Monday, November 29, 2010

Tourpalooza, in which I visit Sherman and get a clue, thanks to a teacher and alum -- my mom

My mother and I park by along Octavia St., near the flat my grandparents rented, and retrace her old path to Sherman Elementary. It’s tour season, and my mom is coming along to see her former school.

When I told my mother about plans to tour San Francisco schools, her eyes lit up. She has more than 20 years as public school teacher under her belt, including more than six years at James Lick and recent work as a literacy specialist for special ed students at a public middle school in Silicon Valley. She said that she’d love to see an elementary school in the city, especially Sherman, the neighborhood one she attended along with all my aunts, uncles, and godparents on her side. Sherman isn’t our assignment boundary school, and logistically, it’s out of our way. But it’s often described as one of the public system’s up-and-comer’s, and given my mom’s interest, I made it a Tourpalooza stop.

My notes from this well-organized tour, led by parents and capped off with a Q&A with principal Sara Shenkan-Rich, are in the schools database. And I’ll save my mom’s comments on how the Spanish-style campus has changed for a local history conversation, although a few of them (“It’s good that they have a play structure in the yard now…we only got blacktop!”) gave me new perspective on the things parents complain about today.

But as fellow SF K Files blogger Helga put it, we all have moments in this process where we get "schooled." This tour was one of mine. Seeing the school through the eyes of a teacher was interesting, and raised some points worth sharing:

  • Fundamentals. When the tour visited classrooms, many parents’ eyes darted around, trying to take in the facilities, the students, the wall displays, and the white boards all at once. My mom homed in only on the teachers and students – the reading coaching in an upper-grade room, the little ones patting their heads “Yes” or waving their arms “No” in a phonics session in a kindergarten room. My mother liked what she saw in terms of teaching. She also liked Principal Sara Shenkan-Rich’s emphasis on reading and writing, including a differentiated reading program tailored to a student’s individual skill level.
  • Diverse student needs. Sherman has been getting some discussion lately for becoming less diverse. But my mom said that from a teaching perspective, the school’s demographics (25 percent English language learners, 50 percent free/reduced lunch) mean that many students need individual attention. When my mother went to Sherman, the school was a mix of wealthier kids from Pacific Heights and working-class Italian-Americans from the flats, with serious class and home language differences. From that experience, she decided that it’s not just the mix at a school that matters, but how the school addresses it. How are children brought together around common educational goals? How are they brought together as a school community? She left with a good sense of the school’s approach on the educational side, and less sure of how the school builds community. (The latter wasn’t a criticism of anything we saw on the tour, just a question she had afterwards.)
  • Student focus. In the many classrooms we visited, my mom tracked how engaged the students seemed to be. When she saw an open classroom door, she also looked in, checking out those upper-grade rooms that weren’t a tour stop. She liked what she saw. “Those kids are working with their teachers and paying attention,” she said. “When you get closer to middle school, that gets harder.”
Overall, my mother left the school very impressed by its organized feel and academics. She withheld a lot of nostalgia -- the San Francisco she grew up in predates the touchy-feely city of today, and anything sentimental from her is rare. But she did say how proud she was to see her old school thriving in the hands of a dynamic, enthusiastic principal and parent community.

Then she asked me what I thought. I replied that the fundamentals seem sound, but that we’ve been looking for many different things, and rattled off some of the items in my (admittedly) letter-to-Santa’ish list of what we’d originally hoped for in a school.

She smiled, and took hold of my arm. “Those are nice,” she says. “Use that list for your private school visits. But for public school these days, cara mia, you should focus just a few basic things.”

She went on to list them – a safe environment that encourages learning (for us, that means something that works for a shy girl), an academic approach that tries to build solid fundamentals for every student in spite of differences, a solid reading program, an engaged principal, active parents who volunteer and fund-raise.

“Anything else you get on top of all that is great,” she said. “But you find those things for Tacoma first, honey. She needs you to.”

OK, Mom. I hear you. I do.

Others on the tour circuit, what have been your "getting schooled" moments?


  1. You are lucky, not only to have history like that here, but to have the mother you do.

  2. Your mom is wise. Good luck with your search.

  3. Another native here, and an Alamo alum - unfortunately for us, "alumni status" isn't a lottery tie-breaker ;)

  4. Since when is Sherman an up and comer? Didn't it have the highest API score of any elementary in SF this year?

  5. This post both hits home and makes me sad. My dad also went to Sherman -- I bet his path of Sherman-Marina-Galileo was the same as your mom's, paesana.

    My parents left the city in the 70s when the neighborhood school system got jettisoned. I never got the chance to go to Sherman. I'm going to apply for my son next year, but because we don't live in the neighborhood, it sounds like our chances are bad. But we'd love to go to my dad's old school!

  6. Re 8:47: Based on the API list I saw, a couple of schools (Alice Fong Yu and Clarendon) were higher.

    That's not to diminish Sherman's 941. But based on the way that friends with more experience in the school system explained it to me, Sherman's star has risen more recently that the best-known "trophies," and has had some bumps. Last year's 941 represented a 74-point jump, and followed a year in which the school's scores had fallen.

    On the tour, it clearly felt like a very successful school, though, and for those who care a lot about test scores, very much on an upward trajectory.

  7. Re. 11:59: Ciao to you too! When was your dad at Sherman? I had so many relatives go there that there is a good chance of overlap. And yes, they all did the Sherman-Marina-Galileo scene.

    We probably won't apply. I agree that it would be great to send Tacoma to my mom's family elementary school. But it's way off our commute path. And since we don't live in the assignment boundary, I'm figuring our chances of getting in are effectively zero under the new system.