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.