Friday, October 10, 2008

West Portal

Reviewed by Thanh

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: a tried and true Chinese immersion program that has been running for 24 years, great student and family community, great API scores (897), long-term kindergarten teachers who are still exciting in the classroom, a dynamic and committed principal, good fund raising, safe and attractive school setting, a late-ish start time (8:40am), and highly regarded before/after school program.

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: by appointment
Location: 5 Lenox Way
Grades: K-5
Start time: 8:40am
Kindergarten size: 20 students (5 classes: 3 GE, 2 Chinese Immersion)
Total student body: 553
Before- and after-school program: GLO
AM Program: 7am – 8:40am $120/month
PM Program: 2:40pm – 6pm $300/month
AM/PM Program $340/month
Language: Two-way Chinese Immersion Program (CIP) in Cantonese.
Instruction time: K : 80% Cantonese/20% English
2nd/3rd Grades: 70% Catonese/30% English
4th/5th Grades: 50% Catonese/50% English
Note: you will have to specifically apply to the Chinese Immersion Program. So for instance you could theoretically have West Portal down twice on your application, one as the General Ed program, the second time as the Chinese Immersion Program.

Highlights: This has clearly been an excellent-running school for many years. It just feels good to walk on campus, it’s homey (even for a pretty big student population), and it’s safe. The kids are relaxed, the teachers are relaxed – and you can tell it’s a tight-knit community. The classrooms are well run; everyone knows what they’re doing and where they should be focused. The Chinese Immersion Program is clearly well-established and seems to run like clockwork. It’s hard actually for me to think of highlights because it’s just clearly been a very good school for a long time, and you can only use so many superlatives before it starts sounding like treacle. From looking at the 875 requests for West Portal from the 2007-2008 school year, it would seem that every prospective parent touring the school felt the same way.

Thanh’s impressions
So I wanted to at least see one of the “popular” public schools myself so that I could have that as a basis of comparison while I looked at other schools. There clearly has to be very good reasons why so many families request Clarendon, Rooftop, West Portal et al, right? And what can I say? West Portal is what everyone says it is. It’s a great, well-run school, with good academics, great teachers and principal, and a caring, homey, safe environment.

The tour (note, be prepared for a crowded tour) was led by Will Lucy, the Principal for 6 years. He is clearly a dynamic person, and incredibly proud of his school. He will (hopefully) be having a son that will start K in 2009 as well. I think he mentioned that previously he had bee Asst. Principal at Northstar Academy in Redwood City. He began actually by touching on two topics that were clearly close to his heart. First was K readiness. Your information packet will have 4 pages regarding K readiness. He threw out some interesting points: 70% of K experience is social, 30% academic. So his point was, “Is your child ready to hit the ground running, right from the beginning?” He says when he and the K teachers sit down and assess the kids who are having difficulty, 9 out of 10 times, its kids whose birthdays are in Sept, Oct, Nov and Dec. His own son has a July birthday, and Will held him back a year because of his experience with knowing what it takes to have a good K year. He punctuated his K readiness point by ending with the point that there are kids now in 4th grade at WP who are still feeling the impact from the fact that they probably started K too early. The second point was while they are proud of their high API scores, they also spend time doing their own internal assessments to ensure that their curriculum is solid around developing the skills for critical thinking and ensuring that they have a solid foundation of project-based learning.

Tour and Day in the Life Observations
We saw three general ed Ks and 1 CIP K. Both GE classrooms were cheerful and covered from ceiling to floor with student work and colorful art. Two of the K teachers have been there 22 years and 3 are newbies who have only been there only 12 years.

In the first GE, we saw groups of 4 kids doing different activities: coloring, a listening game with headphones, working on a worksheet game to identify numbers by sight, and free form play in a play corner. There were three adults in the room: the primary teacher, an assistant and 1 teacher devoted to an Inclusion student. West Portal has an Inclusion program to support children with learning difficulties. The Inclusion students are integrated into the classroom and are assigned their own teacher and may even have additional specialists working with them at any given time. All the students were engaged and focused on their different activities, and the teacher walked around working with each group individually. We saw a CIP K in the middle of their art class sitting at tables of 4. The teacher was walking around and talking to each in Cantonese, there was a special Art teacher, and another Inclusion teacher working with her student 1:1.

The 3rd K class was a GE class sitting in a circle as one big group, with the teacher working on identifying numbers 1-33 by sight (based on the fact that they had been at school 33 days) and then moved on to identifying sentence structure and learning about the period that is at the end of every sentence. They also worked on spelling their own names by identifying letters by sight.

There are 4 play yards and structures. Only Ks are allowed on during staggered recess times. There is a library (which we didn’t see) but it’s opened every day with Ks visiting once a week. There is a librarian there 3 days/week, who is funded by the PTA.

We saw a music class for 2nd grade, with a dedicated music teacher and the 2nd grade teacher there to lend support.

There a multi-purpose room that serves as the lunchroom for Ks and 1st graders, who sit at tables by classroom, with a supervisor. Hot lunch and salad bar are available.

I don’t know the make-up but the school looked very well diverse with the whole spectrum of children represented.

General Ed: There is small group learning, which emphasizes whole language activities such as storytelling and listening, science, printing and phonics. There are whole group learning activities for phonics, journal writing, music and math. There is time carved out for free play and exploration (art, puzzles, free play, water table, etc.).

There additional programs for all , which include art and music. The music program includes a trip to the symphony for grades 1-5, music maker classes for all grades, and instrument lessons for grades 4 and 5. The arts program includes craft and art museum visits and includes a Youth Arts Festival. There is also a large spring musical every year which includes all grades.

Chinese Immersion Program: There is a separate curriculum for CIP students, which we didn’t go into detail on. There is an upcoming special night for prospective parents to talk to the principal and the two CIP teachers about the program on Wednesday, November 19 at 6:30pm.

It is a two-way immersion program (as opposed to Alice Fong Yu which is one-way immersion). Program Goals include:
* Develop proficient English language skills
* Develop bilingual and bi-literate skills in English and Chinese language
* Meet or exceed academic content standards and performance standards
* Develop knowledge and appreciation for Chinese and other cultures

Physical Ed is offered for all children and emphasized perceptual motor development for Ks (e.g., balance and agility). It meets 1/week for 30 minutes with PE teacher, who is a consultant. But while unclear for me, there are additional physical group activities in addition to dedicated PE, which results in children getting 200 minutes of physical time for every 10 days.

I asked about the homework policy but was only referred to a flyer which mainly said don’t let your kid watch TV. Maybe someone else can elaborate on homework? When does it start? How much?

BTW, Will said that most kids end up going to Hoover after West Portal.

Parental Involvement
Very involved parent community under a Parents Club (still 501c3). Myriad of fundraising activities including Halloween Carnival, spring auction, readathon, pumpkin patch, etc. I didn’t hear much about it but it’s clear that parent’s community is active and integrated into the school.


  1. *SIGH.* This is our neighborhood school, and we didn't get it last year. I see it every time we walk our child to the nearby park and fantasize about how great it would be to walk my child to such a wonderful school in the morning on my way to West Portal station. I had no idea the immersion program was so well established. That's great.

  2. If you choose the immersion program you give your child so much more of a challenge beyond the ordinary SFUSD curriculum. Also parental involvement in the immersion programs is much greater. It's a great little secret that the immersion kids are having a more rich experience than the general program. Also, just because its in your neighborhood doesn't make it your neighborhood school. When filling out the choices you can list West Portal General Program and West Portal CIP as separate choices if you like.

  3. Thanks. After having been through this painful process last year, I'm well aware of which school is my neighborhood school and how I can rank it and the immersion program.

  4. Isn't Cantonese going the way of the dinosaurs?

  5. My child is at West Portal. We have been active in the Parent's Club for several years. 9:22 comment that the CIP parents are more involved is simply not true. The GE program (as well as CIP) has a VERY strong and committed parents group. It is a lovely school with a great community. You can't go wrong with either program!

  6. 7:42: that's my understanding. That's why we ruled it out last year. Probably a mistake to rule it out, though, given the fact I've learned that it's so beneficial to learn a language -- any language -- at a young age. Not that my child would have been placed there, given how popular the program is. But it was probably wrong of me to not even consider it.

  7. What is the % of Caucasians in the lower grades? West Portal always seemed not diverse at all - that it was very Chinese-American compared to Clarendon, Sherman, Grattan, etc. Is West Portal becoming more diverse with a broader mix of kids?

  8. Oct 10, 7:44 pm: Where did you enroll your child? Have you considered applying to West Portal this year?

  9. Yes, Cantonese is going the way of the dinosaurs...

  10. **Oct 10, 7:44 pm: Where did you enroll your child? Have you considered applying to West Portal this year?**

    Yes, we have definitely considered it. We're not currently in a SFUSD school. My son has a July birthday, and going 0/7 turned out to be a blessing in disguise -- his teachers all thought he could use a year of TK, which is where he is now. It was definitely the right choice for him. We're not sure if we'll go for a K spot or try for 1st grade next year. I thought it was very interesting that the principal kept his July birthday son back -- very interesting insight in the review, thank you!

  11. what is the difference between two-way and one-way immersion?

  12. October 12, 2008 4:21 PM:

    My understanding (as gleaned from the tour) of the difference between one and two-way immersion is that two-way has a combination of native and non-native speakers as students. And they try to cultivate the classroom to be 1/3 native, 1/3 non-native, and 1/3 bilingual(?). In one-way classrooms, you are hearing the language only from your teacher. But in two-way classrooms, you hear the language from both the teacher and your peers.

    I am sure folks will correct me if I am wrong.

  13. That is correct, although the balance of two-way classrooms is aimed more at 50-50 than 33-33-33 due to the dearth of truly bilingual kids.

    Two-way immersion is a great way to promote language acquisition going both ways as peer-to-peer learning is such a great reinforcement for the kids. Two-way immersion also tends to create a natural mix of ethnicities and often incomes, and can be a great strategy for closing the achievement gap: Studies show that a true mix of about 50-50 tends to raise the achievement of high-poverty kids without diminishing at all the achievement of non-poverty kids--whereas large concentrations of high-poverty kids is not great for academic outcomes....therefore any strategy that draws middle and upper middle class families by choice into a mix with lower income kids, as often happens with two-way immersion, is great in those terms. So dual immersion is a win-win-win on a number of levels. Only problem is there are not enough slots for demand in our district, despite the huge expansion in the last decade.

    That's not to say one-way immersion is bad; although it may not be as strong as two-way in terms of peer reinforcement, kids do learn the language. Certainly it is better than nothing if there are not enough native speakers of the non-English language in the program to make it two-way. Alice Fong Yu, which has superlative academic achievement, is a great example of a one-way immersion school.

  14. Why has Alice Fong Yu chosen one-way immersion, while other Mandarin and Cantonese programs have not?

  15. 1:00 - I would love to contact you offline! I am so with you on this issue, it would be nice if the District would wake up and see the tree for the forest.

    The same issue in terms of demand exists for the Spanish programs, though maybe there may be more ESL kids on the Spanish side.

    4:51 - I believe AFY was started by either a teacher or former principal of WP. I presume the demand was such that it made sense to start a OW program.

    As you may be aware, Cantonese Bilingual programs exist for native Cantonese ESL kids. These are the very same kids needed to create a dual immersion program. As long as these programs exist, it makes perfect sense to create OW programs for the non native speakers (generally US born monolinguals with some heritage background or not).

    By the way, AFY gets NO, as in NO support from the District "Multilingual" Dept because they do not have ESL kids.
    How does anyone like that for a screwed up system. The kids born here (could be heritage speakers, "anglos" etc) are basically chopped liver when it comes to acquiring a 2nd language as far as this district is concerned.

    The MIP went two way, just to get support from the District. Of course, it is hard to recruit the native speakers for a variety of reasons. Until that is done, the program is basically OW -- and again, it shows the demand exists by the non-ESL kids. Lots of parents want their children to learn a 2nd language and they are not ESL!! But the District does not recognize this need. But well, too bad, so sad, as kids would say.The politics of this District eans nothing much will change. Curious to see Karling's position on this.