Monday, September 21, 2009

Debbie's Story: 1) Scheduled My First Tour, and 2) Wow

1) I scheduled our first school tour! Commodore Sloat. And truth be told, we really want to like this school. It’s relatively close to our home, the data seems to indicate that this is a solid school, and it doesn’t have buzz around it like some of the others so we think our chances of getting in are decent if we put it as #1. My husband and I will tour it in October so I’ll let you all know how it goes! If anyone has information to share about this school, please do. There's a new principal there this year so I'd be particularly interested in hearing about how that's going.

2) Regarding my "Decisions, Decisions" post and all the comments…wow. As I mentioned in "My First Post", blogging is a very new experience for me. I’m typically a fairly private person (I’m the person at the party who’s kind of quiet and asks you lots of questions about yourself rather than talking about myself), and I knew that I would be putting myself out there as a blogger, but….wow. Okay, I’ll stop saying wow now.


I’m in this for the long haul, and I’ll keep putting myself out there, warts and all. And you keep up the diversity of opinion, experiences, and wealth of knowledge. There’s something for everyone so thanks for sharing. I really think we all do the best we can, at the time, with the information we have and what we have to work with, at the time. Here’s to all the decisions we’ve made so far as parents that we feel good about - may there be many more to come!

34 comments:

  1. My kindergartener attends Commodore Sloat - we got in off the waitlist at the end of the first week of school. We love it so far. It just works so well for our family and is a great fit.

    In retrospect, I wish we would have cut to the chase by listing it as our #1 in Round 1. (We listed it as #5.) This would have saved ourselves the heartache of going 0/7 in Round 1, getting a great school with a tough commute for Round 2, and crossing our fingers that we'd eventually get Sloat through waitlisting. We got lucky in the end but it was a very stressful process.

    I fell in love with Sloat during our tour last winter. There are so many things going for it: good diversity, huge school grounds with an extensive learning garden, solid test scores, easy parking, cafeteria and auditorium, MARE program, split teachers in the upper grades, light airy classrooms, happy kids, and so on. The location was the only downfall for us. It's an easy commute from home but not very close and definitely not walkable. *sniff*

    The new principal was a surprise. I think she's doing a good job but what do I know? I obviously don't have anything to compare to. Regardless, it's still early in the school year. She has 15 years experience in education but this is her first time as a principal.

    I've jumped in head first with volunteering as much as I can and as often as I can. My son loves his school and always wants to wear his Commodore Sloat zip-up sweatshirt.

    We are very happy there.

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  2. Welcome, Debbie. I was as surprised as you probably were about the number of nerves struck by an off-hand comment about a stroller. I'm interested in CS, too, and look forward to your post.

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  3. Hi Debbie,

    Commodore Sloat is a fine school, and if you love and it is convenient for you, then by all means list it as #1.

    One caution: it is not a shoo-in. If you look at the 5-year demand data that is available on both SFUSD and PPS-SF websites, you see that CS received 365 total requests in Round 1 for 66 available slots (22 slots in 3 kindergartens, presumably). If 25% of these slots were taken by siblings (this is variable year to year), then you would be competing for, say, one of 50 slots with 349 families also in the mix. What's that, 1 in 7 odds? 14%?

    On the good news side, these odds are not as horrible as Clarendon's, which had 1700 requests for 110 spots in their two programs. Also, CS received only 62 first-place apps. It is possible for children who add to the diversity profile to get the spot at #2-7, but it does help somewhat to have it at #1; in a tie-breaker, you win at #1 over a #2-7. Many of those other 349 families will get another, higher slot elsewhere. And if you are in the neighborhood assignment area for CS that might also help you (look on the sfusd in the enrollment guides to find these boundaries).

    My take-away for this would be to list it as #1 if you want it. No problem with that at all. You might get lucky, and you can also waitpool which further increases your chances of ending up there. HOWEVER, I would consider adding some schools to your list that are closer to 1:1 or better odds, at least based on recent past history. Such as:

    Sunnyside, which had 169 requests for its 66 spots (it has risen very quickly, so it could go higher this year). And last year, only 20 first-place apps. Again, I would expect that to increase.

    Glen Park, which had 124 requests for its 22 non-Sp bilingual kindergarten, but only 14 first choice requests; I think Glen Park is poised for an upsurge and it is worth checking out on tour and also talking to parents about it.

    Also Jose Ortega, which had 79 requests overall and 19 first-place requests for its 22 Mandarin immersion program spots. I expect demand for this one will continue to rise, and it is also true that English-speaker spots are limited in Round 1 (but they open up in subsequent rounds!).

    Or Jose Ortega gen ed, which had 27 requests for 44 spots last year, and only 5 first-place requests. This school is improving every year, and has some middle class presence/energy with the Chinese language program, so is worth checking out.

    Would you consider driving around via the 280 to Paul Revere or Taylor (your not-poor family might add diversity to its profile and be able to get in despite 211 overall apps last year....it is a Blue Ribbon School). Or even Daniel Webster way around on the 280. Sounds crazy, I know, but I don't know your commute patterns and that school is totally worth checking out. Your kid would have a chance to spend part of the day out of the fog zone too ;-).

    I've posted before about this. I just keep wanting to hammer away on the NUMBERS: look at the 5-year-demand data. Following the quantitative data from past years is not a guarantee, and you have to have some sense of which schools have buzz and are moving up this year. But the data paint a far more accurate picture then a feeling or what someone told you on the playground of what is or is not a popular school.

    My 2 cents of advice is to include at least two schools on your list with approximately 1:1 or better odds, if you can. Or a school to which you add diversity.

    If you don't do this, then I urge you to have a strategy for dealing with 0/7 (a back-up plan, or willingness and nerves of steel to wait through the waitpools).

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  4. How do you know when the tours start? Is there a list somewhere, or is it a matter of calling each school?

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  5. Call the school or go to their website to find out when they have tours. Some require registration and some you just show up - most seem to require registration.

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  6. Some general advice for you and other new parents going through the process.

    Reading between the lines, it seems that you (Debbie) are trying to keep a level headed, “it will all work out and I am not going to get too obsessed about this because anywhere my daughter ends up really isn’t going to be that good or that bad”. Unfortunately, while this is generally true and an attitude I would encourage you to maintain, one of the reasons this process is maddening is that you and your husband will still need to make actual *choices* but in reality the actual process will be largely out of your hands. You are encouraged to think you have some control but in reality, that control is very limited until you are faced with concrete options to which you can actually say yes or no.

    I would say the most useful thing is to clarify what is most important to you and your family and to be brutal about cutting out options that do not meet your core needs. A 7:50 AM start time across town too problematic? Don’t waste time visiting a school and fantasize about your kid there doing art projects. It just muddies the picture. The process goes faster than you think and the sooner you can get to a solid good-enough list, then anything else will just drive you crazy because, remember, you are not really in control of the process.

    If you are considering privates as well, that just expands the choice universe and has its own pitfalls. Try to compartmentalize your mind to separate out the two paths. Become bi-polar in your assessments and don’t even really compare until you have actual solid options on the table. Don’t listen to the demagogues on either side of the divide. Trying to please other people is a sure path to driving yourself crazy.

    Finally, develop a back-up plan. Despite your best efforts, it can all go wrong and once again, you are not really in control of the process. Transitional K somewhere? K in a school you are not thrilled about to see how it goes and then try again in 1st? Move to Orinda? Just think about the worst case scenario and what you can live with.

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  7. More general wisdom from another --

    Remember first off that we are an unusual group to begin with doing this kind of research for elementary school. Most of our own parents never put this much thought into our first few years of school, and despite that, or maybe in some ways even because of it, most of us probably came out largely fine.

    It can be a wonderful thing in some ways to be a late bloomer, or a late learner, or someone driven independent of parents/caretakers to find interesting, educational, fun experiences.

    People thrive all over the place without this much focus. Here, it's just incredibly easy to get sucked into the whole belief system that K placement will influence a lifetime. It may, but there are so, so, so many interesting paths a person can take. And hardship isn't always a bad thing in terms of developing character, tolerance, ambition, perseverance, and pluck.

    Good Luck. Lots of possible outcomes could lead down rewarding paths.

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  8. I'm perceiving that Debbie, being new to the process, isn't sure if she'll like many of the schools.

    Well, occasionally we hear from someone who didn't like any of them and moved to Mill Valley or stuck with private. But in general, most parents seem to like many of the schools, or fall in love with one and like others too -- the big concern becomes getting into one.

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  9. We just started kinder also and have been so happy with the school so far!! Principal seems very kind and excited and the parent involvement is amazing! I'm so impressed with everything so far and am feeling very lucky. I hope you like it too!

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  10. I have to say I struggle...I have looked at both private (non-parochial) and public schools; parochial is not an option. The struggle I find is in the enthusiasm of the students and teachers at the privates that I do not see in the public schools. I have seen rooms full of kids that are passionate about learning in private school, where every child is outwardly engaged in the classroom. I have not seen the same in the public schools I have toured (so far, six schools, some hidden gems and some well subscribed). I am waiting to find that school...but have not found it. I am expanding my searches and will look at the charter school and more publics, but right now I have one public that I would consider as a choice and even that choice is with some hesitations. And before you judge, I take MUNI, work full-time, was educated in public school and am not rich by any stretch of the imagination.

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  11. 8:20 - Which public schools did you tour? IYO, what were the pros and cons re: these schools? Thanks

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  12. 8:20 p.m. here, I have toured McKinley, Yick Wo, Sutro, Peabody, Alamo and Rosa Parks for public schools. In my honest opinion, I cannot see me child at any of these schools because the students (which are driven by the lessons that are given by their teachers) lacked any real entusiasm for school. This is coupled with many incidents I witnesses on my brief tour. At one school, a parent lead tour, there was no teacher to be found in one of the class rooms we visited (2nd grade)...I was mortified as was the parent leading the tour. At another, the teacher was yelling at a student, likewise mortified. At a third, a child was hurt on the playground and no one even noticed until the parents on the tour called a teacher over. At a fourth, the principal was so clueless about the school, I knew the answers based on reading the website that they did not. These are basics, I am not asking for anything fancy.

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  13. I can't really comment on these incidents or impressions, but I have to say I have found that tours are close to useless as a way of understanding a school. Yet they are this thing that so many feel they have to invest so much time in--and during work hours too.

    I've done elementary and middle and elementary again. The larger tours with herds of parents are awful (and the same dumb questions get asked over and over--especially the one about "my brilliant child and how would you work with her giftedness?" The only tours that made any sense were the smaller schools where you could talk to someone or sit quietly in a classroom for a longer stretch of time. The open houses were better because there were teachers available who could answer questions (this was middle school level; don't know if any elementaries do these; I don't recall any).

    Better by far was finding real live parents at the schools and talking with them. I sought out parents who would have real conversation with me, for example about differentiated instruction in a school with widely different populations. Or, what's the day like in kinder, and how much do they get to move around? What is frustrating and what do they love about the place? Sometimes these were my friends, and others I found through friends of friends. I talked with several folks about my relatively small list of schools. You can ask the hard questions, and get a feel for the community.

    I'm not saying the incidents you saw weren't red flags. Just that you'll never know the context, good or bad, from a tour. And whatever you see, good or bad, will get magnified in your mind, even if was a total aberration.

    On the high school level, the kids get to "shadow" for a day in some cases. This strikes me as useful.

    The main reason I would tour if doing it again would be to see the physical plant, and to time how long it takes to get there from home during rush hour.

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  14. I always found calling Parents for Public Schools and asking to talk to a parent ambassador from schools to be a great help. They are not coached and you can get a 'parent to parent' perspective. It really helped me whittle down my choices. Not that some schools weren't great, but in some instances some schools just sounded like a better fit for our family.

    Now that I have a 7th and 5th grader, I can pretty honestly state that my kids would have done just fine in any of the schools we looked at. I also really have come to see that family values and priorities, in the end, are what makes the real difference for the kids. So if education is a priority to you and you practice that daily with your kids, it'll rub off.

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  15. Comm Sloat is a wonderful school
    that you should really consider having on your list. This school
    is sooo much better than so many others that parents on this blog really like. Remember, it's not just kinder you're looking at, it's up to 5th or 8th grade. Your child will be at the school for a while. It was a school on our list but didn't get in.
    We were lucky to get into a "trophy" school. I would have been extremely happy if my child had gotten Comm Sloat.
    By the way, their garden program is AMAZING. Some of their teaching methods are a bit different from other schools and I really took a liking to it. It's a great school!

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  16. Comm Sloat is a wonderful school
    that you should really consider having on your list. This school
    is sooo much better than so many others that parents on this blog really like. Remember, it's not just kinder you're looking at, it's up to 5th or 8th grade. Your child will be at the school for a while. It was a school on our list but didn't get in.
    We were lucky to get into a "trophy" school. I would have been extremely happy if my child had gotten Comm Sloat.
    By the way, their garden program is AMAZING. Some of their teaching methods are a bit different from other schools and I really took a liking to it. It's a great school!

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  17. Hey anyone with kids at the schools 8:20 didn't like want to comment on their kids' experiences at the school and/or on teachers at those schools?

    She found fault with: McKinley, Yick Wo, Sutro, Peabody, Alamo and Rosa Parks for public schools.

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  18. I can honestly say that I was more impressed than I expected to be when touring public elementary schools here last year. Generally speaking, I liked most of the schools I looked at.

    My husband and I are white-collar professionals with college educations. Both of us were public school educated (my husband is a product of SFUSD public schools).

    For reference's sake, I toured Rooftop, Grattan, Jefferson, Commodore Sloat, West Portal, Lawton, Clarendon, Miraloma, Argonne, New Traditions, Sutro, Peabody, McCoppin, and Creative Arts Charter.

    I think we have it pretty good here in San Francisco, where many schools perform at 800 API or above. I have friends in other cities and other states where the public schools do not perform nearly as well.

    10:42, I can vouche for Sutro. My son started this school year at Sutro before he was transferred to our waitlisted school. We loved Sutro and would still be there had the commute been easier. I have a friend whose son just started his 5th year at Sutro (he's in 4th grade). She raves about the school and is even a PPS Parent Ambassador. She and her son have had a great experience there.

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  19. We toured a number of privates as well as public last year, and I honestly do not agree with 8:20's perspective. I frequently saw bored, unengaged kids at the private schools (we did not look at parochial schools either), and yes, actually, a "missing" teacher at one of the most popular private coed schools. We liked a number of the private schools, but the level of engagement of the kids was not different between the private and public we saw.

    Our daughter is thrilled and engaged at her (admittedly extremely popular) public school, and so are all the other kids I have seen there, at any grade. Parents are enthusiastic and involved.

    There are many things that are great at the best independent school, but their advantages are about resources and the ability to cherry pick kids (not that I am condoning that), not in the enthusiasm of the kids and parents!

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  20. I just want to echo the suggestion that talking with parents that have children at the schools you are interested in can be more useful than the tours alone (or reading blog posts). Take the time to have a conversation, asking parents exactly *why* they love their schools. What they love may be something you are not looking for.

    Also, I found it most useful to talk with families that have older children - and thus more experience with more teachers/grades.

    We are at a school that I really was not impressed by when I toured. After I talked in detail about the school with families that have children there, we decided it would actually be a great fit for us. Now, 3+ weeks in, we are thrilled and expect it to be a great learning environment for our child. The more I learn about this school the more I like it.

    And, remember, no matter how much we try to play the odds and strategize, the public system is still a lottery.

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  21. Hi there:

    First, full disclosure - I am a CSS parent with a son in 1st grade. We had the school on our list in both rounds but not at the top, didn't get in, but waitlisted here and got in at the 10 day count last year.

    That said, I'm chiming in in support of our new principal, Jeanne. I am so, so delighted that she has come our way - she came here immediately after graduating from the UC Berkeley Principal Leadership Training Institute, and the timing is well suited to the current life-cycle of CSS. We have a strong cadre of parent leaders with long history and institutional knowledge, combined with a set of really energetic "newcomers" who are applying elbow grease, and joined with Jeanne's energy and ability to connect with families and kids, it's an exciting time. To add to that CSS has really strong teachers who have been with the school for a long time, tremendous physical assets (beautiful, old trees!, great auditorium, etc) and wonderful, wonderful kids. Look forward to showing this all off during our tours.

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  22. "I just want to echo the suggestion that talking with parents that have children at the schools you are interested in can be more useful than the tours alone (or reading blog posts). Take the time to have a conversation, asking parents exactly *why* they love their schools. What they love may be something you are not looking for. "

    Another suggestion might be to watch recess at the school, how well its supervised, how the kids interact, if there's any pushing, shoving or other incidents and how they're handled.

    I did a tour of SF Community and ('cos of their physical plant) wasn't that impressed, plus, as SF Community doesn't have a principal, the tour was done by a parent volunteer who wasn't a great salesperson.

    However, I went for a coffee with another parent and while walking back to my car, saw the kids playing in recess. I didn't see any aggression, and the teachers sang a song to the kids when they lined up praising good behaviour (sounds corny, but it worked). I went away with my socks charmed off and a much better opinion of SF Community. I'd have missed all that if I hadn't seen the recess.

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  23. I would suggest you go on the school tours at some of the privates as well. Take a look at the difference and make your own judgements. You are going to get a ton of naysayers on private education but it's worth it to get the viewpoint from that side of the fence as well.

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  24. School tours are just as useless for figuring out private as public! Worse in a way, because they are very skilled at marketing all their bells and whistles, but you don't get a feel for the community.

    Again, talk with actual parents in the community. Try to figure out what they love about it and why, and also what are the warts. You may have different priorities than they do, and that's fine, but try to figure out what's going on beyond the marketing (oops, admissions) department.

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  25. Another booster for Commodore Sloat here. I have a kinder and she is digging on it so far - high marks from a very opinionated five year old. We listed it as #1 in Round 1 and got in. Based on the demand data, we felt that we had a strong shot at getting in if we listed it as #1, and we got lucky! I'm really happy about our decision - saved us some heartburn over the summer. There's a decently diverse student body (though if you nitpick, yes, it can be more diverse from an ethnic and socioeconomic standpoint), a new and enthusiastic principal, before AND after school care for those who need it, good parent involvement, the kids are a good group overall. You get the sense that it's a supportive, happy place for all - kids, teachers, administration, families.

    Fingers crossed but my gut says that we made a great choice. I'd say that it's good for anyone who wants a neighborhood feel-ish type of school. It really does feel like a community.

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  26. Principals rarely lead school tours -- they have other priorities on their schedule -- so it's generally a given at public school that a parent volunteer will lead the tour.

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  27. "Principals rarely lead school tours -- they have other priorities on their schedule -- so it's generally a given at public school that a parent volunteer will lead the tour."

    Caroline, that's just not the case. I toured more than 25 schools, and about a third to half of the time the principal or deputy principal was the guide. And in most cases, if the principal didn't guide us, they met w/ the tour group for question. SF community was the rare exception.

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  28. I went to 10 tours. 3 were led by the principals. (including a very nice one on one tour with the principal of Redding) 4 met with the principals afterward. 3 were just the parents.

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  29. Redding is a great example of a tour that is worth it. They are a true hidden gem so you get the royal treatment and get to ask questions. The herd at Clarendon? Not so much.

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  30. Well, I stand corrected. I've been on many school tours where the principal met with the group, but never had one lead the tour. Assistant principals in a few cases, I guess. My point was that it's not the norm for the principal to do it.

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  31. maybe it is becoming more the norm. the lottery system has led many schools to "market" themselves as never before. not like the privates do, but nevertheless.

    i understand why this is. i get it. it is an information route in. i have come to think it is not the most useful way to learn about a school (of whatever type).

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  32. i am surprised that 8:20 found fault with peabody. i adore that school and made it my first choice. i made the choice to drive 25 minutes each way to it. i live in parkmerced and i placed it first over lakeshore, which is 3 minutes away from us and i also liked. i also work full time on the night shift and have another kid so it's not like i have nothing better to do than drive across the city twice 5 days a week. i think the school is that worth it. my son is so excited about learning in a way he wasn't before, his teacher "speaks my language", the parents are so cool and down to earth. the kids are nice. they have a new garden, new play structure and so much great afterschool enrichment. the building is ugly as sin but boy, does my family love that school

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  33. Heather: Ditto on Peabody. I also loved that school. The principal is wonderful--seems smart and has a huge heart. The parent body is dedicated and I specifically recall teachers from that tour. The building is a little funky but at the same time it was nice that it was so small. I think if someone wants a smaller, cozier school this is a great choice. This seems like a good fit for a kid who might be overwhelmed in a huge school with a humongous play ground. The small play area is very sweet.

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  34. Another Commodore Sloat parent here... It was our first choice, and our daughter is in kindergarten there. More on that in a sec.

    I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by all the schools you tour. The unsolicited advice I have for you is in agreement with others: this is (unfortunately) a numbers game (no "choice"). After your 12th tour and 8,000th heated debate with your spouse/partner over what you'll "choose"... be the one who doesn't lose your head and say "Oh, why not shoot the moon and put Rooftop*/Alice Fong Yu*/etc." Don't!!!

    List the darling school that deep down you liked even better... the one with the organized parent club and charismatic principal with a decent set of scores... Save your family the stress...
    *I'm not knocking those schools, of course!

    So far, Commodore Sloat has been impressive. It wasn't the most dazzling tour last year (no sales pitch given, really), but the curriculum, teachers, NEW PRINCIPAL (from what I can tell, she ROCKS!), organized Parents Club, afterschool enrichments,
    spaciousness, diversity, etc., have made a strong impression on our family. I hope you like it too.

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