Friday, November 2, 2012

CIS at DeAvila: Cantonese Immersion with Balance

You should consider this school if you're looking for:  Cantonese immersion, a high-performing school with strong academics balanced by the arts; parent involvement. You should also consider this school if your child has a medical condition like diabetes, and you'd like a full time RN at your school.

The Facts

Web site:
School tours: Alternate Tu/Wed, sign up on website
Location: 1250 Waller Street
Grades: K–5
School Hours: 8:40-2:40
Before/After-school program: 7-8:40AM, 2:40-6PM (GLO)
Kindergarten size: 66 students total, 3 classes of 22 students
Playground: black-top terraces; small play structure
Language: Cantonese immersion, Mandarin beginning in 2nd grade


Few siblings = available spots for 2013-2014

If you are open to Cantonese immersion, CIS is your best chance to get into a high-performing school. It is a new school with only 1 4th grade class and no 5th grade yet. This means less siblings. The principal estimated that 15 of their 66 spots would be taken by siblings. Contrast that to the number of potential siblings at Alice Fong Yu, a K-8 school.  Since CIS is an immersion school, there's no attendance area either. The odds don't get much better than that.

Cantonese Immersion

This school was modeled on Alice Fong Yu. It starts with 70-80% Cantonese  in K-1 and gradually transitions to 50% Chinese/50% English in 5th grade. For the English component, the teachers rotate classrooms so that students are only communicating with their regular teacher in Chinese. All content other than English is learned in Chinese.
Mandarin is introduced in 2nd grade, but students will not be fluent in Mandarin when they leave. The long-term SFUSD plan is for CIS to feed into a Mandarin immersion middle school.  They do not have room at DeAvila to expand into a middle school.

Balance of Academics and Arts

    CIS tries to maintain a balance between academics and other areas, something AFY has been criticized to lacking.   
        There is an art classroom that was filled with student projects, including ceramics, and the school has a kiln. They have an art teacher who provides 10 sessions a year for all grades. They also have a dance teacher for the other half of the year.
    The principal presented elementary education as addressing 3 domains, socioemotional development, academics, and physical activity. Of these, she felt that socioemotional development was the most important to nurture at this age.   

Strong Academics/Test Scores

    In line with the principal's perspective that socioemotional development is more important than academics during the early school years, nowhere in the presentation did she mention CIS's STAR test scores. They are high, very high.
    The CST scores for their 2nd and 3rd graders last year were the same as Alice Fong Yu's in both English and Math. Although CIS is a language immersion school, English CST scores for its 2nd and 3rd graders were the 6th highest in the district.
    This is in keeping with the demographics of the school: 73% of the parents are college grads, and 41% have a graduate degree or post-graduate education. Only Miraloma and Clarendon have a higher percentage of parents with college degrees, and only Miraloma has a higher percentage of parents with graduate degrees.  16% of students are economically disadvantaged. Only Miraloma and SF Montessori have fewer poor students.  
   Even when looking at just students with highly educated parents or students who were not economically disadvantaged, CIS did better on STAR testing than expected, outperforming schools like Miraloma and Rooftop. 

Parent Involvement
"We rely on parents. We need you," said the principal, Rosina Tong.  CIS that was created with parent involvement, and parent involvement seemed to be an integral part of school culture. The school has a designated Parent-Teacher Workroom on their main floor. The active PTA provides funding for field trips, professional development, supplies, books and art.  It has an art committee, a "Grounds & Garden" committee, and a "Stop, Drop and Go" committee so parents can drop off and pick up students without looking for parking.  It also organizes a group school camping trip in the fall.

The building feels new, sunny and bright. Since the school just opened, the furniture and fixtures all look up-to-date.  The hallways are unusually wide, with plenty of natural light, and lined with student art.  Like the other public schools I've toured, the classrooms are spacious; much larger than a typical private school classroom.   Part of the school is an older part of the building with hardwood floors and beautiful tiles. One of the kindergartens in the older building had lovely hardwood floors and a wooden play kitchen to match.
    The only cramped areas are a beautiful auditorium in the older part of the building, and the low-ceilinged lunchroom. I can't imagine how they'll fit everyone in once the school is at capacity.  They allow nuts at school but have separate tables for children eating nuts, and the children must wash their hands in the nearby sink before leaving.

Support staff
CIS has a school nurse 16 hours a week; next year they'll have a full-time nurse. Some elementary schools don't have nurses at all. CIS also has a speech and language pathologist 8 hours a week, a psychologist once a week, and a librarian 16 hours a week.  The PTA seemed to be actively supporting the library too.

     Like AFY, the school is mostly Asian. The principal pointed out that all immersion programs have limited diversity because of SFUSD policy that 2/3s of the class be fluent or proficient in the target language. This means that CIS will be at least 66% Chinese, plus the English-only ethnic Chinese students whose families want them to learn Chinese.
    When I asked about LGBT families, the principal said that they had a few families. She said that she chooses not to bring up ethnic diversity or LGBT families during school tours, because that is not how they see the students. In what seemed typical style for her, she didn't mention that the head of their PTA is an out lesbian mom--I saw it later in their school newsletter.

Supporting CIS

You can make a PayPal donation at the CIS webpage. The PayPal button in the yellow left sidebar. Please note: PayPal will take a cut of 2.2% + 30 cents.

See their fundraising webpage for 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 (CIS ID: 500022428). 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 (CIS ID: 152747)
  • Use the CIS link to shop at Amazon. Approximately 4-6% of your purchases will be given to the school. 

The Numbers

2011-2012 Enrollment by Ethnicity, Grades K-2

EthnicityCIS SFUSD
Latino of any race
Not Latino or Hispanic:
  African American
  Pacific Islander
  Two or More Races
  Not reported

Source: California Dept of Education, Educational Demographics Unit

2011-2012 Parent Education Level, Grades 2-3*

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. CST tests start at 2nd grade. In 2011-12, CIS had only grades K-3.
**For SFUSD, the "Declined to State" group hast CST scores close to or slightly below the "Not a high school grad" group.

2011-12 Economic Status, Grade 2-3*

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



*CST test takers only. CST tests start at 2nd grade. In 2011-12, CIS had only grades K-3. 


  1. Will you put this one on your list? How did student engagement compare to Jose Ortega?
    Thanks for your review! I like all the data!

  2. What use is Cantonese immersion? It's not really a useful language to learn to prepare for the emergence of China as an economic/cultural (Mandarin is the main language of business and government).

    Isn't Cantonese immersion really just a way for Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans in SF to send their children to a segregated school?

  3. Regarding kids speaking to each other in Mandarin compare to CIS. When CIS 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.

  4. @4:35, I didn't feel that student engagement was an issue here. The upper grade classrooms tended to have the traditional teacher at the blackboard teaching to all, instead of the learning stations at Jose Ortega, and I think that setup iseasier for 1 teacher to monitor.
    Yes, this school makes the list, and I'll be ranking it higher than AFY, even though AFY is closer to my home.

  5. I think one of ideas behind immersion education is that learning a second language which one can practice within their community is great for brain development and also widens the child's perspective on the world. The opportunity for true cultural exchange is present when culture and language are present within the same location. While there are more Mandarin speakers in China, there are more Cantonese speakers in San Francisco. It seems that Cantonese is the right choice for San Francisco as Cantonese is one of the living languages in our city.

  6. I want to respond to the comments about the usefulness of Chinese immersion. My son is at CIS and we are not Chinese. I still think there is tremendous value in his learning Cantonese because so many people in San Francisco speak it. He has opportunities to practice it outside of school all of the time. The same would not be true for Mandarin (although we like that he is getting exposed to both dialects). We feel very lucky to be at this school!

  7. I just toured CIS and was impressed with the principal, parent volunteers and overall feel of the school. I'm not sure why AFY is so highly rated. When I toured the school, the kids acted like robots reciting the multiplications. The principal didn't even have the decency to show up on the tour. When I asked a parent volunteer if art or music was available, she said with a frown that there is more emphasis on academics. CIS is my top choice. It's a neighborhood gem that not many ppl know about and it's fine by me because that will greater our chances of getting in.

  8. We are a Chinese speaking family. My girl is speaking very fluent Cantonese at home and school. Does Chinese immersion is good for her? I am affraid her English skill will get worest in this school. Can someone give me a sugguestion? Does English and Chinese will balance?

    1. We are a CIS family. English is the third language spoken in our family. Even though there exposure to English has been limited to preschool and peers while they were younger (my husband still speaks Cantonese with them, while I mostly speak English now that they're in school), their English reading and writing skills have taken off since they started school at CIS. My second grader is reading at a 4th grade level. I found that the school is doing a good job differentiating English instruction, giving more help as well as greater challenges as needed to meet each kid on his or her level.

      If your kid is a Cantonese speaker, make sure that you do the district's language testing. The 2-way immersion programs in this city are generally hurting for bilingual kids and monolingual target language speakers, so your chances at getting in go up dramatically when tested as fluent or bilingual. Good luck with the assignment process!

  9. Is your child a quick learner? Average? Or does she seem to need more help or time to figure things out compared to other children her age?
    Most children do well, but children who are slower learners can have trouble mastering 2 languages in school. Several parents have commented here about a first child who excelled in language immersion, and a 2nd child who struggled.

    Chinese-speaking children at CIS and Alice Fong Yu have very high test scores in English. But parents who choose these schools also feel that their children can master 2 languages.
    If you're not sure, my own inclination is to go for immersion. Knowing Cantonese will give her an advantage early on, so she learns academic success. After 1st grade, more and more of their class time is in English. If she continues to have difficulty with English after 2nd grade, you can always switch her to an English-only school.