Reviewed by Wendy
You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: a small public school with a nurturing, friendly environment; small class sizes and engaging, responsive teachers; a good special education program; an active and enthusiastic PTA that participates in decision-making, fundraising and volunteering in the school; a wonderfully diverse student body; exposure to some Spanish instruction (but not an immersion or bilingual program); an after-school program until 6:00 p.m. (for a fee and with a waiting list); and an early 7:50 a.m. start time.
Web site: http://www.mckinleyschool.org/
School tours: Tours are Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:15 a.m. and can be scheduled by calling the school.
Location: 1025 14th St., at Castro
Start time: 7:50 a.m.
Dismissal time: 1:50 p.m.
Kindergarten size: 60 kids (3 classes of 20 students)
Buses: Two routes, one through the Mission and one through the Haight.
Playground: New, state of the art climbing structure, plants at the edges, large conifer trees shading one edge.
Library: A wonderful, open library in the center of the school, with a large collection of books. There is a librarian there 2 full days per week.
Before- and after-school program: Fee-based after-school care is available until 6:00 p.m. A private non-profit runs this program and there is a waiting list. There are kids on the waiting list even now.
Language: All children, even the kindergarteners, take 1/2 hour of Spanish 2 times per week. There is no immersion program.
Highlights: Throughout the tour, the children in class were very focused on their work, whether a collaborative project, an individual writing assignment, or a participatory lesson. All of the classes are small, all the way up through the 5th grade. Teachers engaged the children in a positive and skillful way. This school is beautifully diverse (26% white; 22% black; 29% Latino; and 8% Asian). The school takes advantage of the larger community by bringing in artists and musicians to teach the kids in their classrooms. The library is spacious and comfortable, and stocked with a large collection of books. The PTA provides a lot of added opportunities, such as a Spanish enrichment program, fun, community-building events at the school, and volunteering to help in the school.
School community: This is a small, intimate and beautifully diverse public school. Parents are very involved, and the PTA is really revved up. There is a real sense of community here among the parents, kids and administrators.
Facility: The building is 1970s architecture. The entryway leads you into the spacious, open, yet charming library at the center of the school. Large orange dome lights hang down from the high ceiling and illuminate the space. The library is cheerily decorated with papier-mâché totem poles, leaf awnings, and other artwork. It is the central core of the school. Throughout the school, three-dimensional clay panels and other kids’ art festoon the walls. In the classrooms, there’s a lot of wood paneling, also appropriately and colorfully decorated with children’s artwork, writing projects and the like.
Academics: The school does a good job of pursing excellence in academics. There is a Spanish enrichment program that provides every child, K-5, with at least a half-hour of Spanish instruction twice per week. Students in K-3 participate in weekly music and theater classes. Fourth and fifth graders participate in orchestra, chorus, drama and art. No Child Left Behind mandates that the vast majority of class time must be spent on reading and math skills, so the teachers work science instruction into math and art units. There are other enrichment activities as well, for example, each year the school has a U.N. Day, where each class transforms their classroom into a different country. The kids get passports, and use them to visit other “countries” to learn about the other countries.
Teaching: The teachers are highly competent, positive, energetic, fully engaged and had their classes well-focused on the tasks hand. They use a “differentiated” approach, which, along with the small class size, provides for added attention for both advanced children and children facing special challenges. The school appears to be working hard on professional development with the teachers so that they can competently address a wide variety of student abilities, and provide instruction in P.E. and science to the kids.
Three current parents at the school warmly greeted the touring parents as we entered the building, and they chatted with us about the SFUSD process and the school. The parent leading the tour first took us into the library. I’ve described it above, but it is truly a warm and inviting space. I envisioned the kids being able to listen to a story there, all cozy and warm on a foggy San Francisco day. The tour leader explained that every class comes to the library once per week and works on a grade-appropriate exercise. Demonstrating the point, there was a group of students working on a project at one side of the library. They were happily working on a project.
We briefly visited all three kindergartens and many other classes. In each, teachers and kids were focused on learning. Each kindergarten room was spacious and colorfully decorated with the kids’ artwork. One class was working on writing a sentence, and in another, the kids were engaged with the teacher about the letter W. The teacher said, “Yesterday was Tuesday, so today is…” The kids answered, “Wednesday!” The teacher said, “Yes, today is Wednesday! And Wednesday starts with…” One kid answered, “Wuh, wuh, wuh…” Another said, “Willy Worm!” The teacher said, “Okay, so I am going to make a Willy Worm to start the word,” and he wrote a “W” on the easel. The kids were totally engaged and interested.
After seeing the kindergartens, we went out to the “upper yard” of the playground. This is where the PTA raised the money and organized a building team to put in a brand new, state-of-the-art climbing structure. The four-year-old on the tour thought that it was just the cat’s meow, and told the principal so at the end of the tour. Under the structure, they have installed the springy stuff you find on so many San Francisco playgrounds. The rest of the yard is mostly blacktop. There were large, colorful murals on the walls of the school. There were large evergreen trees just on the other side of the fence from the climbing structure, as well as some gardening efforts (also PTA sponsored and organized) along the edges. I saw some raised beds off on one end, where there was some kind of squash plant and other plants growing.
We went back into the school and saw the first grade classes, which were participating in a group reading activity and a writing assignment. In one of the classes, a colorful Chinese dragon, which must have been a class project, dangled from the ceiling. In the second grade classroom, the teacher was reading a story with the kids in an oversized book. The kids answered questions about the story, and defined the vocabulary word “ancestor.” In the Spanish class, the kids were handily translating Spanish phrases into English. In the third grade class, a very dynamic teacher worked on spelling with her kids. Again, the kids were engaged and participating appropriately. In another third grade classroom, children were listening to a book on tape while each student followed along in his or her own book. The story had to do with Jewish culture and weddings. A fourth grade class was working collaboratively on a language project, and a fifth grade class was doing a descriptive writing project about an imagined vacation. The teacher encouraged them to write about what they would see, hear, smell and taste on their vacation.
The tour leader answered questions at several points during the tour, emphasizing the involved and active PTA throughout. The PTA helps plan the overall direction of the school at an annual community meeting. At this meeting, the school decided that it would sacrifice a dedicated arts studio and teacher in order to keep class sizes small. The school makes up for this by bringing in artists from the surrounding community to work with the kids in their classes. He said there is also a program that brings in a music teacher from outside. One of his kids is learning clarinet and the other, violin. The younger kids participate in chorus and percussion. In addition, there is a dance teacher who comes in to teach the kids, and to organize two performances per year in which the kids perform a song and either a dance or some kind of percussion display. In sum, there are a number of parent committees helping with just about every aspect of the school, from fundraising to building/facility issues to cultural activities.
He also answered some questions about the after-school program. An independent non-profit runs the program, and there is a significant waiting list for it. There are four groups in the program, divided according to grade level. There is one certified teacher per group and two aides per group. They do homework with the kids, and they also do fun projects, including claymation, art, clay and ceramics, drumming, dance, tree frogs hikes and other field trips.
At the end of the tour, the school’s new principal, Ms. Rosa Fong, spoke to the group. Her goals for the year are: 1) to maintain and increase the school’s test scores; 2) to improve emergency preparedness; and 3) to bring an IT/computer lab into McKinley. She has an impressive background, layered with a variety of experiences as a teacher and administrator in both public and private schools. She is also the mother of three teenagers. I got a good feeling from her, that she was happy to answer questions, friendly, accessible and genuinely interested in what parents want for their kids.