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 teachers, small class sizes, the amount of space, and the principal.

Experienced Teachers

"The teachers don't leave." The teaching techniques looked on par with what I'd seen in some of the privates.  In one Gen Ed classroom, a teacher was using a clapping pattern, with all the children clapping the pattern and counting with her in unison, to set the foundation for counting by 5s and 10s. It was a great way to engage kinetic learners, and felt more dynamic than the method for counting by 10s that I saw at SF Friends.  For what it's worth, Live Oak's kindergarten was also teaching their kindergarten class counting by 5s and 10s.
    In a Mandarin classroom, students were given shallow bins with a layer of playdoh on the bottom to use for writing characters, very similar to a learning station at Synergy.  Hello, tactile learners.

Small class size

I counted 17-18 children present in each kindergarten class, in both Gen Ed and Mandarin. Some classes had both a teacher and an aide or a parent helping out. Lower grades had about 20 students per class. 

The principal

JoLynn Washington might be the best principal I've met. Approachable and down-to-earth, she's all about integration and inclusion.
    Almost all the parents on the tour were there for the Mandarin Immersion program.  When asked about test scores in Mandarin vs Gen Ed, she acknowledged that the language immersion students score higher in both English and Math, but emphasized that all the children were doing well. She emphasized to prospective parents that JOES is about caring about all the children in a community.
    This is not a principal who will try to get the low-performers out to increase the school's API. She's about bringing them all up together.

Focus on reading

The principal is an expert on literacy. They are proud of their "Raising a Reader" program for kindergarten and first grade, and the principal attributes the school's rise in API to their efforts around literacy. She talked openly about children of color who have difficulty learning to read, and how to teach reading to kids who are having difficulty.

Special Ed Inclusion

All elementary schools are required to offer inclusion, but Jose Ortega is a school with experience doing inclusion. The principal started out as a Special Ed para, and seems to get the needs of special ed students.  I will say that if you have a student with hearing impairment or auditory processing issues, this might not be the best school because of the acoustics.

Large classrooms and lots of outdoor space

Jose Ortega used to house twice as many students, and it has a lot of space. Their asphalt playground is huge.  The school also uses the large park behind the school and has a school garden. 
    The classrooms are unusually large, a legacy from a time when real estate was cheaper.  The kindergarten classrooms all had room for a main area with tables, a separate sitting/reading area with a carpet, and in at least one classroom, a piano.


The facilities, the ability of students to focus on learning, question of how strong the Mandarin Immersion is, the absence of GATE programs, and the lack of resources.


    Despite the hangings and student art projects brightening the walls, the physical facility practically shouts, "I am an under-resourced public school." Everything was clean and well-maintained, but badly in need of a makeover. The building looks like it hasn't seen a renovation in the 50  years since it was built.   The playground is a huge patch of asphalt with a new playground structure plunked down in the middle, viewable on Google Maps.  Hangings and student art decorate the walls, but it doesn't have the brighter, shinier look of some of the more affluent public schools--the glow of money, a cynic might say.

      The auditorium had poor acoustics, very echo-y and I had trouble making out everything that was being said. The classroom acoustics were not great but not terrible. 
     Ortega will be getting some renovations to meet ADA access requirements and to work on the heating system.  It's still in the planning stages.

Classroom environment/Students' ability to focus on learning
    In most classrooms, including the Mandarin immersion classrooms, I saw off-topic talk between students, "messing around," and at least 1-2 students who were both distracted from and distracting others from their work.  Especially in classrooms where students sat in clusters of 4,  teachers weren't able to monitor the entire classroom while working individually with a student.
    This was in contrast to both to classes at private schools and at Alice Fong Yu, where the students were more attentive and engaged with their teachers, and the class felt much more organized/self-monitoring.
    At one of the private school tours, a student who had transferred from Alvarado was asked about the main change in going from public to private.  She cited  neither  the curriculum nor the teaching quality. She said, "At Alvarado in every class, there was always a kid who was clowning around. Here everyone's focused on learning." I felt that difference at Ortega.
Mandarin Immersion - How good is it?
    I'd visited CAIS the day before, and that's a hard act to follow.  At Ortega, I asked a Mandarin-speaking parent what she thought of the kids' Mandarin. She reluctantly gave a lukewarm, "it's OK," then added that 4th grade was the first level where she heard students speaking in Mandarin.
    Students spoke to each other in English in the classroom. In the 2nd grade, a few students in the reading nook of the classroom seemed to be reading books aloud to themselves in Mandarin.
         Given the school's approach, it's no surprise that Ortega's Mandarin Immersion program is integrated into the school, each class with its grade level, instead of making it a separate school-within-a-school.  The tour guides made a point to talk about inclusion and interaction between the Gen Ed and Mandarin programs.  Since the students are less completely "immersed" in Mandarin, perhaps they develop proficiency a slower rate.
     The school also has a hard time finding books that have simplified characters, so the library has a limited selection. The afterschool program has a Mandarin tutor twice a week.

They identify GATE students but do not have a GATE program. The principal was frank: this is not a school with a lot of money, and the resources don't support a separate program or classes for GATE. The school's focus is on bringing all the students up to grade level.
     I asked how they keep a child from being bored, and she said, "They don't get bored," because of differentiated learning. I beg to differ.
    Appropriately, the tour ended with one of our guides opening up the library, which was set up for a Scholastic book fair, so we prospective parents could buy a few books. I was told that about half the proceeds go to the school.  I left the school in admiration for how Jose Ortega makes the most out of limited resources.

Anyone got a million bucks to give this school? At 300 students, that's $3,400 each, and that's real value for what they're doing at JOES.


You can make a PayPal donation at the JOES website.  Please note: PayPal will take a cut of 2.2% + 30 cents.

You can also mail a check to: 
    Jose Ortega PTA
    400 Sargent Street
    San Francisco, CA 94132
    Telephone: 415-469-4726
If you have online billpay, you can set up Jose Ortega PTA as a payee to send a donation, and you won't even have to pay for the stamp.

The JOES website also lists has many other ways to support the school. Here's a few ways that cost you nothing.
  • Register your Safeway Club card and credit cards at (JOES ID: 6522390). A percentage of your purchases at Safeway and several other participating merchants will be donated to the school.
  • Register your Target RedCard in the Take Charge of Education program. 1% of your purchases will be donated to the school (JOES ID: 35298)
  • Use the JOES link to shop at Amazon. Approximately 4-6% of your purchases will be given to the school. 
Want more control over how your money's used? Fund a JOES teacher request at


2011-2012 Enrollment by Ethnicity, Grades K-2

Latino of any race 17% 27%
Not Latino or Hispanic:
  Asian 38% 33%
  Filipino 6% 4%
  African American 11% 9%
  White 12% 17%
  Pacific Islander 2% 1%
  Two or More Races 11% 6%
  Not reported 3% 3%

Source: California Dept of Education, Educational Demographics Unit

2011-2012 Parent Education Level, Grades 2-5*

Graduate School/Postgraduate
College Grad
Some College/AA degree
High School Grad
Didn't graduate high school%
Declined to State/Not Answered**

*CST test takers only. CAPA, CMA and STS not included.
**The CST test scores of the "Declined to State" group are the same or slightly below the "Not a high school grad" group.

2011-12 Economic Status, Grade 2-5*

Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch
(<185% of  the Federal Poverty Level)


*CST test takers only. CAPA, CMA and STS not included.


  1. A note on "GATE programs"
    While all schools have the option of evaluating and designating some kids as GATE, there is no requirement at the ES level (and a declining presence on the MS level) to have any actual program or support for those kids.

    My older child was "GATE" designated (younger one is too young to have been evaluated.) She was at a "desireable school." The full extent of the GATE programming was a Saturday field trip to the TECH museum in San Jose. Her 5th grade teacher was the "GATE coordinator" and only made slight and paltry efforts at differentiated instruction for the advanced kids.

  2. Regarding kids speaking to each other in Mandarin compare to CAIS. When CAIS was first establish, some question why the school was Cantonese instead of Mandarin immersion. The fact of the matter is that Cantonese is the primary dialect spoken in the Chinese community in SF. In effect, it's easier to hired Cantonese teacher and there's more native speaker in Cantonese programs than in the Mandarin program.

    I don't know how much of that affects the teaching and how the kids speaks to each other in class, but many school have kids speaking to each other in Cantonese in the playground even without an immersion program. It's hard to compare the achievements of each school, when some have many more obstacles to overcome.

  3. Wonder if you are confusing AFY and CAIS?
    Alice Fong Yu is a public school with Cantonese immersion. About half of its kindergarteners enter as English language learners. Their challenge is different: to bring those students' English up to par.
    CAIS is a private school that teaches Mandarin. Many students aren't from homes where Mandarin is spoken, but it is a much, much more affluent school so also difficult to compare.

  4. SFGeekMom,
    Thank you for your review and your honest comparison between public and private schools. As a parent touring both, I find it quite sad that public schools are so under-resourced in our extremely wealthy city. It would be great if someone gave each of our public schools one million dollars. In a city of 18 or more billionaires, it would be possible! I've been impressed with the dedication of the teachers and staff at public schools but they are so clearly under-resourced compared to private schools that any parent touring can see the stark contrast. The public schools are doing a great job with the resources they have, especially given the fact that they are responsible for educating every student who comes to them from English Language Learners to Special Needs students. It would be great if we could use some of the vast financial resources of this city to close the educational resource inequality between the public and private schools in our city.

  5. 11:18 I agree with you.

    I actually think now is a huge potential time for the local tech industry to tackle SF public education philanthropically. Silicon Valley tech firms have been extremely generous toward public schools in the South Bay. With Twitter, Salesforce, Dropbox, Zynga and other big guns here in SF - the opportunity is ripe. Most of these tech businesses have philanthropic arms or intentions, and can gain major social capital in helping to exert big change. What will be interesting to see is what happens if prop 30 and prop 38 fail to pass. If they do, there's an even riper opportunity to come into help save the day.

  6. To expand on what Michelle said about GATE, not only is there no requirement for GATE in ES, there is a requirement NOT to have any kind of honors type classes. Good teachers will challenge their gate students, but those are efforts which vary widely from one teacher to another.

  7. "It would be great if someone gave each of our public schools one million dollars."

    Why would anyone do that when so much of the money is wasted?

  8. Regarding boredom and differentiated learning:

    Differentiation when done well can work wonders for the average gifted kid. They can have literature circles with other kids where they read higher grade level books (like a mini book club) or work on long term math problems as an individual or as a group. They can work on special projects that get presented to the whole class that really go in depth into something they are interested in.

    At our school (not JOES but still SFUSD public), my kids have been in classes with an amazingly broad range of kids - and the teachers try to meet everyone on their level. We have kids that anywhere from fresh out of the rural village in India or China to the kids whose parents have multiple graduate degrees. The teachers have a done a pretty good job of making sure that every child's needs are met.

    Profoundly/Exceptionally gifted kids are another matter. I met a dad two years ago who was homeschooling his 8 year old and the kid was taking calculus classes. There aren't many elementary school teachers who can teach calculus to an 8 year old and then get them ready to move beyond that when they master that. But there are plenty of elementary school teachers who teach an 8 year old multiple digit multiplication or work with them to discuss a chapter book that is at a high school level.

  9. To 9:43 AM
    I've been very impressed with how far the public schools I've been involved with have stretched every dollar. There may be some administrative dead weight, but there is certainly not an ounce of fat at the site level. I wish there were. But our schools do a great job with what they have.

  10. 11:18 and 11:27,
    I absolutely agree there is incredible potential for our city's resources to support SF public schools much more effectively.

    One effort underway to develop this potential is Public Engagement for Public Schools (PEPS), an effort started by a group of concerned citizens and supported by major education stakeholders such as SFUSD, PPS, DCYF, etc. I highly encourage you to come to one of our upcoming community conversations at SFUSD schools to share your ideas.
    These sessions should also be great opportunities to meet some current parents.
    11/8, 6-8 pm @ Claire Lilienthal
    11/13, 6:30-8:30 pm @ Tenderloin Community School
    11/15, 6:30-8:30 pm @ Jefferson Elementary
    You can learn more and/or register at

    Full disclosure: I am one of the concerned citizens (and a preschool mom) on the PEPS team.

  11. If you want to know more about the Mandarin Immersion curriculum at SFUSD, I suggest you check here: