Friday, October 30, 2009

Paging Buena Vista parents

By Marcia Brady

Kate wrote a very thorough review of this school two years ago for her search. You can find it here at: http://thesfkfiles.blogspot.com/2007/10/buena-vista-alternative-elementary.html, or by clicking the name under "Schools Reviewed." You'll find the basic facts about the school there too.

The thing is, I visited too, and I think it was a not-so-good tour day. We didn't see any classrooms because the teachers were out on professional development (which I take to be good), and our tour guide was honest to a fault about the flaws. I appreciated that, but it also potentially underplayed the school's strengths. I liked *many* of the things that impressed Kate, so please see her review. Buena Vista continues, to my eye, to be a school with a first-rate Spanish immersion program, a creative and progressive feel, and a dedicated and well-organized parent community. There's a strong LGBT parent presence there, which is good for us, and the emphasis on the arts fits our family's strengths and interests. As I understand it, it's one of my area's "trophy schools."

But I also had a few concerns, and rather than assuming that my impression of the place was the sum total, I thought I would ask parents what they thought. I know it's a well-loved place and probably deservedly so. So:

1) Space. Does Buena Vista feel overcrowded to you?
2) Recess seemed loosely supervised, compared to many places with Playworks, game coaches, etc.: has this been a problem? Or is the school cohesive enough that bullying and kids getting isolated aren't issues?
3) How are those 10-minute lunch shifts working out for your kids? Do they care, or would they rather go play anyway?
4) The price of that lovely nearby park, fenced grass/garden area, and spiffy playground is an almost deafening amount of noise from the 101, 280, and Cesar Chavez. Do you worry about noise or air pollution, or are the room to run around on grass and the expanded gross motor opportunities in the park worth it?

I'm feeling hesitant because it seems that any hint of concern isn't well-taken on this board, and I know parents, staff, and administrators have poured their hearts and resources into these schools. At the same time, it feels disingenuous to post only positives and no negatives. I hope that putting my concerns in the form of questions will allow Buena Vista parents and staff to respond constructively.

31 comments:

  1. We know a family who started in Buena Vista Spanish immersion K last year with high hopes. After a few weeks, the teacher told the parents she could not teach their child Spanish. The kid, who does not have learning differences, now attends a different school. There seems to be an idea that every kid can succeed in immersion, but apparently not. I don't know what the warning signs might be that immersion is not the best choice for a kid . . . it's worth trying to find out.

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  2. It's probably not that helpful to put in a plug that's like 15 years out of date, but I just wanted to say how much I loved going to elementary school at Buena Vista. (I was there in the late 80s/early 90s. I don't already have a 5 year old - I read this blog because I'm interested in education.) The parents were very involved - I knew the parents of a large number of my classmates. The teachers poured themselves into their work, and there was an amazing sense of community. I remember it having an incredible sense of warmth.

    From an academic perspective, I felt like it definitely met my needs. I'd estimate that about 20% of my class went to Lowell (I believe 5% of the city at large is eligible), so they must have be doing something right.

    I think my strongest memory of BV is of just how vibrant it was. It's like there's a soundtrack to my memories - singing songs was a big part of how we learned Spanish in kindergarten (at least, that's how it seemed to me as a 5 year old), my second grade teacher played the piano and drums extensively, we had weekly rumba dance classes, and we danced in Carnaval. There were murals on the walls, and a quilt, sewn from patches made by the whole school, dominated the cafeteria.

    When I was 17, I wrote my college application essay about Buena Vista. I wrote about how much I got out of learning Spanish and how much I valued the ability to communicate with an entire continent of people with whom I'd otherwise never be able to share ideas. I wrote about how much I valued the emphasis that Buena Vista put on immersing us in Latino cultures, and how valuable it was to understand, from a young age, the multifaceted world in which we live. Finally, I discussed the fact that Buena Vista put a premium on teaching social responsibility, taught me to stand up for my beliefs. (Not sure that's still part of the curriculum, so definitely check that out if you respond positively or negatively to that last item.)

    After Buena Vista, I had the privilege of attending schools that score very highly on traditional metrics of success (test scores, etc.). I know that Buena Vista's scores aren't off the charts (though they apparently jumped last year, which is exciting: http://missionlocal.org/2009/09/buena-vista-leaps-ahead-with-test-scores/) Certainly, Buena Vista prepared me to succeed at the very academic schools I attended later. More importantly, though, I learned lessons that I value for how they helped to shape me. At the same time, I don't think those lessons were costly in terms of more traditional metrics of future success - I think that colleges, employers, etc. are looking for just the sort of global citizens that Buena Vista creates, people who understand the concept of multiple perspectives from having been immersed in two languages and multiple cultures.

    Sorry that this doesn't really answer your question, but I couldn't resist plugging BV!

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  3. Marcia Brady, an interesting post down the long thread that follows Claire's review of Town School for Boys notes that public school reviews and the comments on them err toward sweetness and light. If one were to believe the overall gist of the reviews and, more to the point, the comments, a full 1/3 of the parents of school-age children in San Francisco are completely off their rockers, because they are either paying big bucks for or subjecting their children to the humiliation of being financial aid students at private schools, which are hateful elitist segregationist condescending hellholes compared to the warm, happy, caring, colorful, diverse, supportive, egalitarian public schools. I exaggerate for effect of course (even if I only amuse myself by doing so) . . . but the point remains: Reviews are most helpful if they are candid and invite people to share their own positive AND negative impressions, as you did with your review of Buena Vista, and as Claire did with her review of Town. Please do not be afraid to call them as you see them. No school is perfect. Cosmic lightning will not strike you dead if you point out flaws you perceive in the public schools you tour.

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  4. Well, if that's true then why did the review of Waldorf -- which is 50% of the private schools reviewed this school year -- not even hint, even the tiniest bit, that there's anything controversial about Waldorf?

    The comments section took care of that, obviously. But given that, it's a little hard to make a case that reviewers are ganging up on private schools.

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  5. We didn't see any classrooms because the teachers were out on professional development.
    Why would they schedule a tour day during a professional development day? Isn't that an incredible waste of all the touring parents' time?

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  6. I'm glad at the refreshing post here -- "Paging Buena Vista parents." Finally a little honesty. I had similar experiences at some of the public schools that people were raving about. When I visited during the official tour time and the school had all its ducks in a row, it seemed like a great place. But when I went at another time or walked by the school at a different time I got a much different sense of the school. Remember that parents of many of these schools are desperately trying to get more financially well-off people to attend the school, so they go all-out to make it seem like a paradise. And it can be hard in a well-organized tour to see the issues. Going off time or on a different time is the best way to see the school as it really is. I always tried to go at times other than the official tours. (Please folks don't say that people shouldn't be able to look into a school off-tour time. The schools I went to were happy to give me a visitor's pass for a driver's license.) That's how I found my kid's school and we've been there for five years and are very happy. Don't be suckers for the hard sell, folks!

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  7. The notion that public school tours are slick and organized and include a hard sell is not based in reality. Public school tours are led by volunteer parents or overworked, sometimes distracted principals. The entire concept of somehow organizing a slick, polished phony face for the school just during tour time wouldn't even compute. It would be impossible even if it occurred to anyone to try.

    I forget where I read a comment contrasting the well-organized private school tours led by a polished professional with volunteer-led public school tours where parents are outside in the rain, standing on tiptoe to peer into a classroom.

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  8. In these Spanish Immersion classes, are there children who are English Language Learners? They will learn "playground English" just fine from their English as a First Language classmates. What I'm concerned about, is will they learn explicit English grammar. How does the district make sure that happens?

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  9. My child is a 5th grader in a Spanish immersion class. The children are taught formal English grammar--my kid explained perfectly well the use of "appositives" to me today. In our 90/10 SI model, the children start out in mostly Spanish, but are 50/50 by the time they are in 4th and 5th grade.

    Does this mean that all children speak with perfect English grammar? It does not. As with non-immersion kids, a lot depends on what they hear in most of their lives, which is not lived in school. But the teachers do teach it and model it.

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  10. 8:50 pm -- Not true -- public schools are putting on their best face at that time. And if you want to see slick check out the Miraloma Elementary website with its "podcasts." Word to the wise -- check out the recess yard at lunch -- how chaotic is it? -- check out the hallways in the upper grades in the late morning -- are teachers outside the class with troublesome kids while the rest of the class sits inside doing nothing? -- is the prinipal's office filled with kids in trouble by late morning? -- check out afterschool -- what's the level of supervision?

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  11. 9:12 PM is talking about general school considerations and NOT Miraloma in particular when posing the series of questions.

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  12. Thank you, Marcia for being honest and forthright about your concerns. This forum would be useless if every review were glowing.

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  13. In reply to 5:08 pm, not all private schools are like that. Live Oak School tours are led by parent volunteers, and there is nothing phony about the tours. They do convey an authentic look at the school. We toured, and I remember every detail of what we saw and heard on the tour. Now our child is at the school, and being on the other side of it I can honestly say that during tours at our school, people are simply given a chance to move through the school and see it for themselves.

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  14. This is 9:12 am again -- I don't understand 12:28's comment. My questions apply to any school, including Miraloma. The point is to not just rely on the tour but to look deeper. So I would say those questions apply to Miraloma just like they apply to any other school. The point is not to just rely on the "buzz" about a particular school or to just rely on a well-done tour. For example, I don't mean to demean the comments of the Buena Vista alum above, but that person's experience is years old. It is really not terribly relevant to the reality of the Buena Vista of today.

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  15. I appreciate the honesty but it seems as if Marcia caught this school on a bad day. If the teachers weren't around, it doesn't seem fair to judge. I toured the school and found a lot of things to like. The fact that the entire school is Spanish immersion is a huge plus. The entire school embraces the culture. Everyone is on the same page.

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  16. If you tour a school and are not able to see the kindergarten teacher in action with the children, whether they're at recess with the kids or out sick that day, I recommend that you return to the school on another day to see just the kindergarten classroom. We did this with several schools, and each one (except Alvarado) was more than accommodating, allowing us to sign in at the office, and then go right to the K classroom to observe for ten or fifteen minutes. You need to know who your kindergarten teacher is going to be, what kind of teacher they are, in order to determine if a school is a good fit for your child and your family.

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  17. I just had to add my two cents about matching the teacher's style to your child's. First, you sell short your child's ability to adapt to just about anything; the school environment is specially designed to incorporate a wide variety of personalities. Also, there are some parents who want to put their child in environments that will help them develop in areas that are not their strengths. Finally, it is amazing how much your child will change between now and next September; it is so amazing. I know most parents want to make the transition to kindergarten as smooth as possible, but kids are just so incredibly resilient especially to the minor differences you will find from one classroom to the next. This has been my experience as a mom of a kindergartener and a 5th grader.

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  18. 8:06, just to clarify, I went on the tour day I could schedule, and they didn't notify us that teachers were out. I didn't and can't judge the teaching, and in fact, my questions are really questions about space, recess supervision, and facilities -- which thus far have not been addressed.

    I'd be delighted to post information about either those issues or the classrooms as a followup. You can e-mail me at marciasfkfiles@gmail.com and I'll post it without revealing your identity. Buena Vista is as worthy as any other school of a thorough review, but with 15 schools to tour I can't go back for a second look just now.

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  19. The whole idea of picking a teacher for your child is pretty pointless. For one thing there's no guarantee that the same teachers will be there when your kid arrives. I also realized after a while that the teachers I was most attracted to were the ones I wanted to have lunch with, not those who really were best suited to my child's temperament, whatever that means. Kids' responses to teachers is pretty unpredictable anyway. Some who seem a little odd or slightly harsh turn out to be beloved by the kids. My son's first-grade teacher was a little dotty but she was also really fun, kind of like the teacher from Magic Schoolbus. And I always thought that one of the kindergarten teachers was a bit stern, but the kids thought of her as a firm but loving grandmother figure.

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  20. I'm the one who said the public-school tours are often far less polished than private, and this is a pretty perfect example:

    "I went on the tour day I could schedule, and they didn't notify us that teachers were out."

    I'm not saying don't look behind the tours, because the info you get IS really superficial. I'm just questioning the notion that the schools are putting on a pretty face for the tours. I really don't think they have the wherewithal to do that. (The kids sitting in the hall is an example. At my kids' school, bathroom messes -- the kind that get made all at once, don't immediately come to adults' attention and are not representative of the bathroom's normal condition -- have sometimes not been cleaned up before a tour, horrifying the parents who make a beeline for the bathroom as their idea that that's the best way to judge a school.

    A friend with older kids who toured West Portal back before it was popular -- though it was already super-high-scoring -- told me her observation that there seemed to be an acting-out African-American boy who was playing "the bad kid" role in each classroom, so she was VERY disapproving of West Portal. In fact, she wound up at Buena Vista, PTA president and everything!

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  21. we also had a bad tour at bv (no prof development but we didn't get to go in any classes anyway, just kind of peek in through a crowd), but went back later on a non-tour day and ended up getting a personalized guided tour with the principal. it ended up being our number one choice, but not where we ended up being assigned, which is another story.

    we live right near bv and hate the traffic noise also, but our kids love love the skate park. we also ended up at a nearby school which had a good air quality rating. sorry no link, but you can do a search for something like school air quality ratings and find the air quality of most schools. i think the wind blows the pollution over to oakland.

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  22. I hope that touring parents realize that it is what goes on INSIDE of the classroom, and not facilities or ammenities, that impacts the children most. For that reason it is imperative that you have a chance to see the teachers and children in the environment. There are good teachers, great teachers, and there are also people who teach who are burned out, overwhelmed, or were never meant to be teachers. You will begin to see the difference as time goes by, and by the time your child(ren) are in third or fourth grade, you'll remember this comment and agree wholeheartedly. Sure, kids are adaptable, but if you tour a school with predominantly uninspired, burned out, untalented teachers who cannot keep control of the students in their classroom, you'll want to avoid putting that school on your list of seven, or registering your child there when you don't get any of your seven choices in the lottery. And if you see a school with teachers who respect and engage the students, you'll want to consider that school as a choice for your child. And if you love a school's facilities but think that all three kindergarten teachers are inexperienced or mean or whatever... etc. You get my drift.

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  23. "When I visited during the official tour time and the school had all its ducks in a row, it seemed like a great place. But when I went at another time or walked by the school at a different time I got a much different sense of the school."

    And the flipside can happen - I toured SF Community and was unimpressed because of a very low-key tour guide, but wandered by later during recess and was impressed how orderly, homely, and unchaotic the recess was. Ratcheted up my opinion of the school considerably.

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  24. I think you mean "homey" right? ;)

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  25. A BV parent here.

    A few things to know that are new at the school: a school garden, a special computer lab for 1st grades, computers in our library for children and parents to use, dramatic rise in our test scores last year.

    Another important point to make: We have amazingly strong collaborative teaching teams. We have the benefit of being an all immersion school so our teachers really work together with a common focus and all benefit from a combination of teacher strengths and perspectives. This is the educational strength of BV.

    Also, anyone can call the school and arrange to come in and see a classroom if they can't make a tour, miss the classrooms, or want a second look.

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