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: