Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hot topic: How are tours going?

An SF K Files reader suggested that we start a thread where readers can comment on tours they've taken thus far. Feel free to leave mini reviews of the schools you have seen thus far. Please try to keep things positive when you're discussing specific schools or make your criticism constructive.

36 comments:

  1. We're not touring this year, but I thought everyone would enjoy this little nugget: When my son was in kindergarten, he referred to the parents touring through his school as the "family parade".

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  2. Tours are not going well. So far, crossed 3 schools off my list as potentials and only 1 is on the list. My tought is to stop touring as it seems not to really matter with going 0/7 and 0/14 for a number of families and just stick with the 1 school on my waitlist (our neighborhood school) if we don't get in RI or RII. It is not one of the top 5 trophy schools so we may have a shot. The "hidden gems" are just not panning out for us. I am willing to hold my kid out of K if necessary and try again with the new system where we would hopefully get our neighborhood school for 1st grade. Does anyone know when a decision is supposed to be made as to the parameters of the new assignment system? I assume, an out of district transfer would have some priority.

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  3. 10:59

    Hard to comment as you don't say what is your neighborhood school nor which "hidden gem" schools you have toured and not liked.

    Guess I would ask if you are forming these impressions based only on tours or if you have talked with parents at the school--PPS has a list of parent ambassadors. The reason I say that is that schools that are just beginning a turn-around don't often have good marketing on the part of staff or parents, so a tour might not show you where the school is headed. If you can have a deeper conversation with someone, you might get a better sense of the teachers, the new programs, the general direction. Many families have done well as schools that don't look on the surface to be shiny gems. It takes some digging to figure out which ones have that potential. Several have these have gotten quite shiny over the years (Grattan, Miraloma, etc.).

    Of course, it is up to you what to do in the lottery. It's good that the school you like isn't trophy-level. Do you know what the ratio of apps/spots has been in recent years? You can check that on the 5-year demand chart that is posted by SFUSD.

    If you choose to list only schools with bad odds, you are wise to have a backup plan. Sounds like postponing kindergarten is a possibility.

    Regarding the system redesign, who the heck knows? They are trying to accomplish contradictory goals. I personally hope they do NOT return to neighborhood school assignment, but then I don't actually like my neighborhood school. However, it could be they do some kind of definite assignment system that isn't exactly neighborhood (because that will lead to more segregation)....which could mean that I'm happy, and you're not! So waiting for things to improve is another roll of the dice for you, I think.....I would keep that in mind as you approach this year's lottery, and do your best to find something this year if possible.

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  4. I've only toured a couple schools thus far but have been alarmed by the fact that in both cases, I was able to freely wander the halls and classrooms and interact with the children before the tours started. Signing in at the office seemed like a mere formality.

    I can't help but worry at how lax security is at the schools. I don't want my child locked in a fortress by any means but this simply does not feel safe.

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  5. Here is my mini review of Yick Wo. For the above poster, security seemed tight on check-in. The highlights were a principal who seemed to have a well-run ship and who kids happily greeted, a nice computer lab, kids who seemed excited about learning, classrooms with lots of art and enthusiastic teachers and not an overwhelming size. The cons were it could have better diversity, the late start time of 9:30 am (for a working parent), a sense of not a lot of parent involvement (but I will have to look into this further) and the 70's style building.

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  6. When I was touring school a few years back, my neighborhood school was Grattan. I knew I had a good chance of getting it if I put it down in that it did not get enough requests. I had reservations about it, did not like the scores, had a terrible tour and I really hated the 1970 building. Schoolyard discussion with parents who went there was nothing but praise. I was still skeptical. I did not put it down in round one. I went 0/7 and gladly accepted it in round two (felling desperate).

    The conclusion - I was so wrong about the place - I love it to distraction.

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  7. I visited Glen Park. Mostly, my impressions were favorable. Neat, orderly, friendly, and cheerful are some words that come to mind. School's focus is on literacy. Science, art and PE incorporated once a week or every 2 weeks through various programs. It seems a lot of public schools do it this way. I'm not sure of this. Principal is working towards incorporating more project-based learning into curriculum. The PTA is just starting out in it's second year. I can't pinpoint why I didn't fall in love with this school. There was nothing really wrong with it. I didn't see any mean teachers or badly behaving kids or anything like that. It seems like it would be a good solid school choice especially I lived really close to it.

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  8. Glad you are happy now, 2:14!

    The thing is, tours are not very helpful. Test scores are not very helpful, either. Talking to other parents is much more helpful. A few may cheerlead but most in my experience are very honest if you engage in conversation. If you hear lots of praise from multiple parents, that is a very good sign. If for no other reason than that there is a happy community, and that means a lot for the kids, the teachers, and the parents. Kids will learn if surrounded by happy, supportive, engaged adults.

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  9. These are my impressions of St. Cecilia's. Very high test scores. Seems like a lot of focus on kids having doing extracurricular activities. Student population seemed mostly Caucasian. K class looked very pleasant. Kids at different tables working on a variety of projects. I think there was one adult per table. The older classrooms didn't have the same fun vibe that Kindergarten had. They seemed much more like a traditional classrooms. Students seemed very orderly and well behaved. Lots of enrichment offered - music, tech, drama, dance...

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  10. I'll be reviewing Glen Park as a new blogger soon, but I did want to say: the "project-based learning" that the parent spoke of on tour isn't project-based learning. She said kids would be bringing home projects to do at home to reinforce or extend what they did at school. That's called homework. Project-based learning means inquiry-based, student-centered, small-group work at school, with no predetermined answers and, often, a variety of disciplinary approaches converging. It's the opposite of what I saw in the classrooms there.

    I have good things to say about the school, too, but I think it's important that parent ambassadors and schools not toss around language that's inaccurate.

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  11. Dear 12:41,

    Glad to hear that you had a tour of Yick Wo and I wanted to assure you that we have a very, very active PTO. If you would like to know more about the school, I am the PPS Ambassador and am willing to talk to anyone who has questions; it is my favorite topic of conversation. I have a 5th grader and a new Kindergartener there. Don't worry about me trying to convince you to come to our school. If it isn't a good fit for what you are looking for, I will tell you. For example, I agree with you about the 9:30 start time; it doesn't work for everyone. In addition to the amazing amount of work the parents do for the school (raise $60K for enrichment), the school is really the backbone of a larger "community".

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  12. I was the one who wrote that Glen Park was incorporating "project-based learning". Sorry if I misspoke. I thought those were the words the principal used. I do know what it is, because I've visited other schools that do it.

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  13. The tours are not particularly informative - in fact we had a rather lackluster tour leader recently who left a bad impression on us for the school as a whole. We are realizing that this might not be a means for assessing the school, but wonder then what the best access to information really is.
    I am having a tough time separating what I see - an assembly room used for a classroom, the stage used for storage, and only the remaining third of the room available for lunch or other group activities - from the chorus of - "the community here is fantastic!!! Yes, but....
    This is clearly a soul searching undertaking, a lot of work, and I fear we will only have a murky understanding of what really distinguishes these schools at the end of it all.
    I'm looking forward to having a very positive report in the future to offset this rather gloomy one!!

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  14. Having gone through multiple rounds (one of the first lottery years for K, then middle school, then middle school again, and now high school) of touring and deciding, I have decided that the best way to get information is to have conversations with people who are already there (parents, teachers, and students in the case of the upper grades). I think it is fine to develop a list of questions based on a careful look at test score breakdown and a tour of the site, but the answers really come in the conversation, hopefully with multiple people.

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  15. On talking with people at the school: did anyone find talking to parents at a school during the enrollment fairs useful?

    Or was it too much chaos and a marketing exercise to really get a feel for the school.

    Personally, I felt the enrollment fairs were useful in expanding the universe of public schools I was interested in, but not in narrowing the field.

    For the independent privates & parochials, the fair organized by the JCC was useful in narrowing options. (Possibly because so many of the Admissions Directors at the independent schools turned me off their school entirely. The folks from the parochial schools were a lot more friendly.)

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  16. I felt that every parent I spoke with at the fair was trying to too hard to justify their choice of school and staying in san francisco.

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  17. 12:28 on Oct 15 commented on what felt like lax security at schools.

    The procedure should be: you show up, sign in, and get a visitor badge. Some schools then herd you into the library to wait, while others let you wander around a bit (at Argonne we let early arrivals stroll around on the first floor to look at artwork on the walls, etc., until the tour starts. When I am the tour guide I always keep a sharp eye on everyone but try not to make it too obvious).

    I guess what I would point out is that you may not realize how aware school employees are of strange adults walking around -- when you are at a school every day, strangers stick out like a sore thumb and the staff are watching you, even if it seems very relaxed. Don't forget, the whole point of a tour is to make you feel that the school is welcoming!

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  18. Last tour we were on the back entrance to the school was wide open (which said please close as soon as you enter) and we got a bit lost walking for at least 10 minutes among the kids and the classrooms before ending up at the office. I know it is not full proof but it seems lax to me.

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  19. Oh, I'm so sorry, 10:11, I didn't mean to sound like I was calling you out on "project-based learning." That's what the parent guide I had at Glen Park said, too, and her description of it (as bringing projects home) was wrong, not yours. And I don't mean to bash Glen Park, either, which struck me as a very sweet school with a lot of strengths. More on that when I begin to blog for real.

    Hot topic, perhaps: all these buzzwords! I'm getting dizzy from hearing about PYP, inquiry-based learning, Playworks-formerly-Sports-for-Kids, Houghton-Mifflin language arts, and so on. It's all greek to me, especially when it relates to curriculum. Kate, maybe you could start a thread on that so we can gather information from current K-5 parents and more experience tourers?

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  20. I found the SFUSD enrollment fair helpful. speaking with parents and teachers from different schools did give me a feel for the school. After that I toured some of them and felt I had more to go on than just the tour. Yes, the parents are generally trying to "sell" their school to some extent, but they would not be there if they didn't like the place. I found them to offer honest opinions and information and it was good to get a sense of what the families are like based on some one on one conversation -- even if it was rather brief.

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  21. I'm sorry to do this, but... Parochial schools often don't accept disabled students, which they justify by saying they don't have the resources -- I retort that they could somehow manage to muster the resources if they were actually abiding by Christian principles. Public schools don't have the resources either.

    But anyway, I will be outraged as long as I live by the fact that St. Cecilia's dumped a DYING disabled girl on my kids' SFUSD elementary school, which welcomed her and cared for her -- the girl has since passed away. This was the child of a family who were members of the parish and had older children in the St. Cecilia's school.

    I don't think St. Cecilia's should ever be able to escape the stain of that, unless of course they renounce this malevolent and completely un-Christian behavior.

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  22. "...every parent I spoke with at the fair was trying to too hard to justify their choice of school and staying in san francisco..."

    Why would they do that? If they didn't have faith in those choices, why would they choose the school, choose to stay in San Francisco and volunteer their unpaid time to help at the school fair?

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  23. I generally think that the parents who volunteer for things like the fairs are advocates of the school and not the parents who are unhappy with their kids progress or have left all together for different reasons. At some schools, most of the parents may in fact be happy with their schools. I think the tours are necessary so you can feel the school vibe for yourself. Though, because it is so time consuming you might want to tour until you find 3 candidates you like and then round out your first round choices by other means (e.g. word of mouth, school fair, talks with parents, etc.). For example, I have had parents rave about school XYZ to me and when I toured my gut screamed "no way"!! I also think it is best to see the grades or talk to parents who have 4th, 5th and up to 8th for alternative schools because their kids are the produce of many years at that school and the class sizes get dramatically larger at most schools in 4th grade. Honestly, parents of K or 1st graders are not all that helpful because they just have not been in the system that long.

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  24. On the other hand, there are schools where your gut may scream "no way!" and you'd find out if you wound up there that it was actually fine.

    It's a little dubious to claim that you can make a valid judgment based on one superficial tour while discounting the opinions of parents whose kids actually attend the school, even if it's only been for a month or a year -- and parents who are involved enough to volunteer for a weekend event, too.

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  25. I think there is something to listening to more than the top 10% of the parent base who volunteers. I mean, I would like to hear from the real parents, not the cheerleaders which is all you get basicaly at the school fairs. No criticism as to those who volunteer but I don't think they represent the school at large.

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  26. Marcia - Thanks for that note about project based learning. I think I was on your tour that raining morning last week or so.... What the parent was describing was definitely homework and not Project Based Learning. Your "review" was exactly what I got from the tour. I look forward to reading more..

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  27. This discussion is interesting. I remember when I toured I felt kind of lost. I know very little about elementary school education other than my own dated experience. Oddly I started at a school district with desks all in a row and then moved in 3rd grade, and now that I remember back, I believe the 3rd grade class was set up with several larger tables and perhaps more project based learning too place there. But as I kid I didn't see a significant difference. My point is, I found the whole process difficult mostly because I didn't really know what I wanted for my child -- didn't know what really defined a "good school". I the end I had to rely on gut feelings based mostly on tours, getting a feel for the teachers and principal and overall community.

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  28. Good question...what defines a "good school". For me, academic, nurturing, organized, disciplined, spacious, well-diversified (not more than 35% of any sub-group), well-located (NE part of town), plenty of recess/movement which is well supervised, addresses differentiation in students well, good natural light, creativity encouraged, safe, fun for the kids and good parent community. Okay - have a school for me? I have not found one.

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  29. I don't think any school of any type (public, private, etc.) meets ALL these criteria. When I have looked for schools at several levels for my kids I have felt I was choosing between apples and oranges and bananas.

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  30. "But anyway, I will be outraged as long as I live by the fact that St. Cecilia's dumped a DYING disabled girl on my kids' SFUSD elementary school, which welcomed her and cared for her -- the girl has since passed away. This was the child of a family who were members of the parish and had older children in the St. Cecilia's school."

    I'd look on this more charitably, although I did tour St. Cecilia's and it wasn't for me.

    The parochials operate on a budget of about $5-7K per school, lower than the publics. The class sizes are larger. The school wouldn't have the resources to hire a temporary staffer just to care for that kid, and I don't know what resources would have been available at the Archdiocese level.

    As a practical matter, they couldn't care for the kid as well as what she'd get at a public, given that SFUSD has district-wide resources and experienced staff for special ed and disabled kids. I'd say one elements of Christianity thing is to acknowledge your limitations and not have the pride to try to do something you know someone else can do better.

    I've no dog in the fight for St. Cecilia's (I visited the school and it wasn't for me), but can understand why they made the decision they did.

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  31. Here are my impressions of Paul Revere. I really liked it and would agree with most of the favorable comments in this blog from a few years ago. It is a cheery, bright, clean place with friendly, warm people, approachable looking teachers and staff, and a really great library and computer lab.

    https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=6860166486196068975&postID=1404478495538303166

    http://thesfkfiles.blogspot.com/2008/03/kates-recent-public-school-tours.html

    The only thing I was told different than what people posted a couple years ago was that there is 1 teacher aide in Kindergarten classes but not in the other grades.

    Additionally, the kids get an enrichment hour every day and they rotate science, art, music and dance everyday. PE is 45 minutes everyday. It seems this is a lot more enrichment than other public schools I've visited so far.

    If I wanted Spanish Immersion or lived nearby, I'd be happy to send my kid there.

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  32. "I don't know what resources would have been available at the Archdiocese level..."

    St. Cecilia's longtime priest was both a pedophile and an embezzler, so likely the resources that might have been available to educate a dying disabled child went into his pocket and to paying off his victims anyway.

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  33. I LOVED Harvey Milk. I think that our #1 choice.

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  34. I felt that every parent I spoke with at the fair was trying to too hard to justify their choice of school and staying in san francisco.

    I felt the same thing. It was almost like people were trying to come up with excuses for staying here, rather than moving to a good school district. It really turned me off.

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  35. You know what? They're parent volunteers. These schools don't have budgets for marketing, nor do they have professional staff to create brochures and messaging and branding. I've been on private school tours that focus entirely on the postive also, but maybe in more hushed tones--but is it any less of a justification of "come here, apply here, we're the best?" Admissions directors are judged in part on #s of applicants (and yield).

    I've done the fairs (a few years ago). The parents are generally enthusiastic, but a bit nervous maybe, and overwhelmed by the crush of manic, anxious prospective K-seekers. They understand that their job is communicate the best of the school and why they love it; it's not the intimate conversation you might have with a friend. I say, cut them a break. They're *volunteering* their day because they love the school. Try to figure out why that is, ask your questions, and if you still have questions, find a parent who can have coffee with you or talk for longer over the phone.

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