Reviewed by Marcia Brady
Location: 125 Excelsior Ave. , 1 block east of Mission (Excelsior)
School hours: 9:15-3:30
Principal: Kristin Bijur, Head Teacher (SFCS has a completely different leadership structure than I've seen, see below).
Web site: www.my-sfcs.org
School tours: Fridays, 10 AM
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.
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?