Sunday, November 30, 2008

Are SF private schools thriving in the downturn?

An article in The New York Times reports that private schools in Manhattan are thriving:

Wall Street is down, but the paddles were up, up, up at an auction at Cipriani this month that raised more than $500,000 for the Trevor Day School from parents and friends, off about 15 percent from last year’s record haul.

The day after the auction, Pam Clarke, Trevor’s head of school, sent out a letter reassuring parents that Trevor, a Manhattan private school with a relatively small endowment of $10.6 million, remained in “sound shape financially” because of careful spending and committed fund-raising. “We wanted to let people know that we’re concerned, we’re paying attention, and we’re careful with our resources and theirs,” Ms. Clarke said in an interview.

Dalton, Ethical Culture Fieldston, Packer Collegiate Institute and the Calhoun School have also sent out letters attesting to their financial health in recent weeks. At least three other private schools — Trinity, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory, and St. Ann’s — have issued similar letters, while other schools have relied on parent association meetings and word of mouth to get out the message that it is business as usual despite uncertain economic times.

“We’re not experiencing any signs of impact from the economic downturn,” said Steve Nelson, head of school at Calhoun, though he added, “That’s not to say that we won’t.”

Private schools across New York City say they are thriving this fall, with record numbers of applicants and no significant decline in donations. Yet almost daily, even brand-name schools are finding that they have to reassure jittery parents about shrinking endowments and dispel rumors that requests for financial aid are pouring in, and that economically squeezed families are pulling their children out and enrolling them in public schools.

Trinity’s interim head of school, Suellyn P. Scull, issued a letter taking issue with recent news reports that 45 families had given notice that they were leaving. Trinity, among the most competitive schools in the city, received 698 applications for the 60 kindergarten spots in this year’s class.

The school is not yet releasing admission numbers for next year’s class, but Ms. Scull wrote, “This year’s admissions season has been perhaps busier than usual, and to date we have had no reports of families planning to leave us.”

But the shrinking economy is taking a toll on investment returns at Trinity, whose endowment has fallen to $40 million from $50 million in July, and at other private schools, affecting what they can spend on programs and activities. “There’s no way of escaping it,” said Lawrence Buttenwieser, a former trustee at Dalton. “If it happens at Harvard, it will happen to everybody.”
So that's New York. Is this also the case in San Francisco?

Seattle parents fighting school closures

Please post your thoughts on the below in the comments section:

Dear Kate,
I came across your school blog as I was doing some research to help fight the proposed closure of my son's school in Seattle, and I wondered if you might know of any parents who could offer their thoughts on the GATE program in San Francisco. I'm the mom of a 7-year-old in Seattle who has been attending the public elementary that draws gifted kids from around the city. Now that school is slated to close, and I'm trying to gather as much information as possible about what parents think about the public gifted programs in their own cities. I'd be grateful for any information you might be able to send my way.
Cam Zarcone

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hot topic: Middle school GATE programs

An SF K Files visitor suggested the following topic:

"I just started touring middle schools and would love to get peoples thoughts and experienced based opinions on: GATE tracked classes (where GATE kids are separated from general ed kids, like at Aptos) vs. Integrated classes (where GATE kids are in the same class as everyone else but get differentiated curriculum, like at James Lick).
What are the pros and cons? Do separate classes result in deeper learning? How does each model potentially impact the student? etc?"

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What are you thankful for?

Last Friday, my daughter's elementary school, Joe Ortega, hosted a Thanksgiving lunch. Three classes--Chinese bilingual kindergarten, Mandarin immersion kindergarten, and Mandarin immersion first grade--participated. Parents roasted turkeys, tossed salads, and baked pumpkin pies. They made cornbread and coconut Jello casseroles, and green bean stir-fries. They steamed broccoli and corn on the cob. All of this food covered a long cafeteria table. It was the most colorful and eclectic Thanksgiving spread I have ever seen.

Wearing homemade Pilgrim hats, the kids filed into the cafeteria and parents helped them fill their plates. And then the parents served themselves and everyone sat down for a grand meal. As I sat there eating this wonderful meal with my daughter and all of her friends, I asked Alice, "What does Thanksgiving mean? What's it all about?"

"It's about sharing and friends," she said.

My daughter's school is a special place and it's at times like this that I realize how lucky our family is to be a part of a warm, welcoming, diverse community. When I'm sitting at the Thanksgiving table this Thursday with our extended family and we go around sharing what we're most thankful for, I'll definitely be telling everyone about our other family at Jose Ortega Elementary School in San Francisco.

What are you most thankful for this holiday season?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SF K Files Top 20 Hidden Gems

Last year, when I was searching for a kindergarten, I focused on the most popular schools, where the test scores were high and the PTAs were raising lots of money. I wanted a school with a sound-proofed gym, a garden overgrown with vegetables, and an art room stocked with supplies. I dreamed of getting into Alice Fong Yu, West Portal, Rooftop--those schools where the tours were packed with 40, 60, even 100 other parents hoping to get in as well. My SFUSD enrollment form was filled with these sorts of school in Round I--and of course I didn't receive an assignment at any of them. My husband calculated that we had something like a 1 percent chance of getting our first choice, Alice Fong Yu.

In Round II, I started to look at some less-popular schools, the hidden gems, and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't find as many fancy facilities but I did meet principals and teachers who were equally exceptional as those at the rock-star schools. And I discovered small groups of parents who were planning fund-raisers, planting gardens, hiring reduction teachers. They had the passion and dedication of a grass roots movement. These schools tended to be smaller and more intimate. The communities were close-knit like a family and the children were thriving in these nurturing environments. I was so lucky to eventually end up at a hidden gem. Now that I'm at Jose Ortega, you couldn't pay me to go to anywhere else.

As you finish up your school tours and finalize your list of seven, I'm hoping you will consider some of the hidden gems in the diverse list below. Nearly all of these schools had fewer than 20 families list them as their first choice in Round I. Last year, 238 families put Rooftop at the top of their list, 268 listed Alice Fong Yu, and 284 wanted Clarendon.
  1. Bryant GE
  2. Cesar Chavez GE
  3. Cleveland GE
  4. Cobb GE
  5. Daniel Webster GE and SI
  6. Garfield GE
  7. Glen Park GE
  8. Harvey Milk GE
  9. Hillcrest GE
  10. John Yehall Chin GE
  11. Jose Ortega MI and GE
  12. Junipero Serra GE
  13. Leonard Flynn GE
  14. New Traditions GE
  15. Paul Revere GE and SI
  16. Rosa Parks GE and JB
  17. Sheridan GE
  18. Sunnyside GE
  19. Sutro GE
  20. Visitacion Valley GE
This is not a final list. Rather it's the beginning of a conversation. I hope that you will add more hidden gems in the comments section. And please if you're a parent at any of these schools feel free to share your experiences.

Please keep this string focused on hidden gems. If you would like to bring up other topics, email and I will start a new thread.



Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jefferson Elementary

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 9/23/08)

Location: 1725 Irving St @ 19th, Sunset District) map
School hours: 8:40-2:40 (breakfast at 8:15; yard monitor at 8:20)
Tel: 759-2821
Fax: 756-2806
Principal: Victor Tam (since 2006-07; prior principal retired after 16 years)
Web site:
School tours: Self-guided tours M-Th from 9-10am or 1-2pm. Starting in October some Tuesdays and Thursdays will have Q&A by the principal, Victor Tam at 10am.
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 80
Total student body: 476

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a calm and inviting environment; an emphasis on arts (visual, theater and music) and on environmental issues; a gardening program; and strong academics.


Separate play yards for Kindergarten and upper grades; both will be upgraded with new structures as part of ADA upgrades. Funding for full-time PE teacher included purchase of PE equipment as well.

After School programs

Jefferson CDC (onsite) has 45 kindergarten spots, as well as spots for grades 1-5; before-care starting at 7:30 .m. and after-care until 6 p.m.; programs on sliding scale (free for qualified income earnings otherwise tuition based $12-22/day)


Active PTA and SSC with a number of volunteer activities for parents including in classroom, office and admin, beautification and gardening, and in the art program.

Language program(s): After-school Mandarin

Tour Impressions

As soon as I popped my head into the classrooms at Jefferson school, it felt like there was a lot to take in. The classroom and hallway walls are covered with student artwork, self portraits and drawings. Wandering the halls on our self-guided tour I overheard a Kindergarten class talking about weather and calendar, a 1st grade class doing addition of multiple numbers, and a 5th grade class studying fine art paintings for a writing activity. All of the classes seemed incredibly orderly, despite the fact that the school is undergoing a year of construction for ADA improvements.

The ADA improvements will also bring updates and new play structures to the Kindergarten and upper grade playgrounds. Since 2007 a full-time PE teacher was hired (thanks to Prop H) to provide two PE sessions per week to all grades. In addition, a program for directed physical activity is offered from noon-12:30 every day.

The school includes a focus on Arts Education which includes working with visiting artists in a particular medium (e.g. drama, ceramics, poetry). In addition a program Art Knows allows parent-led art activities in the classroom. Instrumental music instruction is offered to the 4th and 5th grades in the Auditorium. According to the website all 5th grade students are in the school choir.

A garden is being re-installed in the Kindergarten playground on the Irving Street side of the school, the garden and any educational programs tied to it are strictly parent-led at this point. The school has a pleasant and clean cafeteria in addition to the auditorium.

We were not able to view the library due to the construction but according to the website there is a full time librarian and each class visits the library once a week. We also noted the school is next door to the Sunset branch of the SFPL.

The active PTA raises about $50-60k per year to fund the 5th grade overnight field trip for environmental education, as well as other school resources.

(I’m trying to discover answers to some other questions such as what else the PTA funds, whether the garden is for beautification and by parents only or by the students as well, and a few other details I was not able to observe.)

School Community Summit

Saturday, November 22
8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Everett Middle School
450 Church St., at 16th St.

Spend a morning learning about the district’s new plan to
engage joyful, high achieving learners!

Share ideas for 21st Century schools!

Keynote Speaker: Superintendent Carlos Garcia

For more details visit

To RSVP, call 249-9293, email, or register online at

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hot topic: SFUSD might change school calendar

An SF K Files has brought up an interesting issue:

"SFUSD is considering making major changes to the school year calendar for the 2009-10 school year, which would of course have a huge impact on families in the district. I hope you will consider blogging about this. I couldn't find anything about it on the district's web site, but the teachers' union is polling teachers about the proposed changes:

Two of the three proposed 2009-10 calendars have school starting on August 12 with the last day of school at the end of May, the third option is very close to the current schedule.

I am a teacher in SFUSD and only heard about this in the last week at our Union Building Committee meeting. I can tell you that teachers at my school are not very happy with the prospect of a shortened summer break this year, but most seem open to the idea of changing the schedule if they are given a full school year to plan and prepare for it.

We were given very little information about the motivation behind the proposals; apparently it has to do with the new testing requirements for algebra, but that's all we were told."

Here are the three calendars the district is proposing:

Calendar Draft A - Early Start
Monday, August 10th Teachers report back
Wednesday, August 12 First day of instruction
Tuesday, December 22 Fall semester ends
Wednesday, December 23 Friday, January 8 - Winter break
Monday, January 11 First day of spring semester
Monday, March 29 Friday, April 2 - Spring break
Friday, May 28 Last day of instruction/spring semester ends

Calendar Draft B - Early Start
Monday, August 10 Teachers report back
Wednesday, August 12 First day of instruction
Tuesday, December 22 Fall semester ends
Wednesday, December 23 Tuesday, January 5 - Winter break
Wednesday, January 6 First day of spring semester
Monday, March 29 Friday, April 2 - Spring break
Wednesday, May 26 Last day of instruction/Spring semester ends

Calendar Draft C - Traditional
Wednesday, August 19 Teachers report back/ Professional development
Monday, August 24 First day of instruction
Monday, December 21 Friday, January 1 - Winter break
Friday, January 15 End of fall semester
Monday, March 29 Friday, April 2 - Spring break
Tuesday, June 15 Last day of instruction/Spring semester ends

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dianne Feinstein

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 11/5/08)

Location: 2550 25th Avenue @ Vicente street, Parkside map
School hours: 7:50-1:50 (yard opens at 7:30)
Tel: 615-8460
Fax: 242-2532
Principal: Michelle Chang
Web site:
School tours: Wednesdays, 10am (by appointment)
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 80
Total student body: currently 377 but will fill to capacity (500) by 2011-12

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a state of the art facility; a Green school; a school with music and art enrichments;


The first thing to notice at DFES (as they call it) is that this is a new, new facility (newest building in SFUSD). The school and program opened in fall 2006. The school architecture features large windowpanes and a lot of natural light throughout. The lines of the 2-story building are clean and not fussy. There is a spacious gym/cafeteria that is used for presentations, with lofty ceilings and a glass window lookout from the second floor. The information distributed stated the playground area is 50,000 sq ft. There is a dedicated play structure for the K classes, and another for the older kids. We didn't venture out too far into the yard but it seemed well, nice. And new.

After School programs

Stonestown YMCA offers the paid onsite after school program. The YMCA also coordinates onsite enrichments including theater, chess, Mad Science, chorus, music (instrument) training, sports/gymnastics, fashion design, table tennis, art and drawing, and French.

Before School programs

Actually there is no before school option, the yard duty starts at 7:30. But they do have an extremely organized drop-off system on Vicente with parent volunteers who walk the children from car to yard. It seems very efficient.


A growing and active PTA is building a strong community for DFES. Activities include fundraising to the tune of $70,000 last year (the 2nd year of the schools existence). They are hoping to raise $85,000. The PTA organized the tour docents, and was extremely organized with sign in, registration of touring parents, and the only school (so far) to send a thank-you-for-touring email to me. Other community building events include family dinner nights and family movie night (both on campus). They received a First 5 grant for two years to support community building and parent leadership development. This definitely feels like a big and warm family.

Language program(s):

None during school; a French enrichment option is available (but no details)

Tour Impressions

Walking into DFES, you feel how pleasant it is to be in a clean, airy, modern building. It is a great feeling and one that permeates the feeling in the school culture. The tour started in a large conference room, which is another feature - having meeting space outside of classrooms for teachers and staff. Principal Michelle Chang shared her background, with past credentials including teaching and administrative positions at Guadalupe and Jefferson Elementaries. She spent a brief stint at Clarendon in 2004 (?) before being assigned to work on the opening of DFES. Principal Chang was personally involved in almost all decisions regarding the school from the furniture to hiring the teaching and administrative staff. She feels great pride in the school, and obviously has given a great deal of herself to building a wonderful school.

Principal Chang highlighted the active parent involvement in the school, and that it is a Caring School Community. She explained that this is a program similar to Tribes which is used by many other SFUSD schools, but with extensions to the home. She's also launching a positive reinforcement program - "Caught Being Kind" which will issue "tickets" to kids who are seen doing good deeds. DFES has an inclusion program and includes a Student Success Team paraprofessional to help with the high need students.

The school uses the district provided science and math curricula - FOSS and Everyday Math. She said that the FOSS kits at DFES are all kept in a dedicated science lab rather than in the classroom, but she said that the teachers also teach science in the classrooms. The school has a Green School program including composting, recycling, gardening, and also usese green cleaners on site. The school was recognized by SF Environment for being a green school.

While walking through the hallways to see the classrooms, we heard a 4th and 5th grade music class - some choral training by the teacher. This is taught in addition to students who take instrumental music. In the lower grades there is enrichment in the form of Orff music classes taught by an artist in residence.

Visits to K, 1, 2 and 3 classrooms all yielded glimpses at students and teachers hard at work. The 1st grade math lesson was using the Everyday math workbook, while the 3rd graders were working on a pen pal letter writing activity. One striking aspect was that we noticed male teachers in every grade, perhaps unusual (and refreshing) for SFUSD?

A garden committee and parent volunteers plant and maintain the garden, and there is a PT garden consultant who has been added this year to assist in development a gardening curriculum. A dedicated art room is used to teach art through the use of an artist in residence, Visual art in K/3 grades, Theater in 1st and 4th, and Dance in 2nd and 5th. The one odd thing was that the "art room" was basically devoid of any displays of student art. Perhaps it's a work in progress... A PE teacher is on site full time and works with all classes 2 days/week. I have heard really positive things about the PE teacher.

The library, another highlight, was unfortunately locked and we could only see through the window. The librarian is on site 2.5 days per week. The library has been supported by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blum, with large donations to purchase and restock the books. There are also computers in the library that are available for student use.

With a great facility, dedicated principal and a well established parent community, DFES is a strong school and will surely grow only better over the years.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunset Elementary School

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 10/23/08)

Location: 1920 41st Avenue @ Ortega, Sunset map
School hours: 8:40a-2:40p
Tel: 415-759-2760
Fax: 415-759-2729
Principal: Sophie Lee
Web site:
School tours: Wednesdays, 9:00a - 10:45a
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 60
Total student body: 324

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

Sunset has a small-school feel with a balanced curriculum with respect to emphasis across the subject areas. There are a variety of arts programs, science both in the curriculum and through multiple in-school and after-school programs, and opportunities to do multimedia-supported interdisciplinary projects and supported by a full-time consultant. The school has two mobile laptops of computers, the best type of model for full integration of technology into instruction. The principal is a caring, involved person who has been at the school for 6 years and knows all students in the school by name.


The building is older and in modest condition, but on this particular sunny day, felt airy and awash in light. There are large play areas that include a new play structure that the PTA spent several years raising the funds to buy. One of the most striking aspects of Sunset's classrooms were how bright and colorful they were, a wonderful blend of organization and displays of student work. There are two large gardens on campus that are the focus of the science activities. Older grades are in bungalows; one classroom this year is having to use the library as a classroom while the district builds a new bungalow. The library will be restored as a library next school year. The cafeteria is smallish, requiring the school to have three separate lunch periods.

After School programs

Sunset has multiple options for after-school programs. A full-time (5-day) pay program is available for $428 per month through the Stonestown YMCA (that is offered onsite). Excel offers free afterschool programming that is somewhat more academically focused. In addition, there is a science program called Tree Frog Treks that one parent I talked to really loved. A highlight is the programs for language; Mandarin and Spanish are offered 1 day per week. There is currently also a program in Chinese instrumental music offered afterschool.


The PTA's presence was felt immediately on the tour, with touring parents being greeted by a group of parents numbering about the same as the touring parents. They were friendly and enthusiastic about the school, if not particularly informed about instructional matters or things like the cost of different afterschool programs. The PTA raises over 100K per year. Their fundraising helped the school purchase its big play structure and consultants in science and art. In addition, the PTA gives out minigrants to teachers for different projects.

Language program(s):

Though the school is not an immersion program, it does offer language after school, one day a week. Mandarin, Cantonese are popular; Spanish was not offered this past semester due to lack of interest among the parents/children.

Tour Impressions

Instruction observed in the school was varied. In the very first class we visited, we saw the technology consulting presenting a KidPix multimedia story the students had collaborated to produce; the kids were mostly listening, but clearly excited, and the work they had done impressive for this group of kindergartners. The topic pertained to the outdoor gardens, so this project was a great example of integrating language arts, science, and technology. In the other K class, students were practicing creating tallies, an activity from the new district math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics. This was the first math lesson I've observed on a tour, though this may have as much to do with the time of day of the visit. The second graders were also working in the new math curriculum. I was impressed with students in fifth grade doing character sketches as part of a response to literature lesson. In another classroom, though, students were working in centers on worksheets focused on drill and practice with letter recognition. And in the third grade class, we saw students taking a test, for which the teacher simply used the textbook test.

The approach to discipline used in the school is called "Caring School Community," which emphasizes the need for all teachers to hold class meetings, where issues may be discussed related to getting along, making and keeping friends. The program also includes cross-age buddies and something called "star students." Every student is recognized for a positive quality at some point during the year. This approach seems like a positive approach to discipline; the principles emphasized in the program seem like good fundamentals for character education, such as honesty and responsibility. There wasn't a strong, explicit focus on diversity and justice in how the community was conceptualized; however, the extracurricular programs really are quite responsive to the diversity of the school community.

The principal provides for common planning time for teachers to work together. She provides them with focal topics (a good structure, to ensure that there is focus to the meeting times) and across the year, this year will focus principally on mathematics, since there is a new curriculum. I thought the principal had a quite realistic expectation about common planning time, that it would focus a lot on instructional planning but also that teachers needed to use some sessions to coordinate logistics for field trips, etc. Though one could not tell, I had the sense that there was a good relationship between the principal and her faculty.

The members of the parent organization in attendance were quite enthusiastic about the school; the amount of money raised by the association was impressive, and it seems like that the organization's ability to raise funds will continue to grow as the school becomes popular. The parents seem particularly involved in the garden projects in the school.

Upcoming public school events

What to Expect in Kindergarten event

Tuesday, November 18, 5-7pm
Junipero Serra Elementary, 625 Holly Park Circle

Featuring a special performance by the Junipero Serra first grade choir.

This free presentation includes information on enrollment, a presentation by a Kindergarten Teacher about Kindergarten Readiness, Parent Ambassadors from various schools, and an opportunity to get one-on-one help with enrollment, special education, parent involvement and kindergarten readiness. Free dinner and childcare is available. You can also turn in your applications at this event!

If you can't make it to this event, there will be others like it on the following days and locations.

Tue, December 2nd, 5-7pm Bayview YMCA, 1601 Lane Street
Tue, December 9th, 5-7pm Tenderloin Community Elementary, 227 Turk St.
Thu, December 11th, 5-7pm Jose Ortega Elementary, 400 Sargent St.
Thu, December 18th, 5-7pm El Dorado Elementary, 70 Delta St @ Harkness St.
Wed, January 7th, 4-7pm Malcolm X Academy, 350 Harbor Rd @ Middle Point Rd

Parents for Public Sschools-SF Coffee Chat this Friday, November 21 at 9:30-10:30am

PPS-SF Office, 3543 18th Street between Guerrero and Valencia

Join us in the PPS office this Friday for our monthly Coffee Chat. Our past Chats have been well attended, with many schools represented. Parents searching for a school are welcome to attend to meet parents from different schools and talk with PPS staff. It's a great way to connect with other PPS members and share tips and stories about the great things happening at your school!

This month's Chat is sponsored by Huntington Learning Center. They will be supplying the coffee and food, and will have a representative available to give more information. For more information on Huntington Learning Center, please see their website at

School Community Summit

Saturday, November 22, 8:30am-1pm
Everett Middle School, 450 Church Street
; Free parking entrance on 17th Street; Muni 22, 33, 37, J
RSVP (and reserve childcare), call 249-9293, email

Keynote speaker: Superintendent Carlos Garcia

Make sure your school is represented at this important event. The Balanced Scorecard, which will be replacing the Academic Plan, will be presented at this event, with workshops to support SSC's in planning their Balanced Scorecard for the next year. This event is open to all parents and community members, especially those who serve on School Site Councils, ELAC, and SACs.

For more details, visit the Parents for Public Schools Web site:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good news: More families are staying in the city

From the City of SF Dept. of Children, Families and Youth:

Did You Know …
After Years of Decline, Estimates Indicate SF Child Population Stabilizing
Recently released data from the US Census reveal that in 2007 there were 109,718 children ages 0 to 17 living in San Francisco, which shows little change from the 2006 estimate of 109,636 children. Also notable is the stabilization of the child population after experiencing steady decline since the 1960s. The proportion of children to adults appears to be increasing. Other highlights from new Census data:
· Children are present in one out of five San Francisco households
· Median income of families with children is $87,111
· 25% of children under 18 live in single parent households
All data is from the 2007 American Community Survey, an ongoing survey of the US Census, at The national project, KIDSCOUNT, hosts a more accessible data portal specific to children,

Friday, November 14, 2008

Commodore Sloat

Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 10/21/08)

Location: 50 Darien Street @ Juniperro Serra, St. Francis Wood/Ingleside Terrace) map
School hours: 8:40am - 2:40am (supervised yard duty starting around 8:25am)
Tel: 759-2807
Principal: Dr. Deborah Faigenbaum (4th year)
Web site:
School tours: Tuesdays at 9am, call for appointment
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 60
Total student body: 360

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a strong gardening program; a spacious campus with separate play yards for K, lower elementary and upper elementary; an innovative team teaching approach in 4/5; and a strong and focused principal.


The school campus is striking in its spaciousness. The large, expansive blacktop wraps around two sides of the school. The lower yard has a separate play yard for the K students, and an area for the upper (4-5 students). The upper yard is used by the 1-3 graders. The school is built as several clusters of buildings with most of the openings facing the building exterior; windows line all of the classrooms. As a result the feeling is very open and bright, in comparison to some other schools. The K classrooms are all in one cluster and each have their own bathroom (used for emergencies only, according to the parent tour guide). The other grades have clusters and each cluster has a shared common area with a kitchen facility and a small patio.

There are several gardens in the school as well. The upper yard garden was built to create a path and soft scape in through the blacktop, and includes an outdoor classroom (basically a seating area). There is a learning garden in a courtyard, where many of the plants are California native species, with herbs, and some vegetables in evidence.

While the 70's style of architecture does seem to infuse the campus layout, it's not unpleasant and the school does seem to have a lot of light and airiness.

Link to school site map.

After School programs

The on-site after school options are the fee-based program run by the Stonestown YMCA (cost $392/$428 for 5 days/week depending on YMCA membership) and the free Excel program (2-5) for students who qualify. The parent tour guides had praise for the YMCA program though specifics were a bit lacking. The program has both before school care (starting at 7;30am) and after school in the cafeteria until 6:30.

There did not appear to be any enrichment options other than the Y program, though a few are mentioned on the Sloat Parents website.

Parents' Club

Commodore Sloat does not have a PTA but rather a Parents' Club. The tour guide felt this was largely established due to state PTA dues and bylaws. The PCO is very active and raises in the range of $50-60k per year through activities including a straight cash appeal, eScrip and a few smaller scale events, as well as grantwriting.

The parents' club provides support for the gardening program, a PE specialist, poetry, vocal music in the lower grades (now paid for by Prop H monies). The school is very open to parent volunteers both in classrooms and otherwise. The parent community feels like it is really trying to create a whole school community.

Language program(s):

None - probably one of the biggest deficits at an otherwise very strong school.

Tour Impressions

The Commodore Sloat tour started in the auditorium/MP room, a large spacious room with a stage. The principal, Dr. Deborah Faigenbaum, addressed the parents for about 30 minutes to outline what she felt were the schools vision, strengths, and to answer questions. She appeared to be a very genuine, smart person with a very calm demeanor and a no-b.s. delivery. You felt like she was someone who would give you real answers and not sugar coat anything. For example, I really appreciated her noting which program features are available at ALL SFUSD schools (e.g. instrumental music in 4/5, and the SF Symphony's Adventures in Music program) where some schools either claim these as special features, or at least don't point out that they are not distinguishing features. She said there was extremely low turnover in the teaching staff, something to be very proud of. The school has about 45% students who qualify for free/reduced lunch, and has a healthy ethnic diversity (about 50% asian, 15% white, 15% latino and 25% everything else).

She spoke quite a bit about the science and gardening/environmental focus at Commodore Sloat. The school has implemented the FOSS science curriculum, which is a district wide curriculum, but again at Commodore Sloat it seemed like the principal actually knew that this was being used (where at some schools the word FOSS is just a buzzword). In the 4th and 5th grades each have 2 teachers per class. One teacher focuses on language arts and the other focuses on math and science. The rationale is that at these grades, the material is becoming deeper and more complex, and allowing teachers to become experts in fewer subjects will allow them to be better teachers. It made sense to me.

An artists in residence program offers an art rotation in each grade. The disciplines offered include Drama (K, 1, 5); visual art (2, 3, 4), music - vocal in grades K-2 and instrumental in 4/5, and poetry in 3, 4, 5.

The library is centrally located and fairly nice, with the same 70's architecture resulting in an interesting amphitheater-style group reading area. The library is in the process of having the card catalog digitized. The librarian is part time and all classes visit once per week.

Areas for improvement she identified technology - there is not a separate computer lab at the school though they recently acquired a mobile mac lab which is used in the 4th and 5th grades. This is an area that Principal Faigenbaum is interested in investing in with input from the School Site Council in the next few years.

Visits to the classrooms revealed quite a few of the lower grades participating in "centers." The K classrooms were very large, though also crammed with a lot of stuff which made it feel perhaps a little more cramped than it might. There were a number of play areas in evidence. At CSS, K students still have a rest/nap time and are encouraged to express themselves through play. In the upper grades the students seemed engaged in a science lesson, alert and attentive to the teacher.

Commodore Sloat has a lot going for it, from a diverse student body to a spacious facility to experienced and dedicated teachers, with a healthy amount of extras thrown in. The program doesn't feature every bell and whistle out there, but the ones it does offer appear to be really solid and thoughtful in the choice of how and where to use the school's resources. All in all, a very nice school.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Clarendon Alternative Elementary

Reviewed by Meredith (toured 10/29/08)

Location: 500 Clarendon Avenue, Twin Peaks, map
School hours: 9:25am - 3:25pm
Tel: 759-2796
Fax: 759-2799
Principal: Mark Barmore
Web site:,
School tours: Wednesday at 9:45am, call tour hotline 759-2782 to check specific dates
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 80 total, mix of GE and JBBP programs varies by year
Total student body: 534

To truly understand Clarendon Alternative Elementary, you have to understand that it is organized as essentially two small schools within one campus. The tour guides and principal all said that it is separate programs, with separate teaching staffs, and separate parent communities with separate fundraising programs (and priorities).

Second Community Program (SCP) AKA General Education is a rich and enriched program with high academic focus, and a number of enrichments including Italian language, art, and science. The program also focuses on attention to the childs social and emotional relationships to their community.

Japanese Bilingual/Bicultural Program (JBBP) is a multicultural education program taught in English but with a strong theme of Japanese language and culture throughout the program.

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

a late school start time; a heavily involved parent community (both programs); a program with many enrichment additions (SCP) or a program with a strong language and culture component (JBBP) that includes a strong art strand; a central location.


Clarendon's campus and facilities were nice, not overwhelming, perhaps because the outdoor space is cut up by the shape of the buildings, and also because we did not venture out to the upper yard. There is a separate blacktop area for the younger students (K-1?) that features a nice big play structure. The older kids play in a lower yard that is wrapped around a few buildings and bungalows, and the third upper yard appears to be a spacious blacktop though again, we did not see it.

Before/After School programs

There is an onsite childcare program called Second Community Childcare. Presumably kids from both programs can attend the childcare, which offers before school care (critical for a school with a 9:25 start!) as well as after school care. The fee ranges from $175/month for morning care only to $300 for full coverage on both ends of the school day, with a variety of drop in combinations available. The parents had positive things to say about the childcare, but few specifics about the program.


There are two separate parent communities, but both are clearly very active. The SCP program is philosophically based on parent participation at all levels, from classroom help to assistance in planning, and in administration.

Language program(s):

Italian language enrichment is taught in all grade levels (to SCP only, not JBBP students) for 90 minutes per week.
Japanese language and culture enrichment (NOT immersion) in JBBP.

Tour impressions

This is a very popular school! The parents interested in seeing what a cream of the crop school in SFUSD looks like clearly all showed up for the first tour of the season. There were probably 100 parents crowded into the auditorium. Principal Mark Barmore greeted the tour group. He noted that the origins of Clarendon were based on a co-op model, with its inherent desire and access for heavy parent participation. And we did see parents volunteering in many capacities throughout the school, from creating communications (Wednesday envelopes?) for the students to take home, to helping in the classrooms, to selling homebaked pastries and coffee to grateful, overwhelmed touring parents. Principal Barmore said that the educational philosophy is to educate the whole child, and also that he really feels that though there are two small schools in the one campus, at the same time it feels like a whole school community as well. That being said, the rest of the presentation definitely felt like we were hearing about two very different school experiences.

Second Community Program
One of the parent docents introduced Second Community - meant to signify the relationship to the child's first community, their family. The program has heavy fundraising to the tune of $230,000 per year (SCP only!), to fund a variety of consultants in art, PE, computer skills, Italian language, and music using an Orff method. They also fund field trips and a handful of paraprofessionals, and class size reduction in the 4/5 grades.

The parents touted the diversity of the school population though frankly it didn't strike me as especially diverse (and the school profile showed a relatively low % of free/reduced lunch students). Very few of the tour guides spoke of it but the flyer indicates a project-based learning philosophy as well. (Could have been the madness of 100 touring parents that made it impossible to get as much information about these programs.)

The classrooms we observed had interesting lessons happening. The K students were coloring and their classroom seemed to be a grand pre-school room with a lot of play options and a cooking station (!). The 2nd graders were discussing a story and learning to use and interpret the action, in what seemed to be a very meaningful way.

The art bungalow was impressive in the creativity of the art. The art teacher (whose name I did not catch) has been with Clarendon for 13 years and tries to tie the art she teaches in with exhibits and events happening locally, for example tying a program of self portraits to the Frida Kahlo retrospective. She seemed passionate and enthusiastic about the school. The children in both programs take art classes but the frequency varies (reportedly every week for the SCP and every other week for JBBP, with the explanation that JBBP weaves art into much everyday teaching).

Music is taught twice a week starting with an Orff percussive based music program in the lower grades, leading to the instrumental music classes in the 4th and 5th grades.

The library was another highlight of the school, with a librarian who has been with the school for 25 years. The space was not the most luxe library space we've seen on tours, but the librarian clearly put a lot of thought into innovating on ways to challenge and interest eager and not-so-eager young readers. She raised $20k with an annual book sale last year, and has a reading pajama day, and a birthday book program (the birthday child donates a book and gets their name on a name plate).

The computer lab next door to the library is full of iMacs was in use during our tour with a 1st or 2nd grade class doing KidPix. I didn't get a lot of detail on the computer instruction at Clarendon.

Japanese Bicultural Bilingual Program
The JBBP program is base on a model called FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School). All of the teachers have Japanese language and cultural backgrounds and teach Japanese to the students 30-45 minutes per day. However, it is not immersive in that the general curriculum is taught in English. Nonetheless, a visit to a 4th grade JBBP class showed students writing and reading sentences in kanji.

The program emphases cultural awareness and teachers weave in Japanese themes in the curriculum where opportunity arises. The JBBP also includes a strong parent participation theme. The parent group for JBBP raises approximately $180,000 per year (goal for this year) which brings the total fundraising for both programs to over $400k. The JBBP funds support Japanese culture and curriculum enrichments, art consultant, PE, music, computer consultant, and class size reduction in the upper grades.

Walking out of Clarendon, I felt the school's high popularity and reputation were well deserved. With a hard working parent community, heavily funded enrichment programs, and a dedicated and loyal staff, this school really feels like a place that will nurture and grow strong, creative children.

Hot topic: Last year's lists

An SF K Files visitors hopes that parents who went through the process last year will share their lists:

"I would like for you to bring up the topic of "what was your school list and what school did you get?" My reasoning is this, did parents get choices that were 2nd or 3rd or 7th on their lists? if so , was it to rooftop or other highly over subscribed schools."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hot topic: Catholic schools

An SF K Files visitor suggested that we start a thread on Catholic schools:

"I have noticed a shortage of information about Catholic schools. I think for many of us they provide an affordable option for a quality education and as economic times get tougher they might be more popular this year. Many families I know are touring them this year and are not Catholic but were terrified by reading what happened to so many families last year and feel that they can't depend on the sfusd to come up with a spot for them. It would help to hear other thoughts about NDV, St. Brigids, Star of the Sea etc."

Hot topic: Enrollment fair

Please share your thoughts on the enrollment fair. Did you discover any hidden gems? What did you learn? Were you discouraged by anything?

K Files update

Hi: I'm in the midst of a site refresh and update. I have listed all reviews in the right-hand "School Reviews" column and I'll be updating the "Important Dates" column. Also, I have identified a new reviewer and I'll soon be posting reviews for Clarendon, Commodore Sloat, and Sunset. Thanks! Kate

Friday, November 7, 2008

Should the Obamas send their girls to public schools?

A story on SFGate poses the question: Should the Obamas send Sasha and Malia to public school?

Chelsea Clinton went to Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school. So did Archibald Roosevelt and Tricia and Julie Nixon. And Joe Biden's granddaughters are at the school right now. Will Michelle and Barack send their daughters Malia and Sasha there as well once they get settled in the White House?

According to an article in yesterday's Washington Post, many Washingtonians expect them to seriously consider Sidwell as well as other fancy privates such as Georgetown Day School, Maret, and National Cathedral School (Al Gore's girls went here). After all, Sasha and Malia are currently attending the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
But what about public school?

For the full story, click here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hot topic: Private middle school

An SF K Files poses an interesting question:

"Most if not all 6-8 grade private schools open up a class to admit more kids into the school. Are there parents out there who did not red-shirt and wonder what the effects are once the kids go to junior high and mix with red-shirted kids?"

Hot topic: How are things going?

How are parents doing in this year's school process? Are you finding lots of great schools? Are you overwhelmed? Excited? Stressed? Are you leaning toward private or public? How many schools are you touring? Are the tours helpful? Have you come upon any hidden gems? Pleas share your stories and experiences.

Another call for school reviewers

Hi: I have received several emails from parents requesting more school reviews. If you're interested in writing up a school that you visited, please send an email to Please keep in mind that the reviews don't need to be as long as the ones I wrote last year or as long as this year's write-up. They can be short and simple; since we have so many visitors on this site who comment we really only need someone to start the conversation. Thanks! Best, Kate

Hot topic: BOE results

Today in the San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Jill Tucker reported on the election results for board of education and the race that's still in play for two of the four seats.

With 60,000 ballots still uncounted Wednesday night in San Francisco, the race for two of four seats on the city's school board remained undecided.
Incumbent Norman Yee and newcomer Sandra Fewer had enough vote to secure two of the seats in Tuesday's election, with 88,014 and 70,811 votes respectively, far surpassing the other 11 candidates despite the continuing count.
But three candidates were still in the running for the last two spots.
Barbara Lopez with 47,660 votes and Rachel Norton with 46,354 votes were in the lead Wednesday, followed by 16-year incumbent Jill Wynns with 45,456 votes.
The remaining uncounted votes were absentee and mail-in ballots received at the elections office over the weekend or on Monday. San Francisco election officials had no estimates on when the count would be finished, but by Wednesday afternoon, they had added about 5,000 votes to Tuesday night's tally.
The uncounted ballots accounted for an estimated 20 percent of those cast.

For the full story, click here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hot topic: private schools

I'm starting this thread for people to talk amongst themselves about the private school enrollment process. This isn't a place for debating private vs. public--as there are many places on this blog where you can do that. Please keep this thread focused on privates, the tours, applications, student evaluations, and so on. Thanks! Best, Kate

SFUSD enrollment fair

Mark your calendars: The SFUSD enrollment fair is this Saturday, November 8
9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Concourse Exhibition Center, East Hall
620 Seventh St.

Each fall, SFUSD creates a one-stop-shopping event for families who are looking to enroll their child. The Public School Enrollment Fair is where parents, caring adults, and students can meet principals and teachers to learn what each school can offer their child. Families can also attend workshops including: how to fill out an application, how to enroll students in Special Education, the transition to Kindergarten, and Language program options. This annual gathering is a chance for families to explore all their options for public schools. Last year approximately 10,000 families attended.

Will you be attending? What do you hope to get out of the event? Anyone want to give incoming parents tips on navigating the fair/

Is immersion right for your child?

Please join Potrero Residents Education Fund (PREFund), Parents for Public Schools and SF Advocates for Multilingual Excellence on Thursday, November 6 at Daniel Webster Elementary School and learn about the benefits of language immersion.

Mr. Karling Aguilera-Fort, SFUSD Assistant Superintendent for Learning Support & Equity, Academics and Professional Development, will discuss the District's language immersion programs and offer some guidelines to determine if this track is a good fit for your child. A panel of parents who have children attending immersion programs in the city will follow with their experiences.

The panel will include:
Hydra Mendoza, Fairmount Spanish Immersion & Board of Education Member
Renee Tan, Starr King Mandarin Immersion
Lisa Kirvin, Daniel Webster Spanish Immersion
Kellyn Dong, Jose Ortega Mandarin Immersion
Lauren Irons, Alvarado Spanish Immersion

Thursday, November 6, 6:30pm
Daniel Webster Elementary School
465 Missouri Street (at 20th Street)
Street parking, Muni #22, 53, 48
In English with Spanish Interpretation

If you have any questions, please contact me at

Melissa Millsaps
PREFund Founding Member