We also got a surprise: my daughter, who won't turn five until September, was accepted at Brandeis Hillel Day School, a Jewish school out near Park Merced (the only independent we applied to). That was flattering and the school is...wow. The academics seem amazing, the resources are beyond incredible, the community sounds wonderful, but the real kicker is how they focus on character education and Jewish education through the exploration of core Jewish values. One of the values the school talks about a lot is tikkun olam, or the principle that we all have a responsibility to do our part to heal what’s broken in the world. This has become a trendy concept in American Judaism lately, but the way Brandeis talks about it feels authentic to me. I want that kind of values education for my children.
But as we crunched the numbers, we realized we couldn't accept the offer. Our situation is a little complicated but while we can do tuition for one child for the next couple of years, we just can’t commit ourselves to so many years of $26,000 and then $52,000 a year (we have two kids), plus tuition increases, plus all of the expenses of aftercare, summer care, etc (which we will have at any school, but still, those costs are real). Plus, we only have one car and getting to Brandeis would probably require us to buy a second car. (They have a bus but it doesn’t stop in the Sunset). We are sensible people and we know we need to save for high school, college, retirement, taking care of aging parents, maybe buying a house someday, etc. It’s just...too much.
We agonized over the decision and I know it’s right but I still feel some twinges of regret. My immigrant forebears sacrificed everything for education. Am I not willing to do the same for my kids? Am I now so soft that my need for a little money in the bank (and my fear of Sunset traffic) will keep my kids from a great education? Or am I making a rational decision that will lead to a calmer, less stressed out family life for everyone? And don’t my Jewish values require me to be present in this world, too? If we commit to an up and coming public school and spend some fraction of the money we would spend on Brandeis there, could we in some way contribute to our community as a whole and actually practice a little bit of tikkun olam? Or would we just be serving ourselves and patting ourselves on the back while doing it?
Meanwhile, big questions aside, Sunnyside was looking sunnier and sunnier. This whole lottery system can seem to pit families against one another but I am amazed by how our network of friends went to work for us. A friend from the neighborhood immediately emailed the parents in her child’s class to see if anyone knew families at Sunnyside. Another friend remembered an acquaintance who has kids at Sunnyside and connected us. I realized looking at the school’s website that I went to grad school with a current parent--I sent him a message via Linked In and got an immediate (and very positive) response. And as we actually talked to people and pored over school data (thanks SFGeekMom!), we couldn’t believe it. It feels like we’re having the classic SF experience--assigned to a school you know barely anything about and you discover it's a hidden gem. Or maybe it was only hidden to us?
So what’s going on at Sunnyside? First and foremost, it sounds like the teachers are solid--I talked to three different sets of 2nd grade parents who gushed over every teacher their children had had. Second, to be honest, probably one of the most important things has to do with money: A huge demographic shift over the past few years means more parents able to contribute time and money to the school (as my husband says, this is the generation that was raised on Seinfeld and doesn't want to move to the suburbs). Last year, the PTA raised more than $140K, which seems impressive for a small school (360 students). The parents have worked collaboratively with the teachers to hire an instructor to do project-based math activities, and starting in 2nd grade, students will be exposed to basic computer programming. My daughter has already received a welcome postcard hand-drawn by a current student (cute!) and we got an invitation from the PTA for Coffee with the Principal and a Family Craft Night where kids and parents will make stop-motion picture books. Everybody we have talked to has only good things to say about the welcoming, interesting, down to earth parents who are giving their all to the school. Some of them recently recruited the afterschool folks from Miraloma to create a new afterschool program at Sunnyside to complement the existing options. A parent who is a choreographer coordinates dance instruction for multiple grades, and a parent who used to be a History professor arranged for fifth graders to participate in California History Day, where students research a historical topic of their choosing and present at the San Francisco History Day fair (five of Sunnyside's students are going on to present their projects in Sacramento at a statewide event). Another parent who is a web designer created a very engaging website for the school (http://www.sunnysidek5.org/). The PTA pays for schoolyard monitors for recess, art and music programs, and more, and has started multiple garden projects, including a native plant garden.
Even with these demographic changes, the school still has ethnic diversity and a principal committed to equity for all students. The whole package just seems like it has a ton of potential. The school is getting a huge renovation, which could be disruptive for a year or more, but sounds like it will have a great outcome, including a new library and media center. And the teachers do some things that seem very smart that I saw at a few other schools: They invite new families in for a morning so the incoming K students can be observed and teachers can build classes that are balanced. Fourth and fifth grade teachers are also working now to take on some subject matter specialties just as the teachers do at Commmodore Sloat, to better prepare the students for middle school.
So it looks like our daughter is headed to Sunnyside and we’re thrilled. Our only question is one of logistics. We love our neighborhood (the Inner Sunset) and we love how connected we’ve become to other people here. We often run into preschool friends at the playground and the farmer’s market. It’s easy for my daughter to play at friends’ house nearby. Ideally, we would get to school on public transportation. So right now we’re trying to figure out if it would make sense to enter Round 2 to try for a school closer to us (Clarendon, West Portal, Jefferson and Grattan are all easily accessible via walking or public transportation). But we’re also kind of in love with Sunnyside at this point! Any insights?
I guess there is one more question and that’s an existential one about the lottery. Although I can see some of the benefits of this system, right now I mostly see the bad. All of the time parents spend touring and agonizing seems like a shame--especially for those parents who put down 15 or 20 options and get shut out!! I am also really taken with that recent notion from economic research that sometimes too much choice isn’t good for us. I think when it comes to SF elementary schools, I might know too much. I don’t just want a school for my children, I want the best. I want everything I just learned about at Sunnyside, plus the gardens from Rooftop and Lakeshore and Sunset, the art room from Clarendon and that gorgeous building from New Traditions, the library from Sloat, the Kindergarten yard from Jefferson, the music teacher from West Portal, the inspiring principals from Grattan and Glen Park, the classroom work I saw displayed so energetically at Alvarado, the science kits they send home at Peabody, and the extended schedule from Argonne. I want my kids to speak Spanish (and Chinese and Japanese) fluently but I also want them in a school committed to diversity. And I want it all right near my house and with a start time that works for me and an afterschool program I can get my kid into. Is that too much to ask? I don’t know, maybe it is. In any case, I hope we'll feel like what's great at Sunnyside (or wherever) is enough. I'll let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, thanks to the other bloggers, to those running the site, and to all of the commenters--and good luck to everyone, wherever your kids are in school!!