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.
Location: 625 Holly Park Circle (Bernal Heights)
School hours: 8:30-2:30
Principal: Eve Cheung
Web site: through SFUSD portal
School tours: Call for appointment
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
Recess/Lunch: AM recess of 20 mins., 1-hour lunch/recess combo in PM.
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.