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

Interested in guest blogging for The SF K Files? Send Kate an email at


  1. You are speaking from my heart. We are also a two-mom-family and like you I feel similar in many ways. We have twins - so there is some added anxiety in as much as getting them into the same school. We have two cars, but we both have high pressure jobs and thus location is important as well. Our current preschool keeps the kids until 6, but we hardly ever do that. Most usually we try to juggle our day and one of us leaves work in order to pick them up around 5.
    As far as what we will list on lottery ticket I am thinking about listing both parents, rather than only one. Maybe I haven't thought through the advantages or disadvantages of that, but I'd be interested what others think. It's hard to believe that they couldn't have changed to parent 1 and 2 rather than mother & father on that form in a city like SF... We are European-bilingual (German) and I hope this might give us a diversity point. As far as the after school program, I try not worry too much - there's always a way to accomplish things. If we have the chance to get into a great school and be waitlisted for after-school, we'll take it and hire a babysitter for the time being. We had several live-in nannys when the babies were little and I'm sure an after-school babysitter can be found. The whole thing is mind-boggeling, and I can't wait until I can turn-in that application...but until then, I have to appologize a few more times to my boss and colleagues for late morning arrivals at work, in order to finish my K-school-tour reserach in time!

  2. Leanne, you raise so many interesting issues that I will be thinking about more. I especially like your review of Sanchez, which few people here will have considered due to the test scores and the high levels of poverty (versus middle class).

    In response to the question about afterschool, I am divorced, so when I have the kids I have no back-up AND I have to work. I am fortunate in having been able to work out with my boss that I leave at 4:30 on the weeks that I have the kids, and then I leave later on the weeks that I do not. Not everyone can do this, I realize. (Thanks, Boss, for the flexibility! What a difference it makes.)

    I do think you should make your list with some of these issues in mind, e.g., location and probability of afterschool care, but realize that things will evolve from what you are imagining. Solutions can usually be found. Many schools have buses that transport kids to off-site afterschool care, for example.

    Btw, Marshall is a wonderful school with an established and active, if small, LGBT parent group, and I know that several lesbian parents have played a leadership role in the site council and program development there. I believe they have had some "rainbow family"-type events every year, like dinners and picnics. Harvey Milk is a school that takes diversity and community-building very seriously. I know of a couple of lesbian families there. I would definitely check those two out; based on what you have written here, they are worth your time to tour.

  3. Hey there LW - it's Maia's mom from school. Great post!! On the aftercare situation, which schools have programs that end at 5pm? I don't think I have ending times for all of the schools I've looked at, but the ones I've noted run until either 6 or even 6:30.

    Hang in there...

  4. Leanne, if location is super-important due to the car issue, consider putting Alvarado down twice (GE and SI programs). It's very popular so chances are your daughter won't get it, but it would help fill out your list to seven. Then if do get it by some miracle, great--you've got a good school that is walkable or bus-able from the Castro area (#35 or #24) and has a quality afterschool program that runs until 6pm. If you don't, well, at least you will have filled out your list with a school that is logistically accessible.

    Another idea is Yick Wo, since it has a bus stop at Valencia/18th.

  5. If you work downtown, then Marshall could work well as it is on BART, and the 22 Fillmore goes back up the hill toward Castro/Duboce area where it sounds like you may be.

    Yick Wo isn't that far from downtown (depending on which side of downtown, though), and as the poster points out there is a bus from the Mission.

    Another thought--Rosa Parks, accessible by the 22 Fillmore from the Castro and the 33 Geary from downtown; and I believe they bus kids to the Columbia Boys and Girls afterschool on Guerrero and 17th in the afternoon.

    Also Daniel Webster has buses from 17th/18th and Guerrero in morning and afternoon--and they have that brand-new Spanish Immersion program! I bet this is the last year it will be possible to get in with (some) ease. Not sure where their buses drop kids in terms of afterschool--maybe someone can answer--but it looks like Las Americas in the Mission, and possibly the same Boys and Girls Club on Guerrero.

    May be worth looking into school bus routes in general. My kids have taken the yellow school bus since kinder. I work and also am in a one-car family, and I don't get the car too much except on special occasions. I rely on the school buses for them and MUNI/walking/BART for me, so I totally get your concern.

    Anyway, you can find the bus routes for all the schools on the sfusd website on the Transportation Dept page.

  6. Where did you see the question about mother (or fathers) education level? I understood that stopped being one of the diversity questions several years ago. I am certain it was not one when we applied last year.
    Good luck with the process and thanks for the review.

  7. Re LGBT-friendly schools, as you probably know the district policies (questions on applications aside) are generally good. As a district veteran I would also say that more and more individual schools are becoming intentional about their welcome of LGBT families and those with other "diverse family structures." Sometimes in large ways, like assemblies coupled with programming on the kids' many different ways of making families (2 moms, 2 dads, mom + dad, divorced families, single parents, grandparents raising kids, foster kids, adopted kids....) and on (i.e., against) discrimination and intolerance. Sometimes in smaller ways, with special get-togethers for gay families and staff to come together.

    Alvarado, mentioned in a post above, is stellar on this issue. Very hard to get into, but would make a reasonable school to add up to your seven. The principal is openly gay, plus at least one teacher, and many families (lesbian moms and gay dads), and they have had a gay pride/family diversity day for years. They also sponsor events for gay families and staff.

    Harvey Milk would also be a great option to consider as they are so focused and intentional on building community in diversity. There are definitely active gay families there. Not sure about specific programming.

    Marshall's community may not be as visible but as mentioned above there are several quite active LGBT families. It's a small school with a great sense of community across several diversity vectors. A real gem in a gritty (but gentrifying) neighborhood.

    Rosa Parks may be too far away for you, but I do know of at least one gay (male, 2 dads) family that is very happy there. I don't know how intentional they are about their welcome of LGBT families, but I haven't heard of problems either.

    I've heard McKinley is fine on this issue but am not aware of specific programming around it. Perhaps someone else can chime in.

    Don't know about Yick Wo that was also mentioned, or Daniel Webster.

    Where else are you looking? Where have you heard good things about a welcome for LGBT families? I'm sure there are others who would use this information as a starting place.

  8. I know this is total hearsay but a family with 2 moms I know had to move out of state and they said one of the hardest things was leaving the incredibly welcoming community at McKinley -- and their kid hadn't even started kindergartent yet, this was just all the events and contact they had after they got their spot the spring before.

  9. Wow! Thanks for all the advice!

    We thought about the school bus and decided we're not really interested in any school that requires a school bus for our kid because if she's on a bus then I probably can't easily get to the school by walking or a short MUNI or BART ride - and then I am not likely to be very involved in the school (and it wouldn't be easy for me to get there if she needed unexpected pickup).

    Location close to home (on the north side of the mission) is super important to us.

    We're considering moving to the neighborhood where our daughter is in school - if she ends up in a school that's not near our current home. So that opens up other possibilities for us - as long as the school is in a neighborhood we like!

    I know plenty of parents won't/aren't considering schools with high poverty (high %'s of free or reduced lunch). I was a free/reduced lunch kid for a lot of my childhood and I'm not convinced that high poverty levels necessarily mean that a school wouldn't be a good fit for us.

    The question about mother/father education is on the SFUSD application as information for reporting purposes only. It's at odds with the Parent/2ndParent designations at the top of the form. I wondered if it was because "federal" reporting doesn't easily recognize families with two mothers or two fathers.

    I don't remember exactly which afterschool programs end at 5pm - at least one of the schools we're considering stops kindergarten afterschool at 5pm - it might be Marshall.

    My daughter's currently at a preschool where she is (as far as I can tell) the only kid with two moms or two dads and she has had some questions from kids since she was 2 years old (about why she doesn't have a dad) that she fielded really well. She'll probably do fine in a school where she is the only one, but, of course, it'd be nice if she's not the only one.

    Some other schools I've noticed or heard (from friends) that are obviously lgbt friendly are Miraloma, Creative Arts, Argonne, Grattan.

    Another two-mom family I know is also interested in Sherman, Lafayette, and New Traditions - so I'm guessing those might have some obvious lgbt-friendliness attributes.

    I'm particularly glad to hear other people write about the positive aspects of Marshall! It's just a few blocks from my house (in my gritty/gentrifying neighborhood :)

  10. Hi Leanne, the Tutoring Center at Marshall is open onsite until 6pm during the school year. They also have summer programming. It is run by an organization called Mission Graduates, formerly known as St. John's Educational Thresholds Center, and the main office is centered on 16th Street near Mission, in a storefront up from BART. This is a non-profit with a long history of quality educational work in the North Mission.

    A little history, it was originally founded by the very gay-friendly Episcopalian church on 15th near Mission, across from Centro Latino--I think the tutoring actually used to be at the church--but ETC, then Mission Graduates under the new name, has long been independent and completely non-sectarian which is how it can now be onsite at Marshall. I believe the afterschool program is also free!

    However, spaces are limited to 120 kids; I'm not sure how one gets on the list or what the priorities are for them in terms of sign-ups.

    Some other Marshall kids go over to Columbia Boys and Girls on Guerrero and others to CYO further down on Fair Oaks near 23rd. One of the Marshall school buses transports the kids.

    I'm sure if you go on tour and ask around at Marshall, or ask through PPS, you can find lgbt families at Marshall to chat up about the school's welcoming attitude and lots of other stuff too, including the afterschool situation.

    I am positive that your daughter could do well in a school with free lunch levels such as Marshall's, basically because of your and your wife's good attitude and strong support--this makes all the difference anyway--plus good teaching and a great sense of community. Kids from solid educational family backgrounds can do very well in these situations, and the mixing provides support to the kids whose family educational backgrounds are not as strong.

    --North Mission amateur historian and activist who is very glad to see you talking up the 'hood!

  11. Mission Graduates also runs Beyond the Bell, the afterschool program at James Lick Middle School.

  12. I didn't realize there were so many passionate North Mission people reading this blog!

    Mission Graduates, aka SJETC, also started the project to make KidPOWER Park on Goff behind the Wells Fargo between 16/17 Streets. They were doing some kind of urban planning thing with the kids one summer and the kids pointed out many liquor stores and bars (many) compared to the number of parks (0). They worked for years to get the land, find funding from city and state, and bring it to fruition. KidPOWER is used by Marshall and the Tutoring Center, I believe, and they keep one of the sets of keys to the park. You can sometimes see them going back and forth from the school.

  13. daniel webster, where we are, is 89% free lunch. the school is nothing like a miraloma or clarendon, but the children are super and we need other parents who can chip in a little to make things better for everyone.

    at daniel webster, my children are getting a language immersion experience and they are getting exposure to a huge population of kids i might not otherwise be able to introduce them to. lets face it - san francisco is not as integrated as some may think. we live in close quarters but rarely do we (like those of us at home with internet access) get to develop relationships with families who rely on food banks. it has been a great experience for me so far and i think my children will recognize it as such in the future.

    i watched my kids play today after school for an hour with a great group of kids. without an adult to organize, a bunch of kinders started a game of dodge ball, agreed on some very fair rules, and included everyone to play. yes, my kids have it all - organic milk and sigg bottles, a nice apartment, a decent car with carseats. very few of these kids have these things and it makes no difference to them. yep, they're young and it will probably change. but right now it is nice to see.

  14. Contact Parents for Public Schools to ask to talk to parents at all the schools mentioned here - there are plenty of LGBT parents ready and willing to provide their perspectives on Marshall, Daniel Webster, and more!

    Call 861-7077 or email

    Nothing like hearing it from a fellow parent!

  15. So great to see an LGBT family featured prominently on this blog. I am also in a 2-mom family and feel like there are unique issues for LGBT families in choosing schools, so I hope there will be more about this on here.

    I have been through the K process already. Schools that I thought were open/welcoming to LGBT families were:
    Grattan, Miraloma, Harvey Milk, Clarendon, Clare Lilienthal, Sherman, Creative Arts, Rosa Parks

    We had a number of experiences talking to representatives from different schools where they said having alternative families were "not an issue" - I found this concerning b/c if a principal thinks it is not an issue it makes me think he/she is not paying attention enough to know how to address the inevitable issues that will and do come up.

    Anyway, good luck with your search and I will look forward to reading about it more on here.

  16. @Anonymous 9:47pm
    I contacted Parents for Public Schools to ask for an introduction to a parent ambassador from Sanchez and they told me they didn't have a parent ambassador from Sanchez. They suggested I talk with the parent liaison - which I did, though I wanted to talk with a parent from the school who's not an employee and I never found one.

  17. Starr King seems to be a very two-mom friendly school also...I think three two-mom families in kindergarten alone.

  18. I'm gay like you, and I have to say, at the end of the day, my experience is that it doesn't matter. This is San Francisco. You are going to be welcomed wherever you go, in this system.

    Please don't forget that picking a school in your part of town can be a moot issue if there is a great bus line. I live in the Mission/Noe area, and my kid goes clear across town to Yick Wo. Russian Hill/ North Beach. Who knew? But we love it! It's a killer school, and the bus stops at Bernal and at 18th and Valencia. My girl LOVES the bus ride over there in the morning and in the afternoon, and it's made my life wonderful. The parents on this side of town are tight.

    Convenience and a quality education are the important things, not your being gay. Or the kids having free lunch. I was pretty surprised when I learned that, because I hadn't known. My two cents, Ok?

    Finally, I also have to say that I had a bias about a good mix of kids too. I wanted diversity, like you. True diversity, which means not all disadvantaged, not all rich, not all white, not all asian, not all one thing or another. I didn't even look at schools that were more than 80% of one group. It's hard to get more than 20% white in any school. My kid's class has about 40%. But again, that has ended up being irrelevant too.

    It's the education that counts, and the teacher. Look past the kids and look at the teachers. I can honestly say that all those other concerns fade once your kid hooks into his/her teacher and is part of the class, and I suppose, that's my point. They could all be wearing rags and the school could be a barn. If the teacher rocks, your kids will thrive.

    This is not to say funding isn't important.

    I'm just sharing what I learned. I'm very happy with my public school, and if you look, you might start seeing things outside the compartments, and start seeing things from your kid's point of view. Maybe ten years from now this issues will be important, but for now, your kid is in an innocent naive bubble, and keeping them that way for as long as possible is a gift. They won't see the world the same way we did.

  19. Surprisingly, some of the schools in areas perceived as more conservative can be quite welcoming. In particular, we've noticed a bias against schools on the westside of the city among lesbian and gay parents. But we're a two-daddy family and we've been at one for four years and feel completely at home. And some of the worst bullying of children of lesbian and gay parents that we have heard about has happened in schools on the east side of the city. So go figure. I'd recommend not being closed to any particular area or just go with the herd and open your mind -- you might like what you see!

  20. 9:32 makes a good point about bus riding. Don't let that rule you out!

    We ride a bus, and the once or twice per month that we actually do drive to the school takes all of 20 minutes. Across town. SF is a small city, and 20 minutes is nothing. My sister in the suburbs drives 30 minutes to her school and considers herself really close to it.

    20 minutes. And most of the time, the bus prevents you from doing that 20 minutes.

    My kids LOVE the bus and the friends they make have proven to be our best friends.

    If you are a NOE family and you limit yourself to school in your area, you have mighty slim pickins. There are so many great schools in the city, and they don't have the hype or the problems other schools have in the Noe area.

  21. To followup to this post -- I meant to post months ago and mention that we were offered a spot in a private school that we love and we also were assigned to the school that we put in the first spot on our public school application (Milk). I call it the "first spot" instead of "first choice" because it's not really a "choice" here in SF. Given the economy and uncertainty of our income and work/jobs, we decided to decline the private school (that was difficult for us since we love that school) and go with public school. Our daughter's starting at Harvey Milk this fall, we discovered other people who we already know whose kids are starting at Milk in the fall, and we're really looking forward to it!

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