Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Monroe Elementary

Reviewed by Marcia Brady

The Facts

Location: 260 Madrid St., at Excelsior (Excelsior)

School hours: 8:25-2:25 K-3, 8:25-2:30 3-5

Tel: 469-4736

Principal: Jennifer Steiner

Web site: www.monroeelementaryschool.com

School tours: Tues. 8:45

Grades: K-5

Kindergarten size: 4 classes of 22 each (2 Spanish immersion, 1 Cantonese bilingual, 1 English Language Development)

Total student body: 480

Odds of getting in on Round 1: 15.2% for the Spanish immersion, according to the spreadsheet. Like most SI programs, they are in need of Spanish-speaking and bilingual students.

Parking: Not too bad; dropoff for older kids

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

A multilingual, multicultural environment, a strong focus on literacy and the arts, a range of aftercare options. Probably not the school for a kid who needs a smaller building or smaller numbers, though the feel is quite intimate given the size of the place and student body.

Class Structure / Curriculum: The GE there seems to be the English Language Pathways program; otherwise, the curriculum looks fairly standard. Kindergartners in Spanish immersion stay with the same teacher for K-1.

Campus/Playground: Big modern building, of the poured-concrete-and-lots-of-breezeway style of the 1950s or 60s, painted bright orange. Tile murals, colorful paint, and wall art abound outside. The plant has a somewhat worn feel, but is very cheerful and bright. Inside, nondescript architecture, but a spacious feel – a big bright auditorium/café, classrooms looking out onto a 1600 square foot garden or the playground, with light coming in. Large asphalt yard with big new-ish play structure, bungalow restrooms and bungalows for several classrooms. Smaller concrete outdoor auditorium. Garden has an outdoor classroom with an adobe circular bench modeled on SF’s “skyline” of hills, and a charming grotto of kid-made birdhouses.

After School programs: free ExCEL by invitation, space limited; free CDC at Excelsior/Monroe for K-5, fee-based private daycare at Buena Vista (with transportation there provided), Boys and Girls club down the street.

Additional Programs: Arts (see below), Reading Recovery program, garden used for instructional purposes by teacher.

PTA: 150 on the roster, $50K raised, mostly grants as it is a lower-income school.

Language program(s): see above

Library / Computer Lab: Big library serves as the hub for several lower-grade classrooms (K-2?). Library collection is trilingual (English, Spanish/Cantonese); the librarian is there 2 ½ days/week and kids can check out a book every other week. Library has an additional small reading room where books are kept in a grade-level tracking system, and children are assessed and then given books with 90% familiarity, to gently push them upward. Small computer lab with 18 flat-screen iMacs; computer class 1x/week with additional use of labs at teacher discretion.

Arts: PTA-funded. Dance, Visual Art, Drama, and Music in 16-week cycles, 1x/week. At the end of 2 years, kids have had all.

Science: FOSS kits, WISE program to train teachers in science instruction, impromptu botany in the garden.

PE: District-funded PE has replaced Sports for Kids for budgetary reasons. PE coach is available at lunch and recess. Unlike many SF schools (check out the recent Chronicle article), Monroe meets the state requirements for PE.

Recess/Lunch: Oops, forgot to ask!

Tour Impressions:

We began in the auditorium, where a parent volunteer was teaching auxiliary verbs to parents who were English language learners. So off to the outdoor auditorium (which is all painted in fading rainbow colors) for a briefing with the parent volunteer. Our first classroom visit was an SI first-grade classroom, where kids were on the rug, working together on some kind of question-and-answer game with questions written on cards and answers written on a wipe-erase “brainstorming” board. Another SI Kindergarten had a couch and big pillows defining a reading area, and the teacher first asked the kids to discuss something about the book he was about to read (the title? the cover? where did my high school Spanish go?). He brought them back to focus on the large group with a little rhythmic hand clap, which the kids joined in as they focused. I was struck by how attentive and engaged the kids seemed – I know that in my review of SF Community a teacher commented that you can’t assume that kids aren’t learning if they are distracted or chatty, but I still stand by my conviction that engaged, excited kids are what I want to see. Monroe had them in every classroom we saw.

We finished back in the auditorium, where we met principal Jennifer Steiner. She is in her fourth year at Monroe, having been an Instructional Reform Facilitator at Monroe for quite a few years prior. She has an MA in language and literacy, and told us that Monroe’s priorities under her watch were these two things, especially early intervention for kids not reading in first grade. We learned that the arts program (there are 4 teachers, 1 each for the four listed above) secures release time for the teachers to meet weekly in grade-level meetings, and discuss strategies for, among other things, differentiated instruction. Ms. Steiner was extremely down-to-earth and casual, with very clear aims for the school. The parent guide had said that the money Monroe controls on the SCS and in the PTA goes to “positions and people,” and this is evident in Ms. Steiner’s vision for a school that closes the literacy gap between lower- and higher-achieving students while offering rigorous academics and as lush an art program as the PTA can buy.

Monroe strikes me as a really good, slightly more accessible alternative to Alvarado or Buena Vista. While it’s working with a lower budget than these two more “buzzy” Spanish immersion schools, Monroe does a lot with a little. It’s a cheery place that attends rigorously to the 3 Rs while insisting that art, PE, and so on are not just for rich kids.


  1. Thanks once again for a thorough and thoughtful review!

    I had no idea about the Buena Vista afterschool option (with transportation provided). That would make it more accessible to a working parent from the Mission/Potrero, no?

    It sounds like a lovely school. I too like the emphasis on literacy and on focused, energetic children in the classroom. Good that they are providing the arts, as well.

  2. I am the teacher who commented, and I think you misunderstood my concern. Let me rephrase it. Engagement is not necessarily conveyed by silent attention. Fidgeters may be engaged. Children who are talking may be having on-topic conversation. Some teachers do not require silence, criss-cross-applesauce and have strong engagement. Indeed, for many of our students the sit-quietly-and-absorb is culturally alien.

    Of course, there are children in classrooms who are fidgeting, having off-topic conversations, and so on. But there's a difference. You may have a natural feel for it yourself, but not everyone does, and I think it's important to note that.

  3. Thanks for another great review, Marcia. One parent I know wondered if there is too much going on at Monroe: Chinese AND Spanish immersion PLUS English learning strand. I wonder this, too -- does the school feel like 3 schools smushed together for current students/parents?

  4. Thanks for the review, Marcia! Looks like my husband and I were on the same tour you were yesterday. I also liked what I saw in the lower grade classrooms very much, and thought the principal was terrific. This is a school that is doing more with less.

    The parent tour leader mentioned that the biggest problem the school faces in her view is physical space/overcrowding. There are, I believe, seven full-time classes in bungalows.

    Responding to 4:38am (ouch! that is early) -- the principal mentioned that she wouldn't be surprised if the district phases out the Monroe Chinese program in the next few years due to less demand for that program (it's a bilingual program for native Cantonese speakers, not a dual immersion program, for those of you not already familiar with Monroe).

    Anyone have any thoughts about Monroe vs. Fairmount? Any parents from one or the other here who have input on that subject? Thanks.

  5. monroe has a great feel. i listed it and didn't get it in the K lottery last year. the school is crowded, but very diverse. the staff are really warm and loving - very proud of their school too.

    i have friends with kids at fairmount and they tell me it has suffered since karling left. several have told me it was great but now is so-so. however, there is a big benefit of it being all-immerision.

  6. Regarding principal changes, I would look at short-term versus long-term. This happens at all schools of all types. My kids were at popular public elementary during a period of principal transition, and there was a least one less than smooth year, but the school was sustained by the other two pillars of teachers and parents. Eventually the current principal was hired and it's been smooth sailing since. Fairmount is an attractive school with many assets, so I am sure it will grow into and/or recruit the top leadership it needs. It's a school that has already done a lot of heavy lifting.

  7. I haven't yet seen Monroe but will definitely look, thanks for the review! I did see Fairmount and nearly cried on the walk home because the principal was so very awful. A question for those who know: does one simply hope that a principal leaves or is there anything parents can do?

  8. i feel compelled to address the last poster's comment about fairmount's principal, mary lou cranna. my daughter attends the school. first of all, some people -- and principals -- simply "give good tour" (and some don't). in our experience attending two different elementaries (the other was clarendon), i feel i can safely say that not only do tours not reveal the daily reality of a school, neither do single marketing-type encounters with a principal. my impressions thus far are that ms. cranna is very hardworking. she is responsive. she says it like it is. the kids seem fond of her (as evidenced by the hundreds of them who wrote personal messages to her for her one-year anniversary at the school card earlier this year). she is able to prioritize tasks (a difficult job when there are more than you can ever tackle). she is enthusiastic about professional development, collaborative teaching and growing her skills and knowledge. she seems to support her staff. all in all, i have a good impression of her so far. it takes months, maybe years, to see what a principal is really doing for a school.

  9. I was surprised by the post regarding the Fairmount principal. I recall her being very well liked by parents at her former school, in particular by the Latino community. I agree with Kim, she is hard working and a strong advocate of children and families as well. My child did not get into Fairmount so I have no idea how things are there now or why they may have changed. However, it is hard for me to imagine that this principal would be ruining a school.

    Ironically, when I toured Fairmount it was my very first tour and I was turned off by how the last principal answered some questions. I then had to weigh my desire for public school immersion and what I consider to be a progressive education. This is always the case for our family. Thus far immersion is winning out, but I know that may change some day, or maybe not. My hopes are that we are in a "new day" and that more balance will continue to seep into our public schools.

  10. Happy to see a positive review of my daughter's school! To the commenter at 4.38am - yes, Monroe faces challenges, especially around the three languages it tries to support. The flip side, of course, is that's it's a genuinely international school with a breadth of culture and experience. My daughter, who is in the Spanish immersion program, has become more and more engaged with Chinese culture and language since starting at Monroe.

    It's not easy to get all three communities engaged, but I'm delighted to say that we have finally founded a Spanish-to-Cantonese translator, meaning that for the first time this morning we held our PTA meeting in Spanish, with translations to English and Cantonese!

    We're also acutely aware that the bungalows and space issues are far from ideal. We're working with the district to get funding for a new building that will ease crowding. Everyone please vote yes on the school bond issue in 2010!

  11. RE: 4.38a: integrating the different strands at Monroe.

    As a Monroe parent with two kids in the SI program I'm very impressed with how much leadership the Latino families have been taking. Our Spanish ELAC group has been nurtured by both the principal and the Spanish-speaking parent liason for several years and now the Latino parents are a strong and visible group. It's nice that the PTA and other school activities are not dominated by English speakers but that parents from all language groups work together.

    It's also been great for my kids( they're half-Chinese) to meet and know other Chinese kids, since San Francisco is nearly 1/3 Chinese. Also, at one point a few years back (before budget cuts) my husband and I took a Cantonese 101 class for parents at Monroe and it was great. We still can't speak Cantonese, of course, but it was fun to try to learn. My kids learned to count in Chinese from some of their Chinese friends in aftercare and the school celebrates the Harvest Festival and Lunar New Year, as well as incorporating both Chinese and Latino arts and music into the arts strand.

    I should also add that the school has a very strong commitment to social justice. Jen Steiner is very aware of the inequities in the education system and wants to try to address that as best she can at the school, which is why she emphasizes bringing up the non-readers in first grade to grade level before they fall through the cracks. At the same time, my older daughter, who is very quick in both math and reading, has been challenged constantly at all grade levels by her teachers and is given extra work that keeps her engaged when she finishes her standard classwork.

    Monroe was also at the lead in the recent fight last month to save the jobs of several school secretaries from the Excelsior whose jobs were threatened, so we've tried to take action on some of the school's philosophies about social change.