Friday, November 20, 2009

San Francisco Community School

Reviewed by Marcia Brady

The Facts

Location: 125 Excelsior Ave. , 1 block east of Mission (Excelsior)

School hours: 9:15-3:30

Tel: 469-4739

Principal: Kristin Bijur, Head Teacher (SFCS has a completely different leadership structure than I've seen, see below).

Web site:

School tours: Fridays, 10 AM

Grades: K-8

Kindergarten size: 3 classes of 20, going up to 22

Total student body: 275

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

Progressive values, mixed-age classes, innovative curriculum, an intimate, small-scale middle school. Not a good choice if your child needs structure or is daunted by older kids.

Class Structure / Curriculum: Mixed classes (K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 7-8), except for grade-specific math. Elementary school students have the same teacher for 2 years. Project-based learning: 2 nine-week science-based projects per year, each incorporating 2 out of 4 total themes (Human Body, Environment/Earth Science, Physical World/Design, and Community). So with each teacher, elementary students have all 4 themes over 2 years. They are repeated, but elaborated and extended for years 4-5 and 6-7 or 8. In 5th and 8th grade, students present portfolios to panels of teachers, family members, community members, and peers in order to "graduate" to the next level.

Campus/Playground: Very large brick building, with lots of light coming into the classrooms. Physical plant is, however, somewhat shabby and stark -- chipped plaster, peeling paint, not nearly enough on the walls to compensate for the large amount of wall space. 1 bungalow houses the library, another seems to be a greenhouse. Large yard divided into areas: an older-looking play structure, a sand and water-play area, and a beautiful garden big enough to walk in.

After School programs: Third Base program, was free but will cost next year, until 5:45

Additional Programs: Outdoor Education including camping trips for all grade levels every year, edible garden, extra classes in gardening, nutrition, and cooking.

PTA: no info. given on tour

Language program(s): None

Library / Computer Lab: Library has 16 Macintosh computers; each classroom has 3-4 computers. No formal computer curriculum. We did not see the inside of the library, but there is a librarian and K-5 kids have library class 1x/week. Kids must keep checked-out books in the classroom until Grade 3.

Arts: No info on tour, in brochure, or on website. Project-based learning incorporates art, though.

PE: No information on tour, in brochure, or on website.

Recess/Lunch: No information on tour, in brochure, or on website.

Tour Impressions:

This tour had only one parent at the helm. We began in a hallway, but went immediately to one of the K-1 classrooms. How do you know you are at an alternative school? Teachers are called by their first names, of course! There, the teacher spoke to the K and 1 kids about the ending sound "-ck" for a bit. Interestingly, I saw none of the dreaded behavior charts at SFCS, but these kids were wiggly and talked so much that the teacher's voice was hardly audible, and 2 kids were on "time out" chairs. One parent said immediately, "I've seen enough," and stomped out. All this left me wondering: are those behavior charts necessary for a quality learning environment after all? Or is a different focus -- SFCS's is conflict resolution and problem-solving -- going to produce less exterior evidence of "model children" while growing more socio-emotionally competent kids on the inside?

The K kids were then sent off to do worksheets, but no adults were there to supervise them, which seemed odd (SFCS has 14 credentialed teachers and 14-20 support staff members, so maybe someone was absent). In the other K-2 classroom, there were 2 adults, and kids were doing quite diverse things: some were in workgroups, others appeared to be on free play time. This second classroom had a dress-up area, a play kitchen, unit blocks, and neatly typed reading labels ("chair," "desk") on all the chairs,desks, etc. Both classrooms were large, but still seemed somewhat drab to me after Sunnyside's colorful ones. Interestingly, the 2-3 classroom we saw was equally wiggly; they were working on writing a collective letter to someone as a way of learning the parts of speech. I liked this approach, but again, was taken aback by the amount of noise and the number of kids who were clearly astrotraveling.

We ended in the cafeteria for a Q and A. The tour guide described SFCS's unique leadership structure: teachers with at least 3-4 years' experience rotate as "Head Teacher," which sounds more like a department chair, in practice, than like a principal. There is also a "Lead Team" consisting of one teacher from every grade, who meet with the Head Teacher and serve as liaisons to the other teachers. Their professional development is also internal; they do what is needed rather than attending the huge SFUSD meetings. Teachers seem to have a very high degree of autonomy here, and to collaborate a great deal. One parent asked about the effect of the mixed classes: the tour guide at first seemed to say they worked best for high-achieving kids who had older kids to work with, but then flip-flopped a bit and said that teacher attention generally went to the struggling students because, in the end, the issue was equity and closing the achievement gap, such that higher-achieving kids probably ended up achieving less than they could. Higher-achieving kids, she also said, did a lot of independent work. Remembering my own dreadfully lonely K-3 years where I was sent off to teach myself things, I wasn't wild about this news. But we did see evidence of some interesting projects, including a survey done by K-1 kids complete with raw data, methodology, and bar charts! I had to leave before the Q and A session was over, but it seemed that the Head Teacher was not going to appear, and I would have liked to hear from her about curriculum.

How does all this add up? I love the idea of the curriculum at this school, and of the possibility for teachers to collaborate and innovate: in this sense, SFCS seems like an independent school for the less well-off. In fact, SFUSD just named SFCS as one of eight "exemplary schools" that will be studied by Stanford researchers doing work on successful schools. The projects, the outdoor education, the emphasis on community "virtues" all appeal to me. And I am well aware that progressive education can look much messier in the process, but that wonderful products (both kids and what they make) emerge from it. But in the actual classroom teaching, I didn't see much going on that was different than the other public schools I've visited. And these kids seemed less attentive and eager to learn, not more. I was also more put off by the physical plant than I've been at any other school. But do facilities matter as much as pedagogy, values, etc.? So now I turn to SFCS parents with some questions:

Do the mixed-age classes work well for your kid, and why?

If you have a kid with learning difficulties, or a kid who is quite a bit above grade level, do you feel your child is achieving up to his/her potential, and how do you define that?

What is your sense of the classroom environment, and what might parents want to look at through different lenses than the usual ones they might put on for tours?


  1. Um...Marcia, I hate to break it to you, but SF Community is not a charter school. It is a regular public school, part of SFUSD.

    Otherwise, love your reviews.

  2. Wow, 9:17, it appears you are right! Off to change the review. They are a Small School By Design, but not charter. I can't figure out how they get all this autonomy, etc., and are still Title I.

  3. I think it's important to remember that sitting still is not necessarily a sign of engagement. In my case, sitting still in school meant I was totally disengaged. Even as an adult, if I am not doodling or fidgeting it is very hard for me to focus on and understand aural information (this makes me unsuited for office work, to say the least).

    In my Kindergarten this year, I have one student who picks up information best while moving around. I keep a variety of "fidget items" that provide different kinds of sensory feedback and many students select to use them (some of which is just checking things out, but some students focus better with these tools and begin to use them for self-regulation).

    So I wouldn't necessarily say the activity on the rug is an enormous issue. However, I find that children in time-out chairs often end up in them because they were doing something active and disruptive. I don't think sitting in a chair is the best answer if a child is overwhelmed with the need to move or socialize. The use of time-out spaces and how/whys of their use would be more interesting to me if I were looking for a Kindergarten for my child.

  4. One thing about SF Community on a tour: I also got the sense of some of the teachers in the K-1 classes struggling a bit with discipline: however, one of the Kinder teachers (male) seemed completely in control.

    Later, I walked by the school during recess. Everything seemed pretty calm, I didn't see any aggression on the playground, and one of the staff sang a really sweet song praising the kids for following the rules when they lined up. For recess at least, the school has a really good vibe.

  5. Oh Marcia, I am going to sound like an annoying broken record, but I really hope you will tour Creative Arts Charter. I know it isn't convenient for you right now but it is moving in a year or two. I really think you would like it!

  6. Sorry, didn't mean to be anonymous -- that was from me (about CACS).

  7. I have a boy in K at SFC (I think in the class Marcia toured), and we love it. Know that it is one of the best performing diverse schools in the district - more than 70% on free and reduced lunch, yet API around 800 API. What we love: project based learning, focus on equity and problem solving, diversity, mixed age classes, K-8, small classes thru 8th (20-22 kids), focus on achievement (do portfolio assessment for promotion)

  8. cont from above - Also, wiggly kids are OK if learning goes on. Both my wife and I volunteer in the classroom, and were first put off by the brownian motion. But we've seen how much the kids are learning, and the teacher does a good job quelling real disruptive behavior rather than squashing general wiggleyness. Also, the K teacher is in her first year, and works very closely with the more experienced teachers.

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  10. Folks should know - there is now a lot up on the walls in the hallways. Very colorful body maps developed by the kids as part of the human body project unit.

  11. some answers from a current parent:
    arts - as you have sensed arts are not a special focus at SFC, however, it's not entirely lacking and there is a lot of creativity in the project work. the instrumental music program for grades 4-8 is special, beyond what other schools have in certain ways. there's visual art with an art teacher at all grade levels, but not for the whole school year. music for K-3 consists of optional choir that performs at school events and in big multi-school concerts at the symphony hall etc., as well as the SF symphony music program that all elem. schools have which introduces the kids to the instruments, and there may be a fair amt of singing and music in the classroom depending on the individual teacher. There is currently no drama program, there may be some dance in PE, there is some additional arts in the after school program. there is a full time PE teacher, k-5 have PE once a week, Middle School daily.
    PTA - there's an active parent group called the PAC.
    After school - will still be free next year, in addition, there is a boys and girls club on site.
    recess - K-5 have a 20 minute morning recess with snack and then a 40 minute recess after they eat lunch.
    multi-age classrooms - i feel like these have worked well for my kids, there is a very cooperative atmosphere between the kids, and they have a bigger pool of friends than they would otherwise. the idea is that the curriculum is differentiated within the classroom to accommodate both those who are ahead and behind their grade level in a given area. there are a bunch of very talented great teachers at the school, of course a given teacher and a given class configuration can make a big difference in how this works. in general i think both the kids who are ahead or behind grade level benefit from the high level of individual attention at the school, but a few kids who are ahead may benefit from moving in grade 6 to a larger middle school.

  12. i'm a current parent and just want to quickly answer a couple blanks in the review:
    arts - all grades have visual art with an art teacher for a portion of the school year, there is also visual art in the ASP and in project work, art is not a focus of parent fundraising at this point so it is dependent on Prop H and other districtwide funding. The instrumental music program for grades 4 - 8 is special in that we happen to have a music teacher who can teach ANY instrument and due to the small size of the school the kids have the opportunity for individual and very small group lessons as well as a small ensemble, all free of course. For K-3, there is an optional choir with many special performances, plus the standard Symphony AIM music program, plus, some of the teachers use a fair amt of music in the classroom.
    PE -- K-5 have weekly hour of PE with a PE teacher; 6-8 have PE every day. Recess - 20 minute morning recess, lunch recess approx 40 minutes, the youngest grades first eat in the classroom with their teacher, children play structured games during half of lunch recess.
    ASP - will still be free next year.

  13. Dear parents at SFC,

    I am interested in talking to some families of current students. Our son is in K this year at another SFUSD school. SFC was our 2nd lottery choice, and we think we made a mistake not putting it 1st! We are considering switching for 1st grade if there is space. If anyone would be willing to talk to me more about your experience of the school, please email me privately at

    Many thanks.

    - Christine

  14. Our son is currently in K at SFC and we all really like the school. There is a lot of community spirit, both among the student body and among the families.

    Our son is performing academically above grade level. His teacher works as hard to insure that our son is challenged as he does to make sure the kids who are struggling can catch up- that impressed me a lot because too often teachers will ignore the high-achieving kids, figuring they can take care of themselves. And, I like that the school also sees social skills as important lessons to learn.

    The project curriculum is very interesting and engaging for the students. How many schools do you know of where your 5-year-old will come home talking about the integumentary system?

  15. I have a child in K at SFC, it was my top choice and both my husband and I love the school. To your questions: mixed age classes challenge 2 aspects, academic and social.
    Academically, the K's benefit from the curiosity created by exposure to teachings beyond grade level. (IE: my child has asked me to help him get ready to participate in the weekly spelling 1st graders assessments. The 1st graders seem to have a sense of competence that gives them confidence in their skills, and also the opportunity to review the material in depth with their younger peers.
    Socially, interacting so closely and assiduously with a spectrum of ages seems to have given my son, who's an only child, a host of social negotiations skills he was most definitely lacking.
    The last but not least advantage is staying with the same teacher for 2 years.
    To elaborate on some of your observations, the more academically inclined are definitely not left to their own devices at SFC, every child is followed to the extent that s/he needs. What I would say is that it is a school that definitely has a commitment to leveling the playing field. Since every child has the potential to be a high achiever, the school teaches to the highest common denominator, and proposes material complex enough to keep the more academically inclined engaged. It is true that the children who struggle academically receive more individual attention, and that is to ensure that they are able to absorb the challenging material. But it is also undoubtedly true that all children are fostered in their areas of need. (IE my child was doing fairly OK academically, but encountered some social challenges. Because he performs best when he feels socially stable, appreciated and singled out for something, his teacher worked on that, and indeed all else has followed, including a rather stellar academic performance.
    To some other of your observations: the emphasis on academics is very strong, and while there is art at the school as outlined in various comments to your post, there is no doubt that teachers work more on language skills, reading, spelling, maths, and critical thinking.
    There is also a very socially engaged community, whose core values definitely trickle down to the students.
    Teachers have a great deal of autonomy and they also collaborate very closely, not only horizontally within the same grade level, but also vertically between different grades. Because much is required from teachers at SFC, those who stay are incredibly committed and competent. When needed, the school hires them independently and they are screened quite carefully to ensure a good fit in a very progressive environment.
    Lastly, and I realize this is a matter of preference, but on my tour the chirping of the children was actually one of the things that caught my attention in a positive way. I found them engaged among each other, with the classroom environment and the teacher.

  16. Hi. If any SFC parents read this, I'm curious about the K-1 classroom for a younger child. I have a son with a late November birthday, and we're still undecided if he will go to K in fall 2011 or wait another year. The SFC style sounds very interesting, but I wonder how young fives do in the mixed age setting.


  17. in response to Andi, the idea of the combined grade classes is to provide a bigger window for kids to develop at different rates in different areas, and instruction at SFC is very individualized in the lowest grades. However, like at other public schools, K today is a big academic day. if you child goes to preschool the preschool staff may have a good idea as to whether your child is ready for an academic K. At SFC, kids are allowed to move around a bit more and there are more hands on projects and small group work that at some other schools, but they are still required to spend a lot of the day working hard on reading, writing and math, and for some kids it may be best to have another year of play and start K closer to 6.

  18. Hello,

    I am an alumni of SFC and a former student of Kristen Bijur (current head teacher). I am 22 years old, attended Lowell High School, and recently graduated from USF but I will always hold SFC very close to my heart. I would like to respond to some of the concerns in the original post about how mixed grading affects high-achievers.

    I was always a high-achieving student and it is true that SFC teachers try to focus extra attention on the struggling students while leaving high-achievers to do SOME work independently. However, in my experience, a large part of SFC's curriculum focuses on group work where high achieving children are purposefully grouped with lower-achieving children doing activities specifically designed to engage every member of the group. While I can definitely recall being frustrated by having to explain things to other group members multiple times and having to wait for them to finish tasks that I considered simple, now that I am older, I can look back on this pedagogy appreciatively. At the core of SFC is the belief that a person cannot succeed or fail all by themselves, that community members have the power to lift each other up or let each other down. Besides teaching me a great deal of patience, group work with students of mixed ages and achievement levels taught me how to effectively engage a diverse group of people into conversation so that even the low-achievers would be motivated to participate. I believe the most important skill I learned from SFC was not multiplication or how to write a cohesive paragraph(though these were covered), but how to empathize and engage with people whose experiences and skills differed from my own. So if you are a parent worried about a high-achieving student not being able to reach their full potential at SFC, I advise you to consider whether for you high achievement is solely defined by how quickly your student can move through material. If that is your number one priority, then SFC is not the school for you. On the other hand, if instilling a sense of social responsibility and the desire for social justice into your child is important to you, then there is no better place than San Francisco Community School.