Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why I love Adda Clevenger

We San Franciscans might just have the most stressful school admission process in the United States, but we are rewarded with some truly unique and outstanding public and independent schools.

The Adda Clevenger Junior Preparatory and Theater School in Noe Valley, certainly falls into the unique category. The word parents at the school use most often to describe it is “magical,” and so it is, for an energetic, outgoing child who thrives on variety.

Like many San Francisco schools, Adda Clevenger offers solid academics, a small-school environment, committed teachers, and a friendly, diverse community of families. Of course we love those things, but let’s focus on what sets Adda Clevenger apart.

That would be the musical theater program, which is just as much part of the core curriculum as reading and math. From kindergarten on, Adda Clevenger students receive extensive daily training from respected professionals in singing, dance and acting. Each year, every child performs in two major musicals, a dance show, and a graduation concert. We continue to be astounded by the professional polish of the shows and the technical progress of the children, most of whom arrive at the school without any visibly remarkable talent. After nine years, an Adda Clevenger student will know vocal music, acting, ballet, tap and every social dance you can name. No other K through 8 school in San Francisco, public or private, offers such an in-depth theater arts program.

This would be of questionable value if Adda Clevenger let academics fall by the wayside, but most graduates are admitted to top public and independent Bay Area high schools. Also unique is the practice of having subject teachers at all grades, even kindergarten. Teachers teach subjects they love. No child spends a whole year in a classroom with a single teacher with whom he has a less-than-ideal relationship.

Students also enjoy possibly the best school fitness program in San Francisco, with PE and gymnastics 45 minutes daily.

Adda Clevenger is all the more remarkable for accomplishing what it does on an open-enrollment basis. There are no auditions, academic evaluations, or lotteries. If there is space and the family can pay, any child who can keep up with the curriculum may attend. Most children will excel. It is magical.
—Susie Allison


  1. Adda Clevenger is not accredited, and students get no standardized tests until 7th grade, when they take the practice SSAT -- so parents have NO idea how their student is achieving until that point. Friends of mine at Adda Clevenger were shocked when their son's SSAT came out at 34th percentile when they'd been told he was doing great. The result was that he was held back an extra year (at their expense -- Adda Clevenger offers no scholarship money) before moving on to high school.

    The school's leaders routinely claim that Adda Clevenger students are achieving two years ahead of their public-school peers, but students who transfer to public routinely find out that's not true.

    Also, there's a very anti-public-school tone in the school.

  2. Adda Clevenger does have an amazing theater arts program. If this is very important to you, or you think your kid would really benefit from this emphasis, then definitely look at this school.

    However, if you have any questions about your kid's academic abilities or motivation, be careful. AC has some great teachers, but it's all, including curriculum, about the individual teacher. As the previous poster mentioned, there is almost no feedback about how your kid is doing until very late in the game. It's true that many AC kids go on to attend a fine array of high schools, but this has as much to do with the fact that the kids are well-resourced (ALL of them--there are no scholarships offered, so very little diversity in SF terms). These are all upper-middle class kids who as a group are likely, almost to an extreme, to do well almost anywhere, who have access to learning opportunties (books, museums, travel) in all parts of their lives. But if your kid is one who might fall through the cracks academically, or just not be up to potential, you might not know it until very far down the road.

    On the other hand, if your kid is a personality who would really thrive and gain confidence by learning performance arts, it could be the right place.

    Other points of info--AC is quirky and parents tend to love or hate it, so take all comments here with that understanding! It's not a non-profit, but rather privately run--I understand it's better run now that the headmistress's son has taken over. But it definitely has the stamp of the owner/family--there is no accountability to a Board of Directors or the parent community. You get what you get. Some families love it and indeed find it "magical." I think people who are attracted to it know who they are.

  3. I wrote the essay and expected every one of the above comments and a few others.

    AC is not independently accredited.

    AC has no financial aid. Tuition is about $4000 lower than other secular independents like Town or Burke's. There is no pressure to participate in the tiny amount of fundraising that occurs. Parents are encouraged to help with rehearsals and shows, but there is no volunteer hour commitment. This is a real benefit to families in which the parent(s) work(s) full-time.

    AC does use an accelerated academic curriculum. However, given recent emphasis on academic acceleration and differentiated instruction in public schools, any claim that AC students are categorically "two years above grade level" should be taken with a large heaping of salt.

    AC does not give standardized tests other than the SSATs. Many AC parents have their kids tested outside school and are satisfied. Private schools are not permitted to administer STAR tests, so it's not valid to complain that private school students are "not held to the same standards" because they don't take STAR tests.

    Private schools generally don't publish standardized test results. That's something you live with.

    Any school, particularly an open-enrollment school that does not emphasize standardized testing, is going to have some students who do not do well on the SSATs.

    The fact remains, MOST AC graduates attend competitive public and independent high schools like Lowell and Lick-Wilmerding, and MOST are adequately prepared for the work.

    The anti-public sentiment is irritating but less virulent than it apparently was in years past. Even the most ardent public school advocates will admit that there are systemic flaws in public schools that private schools can avoid: for example, limited curriculum choice, pressure to teach to standardized tests, and difficulty terminating poor teachers. If you don't agree with the rhetoric you can ignore it.

    AC does occasionally expel students, but I have never heard of it happening without cause or without a serious effort to work with the family to avoid it. Expulsion happens at all private schools, even though most other private schools go through extensive pre-admission student screenings and AC does not.

    The political views of AC's former head of school are not typical of most San Franciscans, nor of many families at the school including ours. It's up to the family to research personnel at potential schools using Google, and similar online resources and decide how much difference they're comfortable with.

    AC does not have a play structure on the playground, but at least they now have a playground that is not a parking lot.

    Children in grades K-4 do not get school field trips, though the school has started bringing in special events, such as a recent visit from a NASA astronaut and the "Bubble Man" science show. The 5-8 graders see many performances outside school and travel to the Eastern US and Europe to perform.

    Foreign language, computers and instrumental music are not taught.

    Do bear in mind, the essay assignment was "What I Love About Our School" and limited to 375 words. That does not leave a lot of room to address potential critiques. No school is perfect or right for everyone.

  4. On the issue of standardized tests in private school: They give ERB tests at our school starting in the 4th grade. Parents receive score reports for their child with percentile calculations for all schools and for independent schools (e.g., on this section, the child scored X which was in the Y %ile for the overall population and the Z %ile for the independent school population). The tests are administered over the course of a week. The curriculum is not geared to the tests - often there are questions, especially in math, on topics that haven't been taught yet to the kids and not surprisingly most of them don't do so well on those questions.

    As a parent I like seeing the scores because it gives me an idea of how my children are doing, and track that they're covering material they should be covering at their grade level.

  5. Thank you for the honest appraisal of the school's strengths and weaknesses. It is much appreciated.

  6. My kids go to public school and I have no intention of sending them to AC. But I know several families at AC who have been there for years. I think some of the negative comments above are out of line. The parents I know whose kids go there all universally love it -- and their kids are just absolutely thriving. It is a particularly helpful place if your kid (ahem, son) is a bit squirmy. Gymnastics and music and theater are woven into the daily curriculum in a way that is just not possible in public school. A friend whose kid went there all the way through said the great thing about the school was how "happily exhausted" their kid was at the end of a AC day. It is very well-rounded. Yes, there are some downsides as noted above, but if you can accept those there are lots of pluses to the school.

  7. 12:01, you are right about testing and academic feedback given to parents at most private schools. I think the point is that Adda Clevenger isn't doing that at the earlier levels. Whether that is a problem for you, on balance with the theater/performance program and other nice things, is up to you.

    Susie, I also appreciate your balanced assessment of AC.

    A couple of comments on your characterization of the public schools, and trying to be balanced here as a public school parent: I do think you have a point about the difficulty in terminating teachers [protections can be a good thing, but they are too entrenched--therefore, reform proposals to trade this high job security for better pay should be looked at seriously]. Teaching to the test can be a problem, *especially* in lower-income schools. We haven't found it so in our schools which haven't been low-income concentrated [only 50-60% free/reduced lunch, not over 70%].

    Finally, regarding your comment the limitations of curriculum, I flat-out disagree with you on this point. The CA curricular standards are strong across all subject areas. They are used by many parochial and private schools because they are really good. Add to that that our kids' teachers, especially the most experienced ones, have been wonderful about using a variety of innovative methods to reach the students who learn in all kinds of ways (visually, aurally, kinetically, artistically etc). I think it is GOOD to have strong standards about WHAT kids are learning--and combine that with a broad tool-kit about HOW they can learn--it's simply not limiting as you suggest.

    Back to Adda Clevenger--it's just such a different school model that you have to decide for yourself if the upsides are worth the quirky downsides. There's almost no comparison to be made with other schools of any type--it's in a category by itself.

  8. Thank you so much for the thoughtfully written review of your school, Susie.

    I found another interesting online review of Adda Clevenger, written by a current student, and was dismayed by the following section of the review in which the poster writes of opportunities to experience "Singing in the White House for two administrations, singing at Carnegie Hall, honoring the Mayor of San Francisco with a specially requested performance, touring Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, England, Luxembourg, Austria... The list goes on. These are experiences unheard of for children ages 10-14."

    These are accolades all, but for each of these "unheard of" experiences, I can think of other equally priceless experiences which students at Adda Clevenger are deprived of, the most important one being the unstructured simplicity of childhood. While Adda Clevenger kindergartners are in classes until 4:30 pm, and 5:30 pm in older grades, and having after school lessons and hours of homework, other children are at home enjoying imaginative play, getting dirty in the parks or their backyards with friends, or playing in their homes by themselves, with siblings, friends or neighbors. I am dismayed by the way in which many parents in our urban area so wish for their children to perform and excel and grow up in a hurry, yet ascribed no value to imaginative play and all else that makes childhood so full of creativity and freedom.

  9. I entirely agree that most middle to upper class urban children today are badly over-scheduled and under too much pressure to achieve too quickly. However, our kid comes home from AC dirty and paint-splattered most days, and filled with stories of the imaginative games he and his friends make up during their free time. An advantage of the longer school day is a 45-minute lunch break and a 45-minute recess every day. AC is actually subject to occasional criticism for not giving enough homework. ("They won't be ready for the high school homework load," the complaint goes.) A key idea behind the school is that instead of arts-oriented families having to drag kids from one lesson to another, it's all in one place. It sometimes turns out that an AC student develops a passion for a sport or something else that the school does not provide. In those cases, the family generally moves on because the AC day does not have room for it. If parents pile yet more activities on top of the AC day, or a child loves the school but "just has to" take on something else, that's on the parents and/or kids, not the school. Most AC families we know do maybe one weekend class (soccer or swimming are common) and use the rest of the weekends for play dates, hanging out, and in some cases religious activity.

    Of all our public school, private school and weekend lesson acquaintances I know of one family with a stay-at-home parent. Otherwise, the families we know have their kids in day care or after-school programs until 5:00 or 6:00 anyway, not playing at home or in parks.

  10. I talked to the former headmistress of Adda Clevenger a couple of years ago about the schools' requirements, and she told me that the school doesn't admit children with academic problems. The reason there's no lottery is that the school isn't in huge demand, so it has room for anyone who does meet the criteria.

  11. Susie, just for the record, nobody complained about these things:

    "Private schools are not permitted to administer STAR tests, so it's not valid to complain that private school students are "not held to the same standards" because they don't take STAR tests.

    Private schools generally don't publish standardized test results. That's something you live with."

    The point was that Adda Clevenger doesn't administer any standardized tests, not the fact that it doesn't participate in the California public schools' STAR testing program (as you note, no private schools do) or that it doesn't publicize test results.

    That's not a bad thing, just something parents should know. But the fact that parents may be unaware of the fact that their kids are lagging until they take the practice SSAT is a point worth noting.

  12. We toured and loved the school. What impressed us the most was the kids. They were poised, articulate, and very engaged in the classrooms. We really were impressed by the 2 math teachers (one teaches lower grades, the other the upper grades I believe), and they were both moms with students at the school. Also, the music/singing teacher seemed great - I think he had kids there as well. The founder of the school was a definite turn-off, but nevertheless, I found myself agreeing with her philosophy more than I thought I would.

    In any case, we won't send our kids there because we really can't afford it. If we could, the next biggest obstacle for us would be the lack of diversity. there were only several African American kids there, and we are an adoptive family so that is an issue for us. I should say that otherwise, it did seem diverse racially. Also, I got the sense that most families were middle class, not wealthy. We didn't feel out of place in that sense. Anyway, its a very unique school.

  13. Thanks so much for this helpful review and the thorough discussion in the comments. I'd heard about the lack of accreditation and wasn't sure I'd even bother touring, but now I think it could be a good place for my kid, despite it's flaws--she would love all the theater and music and recess, and would likely do well in an accelerated curriculum program. Thanks for taking the time to write about it. Do I understand correctly that there's no admission deadline?

  14. Adda Clevenger doesn't get enough applicants to need to establish enrollment deadlines or a lottery. While the non-rich or learning-disabled need not apply, most applicants have no trouble getting a spot.

  15. Hi Susie:

    Thanks for giving us a glimpse into a school we hadn't thought about but one that might be a good fit for our child.

    I was wondering how easy of difficult it might be to transfer into the school after K (2nd or 3rd grade)?

  16. It's easy to transfer into Adda Clevenger assuming you're an applicant they would have accepted anyway, because the school is not oversubscribed.

  17. "The anti-public sentiment is irritating but less virulent than it apparently was in years past. Even the most ardent public school advocates will admit that there are systemic flaws in public schools ..."

    To many people, that still doesn't justify an ongoing attitude of disdain for public education, or make it more bearable -- especially when it's based on dishonesty ("our students are all two years ahead").

    "Any school ... is going to have some students who do not do well on the SSATs."

    Of course, but that wasn't my point -- my point was that the parents had no idea whatsoever that their son wasn't going to ace the SSAT; they believed the line that he was "two years ahead." Of course, they could have gotten him independently tested. It's just a cautionary note about this school.

    Not to just dump on the school, but it's really one of the more controversial and problematic private schools around, so the glowing essay was a little startling. In the days of the former headmistress, an Adda Clevenger parent told me that no family had ever gotten through the school without at least one screaming fight with her. Glad to hear the son is an improvement and the anti-public-school sentiment is less virulent, but that's a striking contrast to the picture of a "magical" paradise.

  18. I don't find it a striking contrast at all. You have a few anecdotes about what the school used to be like. This review is from someone who has a child currently enrolled. I'll believe her "magical" over your "controversial and problematic".

  19. The author herself acknowledged the validity of the comments. If everything about the school had transformed, surely she'd have said so.

  20. It's fine to believe the "magical" and not the "controversial and problematic." But in a forum of free and open discussion, isn't it a good thing that you're hearing other opinions and can make your decision about what to believe?

  21. As a parent of an older child at Adda, I want to thank Susie for her post. One small point of correction, PE every day generally phases out at around 2nd or 3rd grade. In the upper grades the kids tend to have dance every day and PE 2 or 3 times a week. Other than that, I think Susie has written a quite accurate overview of the school.

    Also, I can happily refute the notion that every family has a screaming match with the headmistress. We managed 7 years without any serious confrontation. Now that Ben Harrison has stepped in, I guess we are in the clear. We are quite happy with the education our child is getting, and she continues to thrive.

    Our daughter transferred in from a public, and I haven't picked up on any virulent anti-public sentiment. The school takes pride in sending a number of kids to Lowell every year.

    We did choose to have our child independently tested. We felt it prudent given the lack of testing at the school. If we had found her results to be disappointing, we would have considered moving her, but she did very well. We feel the school is a good fit for her. Also, and this is no small point for a middle-schooler, she absolutely loves it.

  22. Adda Clevenger is more in the Mission than Noe Valley, at least by my standards. I think it's a funky fun option to the insane public and private school process, i.e. it's easy to get into, but it's nowhere near the top tier kind of experience you'd expect at those prices.

    I wish it were better. The idea is great. The execution is a little uneven.

  23. BTW I'm the 350 poster, and I just want to make clear that I live deep in the Mission and find it funny that people need to describe 23rd and Guerrero as Noe. My Nona lives on that block and insists it's the Mission. It's also two blocks from Synergy which is certainly in the Mission.

    ANYWAY. In this town, you must wonder about AC, when a school has no wait list and automatic entrance. I hope the son does a better job than the mom did. The idea of this school is just too good. In the right hands, it could be the jewel of the Mission/Noe neighborhoods. We need more good schools down here, public and private.

    (Me, I ship my kids across town to a good public. Thank goodness for the Lottery.)

  24. The people who had kids at Adda Clevenger and saw the SSAT scores were not good is mainly because of stress.A graduate of Adda Clevenger said,"The SSAT was nerve-wracking with the time limit and everyone counting on you to get into a good high school,I think I could have gotten a better score if i was not so stressed." This being a not easily intimidated smart cookie.

    Another reason may not be the teachers, it could be the students.Not all kids are as good at staying focused as we would like them to be even if their teacher was tremendous kids usually have alot on their minds.

  25. Adda Clevenger is an amazing school. Teachers are good to very good, principal ownership is very good and the curriculum is excellent. The dance program, vocal training and performances really help the kids develop self confidence.

    We have two children enrolled and their development has been excellent. We would not trade it for any other place.