Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunrise, Sunset, Sunnyside?

So. My daughter was assigned to Sunnyside, #12 on our list of 45 schools. Waitlisted at CACS and TECA. At first, I felt a little deflated. After all of the research and tours and all the information I learned about how to play the lottery, I didn’t do any better for her than #12? Plus, I couldn't remember much about my Sunnyside tour!

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!!



34 comments:

  1. The 43 Masonic bus goes from the Inner Sunset along Parnassus to 9th and Judah and then it travels into the Sunnyside neighborhood going toward City College. I believe there is a bus stop within a couple of blocks from the Sunnyside Elementary.

    Also, if you dream of buying a house, Sunnyside use to be a great option (not sure - it has been awhile since I lived there). Not too expensive (comparitively) and a nice family friendly neighborhood with good weather.

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    1. The 43 bus stops 1 block West of Sunnyside, on Flood and Gennessee.

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  2. It's so frustrating how hard it is to get a good education for your child in San Francisco. Congrats on getting into Brandeis (a wonderful school) given how young your child is! Did you apply for financial aid at all? If not, could you call Tania and let her know you'd love to go but can't swing the full cost and are there any options available? Good luck!

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  3. If you have concerns about logistics I would definitely go for round 2 and try to get a closer school. Still register at Sunnyside though.

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  4. With 2 kids and a "complicated situation," I think the choice to take a pass on Brandeis is a smart one, though congratulations on getting an offer. If money were no object I would send my kid to Brandeis in a heartbeat (culturally Christian but love the combination of academics and values), but that's just a crazy amount of money.

    You've got nothing to lose by enrolling in Sunnyside and going for Round 2 and riding out the process into the start of the school year, but only list schools for Round 2 that would really represent an improvement for you over Sunnyside. If you don't get a Round 2 school, you keep your Sunnyside assignment.

    The value of a convenient location and start time and available extended care (if you need it) to your family's sanity and quality of life cannot be underestimated. Speaking as a 4th grade mom, I can guarantee that it only gets more complex as your kids get older and into more non-school activities. Keep your school commute simple!

    All the best to you. I have really enjoyed reading your posts.

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  5. "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?"

    Back about 5 years ago, on this blog, there was a collective freak-out when a bunch of people were assigned to Sunnyside. Many, including a bunch of Miraloma co-op preschool, accepted, which added some serious horsepower to the PTA. (If you've ever been to a Miraloma preschool co-op fundraiser, you know what I'm talking about.)

    Two years ago, a lot of parent in comments on this blog were frustrated that they couldn't get into Sunnyside. Not sure why Sunnyside went off the radar again this year.

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  6. "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."

    Well, you're a more informed consumer. Before I toured the publics, I couldn't imagine sending my kids to a U.S. inner city school.

    Then I toured a buttload of SFUSD schools and was seriously impressed, and not just with the trophy schools. E R Taylor, Moscone, Bessie Carmichael, Jose Ortega, Sunnyside, Longfellow, Yick Wo, Rosa Parks don't have the name brand of Rooftop or Clarendon but they still are awesome schools.

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  7. If Brandeis is the best school for your child but you can't make costs work (which I appreciate), why did you not apply for financial aid? Looks like sfgeekmom was also disappointed in Public lottery, but gets to go to Friends and pay almost no money since she applied for and received aid. Does Brandeis not provide financial aid?

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    1. If only it were that simple! We got a fair amount of financial aid, but it will still be a huge stretch. I asked the same questions that Sunrise Sunset laid out so well, and agonized over my decision too. It's a hard choice, maybe easier for me with just 1 child. On the other hand, if you gave me the choice of private education vs my siblings, I would pick my siblings any day.

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  8. I don't know Sunrise Sunset's circumstances, but for our blended family, bio-mom's high earnings kept us from being eligible for financial aid. Bio-mom refused to help with tuition and was not under a court order to do so, so our choice was pay it all ourselves or go public. We could swing it for one kid, but with two it would have been out of the question. Just mentioning that as an example of a situation where financial aid might not be available to a family.

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  9. We made a similar decision to yours -- we had 3 private schools we were offered acceptance to plus our AA public school, which was one we were pleased to be assigned. We toured/applied to both private and public because we did not know what we were going to get on either side, and wanted to have as many options for our twins. We did apply to financial aid and got offered it at 2 of the 3 private schools. However, it was not significant enough to change the picture for us.

    We got very excited about the private schools and what they had to offer, but ultimately, we decided to decline as paying the cost of tuition for 2 kids for 9+ years (thinking beyond K-8) would really hinder our ability to save for private high school (if we want that route), college, retirement, etc. We loved these 3 private school communities and were sad to decline their offers. But we also think we have a great option with our public school. If we hadn't had it, we would have put the depost down at a private and tried for round 2. As tough a decision as this was, we feel so fortunate to have had choices as I know so many other families have not had this luxury.

    In the end, no choice is perfect (unless you are one of the few who had a clear first choice and got it.) We will be very involved parents and will contribute our time and money at our kids' public school. I feel good about being a family that is going to really try to make a difference at a public school, and I am determined to ensure my children still receive a great education.

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  10. It's wonderful to hear about families like 12:02's and Sunrise Sunset's. Your schools are lucky to have you and you'll find lots to do and get involved in. There's often opportunity as well to create new projects/efforts/initiatives at public schools as administrations are very receptive to family help, engagement, and ideas. The process of helping your school can feel really collaborative and empowering. Things feel possible.

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  11. "If Brandeis is the best school for your child but you can't make costs work (which I appreciate), why did you not apply for financial aid?"

    Reading her list of schools she liked and the attributes she wanted (languages) it sounds like her Plan A was SFUSD.

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  12. I think Sunnyside is a great school, but I'm not sure that the commute is as tough as you think. It is basically Woodside to Laguna Honda, over Portola, and then down Teresita. That's likely a 15-20 minute commute -- not terrible. As an aside, we're currently doing a crazy 25 minute commute for a middle school that we love that's in Pacific Heights. (We're in Twin Peaks.) I would try the commute at rush hour one day, but I think it's not that bad. And if either of you work downtown, Sunnyside is a little walk from Glen Park BART in case an emergency requires you to get there fast.

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  13. I loved that you wrote about the concept of tikkun olam and are thinking about that within your school and educational community. Hopefully, you can bring that with you to Sunnyside. If you participate in your public school community and practice those values, you will be part of the solution!

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  14. Not sure why my comment about Brandeis Hillel was censored. I was just pointing out that the school seems to have some problems--or at least reviews that are "mixed" enough that I would personally hesitate to pay them $25,000 a year, despite the excellent marketing job they do on their tours. See for example:
    http://www.yelp.com/biz/brandeis-hillel-day-school-san-francisco#query:brandeis%20hillel
    http://www.greatschools.org/california/san-francisco/8968-Brandeis-Hillel-Day-School/?tab=reviews#revPagination


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  15. 1:21 p.m. let it go. The school without negative reviews doesn't exist in San Francisco or many other places I can think of. I was the respondent to your first post and I'll say it again: Shame on you for disparaging a wonderful school and community that many families are happy at with NO first hand experience at the school yourself. Enough.

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  16. And yet people on this blog regularly disparage schools such as John Muir and Rosa Parks--schools with which many families are apparently very happy (note that Muir scores as well in parent ratings on Greatschools.org as Brandeis Hillel does, and that Parks scores better)--and you don't censor them or tell them to shut up.

    So why the double standard? Why is it wrong to disparage Brandeis Hillel (a school attended largely by the white and wealthy), and yet OK to have conversation after conversation about how to avoid having one's kids educated at various schools in the South East of the city (which--purely coincidentally, I'm sure--are attended largely by the black, brown and poor)?

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    1. In reading some of the blog reviews, I wish some of the reviews were more candid with some of their concerns. Not necessarily being disparaging but more up front about what they didn't like about the school On Word of the mutha's lastest post, she mentioned that she didn't think Rooftop offered students the same leadership opportunities she saw at Hamlin, yet not sure if she addressed those types of concerns in her initial reviews. However, she did write up some candid observations about Alta Vista. Criticizing schools can be controversial and generate heat, but if it's done in a constructive way based on actual observations or experience, it is very helpful.

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    2. I agree! I didn't actually end up writing a review on Rooftop, because it's a well known school that people put on their list already. And, honestly, the leadership thing wouldn't have made it into the review, because it's not something I would have noticed to be missing.I just noticed that they had it somewhere else. (I think someone else just commented on how there probably are leadership opportunities at Rooftop, but they just don't "market" it the same way as privates. That could be true, and I would love to hear from some Rooftop parents about this!)

      I do feel like our reviews are just snippets of how we felt about a school because of a tour, the research we did online and the people we talk to. People should just take them as that. I have noticed that other bloggers (this year and past years) are generally pretty neutral and luke warm in any sort of critiques (myself included). And that's NOT helpful. All the schools end up seeming vanilla-ish and then what we learn is what we could have learned by reading the website. Maybe we're very much a part of the everyone-gets-a-trophy culture.

      There are also many problems at different schools, public and private. And while we all want to "support" the schools, if something is missing or something felt wrong, we should be more frank about it. If something is offensive or makes you gasp, you should say it. It also give parents at the school a chance to write back and say, "actually, we do have a GREAT principal..." or "no, we are not all snobs...." or "we actually have art every other day and it's taught by..." And if it's an issue a prospective parent reading the review feels strongly about, they can go and ask someone from the school. I think this happened with the Alta Vista post. Although I obviously offended some people, you can see the multiple perspectives come out in the comments.

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    3. These are great points. But one reason reviewers may be fairly neutral is that in truth, their information is pretty limited. They generally have four or five year olds, and what you know then is different than what you know five years later; they are seeing a snippet; they are going off of impressions; they know far less and less in depth than those who actually have children at the school, and who might be reading this blog; they recognize the power of a potentially unfair negative review. I do think you make a good comment in saying something negative or direct can inspire those there to respond back with a different answer. But the negative thing is out there. It's like a political campaign. The words don't necessarily have to be entirely accurate to have power, resonance, and endurance.

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    4. I'm with 5:56. Parents doing the kindergarten search often don't know what's important because we haven't travelled that path yet. In my experience, thoughtful comments from parents about a review of their school is far more informative the review itself.

      Does this blog influence parents' decisions about where to send their child? Absolutely. But to me, a comment from the parent who's been at a school for a few years and who's willing to name their school carries much more weight than a school review. The perspective of the parent of a 4th-8th grader at a specific school is like gold.

      In general, it's the readers' comments and shared experiences, not the posts, that make the blog.

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  17. Sunrise, will you reconfigure your list for Round 2 and what was your orig no.1? Have you registered at Sunnyside and do you think you'll stay with it?

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    1. We registered for Sunnyside and I think we'll be so happy with it if we don't get something closer in Round 2. I think we'll use our original list again, except we might not put Jefferson this time. I keep hearing negative things about their afterschool program. If any current parents feel differently about the afterschool program or know of plans for changes, or have other options to suggest, please let me know! Our original #1 was Clarendon (our neighborhood school).

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    2. I heard there were only 21 available spots for Clarendon. Did anyone who actually lives in the attendance area get in, apart from siblings?

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  18. One thing that's often striking on the tours of privates versus publics is that the tour is more polished and comprehensive. You hear from the heads of school, sometimes a lower and upper head. You often see older kids in sort of performing roles. The tours are carefully orchestrated and have a team behind them that may be beyond the scope of the publics. That should be taken into consideration though. It's more of a sophisticated sales job at the privates, understandably. Whereas at the publics, you're usually just seeing part of a regular day, i.e., show up at 9:30 and poke in the classrooms. The principal is not generally as engaged on the tour as the head of school is elsewhere. I read Word's comments about not hearing about the leadership opportunities at Rooftop with a bit of sadness. Just because you don't hear about them on the tour doesn't mean that they're not there; they're just not promoted as skillfully. Word got to go to multiple events at Hamlin where she heard more of the message she needed to hear. That's just not generally possible at the publics, but it shouldn't mean that they have less sophisticated communities or communities less able to address the particular needs of one's child.

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    1. I have to admit that on some parochial school tours, I hated being lead around by 8th graders.I know it demontrates initiative but they can't answer questions in the way a parent or administrator can.

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    2. Have been touring S.F. schools both public and private for four widely spaced children ages middle through college since the 1990's! Most recently toured middle schools. Some off the cuff observations from over the years esp. for the SFUSD: K-5's if you want to attract middle class parents lose the metal detector at the door. It set's a tone and it isn't a positive one. Principals, are you under enrolled ? Looking for new involved families? Conduct the tours yourself! Represent at the enrollment fairs, drum up interest and be the enthusiastic face of the school. Arts, Arts, Arts! Sure there's STEM but STEAM is even better. Imagination trumps test taking every time. Last but certainly NOT least SFUSD instead of throwing money at underperforming schools to buy bells and whistles invest in your teachers. Professional development with emphasis on running a tightly knit classroom where differentiated learning is the norm should be a priority. Project based learning is not a new idea just one that works. Okay, done for now.

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  19. We are very happy at Sunnyside, where our K son goes. We had a less than stellar experience there with our older daughter (now in 7th grade -- at Hoover and very happy) but the school has morphed enough that we were willing to give it a try this time around.

    There's an active PTA, and many opportunities to get involved (but if you can't or it's not "your thing," there are enough people doing it that things run very smoothly.

    The commute sunset to sunnyside isn't terrible. Some mornings I drop my carpool gang en route to dropping big girl at Hoover (15th and Santiago). It's only about 10-15 minutes or so from drop off to drop off. And, if you commute downtown, there's some unmetered street parking between Sunnyside and Glen Park Bart, which makes it a good choice that way.

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  20. Congratulations on getting Sunnyside! If you are planning to try for Round 2, I should imagine you would have a reasonable chance at getting a school higher on your list. And if not, you still have a great option (just a bit further away) in Sunnyside.

    And for what it's worth, I think the standard of education in the majority of SFUSD Elementary schools is so good that your decision to not risk putting yourself in a potentially precarious financial situation to fund private K-5 education was a good one.

    Good luck with Round 2 if you do decide to try for a different school. Would love to hear how you get on.

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  21. I think Lazy Tiger Mom also got assigned Sunnyside so you may actually cross paths.

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  22. So Brandeis costs $26,000 a year now? I remember when it was about $8,000. Private school inflation is just atrocious.

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  23. That last paragraph you wrote is priceless. It's true. Every school has something to offer. And rthose of us who want everything for our children want all of it. But each of the schools you names is great. We got into Glen Park and weren't 100% certain it was right either. But guess what. I'm 90% certain, and that's pretty darn good. Thanks for the reminder.

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  24. Thanks 11:49! I posted a comment elsewhere but also wanted to say here that we went through Round 2, but did not receive a new assignment. So my daughter is still assigned to Sunnyside for now. We'll probably try for Clarendon (our AA school) or West Portal in Round 3 for the convenience factor, but of course we're not holding our breath.

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