Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SFUSD Enrollment Fair on November 3

If you haven't already heard, the SFUSD enrollment fair is coming up this Saturday. Download a flier and program info with useful maps from their site.

Concourse Exhibition Center (East Hall)
620 7th Street

This will be my first time attending. I'm not really sure what to expect. I've toured the schools that I think will be on my top list and have scheduled tours throughout November with some of the more popular schools who's tours have already filled up. I'm going to use the opportunity to re-visit some schools that I like as well as cast a wider net for places that I haven't yet considered.

Check out tips from a 2009 SFKFiles post as well as from the PPSSF. Any veterans have other tips to share?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bernal visits Brandeis Hillel Day School (BHDS)

We're back at it...

Last week we also saw Creative Arts Charter which I decided not to post about (since there is already a lot of great information on here about CACS).

Brandeis Hillel Day School (BHDS) is a Jewish independent school in SF serving more than 550 students on two campuses (Marin and SF).  Next year the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The school is kindergarten through eighth grade. This post is only about the SF campus. The pillars of the school are Integrity, Kindness and Service.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jose Ortega: Bringing Them All Up Together

As I  approached Jose Ortega and started scanning for street parking, I saw a woman by the school unobtrusively holding up a paper. Handwritten on it were the words "School Tours."  She was directing prospective parents to the asphalt lot behind the school.

That moment epitomized JOES. No glossy poster, just a plain piece of paper, but behind it was something we all value in San Francisco. In this case, free off-street parking.

Jose Ortega is SFUSD in a microcosm. It's one of the few elementary schools whose racial and ethnic makeup approximated that of SFUSD as a whole in 2011-12. The distribution of parent education levels and percentage of low-income students are similar to the SFUSD as a whole.  

This is SFUSD diversity at its best. On the walls were students' self-portraits.  On one I saw written, "My dad is Tongan, and my mom is French." (ethnicities changed slightly to protect the student).  It's a model of what we could have in San Francisco.

The Inner Workings of the SFUSD Lottery

Confused about how the SFUSD school lottery works?  It's a knotty problem.  The 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics just went to Roth and Shapely, for developing the algorithm behind many school lotteries today.
    Luckily, we don't have to be Nobel Prize winners to understand how the SFUSD lottery is supposed to work. The group who proposed the redesign of the school lottery algorithm has several helpful and detailed powerpoints.
    The first powerpoint on SFUSD's school choice algorithm gives an excellent background of SFUSD's history with desegregation and school choice. It also has a diplomatic assessment of SFUSD's political climate and previous school lottery. The presentation looks like it's intended for economists, but it's worth a read even if, like me, you have zero economics background.
    The 2nd is a presentation to SFUSD's school board about the new algorithm, which the school board adopted. It gives details of the algorithm in lay terms, including an illuminating diagram on swaps on Slides 17-18.
    The 3rd is a presentation to PPSSF, similar to the presentation to the SFUSD school board. It also describes the results of simulations when the algorithm's priorities were changed.  Of interest, prioritizing CTIP over AA, or vice-versa didn't significantly affect either diversity or the percentage of students who get their first choice.

Advantages of the new algorithm*
  1. No way to game the system: If you really want Clarendon, you shouldn't rank Sunset first, thinking that you're more likely to get your second choice. Ranking Clarendon as your top choice gives you your best chance of getting in. Addendum 6/2013: In practice, families may be able to game the system by strategically positioning popular schools on their list for "swap value." For example, if you were in Alvarado's AA but didn't want it because your child was Asian and their Asian enrollment is very low. You might put it on your list anyway, just below the schools you really want, in hope of swapping up.
  2. Tries to match every student with a school that's as high on their list as possible:  Before, Student A might be assigned to Jose Ortega and Student B to Miraloma, even though  Student A preferred Miraloma, and student B preferred Ortega. Swaps deal with that situation.  (See Slide 18 of the SFUSD school board presentation).
*paraphrased from Times-Picayune on a school choice algorithm in New Orleans designed by the same group, as quoted on the this blog):

Disadvantages of the new algorithm
  1. "Justified Envy" This is a real economics term! Swaps let you trade on your priority at one school (sibling, AA) for a priority spot at another.  Even though swaps maximize the number of students who get their top choices, they feel unjust, because a student can get assigned to a school over a student who was supposed to have priority over them.
  2. Increases Inequity?
        Swaps also feel unjust because they improve lottery outcomes for the haves (with desirable spots) compared to the have-nots (no spots/undesirable spots).  Students in attendance areas of desirable schools are more likely to find other students to swap with, and thus get an even-higher choice.  And wasn't school choice supposed to be about decreasing inequity?
A disclaimer now about theory vs. practice. The consultants from Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and MIT who designed the algorithm noted the tendency of SFUSD to make ad hoc changes to the school lottery criteria nearly every year.  They discouraged this, but anticipated that SFUSD would continue to do so. They offered to implement the algorithm for SFUSD in a way that would allow SFUSD to adjust its priorities without undermining the integrity of the algorithm. They also wanted to monitor the effects of the new choice system, for free, so that future changes could be more informed.
     SFUSD declined and decided to have someone in-house program the algorithm (yipes!).  Al Roth wrote on his blog:
    "Unlike the case of the systems in New York and Boston... my colleagues and I don't know what algorithm SFUSD is using, even though we know what we proposed and the Board adopted. So...this post is a bit like the ads that sometimes appeared in the financial sections of newspapers when I was young, which, following a divorce, would announce that Mr John Doe was henceforth no longer responsible for any debts incurred by the former Mrs John Doe..."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Practical Information from Parents for Public Schools

I finally got to attend a Parents for Public Schools Presentation and it was SO helpful. The PPS website, SFUSD’s website and the SF K Files have way too much information, but the presentation focused on the necessary and important information and that was priceless! And, no offense, but the anonymous bloggers and commenters are also anonymous in their credentials for giving advice. I highly recommend all parents going through this process to attend one of the PPS workshops. You can click here to find a list of their upcoming library workshops. 

Here is what I found to be the top 5 helpful things or just new things the presenter shared with us (very much useful for our own search and maybe not yours, but I thought I should share anyways):

  1. The secret to getting a good placement for your child is to list as many schools as you are interested in your child attending in the order of your preference! The more schools, the better. This may seem completely obvious, but after reading the SFKFiles and other online resources I’ve noticed folks trying to strategize in different ways.
  2. The Biliteracy Language Programs are for native speakers of the program language.  The programs are to help kids be biliterate, bilingual and bicultural! A few folks told me these programs are just for English Language Learners, but from how she explained it, it sounds like it is just for NATIVE speakers. Kids could be native speakers of Spanish and English, right?  I have to confirm with each school program, but I think my child qualifies for these programs too.
  3. Don’t forget to ask the private and parochial schools about their curriculum standards and teacher credentials! 
     Don't forget that these schools don’t have to have the same curriculum and credential standards as public schools.
  4. Just a reminder that test scores do not tell the whole story, mostly they just tell you about demographics of a school. Word. 
  5. You should know that ALL public schools have:
·      200 minutes of PE every 2 weeks
·      The same lunch menu
·      Funding for a half-time librarian
·      Music starting in the 4th grade
·      GATE identification starting in 3rd grade
·      Same math and English language arts textbooks
·      Max class size of 22 students K-3, 35 for 4-5
* Inclusion programs

I was getting excited about some of these things on tours only to now realize that every school has them.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bernal visits Adda Clevenger

I left mid-tour. Not the place for my daughter and our family. Overall it seems very girl heavy and our tour guide said it was a 60/40 (girl/boy) split. It seemed much larger split to me.

The head master/director did not introduce himself and I had no clue who he was until mid-tour.

School starts between 8:00 - 8:15 AM (early for us) and the whole school comes together every morning for some singing. I do like the idea of the 15 minute arrival window. The kids came in and sat in the row (by grade). At the end of the assembly, all of the kids stood, in uniform, turned and sang the pledge of allegiance.

We saw a second grade civility class in progress. The civility class was described to us a class which helps build character development/life skills/manners. In second grade the students have a big feast where they are required to use the manners they learned in class. I don't know...Yes, manners are important - just had a 'weird' feel to me.

We went into the fourth grade class and the teacher and children seemed engaged. Unfortunately, I was not engaged and was already zoning out.

With the exception of the morning sing-a-long, I saw zero performing arts. Perhaps they were saving the best for last ?

The teachers split their roles across subjects. the fourth grade teacher we met teaches English, math and civility. The kids go from room to room and didn't seem to really have a home base.

Their appeared to be a very heavy use of a reinforcement/reward system. For example, students as individuals could earn points for listening and follow through. I saw whole tables earn points for being showing they were ready to listen by folding their hands. This whole idea rubbed me the wrong way as I feel it would create a real sense of competition amongst peers. I am also skeptical of earning rewards for things should be expected (i.e., listening). In one class in particular there were treasure boxes. I heard one girl bragging she got two points while her friend only got one. Child one had four prizes in her box and child one had one prize. Seeing that told me something about child two and I feel confident it told the other kids about child two.

Lack of technology program

I had high hopes. I was envisioning Fame!! Oh well....

Bernal visits San Francisco Friends School (SFFS)

We have a busy week - this is the first of three visits. I am beginning to see familiar faces at the tours. Twice today I was asked if I had a boy or girl (?? trying to get a feel of competition).

Friend's School (K-8) is rooted in Quaker traditions. It's not a religious school however the following testimonies (or values) are taught: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship.  Students participate in 'silent worship' and 'reflective pedagogy'.

The building - I mean wow and then some. Its absolutely astounding and its worth the tour alone. For those of you that don't know, it was the Levi's building before standing vacant for a number of years. It has been the home of Friends for about 11 years. The original floors, the exposed beams and the natural light that floods every nook and cranny is just amazing. The building is huge with a beautiful Meeting Room and a very open, airy feel. The classrooms did not strike me as huge.

The school is in the middle of a massive fundraising campaign to raise approximately 6.5 million dollars. Approximately four million will be used to complete the building restoration and the remaining 2.5 million is for the Friends Community Scholarship (more in a bit). So far they have raised approximately three million.

The school has about 430 students. There are two classes from K-4th grade and three from 5th - 8th grade. I missed how many kids are enrolled in each class (22??). For the younger kids there is one teacher and one assistant. For the older kids, its a teacher and the assistant splits time between two rooms.

The arts program seems phenomenal. There are two music teachers (one choral and one orchestra), a dance teacher, a drama teacher and two arts and crafts teachers. The kids get music twice weekly, dance once weekly and art twice weekly. The dance teacher spoke with us and they are currently learning about the origins of hip-hop and are working on Michael Jackson's thriller. There is also a garden which the first graders care for. The veggies from the garden are donated to a local soup kitchen. PE is twice weekly and there is both a formal gym in the school as well as a multi-purpose room.

There is no set computer room in the school as the whole school is equipped with wireless. In 5th and 6th grades there is a 2:1 ratio of laptops to students and 7th and 8th graders each have their own computer. There is also a new Ipad program this year for kindergarten, first and second. Classrooms for the middle school and up are equipped with smart boards.

Spanish is taught beginning in kindergarten with twice weekly classes (and then incorporated throughout the day) and then 4/week in the older grades.

There is an after school program until 6PM which consists of enrichment classes or playing in the designated areas (or study hall for older kids).

There is a full-time director of community engagement. The role of this person is to establish relationships in the community and create reciprocal learning opportunities for the students at Friends and neighborhood children and businesses. The Friends Community Scholarship is a scholarship program aimed at children of the neighborhood (and possibly reaching as far as bayview) that will cover 100% of all costs of their tuition at the school from grades five through eight. The scholarships will pay for extended day, camping trips...everything!!! I really feel as though the Friends school walks the walk and talks the talk.

As I have a few tours under my belt I am realizing that a lot depends on your tour leader. So, far we have had two great tours and one really poor tour. After this tour we heard from the head of lower school. She talked about autonomy but disappointingly did not get into curriculum or academics.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the Friends School??

Self-Soothing with Data: Elementary School Truancy Rates

My kindergartener will be a truant if I send him to public school.  I'm OK with this, and so is SFUSD.

The California Department of Education defines truancy as having 3 unexcused absences or tardies.   SFUSD concerns itself with "habitual truancy" (10-19 unexcused absences or tardies) and "chronic truancy" (>20).

I averaged the truancy rates for the last 3 school years reported because the numbers can vary a lot from year to year.  I also looked at CST test scores, parent education level,  racial and ethnic diversity, and percent of students who are "economically disadvantaged" (free/reduced price lunch).

How much do truancy rates tell us about a school? I'm still touring Starr King for Mandarin immersion, but Rosa Parks didn't make the cut.

Your take: useful or not useful?

SFUSD Truancy Rates by Elementary School,
3 year average for 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11

Lowest truancy rates
Alice Fong Yu1%
Chinese Education Ctr2%
Edward R. Taylor4%
Francis Scott Key5%
West Portal6%
Jean Parker6%
CIS at DeAvila7%
Robert Louis Stevenson7%
Gordon J. Lau9%
Commodore Sloat10%

Highest truancy rates
Charles Drew84%
Paul Revere76%
Malcolm X74%
El Dorado69%
Starr King66%
Leonard R. Flynn62%
John Muir60%
Bret Harte56%
Rosa Parks55%
William L. Cobb51%
SF Public Montessori*50%
*Only 1 grade reported

Truancy rates,  all elementary schools

Alice Fong Yu1%
Chinese Education Ctr2%
Edward R. Taylor4%
Francis Scott Key5%
West Portal6%
Jean Parker6%
CIS at DeAvila7%
Robert Louis Stevenson7%
Gordon J. Lau9%
Commodore Sloat10%
Frank Mccoppin13%
John Yehall Chin16%
George Peabody16%
Claire Lilienthal17%
Dianne Feinstein17%
Harvey Milk Civil Rights18%
Clarendon Alternative24%
Lakeshore Alternative24%
Junipero Serra24%
Glen Park24%
Yick Wo24%
Buena Vista29%
Visitacion Valley30%
Mission Education Center31%
Tenderloin Community33%
Creative Arts Charter34%
Jose Ortega34%
George R. Moscone35%
Spring Valley36%
SF Community36%
Daniel Webster37%
New Traditions40%
Cesar Chavez42%
Bessie Carmichael/Fec48%
SF Public Montessor50%
William L. Cobb51%
Rosa Parks55%
Bret Harte56%
John Muir60%
Leonard R. Flynn62%
Willie Brown65%
Starr King66%
El Dorado69%
Malcolm X74%
Paul Revere76%
Charles Drew84%

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lazy Tiger Mom visits Glen Park

The Facts
Location: 151 Lippard Avenue
School hours: 8:40-2:40PM 
Principal: Jean Robertson
School tours: Tuesdays 9-10:30am
Grades: K-5
Kindergarten size: 66 - 3 classes of max 22 each. I think that one of the 3 classes is focused towards the bilingual education program (NOT "Spanish immersion") which slowly transitions monolingual Spanish-speaking kids towards English by 4th grade. 
Total student body: ~360

Initial Impressions
Glen Park is a block from our house and our local school. The "Big Blue" has a gorgeous freshly renovated campus with a large school yard. Many of the facilities appear new or newly-renovated with much larger spaces for the library, auditorium, cafeteria, etc. than most of the other schools that I've toured. The school felt vibrant and friendly, although perhaps slightly worrisome, it seemed that many kids were being dropped off late. Our tour was was 9am, 20 minutes after the 8:40 school start time. Perhaps lots of celebration post the Giants Game 7 win last night? 

Long before this school tour, I'd heard many positive things about Jean Robertson, the legendary principal who had turned around Grattan in 5 years. This is her first year on the job, but her reputation seems to have preceded her. Her performance was impeccable, despite much aggressive questioning from various parents who wanted to know her vision and approach to "turning around" Glen Park. She was wonderfully low key yet charismatic, deflecting the questions with a thoughtful answer that she was in a discovery phase of watching and building relationships as she's currently only 10 weeks into the job. However, it also emerged that she's about giving teachers a voice, fostering a strong sense of collaboration and community, and aligning various staff to their skills and strengths. As she aptly put it - "It's not the Jean show, it's the we show." 

Other highlights for me included:
- The tour consisted of 2/3 local Glen Park families with the remainders from the nearby neighborhood. This is a vision of a true neighborhood school that's a block from our house. 
- The amazing facilities. The library here with a 80% time librarian was gigantic, with a separate room dedicated to younger kids and separate reading area with comfy couches. 
- There's a computer lab with 40+ shiny new iMacs and a full-time tech instructor. I haven't seen a tech lab to match this in any other school tour yet. 
- The PTO is relatively young, only having been active for 4-5 years. They started seriously fund-raising last year, raising 50K, most of which went to pay for a PE coach who also supervises the play yard for recess.  Coach Micah (sp?) was super friendly, stopping to introduce herself in the hallway when I was wondering around pre-tour. 
- I'm happy with the diversity that I see here. There's a mix of kids from different socioeconomic classes, yet also a sprinkling of white and Asian faces.

My Personal Questions
- How important is sending my daughter to her true neighborhood school? It's a block away, for goodness sakes!
- How much time can I commit in a family with two working parents with long hours and frequent travel, to truly building and nurturing this school as part of a turn-around, bad news bears community? Wouldn't it just be easier and safer to join a pre-established smooth running school community who's already done the turning-around? 
- How important is an inspirational and visionary principal in the decision-making process? 

Finally, I know that I would be happy and comfortable to send my daughter to Glen Park. And that's a relief after hearing all the negative rumors that have surrounded the school through the past years. It'll definitely be on our list, although we still have many months to debate the order.

Sunrise Sunset: Schools Focused on the Arts

As I mentioned in my last post, I was able to go on a number of tours last year, while I was on maternity leave with child #2. There were several schools that I liked that had an arts focus, so I thought I would review those tours together. I took notes on my tours last year, but I didn’t know I would be blogging about these schools then, so apologies if my information is a little thin.

Creative Arts Charter School
One of the first tours I went on last year was at Creative Arts Charter School (CACS). Muppet Mama did a fine, very detailed review so I will just add a few thoughts. The school seemed to me like a kind, welcoming place, and I was really impressed by the principal. During the Q&A, he seemed thoughtful and energetic, and like a great booster for the school. I’m sorry to hear he has moved on.

CACS started its tour at a school-wide morning meeting and showcase, with different performances by different classes. It’s a small school (only 275 students, I think the principal said, with a plan to grow to 375) but from what I saw also has a real mix of ethnicities. And in part because of its central location, I got the sense there are kids from all over the City. It also seemed like a school with lots of involved parents, and perhaps because of the arts focus or the charter, the parents seemed particularly involved in the curriculum of the school, not just fundraising (although surely that, too).

As we walked around on the tour, I was struck by how cozy and attractive the rooms were. I noticed several of them had oriental rugs, and many had comfy chairs. But what really impressed me was watching a music class in action. The music teacher, who I think might also be a co-teacher in the younger grades, was a tall, 30-something year old man with long red hair and a semi-flamboyant, rock-star kind of look. He was leading a class of 8 or 9 year-olds on some sort of percussion instruments (maybe large drums and xylophones?), and rhythmically pointing at students around the room as it was their turn to chime in. He seemed to have a fantastic energy and charisma and the students were totally enthralled. I was ready to sign up then and there.

I think we’ll enter the CACS lottery. If my daughter is lucky and offered a spot, I would probably ask some more questions though about the benefits and drawbacks of being a charter school. It seems like one big benefit is a longer school day than most district schools. I think school hours are 8:20-3:15 (kindergarteners get out an hour early but then have extra aftercare hour just for them). I don’t think I’ve heard of any district schools with a day that long (maybe Alice Fong Yu?). I think in the past they have also been able to keep class sizes low, not jumping up to 33 a class as most schools do in the 4th grade. It would be interesting to hear if that is still expected with the expansion.

In terms of drawbacks, I could imagine there could be conflict with the district or potential for long drawn-out decision making at the board level. There has also been the turnover in the principal’s office--I can’t help but wonder if that is more of a possibility at a charter school.  It looks like current CACS parents are already weighing in on other posts, so perhaps they will share some thoughts here.

New Traditions Creative Arts
I was late to this tour and had to change my baby’s diaper in the middle, so I feel like I didn’t get the greatest handle on some of the details about this school, but I liked it a ton and definitely want to know more!

Like a number of schools I toured last year, New Traditions has an absolutely gorgeous building. It’s one of those old San Francisco school buildings with “good bones”--high ceilings, big windows, gorgeous moldings, etc. I believe the tour guide said it was recently renovated, and it shows. The kindergarten classrooms, with attached coatrooms and bathrooms, were particularly attractive. The teachers and staff have further enhanced the building with a wonderful display of student art and New Traditions has multiple beautiful gardens--I think greening the school yards was a recent focus of PTA fundraising.

At the Q&A after the tour, the principal came across as soft-spoken and unassuming, but far from a shrinking violet. I got the sense that the teachers and parents were very appreciative of her leadership. It sounds like the school was threatened with closure due to underenrollment just a few years ago, and this principal was brought in to shore up the school. By all accounts, that has worked tremendously--I understand the school is now in high demand. It’s not walking distance for us, but it’s not too far and the later start time (9:25) might allow for biking or carpooling with families coming from our neighborhood. School ends at 3:30 and one parent told me that the school opens up the yard for parents coming to pick up with their cars and that allows everyone to kind of hang out while they are picking up their kids. She said it’s a real neighborly kind of atmosphere, and in general there’s a very supportive parent community.

I have a note that the same parent told me that one child of hers had one kindergarten teacher and the other had the other K teacher and both teachers were wonderful, although with very different styles. I also know that they have a number of partnerships with performing arts organizations, including the SF Ballet, and I believe they have a full-time visual arts teacher. But other than that, I don’t know that I heard or retained much information on the nuts and bolts of the academics or the arts program. I think I may need to follow up with a parent or even go on a tour again, but if I continue to hear good things, I’m thinking this could be a top choice for us.

West Portal
West Portal isn’t advertised as an arts school, but I thought I might include it here because it seems to have a particularly nice music program.  

In general, West Portal came across as just an incredibly sweet, likeable school. The principal seemed like a super-smart guy, but in a self-deprecating and down-to-earth kind of way. He mentioned that he taught at a school in Redwood City for gifted youth and he said that he learned that many of the strategies for working with gifted youth could be used with all youth. He also said that he is a big proponent of project-based learning. Sounds good to me. And for some reason I actually wrote down in my notes that he is the commissioner of an elementary school kickball league--apparently, I thought that was cute! Finally, he mentioned that West Portal has been doing inclusion for 15 years and is really good at it. Students with disabilities, even some with severe disabilities, are in mainstream classrooms, and it sounds like it works. That’s really encouraging to me because my sense is some schools are just starting down that road and may find themselves struggling a bit with it over the next few years.

As you may know, there are actually two tracks at West Portal: a General Education program with instruction in English, and a Chinese immersion program. The principal was careful to explain that while the Educational Placement Center (EPC) considers the two tracks to be two separate schools for the purposes of the admissions lottery, he considers them to be one school. The Chinese immersion program is one of the oldest in the city and starts with Cantonese. They add Mandarin in 4th grade, and if I understood correctly, one of the parents mentioned that students can continue Chinese immersion in some classes at nearby Hoover Middle School. The tour was led in part by a parent whose child is in the immersion program and she was very encouraging. She explained that there are monthly meetings for parents of children in the immersion program, with guidance on how to best support your child with their homework and other avenues for support. My sense is that parents involvement in both tracks is quite high.

In addition to a generally lovely campus, West Portal also has a large, well-stocked library. The school has a librarian two days a week (paid for by the district) and then someone else in the library the other three days, with that person paid for by the parents’ association. Another benefit that I believe is paid for by parents is the music teacher for K-3, which is in addition to the instrument program all SFUSD schools have starting in the 4th grade. As we were wrapping up the tour in the lunch room/auditorium, the principal mentioned that the music teacher would be coming in to teach a class soon. He pointed out that West Portal has one of the highest percentages of kids in the district who start an instrument in the 4th grade, which he thinks is because of their great experience with the music teacher in the early grades. The tour was ending and the other parents were leaving, but I didn’t have anywhere to be (thanks, maternity leave and a baby napping in the carrier!) so I stuck around and chatted with the music teacher for a bit. She had a warm energy and seemed like a fantastic, creative soul. She showed me an instrument she made out of bicycle wheel (it was very Burning Man), explained to this non-musical mother how the playing cards stuck in the tires were hitting the bent spokes at different intervals and why that was important, and invited me back to see the chorus recitals the kids do on Fridays. Again, I was sold.

All in all, I was so pleased by the schools I saw last year, especially these three with interesting arts programs. And while I visited the three schools a year ago, I was thinking about them a lot this past week as I checked out two independent schools: Brandeis and Alta Vista. I won’t review those here, in part because because I figure if families are interested at all in Jewish education, they will go check out Brandeis, and if not, the review is pretty meaningless. And Alta Vista has already been reviewed and I’m not sure I have much to add. I will say that for different reasons, I really loved both schools. I was also totally blown away by the kinds of resources available at those schools. I drooled at the classes of 22 students with two full-time teachers (not aides), full technology labs or generous tech in the classrooms, gorgeous art rooms, occupational therapists, garden teachers, administrators able to spend their time on a thoughtful review of the curriculum, et cetera. I  walked out of those tours this week impressed by the independent schools, but also wishing the public schools had something even remotely close to that level of resources. And it left me with more questions about what other schools to check out and put on our list for SFUSD. Current SFUSD parents, can you weigh in? Are there schools you think are really doing the incredible, maybe creatively turning over the apple cart so they can do more with less, thinking outside the box so they can meet students’ needs with what they have? In particular, how are schools dealing with that jump to 33 students per class at 4th grade? That seems tough, but maybe it's something the schools are coping with well.

"The Standard for Parent Involvement" - Clarendon Alternative Elementary School Tour

Okay, I totally get it. It’s not just hype. Clarendon is a rock star school, if your kid can get in.

I had my husband go on this tour with me because I thought we both should know what one of the highest API scoring schools in SF looks like. We had to check out the “trophy school” as folks on SF Files often call it.

So the drive from our home was about 16 minutes. Although we were 20 minutes early there were already parents waiting in the lobby looking anxious and kinder-parents, smartly, had a fundraiser bake sale set-up. Why not take advantage of the 50+ parents vying for the coveted kindergarten spots at Clarendon?

I’m going to make this short, because I know that folks already know about Clarendon and the chances that any of us can "choose" this school are slim to none. These are a few things that stood out to me on the tour:

Parent Involvement: The principal himself said, “The standard is that parents are involved in school.” The Second Community School was actually created as an extension of the cooperative nursery school model. As we toured the halls we saw several classrooms with 2+ parents helping.  Teachers were not overwhelmed by class sizes and there were enough people in the room to run learning stations/centers. At a previous school, the class was divided into learning stations and there was only one teacher.  The students in stations where the teacher was not sitting were minimally supervised. And, I should not forget to mention Second Community at the JBBP raise $200K a year each. 

Tribes Philosophy: The school believes and follows the TRIBES philosophy.  I’m a little biased toward tribes since it was the model used in a non-profit youth program I participated in. Basically, tribes helps create a safe learning community. Kids are asked to follow certain community agreements that help them become a better citizen and a member of a larger group. It's going beyond just following rules, but taking personal responsibility for the collective. I'm probably butchering the explanation of this. The principal also mentioned that they are moving to a restorative justice model. 

Art, art & more art!: The walls were covered in beautiful art and the art teacher just sold her program.  She teaches the basics but rotates in units on different types of art or artists.  She mentioned an upcoming mural tour.  There is an art room in one of the bungalows. 

Culture & extras!  How great is it to have you kids get a chance to focus in on learning Italian or Japanese culture and language. While on paper the school is not so ethnically diverse and our family is neither culture taught at the school, we would appreciate a school that integrates cultural learning.  It'll give us opportunities to continue teaching our children about their cultural heritage at home. Education in languages other than English is always a plus, even if it is not immersion. Other great things at the school: buddy system, talent show, PE teacher, great library, librarian teaches research, etc. 

It was such a big tour and other parents had so many questions, I didn't get to ask about the garden program and science and math in the classroom. And to share something heard through the grapevine, speaking to another parent about the school, she told me that a good friend of hers with less financial resources whose children attended Clarendon felt pressured to donate. It's clear from stats that Clarendon children are likely to come from families with more resources then the rest of SFUSD. I kind of wonder what the super-motivated parent community is like. If anyone can speak to these things, please share! 

Generally, my husband and I left the school with a good impression. It'll likely make our public school list and we'll just have to cross our fingers. I overhead one touring parent say, "It just seems joyful!" And that's what I want for my children, a happy place that makes them excited to learn. There are more schools to tour, especially schools that my daughter has a higher chance of getting into! 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Data, Values, and Shoot-em-up Tea Parties

I self-soothe with data. When the prospect of sifting through 80+ public and private schools for my first-born gets too crazy, I start crunching STAR test scores, API and enrollment data.

Recently I put down my spreadsheet and got fuzzy. At a tour of at a top-performing school, the principal advised families not just to look at metrics but to consider our own values, and to look for a school that matches our values. 

I looked at the underlying values for my criteria and was surprised.  My central values were that a school
  1. Foster a sense of belonging without having to deny parts of oneself, and
  2. Be academically challenging.
Almost all the school criteria below were derived from #1.
  • People who look like my child. Being around people who look like you matters. I didn't move to SF for my child to be the only Asian in his class.   
  • LGBT family-friendly 
  • Other middle class and upper-middle class families
  • Diversity valued and present, not just for the good reasons already discussed on this blog. A culturally homogeneous school, where even small differences stand out, can lead to more pressure to conform and "fit in." Racially or culturally homogeneous schools off the list, with the exception of language immersion. 
  • Diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs. I don't want my compliant child to feel obliged to conform with a particular set of religious beliefs at school. Parochial schools, off the list.
  • To continue to enjoy the company of the opposite gender, and to feel able to cross gender lines. Single-sex schools, off the list. Bring on the shoot-em-up tea parties!  
And then there's
  • Academically rigorous. 
Back to downloading CST scores...What are your values underlying your school selection criteria?  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bernal visits Live Oak

This week we attended the Live Oak parent tour. It was over 2 1/2 hours and consisted of a talk by the head of school, a school tour by a current parent, a Q&A with current eight graders and then some final notes from the admissions director.

The head of school talked at length about research supporting the differences between boy versus girl learning and made a point of stating on multiple occassions that Live Oak teaches to this difference. 

I followed up with an email this morning asking for names of the studies (geek!!) so I could read on my own. She immediately responded with a list of references.

Instruction is a combination of large group, small group and individual learning. This past summer, renovations were made which included the addition of many self-study/small group study areas and a room the kids named, 'The Brainery'. The Brainery is a room with all sorts of tech stuff that is open to the kids at all times.

Classrooms are self-contained through fifth grade. After fifth grade, kids switch from room to room for varied instruction. Kids have two art and PE classes weekly and one music and drama class weekly.

From day one, kids become part of a "Grove". They stay in this grove through eigth grade. There are two children from each grade in each grove. The purpose of the grove is to establish relationships between older and younger kiddos.

I noticed that wiggly seat cushions and hand figits were available for all the younger kids (to help with concentration).Also, there are bowls of fruit lining the hallways for the kids to eat any point.

The one thing that really stuck out to mind after we left were the older kids and how they interacted with us. Almost every student greeted us, made eye contact, said "excuse me", etc while walking around. All of the older kids just seems self-confident, poised and mature.

I was blown away by the kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher! The teacher playing the piano, the teacher's dog being dressed up by some of the kids...The room was full of life, nobody was sitting at a table - it was full of play! I am not interested in a quiet room with kids doing worksheets!!

The school is small with less than 300 children from K through eigth grade. There is one class per grade until middle school and then it increases to two classes per grade. For a fee, there are early and late hours and bus transportation.

There is a full time lower school learning specialist and a full-time upper school specialist. There is also a reading specialist and a school counselor. There are no letter grades for the lower schools (appealing to us) and no tests in the true sense are given and children show an understanding/mastery of skills through projects.

I noted diveristy both in the teaching staff and in students. Was it the same as the public schools? No, not even close I am sure. Personally, diversity extends past the color fo someones skin - it includes LGBT, children who are adopted, children with one or three parents, etc. I also felt that the parents touring the school were hugely diverse. In our touring group we were the only male/female white couple - the rest were families of color, a single Latina mama and two dads.

We have now seen two private schools - next week we have two more privates and one charter. I am really looking forward to seeing some of the public schools.

I just want to add one final thought (because I can). I was feeling nervous to even write my piece given the 'attacks' against private schools and what I then interpreted me because we are considering private schools. I respect other's opinions and I think its wonderful that people are so passionate about things in life; however, when comments veer political or off-topic the blog looses its purpose.
This blog was saved by a few families (not me) who saw its purpose as an informational tool for families of san francisco.

I would love to hear from you if you know this school?? Thanks!