Sunday, December 30, 2012

Question From Reader: Transfers into SFUSD 2nd Grade

From a reader, "I really appreciate all of the information about the numerous schools.  Unfortunately, I have noticed that almost all of the information is about the "normal" feeder grades, K, 6th and 9th.

My family will be moving to SF when our son is entering 2nd grade.  Where can we go to get more information about transferring into SFUSD in 2nd grade?  What are our chances of getting into various schools then?

Thanks you for your time!"

Readers - Can you help?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sunrise Sunset: A Few Notes on McKinley--and a List of Schools I Wish I Had Time to Tour

A commenter asked if I could share some notes on McKinley since apparently tours have ended and he or she won’t be able to get there. Unfortunately, I toured McKinley a year ago and my notes aren’t the greatest (and I believe the principal has changed since), but I’ll offer a brief description and maybe if any of the other blogging parents have been to McKinley, they could weigh in as well.

My tour at McKinley definitely stands out in my memory if for no other reason than because the building is cra-cra-cra-zy. It is some serious 70’s business in there! You enter through a very normal looking front hallway with an office, but that leads into an unusual space, an open sunken library that is the center of the school. The wood paneling and orange accents reminded me of a ski lodge (and also my parents’ kitchen but that’s another story). Classrooms radiate out from that center library area on the first floor, and then I think there’s a separate second floor you reach by stairway. There’s also a multi-purpose room that functions as a cafeteria, gym, and auditorium as needed. The floorplan could be funky and great, but parts of the school felt a little dilapidated and some of the classrooms felt a little crowded and cramped. One parent mentioned that the school was going to have new windows put in that should bring more light into classrooms, so that sounded great. The play yards are spacious but didn’t blow me away either; but again, I think a greening project is underway.  

I definitely perked up when talking to current parents leading the tour, who were incredibly enthusiastic about the school, possibly the most enthusiastic of all of the tour-giving parents I have met. According to them, some of the school’s highlights include the strong parent community committed to both academic excellence and equity for students from different backgrounds, the school’s relationship with Mission Science Workshop, a strong set of teachers, and the school’s Spanish and Mandarin afterschool immersion programs. I was especially interested in the Mission Science Workshop connection, but I can’t say I totally understand what the program offers, I would love to hear more if anyone out there wants to comment.

The Mission Science Workshop activities are funded by the McKinley PTA, which has gotten increasingly strong over the past few years. It sounds like they are turning into a real powerhouse and they also seem to have some of the most creative and fun-sounding events in the whole city. Several times over the past few years, they have hosted an event where candidates for citywide office like Mayor or Board of Education participate in a big car wash. I have heard that DogFest, the annual dog show slash festival held at Duboce Park in the spring (looks like the next DogFest is coming up April 13, 2013) is really fun AND raises $90,000, which is amazing (if that’s true, I think I heard that third-hand, so take that with a grain of salt). A note on the McKinley website mentions that a direct appeal to parents asking them to give this fall yielded $88,000. Wow. With only about 350 students, that works out to an average of about $250 per kid (not per family). That kind of blows me away. Of course, a lot of PTA money doesn’t mean much if it’s not spent well, but it certainly sounds like McKinley parents are active and committed participants at the school as well (there were quite a few parents participating on that tour).

I don't have much on arts or other extras but I did gather some limited information about the afterschool program. It sounds like there are clubs that meet until 3, the Mandarin and Spanish immersion programs are offered afterschool 4 days a week, and there’s also a regular non-immersion afterschool program that goes from 1:50 (McKinley has an early start time so also an early end time) until 6. I don’t think I got any information on cost.

So, that’s what I have on McKinley. I didn’t fall in love with the building the same way I did some other schools, but there’s a lot to like. Oh! And a family I know socially told me that one of their kid’s best teachers at another school is now at McKinley--hard to beat that.

Any other thoughts on McKinley?

As for me, there are a number of schools I wish I had time to tour before the deadline to enter the lottery, but I don’t think I’ll get to all of them. Below are the top ones I’d like to get to--has anyone out there been on a tour at any of these? Any current parents want to offer their perspective? Any insights would be great.

Peabody
Dianne Feinstein
Rosa Parks (JBBP and General Education)
Harvey Milk
Argonne
Alamo

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sunrise Sunset: Sunset (and a Little Bit of Lakeshore)

Even though it’s out by the ocean and the wrong way for my commute, I know Sunset Elementary is a highly requested school and a fellow touring parent at Rooftop had raved about it, so I added it to my “must-visit” list.  When I finally got over there a few weeks ago, it was a beautiful sunny day and I was immediately wowed by the school’s view of the water, the gorgeous library branch next door, and the immaculate and stylish school building. From an architecture standpoint alone, San Francisco is truly blessed with some extraordinary schools.

Signs directed parents through the parking lot (wait, parking lot? that’s unusual) to a main entrance, where there were two smiling students guiding visitors down the hallway to the library. I love that kids were the first ambassadors parents met on this school tour, that seemed like a great learning opportunity for them and a nice introduction for parents, too.

The tour started in the library, where the principal spoke to parents for several minutes. A longtime principal at Sunset, Principal Lee seemed personable and capable. A current parent later told me that Principal Lee is one of her favorite things about Sunset, and that she is extremely savvy in dealing with the district. This parent also mentioned that Principal Lee really works well with the PTA. 

Principal Lee began the Q & A by talking about the school’s Caring School Community framework, which I believe is in some other SFUSD schools as well. She highlighted four main components:
1) Class meetings--it sounds like they spend a lot of time prepping students for things like assemblies, a substitute, whatever change might be coming their way, and also give students a chance to talk about whatever is on their mind.2) Buddies--every class is paired up with older or younger students for a buddy opportunity.3) Star Students--providing positive reinforcement for students who are doing a great job. She talked about how she has lunch with the Star Students every month.4) Something about a heritage museum incorporating family experiences into the classroom (I got a little distracted here, but that sounds great!)

Principal Lee explained that Caring School Community is a true framework for the school, and helps build really strong students and classrooms full of friends. She said the kids watch out for each other. Throughout her discussion, it seemed clear to me that she cares very deeply about the kids. 

Principal Lee also talked a little about special programs. It sounds like Sunset is able to offer dance for every grade (in either the fall or spring), as well as some sort of experience with ballet with the SF Ballet for 2nd graders. There is an art teacher in the classroom for 8 week sessions, and music for K-5, which includes a special rhythm program for Kindergarteners and 1st graders. I think she also mentioned a program with the SF Symphony. Principal Lee mentioned that classrooms often have parent volunteers and also student teachers. She also said Sunset hosts older volunteers through something called Experience Corps that brings retired folks into the classroom.  

The PTA president also spoke, mostly about the role the parents have played in setting up enrichment activities before and after school. It sounds like they have lots of options, including Tree Frog Treks, Spanish, chess, drama, writing, robotics, and Mandarin (I think those are all afterschool, except for Mandarin, which is in the morning). There is also a fee-based YMCA program at the school for 2, 3, 4 or 5 days a week, and the no-cost Excel program, which I think is just for 2nd through 5th graders and may have other admission requirements. 

After the Q and A, we headed out to tour. We got to go into several classrooms and see instruction for a few minutes. Again, walking around, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a gorgeous building. But it was actually so clean and polished, it almost felt a little sterile to me. Inside the classrooms, I noticed that several classes had the students broken out into small groups for work at different stations, which seems like a great chance to cover material in different ways with different groups if needed. But one thing that rubbed me the wrong way a little was that one of those stations in several of the classrooms had students doing little drills and games on computers. I know some people are impressed by technology in schools and the principal said later that the computers had been a priority for her when she got to Sunset, but I didn’t immediately love this use of computers in the classroom. The students were engaged, but the math games looked sort of simple and had super cheesy aesthetics and I just wondered if maybe they could have been doing something more creative. I’m not a teacher, so it’s really hard to know how much I should trust this instinct. We did see smartboards in a 4th grade classroom, and those did seem impressive and really helpful at enhancing instruction. 

There was one other thing that bothered me in one of the classrooms: I noticed that one wall had an assignment up about summer vacation, which struck me as a little strange. First, isn’t it a bit late to have that up? That assignment must have happened months ago. They haven’t done anything else worthy of showing off? Teacher too overwhelmed to get anything up? I believe it’s considered best practice to have lots of students work around, to encourage students and engage parents. But more importantly, it also didn’t seem very sensitive to socio-economic differences. Many of the students had a mention of a trip somewhere -- Disneyland, Lake Tahoe, Hawaii. But one girl’s description of her summer just talked about hanging out at with her mom while her mom worked at a nail salon. I get that many of the kids at school might actually be jealous of that girl that she got to be at the nail salon, but I just felt kind of vaguely badly for her that she hadn’t gotten to go Disneyland (and I don’t even like Disneyland!) and I really hoped she hadn’t felt bad when this assignment happened or when they were posted on the wall. But more to the point, I felt like the teacher could have come up with a more creative activity that didn’t have the same potential to make kids feel bad if their parents can’t take them on elaborate vacations. So, that left a kind of sour taste in mouth. Am I crazy? But I guess the real question is whether I would feel comfortable raising my concerns with the teacher or the principal, and how they might respond. Hard to know that after just a tour!

We ended the tour in the school’s amazing garden and I am so glad we did, because that enabled us to meet the three-day-a-week garden coordinator, who seemed phenomenal. She talked about all of the different things they do in the garden, none of which I can remember or took good notes about, but it really seemed like the garden program at Sunset is a true science program and I was wowed. Definitely one of the school’s strengths from my perspective.  

After my tour at Sunset, I headed over to Lakeshore, where I knew a tour was wrapping up. I have some cousins who went to Lakeshore years ago, so I feel like it’s always been on my radar. My impression is that it used to be highly sought after in the earlier system when it was one of several alternative schools. Since it’s located out near Lake Merced, I’m guessing it’s not actually super convenient for most folks and may have fallen a little in popularity over the past few years as the system has changed a bit and other schools have begun to garner some buzz. But it sounds like it’s still a super strong school so I wanted to at least do a quick check in. 

As I mentioned, when I got to Lakeshore, the tour was wrapping up, but one of the parents leading the tour very graciously offered to take me on a personal look around. Score! I might try showing up at more schools this way. Of course, it ended up being a shorter visit, but I still felt like I learned quite a bit about the school.

I was impressed by the great vibe and feel of the school. It’s a big school (I think it has four kindergarten classes) but it doesn’t feel large at all because of the way the school is laid out in sections going up and down a slight incline. As I walked in, a bunch of kids were gathered in the front area getting ready for sensory motor in the all-purpose room, which looks like a nice space for performances and the like (they have a separate cafeteria which is also very nice). They all looked super happy and comfortable with one another and once they started sensory motor, they were thrilled--the woman giving me a tour said it’s her daughter’s favorite activity. 

One thing that struck me immediately about Lakeshore was that there seems to be a real diversity in terms of ethnicity among the students. I know many of the other schools on the West side are predominantly White and Asian, but this seemed like a broader mix, which is obviously important to some parents. The parent leading the tour said her child is biracial and she wanted to make sure she’d be at a school where she felt comfortable. 
Our tour was quick but some highlights included the sweet library and the multiple gardens spread around the school’s campus. I also got a chance to meet Lakeshore’s garden teacher, who was in between classes and was extremely generous with her time. Again, as at Sunset, she and the gardens (multiple gardens? so many gardens!) really impressed me. Who would have thought I’d be most impressed by the school gardens out in the fog belt by the beach?? Perhaps I’m betraying my non-native self’s true ignorance of SF’s microclimates here? In any case, it sounds like the classes also really use Lake Merced as a site for teaching and learning about plants, birds, and all sorts of other animals, all of which sounds great to me.  

In terms of before and afterschool, I got a handout about the program run by Every Day Magic (fined more information here: http://www.everyday-magic.org/). This is open to everyone and starts as early as 7:30 (Lakeshore has a late start time of 9:30) and also goes from 3:30 dismissal to 6:00 pm. There is also a no-fee EXCEL program for those who qualify and morning Cantonese and Mandarin.   

I didn’t get great information about arts programs on my abbreviated version of a tour (I think I forgot to ask), but I know the PTA supports some collection of poetry, dance, music and other enrichment activities. I started to hunt around on the Lakeshore website for some more information and I didn’t turn up many details about arts, but I did find this great photo tour they put together that you might want to check out:
http://www.lakeshoreelementary.org/album/index.html

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lazy Tiger Mom's List

As the touring "season" has gone by my lazy tendencies have kicked in. We toured 8 schools in October, 5 in November, and my husband did 2 solo in December.  The schools seem a bit of a blur, and if anything, the tours are more good discussion points with my husband.  So... it's a a relief to be near the end.

  • Clarendon JPPC
  • Clarendon GE
  • Miraloma
  • West Portal GE
  • West Portal CI
  • Sloat
  • Rooftop
  • Alvarado SI
  • Sunnyside
  • Alvarado GE
  • Glen Park (our neighborhood school)
  • Monroe

(The next 5 are mainly for swap-value. We like the schools, they're just somewhat inconvenient.)

  • Alice Fong Yu
  • Lawton
  • Grattan
  • Lilienthal
  • Sunset


We've also applied to Thomas Edison Charter Academy and Alta Vista.

Any comments and perspectives are much appreciated!

Sunrise Sunset: DonorsChoose.org


Like so many other people, I was really affected by the tragedy of the school shooting last week. On so many levels, it is hard to grapple with the fact that these shootings keep happening and I know I find it hard to find a way to appropriately express my outrage and sadness.

You may have heard about this idea that's going around to do 20 acts of kindness in honor of the children whose lives were lost (or 26 acts of kindness to honor the teachers and staff lost as well). A friend told me about it and I thought I might try a few acts of kindness, mostly to make myself feel better. First off, let me just say it feels great, highly recommended.

More on topic, though, is that one thought I had was to donate to a San Francisco elementary school, particularly a school that might not have the ability to raise lots of money from its own parent community for supplies and extras. So, with that goal in mind, I found myself the other night at DonorsChoose.org. Basically, this is a site where teachers can go on and describe particular supplies, materials, technology or any other resources they need, and solicit donations specifically for those items. Pretty amazing. I donated to a project for a kindergarten in Bernal Heights.

So, if you're looking for a way this holiday season to donate a few dollars and perform a random act of kindness for SF kids, I recommend you check the site out. I also really enjoyed browsing the projects. I even feel like I learned a little about a few schools in the process! For instance, the requests from teachers at Creative Arts Charter School sound especially amazing, take a look:

http://www.donorschoose.org/donors/search.html?state=CA&community=4240:2&school=4491

Happy Holidays!


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Motivation, Study Habits -- Not IQ -- Determine Growth in Math Achievement



I came across this on Science Daily today....  A recent study published today in the journal of Child Development shows that it's not how smart students are but how motivated they are and how they study that determines their growth in math achievement.  The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Munich and the University of Bielefeld.

"While intelligence as assessed by IQ tests in important in the early stages of developing mathematical competence, motivation and study skills play a more important role in students' subsequent growth," according to Kou Murayama, postdoctoral researcher of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (who was at the University of Munich when he led the study).

Intelligence was strongly linked to students' match achievement, but only in the initial development of competence in the subject.  Motivation and study skills turned out to be more important factors in terms of students' growth (their learning curve or ability to learn) in math.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sunrise Sunset: A Tentative List

I still have a few reviews I need to write up and I'm still trying to get to more tours, but I think we've come up with a tentative list for the SFUSD lottery. I'm sure we'll move some of these around, but here's what we're thinking right now in order of preference. I have not toured all of these, but I have done about 14 tours so far. I really wish I could do more--I've learned so much.

Any insights appreciated! (Or corrections if I've gotten anything wrong in terms of which school has what immersion program, my head is spinning)

Clarendon Second Community
Clarendon Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program

Alvarado Spanish Immersion
Alvarado General Ed
West Portal General Ed
Grattan
Jefferson
New Traditions Creative Arts
McKinley
Miraloma
Rooftop
Commodore Sloat
Sunnyside

Claire Lilienthal General Education
Rosa Parks Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program
Lakeshore
Sunset
Dianne Feinstein

Glen Park
Peabody  
Harvey Milk
Fairmount
Buena Vista
Marshall
Argonne
SF Public Montessori
Chinese Immersion at De Avila
West Portal Chinese Immersion

Claire Lilienthal Korean Immersion
Lawton
SF Community

Lafayette

Alice Fong Yu
Alamo
Robert Louis Stevenson
Flynn Spanish Immersion

Monroe Spanish Immersion
Daniel Webster Spanish Immersion
Jose Ortega Mandarin Immersion
Sanchez

Junipero Serra
Sutro
Ulloa
Francis Scott Key

McCoppin
Rosa Parks General Education
John Muir
Starr King Mandarin Immersion

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sandy Hook

Feeling helpless and sad, frustrated and angry.  Frightened by the fragility of it all...
Sending prayers to the victims, the families, the survivors and the community.
Brought to tears reading about the principal; the stories of the individual teachers and their efforts to save their children.  Feeling angry.  I don't want to live in fear that an armed gunmen will open fire at my kid's elementary school.  I don't want to live in that kind of world.

Guest Post: Why Teach Computers in Elementary School?

A reader, MHK, is looking for a public elementary school for her child and reached out with the following guest post:

I'm wondering why there is such a heavy investment in computers and technology in our elementary schools.  I'd love to hear from parents what they want in a computer program within a public elementary school, specifically when computers should be introduced and how should they be used throughout the K-5 experience.

I'm asking this question because I work in technology and can see no reason - academically or socially - why a child would need access to a computer before 4th or 5th grade.  As computers and software become outdated and obsolete so quickly and also require maintenance and training, it seems a better investment would be in teacher's aides, more realized arts and garden programs and physical education.  Children have a lot of screen access time at home and other places so I feel that the focus in school (especially K-3) should be on socialization, fine and gross motor skills, critical thinking, language development, and hand-writing.  It seems like a waste of valuable class time to teach keyboarding to kindergarteners when they are not necessarily proficient readers or writers.  it also seems odd to me to teach children software programs like Excel which are bound to be outdated by the time children hit the job market.  Also, most software programs available to lay people and are not that complex and designed for use by the general population.

I know that my child will be living in a technologically driven world, but I feel that he needs strong math and critical thinking skills to succeed.  As a parent, I would much rather have the PTA spend extra funds on a math specialist or math training for teachers rather than a bunch of iPads.

While I do think there is a place for computers, it seems that it should be really thought out before school outlay a lot of financial resources for their purchase.

My question for touring and current parents:
A)  What elementary schools have well-thought out and integrated computer programs?
B)  What elementary schools wait until 3rd grade or older to introduce computers?
C)  When you are looking at elementary schools, what would you like to see in a computer/technology program?
D)  Would you prioritize a computer program over an additional math specialist at an elementary school and why or why not?

Thanks in advance for your input and ideas.

Sunrise Sunset: Alvarado Made Me Cry (In A Good Way)

Last week I went to Alvarado in Noe Valley. Google maps says it takes 11 minutes door to door, but I know it would actually take way longer every morning because it sounds like it takes a while to make it through the dropoff line. And I don’t think there’s any way we could take public transportation from the Sunset and make the 7:50 start time but we only have one car and we sort of need one parent to do drop off and one parent to do pick up and...well, you don’t need the whole story, but basically there are logistical concerns.

Doesn’t matter. As soon as I walked into the school, my logistical concerns flew out the window. I just felt so at home. It’s a large school (520 students) and a big building, but it felt comfortable. It was a little rumpled, not as slick as some other schools in terms of physical plant, but the building is gorgeous in a beaten-up San Francisco Victorian apartment hardwood floor kind of way. The walls were covered with all sorts of announcements and art. And not just any art but gorgeous, creative, interesting looking art projects. Signs about an upcoming science night focusing on robots. Hand-drawn signs about a chance to join a CSA (get a produce box) at school. And everything was translated into English and Spanish, including some laminated images on a teacher’s door explaining how Christmas, Hanukkah and Diwali are all festivals of light. I loved it.

The tour started in the cafeteria/auditorium, with a really sweet video about Alvarado and its three separate programs: General Education, Spanish Immersion, and Special Education. The video was in English with Spanish subtitles and then in Spanish with English subtitles, and in addition to the principal, it also featured parents talking about how they felt supported by the principal and teachers talking about how they structure their classrooms. One teacher talked about how she focuses on field trips to get kids inspired to learn about the world.. According to the staff, the mission of Alvarado is to bridge gaps -- and not just gaps between families from Spanish-speaking families and English-speaking families, but also bridging other differences, including the kids in special day classes in larger school events and also doing reverse mainstreaming where Spanish Immersion and General Education students go into the Special Education special day class.. About halfway through the video, when the principal started talking about how there are three programs but they are all part of one school community and a mom spoke in Spanish about how the support of the school and the principal made her family feel proud to be Latinos in San Francisco, I started to tear up a little. (I actually texted that to my husband, who texted back, ”Keep crying. She’ll never get in”. He’s right. Alvarado is incredibly hard to get into). I don’t know if the school lives up to its stated mission of bridging differences, but I loved that it states that mission up front.

After the video, we got split up into groups and toured the school. We didn’t get to see classes in session but we got to go into empty classrooms. That seemed respectful (they get large tours) and I was again really impressed by the quality of the art and assignments on the wall. This was probably the most interesting collection of art, assignments, announcements I have seen yet. And not just assignments on the wall, but also questions from the teacher to prompt thinking and ideas. There was just an energy to these walls that I really liked. One classroom we checked out was a great-looking science classroom. IThe principal mentioned later that Alvarado used to have a full-time science teacher who could meet with students weekly all year long. Due to budget cuts, students now get 8 week sessions of weekly science lessons from a science consultant, paid for by the PTA, although classroom teachers do also do science lessons.

The PTA pays for all of Alvarado’s supplies budget and also pays for the school’s extensive arts program, which includes 2D art, 3D art (particularly in clay), and a theater teacher. The music and drama programs are housed in the school’s two bungalows. There is also a sensory motor program, which I believe is also paid for by the PTA.

While we toured classrooms, we got a chance to ask questions of our tour guide. She had mentioned that the PTA raised about $350K last year, which is phenomenal, and I was curious to hear if there is any pressure on parents to donate (I know that can be an issue at some of the schools that raise a lot of money from parents). She said no, not at all. She said the school does ask parents to volunteer and encourages each parents to take on one job. But she made it sound like volunteering time is just as valued as volunteering money, She also mentioned that PTA meetings are in English and Spanish and that takes a bit longer, but is important to keep everyone involved and build community.

Our tour guide stressed that Alvarado is big but doesn’t feel big, and told us there is a real effort to focus on students’ social and emotional development and prevent bullying. Alvarado is a TRIBES school and also working to incorporate restorative practices. Shortly after, we went out to the large, generous play yard (actually, an upper yard and a lower yard). Most kids seemed to be having a great time, but I passed by a child who was upset. In fact, she was kind of yelling at a couple other girls, saying, “I’m upset and you’re not supposed to be the...(something something)”. And then I saw another little girl bring her a toy (or something?) and the first girl said, “Thank you so much” and they hugged. No idea what was going on there, but I kind of started to cry again. Maybe it was just an emotional day for me!

Given the school’s focus on bridging differences, I was surprised to hear that afterschool is separated into a fee-based program (GLO) and the free but invitation-only Excel program, which I believe is for students who need more support or are low-income. That’s great that there’s support but that seems unfortunate that the kids are separated (I think there are some schools that have combined Excel with fee-based programs). Our tour guide said her child didn’t get into GLO, but there are some slots held every year for kindergarteners.

As the tour wound down, we went into the cafeteria/auditorium for a Q and A with the principal, Mr. Broekker. He said he has been at Alvarado for 11 years, including 6 as principal. He said teacher retention at Alvarado is extremely high, but he did say the school has struggled with resources. He said in real dollars, due to funding cuts, Alvarado has probably lost $100,000 in the past few years. Luckily the PTA can make up for some of that, but not all. He said the school has had to choose between a half-time social worker and a half-time nurse. He said they chose the social worker, but sometimes he’s not sure that was the right decision. Ideally, they would have both.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I find that I feel most positive about a school when I like the principal. There were so many things to like about Alvarado but certainly one of them was the leadership. I liked Mr. Broekker and I liked Alvarado, It’s not really convenient for us, but I think it will be at the top of our list.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Strong, Neighborhood School - ER Taylor Tour

My husband went to ER Taylor 20+ years ago. With all the nostalgia during our tour mixed in with the fact that this school is walkable from our house, that our nephew attends the school and his parents love it, and we constantly hear good things about it in our community, in full disclosure, this review is totally biased...

The tour was given by a smiley parent liaison (on staff) whose children went to ER Taylor, but are now in middle school. Initial impressions and notable observations...
  • This is a large school. There are 600+ students. 5 kindergarten classes (1 bilingual Spanish, 2 bilingual Chinese, 2 General Ed). This school is housed in a large traditional school building with a courtyard at the center where the children play. It’s charming. 
  • The students seemed “well-behaved” and interested in learning. Okay, so the parent liaison actually said well-behaved a bunch of times throughout our tour, but it looked pretty accurate to the environment. I’ve learned that some parents find this to be necessary, other parents actually don’t.
  • This is a neighborhood school. The parent liaison stressed that ER Taylor is a neighborhood school and that many kids get picked up by grandparents that live in the area. (That’s what we’re hoping will happen if we choose this school.)
  • The perks
    • There is a cute little school garden at the back of school. All the kids participate in the garden program and there is a garden teacher 
    • There is a music program for kids in 4th and 5th grade. On our tour, a class of kids were all playing the violin. They offer three other different instruments, but I didn't catch them all.  
    • Part-time librarian.
    • Art Teacher. 

We were intrigued by the high API score overall that is even higher when compared to schools of similar demographics. So one thing that I found to be very apparent throughout the tour and I find to be a real plus is that they have resources to ensure that those that are struggling academically get the support they need.  And, it seems very intentional that they also make choices that reflect their commitment to students and families who are struggling.
  • A local business man has been donating a hefty amount to the school each year, as much as $200,000 one year. The donations support a Healthy Start Office with social worker, parent liaison and after school program coordinator. The office provides mental health and support services. Students are referred to the center if they are struggling in school or teachers feel they need the services. The office helps families with other issues they face regarding immigration issues, domestic violence, etc.
  • I had a feeling that about half the parents on the tour wanted to leave after they learned that only 100 students are accepted in the on-site after school program and that they are chosen by teachers because they are struggling in school. The on-site after school program has its limitations.  They did share with us a list of about 5 other after school programs off-site that pick-up kids from school and bring them to their program.

One of our concerns was that the tour guide said that the PTA is “not that strong” and that they do not raise that much money and don’t have the manpower to pull something off like a school-community fair. She said this very matter-of-fact and I imagine it could be for a variety of reasons, but I do know that my husband and I intend to be active participants in the school wherever our child attends, but it would be nice if we didn't have to be organizers. They do have a parent volunteer opportunity every Wednesday.

And as a side note, the tour guide said that my child, who is fluent in English, could still benefit from the Spanish bilingual program there. I also spoke to the Vice Principal about this at the SFUSD Enrollment Fair and she said the same thing.

Being one of the schools we wanted to love ER Taylor will most definitely make our school list, but it might be a little lower on the list than what we had expected.  We left feeling like it was a strong, traditional neighborhood school doing a good job serving its diverse student population, but we did feel that there was something missing. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of an involved parent-community or the large-size. Maybe it had to do with not being able to hear the principal's vision for the school or that we might be more interested in Spanish-immersion... I'm not sure what it is. 

Any ER Taylor parents out there that could share your experiences?


Throwing in the towel

I'm done. I can not look at another school. Here is our list (not in order of preference).  SF K Files readers please share your two cents.

Marshall
Daniel Webster Immersion
Flynn Immersion
Fairmount
Starr King Mandarin Immersion
BVHM
Juniperro Serra
ER Taylor
Alvarado Immersion
Alvarado
Jose Ortega Immersion
Sunnyside
Commodore Sloat
West Portal Immersion
McKinley
Clarendon Japanese Bilingual Bicultural
Rosa Parks Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program
Monroe Spanish Immersion
SF Community
Glen Park
Miraloma
New Traditions Creative Arts

Rooftop & Clarendon(swap value only)


Other:
Creative Arts Charter

Privates:
SF Friends
Live Oak
Synergy School

My Favorite Comment of the Week...

From the post, "Parents Who Choose privates: Is Your Child Bored"

I think SFUSD is doing a great job and certainly when you compare test scores to similar cohort to other districts, even relatively homogenous, affluent districts, it shows the district is strong.  I just think the conversation in SF is different because we have a large number of highly educated parents who are also very affluent (relative to the rest of the country) who tour a lot of schools that offer many different types of programs.  Also it is very hard to compare public and private schools because there is a huge resource gap between a private school that gets 20-25k to educate a student they select and a public school that gets 5k (I forgot the exact amounts for SFUSD but it's not even half of private school tuition) to educate any student that shows up.

At any rate, it seems that parents in SF start to make a laundry list of their ideal school situation and anything less than that starts to look unappealing.  The amazing thing is that they can usually find a school that matches their exact list.  The only barriers re if they get in and if it's private, if they can afford it.  I feel that if people in SF were to go outside the city and say, "I want a public Spanish Immersion program with a strong arts component that is also K-8," there would be no way that the public school system would even come close.  But in SF, we actually have a school, Buena Vista, that fits that description.  SFUSD schools and populations don't resemble those of wealthy suburbs but they do have a lot to offer when it comes to unique programs and creative ways of addressing the broad range of students that enter the public school system.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

SF Tech investing in SF Schools

Zendesk recently partnered with the SF DA Women's Committee to sponsor a video contest to increase awareness about bullying and solicited submissions from SF middle and high school students in San Francisco.  The goal of the contest was to increase public awareness about bullying amongst students, encourage youth to discuss bullying more openly and develop effective responses to bullying.  

A total of 58 videos were received from students all over the city and from schools including; Lincoln High School, Visitacion Valley Middle School, Rooftop Elementary School, Francisco Middle School, Everett Middle School, Washington High School, Mission High School, St. Ignacius High School and Lick Wilmerding High School.  Full press release here.

I'm intrigued by the potential of the technology companies in San Francisco to partner and support schools in SF.  SF is becoming a growing home base for tech companies (Google, Twitter, Salesforce, Zendesk, Dropbox, Yelp).  

What other examples of tech investment in SF schools have you witnessed at your school or within your community?  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Kindergarten to College Program

Last night I learned about the Kindergarten to College Program.

The City and County of San Francisco Kindergarten to College program wants to give your kindergartner a college savings account containing its first $50 deposit.

Beginning Fall 2012, every kindergartener entering an SFUSD elementary school is eligible to participate.

I had no idea about this seemingly cool program (I havent read fine print).

It seems like you will receive something in the mail once your child is enrolled in kindergarten. As a not-yet-enrolled parent, this was the first I heard about this.

Sunrise Sunset: Schools With Strong Leadership

The good thing about living in the Inner Sunset is that there are a lot of schools that are within a 15 minute drive. The bad thing about living in the Inner Sunset is that there are a lot of schools that are within a 15 minute drive! I’m going a little crazy here and I'm sorry that I haven’t been able to write my reviews as quickly as I would like. However, the more schools I see, the more I feel like I’m understanding what kind of school would work best for our family. One thing I’ve noticed that makes a big impression on me is the principal. Here are some notes on two schools I toured last year that I thought had particularly strong leaders: Grattan and Miraloma.

Grattan is a K-5 school in Cole Valley with about 300 students. It starts early (7:50 start time), which is not that convenient for us, but it is easily accessible to our house via public transportation, so that’s great. The school is built around an open courtyard, with classrooms opening off of covered breezeways. We toured the school in groups (nice new play structures! other stuff I can’t remember or didn’t take notes about!) and then ended up in the comfortable, welcoming, expansive library with the principal (whose name I didn’t catch, but the internet tells me that was probably Principal Reedy).

During the Q and A, the principal answered a variety of questions from parents, but several times he brought the conversation around to what he said was the school’s recent focus on equity and closing the achievement gap. For example, he explained why the school had gone to a new structure of all joint 4th/5th grade classrooms this past year. Traditionally, the increase from 22 kids per class to 33 at 4th grade meant there needed to be one combination 4th and 5th grade class. The School Site Council was trying to figure out how to make it equitable in terms of who had to teach the one 4/5 classroom and which parents had to have their kids in that class. But in that decision process, the principal and the school site council ended up asking themselves whether that had to be the choice. Ultimately, they decided that it made more sense to have three combined 4th/5th classrooms, which allowed for some block scheduling, more time for focused groupings by skill level, and more planning time for teachers. Win-win-win. The school is also trying to get to one afterschool program for all kids because there had been a paid program open to all and a free program for lower-income students. As the principal said, it seems crazy to spend all day talking to kids about learning from one another regardless of differences and then segregate kids by income (and often race) for afterschool. Grattan also has had a pretty serious inclusion program for several years, and I have heard it's a hugely welcoming environment for kids with disabilities.

It was clear Grattan has other strengths, including talented teachers and a very strong PTA that has only grown stronger in recent years. Something that really blew me away at the end of the Q&A session was that either the principal or one of the parents mentioned that the Grattan PTA is working with a PTA at another school where they haven’t yet built up that parent association strength--I believe it was Redding. I know I’m troubled by the funding inequities that have developed across San Francisco schools, when some schools can raise insane amounts of money from donations and others can’t, so I really appreciated the willingness of Grattan folks to handle that issue head-on.

So, again, I’m sorry I don’t have more information about things like arts education or afterschool programs--perhaps another blogger has toured more recently or a parent could chime in?

Another school where I was impressed by the principal was Miraloma. I gather Miraloma has had some sudden rise in fortunes in the past ten years or so, with a sharp uptick in test scores and an increase in the number of local neighborhood folks who are choosing the school for their kids (I’m not sure if one of those caused the other or the both did).

Miraloma is another early start time school (7:50) about ten minutes drive from our house. It’s a relatively small school, with about 365 students in grades K-5. It has kind of an unassuming campus, with some quietly beautiful gardens one one side of the school and play yards on the other. A friend who toured recently thought the school seems dark, but I didn't find that. When I toured last year, Miraloma was doing a self-guided tour structure, which I liked. I enjoyed walking around at my own pace to look at the great student artwork and writing on the walls and I didn’t mind too much not being able to go into classrooms with students since I’m never sure I learn anything anyway. There were parents stationed in the hallways to guide touring parents and answer questions. After a certain period of time, the parents herded us to the cafeteria, which also has a small stage. Principal Machado joined us there, but instead of doing the Q and A all on his own, he brought four 5th graders to answer questions as well.  They explained that they were doing the Q&A because they are peer mediators, and they all seemed incredibly sweet. Parents asked them about their favorite classes and also about afterschool.  

Once Principal Machado took over from the students, he started by giving a little about his background. Like several other principals I’ve seen on these tours, he mentioned he did the Principals Institute training at UC Berkeley. It sounds like he tries to be very supportive of his teachers. I asked him if there were any downsides to the increasing popularity of Miraloma, and he said there has been a loss of some ethnic diversity. He said, “If there are only 3 African-American students in a grade, I have to ask how that feels for those students?

It sounded like a major challenge for Miraloma is the impending end of a special fund of money ($225K?) for schools scoring low on state tests. Miraloma won't get that money again because test scores have gone up so much but it sounds like parents and teachers and the principal are working together now to plan for that drop-off. They used it to have small classes (for grades 4 and 5, I believe) and I think that is going away. Other changes may happen, but they said they are really trying to minimize the effect of the funding loss. The PTA also raises about $225K and that amount has been increasing, although perhaps not quickly enough to fully cover the loss of the special funds.

Again, my notes are a little thin (I can see someone asked about technology, and it sounds like they are trying out iPads in K or 1st grade instead of desktops, which could save money). I hope current parents or parents who have toured recently will chime in with more information, but I would just say, overall, I got the impression that Miraloma is a school with thoughtful and creative leadership. I felt like I could go to Principal Machado with any problem and be heard.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bernal visits SF Community School (SFC)

I was warmly greeted by the head of school, Nora, and directed to the brightly painted bungalow that housed the library.

I am equating this school search to our reason house hunt - there are gong to have to be concessions, but what concessions am I willing to live with? Obviously I knew this but today it just hit me. Everything was sounding 'perfect, promising' etc and then BOOM - no foreign language! Can I be ok with this for K-8 (I don't think so).

SFC is a public, kindergarten - eighth grade school located in the Excelsior District. The school has been operating since 1972. The school is "small by design" at 290 kids. School hours are 9:15 - 3:30 for K-4/5 and 8:55 - 3:35 for 5/6 - 8th grade. School gets out at 2:15 PM on Tuesdays for staff development/collaboration. There is no formal AM program but there are at least two adults supervising on the yard starting at 8:30 AM. The after-school program is through EXCEL (5/week). The school is next to the Boys & Girls Club and that is an after-school option  (but kids must be at least six years old).

SFC is teacher run and project based (only school in district with this model).

What is project-based learning?
For the second and fourth quarter , children participate in a nine-week, challenge based, project learning curriculum. During this time, the kids still have their core classes (in the AM) and the afternoons are dedicated to the project.  At the end of the nine weeks, there is a project open house where the children display their projects. The next one is on Thursday, December 20th (time of day had not been set).
All of the students create a portfolio which includes all of their best work. Eighth graders have a formal portfolio presentation.

What does it mean to be teacher run?
All decisions are based on a committee and all staff are involved in school-wide decisions.The head of school is a three-year, rotating position and is someone who has been a teacher there.  This is the current head of schools first year in this year. (she is a middle school math teacher)

There are mixed grade and some single grade classrooms. Class size is never more than 25 students. Classes are K, K/1, 1 - 2, 2/3, 3 - 4, 4/5, 5, etc, etc. Teachers are will children for two years.

Every teacher is trained in Balanced Literacy out of Teachers College in NY. Balanced Literacy is not a curriculum, but rather an approach or philosophy. From what I understand, SFSUD is planning on adopting this in the next few years but SFC has already been doing this for the past two year. Each classroom has their own Balanced Literacy 'library'.

SFC has been selected (as one of three)  restoration practices demonstration school. Here is some more info on restorative practices. Taken from Heathier SF website: "Restorative Practices, when broadly and consistently implemented, will promote and strengthen positive school culture and enhance pro-social relationships within the school community.   An improved sense of community will significantly decrease the need for suspensions, expulsions and time that students are excluded from instruction due to behavior infractions. This shift in practice will result in a culture which is inclusive, builds fair process into decision-making practices, and facilitates students learning to address the impact of their actions through a restorative approach.   Students will learn to accept accountability, repair the harm their actions caused, recognize their role in maintaining a safe school environment, build upon their personal relationships in the school community and recognize their role as a positive contributing member of the school community.   Ultimately, they will learn to make positive, productive, and effective choices in response to situations they may encounter in the future."

The school is a Parent Action Committee (PAC) which raises between 80-100K annually. SFC put one hundred percent of money received from SFSUD goes to teacher salaries so therefore PAC money goes to office supplies, teacher project planning days, field trips, outdoor learning opportunities.

Arts: K-6, 1/week through a 10-week artist in residence program
Library: 1/week (PT librarian)
Music: 4th grade and up
Garden: K-5, every other week
Sports: K-4/5, weekly in a shared gymnasium with the Boys & Girls Club
No foreign languages

Three of the classrooms I peeked into were working on literacy either in small group or individual instruction. I am definitely realizing that this part of the school process is telling me the least. Over and over I walk into a class and it tells me nothing. Anyway, the classrooms were large and bright.
The 4th grade class was about to start science but again were were in and out before I could gather anything.

Some interesting PROS and a few CONS...not sure which outweighs which....

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Parents Who Chose Privates: Is Your Child Bored?

As I sit down to work on applications to a handful of elite and very expensive private schools, my main question is this:  Will private school keep my child from being bored? 

I'm not worried about my child being academically prepared in public school. Most children of highly educated parents do well academically no matter where they are. 

I'm worried that my child will be bored. 

I went to public school until 9th grade. My main memory is one of boredom, despite many great teachers.  An entry in my 6th grade diary has a bitter complaint about how we're learning fractions again!!!  Just like 4th and 5th grade!!!! I skipped 8th grade, and to this day I don't know what I missed. A friend who teaches public school said, "That's because you didn't miss anything." 

That's what troubles me.   The years of mindless boredom when I could have been learning. I would sacrifice a lot to spare my child those wasted years.

My friends with children in public schools, even "trophy" schools, routinely talk about how to handle their kids being bored.  They talk about their kids acting out at home after having to sit in class all day without learning, children not wanting to go to school. It starts as early as 1st and 2nd grade. 

So I ask, parents in private schools, is your child often bored? Did sending your child to private school keep them engaged in school?

The issue of private vs public is a heated one, as is the question of differentiated learning.  I am still looking at public schools and will continue posting reviews, but my question here is specifically directed to parents of private schools.   
     If you'd like to share your experiences on differentiated learning in public schools, please go to the 10/29 post on Jose Ortega, where some parents started discussing GATE and differentiated learning.
    If you'd like to share your thoughts on private vs public, please go to the sfkfiles post on 11/19 post on Children of Highly Educated Parents where a lively discussion is in place. 
  This will help readers find the information they need, instead of having to search through many posts. Thanks! 


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bernal visits Marshall

So much to love so much to be concerned about

What a sweet, small, neighborhood school located in the heart of the Mission. Marshall is:

  • K-5
  • full immersion Spanish (versus  a school with both a GE track and immersion)
  • 8:40 AM - 2:30 PM
  • 75% native Spanish speakers
  • 75% neighborhood families
  • two classes per grade
  • ~20 children  per class in K, 1, 2 and the decreases to about 18 per class
  • the majority of teachers are native Spanish speakers
  • Everett is the middle school Marshall feeds into

The actual facility has an open middle space (think Melrose Place) with a lovely tiled area for school gatherings. The school is in their third (of three) year of a $150,000 greening grant. As a result of this grant they have done some greening to their blacktop and have set up a lovely garden along the side of the school. There is half-time outdoor ed staff person there. 

The children have once a week art, library, computer lab and PE. There is not an actual art room so its done in their classes and come to think of it I did not see a gym. Music is third grade and up (although the principal said the K/1/2 get some through the Berkeley rep). 

This was the first school that I've seen that does not partner with PlayWorks. According to a PTA mom, its a priority but its about funding. Also, interesting because at BV-HM I was told that all Mission schools partner with PlayWorks. PTA is in its seventh year and raised about $52,000 last year.

A limited number of children can be dropped off as early as 7AM for supervised play and games. Aftercare is available until 6PM (5PM for Kinder) through the excel program (which wont work for us since I need four days and for Excel you must do five days). There are off-site options with partners through the Boys & Girls Club and Arriba Juntos.

The school touts themselves as placing an emphasis on science. Oddly, when given the opportunity to talk this up, the principal responded that 'yes, we emphasize science but there is a lot more we need to do". They have an 'Oceans Month' which is a school-wide month long focus on the ocean that includes field trips, on-site marine life exhibits and culminating in a marine habitat fair.They partner with Mission Science for K-2 field trips and their science curriculum is from Lawrence Hall of Science.

I really liked the principal, Peter Avila. As I was waiting for the tour to begin the principal overhead two kids talking and one said that he didn't have breakfast. I watched the principal take him into the cafeteria and get him fed. He seemed laid back and approachable. Principal said there are little to no discipline issues at school. Peter's wish list is for more monolingual English speakers to attend so that the native Spanish speaking children would have those models and peers. He also recognized that one issue the huge number of siblings. He also recognized the gap in test scores between the two native language speakers.

I saw two kindergartens in action - one teacher was a young male who was energized and full of life (and so were the kids he was teaching). The other teacher was much older (thinking grandma/abuela) and did not so much as crack a grin or offer and excited intonation patters. It was a class of 18 children (both had 18 children) and SILENT! Both kinders were working on the calendar and I felt that the only way my daughter would not be bored with this was the fact that it was Spanish. The first grade was just starting to learn about patterns - something my daughter has been doing for the past two years.

I love this school for me. I feel like we/I could make a real difference here in terms of a white monolingual English speaking kid with a family who could donate a good amount of time. But, is this the right school for my daughter?  The lack of arts is HUGE for us. We also need aftercare.

I also wonder who my daughter's peers will be. We are monolingual English and over 75% of the current families are monolingual Spanish there are going to be barriers.  Given the school's location and the percentage of Spanish speakers this certainly seems to be the school to get an intensive Spanish speaking education.

I asked how the teachers handle it when there are 1-2 English only kinder speakers in a class of 18 Spanish only speakers? The recognized this is an issue but that the Spanish is definitely not dummed down and this is mostly addressed in small group instruction.

I just keep thinking about how sweet this school is! Funny, as I re-read this I thought WHY would I want this school. I guess its just a great feeling and that I cant stop thinking about.