Friday, December 4, 2009

Commodore Sloat Elementary Tour

Reviewed by Debbie

In the past month or so my kindergarten application process pendulum-of-stress has swung from obsessing about it every day, all the way to the other side - surrendering to it, almost to the point of not really thinking about it. It has lowered my stress level quite a bit which has been great, but it also has led me to not post anything, so for that, I apologize.

True to my initial plan, I have only toured a small handful of schools: West Portal (posted that review), Commodore Sloat (this review), and Sunnyside (Marcia Brady's review is excellent so I don't see a need to post another review).

I have heard and read really good things about Commodore Sloat, but somehow it manages to stay under the radar. Like West Portal, Commodore Sloat is also close to our house. I drive and/or run by this school several times a week. When I’m running, I always slow down if it’s recess or children are out for P.E. so I can observe the kids and the teachers – I’m sure I look like some weird or nosey adult.

Commodore Sloat is an "attendance area" school, and we live in the attendance area. I’ve heard that living in an attendance area doesn’t really matter that much, especially with high demand schools. However, the Educational Placement Center rep at the Parents for Public Schools event on 10/3 said that if you put your attendance area school #1, you’re positioning yourself the best way possible for that school. So hey, if it makes even an incremental difference in the outcome, I’ll take it!

If you want all the school details and more information about the school’s programs, go to the Sloat Parents’ Club Organization’s website (http://www.sloatparents.org/). It’s a really nice and informative website. Otherwise, this post will focus mainly on the tour itself.

FACTS:

Date of tour: October 2009
Location: 50 Darian Way (Ingleside Terrace area), 415-759-2807
Principal: Jeanne Dowd (this is her first year as principal)
School type: Public
Parents’ Club Organization Website: http://www.sloatparents.org/
Tours: Tuesdays, 9-10:00am, call to register
School day start/stop: 8:40am-2:40pm (yard supervision starts at 8:20am)
Grades: K-5
Total Enrollment: 355 (16 classrooms)
Kindergarten size: 66 (3 classes of 22)
Language Immersion: None
Before/After school care: Fee-based offered through Stonestown YMCA, 2:40pm – 6:30pm

THE TOUR:

It was very stormy the day of the tour, and we were running late so we arrived late. Not a good start for us, but we were glad to finally set foot on this school and have the opportunity to check it out. The school takes up the entire northeast corner of Junipero Serra and Ocean Ave, but the main entrance is on Darian Way. We walked past the front office and signed in at a table where there was a parent volunteer to greet us and point us in the direction of the auditorium where the tour began. We walked into the auditorium and saw the principal sitting in a big circle with all the parents on the tour. There were about 20-ish parents, and three parent volunteers. Shortly after my husband and I sat down, the principal said, "Well, that’s the end of my spiel". What? We missed it? Darn! That’s what you get for being late. But we did catch some information: this is the principal’s (Jeanne Dowd) first year as principal. Her past experience includes being a 3rd grade teacher (her favorite grade) at Malcolm X, teaching at John Muir Elementary, Fairmount, and teaching 1st grade in Bolivia. Most recently, she took a sabbatical to earn a Masters degree at Berkeley in their Principal Leadership Program (one parent there said it is a very rigorous program). Ms. Dowd came across as being very smart and capable, and I thought, "this woman will run a tight ship!".

Ms. Dowd then opened it up to questions from the parents. The questions yielded information like: there’s usually a teacher-in-training from SFSU in all the K classes (in addition to the regular teacher of course) and parent volunteers; the staff’s goal is "aligning curriculum" – continually assessing students so you always know where the students are in their learning. The Parents’ Club Organization (PCO) is not a PTA; there are no dues, and anyone can join as long as you have a child at Sloat. The PCO rep there mentioned a figure of "$70,000 - $100,000", but I’m not sure if that’s how much they raise every year or how much they have right now. There is good collaboration between the PCO and the teachers. We also learned that there is a theater arts program (K-1), music program through the district (K-3), gardening program (1x/week in K - I had heard that they have an exceptional gardening program), choral music, P.E. program (I have observed this during my runs, and the P.E. teacher speaks very enthusiastically and respectfully to the children), library 1x/week (the parents just finished bar coding all the books), and instrumental program (4-5, where the children can learn to play the violin, trumpet, or clarinet).

Sloat has no combined grades, but they do something interesting in the 4th and 5th grades. The children are taught English and Social Studies by one teacher in one classroom and Math and Science by another teacher in another classroom. This way, the teachers get to teach the subjects that they like and/or the subjects at which they feel most competent, and it is getting the children ready for middle school and the rotating of classrooms. I liked this concept.

Ms. Dowd talked about the "Tribes Community" at Sloat. From her description, it sounded like the goal is to build a community within the classroom so kids work together. She said that it builds inclusion so kids will feel comfortable taking risks academically. Four main components of building this sense of community are: sharing, mutual respect, attention, and right to pass (if a child doesn’t want a turn at something, he/she has the right to pass). There’s also an emphasis on being responsible. A Sloat parent in the circle said that her son is currently responsible for helping children who get hurt by getting bandaids and opening them for the hurt child. They also mentioned a "buddy" system where younger children are buddied up with older children.


A parent asked about homework. Ms. Dowd said, "Kindergarten is rigorous now". Okay, that scared me, but then a Sloat parent in the circle said it’s not bad, pretty mellow, and they usually have a week to do it. It’s more about learning the exercise of homework. Ms. Dowd added that homework should not be something new; it should be just practice of what they’ve already learned in the classroom. Whew, I felt better.

Then we said bye to Ms. Dowd and the Sloat parents took us to the walking part of the tour. We saw the lunch room first – small (but it was the first elementary school lunch room that I’d seen so maybe they’re all this size) with windows overlooking a courtyard where the older children will eat lunch on nice days. The K classes eat together at the same time. The older children eat at staggered times. Monitors are present to help children open stuff up and to make sure they all eat something.

The best way to describe Commodore Sloat’s physical layout is a square divided into four quadrants or "pods" is what they call them. The southwest quadrant is where the three K classes are. The K classrooms were a good size, well lit, neat, and organized. I know the expectation is for me to comment on the level to which the kids appeared happy and engaged, but for me that’s tough because the kids seem to act like I would expect regular kids to act with 20 adults staring at them – kind of quiet, working on an activity, some talking to each other or to the teacher, with an occasional child saying "hi". I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in terms of the children’s behavior. There are no bungalows at this school, and the tour guide said it was because the neighborhood that the school is in doesn’t allow them. I’m not a fan of the bungalows so this was fine with me.

The outdoor play area is HUGE, and is one of the outstanding features of this school. Keeping in mind the square shape of the school, the playground wraps widely around two sides of the square. It’s quite nice, and there are two very separate newer looking play structures, and the K classes have their own recess area (one of the play structures) and a separate recess time than the older children.

Then we went to the library. They are about 9,000 books, and they are now all bar coded. It looked neat, organized, bigger than I thought it would be, with lots of tables and chairs, and an area in the corner that looked like a storytime area. Every January the PCO sponsors an Adopt-A-Book event where new books are donated by the parents, and each child who donates a book gets to have his/her name in the book.

We also saw a few of the classes with older children. One of the teachers came outside and spoke to us for quite a while. One of the things that stood out about her was that one of her goals for her students is for them to type 35 wpm by graduation. She said this was to ensure they would be prepared for all the typing (on computers) in middle school. I was impressed by this goal and totally agree that typing is a necessary skill to have.

Then the tour guides answered last minute questions, thanked us for coming, and wrapped it up.

Likes: huge outdoor play area, smart and competent principal, separate classes for Math/Science and English/Social Studies in 4th/5th grades, focus on building a sense of community and inclusion among the children, active parent club, 8:40am start time, close to our house, and last but not least -–no bungalows!

Dislikes: None really, but if it had a language immersion program, it would be an even stronger school (and would probably no longer be "under the radar")

Overall impression: This is a solid school: strong and involved parents club, solid test scores (API 872 per greatschools.net), good sense of community, outstanding outdoor play area, smart and motivated new principal, and clean/organized classrooms. This school is going towards the top of my list.

23 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review! CS sounds great.

    I'm not sure what the big deal is about bungalows or why they would be a down side at a school - but be aware that schools are not subject to zoning requirements and that neither the neighborhood nor the Planning Department have any authority over whether there are bungalows at the school. CS might have decided to accede to neighborhood preferences on this, which would be a nice thing for them to do, but in the end - if SFUSD says there will be bungalows, then bungalows there will be.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Aren't "bunaglows" really trailers? For me trailers bring with them the connotation of being cheap and transient, and that's why they are a turn off at a school. They scream "underfunding!" I realize it's not tied to the quality of the teaching, but the visual effect of trailers is demoralizing to me along the lines of "wow, we work really hard and our kid has to be taught in a trailer?"

    ReplyDelete
  3. I can't resist adding a piece of history that's actually from shortly before my time, learned from Commodore Sloat friends with older kids: SFUSD actually did propose putting a Chinese immersion program at Commodore Sloat sometime in the '90s, during the Rojas administration. I gather than in former Sup. Rojas' inimitable way, this was announced to the Sloat community as a done deal, with no prior input from the community. Immersion programs weren't nearly as established, popular and reputable then, and the school community fought back hard and savored their eventual victory.

    Just another example of how things have changed.

    Re bungalows, many came to SFUSD schools in 1996, when class-size reduction suddenly expanded the number of classes in grades K, 1, 2 and 3 -- my kids' school, Lakeshore, went from three classes in each grade to five. It was either bungalows or reduce the number of students at the school.
    There have previously been some bungalows at a few schools for various reasons, but that was the cause of the big boom.

    ReplyDelete
  4. They are totally trailors and totally ghetto. Agreed, I'm not making a school decision based on them but they are an eye sore for sure.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You should put it first, you'll probably get it. Lucky you with a great school in your attendance area! Go for it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I first learned of the Tribes program (if the "Tribes Community" is the same thing) more than 25 years ago when my adult daughter attended AP Giannini MS. She transferred (not easy to transfer back then, either!) from Marina to AP for the second semester of 6th grade because the principal at Marina wouldn't allow her be "mainstreamed." Fortunately, at AP my daughter was assigned to one of the most amazing teachers of ALL time, Eileen Atkisson, and Eileen used the Tribes program in her classroom. (6th grade classes at AP were self-contained back then, except for PE and an elective.)

    My daughter has a speech disability and uses a wheelchair, and this was her first time being "mainstreamed" since her kindergarten year in Vermont. (I had moved to Vermont from California when she was two in order to get better services, more therapy and a better education... but after four years, I realized I just wasn't cut out for rural life!) I mean, we had been "fighting" to get her mainstreamed for quite a while, but were not successful until the transfer.

    At any rate, the Tribes program was perfect for my daughter's situation. The handful of students in her particular tribe got to know her speech very well, helped acclimate her to her new class and middle school, and just looked out for her, in general. A boy from her tribe remains one of her best friends today. (They even went to some proms together in high school.) One of the girls in her tribe was her partner for the 7th grade science fair, and they won first prize.

    The transition to a general ed classroom, at a new school, in the middle of the year, could have been an overwhelming experience (we put in many hours after school trying to get her "up to speed," since the expectations had been much lower in her special ed classes), but all our memories of that time are of happiness, excitement, dramatic progress and much success, both academically and socially. I attribute most of that to Eileen... and her use of the Tribes program was a major factor.

    Also.. I have visited CS many times- providing disability awareness programs - and consider it to be a great school. (And have always wondered why it hasn't been more popular, though that seems to be changing quickly.) The students in the upper grades have come up with some impressive questions and comments during our presentations.

    CS is my "neighborhood" school, too, but we went with Chinese immersion for our younger kids.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Lowell has had lots of bungalows for lots of years. They used to call then "temporary" buildings, though there was nothing remotely temporary about them.

    When my daughter attended Lowell 20 years ago, almost all the sophomore English classes were in bungalows, and the bungalows were not wheelchair accessible. Since my daughter uses a wheelchair, this was a problem. The first semester of 10th grade, we helped her arrange her schedule so that she could take one of the two English classes NOT in the bungalows... but the second semester it was really going to be a PITA to attempt that again, since the accessible English classes conflicted with other classes she needed/wanted to take.

    We had been told that there were no plans to make the bungalows accessible, since they were "temporary" (I think at that point they had been there for at least 20 years!).. so I finally told my daughter just to sign up for what she needed/wanted, and let the administration figure it out! (And that's how the first ramps came to be installed in the English class bungalows at Lowell...)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you for putting the time into writing these reviews. They are helpful, but in some ways quite confusing, since all the reviews are so positive, I can't tell why one would choose one school over another. (oh, right, go myself and make my own decision). Can they really all be so good? It seems like maybe people are treading a little too gently with the reviews here. But I still very much appreciate the effort!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've been to many SFUSD schools and CS is so different...spacious and has a suburban feel...a really nice facility.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Actually, although the reviews have been gentle (rightly), I think you can tell which ones the reviewers really, really like and which ones they have doubts about. They are the ones where the reviewer asks questions and asks for feedback from current parents. I have appreciated this approach; it opens up the real concerns/questions but also leaves room for "your mileage may vary" and for clarification from current parents. Seriously, check out the review of Buena Vista if you don't believe me.

    Also, all of these reviews have been of either established schools or real up-and-comers, the ones whose test scores may not be over 800 yet but they do have magnet programs. One outlier review is Junipero Serra--and Marcia, I really appreciated that you did that one! And highlighted what they are doing well. None of the reviewers are looking at the schools--probably about a dozen or so at this point--that are really a mess or are just mired at the bottom.

    Ultimately, the fact that there are so many acceptable to very good to excellent schools being reviewed is a testament both to progress under the current system, and to how perceptions have changed. There are lots of good choices out there.

    ReplyDelete
  11. We are a new family at CS and we are so happy with the school! It was our first choice and we were lucky enough to get it. We are not in the attendance area. The parent community has really impressed me at this school.

    To answer Joeymama's comment, there really are that many good schools out there! I had about 15 schools that I liked after touring last year and had to figure out just 7 to put on our list. Which really took the pressure off for me, because I knew that pretty much whatever we got, would work out for us. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm a parent at Aptos Middle School (right around the corner from CS) and know of many terrific kids and parents that came from CS. Seems like a great elementary - even better if you live nearby! Easy and safe walk to school

    ReplyDelete
  13. Joeymama, I do know what you mean -- and I think Anon 4:24 is right on the money. I for one am not looking at any top-10 trophy schools, except for the one tour I did at Alvarado. But I am also not looking at the bottom. In the upper-middle and up-and-coming tiers, and in a few outliers, there is a lot of quality. And the differences really are about what fit is best.

    Once I adjusted to the reality of how little the schools have to work with in the first place--and truly, that was a shock that sent me home in tears after my first visit to a school without a rich PTA -- I haven't had any really ugly surprises. And as I ranted in a previous comment thread, I didn't come in as a cheerleader for the public schools or even as a product of public schools.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm a product of public schools in a wealthy suburban area and we had a few trailers in middle school. No big deal really. Even my private grad school had some. Of course it would be nice to always have enough space that bungalows were never needed. But that's not reality. I've never felt my education suffered because I have taken classes in bungalows.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Quick note on bungalows - all are certainly not created equal. I went to Lowell in the 90s, and some of the "Ts" (for "temporary", as a previous poster noted) had been there since literally the 60s (so very permanent, though I think they might be gone now, since the new wing went up). Those ones were colder, leaky, and fairly gross. Others were much newer, very shiny, and felt just as comfortable as a normal classroom. Caroline mentioned that most of the elementary school bungalows were added in the 90s, so while they're maybe getting a little old, I imagine they're much closer to Lowell's "good" ones.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I could not find good research on fire safety in bugalows, so I was particularly attracted to CS and Miraloma when I toured. Loved both, ranked both high, got Miraloma (our attendance area school), which we listed first. My friends at CS love their school as much as I love mine. I think that we would be equally happy at both. I think that many school reviews sound good, because there are many good choices once you get out and tour. CS is a great school to put high on the list of 7.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Schools aren't subject to land use regulations like zoning, but they're subject to building codes. All school facilities are built according to fire codes and regularly inspected.

    ReplyDelete
  18. And they still do fire/earthquake drills, just like when we were kids!

    The fire dept. will show up and pull the alarm. The kids file out to a pre-designated spot, and the teacher (who will have grabbed the emergency cards that are kept by the door) calls the roll.

    It's disruptive to the classroom, no doubt about that, but an important way to train the kids what to do. We should run drills at home too--file out to to a designated family gathering spot outside, so the kids know exactly where to meet up in case of fire/earthquake or other emergency.

    ReplyDelete
  19. when i was in public elementary school (in the 70's in an upper middle class suburb) we had "portables" as they were called. (those portables are still there!). As a kid, i was so stoked when I got to be in one. It was seen as this very cool thing to have your class be separate from the main building. interesting what some people get hung up on.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "Immersion programs weren't nearly as established, popular and reputable then, and the school community fought back hard and savored their eventual victory."

    Oh the irony. San Francisco micropolitics is full of pyrrhic victories like this.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "Once I adjusted to the reality of how little the schools have to work with in the first place--and truly, that was a shock that sent me home in tears after my first visit to a school without a rich PTA"

    Funny, I had the opposite reaction - I was surprised how *much* the public schools had, but maybe that's a reaction based on pretty low expectations starting out.

    Compared to my UK primary school, the 20+ public schools we visited seemed well resourced. Certainly my kid's getting a better education than I got at his age, and mine was good enough to get me into a world-class university.

    By contrast, the one independent private I went to seemed to be very well resourced but academically below par with your median public. Put me off the independent private sector.

    The two schools that had the least resources that I saw were two Catholic schools in the Mission district, not the publics. The Catholic schools probably had the biggest gap in resources between the best and lowest in resources.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I don't see that CS being maintained as a GE rather than an immersion school is a "pyrrhic" victory. There's nothing wrong with people have good, solid GE options in their neighborhoods. Immersion can be a catchy way to turn a school around, but it doesn't mean that it's what everyone wants. The immersion program at West Portal affects the ability of neighborhood kids to go there, so it's nice that Commodore Sloat is a nearby option.

    ReplyDelete
  23. "The immersion program at West Portal affects the ability of neighborhood kids to go there, so it's nice that Commodore Sloat is a nearby option."

    No, actually the Cantonese Immersion program at WP has roughly the same applicant/slot ratio as the WP GE program. West Portal is popular because it's a great school, not just because it has an immersion program.

    However, if Sloat had set up a Chinese Immersion program, it'd give folks in the West of the City more immersion options.

    ReplyDelete