Friday, November 2, 2012

Jefferson: A True Neighborhood School

First, a quick note: I have really been enjoying all of the bloggers’ posts about the schools they have toured and also the many thoughtful comments people have been leaving. Thanks, everyone.

Now, on to the task at hand: notes from my tour of Jefferson. It’s not our neighborhood school for the purposes of the lottery (we’re in the Clarendon zone), but I think it may truly be a neighborhood school, near our neighborhood. We’re intrigued!

The Jefferson tour started in the cafeteria with Principal Cranna and about 7-8 parents from the PTA. Principal Cranna gave a short presentation about the school and...well, she didn’t pull any punches when she talked about the funding situation for SFUSD schools. As she explained, the district basically pays for her, the teachers, and a clerk--and not much else. “Everything else,” she said, “The parents pay for.” The good news (for Jefferson students) is that Jefferson’s PTA raised $130,000 last year and from what I heard, it sounds like they are buying a lot with that money. Art, music, dance, another clerk, the list went on and on. More on that in a bit, but the take-away for me was that Principal Cranna seemed like a straight shooter. It felt like she was being very honest with parents about the school district’s situation and I for one appreciated that. She also described her own background at other schools and it sounds like she is using her past experience to make positive changes at Jefferson. She mentioned a staggered lunch process the school has implemented to make sure all kids eat and play and one of the parents later mentioned that the principal had spearheaded that change.

Once we moved on from the principal’s welcome, the PTA parents led us on an informative, very encouraging tour. We went first to the sweet old-fashioned auditorium, where a class of second graders was working on a Chinese song with the music teacher. It sounds like art is just one of the many things the PTA chips in for, funding music, visual arts and ceramics rotations, which students go through in 8 week blocks.  Then we moved on to the adorable Kindergarten yard, nestled between the school and the public library along Irving Street. This yard, with a climbing structure, a garden area, some colorful tiling and comfortable benches, seems perfect for kindergarteners and is a true gem.  At least some of the kindergarten rooms open directly onto the yard (maybe all?). It has clearly been the result of a lot of clever planning and hard work--we heard that regular work days on the weekend are just one of the non-monetary ways that Jefferson parents are also contributing to the school community. After the K yard, we moved through the Kindergarten classrooms and then out the other side of the school to check out the new garden and the larger yard for the big kids. If I understood correctly, the PTA is funding a 4-day-a-week garden coordinator, and it sounds like all of the kids are really enjoying working with him. We also got to check out classrooms full of seemingly engaged, well-behaved kids. I particularly liked peering in on students in the classroom that has been turned into a school library. I was a little surprised they were using one of the classrooms as a library since they are right next to the public library, but it was clear after looking in why they chose to create their own separate library space. Students seemed so comfortable lounging on chairs and reading and lining up at the small desk to check out books--it was idyllic and seemed like the kind of place that fosters true love of learning.

Along the way, I heard nothing but positivity from the parents leading the tour. We heard that Jefferson’s teachers are super stable and get extremely high marks for instruction. Parents talked about working closely with the principal, particularly around things like the second clerk that the principal asked the PTA to provide funding for. The parents pointed out artwork on the walls from a program called Artworks, where a parent coordinator (maybe paid a small stipend? I wasn’t sure) devises more complex art projects to be done once a quarter or so and sets up a time to guide parents and classroom teachers through the project so they can do it with students.

Based on my conversation with the current parents, Jefferson also sounds like it’s a real, true neighborhood school. Several spoke about how Jefferson had actually been their second choice in the lottery, but had quickly won them over. One mother in particular mentioned that she thanks the lottery gods every day for giving her a school her child can walk to--that hadn’t been as much of a priority for her several years ago, but it has been a godsend. One parent mentioned that not only do most of the students live in the Sunset, but lots of kids arrive on foot or on a bike. I think it may have been the same parent who noted that Jefferson draws both from East of the school, which may be more White, and also from the West, which may be more Asian, which provides some (albeit limited) ethnic diversity. She also mentioned that the PTA has considered adding a Chinese language outreach coordinator to make sure all parents are engaged in school events.

Finally, it sounds like the school is also of the neighborhood. We heard that the teachers try to really take advantage of Golden Gate Park, with field trips to the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences, and other outings (many paid for by the PTA).

As I mentioned, the PTA raised $130,000 last year. This year, they are ramping up a bit, with a “direct ask” letter going out at the beginning of the year. I have heard of other schools doing this, including Alice Fong Yu. The PTA representative describing the letter said that they are going to as parents for $1 a day, and if every family contributed $365 a year per child, the school would raise over $180,000. They are also for the first time doing a nighttime auction to try and get purse strings opened a bit. But they stressed that they are just asking and want to maintain a low-key atmosphere rather than one constantly demanding donations.

So, are there any downsides to Jefferson? I noticed a few possible issues. The school is large--it has 4 classes of 22 each for a total Kindergarten class of 88. I think it then goes to three 4th grade classes and 3 5th grade classes plus a combined 4th/5th grade class, which I know some people aren’t always so excited about (not what I heard Jefferson parents, just conventional wisdom).

There are two portable classrooms but a parent on the tour said they are actually very quiet and totally fine. There is no gym. PE is outside or if weather is bad, they do activity in their classrooms. It sounds like the PTA paid for someone to come and train the teachers on a form of PE called motor perception and now the teachers provide that instruction--it sounded intriguing.

One other possible downside is the afterschool program. Based on what I heard from an acquaintance on the bus, it doesn’t sound like it’s the greatest program in the world. It’s also not the most flexible--there is no part-time option and it is $510 a month. I’m not sure if there are other options kids can be bused to.

So, those were my impressions. I liked it. I liked it a lot. It’s definitely going on the list. I just hope we have a shot--it sounds like it has become much more popular in the last few years. And regardless of whether my daughter ends up at Jefferson, I want to go back and meet that PTA treasurer and find out his or her secrets--it sounds like they are getting some good value for their money!


  1. It is important to understand that a tour's purpose is to sell the school. It is the school's opportunity to promote itself. That doesn't mean what you learn on a tour is not true, but it does mean that you are unlikely to learn about what is NOT right about the school. Or put another way, it is what you don't learn on a tour that can be important. For example, if there are a lot of burn out teachers you are not going to find out by going on a tour. Or if the principal is hostile to the community that may not be something you would learn on a tour. So Caveat Emptor.

  2. I was wondering what people feel about the air pollution by Jefferson. We live on 22nd Ave and whenever we walk up 19th Ave, the pollution is quite noticeable. I think about the students playing right there by 19th Ave, and it seems unhealthy. What do other parents think?

  3. I agree with a previous comment that the tour can only tell you so much about a school. Do any parents have suggestions out there about ways to learn more about the everyday teaching and learning that goes on in schools? Would love to hear your ideas!

  4. P.S. I found my tour notes and realized I forgot to mention some of the other things the PTA pays for: recess monitors, supplies for teachers, a science coordinator, and poetry and drama that are parts of the larger arts program.

  5. Sunrise Sunset,

    You can talk with other parents whose children already attend the school, or parent ambassadors from PPS. Ask them what they don't like about the school, or what they would improve if they could. People are looking for different things, but if certain themes come up over and over you can consider it. No school is perfect. It's just whether you can live with the negatives.

  6. I have two kids in public school, and I honestly don't have any good advice on how to learn about teaching/the learning that goes on. Even among current parents who have kids in the same class all day every day, there can be various opinions about how well a certain teacher is doing, how well various kids are doing in class, etc. It also depends on how kids respond to the teacher, of course. I remember a few kids really struggled with the amount of homework assigned in my older son's K class, whereas other kids were totally unfazed. So it's a tough thing. I will say, though, that I have been consistently impressed with the professionalism and quality of my children's teachers. But these things came out in situations such as parent/teacher conferences or in ways I heard that the teachers dealt with private issues with my kids. These things would have been invisible to me on tours, and they are personal things I probably wouldn't even share with many people beyond my close family members. I realize that this makes it hard to get a complete picture as a prospective parent, though.

  7. Sunrise Sunset,

    In my opinion, the best thing you can do is spend some time talking to parents after school gets out. Talk with at least 2 or 3 people. Ask them what they like and what they don't like about the school. Ask them about the teaching staff. Ask them questions about the school climate such as ways in which staff reaches out to the community. Remember that most parents tend to be optimistic about their schools so you do have to ask for examples to support their opinions. Of course, you don't want to put them on the spot so some diplomacy is in order. My sense is that most parents are very outgoing about these things.