Monday, December 1, 2008

Argonne

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.

Campus/Playground

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.

PTO

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.

18 comments:

  1. Will Argonne's extra days of instruction be cut in the future, though, with the budget situation as tight as it is?

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  2. Thanks for another thorough review, Meredith. Small typo correction: regular schools have 180 days (not 108 as you state), compared to Argonne's 205.

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  3. Thanks for the correction, I meant to say 180 and that would be quite a difference!

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  4. I toured Argonne this morning. Although I only have one other school to compare it to, I was blown away. It seems the additional 5 weeks of school time enables much extra "enrichment" - project-based learning, field trips, plenty of art and music, deeper learning of a topic. Also, teachers are more relaxed and flexible, being that there's more time to get in all the requirements. Computer lab, library, gymnasium - all amazing.

    I do like the year-round schedule, however we will have to consider this heavily as all of our relatives are out of town whom we like to visit somewhat regularly. I'm actually wondering now why more schools don't do a year-round program, especially with all the testing pressure. Teachers still take off 25 days per year and they bring in regular substitutes that the kids know, so there's no parties or chaos when the subs come in.

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  5. 2:44 - what does it mean that the teachers take 25 days off each year? Is this done so the district doesn't have to pay for the extra time in the year-round schedule?

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  6. 6:33 - She made it sound like they're required to take off 25 days....like it was above their control. Could be wrong....I didn't get details. She said each teacher will take the time off in a different way, at their choice. Some will take off every Friday (with the same sub every Friday). Some will take off the time all at once. Their subs are often retired teachers and the kids are as familiar with the subs as their regular teachers.

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  7. I believe its contractual, that the teachers do not have to work more than the 180 days plus some prof development time.

    The District would still be paying for substitute.

    But if its better for the students, seems like we throw enough money at education, its just a matter of spending it wisely (no pun intended).

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  8. There's inconsistency with the teachers being contractually gone for25 days to accommodate the extra days in the school year.

    And unless they can guarantee the SAME sub each time, sounds a bit 'random.'

    The principal didn't seem to have a strong vibe of leadership. Anyone else get that?

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  9. Thank you for a very thorough, honest review of Argonne. I can tell you observed keenly and I know you remained "incognito" as I have no idea which parent you were on the tour I led!

    To clear up a few things about our extended year schedule: Contractually, the teachers work 180 days per year, and since Argonne is in session 205 days per year, each teacher gets 25 floating substitute days throughout the year.

    This sounds like a negative, but in practice it works out fine. Because we use so many subs, we have a very stable sub pool and it is very rare that there is a sub at the school who hasn't taught one of my children at least a few times. For example, my daughter's third grade teacher chose to take most of her days between Thanksgiving and Winter Break this year. She arranged with a substitute who is very well known to us, a parent at the school who pretty much teaches every day in one classroom or another, to fill the entire time. Quite honestly my daughter can't decide which teacher she loves more - her regular classroom teacher or "Ms. J," the substitute.

    Very occasionally we have a random sub but I would wager it is far less often than other schools, because teachers plan their time off far in advance and arrange for preferred subs to come in and teach in their place.

    As far as our program being cut, of course there are no guarantees, ever, for any program. But as one poster pointed out, our schedule actually works better for working parents than the regular one. This is a model we've proved can be very successful, and my argument as a BOE member would be that we should be expanding such a program rather than cutting it back. And as an Argonne parent myself of course I would be a strong advocate for keeping the program.

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  10. Rachel, thanks for commenting. Just wondering, does the Argonne site council pay for the extra 25 teacher days per classroom + whatever else overhead there is for those days out of the same weighted student money that each site council has to work with? That is, are you "buying" those extra days just as other schools "buy" class size reduction or literacy support or art classes, and this how Argonne chooses to spend the money? Or do you have access to an extra pot of money somehow?

    Asking because....if it is a beneficial strategy, how come other district schools are not doing it, especially in under-performing schools whose kids may benefit from extended learning, esp if they do not have access to enriched vacation activities. I assume because--with a similar pot of money, they are choosing other strategies such as reading recovery programs, etc. I wonder if anyone has done a study showing which strategies work best. Though wouldn't it be great if we had enough money to do them ALL (and the Pentagon had to hold a bakesale to buy their bombers, as the poster said that hung in my mother's kitchen back in the 1970's....)

    Thanks.

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  11. Though Argonne has been around since at least 1920 or so, it was re-conceptualized in the late 1970s as an extended year school (at that time many districts were experimenting with alternative schedules). So the extended year program is not something the site council "buys" - it is a core aspect of the school program itself.

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  12. So glad that Argonne is now on your list! We have our two kids there and we are thrilled with the progress they are making.

    We hope more folks who read this blog will consider Argonne for next year!

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  13. Thanks for the response, Rachel.

    Wow, that is cool that Argonne kids get the extended learning opportunity of 25 extra days, PLUS their regular site council money per weighted student formula. I suppose the schedule does not work for all families, but in dollars and cents terms the Argonne families are getting high value with those extra days.

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  14. Hate to burst anyone's bubble, but our friends with an Argonne kindergartener report an over-reliance on worksheets to keep the kids quiet and busy. Their son is already reading and the teacher's approach to keeping him engaged is to give him *more* (not harder) worksheets (circle the things that start with "g" is hardly challenging for a kid who is already reading).

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  15. Also, this is a very hard school to get into, and nobody got in off the wait pool this year as far as I know, since those of us who got nothing off of their top 7 in any round this past year got in.

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  16. This may be a rarity, but my friend listed this as her #1 school out of 7 and she got in, first round. Lucky draw I guess.

    Keep the faith!

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  17. Good luck getting in if your kid is not at least 50% Chinese. Won't happen.

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