Wednesday, October 14, 2009

West Portal Elementary Tour

Reviewed by Debbie

This was the first school tour for Mark and I (we went a couple weeks ago so I apologize for taking so long to write this up!). Since it was our first tour, we were very excited. We also didn’t know what to expect, and we didn’t have anything to compare it to. We kind of thought of it as setting the bar for all other tours. Also, if you read "My Plan", this tour is what we’re considering our one big buzz school tour so we were very curious to see what all the hub-bub was about.

Facts:
Date of tour: 10/1/09
Location: 5 Lenox Way (West Portal/Forest Hill area), 415-759-2846
School type: Public
Website: www.westportalschool.com
Tours: Thursdays, 9-10:30am, call to register. All tours are led by the principal William Lucey.
School day start/stop: 8:40am-2:40pm
Grades: K-5
Total Enrollment: 554
General Ed Kindergarten size: 66 (3 classes of 22)
Cantonese immersion Kindergarten size: 31 (1 class of 22; 11 in a combined K/1st immersion class)
Before/After school care: Offered through Growth and Learning Opportunity (GLO), 7 to 8:30 a.m., and from 2:30 to 6 p.m. The principal stated that this can fill up so if you get into this school and need before/after school care, call GLO the day you find out you got in so you can put your name on the list.

If you’d like to read more facts about this school and details about its programs, you can go to the school website: http://www.westportalschool.com/. Otherwise, this post will be mainly about the tour itself.

The Tour:
The tour started promptly at 9am and was led by the principal Will Lucey. We all came in through the main building which is a large very old-school looking (in a good way) building. There were about 50 people on the tour. He first led us to one of the outdoor areas and explained that this is the beginning of his seventh year as Principal at West Portal (he’s been in education for 18 years, and his wife is a teacher at Grattan). He said that he always leads the tours because, if he were a parent going on tours, he would want to hear the information from the leader of the school. He also said that parents were welcome to stay after the tour and wander around as long as we’d like as long as we kept our "visitor" badges on. I thought this was a nice beginning. Plus, it was a gorgeous day so the view from the school was pretty nice.

We visited all three General Ed Kindergarten classrooms (rooms 3, 4, 15) – rooms 3 &4 were in bungalows outside the main building, and room 15 was in the main building. Not sure how they decide who gets to be in the Kindergarten classroom in the main building, but it looked much nicer than the small dark bungalow classrooms. Inside the classrooms, the children were sitting and working on projects, talking quietly to one another and some to the teacher. I’m guessing the teachers told them to sit quietly during the tours because the children almost seemed too quiet. The walls were covered in children’s drawings, the alphabet, the days of the week, etc. The bungalow classrooms looked very cramped, and it looked like there was too much stuff in there for the amount of space.

The principal explained that the Kindergarten and the 1st graders each have their own area for recess and lunch, but he didn’t point out the areas, and I didn’t have time to find them afterwards so I can’t comment on them, but I did like the idea of separating the younger children from the older children for recess.

He also showed us the Chinese (Cantonese) Immersion classrooms which were in the main building (rooms 14 & 17). The main building was bright and airy and looked very much like what I envisioned an elementary school to look like – long wide hallways with lots of rooms on each side. For Kindergarten immersion there’s one class (22) and one Kindergarten/1st combination class (11 kindergartners in the combined class) for a total of 33 Kindergarten immersion seats. Almost all of the students looked asian with just a small handful of non-asian students. He said that the immersion program was a "2-way" immersion program which means the goal is to be bi-lingual and bi-literate in Cantonese and English by the 5th grade (80% taught in Cantonese in Kindergarten, 60% taught in Cantonese in 2nd/3rd, and 50/50 by 4th/5th). He said this was in contrast to Alice Fong Yu’s "Full Immersion" program which has the goal of language AND culture. He also said that Alice Fong Yu prefers English speakers to start in the Kindergarten program (versus primarily Chinese speakers – I had never heard this before so that was interesting).

He then took us to the auditorium where there was a music class going on. He said it was the K-3 music program. He also said that in 4th and 5th grade, if a child chooses, he/she may participate in the 1x/week music program (run by the city) and learn how to play an instrument. He also mentioned an arts teacher who emphasizes "Visual Thinking Strategies" and how art is incorporated into the regular classes as well.

The principal took us to another outdoor area at the end and opened it up to questions. He spent at least half the time answering questions, and many of the questions from the parents were general SFUSD questions and questions about other schools - this seemed kind of out of place, but maybe this happens on other tours too. There was also a parent from the "Parent’s Club" present to answer questions, and she said that they raise about $100,00 every year. The principal also mentioned that drop-off in the morning can be crazy - there’s no parking lot and forget about street parking so this means that you have to line up down the street, and if you drop off on Lenox, the street is narrow so traffic gets blocked. There’s no one (on a consistent basis) to walk your child from your car to the building so you have to wait until the line moves up.

The questions to the principal continued from some of the parents, but then many people just sort of starting walking away so there wasn’t any kind of wrap up or defined ending to the tour, which felt kind of strange, but again, it was our first tour so we thought maybe all tours end like this. The tour didn’t take us through the library or the cafeteria (which I would have liked), and I had to get back to work so I didn’t have time to explore those areas on my own.

Likes: Friendly and approachable principal, nice main building, Cantonese immersion, active parents group, high test scores, later start time (8:40am)

Dislikes: Bungalow classrooms

Overall impression: As I noted above, this was my first tour so I had nothing to compare it to. It seemed like a good, solid school with a nice/approachable principal and an active parents group. If my daughter were placed here, I would be happy with it because I’ve only heard good things about this school, and it’s close to our house. But for a big buzz school, I have to admit that I wasn’t blown away.

I’m not banking my whole opinion of a school on a tour. It’s just one part of evaluating a school, and I know there's much more to this school than the tour (so all you West Portal parents out there, I'd love to hear more about this school). For me, the tour is so I can just get an overall feeling for a school. It’s kind of like when you’re looking for a place to live. You could see a place that has all the bells and whistles but just doesn’t feel like home, and you could walk into another place that has few bells and whistles, but it just feels right.

I later talked with a parent that I know who has a child at West Portal (and he LOVES it), and I told him about my overall impression and how I didn’t experience anything on the tour that warranted the high-demand status of this school. He said that as I tour other schools, I’ll see a difference. I guess we’ll see.

33 comments:

  1. Clarifying:

    "in 4th and 5th grade, if a child chooses, he/she may participate in the 1x/week music program (run by the city) and learn how to play an instrument."

    These lessons are provided in all SFUSD schools under the same setup -- it's run by the school district (not the city; separate entities).

    It's common especially for newcomers to the process to not understand that certain programs are available in every school.

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  2. I toured 13 schools last fall and I must say that West Portal didn't stand out to me. The school certainly didn't make our Top 7. It was hard for me to pinpoint my exact reasons for not liking it. Like Debbie said, it probably just wasn't he right fit for us.

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  3. It's amazing -- this was my first school tour two years ago, and I feel like you just summarized my impression of the place! This is our neighborhood school, and we have heard nothing but good things about the place. We ended up putting it #1, based on independent investigation. (Surprise, surprise -- we didn't get it.)

    This sentence really stood out as epitomizing every single tour (public and private) I went on: "He spent at least half the time answering questions, and many of the questions from the parents were general SFUSD questions and questions about other schools - this seemed kind of out of place, but maybe this happens on other tours too." I also found on ALL my tours that a lot of time was spent answering questions that were very general and could be easily answered by opening the enrollment guide or checking on the school's website (i.e., whether the school has uniforms, start times). And get ready for the obligatory questions from people who want to know how their "gifted child" will be adequately challenged. Sprinkle in a few incredibly specific questions that would be better addressed separately, instead of taking up 50 other parents' time (e.g., "My son speaks some Italian, but not fluently, and we're wondering whether you have any aides who have some proficiency in Italian in order to expose him to the language? Preferably before lunch, when he tends to learn better."), and that's pretty much my memory of school tours.

    That's not to say that they're not valuable, though. I just thought you captured perfectly the touring experience.

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  4. The Italian question - was that actually asked on one of your tours?

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  5. Ha -- fortunately, no. It's been over a year since I've been on a tour, so I can't remember any specific questions. I was just trying to think of an extreme example. I do remember there were tons of questions where my first thought was, "Really? You really thought we all had to hear that?" But I was incredibly stressed out about the whole process, so my fuse was particularly short. Probably not as bad as I remembered it. The gifted questions were real, though.

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  6. I found tha the parents of the so- called gifted children tend to want to dominate the time allotted for questions.

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  7. I know that this blog is letting the tour writers just post whatever schools they tour, but frankly I don't think it is helpful to the newbies that the first schools to be profiled this year are the most difficult to get into. Moreover, it is not helpful when many of them have already been profiled by the website in the past. Why aren't we seeing some profiles of schools that the website has not yet reviewed at all?

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  8. 11:03 why don't you post some reviews if you are dissatisfied with what is out there. it is incredibly generous that these folks have volunteered to spend their time, which they probably have little of, writing these reviews. i for one am thankful.

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  9. 11:03 what are you talking about? The first two reviews were Sutro and George Peabody. Alamo and West Portal were done later. Sutro is quite reasonable. Peabody is more popular than Sutro but hardly shooting the moon. Scroll further down next time.

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  10. One thing I've heard about West Portal is that its location lends itself to being a true "neighborhood school" and that because of the immersion that opportunity is somewhat lost. Debbie's comments about the drop-off situation underline that - this is a location that's highly accesible on foot or by public transit, and cars dropoffs seem to be a problem here.

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  11. Just to clarify:

    DUAL IMMERSION programs have two sets of kids learning each other's language (and, often, a third group that is already bilingual). Hence the term "dual." All of the Spanish-immersion programs are dual-immersion, as is West Portal's Cantonese program. The Mandarin-immersion programs were designed as dual-immersion programs but have been unable to recruit enough Mandarin speakers.

    FULL IMMERSION is what Alice Fong Yu has. The program is designed for English speakers. (No English Language Learners are allowed at the school. There is testing to make sure. Some argue that the school's high test scores are due to that fact.)

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  12. It's interesting how subjective this can be. I just went on a tour and loved it. I agree that the bungalows aren't as nice as the classrooms inside the building. But I loved everything else. The artwork on the walls seemed to be more open ended and individual compared to other schools I've visited so far. The teachers all seemed very professional and approachable, good at talking to the kids, and happy to be there. The kids all seemed happy and interested in the lesson. I also saw lots of teacher aids or volunteers in several classes. Overall I thought it a very bright happy, cheerful place on a drizzly gray day.

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  13. We live in the neighborhood and it was extremely important for us to have our children attend the neighborhood school. After going 0/11, with WP our first choice, we, or SFUSD, gifted our son a year and resubmitted the same list of schools for the 2009/2010 school year. As far as I am concerned, we won the lottery in getting our first choice, West Portal. Agree, the bungalows would not have been my first choice, but my son is engaged and excited about going to school every single day and the bungalow experience is only for a year. When I pick him up at the end of the day he will chatter on endlessly about his new friends and experiences. Best of all, I get to walk him to school!

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  14. Congrats, 2:33. Glad it was a happy outcome for you in the long run.

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  15. To 11:34 -- I did scroll down and see the Peabody and Sutro ones. Again, these are all relatively quite popular schools. And as for the snarky comment that I should do it myself, well, that's just silly. The concern I raise is, I believe, a valid one -- there's a boatload of good (and not so good) schools that have not been reviewed by this website in the past. Continuing to highlight the same dozen or so star schools is going to lead to the same destructive "lemming" loop of newbie parents putting them down. Frankly I am sick and tired of people talking about how wonderful West Portal school is. You know what -- you have as good a chance of winning the state lottery as you do of getting into that school! So get over it -- let's hear about some other schools!

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  16. A million years ago when I was touring for kindergarten (actually only 12 years ago)I took my sister, a 20-year veteran kindergarten teacher with me. We only saw a few schools--and they were all the usual suspects then, including Lakeshore, West Portal, and Commodore Sloat--but she liked West Portal the best because it seemed to her that the staff worked as a team there. In those days there were no organized tours so we just walked around, met the principals, and visited classrooms that seemed appropriate. Granted, it's hard to get that kind of feeling now, but just talking with staff and asking whether they plan together is a good start.

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  17. 3:46 people will review whichever schools they are interested in. It isn't the reviewers obligation to be compelled by the the schools you are or discover "hidden gems" for you. Frankly, I am really sick of the "hidden gem" moniker. If you are trying to encourage others to perform your leg work, you might trying being more polite. Your attitude reeks of superiority, besides who is to say you'd even believe anything you read, since you are so much smarter than everyone else.

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  18. 3:46 again -- I'm missing where what I said was done with an air of superiority. All I pointed out is what I think we all know -- the small number of star schools are virtually impossible to get into; there are lots of pretty good schools out there; and new parents often find themselves following the star schools because they don't know enough about the other schools. So . . . lots of us would like to hear more about the "other" schools. I didn't say the words "hidden gems" so I'm a little mystified as to how you'd be upset at something I didn't say. As far as trying to have someone else do my legwork for me, well . . . I guess I'll plead guilty as charged, but so would virtually everyone reading this blog. I mean, what else would someone be reading this blog for? So, I'd just renew my hope -- I see in other comments that we are going to get a review of Glen Park soon, which sounds great to me since it has never been reviewed by this website. But I like to hear about the many other schools that have yet to be reviewed here. And I don't think I'm the only one reading this who rolled her eyes when reading about West Portal and Alamo. I mean, what next -- do we really need another fullsome review of Claire Lillienthal ("just like a private school") again?

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  19. 8:14 pm: I understand your wanting to hear more about the lesser known schools, but you could make your point more politely. Plenty of people are interested in West Portal. What schools are you visiting? If you don't have time to go visit the schools yourself and write reviews of them you should be more polite to the people who spend the time to do it for the benefit of others.

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  20. For all new parents going on tours, for 2 years, I toured public and parochial schools (couldn't afford true private) and found that basically they were all the same. There were 4 that stood out -- Lawton as it was quiet and serious almost military precision, Rooftop as it seemed liberal and artsy/alternative teaching, Feinstein as it was brand new and Alice Fong Yu as it was complete immersion. The rest just blended together into 'elementary schools'. If I had to do this all again, I wouldn't tour. With the lottery, you don't really get much choice. Just put the 7 most convenient locations, start times and languages down and cross your fingers. This process is the biggest and dumbest timesuck (saying this in retrospect). Your child will be great in any SF school as long as it is safe and you are supportive of their learning.

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  21. Great observations, 11:04. I wish I wouldn't have toured as many schools as I did. I found almost all of them to be the same, too. And the strangest thing is that it was hard for me to decide on a "favorite" because there were pros and cons for each of my Top 7.

    We went through the process last year. These are the things that stood out to me at each school:

    --Rooftop's incredible sensory motor classroom and the hillside learning garden.
    --Miraloma's airy & bright Kindergarten classrooms... plus the gorgeous view of downtown.
    --Grattan's charming campus and awesome computer lab.
    --Commodore Sloat's expansive campus, great parking, and engaging teachers.
    --Clarendon's K classroom's cooking (GE) and singing sweet songs in Japanese (JBBP) and the wonderful art classroom.

    ... and on and on and on. Of course, some schools also stood out negatively (bored K teachers, teachers berating students in front of the rest of the students, etc.). Might have been a bad day to tour, of course, but I couldn't forget about what I saw and, therefore, didn't list those schools on my application.

    Regardless, the cirriculum is the same. The bells and whistles are different... and that's how I was able to distinguish my favorites.

    For us, it really boiled down to the logistics of what was going to work best for our family. Most important to us was to be 10 minutes or less by car from home. Secondary to that was a later start time (7:50 would NOT have worked for our family). Lastly, a good on-site after-care program was a must because I didn't want to drive across town to do pick-up at the end of a long day.

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  22. As a veteran volunteer tour leader, I know that one kid making a mess in the bathroom that isn't caught before the touring parents come in can probably chase away scads of prospects, even if the bathroom is normally perfectly acceptable.

    I still remember, some years ago, a touring mom snipping disapprovingly that there was dust on the computer keyboards in one kindergarten -- and this was a fantastic, gifted teacher. At that moment I decided it was pointless to tour if people were going to use such narrow judgment.

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  23. Comments on this post are amazing to me because it's only recently (maybe in the past two years) that anyone would publicly recommend enrolling your child in any one of the public schools closest to your house. Only certain schools were considered acceptable, and the real reason for that was that you would be risking your social status by considering any school that wasn't on the "acceptable" list. And even though this list has expanded recently, it's quite a different thing to say that people should consider any school within a certain radius. Even if it's not a commonly held view, ghis is a remarkable change and I'm thrilled to see it coming about.

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  24. "FULL IMMERSION is what Alice Fong Yu has. The program is designed for English speakers. (No English Language Learners are allowed at the school. There is testing to make sure. Some argue that the school's high test scores are due to that fact.)"

    Err, this isn't quite right; it might have been the case under the old alternative school/OER system, but it's not now.

    AFY has about 19% ELLs according to the CA dept. of education stats, and while there's not a quota as there is for the dual-immersion programs, I'd say 25-30% of the kinders in my kid's class are cantonese-dominant.

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  25. "Great observations, 11:04. I wish I wouldn't have toured as many schools as I did. I found almost all of them to be the same, too. And the strangest thing is that it was hard for me to decide on a "favorite" because there were pros and cons for each of my Top 7."

    Just to reinforce that point. We toured more than twenty schools over two years, and it was hard for us to whittle them down to just seven - I liked all but 2-3 of them. Given that, we chose based all immersion or FLES programs, and ranked them mostly based on logistics and popularity, with the then less popular programs like Revere and JOES MI as our backstops. But I could easily have skipped touring Clarendon and Rooftop or St. Cecilia's - too inconvenient logistically for someone in Bernal, and/or the odds of getting in too low to be worth an application.

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  26. "Only certain schools were considered acceptable, and the real reason for that was that you would be risking your social status by considering any school that wasn't on the "acceptable" list."

    Well, I think now there's a certain social status of being the pioneer who 'discovered' a darling little school. But the fashions can change radically. Amy/Kate got some flack from people on this board when she chose JOES MI over Marin County Day School, 'cos who'd send their kid to a school like JOES who no-one had heard of?

    In the same year, there were shit-fits from parents who'd been assigned to Sunnyside. Well, a bunch of Miraloma co-op preschool parents assigned there visited it, liked it, decided to accept their assignments there, and the next year it was on everybody in the SE's tour iterinary, and applications went up by an amazing number (it was more than 70%, I think - it might have been as much as 110%).

    "And even though this list has expanded recently, it's quite a different thing to say that people should consider any school within a certain radius. Even if it's not a commonly held view, ghis is a remarkable change and I'm thrilled to see it coming about."

    It's not consider any school in your radius, but just it's pointless to take the slim odds of getting into Grattan or Miraloma GE and schlep an additional 1/2 hour if you're closer to McKinley or Moscone or Bessie Carmichael or SF Community or E.R.Taylor.

    If you're keen on going for immersion or FLES, a schelp may be unavoidable as the choices are more limited, but for a GE program, you can find a great one closer to home than you might expect.

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  27. "And even though this list has expanded recently, it's quite a different thing to say that people should consider any school within a certain radius. Even if it's not a commonly held view, ghis is a remarkable change and I'm thrilled to see it coming about."

    The reason for the change is that people overextended on their mortgages and now can't move out of SF. But, maybe their misfortune benefits us all?

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  28. 11:03, once Kate gets a chance to send me the official link I can use to post, I will be reviewing:

    Alvarado
    Buena Vista
    Fairmount
    Flynn
    Glen Park
    Marshall
    McKinley
    Milk
    Monroe
    Revere
    Serra
    SF Community
    Sunnyside
    Webster
    and Ortega and Taylor if I can fit them in.

    While I'm just one lowly and possibly misguided person, I hope the reviews will help you. I'm not touring so many schools to find the perfect one for us. I'm just interested. I have the time, unexpectedly, while lots of my friends don't. And I think the SE part of the city deserves a better look.

    And after 4 tours from among these, the schools don't look at all alike to me. Each has its own personality, priorities, and strengths. Not every one is a good fit for my kid, but each is a good fit for someone's kid. I do think tours are fragmentary and potentially misleading, though, so I am really hoping that parents will post in the comments section about each school.

    That is all, as they say.

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  29. If you want to see a school being embraced by the neighborhood, you ought to check out McKinley, which is in an awfully nice neighborhood, truth be told. We ended up there, not exactly aiming for there, and have been surprised by the flood of living-nearby parents supporting the school and sending there kids there.

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  30. "11:03, once Kate gets a chance to send me the official link I can use to post, I will be reviewing:"

    Not to bang on about it, but you should check out Moscone as well, it's closer than Junipero Serra, and is another school, like Taylor, that bucks its demographics. Nice building, too, and a strong principal.

    Negatives are that aftercare is limited.

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  31. I am a very happy West Portal parent (GE not immersion). My child is in 1st grade this year. We have been thrilled with the sense of community at this school. We love the way that the school is well balanced in arts, sports and academics. There is also a lot of exposure to the Chinese culture as a result of the immersion program in the school. One of our child's favorite activities last year was walking in the Chinese New Year parade downtown.

    We requested West Portal #1 in the lottery 2 years ago...and won! The process can be discouraging, but it does work out for a lot of people.

    By the way, she was assigned to a bungalow this year (her K class was in the main building) and she loves it! The kids think the bungalows are "super cool". Who would of known?? :)

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  32. If anyone has questions about West Portal, feel free to email me...sfpartyof5@yahoo.com

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  33. We LOVE West Portal. We moved to the neighborhood to help our son get in and we went 0/15. :-(

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