are. But at the same time, I worry about dampening the candid, thoughtful conversations that have been spurred on this site. I want people to feel comfortable speaking their mind.

That said, I'm introducing a poll where you can vote on whether or not you think The SF K Files should require registration. I'm turning off the registration requirement for a week so everyone can easily vote in the poll--and comment in this post.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Registration required

Nearly one year ago, I launched The SF K Files to chronicle my search for a kindergarten for my daughter in San Francisco. I chose to take an upbeat approach and write about what I liked about schools--because I felt like we all heard the negative stuff at the playground. I wanted the site to be a positive and inspiring place for parents to visit. Yes, I expected us all to vent from time to time and I knew there would be some negative things to share. But I figured we would all be civil. We would disagree, of course, but respect one another.

Generally, this has been the situation on the site (with some exceptions). But in recent weeks, the climate on The SF K Files has changed dramatically. The comments have become inappropriate and negative--and I don't have time to moderate these childish conversations.

I'm concerned about the next group of parents who are going through the process. I know that many of them are visiting this site--and I think we should be inspiring them rather them scaring them off. That said, I have decided to require commentors to register on the site. You will need to pick a username. It doesn't have to be your real name but it will be an identity. This will allow me to block people who are mean. My new mantra is "Don't be mean."



Another wait pool run

Tomorrow, Friday, September 26, the EPC will do another wait pool run. Is anyone waiting for a call? Please share your stories if you do receive one. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How will the economic slowdown affect schools?

An SF K Files visitor brings up an interesting topic:

"I don't know if this is sufficiently on subject, but I'm curious what SF folks are thinking about the recent economic whammies of late--the $700 billion bail out talks--and the big cuts in the CA budget. Will fewer families be applying to private schools? Will more or less parents be considering public schools? Will people simply flee to the suburbs or stay entrenched and fight even harder for better schools?" Jenny

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Survey results are in

In August, SF K Files visitor Abigail Marks posted a link here to a survey asking parents about their experiences in the assignment process this year and for their ideas of what might need to be changed. Marks finally has the results, and wanted to share them with you! Her write-up of the results turned out to be quite long. For the full results, please see http://kassignmentsurvey.blogspot.com, or email Marks at iamabby@comcast.net and she'll send you a Word document.

Here's a brief summary of the results:

The tentative findings suggest that most families would support changing the neighborhood assignment system to one that incorporated some kind of zone or geographic area where a family would have preference, with an ability to enter a lottery for schools outside this area. The key element in such a system would be to safeguard parents’ abilities to get an assignment of their choice.

Opinion about whether people should be given some kind of preference for a school nearby is split. A sizable number want this, and a somewhat smaller but still sizable number don’t. When we divided the sample into three groups of zip codes, the western zip codes had a much higher percentage in favor of neighborhood preference than did the eastern zip codes (76% vs. 36%). However, both eastern and western zip code groups preferred the mixed system (neighborhood component plus city-wide lottery).

My suspicion is that with a more demographically balanced survey the zip-code discrepancy might not be so large, but the significance of this difference suggests that: among parents active on the internet, those who live in neighborhoods where schools are perceived to be higher quality are more likely to want neighborhood preference, where those who live in neighborhoods where there are fewer schools perceived to be higher quality wish to preserve their right to choose city-wide.

However, there are indications that the issue of neighborhood preference is complicated and charged. When respondents were first asked about neighborhood preference, a full 34% stated that they did not want it, and wanted to choose freely from all San Francisco schools. However, when asked to rank their choices of an assignment system, only 13% chose a city-wide system with no provision for neighborhood or geographical location. What can this result mean? Perhaps that the aspect of preserving choice is key. It may be that, if the choice still remains to be able to attend any school in San Francisco, a system which combines neighborhood and other factors, and which allows city-wide choice may be more attractive.

The more serious finding of this survey, however, is the lack of trust among parents for the way the District/EPC runs the assignment process.

The image of the District and the EPC that emerges from the survey is one where the District is not procuring or is actively withholding information (about available seats) or deliberately concealing or misleading parents (about weight of first choice, or covering up assignment errors). There is a lack of trust that the computer system will not make errors, that the coding is not being sufficiently checked so that assignment errors will occur, and –perhaps most seriously – a feeling that when errors do occur, that the District will do nothing to reveal this fact, or to take any action until forced. When trying to remediate a problem or error, there is a sense that the District will act in an unpredictable way, without taking community input into account.

This lack of trust may also be exacerbated by the high number of first time kindergarten families who got none of their Round I choices this year (around 45%). This has implications when designing a new assignment process –as parents may not trust that any new system will have room for their needs and not lower their chances of getting a school that is a good fit for their family.

Suggestions of how to make use of these tentative findings:

1. Solve the easy-to-fix problems quickly: in the lottery for the 2008 year, run the siblings first. Let people know the spaces available in each school before Round II and subsequent runs. If possible, come up with a system that lets families be on more than one (say, 3?) waitpools in the 10 day count.

2. Strive for more accountability: double-check coding (especially, but not only, in the areas where there were error problems this year). When there is a problem (whether it is a mistake in coding, or a failure to anticipate an extra 300 kindergarten applications than planed for), reveal it quickly and go about fixing it (with community input) right away. Keep promises made to schools and community groups.

3. Strive for more transparency: In addition to the easy-to-fix measures above, make sure District and EPC representatives are giving accurate and consistent information (about weighting first choice schools in Round I, about sibling preference for twins, about whether the diversity index is used in the waitpool runs, about whether students are being tested for language proficiency etc. etc.). Then release information to the public that will prove that the District is being entirely open and forthcoming (computer formulas for assignment, internal written policy on placement issues etc.).

4. Strive for ways of maximizing families’ effective choice. Come up with an assignment system that lets families who want a choice between schools close to home do that, and those who want to have a city-wide choice do that. And take steps to maximize each family’s chance of getting one of the schools they most want. The emphasis on closing the achievement gap and improving schools in all neighborhoods should help.

5. Strive for more community input: in the process of coming up with a new assignment system, or indeed with any issue, cast your net wide. Solicit ideas from parents of present and future students, from community-based organizations like Parents for Public Schools and the SFAME. Run your top ideas past people to see what the unanticipated impact might be, what the holes in the ideas might be. Solicit community input for making those ideas better. Put out more surveys (hopefully a bit more well-designed and thorough than this one, and with more outreach to all SF families)! Work with community and parent groups to implement recommendations, such as those gained from the thorough SERR report.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Make a pitch for your school

Tour season is in full swing and parents are starting the kindergarten search. Please use this thread to advertise your school, tours, and other events.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Which schools will be this year's hidden gems?

I'd like to come up with a list of hidden gems for the 2009-2010 SFUSD enrollment process. Hidden gems are less popular public schools (i.e., no wait pool or a very short wait pool list) with lots of potential. Maybe the school has a visionary principal but a PTA that raises only $2,000 a year, for example. Your odds of getting into a hidden gem are much higher. Please offer up suggestions in the comments section. I'll visit a few of the schools over the next few weeks and post a final list.

Also, I still need parents who are going through the 2009-2010 process to write up reviews. If you're interested, please email thesfkfiles@gmail.com.


How was back-to-school night?

Last week, my husband and I attended Alice's back-to-school night at Jose Ortega. This was the first time that I had stepped into the classroom since the open house over the summer. It was fun to see the paper lanterns the kids had made for the Chinese Moon Festival and the plants they were growing in cups. I sat at Alice's tiny desk and opened her pencil box. I met the parents of the other kids who sit at her table. It felt good to get a glimpse into her kindergarten life.

Alice's teacher went over the curriculum for the year, which was quite overwhelming. The students will be learning 70 Chinese characters; every Wednesday they receive a homework packet. They're supposed to spend 5 to 10 minutes on homework a night. This seems like a lot for a kindergartner but if you're going to learn Mandarin you have to start early. Alice's teacher is bright and focused but more importantly she's funny. She says that she tries to make the kids laugh (she certainly had all the adults giggling) so they'll have fun learning.

I know that many parents attended back-to-school night last week. Please share your experiences.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Future of The SF K Files

Nearly a year ago on October 2, 2007, I launched The SF K Files as a place to chronicle my search for a kindergarten for my daughter, Alice, in San Francisco. I started the blog as a way to organize my thoughts and emotions but it evolved into a gathering place for parents going through the frenzied process. I'm hoping to continue to manage the site and I hope that it can help those people who are touring schools this fall. If you have ideas for ways to help out this next group of parents, please post them in the comments. And if any parents touring schools this year are interested in writing for The SF K Files, please send me an email at thesfkfiles@gmail.com. Thanks! Best, Kate

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kindergarten transitions

I'm starting a thread on kindergarten transitions. How are your children dealing with the transition? Any tears? How are you working through the tears and meltdowns? Are your kids eating their lunches? Any tricks on getting kids out the door on time in the morning? Please share your stories and tips.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

10-Day Count

There should be some movement after the 10-day count. Please post if you receive some news.

Board of Education candidates

Who will you be voting for in November? I'm creating this thread for you to discuss the candidates for Board of Education.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A wonderful tribute to Miraloma

Leslie Kirk's recent Chronicle article recounting her experience as a Miraloma parent is a must read. Click here to find the story.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tips for tour guides

It's hard to believe that school tours are going to start in about a month. So many of us are just settling into our schools--and some of us are still waiting for the right one. But I'm sure there are some people who are preparing for tours, and a few new kindergarten parents who are ready to take on the responsibility. I thought it might be useful for everyone to talk about what was helpful and unhelpful on tours. Was it important to hear the principal talk? Did you like seeing the upper grades? Did it help when schools offered tours on more than one day? What days and times were best? Did you prefer tours led by parents or self-guided tours? Please offer up tips for up-and-coming tour guides.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Last-minute phone calls

I heard from some people who got phone calls today from the EPC offering them their wait pool choice. Feel free to share your tales...

Inside scoop on SFUSD's nutrition services

Dana Woldow is the co-chair of the SFUSD student nutrition and physical activity committee, and she has been a district parent for 18 years. She got in touch with me about starting a thread on SFUSD's nutrition services and school food. I immediately had lots of question and she responded with thoughtful answers. I'm posting our email conversation in the form of a Q&A below. Dana will be monitoring the comments section so feel free to ask more questions.

Q - What's your background?
A - I have been a parent in the SFUSD since 1991; I have three sons, the youngest of which will graduate this coming June; all three of my kids went through the SFUSD K-12. I first became involved with school food in 2002, when my second child was in middle school at Aptos MS; Aptos did a pilot program to get junk food out of the cafeteria and track the revenue. Based on the success of the Aptos pilot (more revenue generated selling healthy food than junk food), and in response to a school board resolution to get junk food out of all schools by the start of the 2003-04 school year, the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee was formed. I have been parent co-chair since autumn 2003. I do not work for the school district and all of the work I do for better school food is done as a volunteer. You can read more about the Aptos pilot, or the complete short history of school food in the SFUSD, at www.sfusdfood.org

Q - Why do we have to fill out that meal application form?
A - Student Nutrition Services (SNS), the district department responsible for providing school meals, is asking all families to fill out the meal application, even those who know they won’t qualify based on family income. SNS has annual expenses of about $16 million. Their main source of income is from federal and state reimbursements for breakfasts and lunches served to students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. Without a meal application on file, SNS cannot receive the full government reimbursement for those meals. Based on family size and income, as reported on the meal application, students are designated eligible for free or reduced price meals, or they are designated as being on “paid” status (meaning not reimbursable). The “paid” category includes not only students whose family income is too high to qualify for reimbursement, but also students whose families have not filled out a form at all. SNS receives just 25 cents from the government to offset the cost of “paid” lunches, while total reimbursement for a student qualified for free meals is $2.78. Students on “paid” status are expected to pay for their school meals. However, not all of them do so.

Please visit www.sfusdfood.org for more information on this, and a downloadable flyer your school can use to explain about the form to parents (available in English, Spanish, and Chinese.) Scroll down to the section called ‘Free and Reduced Price Meal Applications’.

Q - Can my child get a vegetarian lunch?
A - Yes. Different schools follow different procedures for ordering the vegetarian lunch, but in all cases, the lunch MUST be ordered in advance; it causes major headaches if students are allowed to take a vegetarian meal which they did not preorder (because the caf workers only order enough of them to cover the preorders.) If a child is allowed to select, for example, the cheese pizza at the last minute, it means that some other student coming through the line later, who did preorder the cheese pizza, will not be able to have it because the other child took it. At some schools, parents place preorders with the school secretary, but at all schools, the order can be placed directly with the cafeteria worker. Vegetarian lunches must be preordered no later than lunchtime of the day BEFORE the meal is wanted – so, order by lunchtime Monday to get the meal on Tuesday – because the cafeteria workers call in their orders for the following day right after the meal period is over. The meal can be, but does not have to be, prepaid; it is also fine if the student simply brings his money and pays for the meal on the day it is served. Some parents have a standing order for the vegetarian meal; if the caf worker is doing his/her job properly, there will always be enough meals for those students who have preordered them. The problem comes in when sometimes a caf worker allows kids who have NOT preordered the vegetarian meal to choose it at the last minute; that often results in other kids, who DID preorder, finding there is no meal for them. The best way to ensure that your child gets the vegetarian meal is to place your preorder directly with the cafeteria worker. If you preorder through a third party (like the school secretary, or whatever) you are running the risk that the message may not be delivered to the caf worker in time (that is, before the end of lunch the day before.)

Q - Where can I find a monthly cafeteria menu?
A - Most elementary schools send the monthly menu home at or just before the start of the month. You can find it online at http://portal.sfusd.edu/template/default.cfm?page=nutrition

Q - My child has food allergies or special medical needs - how can I get him a meal he can safely eat?
A – Contact the Principal at your school, who has a form to be filled out for students qualified for free and reduced price meals who also have special dietary needs. A note from your child’s medical authority (doctor, doctor’s assistant, or nurse practitioner) is also required.

Q - Can I send cupcakes and candy to school for my child's birthday?
A – Yes on cupcakes, no on candy. Cake or cupcakes may be served for birthday celebrations but fruit or vegetable muffins (banana, apple, zucchini, carrot, etc.) are recommended alternatives to cake. Candy, soda and chips should not be sent to school. Families are encouraged to feature primarily fresh fruits and vegetables for any classroom celebrations involving food during the school day. Other snacks can be chosen from the guide available at
or from the list available at
Acceptable beverages include water, milk, and 100% fruit juice (please see http://www.sfusdfood.org/pdfs/beverage.pdf for more suggestions).
Teachers are strongly urged to limit birthday parties to one per month for all students born in that month, with one cake for all to share.

Q - Why can't we have better food in the cafeterias? Are there any plans to introduce organic fruits and vegetables and milk?
A – The short answer is, lack of money. The federal reimbursement for a lunch served to a child qualified to receive free meals at most SF schools is $2.59; the state adds .19, for a total of $2.78. This must pay not only for the food, but also for labor and benefits, and all overhead costs, including delivery, utilities, pest control, garbage collection, etc. After all non food costs are covered, about $1 is left for food, and the meal must include 8 oz milk, 2 oz protein (usually meat), 3/8 cup vegetable, 3/8 cup fruit, and a serving of grain – all for $1. Organic products are vastly more expensive and are not affordable in most cases. For more information on this, please visit www.sfusdfood.org and scroll down to the section called “Want to help?” and click on the link “Why can’t we have better food in our schools?”

Q - Where does the food come from?
A - The meals served in all elementary schools, middle schools and high schools come from Preferred Meal Systems. This company specializes in providing nutritious frozen entrees, which are then completed by the addition of fresh breads, local fresh produce, and fresh milk. The hamburger and hot dog buns are fresh 100% whole wheat and come from Athens Baking Company in Fresno (CA); other whole grain breads served with the school meals come from Alpha Baking Co. in Chicago. Fresh produce comes from JC Produce in Sacramento (CA). The milk is from Berkeley Farms in Hayward (CA) and contains no bovine growth hormone (rBST.). The Preferred meals are delivered daily and heated to food safe temperatures for meal service at the schools. Other assorted food products necessary for the production of all a la carte sales items come from Sysco. The bread is Hi-Vibe Bread, carried only by Sysco; it is whole grain, comes frozen, and is baked fresh as needed at the cooking schools.

Q - Why aren't they scratch cooking in our cafeteria?
A. - Twenty years ago, there was scratch cooking done in nearly every school. Over time, the increasing costs of labor and equipment led to the closure of more and more of the kitchen areas of school cafeterias, and a reliance on food which could be prepared at one site and then shipped to another site, where it is reheated and served. Elementary schools have not done on-site cooking since 1988. Most elementary schools no longer even have a kitchen area, those rooms having long ago been taken over for other school needs, including class size reduction. The idea of returning to scratch cooking is very appealing to some parents, but it is not feasible. Even in the few schools which still retain a kitchen space, there is no budget for renovation or the purchase of new equipment. While parents sometimes think that volunteer efforts, combined with creative grant writing, might produce the ability to renovate a school kitchen, they fail to consider the added cost of staffing a cooking kitchen, estimated to be well over $100,000 per year for even the smallest schools, at current salary levels. Even with 100% of students eating the school meals, there would not be enough revenue generated to cover the cost of the food and the higher labor cost.

Q - Why is chocolate milk offered?
A - Both white and chocolate are offered; there are many kids students who will drink only chocolate, and Principals have observed that when only white is offered, the kids won't even take it, let alone drink it. Often, Principals complain when chocolate is not available, because they feel it is more important to get the milk into these kids than to worry about the relatively small amount of sugar in the milk.

Regarding the sugar, the SFUSD wellness policy sets 27 grams of sugar per 8 oz as the maximum allowable in flavored milk; the Berkeley Farms milk has 26 g. This is total grams of sugar, and includes the 15 g which occur naturally in an 8 oz serving of lowfat milk; in other words, of those 26 g, 11 are "added sugar" and 15 occur naturally and would be present in white milk. That 26 g is the same amount of sugar as in 8 oz of soda, but that doesn't mean that drinking 8 oz of chocolate milk is the same as drinking 8 oz of soda. The soda contains no nutrients except the calories from the sweetener. By contrast, an 8 oz serving of milk contains 30% of the recommended daily intake of calcium; 25% of vitamin D, 16% of protein, 11% of potassium, 10% of vitamin A, 18% of vitamin B12, 24% of riboflavin, 10% of niacin, and 23% of phosphorus – a lot of nutrition in exchange for 11 extra grams of sugar (which is less than one tablespoon.)

In a perfect world, every child would just drink the white milk and be happy with it, but some of the students come from homes where the main beverage served daily is soda, or "fruit punch" or Kool Aid. They are not used to white milk and won't drink it, period. Their families cannot afford to pay the increasingly high cost for a gallon of milk at home. In the absence of chocolate milk at school, these students get no milk in their diets at all.