Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Thoughtful and Professional" - Commodore Sloat School Tour


Driving 20 minutes from the sunny side of town to the foggy side to tour Commodore Sloat School, I realized that this school had to be near perfect for me to want to do the commute every day. For some reason, I thought it was closer.  

Commodore Sloat School is, as one parent put it, “thoughtful and professional.”  It is a traditional school with solid academics and experienced teachers who stay for a long time. It has a lot of the extras parents look for: arts opportunities, school gardens (yes, plural), a solid science program with partnerships, PE, a social worker on staff, etc.  However, there was nothing on the tour that really made me excited. And, with the long drive, it will not likely make the top of my daughter’s school list.

Initially, I was attracted to CSS because it is in a neighborhood I am very familiar with.  My cousins grew up off of Ocean Avenue and a few attended the school. That was a long time ago. I checked out the API scores and demographic info and liked that it has strong test scores and still a good number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and English language learners. I feel like that API info gives me a little bit of context to explore more.

THE GOOD
  • Arts Opportunities – Choral Music, Theater, Instrumental Music and Visual Arts offered weekly to different grade level.
  • Active Parents’ Club Organization – The parent tour guides assured us of the strong parent community and opportunities to volunteer at the school.  They raise quite a bit of money that helps the school with all the “extras.” 
  • Beautiful murals and artwork – Nice backdrop to the learning. Clean campus. 
  • Bilingual/Woman of Color Principal – Always looking for good role models for my daughter.
  • Safe environment and Wide-Open Spaces to Play
  • Native Plant Garden and Edible Garden
  • No Trailers and no plans to put up trailers – Unusual for SF schools, I imagine.
  • Part-time Librarian – Students go to the library once a week.
  • Regular PE classes – Twice a week.
  • Full-time Social Worker & 6 para-professionals helping students with special needs
  •  Interesting block schedule for 4th and 5th grade students
  • School does assessment of incoming Kindergarteners to place them with the right teacher 
I was particularly struck by the way the principal and tour guides talked about how the school had a range of students with very little needs to those that would be considered “high-risk.” Because of this, they are not overwhelmed by the needs of students. On the tour, a parent mentioned that there was a para-professional assigned to be with one autistic student for nearly the entire day to assist the student in learning.  The school seemed to have the resources and interest to serve all kinds of students!

OTHER THINGS TO NOTE
  •  The Parents’ Club raises upwards to $130K/year that the tour guide said has increased over time because of the “changing demographics.” When asked about these changing demographics, the parent, almost apologetically, said that it’s becoming more and more upper middle class. This always makes me raise my eyebrows. The principal was so proud of the steady improvement of API scores, but if the demographics are changing, is the school getting better or are the demographics just changing? 
  • The principal’s response on a question about the school’s approach to diversity is that there are yearly celebrations for the Day of the Dead, African American History Month, Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year. To me, this is so minimal.  Plus, I like to call Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year and our Mexican family does NOT celebrate Cinco de Mayo for several reasons. I would love a school with a more progressive, deeper approach to diversity.  I’m not sure what that is exactly, but I think I’ll know it when I see it.
  • Students are mostly Chinese and the 2nd largest population is White, which does not reflect the ethnic and racial background of my child. The teacher population, according to the parent tour guide, reflects the student population ethnically although it didn’t seem like that on the tour. And, there are only two male teachers. 
  • I think community is so important. My daughter currently attends a co-op preschool and we would like to continue a similar amount of engagement in her education. I'm not sure the school felt like it could be "our community" for the next 6+ years.  We are so different ethnically, culturally, and economically. If we lived in the neighborhood, I might feel more connection. Maybe I do want a neighborhood school. Maybe I care about diversity way more than I initially thought.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
This was my first school tour, so I am really trying to figure out what my husband and I should prioritize in the search. I'm also wondering what would make me excited about schools... A clear school vision?  A dynamic principal? Project-based curriculum?  Language immersion? I guess, we'll see. I'm going to start trying to set-up tours with schools closer to our home. 

For the parents doing their tours right now, what has excited you about a school?

6 comments:

  1. Hi there... funny thing is that I'm pretty sure we were both at the same school tour this morning. I just logged on to start writing my post. It's quite different, actually! We can compare notes afterwards. :)

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  2. Haha... I actually think I spotted you. I thought to myself, "What are the chances that's the Lazy Tiger Mom?" You were taking pictures, right? It would be great to read your thoughts of the school, especially since you've been on more tours than me and have more schools to compare it to.

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  3. Interesting that you missed the key thing that sets Sloat apart. Sloat prides itself on teaching to all kids, including kids with learning differences. It also teaches respect for all kids, again regardless of special needs. We have been at sloat for eight years - one child with learning differences, one without. Each kid profited so amazingly by this feeling of inclusiveness. This culture is something that has been built on by the principal, parents and teachers. It is what sets this place apart in my view.

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  4. Interesting to read your tour notes. A lot of touring is "vibe." Not everyone loves the same thing. Different kids thrive in different settings. It's a question of taste, not a value judgment. I wasn't crazy about popular Grattan or Rooftop, but I liked Clarendon and Harvey Milk. Some thoughts from several years in the process:
    1. If you think you really love a school and your schedule allows, try to spend some non-tour time there to get a feel beyond the first impression.
    2. Kindergartens are like puppies--cuuuute. Look at the 4th and 5th graders. Are they still engaged and enthusiastic?
    3. Especially for working parents, start time and location (either close to home or convenient to your commute path) will play a huge role in how well a school fits into your family routine and how much you can contribute to the school. Even if you can put your kid on a bus to the school, can you be involved? If you live in Bernal, commute to Palo Alto, and love Spring Valley above all schools, try to love a different school. If you have always been a night person, a 7:50 start time probably won't get more charming as the years go by.
    4. Look at extended care availability if you need it. Winning your favorite school in the lottery won't do you any good if you can't attend because there's no space in the after-school program.
    5. If you are interested in test scores, focus on not on test scores overall, but test scores for kids in your demographic profile. Schools that are predominantly Asian and/or white, and schools with lower percentages of free/reduced lunch kids, almost always have higher average test scores. That's why Marin schools look so good on paper compared to Oakland schools. A school with low average test scores might be doing fine by kids in your demographic.
    6. Schools change over time. Teachers and principals come and go. Don't pick a school just because you love the principal. He or she could be gone next year.
    7. A strong PTA is good indicator that parents are engaged in their kids' education and that the school has more financial resources. Engaged parents make a huge positive difference in student performance. At lower-income schools, Title I funding can be helpful, but the irony is that as test scores improve, Title I funding goes away. The schools that are in between losing their Title I funding and building a powerhouse PTA can find themselves stressed.
    8. You will run into a lot of people with very passionately held opinions about schools. Be open to learning new things, but avoid falling for all-or-nothing arguments, and accept that it's up to you to decide what works for your children and your family.

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  5. Totally agree with 11:11 on all but one point.

    Title 1 funds are not tied to test scores, but rather the income level of the students. Currently somewhere around 61% of SFUSD students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and the district has chosen to allocate Title 1 funds only to those schools whose schools population is 61% or above free and reduced lunch. It's all or nothing. So a school can go from receiving a substantial chunk of their discretionary school budget from Title 1 funds one year to nothing in a single year, based on a couple fewer kids qualifying for FRL. It's brutal.

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  6. FYI, para-professional assignments for a child with autism would be part of a student's IEP and paid for by special education funding (not a school site).

    And 2 male teachers is actually pretty decent, considering only 16% or so of all elementary teachers are male.

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