Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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.


  1. I think it would be very helpful if you could please provide your review or detailed notes on your Brandeis tour.

  2. I have toured both private and public schools and have been pondering what appears to be two, distinct educational systems within San Francisco. The resource differences between public and private schools are fairly significant. It is immediately apparent in the student to teacher ratio within the classrooms, regular integrated art and music instruction and physical quality of the buildings, grounds, and classrooms. While I firmly believe parents should have a choice and a range of options, I can't believe parents aren't demanding more resources for public education. Why aren't parents asking their government and school board to raise enough revenue to provide an educational experience that somewhat parallels a private school experience to our public school students? Why is it that in private school there are only 20 students in 4th grade in a classroom with aides and specialty teachers while in public schools there are 33 4th graders and one teacher? Public school teachers should have aides, classrooms should have adequate supplies, art, PE, music, and other "enrichment" programs which used to be the status quo in public schools should brought back as standard curriculum. Buildings should be well-maintained and beautiful. It seems that in our extremely wealthy city, the money is here but the City is not pulling a small percentage of it for use in our public schools. When I hear public school parents talk about budget cut-back, I cringe. We don't live in an impoverished city. Why are our schools suffering from such severe cut-backs? I simply can't believe the City is unable to find a creative revenue source for public schools. Maybe there should be a small, additional parcel tax on all property valued over 3,000,000? Maybe a one penny education tax on every alcoholic beverage served at a bar or restaurant? If we still want public education to be the mainstay of our economy, we're going to have to find out ways to put more money back into the system. Right now, the differences between public and private are fairly stark and I can't help but wonder how it will all shake out 20 years from now.

    1. Many people who vote here do not have children, and/or do not have children in the public schools. Funding public schools is not the top priority for many people, regardless of how much it might benefit them to have a well educated populace. Any many people are anti tax, especially for things they don't believe directly benefit them.

      Also -- the ballot here is confusing. My observation is that many people, even well meaning people, feel they don't have the time to fully understand, and thus vote responsibly on many issues. It's too confusing and convoluted seeming for them. They vote on things that seem to have relevance to them. This also explains why many well meaning parents with kids in the private schools do not vote for things that would benefit kids in private schools. These issues are just not picked up by their radar.

      That said, the economy is improving. The cuts are not as draconian as they've been. Many schools have rallied impressively and in dealing with the onslaught of cuts have created communities that are deep and rich and connected -- they're like co-ops - and they're different from the kind of communities you find in private schools. I have kids in both private and public and the difference - at least in my limited view - is clear. There's more ownership among parents in the public schools, because there has to be.

    2. meant to say, some private school parents do not vote for things/changes that could benefit public school kids -- not out of mean spiritedness, but because their immediate concerns and capacity to learn about even more concerns are different. They're not as invested in the questions/issues.

  3. Hi -- just a few quick notes about Creative Arts. The school is in the middle of a steady expansion plan which will take us from our current number of students (332) to 432 by 2016/2017. There are no plans to increase class sizes which are currently capped at 22 students for K-5 and 28 for 6-8. As the District's oldest charter school we do not really experience a lot of friction with SFUSD. We did lose our principal last year who had to move back to the midwest for family reasons but our teaching and administrative team is very stable. Hope this helps.

  4. Just wanted to point out that TECA (Thomas Edison Charter Academy) has a terrific arts program.

    10 weeks daily of music with the older classes composing and performing original compositions - my kindergartener just performed in an operetta about goldilocks

    10 weeks daily of art - we have a KILN

    10 weeks daily of drama

    10 weeks daily of physical education/nutrution rounds out the 4 "specials".

    Unlike rooftop or other arts schools the general curriculum doesn't incorporate art - which some parents like and some don't like.

  5. New Traditions has a visual art teacher, a drama teacher, a music/choral instructor, and a instrument teacher (4th-5th grade). Each class has 40 min with each art instructor weekly. In addition, we have a full-time Outside Educator who incorporates all subject areas (art, writing, science, math, health) into the tending and understanding of our three garden areas (local habitat garden, butterfly garden, edible garden). "Arts focused" does not mean artistically talented; New Traditions believes that offering "artistic" mediums and learning methods enriches every child and the community. And school should be fun. :)

  6. A great stepping stones for these schools. Hopefully they would get some idea of music as well. Well, aside from learning arts, I believe the kids would definitely enjoy learning music together with their other subjects. Many schools have low music tuition since it's just part of their vocational courses.