BIG! That’s the first thing that you mutter to yourself as you start to walk down a long, gleaming corridor in a middle school, and that’s when it hits you—the realization of what it means to have a 6th grade class that is larger than the enrollment of your entire K-5 elementary school. BIG! If you placed every hallway in your elementary school end-to-end, it wouldn’t equal the length of one middle school corridor. Classrooms seem orderly, if not a wee bit over crowed (“overcrowded” is used here in a relative sense—relative to our public elementary school). And contrary to public perception, peace and calm prevailed at the schools that I visited (Lick, Giannini, and Hoover). I don’t know if it is an inner quality of the students at these schools or if is the presence of security personnel (yes, that was a BIG surprise too—security aids, uniformed guards, or actual police officers) who are stationed strategically within the schools, but it works. And I must say that the presence of security personnel somehow felt reassuring rather than threatening. All principals admitted that there are problems as these children come into their own and start to learn new boundaries and social skills as young adults. None of the principals provided actual numbers of incidences (fights, bullying), but consistently they all said, “I would be lying if I said that we didn’t have problems.” All of the schools have grade-level counselors who migrate through the grades (6-7-8) along with their students, so they get to know the students very well.
At Hoover and Giannini (1100 and 1200 students, respectively), the sports and electives appear to be from the typical SF middle school menu. One school might have a better reputation for baseball, the other might have a better reputation for band and orchestra, and so on, but everything is on the menu. Lick (580 students) has more flexibility in its offerings, reflecting the talent and interests of the current faculty and staff. It was nice to learn that middle schools offer all the things that we struggle for in elementary schools (PE, art, music, drama). An hour of PE a day! An hour of band, orchestra, or chorus a day! In addition, Hoover has Spanish and Chinese Immersion, and Lick has Spanish Immersion (I don’t recall the language option at Giannini). Distinctions about sports, electives, and language offerings will be personal decisions for each family, and I cannot go beyond this level of detail.
I was surprised to learn that there are differences in how grade-level classrooms are organized. For example, the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classrooms at Lick and Hoover are dotted throughout the building, and the students intermingle in the hallways between classes; at Giannini, on the other hand, an entire floor is dedicated solely to the 6th grade students, and they are separated from the upper grades for a significant part of the day.
There are significant distinctions in how and when students are identified for Honors/Gate (or not). At Hoover, a 6th grader is assigned to all Honors classes or to all General Ed classes; in 7th and 8th grade, there is more flexibility for a student to attend a mix of Honors or General Ed classes, depending on student’s needs and classroom availability. At Giannini, there are no Honors classes in 6th grade; these classes begin in 7th and 8th grade. At Lick, there are no specific Honors/GATE classes; instead, the teachers use differential instruction to provide the Honors curriculum in the general classroom setting, which also provides peer learning and peer modeling. Thanks to QEIA funding, Lick has reduced class size (only 15-21 kids per class (!) versus the customary 30-35 kids), allowing differential instruction to succeed. Lick also has an 826 Valencia Writing Room.
The campuses, inside and out, were orderly and clean—a striking feature at all of the schools. We learned that the students had responsibility for stewardship of campus grounds. All of the schools had a dedicated auditorium (Lick has a nicely restored art deco marvel), a gymnasium, a good library, and a cafeteria with outside eating areas. Unfortunately, none of the cafeterias seemed large enough to comfortably seat the entire student body during bad weather. Some schools had lots of green space surrounding the campus (Giannini), while others had none (Hoover, Lick). Hoover is in the middle of a multi-million dollar renovation project, and when it is complete in 2011, the transformation will be astonishing (the down side is the bevy of temporary bungalows covering the black top to provide extra classrooms during the renovation). The neighborhoods around each school showed pride of ownership with good public transportation options (MUNI Bus 48 for all three schools!).
Interestingly, all of the tour guides gave a disclaimer that the information given for 2011 student enrollment might not apply in subsequent years if the middle school feeder system is implemented. For example, Hoover might not offer Spanish Immersion after next year (just an example; nothing has been decided at this time). Immersion students who enter Hoover in 2011 will continue to have immersion though 8th grade, but it might not be available to students who enter the year behind them. Ugh! Parents with children on the immersion track need to stay on top of decisions about the feeder system and language offerings.
Information on Special Education is also up in the air, so I really haven’t found it useful to gather information relative to my special needs child (“No. 2”), currently in 4th grade. I entered my middle school search hoping that I would find a school that was a good fit for both children, allowing me to use sibling priority in 2012. I am finding the scholastic diversity and potpourri of electives among middle schools to be quite refreshing, and the best fit for No. 1 is not necessarily going to be the best fit for No. 2; therefore, this is no longer part of my enrollment strategy. Joseph, another SF K Files blogger, has been providing helpful posts about middle school searches for Special Ed students.
Lastly, each school has a PTA (or similar parent organization). Fundraising was relatively modest, and all schools noted that they hoped to increase fundraising in upcoming years. Each school also has a parent liaison, and parents who want more information are encouraged to contact the school to speak to their parent liaison. Importantly, go out and tour for yourself—you will be pleasantly surprised!
So where do we stand?
No. 1 has participated in all of the tours and would be happy at any one of these schools; after all, they all have “lockers, a beanery, and a courtyard” for outdoor lunch. Clearly, no frontrunner. Let’s see if that changes after our next three tours (Presidio, Roosevelt, and Aptos).