Sunday, October 20, 2013

DadintheFog: Thomas Edison Charter Academy (TECA)

Another day, another elementary school tour.  

A few weeks back, I was able to attend a Parents for Public Schools session which included a parent panel representing five different schools.  The parents represented a wonderful cross section of schools – Sherman,  Sutro, DeAvila, SF Community, New Traditions and  Thomas Edison Charter Academy (TECA).  But the parent which really connected to me, much to my surprise, was the one from TECA.  All the parents obviously loved their school, but this parent brought the school to life in a way that felt very truthful – she wasn’t afraid to mention work that still needs to happen, difficulties of the school, etc. while describing all the areas in which TECA excels.
TECA has a long convoluted history from a public school, to a private charter and public charter.  SFweekly recounts the history in a great article here.  Now, I personally would never consider a corporate charter school from a philosophical standpoint (and I’ll save those reason for another day as they really don’t pertain to this review).  This school however is a non-profit organization under the SFUSD.  My understanding is that the main difference is the school does not technically fall under the SFUSD's administration, but rather under its own.  In this way, the principal acts as both the school principal and district superintendant.

I will also point out that LazyTigerMom also reviewed the school last year.  I highly recommend reading her review as well (which includes some nice photos of the building).

Key Differentiators:
One of the key programs at TECA is it’s bilingual education program.  Spanish is everywhere in this school – from notices in both English and Spanish, to classwork on the walls, to parents and teacher conversations.  Of the 4 kindergarten classes, two are bilingual.  For TECA, bilingual education is a 50/50 approach with each student spending half the day in a Spanish language class and the other in an English language class.  Currently the program goes from K-3rd grade and is expecting to increase to K-4th next year.  The program is in its fourth year and is still adding Spanish to its mix.  Plans for the grades 5-8 are not set but may not be full immersion environments due to the demands of middle school curriculum.  

TECA offers music, visual arts, drama and PE year round in 10 week sessions.  Additionally, all students get a 20 min PE session with Playworks daily and a 20 minute unstructured recess.  Science and Math in grades 6-8 are taught by subject credentialed teachers.

Many of the students also seem to do very well academically.  I believe 7 students continued on to Lowell this year (13% of the 8th grade class).

The school requires uniforms consisting of a white or navy top and khaki or navy pants/skirt.  On the day of the tour, the kids had achieved a Free Dress Friday and were not required to be in uniform.

My Arrival:
Once again, I managed to mess up arriving on time.  This time however it saved me as I went to the wrong  address.  (I am rarely off on an address – all these school tours and reviews are obviously messing with my mind.  I did however get a good look at Adda Clevenger!)  I still managed to arrive 15 min early.  No pre-registration was required for this tour; sign-up  was just a quick signature and name badge.  I was able to watch kids playing in the courtyard for a few minutes before starting conversation with the other parents lining up.   I immediately noticed the office was not very well organized nor clean.  I understand how difficult it can be to work in a small space; but I also believe that cleanliness and organization set the tone for an environment.  The floors in the hallway also obviously had not been cleaned the night before.

The Tour:
The tour was not well organized and the parents leading the tour may have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of parents showing up.  I didn't get a good count, but it was probably over 50 people.  Initially the crowd was lined up along the entry corridor.  The tour guides quickly moved us to a foyer outside a nice auditorium, filled with kids preparing for the day.  Unfortunately the space was a little chaotic which made focusing on the tour  a little difficult.

After a class cut through the group, the tour leaders moved us outside to the courtyard for an overview and Q&A session.  A lot of parents asked questions on diversity and the parents made clear that this is a school in transition.  (The touring parents were a very diverse group.  If the school were able to enroll these families, the school would really start to change.)  My view was that while I did see a few obviously white kids and African-American kids, the vast majority appeared Latino.  Obviously, appearances are often wrong; but the school's ethnic breakdown seems to bear out my observations (API data below).

The play yard is large, but a little barren.  There is a wonderful separate space for the kindergarten kids, filled with planters containing educational plants (plants to touch, smell, eat).  A parent wrote a grant to Lowe's and won the planters and plants!

After the playground, we stopped by the cafeteria.  One parent noticed that kindergarten lunch was very early (around 11AM, I believe) -- but was reassured that kids also have a snack time in the afternoon.  Food is not provided by Revolution but by TheLunchMaster.

After leaving the cafeteria, we walked through a breeze-way heading to the stairs to the 2nd floor.  While I don't know if this is a space that children are allowed to enter, I was surprised to see a pile of old desk and chairs stacked haphazardly.  I'm not an overly protective parent, but this pile really bugged me and felt like a safety hazard.  Once again, it was another strike against organization and cleanliness.

Not knowing much about charter schools, I had always assumed they were very regimented and controlled environments.  The first kindergarten class was a general education class.  The teacher was conducting a lesson based on an overhead and the students provided answers on a handout.  While the teacher was reading from the teacher's manual, the kids would respond on their paper.  Many of the kids were answering correctly, but several were randomly circling answers.  While they all were following along, the students didn't seem engaged in the exercise or with the teacher.  Two boys were almost laying across the table rather than sitting upright.  They may have been completing the exercise, but their hearts were not in it.

I'll be the first to admit that this was a 5 minute preview of the class, and TECA parents please chime in to give your perspective.  I'm sure having a wall of touring parents starring at you, would have a strange impact in the class, but this was the first class tour where the kids just didn't seem to care about what was happening.

The second classroom was a dual immersion kindergarten. The classroom felt much more lively and engaging overall.  I was only able to get a few minutes watching the class as there were too many parents pushing their way into the space.  In all honesty, I was also already starting to check out mentally.  I knew this was not a school for which I would be willing to cross the City.

The tour started to fall apart around this time.  The guides finally corralled the parents to the end of a hallway and brought the principal over to speak.  It was hard to hear over the kids in the hall (and the other parents talking amongst themselves).

The New Principal:
TECA has a new principal this year.  The PTA parent were very excited by her and her academic credentials.  In speaking to the tour, however, I was not impressed by her passion or vision for the school.  I can write much of this off as her newness to the school, but I would expect a new leader to have a vision of what she wants to bring to the school.  In this way, she came across to me as an administrator rather than a visionary. 

The tour wrapped up quickly and I headed off.  If I lived closer and had to have a Spanish immersion school, I may be willing to apply as a contingency plan.   However for me, I just could not see my child being engaged in this school.

I truly wish the school well.  Alternative education programs have a clear role in the SFUSD system.  Not every school works for every family.  I would love to see more diversity -- and if the touring parents apply, this will help greatly. 

DadintheFog Stats (Here are a few I found important):
4 Kindergarten Classes (80 spots, 40 bilingual and 40 general)
Around 600 student currently in K-8
Admission:  1st come, first in - Applications accepted starting Oct 22.
Times:  8:20am to 3pm (M, T, TH, F) and 8:20am to 1pm (Wed)
Aftercare:  Onsite care until 6PM ($325 or free if qualified)
Pre-Care:  Free starting at 7:30AM
Total Requests (Fall 2013 Start, Round 1):              Not Reported
API Score (Base 2012):  795
Ethnic Breakdown (from API):             
                African American                                             15%
                American Indian/Alaskan Native:              0%
                Asian:                                                                   2%
                Filipino:                                                                2%
                Hispanic/Latino:                                                76%
                Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander:            1%
                White:                                                                  3%
                2 or More Races:                                              1%
English Learners:                                              55%
Free/Reduced Lunch Eligible:                     82%
Parents Completing College/Grad School:            18% / 2%

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