Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hot topic: Immersion?

An SF K Files visitor is asking for your advice:

"My husband and I are trying to finalize our list for next week's kindergarten lottery deadline. We initially were set on sending our daughter to a Spanish immersion school and toured 5 of the 8 possibilities. Now, as we are drawing up our final list, we are getting cold feet about immersion for our daughter. I am fluent in Spanish (though not a native speaker) and our daughter does comprehend a lot of Spanish, but it is her personality that has us waivering. She is bright and has friends at her preschool (aka, doing fine academically and socially for her age), but she is very slow to warm up, can be fragile and hesitant, and is not a confident kid in new situations and in general. We are wondering if dealing with a new school, teacher, classmates, etc., in Spanish might overwhelm her. Thanks so much for your Web site. It has helped us a lot."

Monday, December 29, 2008

San Francisco Magazine article

I'm receiving a lot of emails from readers about the article in the January issue of San Francisco magazine. Here's a link to the story: http://www.sanfranmag.com/story/post-post-private-school-city.

The online version doesn't include the fabulous sidebar that highlights 20 of the districts public schools--most of them up-and-coming. To see this, you need to pick up a copy of the magazine.

Thank you to local writer Diana Kapp for telling my story. Also, thank you to the dedicated, thoughtful, and passionate SF K Files readers who have made this blog a success. I don't always agree with the comments on this blog but I do think the readers have created transparency within the school system--both public and private. The readers and comments are the heart of this blog.

The San Francisco magazine story is bringing many new readers to the site so I'm pasting some of the blog's most popular stories below. These are in chronological order and summarize the story of my search for a kindergarten. These posts also feature some of the site's most spirited discussions within the comments sections.

My first post: The SF K Files is born:

Public school enrollment 101:

Review of Alice Fong Yu: My top choice in Round I

Review of Marin Country Day School: My top choice private school

Review of Miraloma Elementary: SFUSD's success story

My application essay for Marin Country Day School

My fight with my husband over private vs. public: Most popular post on The SF K Files

My interview with SFUSD superintendent Carlos Garcia

SF K Files visitors share the news about SFUSD Round I assignments:

Kate makes up her mind: My husband and I decide to send our daughter to Jose Ortega

Alice's first day of school at Jose Ortega Elementary: Yeah!

Finally, a string of posts with heated discussions for those who like a heated debate:

Some people have been writing in to ask where they can find the Mommy Files blog on SFGate. Here's a link: www.sfgate.com/moms.

If you would like to donate to Jose Ortega, you can click on the Chip In button to the right. The school is currently trying to raise money for tutoring for kids who are falling behind. The school is committed to closing the achievement gap. Thanks!

If you have questions, you can email me at thesfkfiles@gmail.com.


Kate (Amy)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Close the achievement gap: Donate to Jose Ortega

This evening, I added a Chipin button to the right of the page inviting people to donate to Jose Ortega Elementary School (JOES). I have avoided putting advertising on The SF K Files (seems highly inappropriate), but when the JOES PTA recently voted to launch a fund-raising campaign to close the school's achievement gap, I was inspired to invite site visitors to donate directly to JOES: $10, $15, every bit counts.

Many of us can easily offer our kids extra help if they're reading well below grade level or struggling with math. We can pay for a tutor or we spend extra time with our kids after school helping them catchup. This isn't a reality for all families and so Jose Ortega Elementary School is striving to raise $5,000 to provide weekly after-school tutoring sessions for students who are trailing their peers.

The principal is working with the teachers to identify students who can benefit from tutoring and schedule them into weekly after-school sessions beginning in January. This tutoring program can help students overcome specific challenges and make a real difference in their math and language skills. Through this program we can take another step toward making sure every student is proficient in the core curriculum, and give our teachers more time for in-depth instruction in subjects that inspire and motivate.

A tax deductible donation will ensure that all kids get the attention they deserve. It's our goal to not allow any children to fall through the cracks.

To make a donation, click on the orange 'ChipIn' button to the right or go to joseortegaschool.org/giving.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Open Forum: Happy Holidays

I'm on holiday through the New Year. Feel free to use the comments area of this post for discussion. Round I forms are due soon, so I'm sure some parents are busily creating their lists. Good luck! Happy New Year! Best, Kate

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hot topic: Round I

An SF K Files visitor brought up the following topic:

"I'm wondering how everyone is feeling about Round I. I turned in my form last week. And I mailed in a few private school applications--what a huge relief to have those done. I'm feeling optimistic and assuming that I'll get something but I'm wondering how others are feeling?"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Share your Round I lists

Families are starting to turn in their Round I lists. Feel free to share yours.

If you have questions about the enrollment process, contact Parents for Public Schools by visiting ppssf.org.

Arne Duncan: Obama's Pick for Education Secretary

Yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama announced Arne Duncan, the head of the Chicago school system, as education secretary. Obama declared that failing to improve classroom instruction is "morally unacceptable for our children."

"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," Obama said, making the announcement at a school that he said has made remarkable progress under Duncan's leadership.

"He's not beholden to any one ideology, and he's worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality," Obama said.

I am working on a story for SFGate and GreatSchools.net on Obama's pick. I'm hoping to collect quotes from local principals, teachers, and parents. If you have thoughtful answers to one or both of the following two questions, please email me your responses along with your name and phone number to thesfkfiles@gmail.com. Thanks! Kate

1) What do you think of Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan?
2) What you hope Duncan's top priority will be?
3) How do you hope the new administration will affect schools in the Bay Area? What do you hope will change?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Public schools advocate Sandra Tsing Loh

Last month USA Today ran a Q&A with public school advocate Sandra Tsing Loh.

Here's an excerpt from the interview. To read the full story, click here.
Last June, when Los Angeles performance artist and public radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh helped lead a rally to the California state capitol for more school funding, perhaps no one was more surprised than Loh herself. Her transformation from popular author and comic to public schools activist began four years earlier, when her plans to get her older daughter into a good kindergarten went awry. She eventually started an organization called Burning Moms. Loh recounts the journey in Mother On Fire (Crown, $23). She talks with USA TODAY about her experience:

Q: It's 2004. You, your musician husband and your two daughters live in Van Nuys. Your 4-year-old is in preschool and you begin searching for a kindergarten. What happens next?
A: We're a middle-class family, which feels like we're the last middle-class family in Los Angeles — the last one had packed up the Volvo wagon and gone to Portland a year earlier. When kids hit school age, people just start fleeing the city unexplained. So I didn't have much real information. … I'd go on www.greatschools.net, look at the statistics, freak out and not even visit my local school, which is what many parents do.

Q: You began looking into private schools, but many had "nosebleed tuition."
A: I found that the religious ones were more affordable — the more religious, the more affordable. Catholics were more expensive, Lutherans middle and Baptists were the only ones we could afford. The Quakers were off the charts, particularly if there's the word "Friends" in the title — or if the kids were being taught in an old Quaker wooden schoolhouse with authentic Shaker furniture.

Q: You tried to get your daughter into a Lutheran school, but things didn't work out on the entrance exam. She was supposed to name as many animals as she could in a timed test. What happened?
A: She named animals — lion, tiger, hippopotamus — that's a big word for a 4-year-old! And then it turned out, to my horror, she had flunked the entire test and had to be held back a year because she was "developmentally impaired."

Q: Stopping at "hippopotamus" was her mistake?
A: She was waiting for praise, and the instructor just sat there with a totally flat face and a stopwatch.

Q: I don't want to give away too much, but she ends up at a nice public school where the teachers are great.
A: Many of them, they've taught for 20 years. And I think teachers are very unsung. They don't have any fancy new theory about what they're doing. They've simply moved 20 kindergartners across classrooms, playgrounds — and, of course, in and out of the bathroom! — for 20 years. The children learn, they have fun — there's no fancy new theory, it's just decades of teachers' day-in, day-out experience, the love of their work, the joy. Of course there are headaches. But in my experience, most teachers do love their work — why else would they do it? There are easier ways to make a living.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Teachers are what really matters

The most recent New Yorker magazine features a very interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell about how to select teachers and the impact good teachers have on education versus any other factor. Below you'll find an excerpt from the article. Click here to read the full article. It's long but well worth the read.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

Click here to read the full article. What are your thoughts on the article?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hot topic: Public school budget cuts

An SF K Files visitor suggested a hot topic:

"Does anyone know what impact the state budget crisis is going to likely have on schools? How will it impact specific schools? What programs are most at risk? Is Prop H money safe--and what about other designated funding sources?"

Carlos Garcia on KGO today

Superintendent Carlos Garcia, Head of SFUSD, will be on the air on KGO radio (810 am) from 11 am to noon today, Thursday, Dec. 11.

For those who wish to keep abreast of various plans/changes with SFUSD, you might want to tune in.

FYI: It is a "call in" program so it also offers opportunity for anyone to pose specific questions or concerns.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hot topic: Teacher gifts

What are you giving your teacher for the holidays? What do teachers like? What are some more affordable options? What if you have money to spend? Is cash appropriate?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Something else to consider: A school's air quality

A new investigative series released by USA Today includes a feature that allows you to look up the air quality at 127,800 public, private, and parochial schools throughout the country. The information is based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

It seems like most San Francisco schools are included in the database and the good news is that the air quality is good at all of them. Some schools in the East Bay and on the Peninsula don't seem to have the clean air that we've got.

To search for a school, click here. (Note that the search box is at the top of the page above the map.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Guest blogger: SF mom Leanne Waldal writes about her search for a kindergarten

My daughter will be starting Kindergarten in San Francisco in the fall of 2009 and my wife and I have been stunned by the vast differences between public elementary schools in San Francisco. We expected that private schools would seem comfy and public schools would have less advantages, but that’s not what I’ve seen. I’ve seen huge economic disparities between public elementary schools — something I didn’t expect. I thought most elementary schools would be within a range of economic advantage/disadvantage. I didn’t expect such large differences between schools.

It really makes me feel like a Real Live GrownUp to be touring and researching schools for my kid. I know I’ve been an adult for half my life already but being “grown up” is not always on my radar.

Sanchez Elementary is the school closest to our house so I went to their booth at the SFUSD enrollment fair and signed up for a tour. It’s a school with a high number of children getting free/reduced meals and a high number of english language learners. I wasn’t able to find any information about the school in a blog or elsewhere on the web (which is how I do most of my research - I should, instead, be talking with people in person!).

I asked their parent liaison if there are any gay and lesbian parents at the school. She said she knew there were some gay and lesbian parents and that she’s never heard anything homophobic or anti-gay there. She (the parent liaison) has twins at Sanchez Elementary and while she speaks spanish and english, I think she said her twins chose to speak only english.

When Moya and I showed up for a tour, there was only one other parent at the tour - such a sharp contrast from the packed tours at other San Francisco public and private schools.

The school starts at 7:50am and there’s breakfast available at 7:30am. Their after school program is free and ends at 5pm - academics and P.E. and art and music.

It’s a gorgeous building with high ceilings and a lot of light and the school in general seemed calm and quiet. There are two gardens that the kids work in - one on the public sidewalk and one in their private outdoor play area. There were some new-ish wooden planters in the play area that looked like they used to contain plants. The kids grow vegetables and there’s some involvement with Slow Food and Bi-Rite Market.

The large outdoor play area has a brand new play structure and almost all of the kids were riding tricycles around. There’s a covered area near play area with benches and large clean girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. The fence around the play area has playful wood cutouts of whales (and other things - I don’t remember what all the cutouts were).

They must have recently finished a project about Alexander and The Terrible Horrible Day because kid’s writing and art about that book were on many of the walls.

In the kindergarten classrooms kids were singing alphabet in one room and going through numbers in another room. Most of the kids (almost all it seemed) are hispanic, latino, and/or african-american.

All of the children wear uniforms with a white shirt and khaki pants or skirt.

They have a computer room with 20-30 brand new iMacs and a fulltime technology teacher who seemed to stumble over Moya’s question about diversity but then I overheard her talking with another teacher later about the No on 8 protest rally that would be happening the next day. The Mac lab is used for a reading program to help teach reading to younger grades and they teach word/excel/powerpoint to the older grades, plus they teach how to responsibly use the Web.

Sanchez is a “dream school” which, from what I can tell, means they’ve had low test scores. They’re consistently improving in past 3 years. They have a fulltime nurse and fulltime social worker and a fulltime coach for P.E. One of the teachers mentioned that she gets a lot of professional development there. It’s a “tribe certified” school.

They have a room dedicated to music and a room dedicated to art. Their art room has a new oven kiln.

Their cafeteria/auditorium have gorgeous huge paintings of children on the walls and their library has a mural painted by kids - which covers almost all of every wall - and big stuffed animals on tops of shelves.

I noticed a “women of science” poster in 4th grade classroom. The 1st grade teacher was a bit hostile to us when we walked into her classroom — the school parent said “she’s a bit strict.”

There was a discussion happening in the parents’ room that sounded tense/heated, but it was in spanish so I don’t know what it was about and it might not have been tense/heated. The parent who was giving the tour said sometimes she translates at the parent meetings for parents who only speak english or only speak spanish.

I was quite charmed by Sanchez Elementary after the tour but it doesn’t seem like a good fit for my daughter because their classrooms are only “English Plus” or Bilingual. I’m concerned that my preschool-educated daughter speaking only English would be at a disadvantage in a classroom where most of the kids are just learning English and didn’t go to preschool.

San Francisco Food Bank delivers to Sanchez for parents who qualify (my wife, Moya, charmingly compared this to a CSA, but it’s much different from a CSA — people pay to participate in a CSA and usually the people who participate in a CSA are not at/near poverty levels).

We toured Miraloma Elementary the day after we toured Sanchez. One of the first things I saw when I stepped into Miraloma was a big bin for a food drive for the San Francisco Food Bank. Do the kids at Miraloma realize that their food donations might end up in the homes of the kids at Sanchez? I didn’t pay attention to much of the Miraloma tour because it’s in a location that would be practically impossible for me to get to without a car and their bus doesn’t pickup near our house. Location is super important for a school because we have one car in our family and my wife uses it to commute to work. I rarely, if ever, drive.

We’re unsure which 7 schools to list on our SFUSD application, but we’re pretty sure that they will be schools in convenient locations for our current daily commutes. At the SFUSD Enrollment Fair I talked with a kindergarten teacher and after school teacher from Marshall Elementary School (which is also near our home) and liked what they said.

It’s really difficult to schedule tours of schools when both parents work fulltime. The tours are, for the most part, on weekday mornings and last for 1-2 hours — tour 10-15 public and 3-4 private schools and that’s basically a whole month of mornings given up for kindergarten research. I’m really thankful that Miraloma has weekend and evening tours (even if it’s not a school we’ll consider).

McKinley Elementary and Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy are also within walking distance. I’ve heard that McKinley’s after school program has a wait list that is more than a year “long.” I don’t know what we’d do if Lucy’s school didn’t have an after school program — we both work fulltime and neither of us could pick her up in the middle of the afternoon.

I’m wondering how to manage a 5pm pickup time every day because I’ve heard most after school programs for kindergarten stop at 5pm. If my daughter is at a school that takes me 30minutes to get to (via Muni or BART) from my downtown San Francisco office, then I would need to leave work by 4:30pm at the latest every day. That’s not always possible for me. What do two working parents do? Hire someone to pickup at 5pm and bring your kid home? Or do most families actually have a parent who can leave work at 4 or 4:30pm every day?

I noticed a question on the SFUSD application for Mother’s education level and Father’s education level and then it was suggested to me that leaving the Father’s information blank (my kid has two mothers and no father) might give our kid some “diversity” — I’m not sure I believe that.

We’re touring and applying to 3 private schools too, and they’ve been as I expected — very open/inclusive towards families with gay or lesbian parents (some San Francisco public schools don’t seem very open/inclusive) and almost exactly opposite demographics of the public schools. My olive skinned Irish/Italian daughter would be a minority at just about any San Francisco public school - which is fine by me and I don’t think she’d even notice — she would also be a minority at most of the public schools we’re considering because she wouldn’t qualify for free/reduced meals (but I don’t think she’d notice or care). She wouldn’t be a minority at just about any private school - and I also think she wouldn’t notice or care.

It’s a spaghetti mess of information and questions in my head. I figure we (me, my wife, our daughter) will be okay wherever she goes to Kindergarten and we can always, if necessary, switch schools for 1st or 2nd or a later grade.

Check out Leanne Waldal's blog at leannewaldal.com.

Interested in guest blogging for The SF K Files? Send Kate an email at thesfkfiles@gmail.com.

Friday, December 5, 2008

SFUSD's special education assignment process

An opinion piece in Beyon Chron: The Voice of the Rest, makes the case that SFUSD needs to rethink it's special education assignment process.

Katy Franklin, mother of a 3rd grade student at Creative Arts Charter School and a board member of SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, offers up specific ways the assignment policy should be changed to achieve greater equity for students requiring special needs:

Identify Student Needs First:
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), requires that Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) containing the child's educational needs must be written before placement decisions are made. Once the IEP is completed, the IEP team then chooses the placement. Unfortunately, IEPs tend to be written to fit into the district’s pre-existing programs, instead of to fit the individual student, and what results from that procedural error is a lot of unnecessary conflict and litigation.
Stop Combining Grade Levels: SFUSD’s practice of combining grade levels in its special education day classes is a major concern of teachers and parents. Mixing Kindergarten students with students through second grade, and third grade students with students through fifth grade is problematic. Safety issues and concerns arise because the children are vastly different in size.
Academically, the differences necessary in the curriculum for each student creates a nightmarish hodgepodge teachers must contend with when attempting classroom lesson planning. It is time for the district administration and the teacher’s union (UESF) to discuss possible changes to how these classrooms are currently configured.
Support Individualized Placement Decisions: Placements of children in special education are supposed to be individualized. There is nothing individualized about putting down a list of seven schools and having a computer run a random lottery to decide where your child goes to school. SFUSD special education administrators take the stance that “programs” are decided in IEP meetings, and that the “placements” made by the Educational Placement Office are not “decisions”, they are “assignments”. Such parsing of words only serves to upset parents, and is definitely not in keeping with the new SFUSD objective to “Create a culture of service and support.”

Parents of children with disabilities would like nothing better than for their children not to need special treatment, but having extra needs also means needing extra assistance, understanding, and accommodations in the schools. Too many complicated factors are at play to rely on special education decisions being made by lottery:
Facility Issues: Schools that are listed as meeting ADA requirements often are not fully accessible in terms of practical day-to-day use of the facilities
• Children should not have to wait for chairs and desks to be moved every time they need to move across a room.
• Children on playgrounds should not have to navigate across entire school grounds to find an accessible restroom.
• Not all ramps are safe for children in walkers or wheelchairs to use.
• Not all schools have Disability Transfer Zones for dropping-off or picking-up children.
• Emergency evacuation chairs at some schools are made for adults and are too big to be safely used to evacuate children.
• Not all schools have nurses; some children in special education require the presence of a nurse on campus.

Location Issues: The preferred location of the school is not always the one closest to home; sometimes it could be the school closest to where the parent or caregiver works.
• Parents of children in special education programs get calls from schools much more often than other parents, and have to contend with many more situations that require their presence at the school sites.

Provide Program Information on School Tours: People giving school tours rarely, if ever, mention anything about their school’s special education programs or accessibility issues, and are also unable to answer specific questions when asked. This is not surprising, there is no reason parent volunteers giving school tours should know all those details, but it does make searching for a school extremely complicated.

Ensure that Parents Can See Special Education Classrooms: Parents are routinely told that they may not view a specific special education classroom, because of supposed “privacy issues”, but how many parents would agree to place a child in a class they were not even allowed to look at?

To read the entire article click here.

What do you think of Franklin's proposed changes? Do you agree or disagree?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hot topic: First-grade lottery

An SF K Files visitor suggested the following topic:

"There are so many of us out there who didn't get into a public kindergarten last year. Some of us found private schools, some of us moved out of SF, and others kept our kids in preschool one more year. In any event a number of us will be trying for a public school spot in the SF 1st grade lottery. There aren't any clear numbers on which schools tend to have more 1st grade applications than others."

This Friday: Additional tours of Jose Ortega

This Friday, I'll be helping lead two additional tours of Jose Ortega Elementary School at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. (Tours are typically given on Tuesdays.) If you can, please call the school to sign up: 469-4726. Thanks! Best, Kate

P.S. Please feel free to advertise other school tours in the comments section.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Reviewed by Meredith
(toured 11/12/08)

Location: 680 18th Avenue @ Cabrillo, Richmond map
School hours: 8:30 - 2:40pm (yard opens at 8:15)
Tel: 750-8460
Fax: 750-8460
Principal: Robin Sharp
Web site: Apparently a PTO website exists but not clear if it is maintained
School tours: Wednesdays, 8:45am
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 70
Total student body: 407

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

An extra 5 weeks of instruction in the summertime; Russian language enrichment; strong arts enrichments; a nice library and computer facility; a variety of on- and off-site afterschool options; a mixed grade classroom option at every grade level.


Argonne is situated in one of the newer buildings in SFUSD, one opened in 1997. At this point it is no longer the newest in the district (see Dianne Feinstein ES) however it is in a relatively new, modern and very clean building. A large multi-purpose room serves as both gym, auditorium and cafeteria.

The large playground at Argonne is almost entirely blacktop, with a large play structure in the middle. It seemed in good shape and neither stood out nor seemed in need of anything. In comparison to other SFUSD schools, there seems to be less greenery, e.g. lack of a garden space. The Kindergarten students have a separate play yard that is connected directly from most of the K classrooms.

After School programs

Three options onsite: YMCA ($320/month), RDASC (Richmond District After School Collaborative, $200/month?), Cantonese After-school (Both RDASC and YMCA have dedicated rooms on site, which appeared to have interesting art and student work displayed.)

Bus service to several additional options: Sutro, JCC, Nihonmachi, Rosa Parks, Presidio

There is also limited before school child care - basically a qualified grad student babysitter (so described by the tour guides) who can provide care from 7-8:15 for families who really need to start early.


Argonne has an active PTO, which raises in the realm of $100k per year. The two major fundraisers are an annual Giving appeal to all families (write a check), and a spring Mayfair community fundraiser event, kind of a carnival and silent auction with fun kid-oriented activities. The funding supports the Reading Team, a tutoring service for targeted small groups of students who need additional literacy support; arts enrichments (see tour impressions); a PE consultant and new this year, a PT computer consultant. And, a discretionary fund for the teachers.

Language program(s):

Russian, introduced in 2008-09 for K-1 with 1 class added each year (e.g. K-2 in 2009-10, etc.). This is a FLES program with 30 minutes of language and culture instruction each week. Also a fee-based Chinese after school program which offers Cantonese in K, and Mandarin in grades 1-5.

Tour Impressions

First off, congratulations* to Rachel Norton, Argonne school tour leader and newly elected member of the SFUSD School Board. It says a lot about her that she is here leading tours, staying involved on the ground. And she, as well as the principal Robin Sharp, seemed likeable, experienced and worthy of trust.

I'm going to be honest, I've toured 8 or 9 schools so far and the fatigue is setting in. A nice hallway of colorful art is just not enough to get me excited at this point in the game. What does get me excited is Argonne Alternative's cool, year-round curriculum. What makes this school completely unique in SFUSD is the 5 week summer program (grades 1-5), followed by a 2 week break, after which the school follows the regular SFUSD schedule (end of August to early June). These kids have 205 school days compared to 108 for the rest of the SFUSD schools. The year round schedule was credited for giving teachers some ability to pace the teaching of the curriculum, having 5 extra weeks to cover the material. It also allows for some of the enrichments and field trips. One tour guide noted it is not a good option for families who plan extended trips to visit family or travel extensively over the summer. The 5 week summer session is real school and not optional. If your kid goes to Argonne, missing the summer days counts as absences!

For incoming K students, the Argonne school year begins with a 2-week "orientation" where the 70 incoming students spend time getting to know each other and the K teachers. After these two weeks, the K classes are built, with an eye towards balancing the classrooms for things such as preschool or not, what kind of learners there are, which kids might develop well together. Rachel argued that this is a big advantage for Argonne compared to other schools, and pays dividends all year round.

It should be noted there are 3 1/2 K classes, the 1/2 being part of a K/1 mixed class. There are mixed grade classes in all levels at Argonne: 1 mixed K/1 and 1 2/3 class. All 4/5 classes are mixed grades (i.e. there is no single 4th or 5th grade class). For kids in these classes, they spend 2 years in the same class with the same teacher. It's the right choice for some kids and perhaps not for others (in the lower grades). Principal Sharp said her teaching experience was in mixed age classrooms and she is a proponent of the method.

Walking into the K classrooms, they felt spacious, well organized, and really like what a prototypical K classroom should include: a rug for circle time, circular table clusters for small group activities, a reading nook, a playing area. The instruction in most classrooms we observed (at all grades) seemed to skew towards individual group work - writing projects or math assignments. One teacher was instructing her K students on capitalization rules. The students mostly ignored the touring group; they were too busy learning.

For some reason the usual touring questions about: bullying; science curriculum; math curriculum did not come up. Relying on the xeroxed information sheets (practically mimeographed), it appears Argonne is a Caring School Community type of school. Principal Sharp said that the kids do a lot of science but didn't relay specifics (it was an offshoot of another question).

New this year is the Russian language FLES program, which is grant funded (didn't hear how long the grant is for). The choice of Russian language reflects some of the school demographics, which like the local neighborhood is heavily Chinese and Russian. (Though Argonne is an Alternative school, it was speculated that there is perhaps a strong neighborhood self-selection in who lists Argonne.)

The arts program is organized into 2 12-week semesters, with some students getting dance and the others getting chorus in the fall, then flipping the other way in the spring. In addition, Argonne uses Art in Action, which is a parent-led art curriculum. Rachel gave an enthusiastic endorsement of it, saying the curriculum is very clear for a parent to lead, and offers activities such as study of a famous work and its technique or significance, followed by a hands-on student activity creating artworks inspired by that study. The resulting artworks in the hallway were generally very aesthetically pleasing, though honestly there was a strong cookie-cutter feeling to it. One wall had 20 van gogh-esque "starry nights", another had a bunch of sunflowers. However it certainly seemed like an interesting addition. (And there was some artwork in the classrooms that had a lot of creativity, particularly some Day of the Dead inspired altar dioramas in the 4/5 class.)

The dedicated computer lab is filled with seemingly brand new Macs. The students visit once a week and the activities are organized by their classroom teacher. As noted above, this year there is a new part-time computer consultant who will, one hopes, assist the teachers in developing computer-based activities that complement the regular classroom studies. One parent tour leader explained that a 2nd grade class had participated in a program to learn typing skills. In this era, that is probably the most practical thing a kid could learn. A 3rd grade class used some software to create comic-book style stories.

The stop through the library was brief; the tour leader said the books are in a digital catalog and had positive things to say but I couldn't hear the specifics. The librarian was engaged in a reading session with a class so we did not get to speak with her.

After reviewing my notes and everything I've written, I'll say that Argonne certainly offers a lot to the students and famliies it serves. With almost 45% free and reduced lunch students, it manages to score in the mid-/upper 800's API every year. It seems like the folks over at Argonne really know what they are doing, have strong and consistent leadership and well, they are onto a good thing.