Thursday, October 9, 2008

McKinley Elementary

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.

The Facts
Web site:
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
Grades: K–5
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.

Wendy’s Impressions

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.

The tour:

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.


  1. Everyone I know who is at McKinley loves it. This used to be a hidden gem but now this school is hot, hot, hot. It's so exciting that so many schools have been reinvigorated.

  2. I've heard that this school might switch to Spanish immersion. Anyone know about that?

  3. I asked a similar question of the principal. I had heard that they may add a Spanish immersion program to their general program. She responded that it is just talk right now, and the talk about adding an immersion program has really just started. So, this is very unlikely at any time in the foreseeable future.


  4. Wendy, nice review.

    As a parent of older kids I just wanted to point out that all SFUSD kids have access to instrumental music instruction in the 4th and 5th grades. It is provided by SFUSD-certified music teachers. This is the program that launched both my kids into their instruments and taught them to read music, which later led to participation in band and jazz band at middle and high school levels, and fueled our choice to supplement with private music instruction starting in middle school.

    My tiny point here is that ALL 4-5 graders have access to instrumental instruction, not just McKinley, so this is probably not something to highlight as special or to ask about on any given tour.

    HOWEVER, McKinley's other arts programs may not be district-mandated (I presume they come from the PTA or from teacher initiative, combined with Prop H funds) and are part of what makes McKinley special, along with the other stuff you mentioned like the library and playground, and most of all the tight-knit and diverse community.

    Bottom line, McKinley rocks, and it has been so great to see it come up as a strong community. I know we older folks sound like broken records, but I really do remember when no one even looked at it.

  5. Why are posting anonymously now, Caroline?

  6. Thank you, 12:10. Most first-time touring parents have no idea which programs are standardized across the entire district and which are unique to a particular school. I'd love to see a list of other offerings that are available everywhere. It would help me focus on what actually makes a particular school special.

  7. As a (new) McKinley parent - that was a completely spot-on review! Still loving it, 7 weeks in ;)

  8. @12:10 here again: @1:50, I am not Caroline. Lots of us have kids playing instruments in the schools. I recommend checking out the elementary band and orchestra concerts in the spring, and even more so, the middle and high school music programs.

    to @2:43: Thanks. I do think it is helpful for prospective parents to learn what is standard at all the schools precisely to be able to know what stands out at the individual ones.

  9. McKinley is also hosting an Open House
    Saturday, November 15th 10am-12pm.
    This is a great opportunity to talk with parents and teachers and see the school.

  10. Where is Caroline, anyway? I miss her. I hope she hasn't left us. Caroline...Caroline...Where are you?

  11. McKinley School is not unique in providing music to 4/5 grades. It is district wide program.

    McKinley does makes a serious effort to enrich the cultural life of the students through Spanish enrichment classes, dance, chorus, etc.

    My girls have thrived at McKinley.

    McKinley Dad

  12. Caroline is posting here anonymously as well as on other threads. I'm not sure why.

  13. Wow, the people who don't like Caroline are getting kind of paranoid. (And I'm not Caroline, I swear!)

  14. It's not paranoia, it's just very very obvious.

  15. WTF, 9:10/4:25?

    I haven't been paying close attention to the school review threads, just skimming them occasionally. Last year when this blog started it felt like all these parents came in truly without information, and most people on this blog were pre-K parents at first, so I felt I had a lot to share. Now it seems like so many others have the information.

    As people noted, 12:10's experience with the music program's effect on our kids' lives sounds just like mine. In fact we were just discussing who my son's first trumpet teacher was -- Ms. McMurray, the roving teacher who was at Lakeshore one day a week (offering violin, flute, trumpet and clarinet).

  16. Actually, in the same spirit as the comment about the McKinley music program -- it exists in every SFUSD school -- the same is true with this description, with a couple of corrections:

    <<< 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. >>>

    Community meetings (actually two) are required to plan the overall direction of the school, its "Site Plan," at every public school in the state. They're run by the School Site Council (SSC), a body at each school (description from

    "The school site council is a group of teachers, parents, classified employees, and students (at the high school level) that works with the principal to develop, review and evaluate school improvement programs and school budgets. The members of the site council are generally elected by their peers. For example, parents elect the parent representatives and teachers elect teachers."

    In the description of the sad tradeoff at McKinley (class size vs. arts program), that would be an SSC decision, with community input from the community meetings.

    A note: As I've posted here before, parents leading tours of schools often inadvertently give misinformation, which is why we made an extensive FAQ to hand out at Lakeshore when I was tour coordinator there. A really common example is that parents often have no idea that a program or feature that exists at their schools exists at every SFUSD school (or in the case of these community meetings, every public school in California), so will inadvertently present it as a special feature of their school. I don't know how the reviewers -- until they become very seasonsd -- would even be able to determine which features are special at that school as opposed to every school, so maybe they just need a general disclaimer.

  17. pathological, really.

  18. Moggy, some parents (and the reviewers) might find this information useful in assessing schools. It just creates an unpleasant atmosphere when you hurl anonymous insults. What's the point?

  19. Does anyone (SFUSD, PPS, etc) have a list of current programs that are available at all schools? I haven't found one but would really like to know what's common to all the schools.

  20. Curriculum standards will be the same at all schools (albeit the immersion programs will have the additional component of the other language). The Catholic schools also tend to follow the California public curriculum standards, I believe. These are available online at the State Dept of Ed and are quite good--they were developed by practitioners in each field, e.g., theater standards by people in theater. The thing to try to understand at each school is whether the kids are learning the curriculum, and how it is being taught.

    As mentioned, instrumental music is available at all schools in the 4th-5th grade.

    For K-8 schools, PE will be offered daily in the 6-8 grades as it is at all middle schools in SFUSD.

    Anyone else?

  21. We loved McKinley but were disappointed by the Spanish class we saw. There were spelling mistakes on the wall on the computer-generated signs and graphics used to decorate the classroom. And the teacher spoke mostly in English to the students.

    The kids were coloring a worksheet for most of the time we observed. Then the teacher asked them to "count how many 'hamburguesas' in the picture."

    Would it have killed her to ask the question in Spanish before using English words to prompt the kids?

    I've taught French to preschool children and to adults, and I've managed to never use ENglish in the classroom except for the odd word here or there. This was, more accurately, a Spanglish class, since we did not hear a single sentence uttered in Spanish... just the odd word, here and there...

  22. Anonymous said...
    Can someone elaborate on what it means to be a Reading First school? I understand McKinley is one of them.

    Someone told me Reading First is a sound pedagogy for teaching reading, but that it is being pushed on kids who are too young and not ready for it. They said not to worry about it if you happen to have an early reader.

    Does that sound about right? Any educators care to elaborate?

  23. We really liked McKinley except we were unimpressed by the new principal. Anyone who is there now have anything to say about how she is being received by the parents, teachers, staff? Think she'll last?

  24. I have to agree with Hana's mom on being totally unimpressed with the new principal. Until I listened to her, I had only small issues I noticed and I was going to put McKinley down as a choice. Afterward, no way. I am deeply aware through past experience how much a leader can influence a school. She talked about her vision for the "whole child" as if she were parroting words she had heard elsewhere, then in the same breath talked about focusing on emergency preparedness and technology, items that have nothing to do with the whole child. But the coup de grace for me was when she talked about disciplining children and mentioned her "consequences" for children who are fighting with each other: picking up the trash in the school. Obviously this woman does not know the very important difference between natural consequences and punishment. I do not think the whole child would be supported here.

  25. I'm writing in response to the last two posts about the new principal, Rosa Fong. Our daughter is a K at McKinley and we love the school. We had similar reservations about Rosa when we came in but after 4 months those reservations are gone.

    Rosa is not a great public speaker. With only a few minutes to make an impression that is a big handicap. After you get to know her and can look beyond her presentation skills you'll find that she works extremely hard to build and support the school community and to make sure everyone's needs are met.

    I agree that a strong leader is essential and that Ms. Fong does not come off well at first. But I've grown to respect and appreciate her work. She is well liked by the parents that I know and, as far as I can tell, by teachers and staff. She is also a really really nice person.

    I hope that helps. Good luck everyone!

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. [Previous post deleted due to a typo!!]

    My children are 5th graders at McKinley and have been there since K. McKinley is an exceptionally strong school and continues to be so with Rosa Fong, our new principal. I would agree that Ms. Fong is not a strong public speaker, but I have been impressed with how well she advocates for the students at the school, and how well she engages and interacts with each student. She treats all students with respect and care and continues to have high expectations for all of the children at the school. The teaching staff is fantastic and seems to be working great with her. The parent community is thriving and more active then ever. Most importantly, the children are getting a strong, well-rounded education. My girls are totally prepared for middle school, both academically and socially and their fellow students are as well. I see the same development and growth happening with the younger students too.

  28. Regarding the principal at McKinley...No, she is not the greatest public speaker, and I understand how that can be off-putting. It is something that us, as families at McKinley, have worked through. A person can be a great organizer, advocate, and administrator, and still clam up during public speaking engagements. Principal Fong knows each child by name (and us parents), she is active, engaged, positive, and tireless. She has been in SFUSD for years as a teacher, principal, and parent of 3 -- so she can work the system and secure resources like a pro. McKinley is a fantastic, warm, enthusiastic, positive community. We are moving across town and we plan to continue to drive to McKinley rather than transfer because we are so happy there. Our daughter is learning and thriving, she loves her teacher and she can't wait for first grade -- a sign of ultimate success in education.

  29. I'm a mom of two McKinley kids, 2nd grade and K.
    We were an active family at the school in our first two years, before the former principal retired. I would like to speak to the strength of our current principal, Mrs. Rosa Fong. Rosa may not be, as others have noted, the "best" public speaker. Few in life are. However, she joined McKinley committed to fighting and advocating for McKinley within SFUSD from the moment she walked through the door last summer.

    I have been, and continue to be, blown away by her level of commitment to her "new" family. During the last 6 months Rosa has worked tirelessly in support of McKinley and its children. She is friendly, accepting, and loves our kids - each and every one; even the younger siblings that bounce around the school hallways each morning as classes are beginning.

    I would encourage each family choosing a school for their entering K to look at the school as a "whole". Trust your feelings about the environment, other families, energy and momentum on campus. Don't allow one piece, however glaring it might seem at the time, to undermine your personal barometer as a whole.

    I am pleased and proud to be a McKinley parent. And I can't wait to fill in my application for kid #3, entering fall 2011.

  30. I am a father of 1st grader at Mckinley and wanted to answer the posts regarding the new principal, Rosa Fong. I believe that there is more than meets the eye with Rosa. I can understand how she may not make a great impression in a short presentation. But I also understand, because of my own experience in choosing schools, how little information one can really glean from the tours. McKinley was not on our original list and I was quite frankly disappointed that we were placed there. However, within the first week I immediately recognized how good the school was. We ended up liking McKinley school so much that when our wait-listed school, Mira Loma ultimately had a spot for us, we declined.

    I guess my message would be to look deeper and talk more to the parents. It has been a great school so far and continues to get better with Rosa as principal.

  31. ^^Thanks!!


  32. Rosa Fong here...

    Due to a parent's suggestion, I have wanted to visit this site for quite some time but never had the time, until now...

    I want to thank Hana and Sophia's moms for their blogs. Otherwise, I would never had the opportunity to say, "THANK YOU" to parents Wendy, Lisa, Robin, Anonymous, Annie, and 1st grade dad for their very kind and supportive words and their ability (and understanding) to see that I am "human."

    As for public speaking, darn it, I will take the "bull by the horn" come this year and like my students/children, try and try again to do my best! :)

  33. Dear Principal Fong -

    One can only tell so much from a brief presentation but the parent responses here speak for themselves. Clearly you have a wonderful fan base at your school which speaks to your effectiveness.

    (We did put McKinley on our list though sadly we did not get placed there.) Congratulations on your first year and I wish you all the best in your second year.

    Hana's mom

  34. I just want to pop on here to give a shout out to the McKinley school community and Principal Fong.

    My son just switched to McKinley mid year (long story) and the transition could not have been smoother. Rosa Fong took the time to talk with me before we made the decision to move him, greeted him warmly on his first day and took the time to check in with me a few days later.

    The facility is bright and airy and his teacher is experienced and has excellent classroom management.

    In addition, the after school program of enrichment activities is the best I've seen with a variety of arts, sports, science and sports offered.

    Definitely come a check Mckinley out if you have the time, and perhaps we'll see one another when my twins start K there next year!

  35. We have three girls and one (our youngest) attends McKinley. It's true that parent involvement is good and motivated and they get a ton of needed work done around the school. The principal is also not the best public speaker - its true, but that is not so much a concern. The biggest problem? I'm enormously disappointed with their treatment of a lice epidemic at the school. EVERY child in the K class has gotten it. EVERY child. No exaggeration. And, many are on their third or fourth run of it. The school's stance has been that lice needs to be taken care of at home. My feeling is that the problem needs to be taken care of at home AND at school - especially when so many kids have it! When there is a lice outbreak at my older girls' school, the teacher stands at the doorway, checks each head, and those kids who have lice are sent home. That needs to start happening at McKinley and the school won't do it. We are vigilant about combing lice at my house, and we are on our second round of it.

    When looking for a school I suggest a few things: 1) ask what their sick, lice and pinworm policies are and talk to other parents about how they've experienced the policy; 2) check out some K class art projects - are they one-dimensional, connect-the-dot stuff? Or, are kids being given a piece of clay and just creating? And 3) GET THEE to a school performance during the year and check out how much headway the art and music departments are making at the school.

  36. We love McKinley and feel lucky to be there. Yet, it was our #5 choice when we went through enrollment. However, after a month at McKinley, when our #1 choice became available, we turned it down and decided to stay.

    I have been very very pleased with our decision.

    I think it's important for every parent going through the enrollment process to know that even if you *don't* get one of your top choices, you may be very happy with the school you *do* get. And you just won't know until you get there, meet the teachers, the other families and the students, and see what that school offers that makes it special and unique.

    I know the uncertainty is maddening, irritating, vexing and all those other things that make you want to pull your hair out!

    Yet, we have many good schools in the City, with wonderful, dedicated teachers.

    So, even if you don't get the school that you really really want, you may just get the one that is the best fit for your child and your family.

    Good luck!

  37. Great school, but no inclusion of children with disabilities.

  38. I am also a parent with a child at McKinley. I have found the principal there to be warm and inviting. She has an open door policy and really listens to parents and their concerns. She has been tireless in creating a great "After care immersion class for Spanish and Mandarin" which are both huge successes.

    I think Ms. Fong has been a wonderful addition to McKinley and I think that the rise in popularity has to do with her and all the wonderful families that have contributed in may ways to this lovely school.

  39. We moved our 2nd grade son to McKinley in December and could not be happier.

    The teachers and Principal are accessible and always find time to chat.

    Teachers and families have a voice in setting goals and priorities and the SSC makes all processes and decisions transparent.

    I am confident that this community and the strong PTA will rally to take the edge off the budget cuts and mobilize to fight state under funding.

    Just one of the wonderful SFUSD choices out there, McKinley has it's own tone and welcoming feeling, making us a proud SFUSD family.

    Congrats to those of you who will be joining us in Kindergarten next year (I also have two starting school in the fall).

    I look forward to meeting you next week at the Kindergarten open house!

  40. Come visit McKinley!

    I feel my three children (K & 3rd) are receiving a strong academic education that fosters their curiosity about the world around them and a love for learning.

    Our son in third grade has the benefit of team teaching. This means he has an opportunity to learn with three exemplary teachers who differentiate instruction by using the small groups model, and also gets to know all the kids on his grade level.

    Our Kindergarten aged twins are loving their first school experience. The veteran Kindergarten teaching team has created safe and nurturing classrooms in which routine provides an opportunity for the children to gain confidence and independence. There is ample recess, quiet time after lunch and unstructured periods in the day in which they can play with and explore materials.

    Just this year alone, my kids have been to the Botanical Garden, Academy of Science, The Maira Kalman exhibit at the Jewish Museum, The Aquarium by the Bay and the Mission Science Center.

    They are learning Spanish, signing in Chorus, dancing in Creative Movement class and integrating art into content learning(designing and making paper mache Victorian houses).

    Principal Rosa Fong has gone out of her way to make my children feel at home and, despite the scope of her demanding job, has always been quick to respond to an email or phone call.

    All these things combine to create a warm and engaged community with families playing an integral role in the school's direction through the SSC and PTA.

    Fundraising is a well oiled machine with two main PTA events pulling in most of the additional funding needed to support the programs above. With recent class size increases in the upper grades, the PTA mobilized and funded a third class size reduction teacher, which allows the teachers to continue to meet each individual's needs.

    Finally, it is clear at McKinley that issues such as maintaining diversity and tracking enrollment trends is essential to meeting the SFUSD mission to close the achievement gap.

    A McKinley motto is "ALL our children are all OUR children".
    Such things are important to us and exactly the kind of lesson we want our kids learning.

    So come visit us-tours are on Wednesday and Friday.