Friday, January 11, 2013

Presidio Knolls: The Progressive New Chinese Kid on the Block

I've chosen not to review private schools or popular non-immersion public schools like Clarendon and Rooftop.   I'm making an exception for Presidio Knolls because it's a new Chinese immersion private school that isn't on many people's radar.  The application deadline for next year is Jan 15, so there is still time to apply.

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: Mandarin immersion with progressive inquiry-based education; long school day/more instructional time; beautiful new facilities; parents who are risk-takers; a small school that will grow with your child; a slightly less expensive independent school

The Facts 

Web site:
Location: 250 10th Street between Howard and Folsom (South of Market)
Grades: K–1, expanding 1 grade a year to K-8
Kindergarten size: two classes of 20 students each
School hours: 8:30-4PM
Before- and after-school program: 7:30-6PM. Before-school care is free. Aftercare  is $50 per day/month. A once-a-week enrichment classes are $180 for 10 weeks, $260 with aftercare (works out to be $8/day for the aftercare)
Tuition: $21,500; 36% receive tuition assistance


PKS was founded as a preschool by Wendy Xa, who wanted to create an alternative to the traditional curriculum and teaching style that her daughter had experienced at CAIS.  The school aims to combine Mandarin immersion with progressive, inquiry-based education.  The preschool has become very popular and has grown exponentially, from 6 students in 2008 to 140 preschool students this year.  The school was originally in the Presidio, hence the name, but relocated to a larger campus at South of Market in 2011.

As a result of the preschool's tremendous successs, PKS decided to open an elementary school. The first class of 16 kindergarteners started in Fall 2012, and they plan to admit 2 classes this fall.  They recently hired a new head of school, Alfonso Orsini, who started this year.


The new head of school, Dr. Orsini, started by acknowledging the craziness of the kindergarten application process and telling parents, "No matter what, because of who you are and what you care about and do, your kids are going to be just fine."

He started by saying that that a sense of wonder is the #1 thing he looks for in a school, and proceeded to outline the difference between PKS's vision and a traditional education.  Here's that chart I copied from their powerpoint presentation.

Traditional vs PKS Progressive

Aspects of Education Traditional PKS Progressive
What We Learn Cover topics and chapters.
Emphasis on correct answers, knowledge
Scaffording for understanding
Process of LearningListen, student, test, repeatCollaborative (group work is a
hallmark of progressive education),
differentiated, research, reflection, action 
Assessment of ProgressLinear, incremental,
chiefly paper and pencil tests,
one target fits all
Units of exploration
Multiple forms of assessment
Individual growth
Role of TeachersDirective, authoritative,
Teachers are interactive, guiding, prompting, give/go
43 minute subjects,
"core content"
Integrated subjects in units of exploration
Character DevelopmentStay in line
Pay attention
Inquiry, analyze, create, present
Be caring, reflective, risk-taking

According to the PKS presentation, the cognitive benefits of Mandarin immersion are to accelerate development of executive function including/through.
  • Ability to solve problems with misleading cues
  • Selective attention
  • Inhibitory control
  • Sensitivity to verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Greater attention to listener' needs


80% Mandarin. This differs from the 50% Mandarin/50% English setup of CAIS.  PKS's goal is to have the students pass the HSK level 4 test by 5th grade.  This requires students to be able to read 1250 characters, and be able to speak/understand even more.  

Inquiry-based curriculum with 6 units of exploration in kindergarten:
  1. Our Senses
  2. My Personal History
  3. How and Why Art is Made
  4. The Earth's Cycles
  5. From Field to Table
  6. Precious Water
Each unit incorporates math, science, social sciences, art, drama and movement.  The school day is long, but there is no homework.  Per the head of school: "Studies show that in elementary school, homework makes no difference." It matters more in junior high and definitely in high school, but not in elementary.

New School

PKS has a few advantages common to all new schools.
  • The energy of building a new school, similar to the energy that happens when a group of parents starts to turn a public school around. A community of parents who are willing to take risks.
  • Because the school is so new, there are few to no siblings, and less total applicants than established independent schools. However, there is a large cohort of PKS preschoolers, more than the elementary school can accomodate if they all decide to attend the elementary school.
  • For the child who will do better in a smaller, more intimate environment now, PKS's attendance will start small and grow with your child.
It has disadvantages as well.
  • No older children in the school, so little opportunity to interact with a range of ages in school or in extracurricular activities.
  • Tiny enrollment for the first few years.  There will be only 56 students next year if all of the 1st graders stay.
  • Like all immersion program, enrollment can be expected to drop in upper grades.  Immersion programs often have higher attrition because of students who struggle academically with mastering 2 languages. They have a hard time making up for attrition because there are few students who can speak, read and write at grade level in both the immersion language and in English in the upper grades. 
        This becomes an issue in middle school, when students are socially ready to swim in a larger pool.  Where other private schools are adding a 2nd class, immersion programs tend to shrink. 
  • No established track record of high school placement

More Value for Your Money?

Tuition overall is slightly less than other independent schools, $21,500 compared to $22,600 for CAIS, $23,500+$1000 deposit for Live Oak, $24,250 at Children's Day, $25,000 at Friends, and $26,540 at SF Day.

Long school day = More classroom time for your money. 

The PKS school day is significantly longer than at other kindergartens, going until 4PM. The founder, Wendy Xa, said that they made this choice because project-based, inquiry-based learning takes more time. She pointed out that the long school day means you get "more for your money" with PKS tuition .

The long school day is an advantage for working parents, whose children will be in school until 5:30 or 6PM regardless. Stay-at-home parents may consider it a disadvantage, cutting into precious after-school time to spend time together or to take them to soccer practice, swim lessons, or music lessons. Kids grow up so quickly, and the after-school time with them, while they still want to hang out with parents, is precious.

More affordable aftercare

Where working parents really save with PKS is aftercare. As many working parents have pointed out, the cost of after-school care adds a significant amount of money to the private school budget. With the long school day at PKS, there's less time in aftercare. Afterschool care is just $50/day per month, or $250/month. This is less than public schools. For example, Jefferson and Claire Lilienthal's afterschool programs are both about $450 a month. A 10 week enrichment class at PKS is $180, $260 with aftercare (about $8/day for aftercare with the enrichment class).  

Most schools charge $9-10/hour for after-school care, not including after-school enrichment classes, which often cost $200-300 for 10 weeks.

The disadvantage is that the menu of after-school enrichment classes are limited. In contrast to the broad range of afterschool classes at other schools, this year PKS offered just enrichment classes only 3 days a week for its elementary students, with only 1-2 choices each day: Kung-Fu on Mondays, Gymnastics or Mandarin art on Tuesdays, Mandarin calligraphy or Chinese dance on Thursdays.

Impressive Vision, But Can They Deliver?

The school has a great vision. Will they be able to execute it? There are several successful SF schools that started out as preschools, will PKS be one of them? This is not a school for the risk-averse family.

 Here are some questions that come to mind.

The head of school, Alfonso Orsini, is personable and dynamic, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, but will he stay?  At his prior school in Portland, OR, he left after just 3 years.  

Many of the teachers seem to have little prior experience teaching young children.  Where are the teachers on the learning curve? Will you be paying $21k for Teach for America style teachers--smart, enthusiastic, energetic but with little experience in child development and classroom management?

They currently have 5 years left on their lease of the current site, with an option to buy.  How will they raise the money to buy this large parcel of expensive real estate?  Expanding the school means that they must renovate and remodel the existing buildings on the site to make room; how will they find money for this?  What will this mean for financial aid in the next 5 years?
PKS is not a well-oiled, fine-tuned machine; it's a start-up.  I saw a few glitches. When the school head was pressed about whether there would be any spots, given that they have 140 preschool students and only 40 spots, he unexpectedly threw out that he was considering a 3rd K class if there was demand.
A charming example of how PKS is still working things out was is their soccer team's name. PKS students decided to call their soccer team the "Pandas."  The founder ruefully pointed out that the slow-moving, sedentary panda might not be the best name for a soccer team, but pandas it is.

If you like the energy and vibe of a start-up, if you're willing to take a chance on Mandarin immersion with an innovative curriculum, PKS could be the school for you.


  1. It sounds like a lovely school but why is a school at 10th and Folsom called Presidio Knolls? Is there some connection that I'm missing?

  2. The school used to be located (when it was just a preschool) in the Presidio.

  3. Hi. I'm a current parent who is likely to continue on to Kindergarten. I just wanted to correct the lease information. They have A LONG TERM LEASE. Like, 20 years or something. The 5 year thing is just the date when they can buy the property if they so choose, and they are considering their options. It's not like they could be kicked out in 5 years if they don't come up with purchase funds- no. They'd just continue in the great low rent deal that they negotiated to cover the next couple decades. I could be wrong on the timing (maybe it's not exactly 20... it might be slightly more or less). But, they DEFINITELY don't just have 5 more years on their lease!

    Separately, I'll just add that if this school does what it has set its mind out to do, it will be by far a better school than CAIS. I have to imagine that CAIS is really doing some scrambling right now to get it's act together. 50/50 is not what an immersion program should be, particularly at the lower grade level. I am applying at both schools- CAIS and PKS (well, I am guaranteed admission at PKS), but I have a very serious problem swallowing a 50/50 model. I think if your kid is speaking Mandarin at home, it's fine. But that's not the case for most families as I understand it. They need to get with the times, but they're too "established" to do anything too quickly.

    I don't want to bash them too much! I might get in and decide to go there! But, CAIS really does need to work on its model, and I'm glad that PKS is there to push them to do that. I'm also very hopeful that PKS is going to make it- once you know the parents at this school, you sort of know that they've never failed at anything in their life. This school will happen even if they have to rent out their fancy homes and live in a small apartment to scrape together the extra money to establish the school's trips to China. They just do not fail. Period. It is not an option to them.

  4. Re: CAIS--when they began 30+ years ago, their immersion model was more weighted towards Chinese (90-10 or 80-20, not sure which.) Over the years they modified it to a 50-50 model when they discovered that their graduates were not performing as well in English as their independent school peers. So, it probably depends on what a school's overall goals are. My daughter graduated from CAIS 2 years ago, and while she might not be native-speaker fluent, she is comfortable in a Chinese speaking environment (i.e., in China.) She also aced her AP Mandarin exam when she took it as a HS freshman with a score of 5 (highest proficiency.) We do not speak Mandarin at home.

    I also wanted to say that I really appreciated the dual curriculum at CAIS, and the fact that the English half is more "progressive" and the Chinese half more "traditional" (though I have a little trouble with those distinctions, as they are not absolutes.) The 2 different approaches really cemented in my daughter an appreciation for Chinese language and culture as distinct from English language and culture, but every bit as rich and wonderful and valid. I think it gave her more of an international perspective and a tolerance for different viewpoints.

    Again, depends on what your goals are as a school.

  5. Also wanted to add that I doubt very much that PKS is causing CAIS to scramble! As well as being the nation's first Mandarin immersion program, years ago CAIS started the CAIS Institute (now the Mandarin Institute) to promote Mandarin education nationally. The Institute has consulted with many, many fledgling Mandarin programs over the years and across the country (including SFUSD), as well as sponsoring conferences, teacher trainings, free summer Mandarin programs and other initiatives to promote the implementation of more Mandarin schools and programs. For many years CAIS was the only Mandarin game in town; they would consider the multitude of options that exist today a success!

  6. Anonymous 107 and 149: Thank you for your great insights on CAIS. You offer some thoughts I had not considered or heard about. Obviously the parents of alumni are great resources for those of us trying to figure out where to send our children! I'm curious, do you have a child who is entering kindergarten (in addition to your daughter who is a junior (?) in high school)? Are you sending him/her to CAIS now, without looking at PKS?

    Mandarin immersion is on the upswing and CAIS will be able to fill its spots indefinitely in all likelihood. However, if in fact they want to be or remain "the best," most people are going to demand more out of them than just a good history. Can an old institution keep up with the times and follow all the changes in educational theory as quickly as a new one? Not likely. CAIS has their recipe. It has worked. And nothing much is going to change there anytime soon. That's the sense I get. They've never had to compete with anyone, and though you may doubt very much that they are "scrambling," I can say that as a current parent doing these tours, one does get the sense that they're a little bit defensive about the new kids on the block, PKS, who have chosen not to mimic them, but to do it differently. Have you toured PKS or CAIS recently? PKS has a lot of hurdles to overcome, one might say, being new, but in addition to all of the experts behind the school (e.g., Dr. Orsini who has established MULTIPLE schools- not just the Oregon one), the parents are able to actively shape the school into the place they want their kids to go based on their own thoughts as well as the experts'.

    Is PKS perfect? No. They just started! But, I would certainly hope that CAIS is open to the idea that they could make their institution better, and not just maintain the status quo! Or, maybe these schools are just apples and oranges- and there certainly can be a market for both! If you're more concerned with having the best possible Mandarin when you leave the school... though CAIS may be good, you might want to give PKS' 80-20 model a serious look (looks like AFY has a similar model to PKS; doesn't go down to 50-50 until 4th grade or something). If you're more concerned with your child's English not lagging behind (I'm not even remotely worried about my daughter's English)- maybe you should be at CAIS with its 50/50 from the get-go model. Apples/oranges...

    I'm leaning toward PKS, myself- based on what I'm rating highest (Mandarin and a more progressive teaching style). But, CAIS is very highly regarded, and certainly doors can be opened simply by making it to, in and out of their doors. Your daughter sounds like a good example, and obviously their Mandarin capabilities are nothing to look down upon. Good job, mom.

  7. I don't have any elementary school aged kids, so PKS is not on my radar. But CAIS is a much more dynamic and fluid institution than you give it credit for. It is a far different institution now than the one that was founded in the early 80s. In the 12 years we were there, the curriculum was not static. It evolved over those years, and is continuing to do so under the current Head of School, who is in his 3rd year I believe. Most good schools don't simply rest on their good reputations, but are continually seeking to improve and update their programs to reflect best practices and also the needs/desires of their current community of families. It's an ongoing process of professional development. Presumably PKS will do the same thing as it grows.

    Speaking as someone who is still involved with the current CAIS administration (working on special projects) I can assure you that they are not feeling defensive about PKS or other local Mandarin immersion schools. More Mandarin programs is better, and different implementations of the immersion model will naturally appeal to the differences in the community of parents looking at schools for their kids.

    And to clarify, CAIS didn't modify their immersion model because their graduates didn't develop a good command of English. But in later elementary school and middle school, kids at monolingual schools are reading/writing English at an increasingly sophisticated level. By high school kids are expected to be proficient at reading English literature, writing essays, analysis, critical thinking, etc. These are skills that don't usually develop without some focused instruction, and this is where CAIS felt that it was falling short with the 80-20 model. I think it's hard for pre-K/K parents to really think that far ahead.

  8. You have no elementary children, you work for CAIS on special projects, and PKS is supposedly not on your radar. Yet, you're on a blog ABOUT PKS that was written for kindergarten families that are interested in that school, and you're reading the comments about PKS and interjecting to provide information about CAIS. I don't want to be too confrontational, but doesn't that seem a bit questionable? Is this a "special project" for CAIS? I mean, I have little doubt that you're providing accurate information (about CAIS, at least), but it seems weird that CAIS alums are trolling around kindergarten sites commenting about schools that supposedly are of no concern to them or to the schools for which they work on special projects. Bizarre...

  9. I'm responding to specific comments made about CAIS that were either incorrect or not very nuanced. Presumably this would be of value for parents investigating schools, but maybe not.

    And this is not just a blog for Kindergarten search. I, and others, have used it for years to learn about elementary, middle and high schools.

  10. After reading all these comments I feel like my child's needs would be better served by attending CAIS. The PKS proponent(s) just sound mean. If that's what the parents are like...

  11. I find this thread kind of funny and possibly illuminating about the parents that are interested in Mandarin immersion! I'm not sure if I want to admit that I'm one of them, but I will. I was hoping I was more relaxed than this, but I'm coming to terms with the fact that I am not. I get the sense that everyone is stressed, not necessarily mean. Let's all take a deep breath and try to cut each other some slack. There are two choices for Mandarin immersion, if you don't count the publics where most of us have little to no chance of getting in because of demand. It's stressful if that's something you really want. I think there is a clear distinction between CAIS and PKS from what I've seen in the tours, but I also think that both schools are great (or in PKS' case, will be great if it goes as planned). CAIS is DEMANDING (somewhere in these comments someone said that by 8th grade they have about 3 hours of homework- working parents, consider what time you get home right now, not to mention 'getting situated' and such). I feel like my child will be fine handling the pressure and work, but I wonder if I'm good enough to provide the support needed to have the schedule and life that will allow an additional 3 hours of focused work time to the end of my child's day. Can working parents do this, or do you need a stay at home parent (or a nanny) to provide that kind of life to your child? Also, by sending my child to CAIS am I going to turn my child into someone who is never satisfied unless they are at the absolute top (which could lead to greatness, or a deep sense of constant failure, or both). I get the sense from tours that PKS might be a little softer in that regard, and the head guy says that tests show no benefits to elementary level homework (though presumably they plan on having homework in middle school- will it be 3 hours worth?). The parent that spoke at our tour didn't bash CAIS, but simply said that they wanted something different. I feel less intimidated by "something different," but also wonder if I would be crazy to pass up a chance at CAIS if we get it. Both schools have big negatives (or, maybe we should say "risks" to be less negative) and big positives from my family's perspective. At the end of the day, I want my child to have advantages and be successful, but this is not always synonymous with happiness. We will apply at both. If we get into both, I still don't know what we will do. I'm trying to tell myself that at the end of the day, it's all going to work out... if it doesn't, we'll just figure something else out!

  12. Is that really true about the public MI programs? I thought that it was still relatively easy to get in, if not in the first round then when they release the spots held for native Mandarin speakers (which never fill.). On the other hand, CAIS has a kill ratio of something like 5 to 1.

  13. maybe i'm underestimating the possibility of grabbing one of those late spots. but i don't get the sense that they are a given anymore. i could definitely be wrong though. parents on the tours talked about them, but not in certain terms. i don't know if i have it in me to leave our life that unsettled for that long, and to yank my child out of her new school to switch a few weeks in... not to mention that even tho it's money saving from private, there still is that incredible sense of waste of just leaving all that money behind on the table! if anybody knows anything more definitive about the spots that open up after school starts (recent info), would be great to hear... i just don't know that i have the stomach to wait that long...

  14. I'm not sure, but I think the spots open up in the 2nd round. It's definitely well before the start of school. I know several people who got in that way, and it seems to me that they were squared away within a few weeks. You'd probably be out any deposit put down on an independent, though, which would not be insubstantial.


  16. I maybe wrong, but isn't the number of spots for K at CAIS the same as the preschool? That means it is very unlikely to get a spot unless your kid is already in CAIS preschool. The same applies to Knoll, doesn't it?

    From what I hear, it is fairly easy to get in SK or Ortega. Maybe not the first round, as only 40% are available to the non-native speakers, but if (very likely) they don't fill the native speaker spots, they are release to non-native speakers.

    Another option is to start with a Cantonese program. It is not ideal if you set your eyes on Mandarin, but the district does have a pathway into Mandarin from 4th grade to middle school. This is the case with AFY, West Portal/Hoover, and CIS.

  17. CAIS has spots available for outsiders. The number is very low, but I'm guessing most people that apply there think their child is pretty special! I don't actually have numbers on PKS openings, but I think because they are expanding I have it in my head that they will have more openings than CAIS- but I didn't ask them for their numbers. I know everyone talks about the later rounds opening up for Mandarin in public, but it's such a huge trend these days that I somehow doubt how easy it is to get one of those spots. Maybe it just takes the guts to ride it out until the end and live with more unsettled time in your life... but I still don't think those spots are just open for the grabbing in light of recent trends. Maybe I'm crazy. I get the sense that the Cantonese schools are harder to get into b/c there are so many Cantonese speakers in SF that want them- but I have applied to those as well. I know people who last year put down all of the Chinese immersions, and some Spanish, and got none. I don't think they waited out the public Mandarin schools though.

  18. Why not just apply to all programs, public and private and see what you get, pursuing all pathways until their end? If you don't get PKS or CAIS, let the admissions director know how interested you are and check in with them periodically over the spring, summer, and fall. Things change. With the publics, just keep putting yourself on the wait-lists and contacting the EPC. Spots definitely open up within the first few weeks of school. If you go in with the attitude that you won't get a spot, you're less likely to keep making the calls and doing the work to get a spot. If you believe that if you keep trying, something will open up, you'll keep doing the work to get a spot.

  19. We are a current Starr King Mandarin immersion family, with kids in multiple grades. We have known a number of people who have applied for the program in recent years, and all have gotten in if they were willing to wait it out through a few rounds. In most cases, they got in before school started. Of course this year could always be different, and there were probably some kids who did not make it in, but if you want Mandarin immersion do not give up after the first round.

  20. i have applied to everything, but frankly, the idea of having to wait another 6 months or so before i know what geography and schedule i have to make work is not all that appealing for me and does cause me stress for a multitude of reasons. starr king parent, thanks for sharing the info! i will try to be more patient and try not to burn myself out with stress! STAMINA! i know it will all be fine, no matter where we are, but honestly, i just want to be done with this and move on to everything else i have been neglecting in my life. i am way too obsessed. i hope i'm not the only freak like this...

    1. This year you won't have to wait 6 months EPC is running 5 rounds between March and August. Round 2 assignments will be out on May 10, round 3 on June 10, round 4 on Aug 9, and round 5 on Aug 26. Details are on page 8 of the SFUSD 2013-14 Enrollment Guide.

    2. You've put in the applications. Get on with life until it's time to start making calls and applying for additional rounds. You can't do anything while they're processing the paperwork. It's hard to detach, but at a certain point, you just have to know you've done the best you can for now and that you will have to do more in a couple of weeks. It's okay to rest. Put GeekMom's dates in your calendar and just make sure you keep filling out the paperwork.

  21. the schedule sounds much like last year, first letter in march, 2nd in june, then the big scramble starting the week before school in august and weekly after that. we did not get our school in first or second round, gave up for 3rd round, and just transferred into our top school through spring transfer. to sum it up, a year from submitting forms until getting into the school we wanted. but at least 6 months of additional stress before we submitted our application, so really 18months of stress. and still here i am, in our top school and still obsessing over schools!

  22. I've heard the same thing -- that just about everyone who pursued Starr King or Ortega got in. Yes it's a hassle to not know where your child is going to school until June or possibly September, but waiting seems like a small thing in the big picture, especially if Mandarin is a top criteria. Kids are pretty flexible and they probably won't miss a lot if they change schools in the first two weeks of Kindergarten.

  23. 1.31.2012, 7:02 a.m., I think I just fell in love with you for your last sentence... hahaha... I am the same way, and it is comforting to hear someone else be stressed and/or obsessed! I am glad it all worked out for you in the end!

  24. Rumor has it that Ortega does not even have room for all of its immersion siblings this year. I'm guessing that does not include the Mandarin spots, but it certainly is a sign of how things are going with the Mandarin programs.

  25. "The school day is long, but there is no homework. Per the head of school: "Studies show that in elementary school, homework makes no difference." It matters more in junior high and definitely in high school, but not in elementary."

    I am generally not a proponent of homework - but I wonder how PKS expect their students to master written Chinese without any homework? I get learning to speak/understand Chinese with the 80/20 model, but reading and writing - that's another story. Learning Chinese *characters* require a fair amount of practice and memorization; how would they do that without some homework?

    1. I can see PKS getting it done during the school day. There's ways to learn characters more organically than tedious memorization and repetition. Memorable stories or metaphors about characters or stroke order; integrating characters into units like the calendar and the days of the week; using jokes, puns, and memorable phrases; games like "Go Fish" using cards with characters or letters; and everyday exposure to characters in the environment.

      It only takes a few bathroom trips to a toilet that has two levers, one marked with the character "big" and one with the "small" before you figure it out. After a few years of using that toilet, the characters will be imprinted in your memory forever.

    2. Sounds like The Think System from "The Music Man"

      There's really no way around lots of practice and repetition when learning how to write Chinese characters (much like learning to play an instrument well.) From this description it seems like PKS is aiming more for oral proficiency in Mandarin than full literacy.

    3. Learning "big" and "small" are only two characters out of the many THOUSANDS that students will have to learn to be proficient in Chinese reading and writing (vs. 26 alphabets to form words). I'm skeptical that it can be done during the school day. In fact, I've heard that one of the reasons that CAIS transitioned to simplified characters is to help students learn and absorb the necessary number of characters more easily - despite already having a rich homework load. As a former Chinese learner, I agree with the previous poster that only practice and repetition can help you learn to read/write Chinese.

  26. There is another option to PKS and CAIS for less than half the cost, although not immersion. My son goes to Chinese school on Saturdays at St. Mary’s. They have an elementary school that has been around for almost 100 years. Their 8th graders graduate with oral and written fluency in Mandarin. They used to have a full 35-student class with a waitlist, but they had to move into a temporary location due to earthquake safety. It took 15 years, but last year they moved into a beautiful new building on Kearny and Jackson. Their enrollment declined during the relocation, and they are trying to build it back up again. The class sizes are small(average 15) and their students have high test scores, and go to high schools like Lowell, University, St. Ignatius, and Sacred Heart. They want to have a diverse student body including Catholics, Non-catholics and all ethnicities. Contact the Executive Director, Lisa French at for more information.

    1. That's a great resource and a very good alternative for those of us interested in having our kids learn another language but are squishy about the intensity of immersion.There are some similar programs for Spanish and French as well for those not ready for immersion or can't afford the private school options.

    2. It sounds appealing. Can kids become proficient with Saturday school if their family doesn't speak the language at home? How do they like being in school 6 days a week? What about play time? What if your child wants to join a team that plays games on weekends?

    3. Wouldn't that depend on the program- whether it's all day or a few hours? Not every child is into sports or can do that after school. A more gradual approach to learning a language works for some and can be ramped up at a later grade level.Outside of immersion, most schools only offer language classes after school,if at all. It's good to have an alternative option.

    4. SFGeekMom - I accidentally posted my reply to you as a new string below. Anyway, I checked with the Director. Besides the Saturday 9-12pm class which is mostly a different student body than the day school, the day school offers Mandarin class everyday for 45 minutes (M-F) and optional after school class from 4-6pm, so it can be almost 3 hours per day.

  27. My son isn't in elementary school yet, so he only goes to the Saturday 9am-12pm class. He seems to like it a lot. Once he goes to elementary school, he'll only take weekday classes instead. Yes, we weren't able to continue some of our activities (soccer tots) that are on Saturday, but we've found other programs that are available on weeknights and Sundays. For the elementary students at St. Mary's, there is Mandarin language class during the school day and an optional after school program. I'll check with the director about the hours. The elementary school students don't usually go to the Saturday class. We don't speak Mandarin at home either, but hoping my son will retain it. I learned French that way when I was in school even though we didn't speak at home.

  28. I've got 2 children at CAIS (Presidio Knolls did not have an elementary school plan, so I did not have a selection). Based on my conversations with parents and administrators at CAIS, I'd say that they view Presidio Knolls as a positive development, as do I. These days there are more applicants than spaces in language immersion schools, and more choices will lead to more enrollees, which will grow awareness, and thus help both schools.

    I can't speak to the PKS curriculum, but I'd venture to say that at CAIS there is a wealth of institutional knowledge which you generally get from doing it as long as they have. Students who exit the program after 8th grade are well prepared for high school, and do very will on standardized tests. And even so, the curriculum is not at all stale- just last year the decision was made to switch to simplified characters (taught in mainland China) as opposed to traditional characters (taught in Taiwan), which is a big change for the program. I think it's fair to say that the curriculum is always being tweaked for improvement.

    That being said, I've heard good things about PKS from parents whose children go there. They appear to be a dedicated community who cares about the quality of education for their children.

    One final note - applying to ANY school in San Francisco is a nerve-racking experience. There's typically a 4 or 5 to 1 ratio of applicants to spaces. My advice is to pick 2 of your favorites and go in at a 45 degree angle, instead of carpet-bombing every school - it's usually obvious who are the tire kickers and who are serious about getting a space. Unfortunately, even so there are sometimes not enough spaces for everyone.

    1. I wholeheartedly concur with the above. My husband and I have a combined 5 children who graduated from or are currently attended CAIS. When I met my husband 12 years ago, his children were in kindergarten, 4th and 7th grade (2 adopted from China). We now have 2 children together in the lower school. PKS was on our radar and both our children were accepted into both schools at preK level, but we opted to enter into immersion at the K level preferring a small neighborhood school experience (also due to work/schedule/cost limitations). Having seen through over half of CAIS' history between our children, I can also attest that CAIS is not a comfortable school that rests on its laurels. It constantly strives to improve and update its curriculum and needs to the changing times and values. I do also think that CAIS views the PKS expansion as a positive move in the overall MI world. I don't have any direct experience with PKS, but I see them both being attractive to very different types of families - aside from the Mandarin aspect, they offer very different curriculums and methodologies. I think it's thrilling that there are now several options within SF for those interested in MI because I do see that the CAIS model is not catered to everyone - no school has a one size fits all curriculum.

      More importantly to note is that the entire demographic of MI is changing as technology changes. MI (and other immersion programs as well) did not have the mass appeal 10 years ago. As it appeals more to non-native and non-Chinese families, there needs to be a wider menu of offerings. For our family, the CAIS model worked well with my husbands now college and post-grad "children" and its cultural values are aligned with ours, so we went with what we knew. Our two kids are now doing wonderfully at CAIS - constantly challenged by the curriculum, but with complete enthusiasm. It appears that most of the students see the hard work as pleasure and not a chore.

      I'll be definitely focused on how all of the MI schools progress in the next few years should somehow the CAIS model not work so well for our currently enrolled kids. All I can say is, one school should never be pinned against the other - we should all support each other as a community.

  29. I just met a Presidio Knolls parent at a playground. I asked her about the school since I am very interested in sending my daughter there. She loves it but said that now the school will likely only go to 5th grade and will probably not have a middle school. I just checked the school's website and it still says that it will be a pre-K to 8th grade school. Can any current Presidio Knolls families comment on this?