Location: 680 18th Avenue @ Cabrillo, Richmond map
School hours: 8:30 - 2:40pm (yard opens at 8:15)
Principal: Robin Sharp
Web site: Apparently a PTO website exists but not clear if it is maintained
School tours: Wednesdays, 8:45am
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/PlaygroundArgonne 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 programsThree 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.
PTOArgonne 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.