Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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??


  1. Here are my tour notes from earlier this month. They are too long to fit in the 4096 characters allotted by Blogger for comments so I am dividing it between a couple of comments. Sorry for that.

    General Impressions:

    -Neighborhood – a moderately gritty area of the Mission. This stretch of Valencia has gotten less depressed in the 6 yrs since we lived nearby, as new businesses have moved in but it is still 1.5 blocks north of a public housing project, ½ block south of Zeitgeist and the Division Street overpass, and 1.5 blocks west of that big, dilapidated brick building that was abandoned for a long time and now houses a pornography production studio.

    -Facilities are new and pleasant – most rooms we visited had windows and lots of natural light. Overall, I thought the school felt a little cramped. The library is quite small, the front play area (seemingly the only play area for the whole school) was small, with not a lot of play structures and no grass. The outdoor eating area (several picnic tables under a small shelter) didn’t seem large enough to accommodate several classes eating at once. They are building out the top floor into an upper school library and some other rooms, along with a small deck, which may help create a greater sense of spaciousness. They’re also building out a black box theater for drama productions.
    Furniture is new, the computers we saw were recent Apple laptops, the technology (computers, projection machines, charging stations) generally seemed up-to-date.

    -The parent tour leaders were friendly, down-to-earth, and knowledgeable. I got a sense that the families are fairly diverse, if not in terms of race (they claim 39% “of color”) or socioeconomics (they say 27% have financial aid; most people we saw seemed to be on the spectrum of middle class), then at least in terms of what kinds of jobs, interests (ran the gamut from hipsters, yuppies, arty types, finance types). Many seemed to live within walking distance. They stressed that there are many ways for parents to be involved in the community, and that you could do as much or as little as you want/are able to. The parent/community vibe felt relaxed and open, like we could easily find a group of people we liked.

    -Arts were a big emphasis, as was music. The music teacher was engaging and had a great energy - he had the kindergartners perform for us a song they'd been practicing, including the importance of facing us and looking us in the eye, and bowing afterward. Very cute.

    -The kindergarten class we observed was calm and pretty organized. 2 boys didn’t participate in circle time – just hung out together in a corner and weren’t called to join, perhaps because they were hidden behind the legs of the touring parents. The group was doing a calendar exercise – it was one kid’s turn to point out the day of the month, they sang a song about it, and another kid used groupings of straws to show how many days they had been at school by hundreds, tens, and ones. The 7th or 8th grade science class we observed was a little less organized – the teacher seemed distracted and had a bit of difficulty clearly articulating to us the concept the class had been discussing, which could have been due to the disruption of the tour coming through. The teacher told us that the topic was exploring how the past influences the present, in particular how the views of Aristotle influence scientists’ approach to gathering data and analyzing it to this day, and how Copernicus’s views evolved from Aristotle and further changed the way we understand our solar system. However, when we walked in, they seemed to have been discussing the ethics of experimenting on animals -- maybe this was a tangent. A couple of the kids seemed to be really excited talking about it, but it seemed like it might have been degenerating into a bit of a gory discussion of how far you could go in experimenting on animals without running afoul of ethical concerns, and the teacher shut it down when we arrived.

    Continued below.

  2. Friends school tour notes continued:


    -Compelling values-based approach. Big emphasis/integration of Quaker principles (the SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship) that build character, encourage personal leadership & sense of responsibility, and set a moral compass. Adds a community expectation and faculty behavior modeling that reinforces values the children learn at home. The director's discussion of “grit” and tenacity resonated with me. She also emphasized mindfulness – sitting quietly with yourself for 45 mins per week in order to reflect. Strong spiritual element without religiosity.

    -School seems diverse – faculty, families; ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic (obviously limited somewhat due to being a private school).

    -The parents and faculty we met seemed down to earth, easy to talk to, and genuinely engaged and open. I could see us making friends and fitting in with these families.


    -Open space/play area/access to athletic field. I didn't get a great sense of how they develop the physical component of the child.

    -Couldn't get a great read on how the how strong the school is academically, particular at the middle school level. We didn't have much exposure to their 8th graders to get a sense of the end result of a Friends education - at other schools we were exposed to some amazingly confident, articulate, intellectually nimble, academically accomplished 8th graders who really blew us away. I didn't leave with that same sense from Friends (not that they didn't have it necessarily, just that we didn't see it in action on our particular tour).

  3. Hey previous thorough anonymous poster. Which schools did you see with especially articulate seventh and eighth graders?

  4. I agree with anonymous (thanks for the great review) that a huge concern is the extremely small, concrete play area in the front. It's literally the smallest most inadequate outside play space I've seen of any public or private school to date. With all the money they are trying to raise renovating the building, shouldn't they instead invest in a better outside play area. Also agree that despite the great lobby, teh school felt cramped. Not sure on academics either. Preferred live oak as it has the enormous park nearby or burkes.

  5. I wouldn't put a huge amount of stock in how articulate the 7th and 8th grade tour representative is. Not to be cynical, but these kids are not chosen randomly at any school. You can still get some good information out of these kids. But some kids just have more natural poise than others at this age and it generally has very little to do with the particular school they go to.

  6. We liked a lot of things about Friends, but were left with the distinct impression that our exuberant and highly verbal child was not gonna fit through what seemed like a relatively narrow gate. She's now at a school with a lot of space and nature, an emphasis on gross motor play, and highly differentiated, inquiry-based learning. (For what it's worth, she is neurotypical and not a behavior problem).

  7. @9:31 - what school did you choose? My daughter is exuberant and highly verbal and I'm wondering what schools we should consider? On paper, I liked the sound of Friends.

  8. Anyone attend Friends open house events yet? I attended the open house and it was weird and it turned me off. Nobody from administration welcomed me, the head wasn't even there, lots of speeches on quaker testimonies. Diversity panel was just plain weird because they kept emphasizing that Friends doesn't celebrate or observe any holidays for kids (not even Halloween) because the are trying to be politically correct and not hurt anyone's feelings by celebrating something their family doesn't. I thought that was strange and sad because what's wrong with Halloween and Valentine Day - there are so many positive ways you can celebrate them as we do in our preschool. But Friends was preachy about not observing any holidays (almost superior). It felt very cult-like ... was that anyone else's experience too or just me? I'm scratching it off my list.

  9. Does anyone have a feel for how strong the academics are for this school? I didn't hear much on this during our tour.

  10. I think Burke's is far better for bright, exhuberent girls. And has a longer and more proven track record. Friends is still a young school in transition.

    1. Friends and Burke both do well educating young women. We need not disparage one to build up another. Friends has graduated two classes and has done very well placing young women and men in their first choice high schools. Both schools have graduates that are doing well in the next stage of their educations. And while Burke is older it is also different with it's own strengths and weaknesses. By all means give it a look it is an excellent school just like friends. But to say that one is "better" for the "bright and exuberant" is hardly true when one considers the actual young ladies who have attended both and in the case of Friends would be surprised to learn they were not "bright and exuberant."

  11. To October 24, 3:30 comment: the places where I was especially impressed by the 7th and 8th graders were SF Day and Burke's. Also, to clarify, my impression was not formed only from interactions with the chosen tour guides - it actually came mainly from observing/eavesdropping on class discussions and small group work where the kids were engaging in serious, informed analyses of the material they were studying.

  12. A couple of thoughts on the comments above.

    First yes the play area is small out front but there is a stagger to the timing of it's use which helps with crowding. Related to that some athletics programs exercise at Dolores Park (with plenty of supervision) or in that area.

    Second academics are very strong at Friends, the kids overall do very well on the ERB tests which are normed and as reliable at such things get. Related to that the kids entering the High School process have done well and Friends is well represented at good public, independent, and boarding schools. So not only do the academics "test well" but they successfully admit to quality high school programs.

    Above all trust your gut. If it does not feel right for you or your child it likely isn't and this is true of any school. Best

  13. How many non-sibling k spots are open for next year? Anyone know?

  14. Is it just me, or are the facilities just not that great? Yes, the building looks cool from the outside, and the lobby looks impressive, but the classrooms look cramped/depressing and the whole school is just so ... stark and bland. Also, I don't understand why the outside space is so tiny. Literally, no room to play and this small spiderweb thing that looks purpose-built for a preschool. Where does all their fundraising money and tuition go???

  15. As I understand, Friends truly tries to live the idea of simplicity in all aspects of the curriculum and culture. This means that there isn't a lot of emphasis on showmanship in the hallways (just student work) and that the aesthetic reflects that same simplicity. We found it beautiful and understated. Seems like the play space is small, however.

  16. I agree with anon @5:05 - we liked the simplicity of the Friends campus too. However the outdoor playground/sports area is incredibly tiny compared to other comparable schools and it did concern us. I don't think posh facilities are necessary at all, but do have some concerns whether the outside area will be able to accommodate and challenge my very active daughter!