Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tour of Creative Arts Charter School
Vimeo video

CACS is located in Western Addition.  This school is only two blocks from our home giving it the highest marks for convenience.  To me, the neighborhood is best characterized as transitional, there is low-income housing in the immediate vicinity of the school but there are also Edwardians, Victorians, condominiums and apartments interspersed as well as blocks away that are not designated low-income housing.  Socio-economically this area is diverse.  I have not personally found this area to be unsafe. I do find it not to be the most pristine neighborhood.  It is not uncommon for there to be trash around on the streets or fecal matter on the side walks.  I'm never quite sure if it is dog or human but I'm not too bothered by it.  When it's in front of my property I clean it up and I find the neighbors doing the same.  As for safety, I've only been in the neighborhood since August of this year but I can say I've never felt unsafe or even seen anything beyond the homeless sleeping near Raymond Kimbell playground and the regulars picking out bottles and cans from recycle totes throughout the neighborhood.  And I'm outside at the Hamilton Recreation Center park, Raymond Kimbell playground, Alamo Square Park or just coming and going over a 10-15 block grid nearly every single day since moving here. I've passed by CACS on multiple occasions and the Turk Street door is sometimes open and sometimes locked.  It is used for deliveries and not general access.  When it's open I always encounter someone in the hallway.  The gates on Elm and on Pierce are usually unlocked during the week but on weekends are locked tight.  Again you can generally gain entry through all these entrances (when open) but you will quickly encounter someone in the hallways asking your business (in a nice way).

CACS is a charter K-8.  It is a project based learning arts integrated curriculum.  It is a separate application than the SFUSD lottery. Kids in elementary school stay with the same teacher for two years.  That is to say, kindergarteners stay with their teacher for first grade. And so on ending in fifth grade.  Once in 'middle school' the kids have advisory (it sounded to me like what I know as a homeroom class) and then rotate by subject.  In classroom management they follow the responsive classroom approach.  Class size is 22 in K-5 and 28 for 6-8. There is after school care until 6pm at a cost.  The arts integration and arts curriculum at the school seem very strong and an important contributor to learning.  There is no language program at the school. It struck me as a very racially diverse school. It struck me as a very close-knit family.  It struck me as a tenacious community.

There was a fire near CACS in December 2011.  This fire spread from its origin and did some extensive damage.  What this means is that the community meeting for now is held outside behind the school on the blacktop instead of in the cafetorium (I was told that the cafetorium would be finished and in use by November/December.). The library was moved to a smaller room within the main building but lots of books were lost and it will be a process to restore their collection.  The interim director (Fernando Aguilar) mentioned that they have been waiting for bookshelves that SFUSD promised them and they (still) have not received them.  This made me wonder about the relationship between CACS and the school district based on comments made on the tour it struck me as a difficult and probably complex one.    Certainly I would be interested to learn how this relationship affects the school's functioning.

The tour split to cover elementary and middle school.  I had come with my husband so we split up and he went through the middle school tour and I did elementary.  Both of us really liked the project based approach to learning, both of us are still uncertain whether this school is strong in science and math. We feel like it could very well be.  We just don't know how to measure this or what questions to ask to get a good sense of the school's capacity to teach these subjects nor did we get a strong read on this from the tours or any historical data we've seen online.  Past comments here on SFKFiles and on Yelp made us concerned that perhaps it is not strong (enough) in these areas.  Fernando Aguilar did mention that the 2012 API came back at 819, which to me is impressive given the demographics of the school and the challenges they've had in terms of renovations and the fire.

Bottom line.  We REALLY LIKED this school.  We loved the proximity to our home. We loved the smaller size of the school. We liked the philosophy; although it is new to us, it makes sense.  We loved the educators and the families we met.  We're concerned about this charter's relationship to the district and how that relationship works and affects the school.   The reconstruction and renovation of the buildings does not seem to disrupt the learning environment but will be nice to have done before our kindergartener arrives in August 2013. We're not sure how the science and math instruction at this school compares to others in the SFUSD district.  We're definitely applying and hoping we get in.  We'd love to hear more from the SFKFiles community and from the CACS community in response to this post.

Cheers, Muppet Mama


  1. Great review Muppet Mama! I too live close by in the area - have for the last 12 years -- and agree that it's diverse but feels safe. I went on a recent tour too. I'm pretty sure that's dog poop you're seeing on the ground. Lots and lots of people with dogs around here because of the proximity to Alamo Square Park. The biggest thing we've noticed re the Creative Arts School community is the uptick in affluence (as judged by cars/clothes/ general markers) of families and parents going there. It's striking. Wish the old principal was still there - he was more strikingly articulate than the interim one appears to be, but may have had more practice public speaking.

  2. I have followed cacs over the years. We considered it years ago for our kid but ultimately decided against it. I know cacs parents are passionate for the school, and respect that passion. But cacs has had a turbulent history. It is not helped by the implacable hostility that sfusd holds for all charters. But there has been significant turnover in leadership there as well. Cacs seemed a bit unstructured for us at the time, but I have heard that the former principal seemed to be turning the place around. So it is disturbing to here that he's already gone. Two blocks away is a great benefit, but there are good publics nearby like Grattan, traditions, Chinese immersion, and the like.

  3. Thanks for the helpful review. Re. the school's relationship with SFUSD while it's true that there are definitely some in the District who are hostile to charter schools, on a day-to-day level it does not really effect the school's functioning. It's mostly minor annoyances like at the SFUSD school fair where we are not listed on the program and are often placed off to the side where most parents do not see our table. The school has really transformed for the better in the 5 years since we've been there. It's always had very strong teachers but now is a much more organized place. In terms of our Administration, we have a great leadership team in place. While we were very sad to see the previous Director leave (he moved to Kansas City to attend to family issues) he left the school in very capable hands and with many solid systems in place.

  4. What about Rooftoop?

  5. What about Rooftop? What about Lilienthal? I have 4 kids and a K-8 would certainly be nice. I also have the low test score area tie breaker and it seems ironic that I'd be perfectly happy and possibly even elated to send my kids to CACS and not even make use of my increased chances at a harder to get school... And I'm still not sure about whether to look at immersion schools or not. ho hum ho hum too many variables to weight.

  6. What are your thoughts about start time Muppet? With four kids to consider, that could be a factor. If you're an early bird, places like Rooftop and CL might be fine (both start at 7:50am), but if not, they can be harder to adapt to. Also - no harm at all in throwing your hat in two rings - one for the regular SFUSD schools, and one for CACS. And then also realizing (later) that those waitlists do move.

  7. Yes, I'll include a high demand school in the sfusd lottery in my list. OH but I LOATHE mornings. my poor kids. I'm not much fun til about 10am. Since starting this tour process I've begun on occasion looking at the clock and saying to myself. I have 10 minutes to get out the door if I were going to Clartopvarado. Good heavens how will I DO THAT! I just want my kids to be happy and learn. This process (and having a tie breaker most people I know would kill for) sure does put the pressure on to try and find and try for the Utopian dream school.

  8. Muppet,
    You seem like a wise mother who knows her strengths and weaknesses. You also seem to know that the dream school for you and your family might not actually be a Clartopvarado (your word improve skills are impressive) and might be something two blocks away with a later start time. Tour the trophy schools and let us know how they work for you and your family. That's what's amazing about this blog and the SF school system. It's a total pain and full of anxiety, but in the end, there are a lot of choices and it's interesting to watch different families, with completely different criteria and needs go through the process. This blog would be fairly boring if the writers did not share their specific story and takes on the schools.

  9. No matter how bad a school is someone will say it's fine and no matter how good, someone will say it's bad. You see people opposed to Clarendon, Alice Fong Yu, with great scores, Presidio, even Lowell. I wish people could see the good in the schools considered bad. I think the aforementioned schools deserve respect. However, the schools considered bad aren't that bad, they just have children with challenging home lives. I admire the many on this board who find good in schools with mediocre or bad reputations. I believe it is the very labeling of them as bad which makes it hard, though not impossible, for them to improve. Wilson and McAteer were destroyed, but Marshall is Wilson, as is Burton now, and it is considered OK. New name, magic. McKinley turned around, several others. But when a school gets that label which makes those with income and the ability to choose avoid it and it becomes a magnet for only those who don't care, it is damaging to the kids left behind. It is important to create hope for these kids and have opportunity. It is important no school be considered unacceptable by successful people a few blocks away, like Cobb, but yet acceptable for the downtrodden. That is just a recipe for inequality and disaster.

  10. I also toured Cacs. I got the impression of a school more into building friendships and community than into academics. That may or may not be true. I really don't know. It was just an impression. No problem with those things, but I'd like my child to learn a little math, science and history.

  11. Our son is in 1st Grade at Creative Arts and rest- assured many of the questions you have about the school were our own when we started school tours. We had many of the same questions since my husband has a very technical, science and math-based background while I am stronger in liberal arts. The reason why we chose CACS over the more traditional, high-API score school we got from the lottery, is because we wanted our son to experience the creativity offered at CACS. We knew that all public schools had to participate in the standardized tests whether we liked it or not, and the CACS teachers would have to reach benchmarks decided by the state...but we wanted to be sure that our son also had the ability to get his creative juices flowing, learn to think out of the box, have the ability to learn about things that he is interested in at the time and be given the chance to make his own good choices...and that is what we saw at CACS on our tour. A community that supports not only academic rigor but also the ability for a child to make a lot of their own choices and follow their interests. A love for learning is key if our child is going to go to college, graduate school, etc. And that starts in Kindergarten. As we have become more involved in the school, we've researched the reading, math and science curriculum a bit more and we are very happy with the education our child is receiving today but also what we have to look forward to when he reaches Middle School. Some things I am very excited about for Middle School are the math leveling that occurs for more individualized learning and the electives the children have exposure to. We are very excited about what's to come! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at

  12. I toured this school today and do not think it is the right fit for my child at all. I just left with the impression that the school is too unstructured in both academics and discipline. Most importantly, the administration seems in flux and does not seem to have clear goals and direction. ALS not having any kind of foreign language program during or after school is a deal breaker. Also did not notice a computer lab or textbooks. I think the parents are passionate and have a lot of say in the s hook, maybe too much say and are overly concerned with the feel good, touchy feely at the expense of the academics. Even the 2 f,undergarments teachers see so different in sale that I wonder if the teachers are all on the same page or do they each do their own thing. I also think that the students are too undisciplined and at times it feels really chaotic. While I see why some might like this school, it feels like it needs a stronger administration with more vision and leadership.

  13. Sorry about typos and weird spell check. I meant to say the two kindergarten teachers have very different styles and that parents have a lot of say in the school.

  14. I'm a parent of a 4th grader and a 7th grader and have been at Creative Arts since our older son began kindergarten. Both boys have done well in math and science at CACS, particularly our older son who studied math with the kids two grades ahead of him until the school implemented a multi-aged middle school math program geared at meeting kids where they are and advancing every child (rather than just the kids in the middle). Since last year he's studied very conceptual mathematics with kids who share his interest and capabilities in the subject and has truly thrived.

    Here's how the school describes its math and science curriculum:

    "In K-5 classrooms we utilize the TERC Investigations curriculum, which stresses building students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics through hands-on investigation and procedural modeling. Classroom discourse is another very important part of our early elementary math program. Many of the K-5 teachers utilize “math talks” in order to gain insight into how students are thinking about math and utilizing problem-solving strategies.

    We have a unique multi-aged math program in middle school. Students are provided the opportunity to be challenged at their academic level through placement in one of four courses: Foundational Approaches to Mathematics, Algebraic Thinking 1 or 2, and Conceptual Approaches to Mathematics. We implement the Saxon math program across the program, yet each of these courses provides a unique challenge. For example, in Conceptual Approaches to Mathematics highly motivated students are expected to create expertise by working together across grade levels on open-ended real world problems in addition to rigorous skills based work. This kind of expertise is encouraged across the disciplines, particularly in the sciences.

    The science program in the middle school has been greatly enhanced through the development of our Innovation Lab. In the Innovation Lab, students are encouraged to work collaboratively through the design thinking process—identifying a problem or need, brainstorming ways to approach the problem, prototyping, presenting, and receiving feedback about their proposed solutions.

    In the elementary grades we encourage inquiry and investigation as students engage in integrated science activities utilizing the FOSS curriculum, the GEMS guides, and curriculum kits from the California Academy of Science. In addition we foster a number of partnerships with science organizations around the Bay Area, including the Science and Health Education Partnership through UCSF, SF Environment, and the California Academy of Science."

    Our Innovation Lab is new this year and in the midst of development. We received a $20,000 matching grant to create this lab. Some recent projects have included aerodynamic car designs utilizing a wind tunnel, construction of a puppet theater for use by the lower grades, design and construction of robots for a competition in February, and assembly of a 3D printer.

    I would highly recommend Creative Arts for families who are looking to inspire a love for learning and a desire for creative expression in their kids. Our sons have never lost their sense of curiosity or sense for who they are as individuals in their many years at the school. Please feel free to contact me at if you have any questions.

  15. We are at kindergarten at CACS. We ended up here after striking out in two rounds of the SFUSD selection process. I was very apprehensive going in, as I grew up with a pretty traditional education, and wasn't sure how the whole project-based approach was going to work for my daughter, or whether I was really comfortable with it.

    3.5 months in, I can tell you that the school is working out great for us. My daughter is bright, but her pre-school teachers were pretty clear that she had her heads in the clouds and wasn't that great with staying focussed. At CACS, the responsive classroom "academic choice" approach (in kindergarten) has been amazing for her. Each child is given a "choice" on the order in which they go through the set of academic exercises each day. This has given my daughter a feeling of self-control that really resonates for her.

    From an academic rigor standpoint, who knows yet. It's kindergarten. I'm fairly anti-helicopter and am not spending my time counting up the number of words she can read. That said, I am observing marked progress in her reading, math and reasoning skills. She is also learning more science (which she loves) as well as art, music and dance.

    Finally, I've heard from parents at other schools (SFUSD and others) that their kids don't get enough outside time or physical activity. Whereas with us, the kids get a lot of outside time - organized as well as free play physical ed every day, which is just what she needs to allow her to sit down and learn. It also means that she falls asleep much more easily at night than she ever did before (bonus).

  16. We are at kindergarten at CACS. This was our top choice school and were thrilled to get off the wait list in early August.

    Why choose CACS? We loved that it felt like a private school but for free. There are only two kindergarten classes (compared to our friends in Marin with 7 or 8 kindergarten classes). The director knows my daughter's name and my name. We are not just a number. And most importantly, it is a good fit for our daughter.

    Our daughter is young for her class (late Aug birthday). The responsive classroom "academic approach" allows her to work at her level. She then needs to ask herself if she can do better and work harder. She is learning at a young age to take responsibility of her education.

    My friends always assume that going to an art based school is a negative. To us, it is simply balanced. Each week, the kindergarten class has music, art, and dance. They also have PE with a PE teacher.

    Every day they have ample time outside running around either with free play or an organized fashion. At the end of the day her body and mind are expended.

    CACS is a successful because the amazing teachers and staff. And most importantly, parent involvement.

  17. We have two kids in CACS, K and 3rd grade and I cannot say enough good things about this school.

    For those who commented that they didn't feel that school supported discipline, you are very wrong. It's not about discipline.They teach the kids as early as Kindergarten to communicate with each other, using an "I-Message" system. The kids learn to say to another child that they don't like what they did, please apologize and work it out. They also teach children to get in touch with their feelings and emotions and vocalize how they are feeling rather than acting out.

    Academically the school teaches children that it's not about the answer, but getting there, to become a critical thinker. That's not to say that they don't stress the fundamentals, they do that but they help children understand the big picture that plays a part in everyday life.

    If you are looking for school that has more than academics and scores, for a place that will teach your child about the world they live in, how to navigate it, how to negotiate and to listen, than you found the right school.

  18. I am the parent of an 8th grader, a 6th grader and a 2nd grader. We've been at CACS since my oldest was in kindergarten. It has been the perfect school for each of our children, even though they're all completely different. I can't imagine a child who wouldn't thrive in the CACS environment.

    To address the question of science and math rigor, I can assure you that there is no child who will go unchallenged in the current middle school math program. The number of last year's graduates who tested out of Algebra was significant. And the students are getting "hands-on" science that my children are completely engaged in.

    In my experience, CACS is best at graduating confident students who have a love for learning, a social consciousness, and are prepared to tackle the rigors of high school.

  19. I am the parent of a very science-minded 3rd grade girl and a chess-crazy kindergartener boy at CACS (the kinder is very active in the school chess club). It isn't too hippy-loosy-lala for us at all. We are very happy here. Hope you get in!