Sunday, February 20, 2011

Helga's List -- Hedging Bets

It’s been 6 months since the attendance boundaries were first revealed at the August 18, 2010 Board of Education meeting. Since then and throughout tour season, we have adjusted what we are looking for in elementary schools for Hugo.

Our Must Haves still include:

Mission – A curriculum that includes Critical Thinking (analytical, conceptual and creative thinking) and problem solving. Project based or science. The "why" and "how" are as important as the "what, when and where."
Principal – How does he/she support teachers and teacher development? Set and communicate expectations for teachers, parents & students? Relate to the parent community? Create & maintain a safe & orderly environment for students?
Parent Community & Involvement – Especially in light of looming budget cuts (join’s email campaign here), what enrichment programs or additional staff does the PTA fundraise for? Are these programs consistent with what we feel are important? Can I see myself volunteering with the parent community?

Additional factors considered include:

•Based on Hugo’s Pre-K teacher’s feedback during our parent-teacher conference -- and much to my surprise, we can now envision orderly academic schools (in addition to hands-on, experiential ones) as environments where Hugo would love learning.
•Early start schools and schools with before school programs fit into our schedules. With the phasing out of busing and the ensuing traffic issues, the early start becomes even more desirable for us.
• The busing cuts also impacted the importance of onsite after school programs for middle class families.
•We initially looked in the Richmond area, because both Godric and I could drop off and pick up Hugo, but expanded south (e.g., Sunset schools) along Godric’s commute path. We also made exceptions for distance if the school had the mission we were looking for.

The List
For each school on my list, I’ve noted from the SFUSD 2010-11 Demand Data the # times the school was requested in any of the 7 choices under the old system and # times the school was requested as the 1st choice.

This demand data is why I chose to list 21 schools under the new application form. Ranking the schools was really difficult, so I broke the list into 4 tranches and then ranked within each tranche.

1st Tranche: Schools active in science and/or project based curriculum with strong academic programs and strong PTAs, despite commute
1. Lawton K8 9:30am (before school 7am) 66 GE [Total requests: 839, 1st choice: 170]2. Feinstein 7:50am (before school n/a) 88 GE [Total requests: 522, 1st choice: 89]
3. Clarendon 9:25am (before school 7am) 44 GE [Total requests: 1050, 1st choice: 177]
4. Clarendon 9:25am (before school 7am) 44 JBBP [Total requests: 489, 1st choice: 116]
Lawton and Feinstein both have principals (who were previously science teachers) that encourage professional development in science for teaching staff and active participation in UCSF SEP programs.
Lawton’s principal was a high school science teacher for 24 years and strongly believes in incorporating critical thinking in the curriculum. Lawton ranked highest for us, because it is a K-8, has well developed GATE program and the before & after school care KEEP program gives preference to families that sign up for both.
Feinstein’s principal was a 5th grade science teacher and hired all of the teachers. Feinstein has a dedicated science lab, PTA funded science support and GLO (with Mandarin) afterschool program.
Clarendon GE and JBBP programs are included because they are project based, are active in UCSF SEP programs and have Tree Frog Treks after school. We did not rank Clarendon higher, because it is not along Godric’s commute path.

2nd Tranche: Schools with strong academic programs and strong PTAs near our home and my work5. Lilienthal K8 7:45am 66 GE (88 total incl 22 KN) [Total requests: 786, 1st choice: 195]
6. Alamo 8:40am 88 GE [Total requests: 549, 1st choice: 110]7. Sherman 7:50am 66 GE [Total requests: 439, 1st choice: 124]8. Sunset 8:40am 66 GE [Total requests: 508, 1st choice: 89]9. Peabody 8:40am 44 GE [Total requests: 447, 1st choice: 63]10. Argonne 8:40am 76 GE [Total requests: 514, 1st choice: 109]Lilienthal ranked highest in this tranche because it is a K-8 and has a separate K-2 campus. It also has weekly team teaching and focus on math (Stanford Math Assessment).
Alamo was highest K-5 ranked in this tranche, because it has PTA-supported science materials manager/FOSS kit maintenance, PTA funded class size reduction, professional development focus on math, and has an onsite Mandarin afterschool program and onsite RDASC afterschool program. Also, Aamo will likely feed into Presidio MS.
Sherman has professional development of teachers in the literacy program, GLO afterschool program, science classroom and PTA funded class size reduction.
Sunset is grouped here (despite distance) because of its resourceful principal, PTA funding for project based learning, integrated technology curriculum, facility with access to Sunset playground (for kickball tourney in upper grades), and Mandarin and Tree Frog Treks after school programs.
Peabody’s principal hired 9 teachers. Peabody has PTA funded literacy support, 5th grade teacher active in UCSF SEP, and Tree Frog Treks afterschool program, but they are up for ADA construction and have some facility limitations.
Argonne has PTA funded literacy support, its extended year allows for projects and they have the Richmond YMCA onsite after school program, but Argonne is extended year and has mixed grade classes.

3rd Tranche: Best of the rest of my tour list
11. Spring Valley 8:40am 22 GE (66 total incl 22 CB & 22 SB) [Total requests: 154, 1st choice: 21]12. Lafayette 7:50am 88 GE [Total requests: 289, 1st choice: 67]13. West Portal 8:40am 66 GE (99 total incl 33 CB) [Total requests: 807, 1st choice: 66]14. Sloat 8:40am 66 GE [Total requests: 321, 1st choice: 52]15. Sutro 8:40am 22 GE (44 total incl 22 CB) [Total requests: 204, 1st choice: 11]16. Rosa Parks 7:50am 44 JBBP (88 total incl 44 GE) [Total requests: 48, 1st choice: 14]Spring Valley Science Magnet would’ve been in a higher tranche because of its science focus and its new principal. However, the newly formed PTA has just started fundraising and its budget impact is unknown. I am also unsure how the Chinatown Youth Center compares to GLO or YMCA afterschool programs.
Lafayette has a strong PTA, onsite Richmond YMCA afterschool program and Tree Frog Treks afterschool program.
West Portal has GLO before and after school programs, emphasis on critical thinking and team teaching. (This was originally in the 4th tranche of non-toured schools, but based on the school’s strengths from its website and enrollment fair handouts, I moved it to this tranche.)
Sloat offers the 1-2 week Lawrence Hall of Science Marine Sciences Unit (MARE) for K-5th grade, 5th grade UCSF SEP & MedTeach and Tree Frog Treks. (This was originally in the 4th tranche of non-toured schools, but based on the school’s strengths from its website and enrollment fair handouts, I moved it to this tranche.)
Sutro is my attendance boundary school. The onsite Sutro Child Development Center has before & after school care but there are only 28 spots.
Rosa Parks JBBP has strong PTA, the benefit of small class sizes from the QEIA, ample resources, UCSF Science Discovery Program (unique to Rosa Parks) for 3-5th graders and UCSF SEP program. However, Rosa Parks is out of my and Godric’s commute path and does not offer any onsite options for middle class families.

• Note: I did not include John Yehall Chin on my application form, because it is too far out of our commute paths.

4th Tranche: Additional Schools along Godric’s Commute
17. Ulloa 9:30am (before school 6:30am) 66 GE (88 total incl 22 CB) [Total requests: 501, 1st choice: 57]
18. Stevenson 8:10am 66 GE [Total requests: 451, 1st choice: 65]
19. Key 7:50am 88 GE [Total requests: 205, 1st choice: 42]20. Jefferson 8:40am 88 GE [Total requests: 438, 1st choice: 55]21. Lakeshore 9:30am (before school 8:15am) 88 GE [Total requests: 367, 1st choice: 54]I added these schools because they are along Godric’s commute path, but I didn’t tour any. I reviewed the schools' websites and enrollment fair handouts. Ulloa participates in UCSF SEP, City Science & WISE, so I ranked it highest within this tranche.

Hedging Bets
I realize 21 is a bit much, but I thought I could be the first “0/21.” As I mentioned in my last blog, I further hedged bets by applying outside the SFUSD lottery (a public school charter and a private school with a junior kindergarten option).

Getting a quality public school education shouldn’t be such a gamble... We could really use some Felix Felicis (liquid luck).

Unfortunately, we're just Muggles... so all we can do now is wait.


  1. I don't remember Godric having a son.

    You have done a tremendous amount of research, far more than the average parent, I expect. I would like to add a couple points.

    1. The state sets the curriculum and while public schools have some differences, content from one school to another is far more alike than it is different, particularly in the lower grades. What differences there are between schools is far more characterized by the quality of the teaching staff than anything else, including class size. It is almost entirely about teacher quality. Obviously language programs are somewhat of an exception to the rule, though they also teach the same curriculum. Even charters have to teach to the same tests. And they are even more pressured to do well or lose their charters.

    2. In the same vein, a lot of the school specific information you've provided is the info put out by schools - advertising so to speak, to attract the best applicants. It's not necessarily all it's cracked up to be. For example, some schools will make a point of being project-based. Another school may be just as project-based or more so as any good teacher or principal knows children learn by doing. So they don't make a big deal of advertising what is standard practice for a school that engages in quality instruction.

    In the same sense one really has to question any school that advertises incorporating critical thinking into its instructional approach. This is like a hospital advertising medical treatment instead of breakfast in bed. It is true some schools may drill and kill more than others, but every school is under pressure to deliver a big curriculum within a small time frame. It is almost a magic act what is expected of teachers nowadays. The best ones seem to still figure out how to make it fun for kids – no easy task. Experience counts.

    One more thing- in the case of Alamo, class size reduction is funded in part by the community and part by the LEP. It removes the split and lowers 4 and 5 class sizes by a few kids. This is a tenuous situation that has been in place a couple of years and could end if education is cut more. Alamo does science rotations for students 2nd and up.

    What makes a good school for any given family? Sure, it has to have the right location, The right start times, the right after school options if necessary and other bare essentials. But it's really about teacher quality.

  2. Helga, I think you are being very smart by listing more than just the typical 3 - 7 schools that i have seen others post here. Good luck.

  3. In the past one did not want to list any more than the most highly desired set of schools in order to avoid lowering the chances on appeal or in the waiting pool. I don't know what the formal appeal process is now, but the general rule was that if you got one of your choices in the first round your chances went down to appeal for another. The strategy was to keep the appeal pathway open so you could get in after school started.

    When schools have unclaimed seats at the beginning of the year who will get them? Is there any formalized system?

  4. None of my kids' schools have done sophisticated enough marketing on their own to put out the slightly misleading marketing messages Don refers to.

    But I have definitely seen well-meaning and sincere but misinformed parents leading tours putting out that information. An energetic parent at one of my kids' former schools was unstoppable and was constantly claiming that it was the *only* school or the *unique* school while describing a resource that is actually common in most or all SFUSD schools. Who knows how far that kind of misinformation spreads.

  5. Caroline -- my kids go to one of the schools on Helga's list and I have to say that I cringed when I read how she is describing it. It is a great school and I love it, but either I have become oblivious or she or someone at the school is overstating some of the science-based offerings and project-based curriculum. You are right that it is not an outright fib, but I'm afraid that "puffery" like like this sets up parents for disappointment down the road.

  6. People tend to think of a school tour as an informational session, not a sales pitch. It is both and certainly more sales pitch at some schools.

    I just want to emphasize that information on school tours may or may not be valuable. To the extent that it is overstated, misleading or just plain hogwash, parents can get some very strange ideas about the differences between schools. To the extent that the often colorful characterizations have some truth to them, the salient issues are the quality of the teaching staff, the management and, not to forget, the enthusiasm of the parents and their children.

    A word about parent surveys, on which Helga did not comment... by far and away these surveys report the opinions of a very small group of parents and there is nothing at all scientific about the sampling. And they are almost always glowing reports. Any information you can glean on your own is likely to be better than the official school survey that is published on SFUSD.

  7. I think that when someone is THIS focused on every detail and nuance, yet the information about the detail and nuance is not 100% guaranteed to be scrupulous in every tiny particular, there is the risk of perceiving hugely overblown differences among schools that are actually pretty even.

  8. A couple of comments:

    You didn't mention touring the schools. One of your high choices was our highest choice based on research, and five minutes into our tour, we crossed it off our list.

    Another thing is that we've met parents and kids from most of the schools that you list, and they all seem happy with their school.

    Good Luck,

    Happy Clarendon parent of five years.

  9. So did listing all those schools pay off?