Wednesday, December 5, 2012

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.

2 comments:

  1. Principals set a tone after a period of time, but what really matters are the teachers. They are the ones that will have an impact on your child and the children of other members of your community. That is to say, principals are important but not as important as teachers.

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  2. A strong principal can set a tone that helps a struggling school turn around. Jean Robertson, who presided over Grattan's climb from overlooked school to one of the most requested (and incidentally whitest and most affluent) in the city, is now at Glen Park. Until a couple of years ago, Glen Park was considered "iffy" but it's getting popular. If you are looking at a school that could go either way and a principal with a strong track record in SFUSD has arrived recently, that might be the factor that adds the school to your list. But principals do move around the district. Rather than giving too much weight to your feelings about the current principal, I think the teaching staff and the PTA are the more important considerations. A PTA can either be an established powerhouse or a potential powerhouse due to recent demographic trends in the school population.

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