Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Junipero Serra Elementary

Reviewed by Marcia Brady

Marcia here, wondering if it's useful to be doing this if everyone just wants to flog the public-vs-private debate. But here goes:

Background: Junipero Serra hit my radar because a group of last year’s families were placed there after going 0/7, visited, and had good things to say. I’m not sure how many of them stayed, but thought (and still think!) the school deserved a look.

The Facts

Location: 625 Holly Park Circle (Bernal Heights)

School hours: 8:30-2:30

Tel: 695-5685

Principal: Eve Cheung

Web site: through SFUSD portal

School tours: Call for appointment

Grades: K-5

Kindergarten size: 2 or 3 Ks of 20 each (alternating years)

Total student body: 272, 82% free/reduced lunch, 62% from Spanish-speaking households.

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:

An energetic, thoughtful, and open-minded principal, an intimate feel, a focus on science and technology, and the opportunity to help a school grow.

Class Structure / Curriculum: The principal tried split grades (say, 4-5 together if there is overflow) and said it doesn’t work, so she alternates between 2 K classes and 3 K classes every other year. So the average is 2 ½ classes adding up to 40 or 60, depending on your year. In the upper grades, they’ve tried to hold it to 25 kids per class as opposed to the state cap of 32.Curriculum is GE and Spanish bilingual for English Language Learners. Their focus is science and technology, and they have a partnership with UCSF for 4th and 5th grades for science. PE 2x/week. Homework of 20 minutes reading at home plus 10 mins of review worksheets beginning in K and increasing as grades go up.

Campus/Playground: 1950s(?), quite bland building with new interior paint on Holly Park Circle, plus the Child Development Center Annex on Appleton St. The CDC facilities also house some of the K classrooms, and is made up of trailer-style bungalows. The outside of both sites’ buildings could use refurbishing. The K class(es) in the Annex walk up Appleton St. to the bigger building 2x/week for certain events, but have their own small-scale play structure and a large asphalt yard for their recess and a cafeteria for their own lunch. The Annex also has a community room. The main building has a yard we didn’t see, and the whole school uses Holly Park regularly. The main building also has a cafeteria, and computer center, and a small library with a resource specialist.

I asked about the low-income housing units across the street from the Annex. The principal said that far from causing problems, the people in the units looked out for the school, and many had kids there. She said they’d had no trouble at all and seemed very positive about the residents. The units are small-scale and didn’t seem to have the vacant or boarded up apartments that cause problems.

After School programs: Free After School Success club during school-year until 5:30, sliding scale Child Development Center year-round.

Additional Programs: Caring School Community Program, which puts older and younger kids together in buddy pairs and has kids involved in problem-solving class meetings. Principal said that they had eliminated their anti-fighting program some time ago, after eliminating that problem. She also said that each teacher had a release teacher for 1 hour daily, but that next year’s cuts would eliminate that. There is also a gardening program.

PTA: “In development.” Principal said she relies on her active and knowledgeable parents, but it is harder to do fundraising and get leadership with a larger population lower-income and immigrant families than many schools have. She does PTA meetings with simultaneous translators, though, to prevent some populations being left out: I liked that, as it speaks to her wish to serve all populations equally. I’m guessing that funds raised are minimal thus far, but Ms. Cheung wants to do more and has plans – and the 2008 mini-review of Serra mentions teachers having raised $37K.

Language program(s): Principal said they are trying to establish Spanish classes after school to draw in more English-speaking families interested in second-language instruction.

Library / Computer Lab: The kids have library class 1x/week, and the library is open 11-2:30 daily. The computer lab was especially impressive – it had 30 or so new Mac desktops, a VCR and large-screen TV, and a white board for projections. The principal said that the lab was one of her priorities.

Arts: Standard for the district

PE: 2x/week.

Recess/Lunch: AM recess of 20 mins., 1-hour lunch/recess combo in PM.

Tour Impressions:

This school has a very impressive principal – Eve Cheung is smart, down-to-earth, not at all condescending or saccharine, enthusiastic about middle-class parental involvement but aware of and solving for potential conflicts of class and culture. And she seemed to know the name of every student she spoke to – both she and the resource specialist who was shadowing her for the day’s tour interacted with kids in the halls and classrooms, gently reminding them to walk or pick up a stray backpack.

We saw more classrooms here than I’d seen on any tours, including many from the upper grades. Most were large-ish, with the freedom to move desks into circles, small work groups, etc. The teachers actually have teachers’ desks here, too. The best example was a GE classroom of kindergartners. They were working on writing letters in small groups. Some had paper-and-pencil worksheets. Some were pasting tissue paper onto large-scale line-drawings of letters. Some were building letters with clay. Some were arranging felt bars, arcs, and so on into letter shapes. The classroom was really calm, and after a while I realized that part of this was because the teacher had instrumental music playing. The kids seemed really on-task, and the atmosphere felt warm and supportive for what they were doing. The principal said that the teachers were expanding as best they could beyond the paper-and-pencil Houghton-Mifflin language arts curriculum, accommodating other learning styles with this kind of experimentation with texture, space, and sound. She also said they do pull-out groups for “focal” students – high-achieving and low-achieving – so they can offer some differentiated instruction.

In the SB and GE upper grades we visited, there was ample evidence of high-level standards. The SB kids in 3rd grade were working on commas, and the 4th grade GE classroom had wall charts about types of angles and triangles, as well as the “process-based” writing instruction used in college writing programs. The 5th-graders had had a trip to Alemany farm canceled because of the weather and were playing “U.S. States” bingo.

Junipero Serra would be a good choice for a group of middle-class southeast parents who decided to make it their Round 1 choice and help improve it, as parents did at Miraloma so long ago. Alternately, parents who find themselves placed there would do well to visit it and, again, think about teaming up and making a commitment. It’s not where Webster is yet, but it has a solid base: it’s a calm, well-run, warm school with well-kept if not yet creatively redecorated facilities, and a wonderful principal who seems ready to seize new opportunities.


  1. Thanks for writing a review on this school. I've often walked past it and wondered about it. It is true about the project houses near the school. They're lovely, with gardens and longtime, caring residents.

  2. Yes, thank you for the sensitive reviews you are writing. I think you are doing a good job teasing out the distinctive elements of each school, and in highlighting aspects that might be overlooked by a cursory look at CST scores. I especially like how you are giving descriptions of the pedagogy--use of texture and shape in learning letters, and process writing.

    I bet lots of people (including myself) wouldn't have imagined Junipero Serra doing all that; because it is a low-income school, people would assume it was doing only kill and drill or was full of fighting bullies (classist assumptions, really). I believe I had heard that the principal was great, but good to hear it confirmed.

    Junipero Serra is just up the street from Fairmount and certainly no more ugly a building (sorry, dear Fairmount parents). Seems like it could be a nice, neighborhood, walkable alternative to the crazy stress of striving for trophy schools across town. I bet the kids learn just fine.

    For me the biggest difference between a low-income school that could work and one that couldn't is solid school leadership (Principal Cheung sounds great) versus chaotic leadership with high turnover and unhappy teachers. We have some of those in the district, but it sounds like Junipero Serra is one of the former, not the latter.

  3. And yes, please persist in posting these. I think they are so sensitive and thorough that they are not drawing the drama of the endless public/private debate, but so what. You are doing a real service.

  4. Thanks for posting, and ignore the public/private bashing. I really think it's a small handful endlessly posting the same thing over and over. Glad to see that schools on the south side of the city are getting some air time here. Amazing that just a few years ago some of the schools you are touring used to be schools no one would consider. Have they actually changed for the better or is it a combination of perception and herd mentality that kept people away? Regardless, I'm glad that's changing and hope that your reviews continue to be informative and will get others on this side of town to check some of them out.

  5. Thanks, all! That buoys me up. I am learning so much doing this, so it's not just a service. But I'm glad if it helps anyone with the process. I'm really interested in pedagogy, too, so I love writing about what I see in the classrooms even if it is only a glimpse.

  6. For me the biggest difference between a low-income school that could work and one that couldn't is solid school leadership (Principal Cheung sounds great) versus chaotic leadership with high turnover and unhappy teachers.

    Same concept applies to higher-income schools too.

  7. But I think a strong, sensitive principal is the biggest key to improving a school. I love that she is so concerned with the whole community and realizes there will be certain culture clashes to be managed in an inclusive way. I predict great things for the school is the principal is there for at least a few more years.

  8. The principal at this school is lovely. She's a gem.

  9. Here is something I wrote about JS back in June in the "Open Enrollment" thread:

    << M said...

    I visited the kinder classes at Junipero Serra (Bernal Heights area) last week (providing disability awareness presentations with my disabled adult daughter), and found a warm and calm school environment, bright classrooms, dedicated teachers and other staff... plus sweet, attentive kids. As has been mentioned here before, Eve Cheung (the principal) is outstanding. I hadn't seen her in 20 years (or more).. but used to know her as the special ed liaison to the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for Special Education (when I was a parent member). Eve's position was not an easy one as the CAC had many "issues" with the District's special ed policies and practices... but somehow, she never got caught in the crossfire. She handled the position with great competence and grace, while always demonstrating her concern for the needs of the children and their families. It was wonderful to reconnect with Eve last week, and I could see that the glowing reports about her (in previous SF K Files posts) were well deserved. For those without a school who live near JS (or maybe even not that near, since my “neighborhood school” is Commodore Sloat, and I was able to get to JS in about 10 minutes by car), JS is worth a look. [API of 5 (with a 9 for similar schools)… and the API has gone up from 3 to 5 in the last few years.]

    JUNE 3, 2009 12:50 PM>>

  10. Please do continue your reviews! They are very useful; I especially appreciate your observations of the different approaches to teaching.

  11. I am so thankful you are reviewing these schools. Thank you for representing the south side of SF - thoughtful and helpful reviews.
    I hope Paul Revere is on your list....

  12. Yup, Paul Revere, coming up next month...

  13. Just wanted to say how helpful I'm finding your reviews. We're arriving in the US from the UK in a couple of weeks and will be looking at many of the schools you mention with a view to joining mid year. Your reviews are sensitive, descriptive and even at this distance and with no experience of US education as yet, I'm getting helpful impressions of the character of the different places. Keep it up!

  14. Marcia,

    Great job on this review. A lot of Bernal parents will put this on their tour schedule after this review.

    Thanks also for detailing what they're doing beyond the ubiquitous Houghton-Mifflin worksheets.

  15. we were initially assigned to j. serra last year (our first of 5 assignments to get to our first-grade, final placement in a school we chose). my husband and i toured it and were pleasantly surprised; that's why we registered our daughter there while we followed through with the waitpool process, hoping to get into a dual immersion program. that said, ms. cheung made a great impression, and i remember a few other tidbits from last year (that may or may not still be true): they had a relationship with google whereby the company helped them with funding, school facelift projects and volunteering; they had (on the QT) a little extra music instruction than the district allotment; they are truly a neighborhood school, in that the current student population lives nearby; they are a small, warm school; they had extra staff, like research fellows from an education institute of some sort.

    it was a relief to know that if our kid attended she would be safe and cared for. the long-time secretary also made a great impression: warm and competent.

  16. I'm glad you're looking at schools like this in the South Side. Keep looking. You will find in many ELL schools alot of beyond "the pedagogy use" - to help the English Language Learners. Solid leadership and a powerhouse PTA (go to meetings, take on projects for the school vs. help in the classroom) of ~ 20 parents can do it.

  17. any hope that someone will correct the typo in the name of the school?

  18. A few years ago I worked as a sub in the district, and Junipero Serra was one of my favorite schools. They were kind, organized, and supportive.

    Some parents may be interested to know that before Serra, Ms. Cheung was the principal at Sunset.

  19. Typo corrected. Whoops, sorry all!

  20. Another southside school that I'd love for you to review is Sunnyside. It seems like a solid school that it is getting stronger. Thanks for looking beyond the usual schools that we always hear about.

  21. THanks Marica for your work. I am right between Junipero Serra and Fairmont, but JS is not on my list as the campus is very small and that concerns me for what programs are available for my child's enrichment.

  22. BTW - mom's I know have had their children sent to Sunnyside after going 0/7 and they love it.

  23. Just so you know, 4:43, Fairmount (and almost every other SFUSD school) stands to lose a lot of enrichment based on budget cuts. I wouldn't pick a school based on enrichment that may not be there in 2010.

  24. In fact, the more the school relies on federal funding (such as Title 1, based on the number of kids coming from poverty), the more likely it will retain some of its enrichment funding and other nice things like class size reduction. Example, Paul Revere still has 20 kids/class, I believe. Federal dollars are still there, and some of them are directed at specific populations; it's the state funds that are in trouble.

  25. This year, Junipero Serra wasn't given an API score by the state education board because of an "adult irregularity in testing procedure".

    Does anyone have more details on what happened?