Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alvarado Elementary, Take 2

Reviewed by Marcia Brady.

You can find a lot of the vital stats about Alvarado on Kate's review of 2 years ago at http://thesfkfiles.blogspot.com/2007/10/alvarado-elementary-school.html, or click on the link to the right of the posts.

So I will plunge into the meaty part:

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

A time-tested immersion program, enrichment galore, a creative environment, progressive values, location in a quiet, safe neighborhood. It might not be ideal for a very shy child or one easily overwhelmed, as it's a large place with 480 students.

Class Structure / Curriculum: 2 classes each of GE and Spanish immersion; each class is 20 for a total of 40 slots. By 4th and 5th, there are only 3 classes, 1 mixed (since you can "check out" of an immersion program by moving away, but you can't "check in" midstream, there is some attrition), with a ratio of 1:27 for the main classroom. Because kids are pulled out for 8-week sessions of enrichment, they have exposure to several different teachers, which is good prep for middle school as well as a nice way for a child to have role models besides his/her classroom teacher. The GE and Spanish Immersion kids are mingled for these pull-outs, too.

Odds of Getting In: Beyond low, unless you are a native Spanish speaker or bilingual.

Campus/Playground: Big, old-style building (maybe 1910s or 20s?), well-worn, with wide halls, high ceilings, and lots of light in the classrooms. The halls are filled with kids' art as well as commissioned art: papier-mache bees hung from one hallway ceiling; another stairway has two-story stained-glass windows; yet another has a giant, beautiful mobile. Dedicated art room, music/science room, motor skills room, computer lab, library, cafeteria/auditorium. Upper and lower asphalt yards. Upper yard has huge new play structure complete with rock-climbing wall; lower yard has freshly painted game markers on the asphalt. Murals and gardening boxes abound. Parking situation is wretched, but after K you can drop off (you have to walk in to pick up).

After School programs: GLO (Growth and Learning Opportunities, more requests than slots), and Excel (by invitation only). Low-cost after-school clubs (chess, clay club, theater, yoga, etc.). Motor skills classes for K, 1, and 2.

Additional Programs: 8 week enrichment "pull-outs" for special project in art, hands-on science, music, dance, etc.

PTA: Apparently hugely involved -- raised $250K including grants last year.

Language program(s): Dual immersion Spanish

Library / Computer Lab: Library is smallish, but nicely equipped, with a part time librarian; library class is 1x/week. Computer lab has 30 Dell terminals and kids go 1x/ week.

Arts: The art room is fantastic, filled with professional-level equipment including 2 kilns. Art is 1x week for 8 weeks officially, for special projects. But the school is filled with evidence of art as an everyday pedagogical practice in the classrooms.

PE: 2x week. After school club sports available, including basketball for the little ones.

Recess/Lunch: 2 recess periods/day. Lunch for who knows how long?

Tour Impressions:

The tour seemed already well underway by the time I arrived at 8:15. Apparently it had started at 8:00 even though the website says 8:15. Oh, well. We began in the playground, then proceeded to a motor skills room equipped with mats, stepping-stones, and other gross-motor equipment for the K-2 kids' special classes. We proceeded to a 2nd-grade GE classroom, where kids were working on money exchanges with little dry-erase boards. Interestingly, this classroom had a chart listing all the neighborhoods they represented. 2 kids were from Daly City and 1 was from San Pablo. I'm sure it's all very legitimate, but my heart did sink when I thought about how few SF kids get into Alvarado.

Onward to a bright, sunny SI Kindergarten classroom, where both SI classes were working together. The kids were doing small-group work and wow-- there was an adult (a student teacher, parent, or paraprofessional) at every table, for a total of 6 adults for the 40 kids present. We got to spend more time in the empty SI Kindergarten classroom, which was large and well equipped with easels, a reading area, a block play area, and art everywhere, including flags of the world created by the kids. I was pleased to see posterboard "vote charts" where kids could vote for which storybook they wanted to hear again (and later, to hear that the principal had recently promised to drink a bottle of Tabasco sauce if 50% of each classroom read a particular number of books for the annual Read-A-Thon -- and then drank it!).

We also peeked into a 5th grade SI class, where kids were doing geography with a combination of textbooks, colored pencil drawings, and inscrutable toothpick structures (topography models, I think). The teacher asked them to tell us what they were doing in Spanish, which several did. We also saw the bright, sunny science/music room and I was happy to see a large diagram/explanation of the scientific method on the wall, because I have it on good authority that UC kids don't know what the scientific method is, let alone how to follow it.

You know my thing is behavior management, right? So Alvarado gives awards *by classroom* for homework completed, clean-up, etc. This emphasis on the collective effort charmed me. Alvarado is also a good fit for us, in that social justice issues are woven into the curriculum (for women's history month last year, every class performed a rock song written by a woman, from Janis Joplin to Diana Ross). I saw just a bit of Principal Broecker, but he is young, hip, and very straightforward.

Overall? There's nothing not to love about Alvarado except, for us, the commute and the low odds: it's artsy and progressive, academically solid, and filled with opportunities for kids to learn beyond the 3 Rs. Without having had Spanish in the home and/or an immersion preschool, though, the odds are very low for getting in. Silly me for not being able to afford that Spanish-speaking nanny so we could get an immersion preschool so.... blah blah blah. But you see what I mean. It was also interesting to see a trophy school in action, and the very real difference in enrichment opportunities and facilities that such a school can offer. Yet as I understand it, Alvarado was once in the untouchable caste of schools, for middle-class parents: a friend of mine got her kids in when it was about where Daniel Webster is now, i.e., under the care of a first generation of "take back the schools" parents. Which leads me to a burning question. The commute aside, is it better to shoot the moon for a trophy school at #1, with other more attainable choices below? Or if a more attainable but still oversubscribed school like Flynn or McKinley isn't your #1, are you doomed not to get those either? I am a bear of little brain when it comes to the lottery. And then there's the question of whether it's better to meet up with a school at the beginning of its ascent, or to get onto an already-built bandwagon (to mix a metaphor).


  1. Marcia, you're hot. I don't care what Jan says.

  2. I noticed the tick marks on the board as well with Daly City and San Pablo listed. It took me by surprise (does this imply that 3 out of the 22 kids are not SF residents?). Obviously this is no fault of the kids themselves, but it is disheartening if it represents a failure of whatever address verification system is in place. I suppose it is possible that 3 of the kids moved between the start of the school year and now as well, although that this is the case with all 3 seems somewhat unlikely.

  3. Maybe non-SF kids were children of teachers/staff? I don't know, but I noticed that too, this morning.

    I'd agree with review that Alvarado may not be the place if your child is easily overwhelmed. It felt too big for my more reserved daughter. We are one less family trying for these coveted spots! Great school, just didn't feel like a fit for us.

  4. I think you can safely put an Alvarado first and a place like Flynn or McKinley second or third without getting burned. Or at least you have a decent shot.

  5. ^ that's what we did last year and went 0/7 :(

  6. Don't get too hung up on a child's out-of-town address. There are many inter-district transfers in San Francisco schools for legitimate reasons that are too numerous to mention. Let's not steal this thread with stories about a friend of a friend... No one was obviously trying to hide the facts at Alvardo.

  7. "I think you can safely put an Alvarado first and a place like Flynn or McKinley second or third without getting burned. Or at least you have a decent shot."

    Err, no you can't. Flynn SI was our first choice, in our neighborhood, kid had some Spanish ability but not proficient (scored around 40 in the proficiency test, needed 60 to be judged proficient). We still didn't get Flynn, because there were a huge number of siblings.

    We did get one of our other choices, which we're happy with.

    Lesson: Flynn SI is not a backup. Flynn GE may be.

  8. There were two attempts at Daniel Webster to "take back the schools." The first one failed; the second succeeded after years of planning -- planning that would ensure both critical mass and low attrition. The ground floor starts way before the lottery.

  9. Regarding the out-of-SF addresses, many children have parents that live in two different houses. They may spend more time with one parent in Daly City, but the other parent has an SF address.

  10. "I think you can safely put an Alvarado first and a place like Flynn or McKinley second or third without getting burned. Or at least you have a decent shot."

    Forget it. I know two bilingual Spanish families that could not get into this school.

    Also, most kids who have had a Spanish speaking nanny do not reach the level of Spanish proficiency to qualify as Spanish speaking in these bilingual programs.

    One would have had to have sent their child to an intensive Spanish language preschool AND spoken some spanish at home.

  11. So Flynn is out, but you could still put McKinley lower on your list than first with a shot. I know several you did so successfully.

  12. Alvarado is an assignment area school. Given how popular it is, my guess is that it fills with folks in the assignment area that have ranked it high on their list of 7 (i.e., the lottery never moves beyond the assignment area, except perhaps for kids who have one or more of the poverty diversity factors...likely not kids of parents reading this blog). If you do not live in Alvarado's assignment area, I see no point in putting Alvarado on your list of 7 unless this is your first choice school and you are willing to wait it out through the 10-day count (and beyond). Even then, there is no guarantee and you would need a back-up plan.

  13. Nice to hear your review, and to have a realistic view of what our chances are of getting in. In terms of other immersion schools, will you see Monroe? For other SE GE programs, what about Sunnyside?

    Keep on trucking.

  14. I think only the GE program falls under the assignement area, I don't believe any Immersion programs are in the assignment areas.

  15. Can any current Alvarado parents comment about the parent community? When I toured earlier this fall, it seemed to me that the community may not be as passionate about bringing in new members and making everyone feel welcome (the way several other up and coming schools did), perhaps because Alvarado is a big school and is now more established as a strong/popular school. I'd love to hear current parents describe their sense of the school community.

    I was also disappointed with the rather unimpressive library for such a large school. And why only 8 weeks of art, given the great facility? Whey can't they have art all year long? Also, the bungalow classrooms. And no language for the non-immersion kids (no FLES program). It's obviously a strong school, but there were many details that did not, in my mind, compare favorably against some of the smaller, up and coming schools. But it's so hard to judge from just a 1 hour tour...

  16. 1:53 With all due respect, I believe that you are wrong, and that this is a common misunderstanding (i.e., that immersion programs are non-assignment area). Here is a link from the sfusd website which discusses "attendance area" vs. "non-attendance area" (also known as "alternative") schools:


    According to this website, only the following Elementary/K8 schools do not have attendance areas:

    1. Argonne
    2. Brown
    3. Buena Vista
    4. Chinese Ed Center
    5. Clarendon
    6. Drew
    7. Fairmount
    8. Feinstein
    9. Fong Yu
    10. Lakeshore
    11. Lawton
    12. Lilienthal
    13. Milk
    14. Mission Ed Center
    15. New Traditions
    16. Rooftop
    17. SF Community
    18. Sunset
    19. Yick Wo

    All other elementary/k8 schools are "attendance area" schools. Popular attendance area schools are virtually (if not entirely) impossible to get into during Round 1 if you do not live in the attendance area or otherwise add diversity (based on the four diversity factors).

  17. "I think only the GE program falls under the assignement area, I don't believe any Immersion programs are in the assignment areas."

    You'll need to check with PPSSF on this. In theory, immersion programs should not have assignment areas. But I'm not sure if the algorithm code was changed to reflect this.

  18. Also, if ~you~ do not live in attendance area. The school you list first becomes your attendance area school.

  19. 1:53 to 2:58.
    Thank you for the link.

    Please read item #4: If a school has an English general education program in addition to a newcomer, language bi-literacy, or language immersion program, then the program in the school would be a city-wide program, but the school itself would have an attendance area.

    The way I read it, it conforms what I said.

  20. If you don't live in an area with an attendance school, you do not automatically get the first school you list designated as your neighborhood school. You get designated the first school on your list that is an attendance area school -- as your neighborhood school. So putting Clarendon first is not going to matter if you live in an area without an attendance school. (or any others on the list noted by 2:58pm.) Also, there's no certainty you'd get that school (your designated neighborhood school) either; you just get that extra factor.

  21. 1:53 who is also 4:55 - The portion of the link that you cite is a discussion about possibilities for the future. Specifically, the "#4" you cite is a proposal and NOT the current system (I'm sorry if posting the link has caused confusion). Maybe someone from PPS can weigh in, but I really believe that if a school is not on the list of 19 schools cut and pasted into my posting at 2:58, it is considered an "attendance area" school.

    4:15 - I believe that you are incorrect as well. Nearly everyone lives in an assignment area which is assigned a particular school. There are a few locations in the city without an assignment area (you can see this by looking at the map found at:

    For those that live in that area, there is no specific assignment area school. Instead, the highest ranked assignment area school on their list of 7 becomes their de facto assignment area school. Evidence of this rule can be found on pg. 95 of the Enrollment Guide:


    It specifically states:

    "Attendance Area Schools: Attendance area schools have defined geographic boundaries. In most cases, a school’s attendance area surrounds the school site. However, some schools also have a
    "satellite zone," an attendance area that does not surround the school but is still included as part of the attendance area.
    Applicants residing within this boundary have a better chance of being offered assignment to their attendance area school than applicants from outside the attendance area. All students have an attendance area school that is based on the student’s
    home address. For students living in the former Edison, McAteer, and Wilson attendance areas, the first non-alternative school listed on their application form will
    be treated as their attendance area

    I believe that this statement applies to the former Cabrillo attendance area as well.

  22. Question: Does a person who lists (insert name of school, such as Alvarado) #1 have a better shot than someone who lists it #7? I thought that the ranking only entered the equation if a student was assigned by the computer to 2 or more schools. At that point, they would get their higher ranking school. Is this not accurate? Do you actually have a better chance of getting a school you rank higher?

  23. "Popular attendance area schools are virtually (if not entirely) impossible to get into during Round 1 if you do not live in the attendance area or otherwise add diversity (based on the four diversity factors)."

    Under the current system, living in an attendance area helps ONLY if you add diversity...otherwise, the computer pulls from the general pool. It's my understanding that this is why living in an attendance area of a popular school carries so little weight in the current system.

  24. 10:34 and 10:59 am children from
    San Pablo and Daly City could be chilfen of parents that are divorced with one in the city and the other living outside of the city. Or, grandma has the SF address and they use it because Mom workins in San Francisco, but they live in Daly City. Happens alot.

  25. FYI - Fairmount and Marshall are all immersion schools (no GE strand). In the current model, both of these schools still have neighborhood preference.

    Honestly - I don't know if the "computer" gives neighborhood preference to the other immersion schools with a GE strand.

    Based on my understanding of the system redesign, there would not be neighborhood preference for ANY immersion schools. Sounds like a bunch of BS to me (living on SE side). Communities - please fix our schools, ala Daniel Webster and Paul Revere, but sorry, you will not get any neighborhood preference to actually attend these schools. Yippee

  26. Alvarado parent here. The kids get more than 8 weeks of art--in fact, they get 8 weeks of *each* particular art (2-D art, clay, dance, music etc.) throughout the year. It's a little complex because in the 4th and 5th grade the music program becomes the instrumental instruction that every school gets. But anyway, that's the basic idea.

    Regarding the lottery, it is my understanding that both programs are attendance-area programs, for now. This may very well change in the new system, as they are talking about designating immersion programs as city-wide.

    Finally, rank choice matters, even beyond the question of whether you add diversity, if it comes down to a tie-breaker. If the computer runs out of any diversity and is left with a pool of applicants with the same diversity profile (likely in the case of a Clarendon, Miraloma, Alvarado, where many, many not-poor families apply), then the tie-breaker amongst them can be neighborhood and rank choice. It's a long shot, but if you get that long shot, then it was a good call, right? And most likely this could be a BIG difference in a moderately popular school like Harvey Milk or Sunnyside or Sutro or Peabody--your chance of landing that spot in a tie-breaker at the end being that much greater. So it can be a good strategy to list a moderately popular school that you really like up in the #1 spot, especially if you really want to land a spot in Round 1.

  27. Alvarado parent again. I don't know about the 2nd grade class with kids in Daly City and San Pablo, but I know for sure of several kids at Alvarado whose parents have gotten divorced with one parent living in the East Bay or Daly City. Divorce is hard on the finances, and lots of our families are low income so it's not surprising that the parent who moved out would end up moving to a cheaper area. It's all legit as the other parent still lives in SF (based on the classroom lists handed out to us at back to school night). The kids would have their own reasons for picking whichever house for that math project.

  28. "Regarding the lottery, it is my understanding that both programs are attendance-area programs, for now. This may very well change in the new system, as they are talking about designating immersion programs as city-wide."

    Again - I think this is important for people to consider for making your list and important for input in the redesign. Is it really fair for people on the SE side to loose preference to so many of the immersion programs?

  29. I think SE siders need to make strong arguments for leaving the lottery as is: attendance area kicking in if we add diversity. If we are middle-class, we add diversity to places like Paul Revere and Daniel Webster, so we are likely to get in, at least at this early stage. And the immersion programs were part of the project of drawing us back to the schools, for goodness sake, so why shut us out now? But if we want a shot at established schools, we need the full city range.

  30. Another Alvarado (K-GE) parent here. Yes there IS lots of parent involvement. In our classroom there's parent volunteers an hour or two each day, a volunteer for the Art class, the Computer class, parents rotate "snack duty" each week, "take-home" projects preparing art/construction materials for the teacher, and other "mundane" delegatable tasks that free the teacher for higher-level work planning and involvement with the kids.

    This year there was A LOT of movement in the classrooms after school started. In our classroom 7 or 8 kids came in off the waiting list after school started - the list must have cleared out completely, as the class isn't even full to the 22 kids (which now leaves room for those out-of-district transfers.)

  31. Also, there are no bungalow classrooms at Alvarado. The bungalows on the lower yard are tool & garden storage. There are two K classes whos entrances are from the yard, not the main hallways, but they are indeed in the main building.

  32. What is it with this anti-bungalow bias? My two kids go to a school with bungalows (not Alvarado) and their years in the bungalows were the highlight of their time at the school! They loved being in a self-contained classroom! They really enjoyed having the schoolyard just outside their door. And each bungalow got a chunk of the garden behind them to grow things. I'm just scratching my head here because I keep hearing prospective parents on this list say things like "Oh, no, that school has bungalows, I'd never send my kid there!" And I don't get it. Instead of taking that position, why don't you actually go into a bungalow and see how nice they are?

  33. The anti-bungalow bais stems from the belief that schools with low enrollment should not be shut because places (like Alvarado) with bungalows could transfer some of their students to schools with low enrollment.

    It is alo part of the SF Bay Guardian/Green plan to make all schools in SF exactly 44% Asian, 20% Caucazoid, 15% African-American, and 21% Hispanic...

    ...80% of white kids attend parochial/private so they can stick with their own kind.

  34. Old bungalows can have mold problems. New bungalows have formaldehyde problems. Katrina victims living in FEMA-issued bungalows got sick.

  35. ALVARADO HAS NO BUNGALOWS! Why is this being debated on this thread? Take it over to the Clarendon thread if you want to discuss the pros & cons of bungalow classrooms.

  36. Another K-touring parent adding impressions (as requested).

    I had heard so many amazing things about Alvarado, but I have to admit I was disappointed. The extras are impressive (murals, dancing, garden, art), but the school didn't have the same sparkle and energy as Miraloma or Clarendon. The classrooms seemed chaotic, the principal a bit disengaged, and our tour leaders downright cynical. I thought it was just me, but many others have said they were disappointed by their Alvarado tours. I've also met parents who recently pulled their kids out of Alvarado after waiting months to get in. I'm going to give it another look since it's my attendance area school. Do people sense Alvardo is not as good a school as it was three to five years ago?

  37. I'm a Alvarado parent (of older kids, who has seen several principals). I find the current principal to be very engaged. He's working very hard on a number of very core strategies for improvement, he shows up for every event, and he works hard. The kids like and respect him. Can't say what the impressions would be for touring parents.

    I wouldn't say the school is "not as good" as 3-5 years ago. Based on what? A vague sense of sparkle or lack thereof? The teaching staff is largely the same, including some of the very best. Perhaps the sense of "arrived" as opposed to "building" is what the person was sensing? A lot has *improved* over recent years, imo, in terms of making the school run smoothly, and institutionalizing best practices throughout the school. I don't know about chaos in the classroom but it's not our experience. There were a couple of challenged teachers in the upper grades when we first arrived (quite some years ago) but they are long gone. It is of course an immersion school (or half immersion anyway) so the demographics are very different from Miraloma and Clarendon.

    I think the hardest thing about the school now is getting in. It was so much easier back in the day (but I was told we were crazy to put in for a "ghetto" school--not kidding). I tell my friends now to include it if they want, but look at Webster, Flynn, Marshall, Revere also if they really want Spanish immersion. Or McKinley, Milk if they want the neighborhood. Or Rosa Parks if they want the "we're building this together" vibe.