Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunnyside Elementary

Reviewed by Marcia Brady

The Facts

Location: 250 Foerster St. (in Sunnyside, between Glen Park and City College)

School hours: 8:40-2:40

Tel: 469-4746

Principal: Nancy Schlenke

Web site:

School tours: Thurs. (not Weds. as I previously posted -- sorry!!*), 9-10:30 AM

Grades: K-5

Kindergarten size: 3 Ks of 22 each

Total student body: 300

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

A strong focus on science, an intimate feel, an active parent base, a later start time and later aftercare, and a clean, bright building and grounds.

Class Structure / Curriculum: GE program only

Campus/Playground: Beautiful, clean 1926 building with freshly painted yellow interior and large new windows, and big sunny classrooms. Library but no computer lab. 2 bungalow classrooms housing 1st grade and a split 4/5 grade (1 more bungalow likely to come, and they have the yard space). Very large asphalt yard with new-looking play structure cordoned off with a low wall decorated with student-made tiles. New mural, gardening boxes, and benches.

After School programs: YMCA 2:40-6:30 3-5 days/week ($435/mo. for full-time, ExCel 2:40-5:40 PM M-F). After-school enrichment programs 1x/week from 2:40-3:40 in Spanish (Lango method), piano, art, and American Sign Language.

Additional Programs: District-sponsored artist-in-residence program, Adventures in Music, Creative Movement, SF Ballet program. PTA and/or grant-sponrosred Art Appreciation, Art Cart, p/t classroom music teacher, school-wide musical performance, Exploratorium Mission Science SWorkships, Zoomobile, parent workshop, "Safe Rides to School," school greening project.

PTA: From 7-81 in just 2 years; $50K raised last year in grants and funding.

Language program(s): After-school Spanish class available, 1x/week.

Library / Computer Lab: Small, bright, well-organized library with automated check-out (so it's always open) even with a part-time librarian. Computer terminals in classrooms, but no computer lab yet -- a parent technology committee is working on that.

Arts: see "Additional Programs" above; also partnership with Asian Art museum for visits, programming.

PE: part-time instructor + 3 PE interns

Recess/Lunch: AM and lunch recess, 20 mins. each. Play first, then eat. Kindergarteners have their own recess.

Tour Impressions:

First, Sunnyside gets the award for most comprehensive and informative brochure! If you're even remotely interested, snag one of these, for it tells you everything you'd ever want to know, including a kindergartener's daily schedule. I actually visited based on the strength of the brochure and friends' urging, because it's not exactly on my way to anywhere.

We began in the library, which was meticulously organized and featured a book fair by SF's own Barefoot Books, with proceeds benefiting the library. There were 4-5 parents there, all seemingly very informed and able to answer questions well or defer them to the later chat with the principal if they didn't know. Unfortunately, the classroom part of the tour was disappointing, as all the K students were on field trips, and as we merely meandered about the upper-grade hallways, not really entering classrooms for any length of time. However, this did give us substantial time in the empty K classrooms, which are huge, sunny, and architecturally interesting, with built-in shelving and alcoves to separate off some of the play space (note to the district: are those radiators peeling lead paint, or do you test for that?!). The classrooms were beautifully equipped with toys, math manipulatives, and so on, on a par with most private preschool classrooms I've seen -- and the tour guide said that parents had been amazingly responsive to classroom "wish lists." There were lots of pocket charts with not only lessons outlined in them, but also things like goals: for example, one labeled "Focus Wall" for reading detailed the theme, the goals for phomenic awareness and phonics, sight words, reading strategies, composition skills, vocabulary, and listening/speaking skills. It wasn't for the kindergarteners to read, of course, but was enormously informative for a parent like me.

We finished with a meeting with Principal Nancy Schlenke, where we learned why and how Sunnyside is so science-focused. Ms. Schlenke is a former lab researcher from UCSF (she left research and taught at Alvarado for 10 years, was a Teacher-in-Residence at the Exploratorum, and served as an SFUSD science resource teacher before coming to Sunnyside). She's brought in the FOSS program; science-focused field trips; Mission Science Workshops for Grade 1; SFSU science students doing hands-on experiments wiht grade 2; Science Content Specialists from WISE (Working to Improve Science) who observe teachers, then provide feedback and lesson planning help; and teacher science training at the California Science Teachers Convention. She has also hired almost all the staff at Sunnyside within the past 5 years, and was very honest about the pros and cons of a younger staff (the pros: test scores have shot up and the school is now over 800; the cons: they might get cocky and the learning curve is steep). I thought she was very impressive. This was an unusually articulate and informed parent group who asked great questions, and she answered them with aplomb (talking about standards as the "basement" for achievement, not the ceiling, describing the Balance Scorecard System, telling us about her concern that differentiated instruction led to busywork for students not being attended to). She has also brought in lots of help, using City College's "pre-teacher" program and SF State's student teachers to bring in a total of 12 other adults every semester.

Overall: Sunnyside is charming, with an impressive set of parents, lots of enrichment, and a serious intellectual in charge. The commute would be rough for us, and it's not an immersion school, but otherwise it looks great. Apparently once the sad-sack alternative to Miraloma, Sunnyside is now a real catch!

* I usually write these up late at night, so apologies for errors. I try to go back and correct them if commenters point them out, so thank you to the person who caught this one!


  1. Great post about a school some of us might actually get our kids into. Thanks for doing this tour and telling us about it.

  2. Wow - This is the first I have heard about Sunnyside. Sounds awesome. Great to have (what sounds like) another strong GE school on this side of town.

  3. I was really impressed by the wonderful principal, (Nancy Schlenke) at this school when we toured last year. She has a clear vision for the school and struck me as an intelligent, strong leader; the kind of person you'd want to have over for dinner! The parent group also seems really energized.

  4. For anyone remotely in the Sunnyside neighborhood, I urge you to consider this school! (Glen Park, Westwood Park, Miraloma Park, Ingleside, etc.)

    Prior to the current principal, there was a very 'old school' principal who'd been there for about 20 years - all the wonderful things happening there now weren't in place. We made the painful decision to go up the hill to Miraloma (which had worse test scores, but an energetic principal since retired.) B

    ut things really got hopping at Sunnyside right after that when new leadership stepped in.

    Just two years later, if I wasn't already at another school with my oldest, I absolutely would have sent my younger child there (now a 5th grader.)

    It's a very lovely, warm school with a parent and teacher community to match.

  5. Yay, finally a review of Sunnyside! Thanks for all the detail on how they incorporate science in the classrooms.

  6. I visited last week on the Saturday tour. Seemed like a great school. It's a bit far from us, but will probably be on of our 7. It has a classic feel to it b/c of the building. The whole time I was walking around thinking about all the people that were assigned Sunnyside last year and how they complained on this blog. Maybe they had visited it yet, but I liked it.

  7. Sunnyside is not too far from me, but I didn't know anything about it so I made a point to go by the booth at the SFUSD Fair. I ended up talking to the principal quite by accident and she was very impressive. She spoke about the fact that she has been there 5 years now and has almost completely turned over the teaching staff. She said she has been able to hand pick the staff that can execute her vision for the school.

    I asked her about the math and science cirriculum and she explained to me that she was a researcher at UCSF before entering the education field so that is one of her strengths and also an area she is determined to have excel at the school. She frankly admitted, "Elementary teachers are scared to death of science" (an opinion I share). I find many people outside of the science world are intimidated by it. But she went on to talk about how during maybe her first year or two, it took some cajoling to get the staff to embrace science, but now they have and are the teachers are quite collaborative with the material.

    She came off to me as a strong leader, who has the ability to mold the school into a place with a strong academic focus. I wasn't aware of her history at Alvalrado, but I would think that the breadth of enrichment offered at that school would play into her vision for sunnyside. Overall, I concur with 10:06 - she seemed like someone who you would want to have over for dinner because she has the X factor that makes her very engaging. Although our family is exploring many language immersion programs, I may be putting sunnyside on the list as a Round 1 school - the number of requests for it went way up last year so I'm sure you can even call it a "safety net" round 1 choice anymore.

    Thanks for the review - it has rounded out my favorable impressions of this school.

  8. Personally, I would find the comments made by the principal a grave concern. Differentiated instruction should not lead to worksheets; it should lead to scaffolding for all children. She seems to equate it with small-group instruction, or at least I think that's what she is getting at with there being busywork for students to whom the teacher is not attending. Differentiated instruction is more than grouping.

    Of course, since I am a Kindergarten teacher and am not afraid of science (and have the collegiate and post-graduate transcripts to prove it), I may be biased.

    I also note that Sunnyside's scores decreased for two years prior to this year's impressive gain, and that it performs poorly compared to similar schools.

  9. Just to clarify and be fair -- the principal was *concerned* about what differentiated instruction should mean. She was working on it, not assuming that worksheets were the answer. She's the only principal I've met that discussed the content of what that phrase could mean, rather than just proudly using it.

  10. Thanks for your review Marcia. I toured this school a little while ago and I really wanted to like it. I think your review makes me want to visit it again. I agree that the parents there seem like a really good group - very motivated and nice.

    But can anyone give firsthand information about the teachers? The one thing about the school I didn't like was that several of the teachers I saw seemed to be in very bad moods and did not seem to enjoy the job. I saw all 3 K teachers. One of them I really liked, but another one in particular made a bad impression on me. But it wasn't just her. There were teachers in the upper grades that impressed me that way also. I know that I could have just caught them at a bad moment. But it turned me off.

  11. The facilities are indeed nice. The teaching, however, is terribly hit or miss. Sunnyside teaching methods are far from impressive. Yes, the principal is a researcher by trade but don't get caught up in this, spend a day in more than one class in each grade and see how strong the science focus really is. You may find yourself sorely disappointed. If you have the time and energy to make a difference this could be the place for you. Perhaps in 3 years with much teacher development if will be that catch everyone in the neighborhood hopes it to be.

  12. ""Focus Wall" for reading detailed the theme, the goals for phomenic awareness and phonics, sight words, reading strategies, composition skills, vocabulary, and listening/speaking skills. "
    Most schools in the district have a "Focus Wall" in each classroom as the curriculum of the last seven years asked for it.

    As for the science at this school, it's a priority, which it is not at alot of schools. Is it rocket science? No, but the principal, who is fantastic, is focused on it. The WISE program in the district is known for bringing up scores of those who are underachieving, so that's great it is now at Sunnyside, it will show up in a few years in the 5th grade science test.

  13. My daughter started K at Sunnyside this year, and so far we really like the school. Sunnyside was our 7th choice in Round 1.

    One of the things I like most about the school is the community. Parents are really coming together to add some extras to the school. For example, we have one K parent teaching gymnastics to all the Ks this year, another K parent (a local mosaic muralist) doing a mosaic mural with all the Ks and 4th graders on the outside of the school (to be installed in January) and another K parent putting together dance performances with the kids. Parents are very responsive to teachers' wish lists. There is a very strong grant writing team and an art committee that is picking up steam. With this upsurge in parent involvement, I'm pleased with the direction of the school. The principal is no-nonsense and is open to suggestions and making changes.

    As for the teacher quality, we really like our K teacher. You can choose your K teacher at Sunnyside. When we got our Round 1 result in March, we went to an Open House at the school and talked to the current parents and K teachers to find the best match for our family. I have also worked a little with two of the 1st grade teachers, and I found them to be bright and motivated. I honestly haven't heard anything negative about the teaching performance of teachers for grades 2-5. In terms of one poster here who stated "the teaching is terribly hit or miss", I'd be interested to know how you know that. Were you a parent there or staff member?

    Our K teacher really encourages parents to volunteer in the classroom and I have done so a lot. I was impressed by how she handles the kids and by her calm nature. My child is learning a TON and loves her classmates.

    Good luck making your Round 1 lists.

  14. 10:34, if "most schools in the district have a 'Focus Wall' in each classroom as the curriculum of the last seven years asked for it," they are well hidden. Sunnyside's the only place I've spotted one.

  15. Can any current Sunnyside parents comment on the after school programs in place? I have not heard positive things about either and since we'd be relying on these, I'd like to get more information.

  16. Disposable Plastic drinking cups are once again littering this blog.

  17. Please note: The Sunnyside school tours are on THURSDAYS (9-10:30am), and not WEDNESDAYS.

  18. Note that you CANNOT choose your K teacher any longer at Sunnyside. Would any current parents like to comment on the hub-bub that ensued in one of the K classes 2008-2009 about one of the teacher's seemingly very strict rules of behavior? Something about the kids not being able to pee after recess? Seems crazy to me.

  19. To anonymous 5:54 re the teacher's rules for peeing. One of the K teachers had a rule that children couldn't go to the bathroom anytime except recess, lunch or other predesignated breaks (despite there being a bathroom in the classroom). The rule has been changed, but the teacher continues to be problematic. The parents and principal are working hard to address the situation, but it does raise the point that it's VERY important to ask current parents about the teachers at any school. Students have left Clarendon, Rooftop and Claire Lillianthal because of teacher-related issues, so you just never know!