Wednesday, October 8, 2008

St. Monica

Reviewed by Thanh

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: a very well rounded approach to school – core curriculum of the three Rs and equal emphasis on extracurricular activities (sports via CYO, student council, yearbook, community service, etc); an active (and I mean active) parent community, and a very traditional school setting and culture (think Leave It to Beaver), engaged teachers who seem devoted to their craft, a foundation of Catholicism in the sense of a respect for God and appreciation for spirituality, a structured and clearly well-run administration, and a real sense of community between the different grades.

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: by appointment
Location: 5920 Geary Blvd, Richmond district
Grades: K-8
Start time: 8:00 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 16 students (by my count – but I am told that average class size is 25)
Average class size lower school, K–8: 20-25, one class per grade
Total student body: 225 students
Tuition: (based on one child)
$5,320 for Catholic in Parish
$5,570 for Catholic out of Parish
$6,010 for Non-Catholic
Financial aid: Financial Aid assistance is awarded on the basis of need and funded through the BASIC Fund for low-income families.
Before- and after-school program: Extend Care program $2,394/year, drop-in fees $6.00/hour. School-run with multiple activities, including dance, music, and physical activities. There are also numerous additional enrichment programs for additional cost. In addition, starting in 3rd grade (I think) there is a variety of sports teams offered and school extracurricular activities (at no cost).
Language: There is a Mandarin Chinese class offered after school for additional cost. I did not note if additional language class offered starting in middle school.
Highlights: There is a wide range of extracurricular activities after school including Mandarin language, Science Adventure Club, guitar and piano lessons, dance, etc. for additional cost. In addition, mostly for older children, the school offers a host of school-sponsored activities including student council, media club, yearbook, newspaper, peer tutoring etc. Also there is a range of sports options starting in 3rd grade soccer (I think), basketball and baseball (co-ed) for boys and soccer, volleyball and baseball (co-ed) for girls. All at no cost.

In addition, because of the schools Catholic foundation, community service is also integrated beginning in 8th grade with visits to St. Anthony’s kitchen, volunteering in the Parish, etc.

Thanh’s impressions
St. Monica is a very traditional school in the very best sense but will never be mistaken for alternative school. My takeaway is that their mission is to develop the whole child – academically and developmentally. As such, there seems to be equal emphasis on core academics and extracurricular activities. Academically the school wants to ensure that their middle schools students are prepared for high school. We’re told that most students seem to enroll in St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Archbishop Riordan, Mercy and Lowell – and from the parents who led the tour, that seemed to bear out. As you can see from the highlights, there is what seems like a few hundred ways to get involved in the school via extracurricular activities.

Our tour started in the Library (with a dedicated librarian) and two current St. Monica parents met us. The Principal, Mr. Sweeters, who has been there 3 years, led the intro session. We met Mr. Mullen who is the 8th grade science teacher and two 8th grade students who were part of the Student Council. Mr. Mullen was clearly excited about his craft, he leads a 7th vs. 8th grade science challenge every year, and is proud of the fact that St. Monica kids are ready for a college preparatory high school when they leave. Example cited: you take Algebra in 8th grade and when you enter 9th grade, you are ready to Algebra II or Honors Algebra. One statement he made stuck out for me. St. Monica offers a range of tutoring – both by peers and by teachers – outside of class. The philosophy is that instead of lowering academic standards and expectations, they want to build a “scaffolding” of support with regard to academics, should you’re child need it.

The curriculum is based on California standards, in addition to adherence to curriculum guidance from the Catholic Archdiocese (I think). K-6 is homeroom style, with one teacher teaching all subjects, and augmentation from specialty teachers for art, music, computers. Starting in 7th grade, you start having multiple teachers across different subjects, so a history teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher, and english teacher, etc. Homework starts in kindergarten, and is about 15 minutes, for both K and 1st grade. Then each subsequent year adds an additional 15 minutes – so if you’re doing your math, it ends up being about 1.5 to 2 hours by 8th grade. I am told that the K homework might be something like read your child a book and have him or her tell you about what happened. I don’t know the extent and how it works in practice, but apparently the teachers (who are mostly long-term), are required to take additional professional development courses.

Tour and Day in the Life
We then moved on to look at the kindergarten class. It was incredibly cheerful room with all sorts of kid drawings and activities on the wall. There were 3 computers in the class. They had just finished english and were involved in free form play – most of the girls were playing dress-up in a great dress up corner and playhouse, and most of the boys were building giant forts with wooden blocks. From what I could see of the english workbooks on their desk, it looked like what they had been doing was coloring with crayons all pictures of things that started with D, so coloring in a dog and not coloring in phone. I have to say I liked what I saw of both things in that there was both structured learning and unstructured activity. Unfortunately, did not meet the K primary teacher because she was out sick. Met the assistant teacher and a parent who was helping out. Apparently parental help is welcome, and up to the teachers to determine the level.

We saw a 1st grade PE class in a nice little gym, led by their PE teacher who seemed enthused and liked the kids. All the kids were lined up and learning how to kick a soccer ball with the inside of their foot and passing it back and forth to each other. The K-3 play yard did not have a playground structure – apparently the teachers bring out balls, hula-hoops, equipment, etc. to play with. There are two daily recesses, each 30 minutes. And an “Activity Time”, for 30 minutes – activity time might include yoga, PE, etc. depending on the day. The school day at St. Monica is long, 8:00am to 2:50pm, so there is a 30-minute Rest Time after lunch for Kindergarteners, where you can either do quiet activities or even nap. We saw a 2nd grade class in the computer lab (with new iMacs) doing games that helped them with math and keyboarding, led by a computer teacher, with the second-grade teacher present and lending support. We saw the middle school science class and observed a 4th grade class – I can’t remember the subject – and the only thing from my notes that is interesting at all, is the fact that there was same level of cheerfulness – with walls plastered with student work.

Student Observation and Diversity
St. Monica is a mostly Asian student body – 40% are Chinese, 24% are Caucasian, and 22% are bi-racial (mostly Asian/Caucasian), 14% other. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember seeing any African-Americans. My observations of the kids are that these are real kids – not worldly nor overly coddled, just happy, well-adjusted children. The two 8th graders we met were confident, bright, articulate boys who seemed respectful to each other and respectful to their teachers. Just a nice note: the school has a K and 8th grade “buddy” program, which work on projects together once a week, and it was delightful to hear how much those boys liked working with their K buddies. That was reinforced by the K teacher who remarked on how much the Ks adored their 8th grade buddies.

Parental Involvement
You are expected to provide 25 hours of service per family/year. You are also expected to participated in Fall Fundraiser by selling $300 worth of products (you’re able to buy our $200 yourself), participate in Spring Fundraiser by purchasing $100 with items in something (auction?), and $250 in Maintenance Fund, an emergency fund to cover capital improvements. In addition to that, it sounds like, just as there seem to be a lot of extracurricular activities for your kids, there are many ways you can jump into and help as a parent – parent club, room parent group, parent volunteer on business side (marketing and development). The parents we met were long-term parents who were relaxed, clearly very involved in the school and in their kids, and really proud of their children.

Personal Note
So I have to address the Catholicism, a bit, I think. St. Monica is Catholic school – make no mistake about it - which means in Kindergarten, you have 20 minutes of religion class, school assembly every morning starts with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and there is once-a-month student Mass. Catholic students will be prepared to have First Communion and Confirmation. There are students who are non-Catholic (as a matter of fact, my notes tell me that 50% of students are non-Catholic, could that be right?), and they seemed genuinely open to accepting students who are non-Catholic. Personal note, I am Catholic (and handful of Mass/year attendee who was raised by a Buddhist father, who promised my mother when she died that he would raise me Catholic), my husband is not, and our son is not baptized. For some folks, Catholicism, however offered, is not going to be suitable. For others, it might be a draw. For our family, here is how we look at it: the tenets of religion (any religion) are good – do right by yourself, do right by others, do good in the community and honor some higher being – whether that’s God with a capital G, whether that is Allah, whether that’s a spiritual being you find in the nature, etc. The religion question in our family is an evolving one, but currently we’re thinking that our son’s path can take on many forms, Catholicism, Buddhism, Muslim, spiritual awareness, etc. And as he grows up, and as we grow up (!), we’re open to wherever that may take him and us. So for our little family, an introduction to Catholicism via school is fine and that’s why we’re looking at them. But I appreciate the fact that for many of our friends, and I’m sure others, it wouldn’t be appropriate.


  1. Thank you for your review - I appreciate your take on the Catholic/religious instruction.

  2. I just logged on to amend the write-up before Kate posted, but see it's up! So, I'll do my addition via comments. One thought I didn't write in the original post, which for some reason has been bugging me, is the fact that we had a serious discussion in our house before even signing up for Catholic school tours. And it basically revolved around the fact that we should not even look at Catholic schools if we didn't feel like we could be respectful of the fact that there is religious instruction.

    That wouldn't be fair to the school, and it wouldn't be fair to our son if he were to enroll. Regardless of where we ultimately end up in kindergarten, it was really to great to have such a serious dialogue on religion, prompted by looking for schools.

    And that's pretty cool, actually, because it really became a great family discussion. While the logistics of this process has been hectic, I do like where it's taken us during the process.

  3. It would be interesting to hear from some nonreligious parents who send their kids to catholic school. Anyone out there who can share?

  4. Wow, that would be great if you found the right Catholic school! We are about to embark on the high school thing (coming from private school) and will be looking at Catholic high schools. We are so not Catholic, but they seem to have good sports programs and the price is right. We're hopping the spirituality aspect is San Francisco-ized.

  5. Does anyone know if the curriculum is the same across all the Catholic schools? So that St. Monica’s is the same as NDVs which is the same as Convent and Stuart Hall? It sounds like from the review that the curriculum is set by the catholic school board or Archdioceses. If so what variation is there within the schools on how the curriculum is presented?

  6. Thanks for the review. This sounds like a lovely school that I hadn't previously considered.

  7. Is there a difference between a school like Convent or Stuart Hall and a parochial school like St. Monica or St. Brendan's? I thought Convent, etc was similar to a school like Brandeis in that it's a "religious" school, but not affiliated with or run by an actual religious institution (like a parish or a synagogue). Just wondering...

  8. I found this website on the catholic schools, and it looks like Convent and Stuart Hall fall under the guidance and regulation of the archidioseses So maybe the curriculum is the same, but they just dont have specific church/parish with which they are affiliated?

  9. Convent is run by the Society of the Sacred Heart, an order of nuns founded in France, more or less a female counterpart to the Jesuits. It is part of a world-wide network of Sacred Heart schools. The school is involved in the Catholic community in the City and appears on the archdiocese's list of San Francisco Catholic schools, but the archdiocese does not, to my knowledge, have any say in the curriculum or any administrative authority over the school. It's hard to tell how much authority the archdiocese has over other Catholic schools in SF, but when I was growing up, the high school run by the archdiocese of Seattle that I attended (Blanchet) cost about 3/4 less than the Convent sister school I also attended (Forest Ridge). In SF, to compare, tuition at Mercy and Archbishop Riordan is around $12K but tuition at Convent HS and Stuart Hall HS is almost $30K. Similarly, tuition at Convent and Stuart Hall's elementary schools is about three times as high as at parochial schools. Part of the cost difference is no doubt bells and whistles (ever been to Convent?--the Flood Mansion is like a high-budget period movie set and they just built an impressive science, art and performing art building) but also I believe that most parochial elementary schools (associated with individual parishes) and archdiocesan high schools get some financial support from the archdiocese while Convent and Stuart Hall get all their money from tuition and fundraising. In addition, I believe that Convent and Stuart Hall have far smaller classes than their parochial ES and archdiocesan HS counterparts but could not confirm for sure on the respective web sites. I do know the parochial kindergarten we visited (NDV) had 30 kids and Convent HS classes typically had fewer than 15 students (slightly more in AP US History, which it seemed the entire junior class took).

  10. I have NEVER seen a white kid near this school in the 12 years i've lived in the neighborhood.

  11. OK, I'll share one of my patented ire-provoking opinions. This is just my view about my choices for my own kids.

    The purpose of Catholic schools is to teach students to live lives as good Catholics. That's why they exist. I don't think that's a controversial view -- would anyone disagree with that?

    So to me, as a non-Catholic who would not welcome my kids' becoming Catholic, the notion of sending them to a school whose primary purpose is to teach them to be good Catholics makes no sense. It baffles me that so many non-Catholics are fine with that. To me it would be like sending them to Republican school, in the sense that I also would not welcome my kids' becoming Republicans. I mean, I'd tolerate it in either case -- nobody would be disowned -- but I certainly wouldn't encourage it.

    OK, done with that little vent.

  12. Let's see... I think Catholic schools' primary purpose is to... give children a good education.

  13. True, educating committed Catholics is part of the mission statement of Catholic schools. However, in practice, in my experience, it's optional. I, my brother, and my daughter have spent many years in different kinds of Catholic schools. Mass and theology class come with the territory. However, the degree of Catholic indoctrination varies significantly from school to school and community to community. Convent had very little of it. Our daughter chose that high school school in spite of being a non-religious person. She never complained that she felt out of place or scorned for being a non-religious person, and she did not acquire any religious beliefs. She did acquire more knowledge of world religions, including Catholicism, than she would have been likely to acquire at a public or secular private school. In contrast, I found the left-leaning liberation theology at my Catholic high school a welcome challenge to my parents' country-club Republicanism. At NDV (and I gather at all other parochial schools), participation in first communion and confirmation classes is offered but not required. Most Catholic schools that I know of have a large percentage, some a majority, of non-Catholic families. We know a few people who chose Catholic school more for religious than academic reasons. However, most of the Catholic school families I have known chose Catholic school because of the actual or perceived quality of the education and they figure the religious aspect won't hurt their children. I am not Jewish but I would send my child to a Jewish school (assuming I had the money) if I thought the curriculum would provide a well-rounded high quality education and be the best fit among my available choices. If you think that exposure to religious ideas (or lack thereof) in your child's school will hurt your child, act accordingly. But I would take any the mission statement of any entity, including a public or private school, with a large quantity of salt. John Muir's mission statement has plenty of lofty rhetoric about quality education for all that is not borne out in statistical reality.

  14. My point was more a matter of personal principle. I know lots of non-Catholic kids who have gone to Catholic schools, and I don't know any who have converted, so it's not that I see the "danger." It's just that I wouldn't send my kids to a school whose philosophy was so completely at odds with mine -- that would include ANY religious school (we are Jewish but not religious -- or rather anti-religious).

    I might face a quandary about Catholic colleges, which don't seem like the same thing as K-12 schools -- but my son refuses to consider any.

    Marlowe's mom, I'm in a chorus that's rehearsing every Monday night at Adda Clevenger. I guess Mrs. Harrison is gone by the time I park my car with the "Public Education: Democracy in Action" and PPS stickers in the playground... she might have me towed.

    Seriously, I was chatting with another chorus member about the school (wacko or wonderful?), and she was describing a family she knows there who sounded possibly like you. I didn't pursue it to find out -- kind of hard to explain.

  15. Well, that seems like a slightly difference nuance. Originally you said you were not Catholic and would not welcome your kids becoming Catholic. You wondered why other non-Catholics were fine with sending their kids to school whose "primary mission" was to educate good Catholics. We could factually dispute the "primary mission" assertion, but that would be a tangent. To address the question asked, I'm sure the many Jewish, non-Catholic Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist families I've run into in Catholic schools would not be too thrilled if their children became Catholic either. My own mother was an atheist who sent us to Catholic school because she was appalled at the quality and quantity of work we got in public school.

    If people don't want their children to become Catholic but send their kids to Catholic school anyway, they must feel that the overall quality of the education outweighs any concern about the "educating Catholics" mission of the school. Presumably they are not so vehemently anti-Catholic or anti-religion that they don't want their children in that environment at all.

    That's a different thing from being strongly opposed to all religion. I would never consider sending my child to a military school regardless of the rest of the curriculum because children are impressionable and I WOULD be afraid of what military school culture might inculcate in him. It sounds like you feel the same way about religious school and that's fine. But it's not the same thing to say, "I'm not thrilled about A, but B through Z outweigh my concerns about A" (presumably the assessment of most non-Catholics with kids in Catholic school and the answer to your question about why they would do that) versus "I cannot live with A no matter how good Z through Z might be" (presumably your assessment of religious schools).

  16. Caroline,
    I'm confused by your post. You initially say that this is just your view with regard to your own kids. I get and respect that.

    Then you go on to say that you are baffled by non-catholics that choose catholic school. In fact, you close your post admitting that it's a vent. I'm also a little uncomfortable with your admission of being "anti-religious." Perhaps I am reading too much into your post, but it came off as a slam to those who do choose to practice a religion. Again, that has nothing to do with your own choices for your family. Speaking as a catholic, I am certainly not anti-atheism. I respect and value that other people don't have the same beliefs as myself. (And for the record, I don't believe anyone is going to burn in hell because they don't believe in god.:))

    I'm just curious why it seems to bother you that families might make a choice to send their child to a religious school, if they feel it works for them.

    Please take this as food for thought. I don't mean to attack you. It's just that sometimes I feel from reading your posts, you're a little intolerant of those who make different choices than you do.

  17. I just discovered this blog and when I saw the post "St. Monica" and read it, I just had to comment...I went to St. Monica's 40 years ago! I am now a mom of twin boys in search of a kindergarten; that's how I found this blog.

    Just want to say it is nice to read that St. Monica's is still viewed as a good school. I have fond memories and still keep in touch with friends from my elementary school years.

  18. ^^Thanks!!


  19. Does anyone know which of the Catholic Schools in the City are the "feeder" schools for SI - Are most of them in the sunset or richmond i.e. St Brendan's, St Gabriel's or St Monica's. Where do the kids at St James, St. Paul, St John's and St. Phillip's end up??