Sunday, October 17, 2010

Helga "Gets Schooled" - Half Time Report

I’m at the midpoint of the tours with visits to 5 public schools so far (Lawton 9/29, Sutro 10/5, Argonne 10/6, Spring Valley Science Magnet 10/7 and Creative Arts Charter 10/8). (For background, I used this to identify the schools to tour and this as my tour strategy.)

Resetting Expectations:

It’s been 30 years since I went to the public elementary school in Montgomery County, MD. I don’t have any detailed recollection of my K-2 experience, but do recall 3rd grade because I transferred schools midyear and it was a difficult transition. We were 1 of 3 Asian American families in the entire elementary school *and* I was the smallest and youngest kid in my grade. I remember being called names as I walked home from school and that I was so shy my 3rd/4th mix grade teacher Ms. Murnane didn’t realize I spoke English! She placed me in the remedial reading group and was surprised when I actually could read! Things got better eventually… so much so that I reflect fondly on my elementary school experience as I toured the public elementary schools in SFUSD.

The budget cuts' adverse impacts on class size are apparent on these tours. It’s tough seeing so many kids (especially 32-35 kids in 4th & 5th grade) squeezed into a classroom. Parent volunteers in the classroom alleviate this somewhat, but they are not there everyday. Some schools like Spring Valley (80% free/reduced lunch) don’t have the luxury of parent volunteers during school, because both parents work and can’t take the time off.

Despite this, I found many positives at these schools.

• The staff – teachers & administrators – all seem to genuinely care about the students and want them to have a great education despite the obstacles posed by the budget cuts.
• Students seem engaged at all of the schools and in each of the classrooms (upper & lower grades) I visited.
• The students that are tour guides (Argonne) or speak at the all school meeting (CACS) make me hopeful that Hugo will someday be comfortable speaking to large audiences.
• All of the schools I toured had various programs for the kids to work through conflicts and differences including Caring School Community (Argonne & Sutro), Responsive Classroom (CACS), conflict resolution (Spring Valley Science Magnet) and upper & lower grade buddies (Lawton).
• Active parents (tour guides or in the PTA room folding mailers) are welcoming and inspiring.

My specific reviews of each school follow Lawton: Sutro: Argonne: Spring Valley Science Magnet School: Creative Arts Charter: (I welcome your thoughts & comments.) I'm not attached to any one particular school (given the odds of this lottery system), but I can see Hugo in all of these schools. He would be fine.
As I head into the last batch of tours, some thoughts…

  • It’s great to see familiar faces on the tours! Thanks for saying “hi!”
  • Try to research the school before the tour and ask questions during the Q&A for which the answers can not be found on the web or handouts. Use SFUSD’s interactive enrollment guide for mission, before or after school programs (where applicable), opportunities for parent involvement etc. and SFUSD school data for Highlights 2009-2010, School Accountability Report Card 2008-2009, etc.
  • Reserve general questions re: the Student Assignment System or attendance boundaries for PPS-SF enrollment workshops or SFUSD’s enrollment workshops in November and December (see dates on Rachel Norton's blog).
  • It would be great if you had a rough guess re: how many siblings will fill up capacity in K next year and if there is a pre-K, how many pre-K slots will fill up. (This helps temper expectations of actually getting into the school.)
Best Practices for Tours
  • Having principal, parent(s) and student(s) available to discuss their school and answer questions.
  • Having a comprehensive packet including the school’s mission, Highlights, # of grades & class sizes, map for self directed tours, PTA accomplishments, typical K daily schedule, K curriculum, contact information for any follow up questions.
  • Identifying and focusing on what is specific & unique about your school vs. what is provided district wide.


  1. On these tours, do you get to see actual classes being taught? If not, I would have thought they would be of limited usefulness.

    Nice post, btw.

  2. Yes, you get to observe the classes being taught. Some of the schools allow the tour to come into the classroom and the teachers interact with tour. Others allow you to peek into the classroom without disturbing the students.

    The good news is that there is learning going on!

    I can not attest to the QUALITY of what they are learning so I focus on the school's mission: (1) whether they incorporate critical thinking or project-based learning, (2) whether they have resources to help students that fall behind or allow students who are ready to take on greater challenges (The latter seems to be reflected in differentiated learning / GATE program in 4th/5th grades.) (3) there is school-parent communication setting expectations on how the children should be progressing and how the parents can get involved.

    I intend to supplement the tours with actual conversations with teachers (friends of friends) at some of the schools.

  3. 32-35 in 4th and 5th grade is stomach-churning. We are thinking of moving from our private school to public for financial reasons, but my child would go from 13 kids in his class now to up to 35, nearly triple the size. I am not sure he could hack that change. I've called around some suburban districts to ask about class size, if anyone is interested. Albany: average of 28-29 in 4th and 5th; Piedmont "tries to keep it to 28" in 4th and 5th; Burlingame "about 28".

  4. I read your reviews and it seems you have a slant towards CACS and perhaps Lawton (though it appears the missing pricinpal was a turnoff). Is it the project based learning?

  5. I can't imagine two schools more different than cads and Lawton.

  6. 3:11-
    The beauty of this is that Helga can apply to both schools for her son. More options is always a good thing, IMO.

  7. No school tour can answer the magic question. School tours are like staged open houses. They are for shoppers, not researchers.

    Avoid tours completely unless you combine the tour with several other inquiries. Go to the school anytime a tour is not going on and look around and sit in classrooms. Talk with parents coming out of the school. Take a close look at the SARC. Attend a PTA meeting. Never say you are a parent looking for a school for your child. Introduce yourself as a neighbor interested in what goes on in schools nowadays.

  8. Most schools don't just allow visitors to sit in on classes and poke around on their own. Frankly as a parent it would make me a little nervous if my kids' school was to allow stranger access to their classroom outside of a tour.
    Not to mention, it could be very disruptive to a learning environment.

  9. I didn't mean to leave an impression of favoring any of the 5 schools. Lawton was the first school I toured and CACS was the most different (school assembly with singing). Argonne's extended year allows for project learning which is a good fit for our family, but may not be for others so I put that in the Caution area. Spring Valley's Science Magnet program is a good fit for Hugo's interests, but neither my husband Godric nor I speak the other languages of the parent community (1/3 Cantonese Bilingual and 1/3 Spanish Bilingual). Sutro is our attendance boundary school, which is a good safety.

    We are going to apply to CACS since it is a charter and an additional lottery / opportunity to get Hugo placed. We are going to put all 4 SFUSD schools on our list, but I am going to wait to figure out the priority of choice until after I finish touring and after supplemental inquiries.

    Re: the visitors & safety... Most of the schools required visitors to sign in at the office and wear distinguishing "Visitor" name tags.

  10. "No school tour can answer the magic question. School tours are like staged open houses. They are for shoppers, not researchers.

    Avoid tours completely unless you combine the tour with several other inquiries. Go to the school anytime a tour is not going on and look around and sit in classrooms. Talk with parents coming out of the school."

    Don is giving good advice here (except for the attend the PTA meetings under false identity).

    If there's a school you're really interested in, you have to go beyond tours to investigate. Speaking to parents in Grades 3-5 is a good idea, as there's larger classes in Grades 4-5.

    However, a tour is a good measure of what likelihood you have of getting in. If you're one of 90+ parents there, adjust your expectations down. If you can count other parents on one hand, you have a reasonable chance of getting in.

  11. @ Don.

    I am very honest to parents both on tours, at greeting tables, at school events, even when I interact with people outside of school events. Prospective parents do not need to go to schools in disguise. They can tell a lot from a school on its tour. You get to meet some very involved parents, see some classrooms in a real setting (no they are not staged for tours), and most importantly meet the school's principal. No one is trying to trick people, or misrepresent a school. Usually, the parents leading the tours, like myself, are true devotees and genuinely love their children's school. Prospective parents are adults and can figure things out for themselves.

    As for the suggestion of going to a school and lying about your intentions . . . frankly, I'd be freaked if someone showed up at the school claiming to be a curious neighbor and who wanted to linger around children.

    Lauretta K. - Parent & tours leader at Fairmount Elementary