Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What we're looking for in a school (and other things I forgot to mention)

Hi everyone, Emily here. I’m going to start by explaining why I’m planning on touring four neighborhood schools, as that question has come up since my last post. I’m not sure how I would go about posting throughout this process without sharing my neighborhood school, so I’m going to take a leap of faith and do that here. Our neighborhood school is Miraloma Elementary. Now I’m new to the city, but I don’t live under a rock, so I’m well aware this is a very popular, oversubscribed school. And though our particular street seems to have an absence of any person, other than us, under the age of 80, there seem to be a lot of kids in the Miraloma district in general. So I will not be surprised if we are bumped out of our neighborhood school by siblings, those in the CTIP 1 that choose to come there and other kids in the neighborhood. Therefore, I’ve done some (completely unscientific) research and have concluded Sunnyside, Sloat and Lakeshore are nearby schools that seem to have good reputations and may have space for a bumped neighborhood kid. We’re also pretty close to West Portal and Clarendon, but I’m not touring either of those places as I’m assuming there will be no spots open to children not in one of the priority cohorts. So that answers THAT question.

Now, on to what we want in a school for our son. My husband and I both attended public schools in California from K-12th grade. We also both attended a state college (the same one, me for my BA and MA and he for his BA) and he now attends UCSF. You can see the pattern here. I’m perfectly comfortable with my child being educated via the public education system. However, regardless of what school he goes to, there are a few things we need from his elementary education. Here is a short version of our list:

-We need to feel like our son is completely SAFE at his school.

-We need other parents at the school to be INVOLVED. And by involved I don’t mean sending in $10,000 donations every other month (though wouldn’t that be great!) and I don’t mean volunteering in the classroom every Tuesday (which would also be great!). I mean we need a lot of the parents at the school doing homework with their kids, being willing to work in the garden at school a few times a year, offering to do classroom laundry for the teacher once in awhile, and sure, if possible, buying school supplies on sale when they see them, participating in school fundraisers and coming in once a month to facilitate an art project or something. I get it, this is a luxury here. But it’s still important to us.

- We need to feel like the teachers at his school are SUPPORTED by the administration, students and parent community. I don’t have the belief that most public school teachers are mean trolls who hate their jobs and know they can’t get fired. Sure, there are some out there that should be canned, but I really believe most teachers do what they do because they love teaching. Goodness knows they don’t do it for the money. And I know from my mom’s experience (she was a teacher for over 30 years) that a little support from their school community goes a long way. If they can’t make $100,000 a year and have 12 kids in each class, at least they should be supported in their efforts to educate our children.

And finally (for now),

-We need a school that has a lot of opportunity for PHYSICAL LEARNING. Our son (like pretty much every other 5-year-old boy I’ve ever met) is very, very energetic. A lot of bum-in-desk time is what we’re trying to avoid. I recognize this has a lot to do with the specific teacher, but I know recess and PE time varies from school to school and I will be looking at specific schedules on each school I tour. I’ll also be looking at the culture of the school—does the school seem to value traditional academics, or does the school seem to value a more project-based learning style? Both styles certainly have pros and cons, but I believe our son will do better in a project-based learning environment.

So the question is—Can SFUSD provide all of this for our son? I believe at lots of schools the answer is YES and I believe at some schools the answer is NO. Can we find a school where the answer is yes AND get a spot before, eh, July 1st ish? That’s the biggest question.

PS- If you have a child at any of the schools I previously mentioned I would be touring and can speak to any of my identified needs, PLEASE feel free to write a comment about it. I would love any “inside” information.


  1. I did not find a school that had a decent PE program implemented. I am hoping that people wake up at these underperforming schools and realize that when they cut arts and physical activity, they shut their kid's brains off. Miraloma is not an under performer, probably because it's a shorter day and the kids go off to some enrichment afterwards, so they do better because they are more creative.

    you are right, and in SFUSD, kids do not move around enough. Your best bet would be to pick a school with a shorter day and enroll him in enrichment which includes acrosports 3x a week. And pick a school you can walk to and from.

  2. Miraloma is not a shorter day -- just an earlier one. All schools are required to offer a minimum number of minutes in the school day. It's not possible to pick a school with a shorter day. (There may be a few with longer days due to special enrichment programs.)

    That pat explanation for why Miraloma has high scores is oversimplified, too, because Miraloma was a very low-scoring school 10-15 years ago, and it had the same schedule then.

  3. Only you can set your priorities.
    Here is a list to juggle around, add and delete, revise.

    1. Rooftop (K8)
    2. Lawton (K8)
    3. Rosa Parks JBBP
    4. Clarendon JBBP
    5. Lilienthal (K8)
    6. Miraloma
    7. Lakeshore
    8. Sloat
    9. Sunnyside
    10. SF Community

  4. Emily, I also live in Miraloma and have an energetic boy who will be entering kindergarten next fall. You can find a daily schedule for Miraloma on the SFUSD web site here:


    The kindergarten classes have two 15-minute recess periods and one 45-minute lunch/recess period.

    I'll be following your posts with interest. Best of luck.

  5. More schools within a few minutes' drive of Miraloma Elementary:

    Jose Ortega
    Robert Louis Stevenson
    Paul Revere**
    Junipero Serra*
    Glen Park**

    *These schools still are a bit outside the comfort zone of empowered parents.
    **Just inside the comfort zone.

  6. And remember Jose Ortega has two strands, Mandarin Immersion (citywide lottery) and GE (neighborhood, but might have access). For that matter, Alvarado SI will be citywide lottery--though I expect that to be popular with CTIP1 because of easy access from the Mission and cultural/language affinity.

    PE offerings vary widely. Some schools, like Alvardo, provide motor skills for K-1s in addition to recess.

    PE is a daily requirement though post-elementary.

  7. CTIP 1 doesn't get priority in city-wide lottery I don't believe for the city-wide programs, only for seats at schools out of the child's own particular attendance zone.

    All SFUSD elementary schools have at least one 15 minute recess and a 45 minute lunch/recess period. You might want to look at which schools do recess prior to lunch - helps the kids make sure to eat as they aren't rushing to race off and move.

  8. Creative Arts Charter School (CACS) is a great public option in the district with it's own separate lottery. Our school offers recess every day as well as PE in the lower grades. (sports teams in the upper grades) We also have an extremely active parent community. As a charter school, the teachers are given a great deal of autonomy with the curriculum. My kids' teachers the last 5 years have been beyond fantastic! Additionally, we are able to offer weekly art, music and dance. Our school is small and cozy (only 200, and a K-8) so everyone knows your child.
    Please check out our website in the next month for upcoming tours: http://www.creativeartscharter.org/

  9. 12:31, that is a mistake--

    The new system WILL give preference at citywide schools to CTIP1 and also to crowded out CTIP2ers. This is GOOD. It tends to steer them away from neighborhood schools and more crowding out.

    Here's the policy (lifted from SFUSD website, enrollment page):

    For city-wide schools, the choice process will give preference to applicants in
    transitional years (i.e., students entering kindergarten, or transitioning from fifth to sixth grade, or transitioning from eight to ninth grade) in the following order:

    (1) younger siblings of students who are enrolled in and will be attending the school during the
    year for which the younger sibling requests attendance;
    (2) students enrolled in an SFUSD PreK program at the city-wide school;
    (3) students who reside in CTIP1 census tracts;
    (4) students who reside in attendance areas that do not have sufficient capacity to accommodate
    all the students;
    (5) all other students.

  10. 12:46, thanks for the clarification. This does make sense, but it is not good news for anyone who wants a language program if they live in say, RL Stevenson's area. They will have no preference whatsoever and the chance that there might be a seat for them is small.

  11. Sadly the lack of recess and PE at SFUSD schools is what led us to private school. Where our child gets nearly double the time to run around.

  12. Lakeshore PTA pays for a weekly Motor class for younger grades that my kid loves. However, with the budget cuts this year, support for the program is being reduced. It's an active discussion which programs the PTA should fund.

    I'm not sure I understand what constitutes project-based learning, but I can tell you Lakeshore is much less nose-in-your-worksheet than other schools on the westside that our friends attend.

    We really like that about the school, though I believe it does lead to lower test scores compared to nearby schools (that and the fact that half the students are low-SES, which is highly correlated with test scores.)

  13. For $20K a year vs. free, most of us could manage to find our child some after-school running-around time. Heck -- amortized over 13 years, we could build a climbing wall, an indoor pool, a zip-line and more in our home!

  14. I'm a veteran Lakeshore parent (my kids graduated from Lakeshore in '02 and '05); my husband teaches there; I'm a booster. In our day, Lakeshore was by far the most diverse school west of 19th Avenue -- really the ONLY diverse school west of 19th Avenue. I haven't checked the demographics before posting this, but that does impact the test scores.

    That said, I would gently caution against branding other schools "nose-in-your-worksheet." That's really not fair unless you truly have experience with them.

    (I have to say I really liked worksheets in my school days, though that may have been because of the intoxicating purple mimeograph ink that suffused '60s classrooms.)

  15. ..."but it is not good news for anyone who wants a language program if they live in say, RL Stevenson's area."

    That is likely true. It is the trade-off to the far west side folks getting a LOT more certainty (as they are unlikely to be crowded out).

    I suppose the lesson is that it is just not possible to provide for every single desire in this assignment system. It is my understanding that the west side folks were the most vocal in wanting more certainty and neighborhood schools, so hopefully this will sit well with them, or most of them.

    RLS for example is a wonderful school, so they get suburban-like guarantees--not ironclad, but strong likelihood--of getting a high-scoring, reliable school. But they don't get as easy access to the benefits of immersion education and more diversity, a la immersion.

    For west side parents who desperately want immersion and are willing to drive, I would definitely focus on the less popular options (don't get me wrong, they are still popular, but not as) such as Revere, Marshall, Webster. Starr King for Chinese.

  16. My kids were at Miraloma over a span of 10 years (starting back in the days when "no one" would go there) and as much as I loved it I don't think there's anything magical about it. Any school is only as good as its staff, starting with the leadership of the principal. Everything else (parent involvement, fundraising, enrichment) is nice to have but not enough to make an excellent school.

    If PE/activity program is important to you, I'd look for a school that uses the Sports4Kids model. They focus on getting all kids involved in physical activity and cooperative play. I'll never forget seeing the entire 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades at Miraloma, including the kids from the special day class and the girl who sometimes used a wheelchair, happily playing a game of tag at lunch with rules that were completely incomprehensible to me as an observer.

    Given the criteria you've set out, I would definitely check out San Francisco Community. One of my kids was there for one year in middle school, and it's also a school I loved. (Plus, I can tell you the secret route to get there from Miraloma Park in 7 minutes.)

  17. Is SF Community good for kids who have trouble sitting still? I got that impression from reading comments on this blog.

  18. I am a brand-new Miraloma parent (my son is in K), so can't claim long experience with the school, but will say the following:

    1. Re: getting in. Yes, it's superpopular, but if you are in the attendance zone under the new system you are in respectable shape. The chances that CTIP1 will contribute all that much demand to Miraloma are minimal. The school is just too freaking hard to get to with those windy hilly streets. I am finding it to be a PITA to get there (and then downtown to work) from a near-ish neighborhood. And yes, there are siblings that will take up a lot of spaces, but there are siblings in every school.

    2. On your four criteria -- The first three are slam dunks in my book. I can speak especially to #2 -- the parent involvement is huge. You see parents everywhere throughout the school. My child started school a couple of weeks into the year (late waitpool call) and I was amazed how many parents were still hanging around for morning circle, walking their kids into the class, stuffing envelopes etc., even though it wasn't day one for most new kindergarteners. #3 is also very strong -- the principal (Ron Machado) clearly gets what it takes to support the teachers and kids. Not a bureaucratic type of leadership at all. Re #4, all I know is that there is a new PE enhancement initiative at the school as of this year with a coach that is working with all grades. Maybe another parent can speak more to that.

  19. There is no dedicated PE teacher at Creative Arts. He left in 2008 and was never replaced.

  20. @5:23: That's true, but the K and 1st grade teachers do PE with the kids, including 2nd graders. There are also after school sports options for the upper grades and the kids get weekly dance classes as well. A big part of the after school program are group games. I'm satisfied that my kids at CACS get plenty of exercise.

  21. My son, and of course I am sure many 4 or 5 year old boys, sounds just like yours. I think you will be very impressed with Commodore Sloat. It sounds like the kind of school you are looking for in terms of an involved community that has been solid and steady for years.
    The principal (in her 2nd year) is amazing and doing wonderful things for the school and her staff. This year they are doing early release on Mondays so that the faculty can have a meeting/work afternoon without being burned out. She seems to be both pushing and supporting very well.
    The PCO does a great job of paying for extras such as a gardening teacher and supporting what the principal needs.
    And of course your worry about too much desk time. When you check out the k rooms I think you will see that there is not too much of that. My son would not do well with that either, they have lots of choice time and hands on learning. Recess 3 times a day, PE twice a week help to get them moving. And the space they have is fantastic, know that k have a huge yard is great, but know that 1st and 2nd grade have their own yard is even better since that is a little worrysome to have 1st graders with 5th graders.

  22. Thank you so much everyone for your comments!
    I do wish SFUSD had more PE opportunity. I had PE everyday as a child and I know it must have helped the class behavior to have us up and outside every day for organized activities. I am glad to hear there are some schools that are using PTA funds to expand outdoor time though. Something I didn't even know to look for!
    And for the person who asked about project-based learning, I'm sure there is a solid definition somewhere, but I just consider it to be learning through doing rather than learning through being told.

  23. 9:44,
    You "heart" Sloat. If you do not live in Sloat's attendance area, consider yourself lucky that you got in when you did. If you do live in Sloat's attendance area, consider your neighbors lucky that there will be a neighborhood preference for going to Sloat. For all the CTIP1's out there, give Sloat a visit.

  24. We "heart" Sloat, too. As a private school kid I had my reservations, but it is terrific. I'm particularly impressed by the parent involvement (what awesome families!) and the dynamic principal (Jeanne Dowd). At some point you have to stop thinking about what you're NOT getting and focus on what you are getting (speaking to myself here, too.)

    I went to a lefty wefty elementary so I am still getting used to the worksheets that come home, but I believe this is pretty standard across SFUSD i.e. I don't think any school is doing wet on wet watercolor to classical music and candlelight in Kindy. Sadly.

    The kids seem to have plenty of outdoor time and the "active" boys are doing just fine in all the Kindy classes. There is certainly choice time in the classrooms along with some bursts of kids having to sit and listen, but it seems like an OK balance. The PE teacher is fun and looks to be about 12 ;)

    Good luck!

  25. Hi Emily,

    When I visited the JCC's Kindergarten Info Night back in May, a Kindergarten teacher and parent represented Francis Scott Key. They handed out a folder that described the school's mission "Building Healthy Minds & Bodies" and some discussion on FSK being 1 of several SFUSD schools getting a PE grant. I don't have the folder with me now, so I copied these links: http://www.francisscottkeyschool.org/ and http://sfusd.ggnet.net/school-detail.php?school=Francis+Scott+Key

    I haven't visited the school myself (and would like to), perhaps an FSK parent can chime in.

    Fellow 2011 K Blogger Helga

  26. It's state law to have PE, something along the lines of 200 minutes every ten days for elementary school students. Whether they have a specific PE coach is sadly discretionary. Our school lost ours this year at the last minute and I'm peeved about it. The funding
    comes from the district and poof, two weeks before school starts he was gone. With some notice Mayr we could have fundraised to replace his salary.

    Our school does a very good job of keeping the kids moving (our kinder teacher had them up and
    moving every ten-fifteen minutes or so).

  27. "I don't think any school is doing wet on wet watercolor to classical music and candlelight in Kindy. Sadly."

    You might be surprised! Our teacher (3rd grade) last year regularly had the classical or blues or gospel playing while the kids worked, both on art but sometimes math or writing. It was pretty awesome. No candlelight though!

  28. "Is SF Community good for kids who have trouble sitting still?"

    I'd say so, cos' of their project-based learning.

    One downside to SF Community is because the playground wraps around the school, they have a harder time monitoring during recess. Just FYI.

  29. "I don't think any school is doing wet on wet watercolor to classical music and candlelight in Kindy. Sadly."

    What about Daniel Webster, where last year they were coloring to "Peter and the Wolf" in natural light? Does that count?

  30. Ha! I made the wet on wet watercolor comment and how happy I am that I am wrong :)!

  31. PE is a state requirement - 200 minutes every ten days in K (I think K-2, maybe higher) but it's not so much the PE or the recess that you need to look for, I think.

    If your child is active, you want to find a school that expects five year olds to be five year olds: wiggling allowed, minute moves during lessons, kinesthetic learning opportunities, fidgets available, self-regulation taught. Even some adults don't learn very well while sitting still, and I think that many schools and teachers affirm active learners.

    Since PE is required, schools either have a PE grant or some kind of arrangement with an organization like Sports4Kids.

  32. "So I will not be surprised if we are bumped out of our neighborhood school by siblings, those in the CTIP 1 that choose to come there and other kids in the neighborhood."

    Not so sure, you're a bit far from CTIP1 areas: I'd expect CTIP1 preferences to be more of an factor for Flynn (which already has a lot of BV/HP families), Fairmount, Moscone, Taylor, Alvarado and the SI immersion programs than for Miraloma. Additionally, you're right next to the Clarendon attendance area, and some of Miraloma's demamd came from parents in Forest Hill and West Portal, who are sitting pretty right now. Plus, you have several K-8s and immersion programs close by, which will drain away some of the demand.

    Plus Malcolm X's spectacular rise in test scores should see more from BV/HP applying there.

  33. We love Sloat - a great school and although our neighborhood school is Miraloma (and we tried to get our oldest into K there) we have been very happy with Sloat. Great teachers, parents, amazing principal who seems to know all the kids by their first names! The teaching staff are veterans meaning they are not junior teachers or teachers that jump around a lot = stable community. Oh and the new afterschool program is being structured a lot like the Miraloma MEEP program so there is an academic portion to it. Highly recommend!

  34. 10:24, I agree that Moscone will continue to be a popular school in the Mission, but I wonder if the kids there can in fact be crowded out since the attendance area kids are already CTIP1?

  35. "I wonder if the kids there can in fact be crowded out since the attendance area kids are already CTIP1?"

    No, but there's not goin got be many GE slots: I think they'll spill over to other schools rather than the other way around.

  36. I said it earlier.. tour Monroe, its a few blocks for SF Community and you may be very pleased. They have a PE program.

    We're new at Miraloma but with the gym and the PE coach, the children get lots of movement time. I think it was a little lacking in past years, but there is definetly parent inspiration to make it happen.

    best of luck