Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sunrise Sunset Heads to the Richmond: Quick Notes on Argonne

I turned in our list at SFUSD this week and I'm guessing most of you have as well, but in case there are any procrastinators out there, I thought I'd write up some quick notes from my recent tour at Argonne.

I was very interested to check out Argonne, which has an unusual extended schedule (sometimes called a year-round schedule). Our tour started in the spacious library with some discussion of that schedule. Basically, it sounds like they end the school year at the end of May like other district schools, but then start again after the July 4 holiday (although I think the July-August school day may run a half hour or so shorter than the 8:40-2:40 schedule the rest of the year). Some other breaks (winter, spring) may be a bit longer as well. It works out to an extra 4-5 weeks a year. Unfortunately, even though there are an extra 20-odd days of school, the school isn't allowed to employ teachers for more days than there are in the standard SFUSD contract, so at some point during the year, classes have that time filled in by subs. It sounds like that works out a bit differently depending on each teacher--some choose to have subs regularly, like every other Friday, while some choose to take off a week or so at a time. In any case, it sounds like the subs come from a pool known very well to Argonne and are attached to one or two classrooms, so they become like a regular back-up teacher. The folks leading the tour said that most of the regular subs are either retired teachers from Argonne or younger teachers that Argonne is checking out and may hire as permanent teachers as needs arise.

The schedule sounded pretty great to me--we are a family with two working parents and I know we're not looking forward to lining up a series of camps and babysitters for that long summer break every year. Another thing that sounded particularly nice is the way Argonne uses that extra time in the summer to ease the kindergartners into school. When school starts after the July 4 weekend, half of each K class starts and does a two week little K camp, mostly just fun rather than any real instruction, and just from 8:40-1:00. That way, they get to know their teacher in a small group of 11 and get used to school a little bit. Then, after two weeks, the second group of 11 comes in for their camp while the first group has a little break and then after the first four weeks, all 22 kids start school together.
It sounds like teacher often try to use the extra time in school for field trips. A parent mentioned that her son's class is set to go on 20 different field trips this year. They only get an SFUSD bus for one of those, so the rest have the kids setting out on Muni or involve parents and carpools. We saw a class heading to the Asian Art Museum--they looked excited.

After touching on the schedule, the parents and a teacher (teacher? I think he was a teacher? I arrived late) who were running the info session in the library covered other important points, including afterschool care. Sounds like there are multiple options, including on-site care for a fee; afterschool enrichment classes, also fee-based, like Tree Frog treks and musical theater; and buses to other established programs like the JCC and Nihonmachi. There used to be a Russian program as part of the school day, but that's no longer happening, so now there is Russian twice a week after school for those families that are interested. A parent asked about multi-age classes and it sounds like that was a component of Argonne for many years under the previous principal, but is currently being phased out (the teacher said it can work well if supported but may not have had enough funding to really do it well).  There was also a discussion of school atmosphere. Like several other schools, Argonne does some proactive things to build a positive school community like Reading Buddies (pairing older and younger students) and incorporates the Caring School Community approach. They also focus on positive reinforcement, with a program called "Wolfpack Praises" to call out kids doing good deeds.

Argonne's PTA is super organized and very involved. They raise over $100K from an annual "ask" letter at the beginning of school, plus they have a variety of other fundraisers during the year (auction, walkathon, etc.). With those funds, they pay for a chorus teacher, a dance program, Art in Action (parent-led art projects), the gardening program, and other extras. They also pay for part of a teacher to bring class size down in 4th and 5th grade to 27. It sounds like school fundraising really took on a greater urgency a couple of years ago when the teachers asked the parents to fund that part of a teacher position and the parent community got energized and started focusing on getting more grants and raising more moeny from parents but also from outside the parent community.

After the library, we were split up for a tour of the school, which is in a very nice and relatively new building (I think Argonne opened in 1997). The parent leading my tour seemed especially proud of the school's efforts at greening the schoolyard and showed us multiple small garden spaces; she was also really enthusiastic about the school's new play structure, which was large and swarmed with happy kids.

As we toured around, we got a chance to see the cafeteria/multi-purpose room and we were able to go into a few classrooms. Some of the teachers we saw were the subs who were there as a result of the extended schedule, and some were the regular teachers. As we walked around the schools, we also saw a very well resourced computer lab (although I didn't love that kids were playing games on the computers).

All in all, the school looked great, but at the end of the tour, I have to admit, I left feeling a little confused. Is the extended year schedule a driving force at the school or just something they ended up with and are trying to make the most of? Do the regular subs add something or detract from the experience? Also, I couldn't help being a little suspicious. This school seems like a really solid choice and that extra four weeks has got to be attractive to families with two working parents. So, what's the deal? How come this isn't the most popular school in SFUSD?? I would say this question is only half tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps people just don't know what to make of the extended schedule, since it's the only program like it in the district? Anyone have any ideas? I'd love to hear more from current parents (even though I already turned in my list, so I guess it's moot for me).

Good luck at the EPC everyone...


  1. I liked Argonne - but you are correct about the extended schedule: I wasn't sure what to make of it. I decided to stick with a schedule I knew would parallel our friends. Argonne is also in the Richmond, which - for some- is not close to home.

  2. I think that there are so many great schools in SFUSD, particularly for elementary, that there aren't any real reasons why some schools are requested more than others. I think the Argonne's location is probably most appealing to people who live in the Richmond. It would be a hard location if you lived east of Divisadero and had to commute downtown. So much of school choice is location, start time, and after care. If it looked like a good school and parents are happy, then it is a good school.

  3. I wish more schools would try this year-round scheme. I think it's great and it's better for everyone's schedules (and for kids too, because they retain what they learn). But yeah, Argonne is in the Outer Richmond, and that reason alone is why it was like 15th on my list even though I'm very centrally located. But it is one of the top most-requested schools, despite the location.