Wednesday, December 31, 2014

School Tour: San Francisco Community School

San Francisco Community School


Location: 125 Excelsior Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112, Excelsior

Grades: K-8

Total Enrollment: Approximately 290

Kindergarten Size: 33 – three K/1 classes of 22, with 11 kindergarteners and 11 first graders

Hours: K–5: 9:15am–3:30pm, Grades 6–8: 8:45am–3:35pm, early dismissal for all grades at 2:15pm on Tuesdays

Before care: The schoolyard is staff-supervised starting at 8:20 a.m.

After care: ExCEL until 6:30pm, 5:30pm on Tuesdays (full time, free – but funded by SFUSD so cost may change); Boys and Girls Club until 7:00pm (full or part time, fee based)

SF Community is a small, public K-8 located in the Excelsior neighborhood. I was shocked that it only took me a little over 5 minutes to drive there. I had not appreciated how close it was, which is a huge plus.

The tour started in the yard where the kindergarten and first grade students were playing before school began. We then saw “morning lineup” where the students lined up single file to enter the school building. One of the teachers led them in a little call and response about how they were all ready to go in and to learn. I don't remember the exact words but it was very cute.

We then went into the library, which was a large bungalow. The library was nicely painted on the outside with murals and it was a big room with just tons and tons of books.

Presentation and Q&A

The Q&A was led by the principal Nora Houseman.

She has been at SF Community for seven years. She spent four years as a middle school math teacher at the school, and this is her third year as principal.

SF Community is the smallest K-8 school in the district. They pride themselves on their small, personalized learning community. There are 289 students total. There are 33 students per grade. And with such a small student body everyone knows everyone else.

Looped Classes

Students loop teachers for two years, meaning that they have the same teacher, e.g., for kindergarten and first grade, for 2nd and 3rd grades, etc. The school also tries to match siblings to teachers so that teachers really get to know families. I like that idea that teachers, students, and families would have the time to build deeper relationships.

There are 100 middle school students. Similar to the lower grades, a student often has the same teachers for all three years. Each student has an advisor who s/he stays with all through middle school.

Project-Based Learning

SF Community is the only project-based learning public school in San Francisco. That has been the school’s approach since it opened in the 1970s. Their pedagogical philosophy is to take an inquiry approach to learning, i.e., doing rather than being told. They employ a workshop model. For example, for math, rather students being told algorithm, practicing the algorithm, and then being tested on it, the students are led to understand why they need an algorithm, then work to develop the algorithm, and then defend what they think is the right approach. They do have tests, but students also develop portfolios that they are evaluated on.

The second and fourth quarters of each school year are project quarters. The projects are science-focused, and focus on one area deeply. At the time of the tour, the school was in the second quarter, and the K-5 students were doing projects in the physical sciences.

The principal described several past projects and passed around a copy of a flier from an earlier Project Open House, which is a project night where the students show off what they have done to parents and friends.

For example, last year one of the projects for the fourth grade was to design a car that lit up and moved. So while on that project, they were also working on math elements such as Distance = Rate x Time. There was an expository writing element, which was that the students had to write a how-to manual for their cars.

The K/1 students last year did projects related to states of matter. Their projects included cooking, which was a way for them understand solids, liquids, and gases. The students also learned about measurements, which was a math component, and they wrote cookbooks for the writing aspect.

An example of a project that middle school students did was to re-write Romeo and Juliet. Another project required them to design rockets, and then they were asked to improve their original rockets to make them go further and faster.

The teachers align what reading the students are doing to the subject matter of the project. Math is usually not as aligned as the amount of the math that has to be covered is so great so math class proceeds on its own track.

As the second and fourth quarters are so science focused, the first and third quarters tend to have more emphasis on social science work.

Dual-Grade Classrooms

The school believes that mixed age classrooms allow kids to be challenged more. The school has three kindergarten/first grade classes. In each K/1 class, there 11 kindergartners and 11 first graders, so there is a range of development, but they believe this helps them meet students where they are. Having a mixed age class helps with mentorship and modeling because the first graders do that for the kindergartners and, then, the next year, the new first graders are able to do that for the new kindergartners. The school also has reading buddies, pairing up younger grade and older grade students.

English Language Arts

The school uses the Balanced Literacy program from Teachers’ College Columbia. The principal noted that many SFUSD schools are moving toward the program. The system has students read texts at their proper reading level because students progress when they are reading exactly where they are at and can comprehend the material. For Readers’ Workshop, first, the teacher teaches a skill or concept to all the students while they are sitting on the rug. Then the kids work in pairs on that concept. Then the kids practice the skill independently with a book at their level, which means that students are reading different books. During that independent reading time is when the teacher works with kids in small groups on specific things that they need to work on. SF Community teachers do a lot of assessment to ensure that students are always reading at the right level.

SF Community uses A-to-Z levels for books, and they use that from kindergarten through eighth grade. After Z is adult level books. It is very resource intensive to have a range of books in all the areas necessary, but the teachers really put in the time to make it work.

Fostering Community

The school has eight Virtues that are posted in every classroom and throughout the school – Propriety, Respect, Balance, Perseverance, Justice, Harmony, Community, and Truth. The virtues help everyone have a common language for praise and expectations.

Every month there is a K-8 assembly with a Virtue of the month, and they celebrate students for exemplifying that particular virtue.

There are community circles every day. They find that getting to know each other reduces conflict. They also do reactive circles to address and resolve conflict.

As mentioned above, the school has reading buddies between older and younger students so that older students can be mentors and models for younger students.

Conflict Resolution

SF Community uses restorative practices, which is spreading throughout SFUSD as well. When harm occurs, the student who caused the harm stops, reflects, and then takes responsibility. The school rarely uses detention and almost never suspends. They apply discipline that is related to what happened.

In other schools, a kid might be sent out of class for doing something wrong and they return the next day with shame, anger, and no reflection about what happened. The restorative practices model asks what happened, what the student was feeling, and what the student thinks needs to be done to fix the situation. The person who caused the harm sits down with the person the conflict was with, takes responsibility for what happened, and helps come up with a consequence. For example, last year there was an eighth grader who painted graffiti in the library and a restroom. The consequence was that he apologized to his class, apologized to the librarian and the janitor, and helped clean school one time per week for a month.

Class Sizes

Almost all the funding the school gets goes to teacher salaries. In kindergarten through third grade, SF Community has the same 22 students per class size maximum as the rest of SFUSD. But for 4th through 8th grades, SF Community caps their class sizes at 24 students per class. In the rest of SFUSD, there is no maximum so classes are generally around 33 students in those grades. Keeping the class-size low is a big priority for the school so that they can continue to provide differentiated instruction to students.


Students visit the library one time per week. Students also visit the garden one time per week, and the lesson is tied in with the science they are working on in their regular class. The school has a PE teacher and has always had a K-5 PE teacher. Students get PE three times per week. For arts, K-5 students get instruction one time per week, alternating between dance, music, and visual arts.

The middle school students actually came up with 10 arts classes they wanted to have.

Students in 4th-8th grades can learn to play a musical instrument. They can also opt into choir.

Students take many field trips, often tied into their projects. For example, students go to the Excelsior Science Lab often, which is just two blocks away.

There is basketball, soccer, and track in middle school for sports.


The principal raved about their afterschool program, ExCEL, which is through the district, and has been free to any students who wanted to participate. It may not be free in the future as it depends on what SFUSD wants to do. The structure of ExCEL is 1/3 enrichment, 1/3 academic, and 1/3 being active. There is a wide range of enrichment activities, and apparently they have a very capable and wonderful director.

The afterschool program ends at 6:30pm Monday-Wednesday and Friday. It ends at 5:30pm on Tuesdays because of early dismissal. Technically, aftercare is supposed to be for the full three hours because of how it is funded, although the minimum this year is three days per week.

As an alternative, the Boys and Girls Club, which is next-door, has a fee-based drop-in program that is popular with students who do not need the full-time program.


School ends at 2:15 on Tuesdays so that the teachers can have three hours of planning time.

The teaching staff’s jobs are very resource and time intensive. Because of the project-based learning focus, teachers that are at the school really want to be at the school and are excited by that approach. They generally do not have a lot of turnover.

The school was founded by teachers and parents. It has always had a teacher-selected principal, formerly known as the Head Teacher, and who is unanimously elected by staff and the school site council. The school continues to have a teacher-run model, with consensus, and all teachers need to take a leadership role. It is not for teachers who want to be siloed in their classrooms.

The principal position is not for a fixed term but it just ends whenever it is the right time for the principal to move on and a new person is ready to move into the role. The principal plans to stay in the role for a while. She described moving into the role as a year of slow mentorship as she had to get another credential and work with the outgoing principal and others.

There are no dedicated aides in the classroom, but they have paraprofessionals as required for the kids with that in their IEP. The school also has a behavior specialist.

The school has a literacy coach.

Parent Involvement

The SF Community parent volunteer on the tour noted that both she and her husband work full-time, but she was there for the tour and her husband was going to be at the school later that day. The principal agreed that parents are very involved. There is a wide range, of course, given that different people have different outside obligations.

As far as some specific opportunities for involvement, they include the ELAC (English Learner Advisory Committee), the PAC (Parent Action Committee, which is SF Community’s version of the PTA), and the School Site Council.

The school holds intentional community building events, such as a potluck, a festival, and a silent auction. With regard to fundraising, there are events but they do tend to focus on unity building. The school really is quite small and there are only about 150 families because of all the siblings. They do not believe in fundraising through kids, i.e., they would rather families write a check than sell wrapping paper.

Students with Food Allergies

Some of the touring parents had children with allergies so there was an extensive discussion about how the school assists such students.  SF Community has a no nuts policy, and a no sharing policy. They do have a part-time nurse. There is a list of kids with allergies, and even the specials teachers know which kids have allergies. The classroom teacher is the point person. The nurse trains teachers and the secretary is the keeper of things like EpiPens in the office. The current parent on tour had kids who had allergies and other medical issues, and she said within 10 days everyone on staff knew about her kids’ allergies or medical needs and were on top of it. She felt very comfortable with how that it is handled.


One of the visiting parents asked about the safety of the school. The principal assured us there had never been an incident with an outside person coming onto campus. The principal noted that they close the front door during the day and use a video to buzz people in. The front gate that opens to the yard is not locked, although the school has been asking SFUSD for a lock.


Regarding technology, the school just got a cart of Chromebooks and iPads. The school has not really had that kind of technology before so they are now making decisions about how to utilize them best.


The school is actually the oldest public school building in San Francisco, but it has been retrofitted and renovated.

Garden and Outdoor Space

We walked through the garden where there was a class going on. Generally, the garden and the class teacher are both together with all the kids in the garden.

We walked through the upper yard where the kindergartners and first graders play. The yard has a slide and a climbing structure. The very large lower yard is for the second through fifth graders, but also the 6th-8th graders. The recesses are staggered, although K-1 and 2-3 have recess at the same time, just on different yards. The lower yard is shared with the Boys and Girls Club but SF Community uses it during the day, while the Boys and Girls Club uses it after school and in the evening.

Kindergarten/First Grade Classes

We first visited a K/1 class.  On the walls, there were a lot of posters about reading, such as sorting vowel patterns. This classroom also had a discipline chart with the clothespins with each student’s name and the different colored levels. Individual teachers have the latitude to decide what to use in the classroom so some might have a chart and others will not. The classroom was big and open with tables for the kids.

The students were sitting around the teacher on the rug as she gave a lesson with an oversize book. She appeared to be talking about using pictures to predict the text. Most of the kids were focused and paying attention, and a couple kids were a little antsy, but they were responsive when she asked the students what they thought the accompanying text might be based on the different pictures.

We went to the second K/1 class and similarly the kids were also sitting around the teacher on the rug, discussing what skill they would be working during individual reading in their books.

We then visited the third and final K/1 class, whose posters I noticed included math (e.g., “Ways to make 7” and would list 0+7, 1+6, 2+5, etc.) and science (e.g., about states of matter, e.g. solids, liquids, gases). We walked in right as the teacher was finished talking about the skill they were working on and the students were moving to work in pairs.

All the classes were big and bright with a rug in the front center and tables throughout the rest of the classroom. It was great that we were able to see all three teachers, with their different styles but applying similar lessons.

Upper Elementary Classes

Then we visited a 2/3 class. The students were also doing Readers’ Workshop, but had already moved to independent reading at tables, with each student reading text at their own reading level. The teacher was working with small groups.

We stopped into another 2/3 class with lots of posters about science, including energy, light, sound, and heat. Both 2/3 classes we popped into had tables for the students to sit at and a rug at the front of the classroom.

We also visited a 4/5 classroom where the students were gathered around the teacher who was using a projector and appeared to be teaching how to write more detailed and descriptively. The teacher had them do a lot of talking to their partners during the lesson, which appeared to be a way to reinforce the lesson. But when she was talking, the kids were definitely focused on her.

In terms of how classes are sorted at the end of the year when students at a grade where they move to a new teacher, SF Community looks at the scores, gender, and race; does a blind sort; and then tries to balance the classrooms as much as possible.

Middle school classrooms

We were able to stop in to a couple middle school classrooms. I wish all tours included upper grades as the touring parents will eventually have older students even though we have kindergarten on the brain.

We saw a 6/7 humanities classroom although the students were quietly reading at tables so there was not enough action to make much of an impression.

We visited a middle school science class where the teacher was talking about genetics and the potential future of genetic modification. He was very dynamic and most of the students appeared pretty engaged. It was actually too bad we were not able to stay longer.


We walked through the cafeteria. The 4th and 5th graders eat together, then the 6th-8th graders, then the 2nd and 3rd graders, and finally the kindergartners and 1st graders. Lunch is 25 minutes in the cafeteria followed by 25 minutes of recess. The K-1 and 2-3 students also get a 20 minute a.m. recess.

Final thoughts

I really liked SF Community. Although we are open to either K-5 or K-8, the idea of not having to worry about middle school has its benefits. I also am drawn to the smaller class sizes all the way through 8th grade. A small school where everyone knows everyone else is a nice idea in the middle of the big city. Finally, a school with a long tradition of project-based learning is appealing as I really think my kids would thrive in that environment. It definitely will be on our list, it is just a matter of where.

Monday, December 29, 2014

School Tour: Lakeshore Elementary School

Lakeshore Elementary School


Location: 220 Middlefield Drive, San Francisco, CA 94132, Lakeshore (near Lake Merced)

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: Approximately 500

Kindergarten Size: 88 – four classes of 22

Hours: 9:30am-3:35pm

Before school care: Multiple options, starting at 7:30am

Aftercare: Multiple options, the latest ending at 6:30pm

I arrived at Lakeshore after about a 15 minute drive. The parking was pretty easy, although the tour was scheduled about half an hour after school started. Lakeshore is fairly convenient on the map, right by Stonestown. However, the most direct route involves that horrible Sloat Blvd./Juniperro Serra Blvd./Portola Dr./West Portal Ave./St. Francisco Blvd. intersection that also includes MUNI streetcars, so waiting through at least one light cycle for five minutes or so is not unusual. The idea of sitting through that every day is not appealing, and, if we ended up at Lakeshore, I would definitely explore alternate routes.

The tour that day was atypical for the school as the principal was offsite. One of the kindergarten teachers (I will call her the “K Teacher” for convenience and because I unfortunately did not catch her name) was leading the tour in his place. I would have liked to meet the principal, as I have definitely found that principals can influence my feelings about a school – even though I know that it is possible that the principal will not be there the entire time my family attends the school or even by the time my child starts. Another downside was that the K Teacher was not always familiar with the upper grades, and the parent helping on the tour was a kindergarten parent with the same limitation. The tour was also a bit all over the place with no formal Q&A, but lots of different topics discussed and questions answered as we walked around.

The upside of a teacher as tour leader was that we got an interesting perspective that we may not have otherwise received.

The K Teacher was in her 14th year at the school. Her daughter attended the school, and their experience inspired her to change her career plans and obtain a teaching credential. On the tour she mentioned a few other teachers who had been at the school a very long time and who had also had their children attend Lakeshore.

General Information

As I mentioned, there was no formal Q&A on this tour, so below is some interesting information that was shared on the tour or in response to questions.

Teacher Professional Development – As with all the schools, Lakeshore has been implementing the Common Core, and the teachers have been working with a consultant and getting a lot of professional development surrounding that. Last summer the teachers all were trained in Readers’ Workshop from Teachers’ College Columbia. The teachers also have a literacy coach. With regard to implementing Common Core math, they have received many new tools and, among other things, are being trained in how to increase number sense.

Teachers have a Wednesday Meeting with the principal where they get together in groups and share strategies that have been effective.

Homework – Homework is about 20 minutes per night for kindergartners, although it is mostly reading.

Arts Enrichment – Students receive eight weeks of music instruction. Fourth and fifth graders have the chance to play musical instruments. The school has a Native American consultant who teaches dance. The students get studio art for eight weeks per grade level.

Student teachers and aides – The school tends to have a lot of student teachers because they are close to San Francisco State University. All the classrooms generally have one or two student teachers. Paraprofessionals are also in the class where required for students with a designated need in their IEP.

Field trips – The kindergarten students have at least have one field trip per month.

After-school Enrichment – After-school enrichment classes include Mandarin, Cantonese, chess, drama, and keyboard.

Diversity – As we sat in one of the gardens during the tour and watched the kindergarten students have recess, the K Teacher noted that we could see that Lakeshore is one of the most diverse schools in the district. It definitely looked like one of the most diverse schools I have seen and the official stats bear that out.


Community Room

We started the tour inside the main entrance to the school, which was just outside the Community Room. We peeked in to see a strings instruments music class in the large, open room. The room is also used for motor class for K-3 students. It is used as well for the Halloween parade, multicultural night, the school potluck, the winter concert, and also math and literacy nights for families.


We then went to the cafeteria, which was bright and open. The school has staggered lunches, but the four kindergarten classes all have lunch together along with the K-3 special day students.

K-1 students all eat lunch in the cafeteria whether they buy it or bring it from home. Students in second grade and up can eat outside if they bring their lunch from home.

Outside Space

There are 3 yards – one for kindergarten, one for first grade, and one for second through fifth grade, although their recesses are staggered.

We went outside and saw the large top yard which is for the older students. It had a blacktop, a track, a play structure, and basketball hoops. We saw a PE class. The big kindergarten and first grade yards also had nice, large play structures.

There were also a few portables, although we were told that they are newer portables that comply with ADA requirements. There is at least one kindergarten class in a portable.

Kindergarten classes

We poked our heads into two kindergarten classes in the main building. The classes shared a bathroom that was between the classrooms. The rooms were quite large, and, in both classrooms, the children were gathered around the teacher and sitting on rugs while the teacher was explaining something to them, but I did not catch the subject matter. The children appeared interested and engaged. The rooms also both featured several rectangular tables for the students. In one class the teacher was using what I assume was an ELMO.

Garden & Garden Classroom

We saw the large, main garden (of the 7 gardens!), and spent a few minutes sitting on the benches asking questions. We also visited the impressive garden classroom where the consultant was with what I believe was half of a kindergarten class. Although it was a portable, the classroom was vibrant and decorated with great posters and other items. The children were learning about the season of autumn. The other half of the class was with their teacher back in the classroom doing a different science lesson. The garden consultant was energetic and dynamic, and was a former Lakeshore parent. She explained to us that one of the things she teaches the kids is about the roots of the words they use, and she had a big chart on the wall about many of the words. For example, they learn about temperature and so she shows them how each part of the word is derived from its Latin roots. No pun intended, but that seemed like a great way to plant the seed for a skill that will be so useful to them in the future.

Library/iPad lab

The library was one of my favorites so far. It was big and open and bright. The library is a double classroom with books in one half and an elab with tables for working on iPads in the other half. Students visit the library weekly. In grades 1-5, students alternate between books one week and working in the elab the next. Kindergarten students visit the library every week but only for books.

The K Teacher was frank about why the school did not have an actual computer lab. She noted that with the cycle of budget booms and then budget cuts, what happens is the school gets a nice computer lab with a computer teacher when times are good. When budget cuts roll around, the computer lab teacher is the first person to go, and eventually you have machines that are older and need to be repaired or updated but the funds do not exist for that to happen.

Grade 1-5 Classrooms

We visited or peered into a few 1st-5th grade classrooms briefly, but in most the students were out at recess or some other activity or we just looked from the doorway. Unfortunately, that meant we did not have much chance to see classes in action. Most of the upper grade classes are single grade, but there is one 4/5 class because of how the numbers shake out when class-size increases from 22 students after 3rd grade.

Most of the classrooms had rectangular desks, pushed together to make tables, as seems typical of the public schools I have toured. One of the 3rd grade classes we saw had tables instead of desks, while one of the 4th grade classes arranged the desks such that they were placed touching each other side-by-side in rows. It looked crowded, but as we could not look all the way into the classroom, it was hard to tell how the whole space had been utilized.

I was quite impressed by one of the fifth grade classrooms we were able to walk through where there were shelves on one wall filled with baskets of books organized by levels and by categories. There really appeared to be lots of choices for every child at his/her reading level. Hopefully, all the teachers will embrace Readers’ Workshop as enthusiastically though it definitely requires a lot of teacher preparation and effort.

Art Classroom

We ended our tour at the art classroom and spoke with the art teacher. It was a very exciting space, and the art teacher has been at the school for several years and has started art programs at other schools as well. They have a kiln room too. The art teacher emphasized that they do “art for art’s sake” and it is meant to be very hands on. She takes half of a class at a time. She was preparing for upper grade students who had been studying Rothko – both his life and his art – and they were going to do paintings in his style.

Final thoughts – Overall, I really liked Lakeshore. I came away with a very positive impression of this warm and welcoming school. Lakeshore has a small attendance area despite having four kindergarten classes, so, if you really want the school but live outside the attendance are, it would seem you have a good shot of getting the assignment. We also happen to know more families at Lakeshore than any other school (none of whom live in the attendance area), so, for us, the built-in community is a plus.

It is definitely going on our list - still need to figure out where though! It is a school that could be a good fit for lots of families, including ours.

What are your thoughts about Lakeshore, readers?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Got immersion questions?

Got immersion questions?
Glen Park parent Elizabeth Weise’s book “A Parents Guide to Mandarin Immersion” came out in November. She’s offered to answer parent questions about language immersion in general for those who are considering it for their children. A little information from her:
Hello all. We signed up for SFUSD’s Mandarin immersion program back when it began in 2006. It’s been quite the ride and overall an excellent (if at time bumpy) experience.
My day job is as a reporter (I cover computer security for USA Today) so I couldn’t help myself and started researching and writing about Chinese immersion when we first started out at Starr King. That morphed into a 458-page book, which came out in November.
During the past three years I’ve read dozens of books and academic papers on immersion about multiple languages, visited schools, interviewed parents and attended conferences. The focus for my book was Chinese, but because there was almost nothing available on Chinese immersion, I ended up doing a lot of study about immersion in general.
I’d be happy to answer people’s questions about the science and data on how language immersion works, as well as how it functions in other school districts and schools nationwide.
SFUSD is not alone in creating a network of immersion programs. Los Angeles has a ton and Utah has become the national leader, creating a state-wide program that includes Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Portuguese.

Good luck to everyone pondering their Kinder choices. I turned in my oldest’s high school form last week!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

School Tour: Creative Arts Charter School

Creative Arts Charter School


Location: 1601 Turk Street, San Francisco, CA 94115, Western Addition/Fillmore

Grades: K-8

Total Enrollment: 366

Kindergarten Size: 44 – two classes of 22

Hours: Kindergarten (Mon., Wed.-Fri.): 8:30am - 2:15pm; Grades 1-8 (Mon., Wed.-Fri.): 8:30am - 3:15pm; Grades K-8 (Tue.): 8:30am - 1:05pm (Early release for staff development)

Before school care: None was mentioned, but the campus opens at 8:00 am

Aftercare: Until 6pm (fee-based)

The first pleasant surprise of the Creative Arts Charter School (CACS) tour was that it took me less than 20 minutes to get to the campus, and with parking I got to the school right at the tour start time, which was just after the school’s actual start time. Although I am still not sure I want to make that drive to any school five days a week, it was nowhere near as bad as I expected.

Community Meeting

After signing in, we joined the whole school on the yard for the weekly Community Meeting, which was being led that week by the sixth graders.

It was great to see the entire school in one place, and even though there were presumably well over 300 students, it did not feel like a huge number of kids. The younger students were sitting and the middle school students were standing.

The student population looked pretty diverse, especially the older students.

The meeting was quite lengthy and included appreciations where several students each took a turn at the microphone to thank teachers, parents, other students, and even the janitorial staff for their various contributions, which was nice.

Principal and Staff Introduction

After the Community Meeting, we went to the cafeteria where the principal and staff gave us some information about the school. FYI, lunch is provided by Revolution Foods.

The principal explained that the Community Meeting is held three times a month on Friday and each one is led by students from one grade.

It is the 20th year of the school, which was founded by parents. The core values of CACS are community, respect, responsibility, and excellence. The principal shared that the school has received awards, including the California Distinguished School Award and the California Department of Education's Exemplary Arts award.

The principal explained that he felt that other schools generally either do rote learning, which produces great test takers who are not necessarily creative thinkers, or are focused on project-based learning but the students cannot multiply or have bad handwriting and are just not prepared. Principal Aguilar felt CACS bridges the gap and lets the project-based learning happen but also produces kids who are prepared for high school. He is also a parent of a first grader.

Arts education – He introduced Rita Lane, who is the director of arts. There is theater, visual arts, music, and dance for K-5 students, who get 50 minutes a week in each area. Students in the 6th-8th grades commit to one of those areas for at least one year and get 50 minutes of it three times a week.

Arts is also integrated into special units of study, some of which are with Rita Lane or visiting artists. For example, in first grade, the students did a unit on “change makers,” which was about activists. The students made posters about each person and the final product was a large, colorful book, which was displayed at the Q&A.

Conflict resolution and prevention – We were then introduced to Summer Sanders, the middle school administrator. The school has a “peaceful school” program, which was started to deal with bullying. They go into classes and give presentations about it. Kids, parents, and teachers sign agreements regarding how to treat each other. They also use a program called CARES where they teach students to use “I” messages, which empowers kids to work with each other. They also use Responsive Classroom in grades K-5.

Each day’s class starts with circle, morning message, and greetings. In grades 4-6, they have advisories, which are groups of 14 students that get together and in 7-8, the groups are 19 students. The groups meet with an adviser and the groups help students get to know each other and work through their issues.

Admissions – Jenny Kipp, the admissions director spoke next. She explained that the admissions process is a pure lottery, except that they do try to maintain no more than a 60/40 gender split, in addition to the tiebreakers of sibling preference and preference for San Francisco residents. She noted they had several hundred applicants for their spots last year, which was far fewer than 44 because of by siblings and children of staff. She did note that their wait list often has a lot of movement.

Tour of School

We then left the cafeteria and crossed back through the yard to the building where we first entered the school. The yard was very large and in addition to a decent-sized play structure with slide, I noticed for the first time a very large pole with solar panels on top. I did not get a chance to ask about what exactly it powers or how it came to be.

We started at a first grade classroom. It was a very large room and they had a loft, which was apparently a good spot for kids to do independent work. There were huge windows, making the room seem even larger and airier. The classroom walls were covered with lots of posters and projects. There were benches around a rug in one corner of the room. The kids had circular tables with their names on them. The kids were having choice time so there was a lot going on and kids were all over the place.

The school loops classes so that kids have the same teacher in kindergarten and first grade and then they move on to a teacher that they keep for second and third grades. They do mix up the students in the classes between first and second grade. As students stay with the same teacher for both kindergarten and first grade, they also stay in the same classroom, and all the kindergarten/first grade classrooms are designed for both grades and they all have lofts. The teachers design their own classrooms.

Next we went to another first grade classroom, also with a loft. Instead of benches, the classroom had a couch next to the rug. Again there were circular tables and lots of books, including a box of leveled books. The teacher was working with small groups while others were quietly working independently.

We saw a second grade class very briefly. The students did have desks, but they were pushed together to make tables as I have seen in many, many classrooms now. We popped into a third-grade classroom with a similar configuration using larger rectangular desks put together as tables.

We visited a kindergarten class. The kids were seated on benches around a rug for “kimochi” show and tell, though I do not know what that exactly means and it looked like regular show and tell to me. What surprised me though was in that kindergarten class, nearly every child in the room appeared to be white. Obviously, it is impossible to know if that is really the case just by looking and other kinds of diversity are certainly invisible, but, it was striking, especially compared to how diverse the middle school students appeared at the Community Meeting.

We dropped in on the other second grade class, where the students were writing scripts. The scripts were based on a project that they had done about how families come to San Francisco. The students were now collaboratively writing a play about someone coming to San Francisco for the first time. The kids were sitting at tables and seriously discussing what to put in their scripts.

Our tour leader noted that the school actually shares facilities with another charter school, Gateway Middle School, but the two schools have separate yards and different start and end times so there is no interaction between the two populations.

Post-Tour Q&A

We met the principal back in the cafeteria for a Q&A.

Math and Science – One of the parents asked how well math and science are handled given the arts focus. The principal said that they use TERC investigations. Students get real world problems and develop the skills to figure them out. He acknowledged that the method does not work for all students.

One of the current CACS parents mentioned that she was somewhat she was concerned about the science aspect of the school as she is a science person, but she feels project-based learning is perfect because it is about observation and doing projects, which is a great way to learn science. She noted that in the upper grades they do have textbooks. The principal added that the school does well in state tests at fifth and eighth grade level in science so they feel like they are effective at teaching science.

Because they are a charter school, they have autonomy in terms of the math curriculum. Teachers can suggest alternate approaches if they feel it will be more effective.

High schools attended by graduates – The principal also noted that the kids who graduate do well in terms of high school acceptances. They had 8 kids accepted to Lowell last year, and four went. Eight students got into SOTA and all attended. Graduates also were accepted to many different private schools.

Special education & other support – CACS contracts special education services through SFUSD. The school pays a flat amount to the district based on the total number of students enrolled, and the services meet whatever the student’s IEP says is needed.

Kindergarten and first grade each have one assistant teacher per grade. There are reading intervention specialists.

Addressing behavior problems – Regarding behavior problems, they have a guidance counselor and 2-3 interns who run six week-long small social/friendship groups to help kids with their social issues.

Kids who need more of a challenge – One parent asked what the school does with kids who need more of a challenge. The principal explained that 1-2 weeks before school starts, the kindergarten teachers meet with the kids and parents at their homes to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Once school begins, there are ongoing conversations, conferences, and report cards to determine what level each student is at. If students are bored, parents should meet with the teacher as the teachers are willing to work with families.

Teachers – The principal stated that another benefit of being a charter school is that they have the autonomy to hire and fire teachers. They have five new teachers this year and had the ability to conduct a nationwide search to find candidates. He said that the school offers teachers more prep time than other schools, and noted that the day of the tour the second grade teachers were meeting with an educational consultant.

The school also has contracts with subs so that they have the same regular substitutes and their substitutes are people who know the school.

Stability of the school – The principal also told us that the school just got its charter re-approved by SFUSD, and they have a good deal on the rent.

Technology – CACS has Chromebooks for research, which are used by students in grades 4/5 and up. Some of the middle school teachers received training from Adobe in special software for movie-making.

Parent Involvement – Their PTA is called the Family Association (FA). All families are automatically enrolled and they ask all families to donate 40 hours per school year. There is a class representative who is a liaison between each class and the FA. They also have parent education nights. For example, the night before the tour they had a program on the Peaceful School program.

The school holds two fundraisers – the Fall Fair in October and an auction in February. They also have an annual fund.

The FA uses money for a number of things, including a scholarship fund for field trips, such as the overnight school camping trip. They also pay for coffee for community meetings and the staff.

Aftercare – Aftercare runs until 6:00 pm and it is fee-based and run by staff. Some of the enrichment during the aftercare includes Blue Bear Music guitar lessons, Spanish immersion arts, tae kwon do, Academic Chess, and Tree Frog Treks.

Diversity – The final parent question was focused on the diversity of the school. The principal said that he recognized that as the school gets more popular, it gets more white, especially in the younger grades. They want to get more diverse kids. They are working with the San Francisco Coalition of Essential Small Schools (SFCESS), which focuses on equity.

He also acknowledged that CACS has an achievement gap – their API for white students was in the 900s, for Latinos it was in the 800s, but for their African-American students it was below 700. They want to figure out why they have an achievement gap and what they can do better.

Final thoughts

There were parts about CACS I really liked, including the emphasis on arts (obviously) and the project-based learning combined with wanting academically successful students. There are some drawbacks, including the location and the interesting diversity issue they have. That all said, it is hard not to think that an artsy place that seems to simultaneously push rigor in academics would be a good fit for my son, and we will most likely apply.

School Tour: Sunnyside Elementary School

Sunnyside Elementary School


Location: 250 Foerster Street, San Francisco, CA 94112, Sunnyside

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: 385

Kindergarten Size: 66 - three classes of 22

Time: 8:40am-2:40pm

Before school care: 7:30am-8:40am through the Mission YMCA (fee based)

Aftercare: ExCEL until 5:40 p.m. (SFUSD, free, means-tested, full time); YMCA until 6pm (fee based, full or part time); TRU Enrichment Program until 6:30pm (fee based, full or part time)

Sunnyside is the second closest elementary school to my house, and I know that a lot of Miraloma Park families attend the school. Everyone I know who has toured has been excited about it, and the couple of currently enrolled families I know also love it. I was looking forward to the tour.

It was an easy, less than five minute drive to the school as I expected, but with all the construction at the school, it took me far longer to find a parking space than to get there. I strongly considered whether I should have walked, which would be doable but challenging because of the hills, or taken the bus, which would be a very convenient option for us if we attended this school.


We began with a Q&A with the PTA president and several parent volunteers. The principal, Dr. Renee Marcy, also arrived in the middle of the Q&A, led my tour group, and stayed for a portion of the Q&A at the end of the tour.

The Q&A was held in one of the special day classrooms, which had posters of various famous people who also had disabilities. I also noticed Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success posted in this classroom and other places throughout the school.

Dr. Marcy is new as a principal this year, although she previously worked at the school as a literacy coach so she was not new to the school.

There were at least six parent volunteers participating at the Q&A and on the tour. In addition, there were a couple of parent volunteers who were talking with the prospective parents but had to leave before the official Q&A began. It certainly set the tone that many parents seem involved in and happy with the school.

Rolling Drop-Off – Although the school starts at 8:40 a.m., there is a rolling drop off from 8:20 to 8:40. Instead of having to find parking, parents can drop their kids off curbside and parent volunteers escort the children into the building.

Aftercare – There are three separate after school programs, but they are “umbrellaed,” and the kids can participate in the enrichment classes regardless of which program they are enrolled in. There are currently 11 after school enrichment classes offered for a fee and scholarships are available. These include Spanish, Mandarin, math, and science. The enrichment programs were all started by parents who had to do the legwork to get the programs up and running.

Number of classes – There are three classes each for kindergarten through 3rd grade and 2 classes each for 4th and 5th grades.

Renovation - The school is currently undergoing a major renovation. This includes the construction of the new building and significant work on the existing building. Although the new building is essentially complete, we were not able to see inside at the time of my tour. The old building will be renovated primarily during the summer. All the construction is supposed to be completed before the 2015-16 school year so the entering students will have no construction.

The new building will include the library, and the school has a part-time librarian. There will be a media lab that will be a double-sized classroom in the new building. There will also be a number of regular classrooms, and students will begin moving into them this school year.

Integrated Curriculum – The school tries to integrate the curriculum across different subjects. For example, if students are digging earthworms in the garden, they are reading about them, writing about them, etc. This type of integration is aligned with the Common Core.

Math, Science, & Technology – The school has a math and technology enrichment instructor.

For science, like many SFUSD schools, Sunnyside uses the FOSS science curriculum. Each teacher has a box of science experiments available to them. The school also has a program called SEEDS (Science & Environmental EDucation at Sunnyside). In that program an instructor comes in and teaches the California Life Science curriculum standards in their garden. Sunnyside has UCSF and SF State scientists come in to present to classes. There are also field trips to various science museums and sites in the city.

For math, students do “rich math tasks”. Instead of textbooks, the students work from binders put together by teachers of math curriculum. The kids figure out the answer or approach to a problem, and then have to justify their answer and debate.

English language arts – Dr. Marcy stated that the school has lots of books, organized into levels, which allows for differentiation. Assessments are done early and frequently to make sure students are met where they are. The school uses the Writers’ Workshop and Readers’ Workshop methods, and both are leveled so that each students is working at his or her own appropriate level.

Arts – Arts education includes visual arts, creative writing, movement and music, and drama. There is something at every grade level either through the district, the school, or the PTA in each of the four areas. The week of the tour, the kindergarten students were going to the San Francisco Philharmonic.

PTA – The PTA is really growing. They raised the $30-$40,000 five years ago, which has grown to $130,000 raised last year and the goal this year is $160,000. Dr. Marcy commented that they have a very good parent-volunteer force.

Diversity – Dr. Marcy also noted that Sunnyside had diversity at multiple levels including ethnicity, achievement, etc.

Special Day and Inclusion – There are K-2 and 3-5 special day classes. There is also have inclusion so that these students also spend part of the day with the other classes.

Support staff – Sunnyside has a full-time social worker and literacy coach. Dr. Marcy noted the school has a half-time academic intervention specialists who is able to pull out and work individually with kids who need more help.

Tour of Classrooms

As we started the tour, I felt a little déjà vu. I realized that the interior of the school was remarkably similar to my Bay Area elementary school – it turns out my school was built just a year later than Sunnyside (and is sadly being torn down and rebuilt for seismic reasons). Though Sunnyside will look a bit different next year once construction is complete, that similarity certainly positively colored my view of the school – and if that is not an irrational reason to feel warm, fuzzy feelings about a school, I don’t know what is!

We visited a second grade classroom first. The students had desks, but they were put together as tables for four. The students were quietly working on worksheets (I did not get a good look at the subject), while the teacher was taking a few students aside and working with them in a smaller group.

We looked into a 5th grade classroom next where the desks were pushed together side-by-side but organized in rows. It honestly looked really crowded.

Next we saw a kindergarten classroom. As I have come to expect, there was a lot of phonics stuff on the walls, lots of books in the room, and plenty of results of interesting-looking student projects hanging throughout the room.

We then visited another kindergarten classroom where a music teacher was having the children play a song with bells – and they were so focused and did a great job (and were appropriately freaked out when we applauded as they finished). The regular classroom teacher was doing a reading assessment with a student in the back of the classroom.

We went into what I believe was a third-grade classroom in a portable, and the kids were wrapping up work on iPads and iPad minis. We got to see the children’s transition process, which included putting their materials away and gathering around the teacher repeating a “transition” vocabulary word and its definition. Apparently, they talk about the word at the start of the day and then throughout. The students then filed out of the classroom in an orderly manner.

Auditorium – We walked through the auditorium where there was a dance class wrapping up. The students also have lunch in the auditorium, and the tour leaders noted that the kids get lots of support during lunch to choose food wisely and eat as much as possible. As with the other public schools, lunch is provided by Revolution Foods.

Outside Space – We went outside to the yard, which felt somewhat small, but that was probably because part had been taken for the new building and part was occupied by portables that I believe will be going away once the renovation is complete. So it seems that after the construction, the yard will be bigger. There was also a garden in the yard.

Kindergarten classes have two recesses – a 20 minute recess in the morning and a 40 minute recess in the afternoon includes lunch.

We were told that the school is working on hiring a PE instructor.

Post-Tour Q&A

Problem solving/conflict resolution – Sunnyside has a social-emotional curriculum that they use called Second Step, which is used throughout SFUSD. The school has a full-time social worker (funded half by SFUSD and half by the school).

For conflict resolution, they use Caring School Community, which involves the use of “I” messages. Sunnyside also utilizes Responsive Classroom, which includes having a "chill space" if a student needs to take a break. Finally, the school also uses restorative practices, including reflection, writing, kids talking about the problem, and kids making agreements about how to move forward.

Common core and project-based learning – Dr. Marcy also explained that the school’s major goal right now is to really push the Common Core rigor. Teachers do a lot of data collection so that they know where each child is academically and can give individualized instruction. Sunnyside is pushing more project-based learning.

School funds - In terms of priorities for school funds, Dr. Marcy noted that the school wants more technology, but they also want to reduce class size, especially in fourth and fifth grade.

Technology for teachers - Someone asked whether the teachers have smart boards. There is only one in one of the special day classrooms, but the teachers sometimes use it and they also use iPads.

Parent involvement & community – There is a high percentage of parent involvement at the school. Currently there are 170 PTA members and they want that to grow. They welcome any level of parent participation, even if it is just getting the kids to school ready to learn – that is valued. There are currently 12 PTA committees.

There are three big fundraisers - the annual fund in the fall, the fun run in October, and the silent auction/parents' night in February.

They also noted that not all school events are fundraisers – some are like the art nights where kids and their families come to the school to do art together.

The principal said that about 40% of the school students live in the neighborhood. About a third of seats are usually taken by siblings.

Final thoughts – I liked Sunnyside a lot and its proximity makes it likely to land a high spot on our SFUSD application. It sounded like their approaches would work well for my child. I have to say I was not as excited after the tour as I thought I would be – and especially after I re-read my notes and see that the school has so many things we want, but that is sort of the danger of tours. I suppose that schools that people rave cannot always meet your expectations on a tour (that is at best a narrow and imperfect snapshot).

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hypothetical Tour: The New School of San Francisco

The New School of San Francisco is, as the name suggests, a new K-12 public charter school planning to open in San Francisco in Fall 2015. The school doesn’t yet have a charter or a building.

Since it doesn't yet exist, the best way to understand what this school is about is to read their charter petition (lots of redundancies but also specific information about key elements of the school), attend one of their information sessions and/or attend the next Pop Up session they hold. We’ve done all of those things.

Quick Summary
  • Structure: K-12. Beginning with enrolling K-1 in 2015 and backfilling new classes every year thereafter. Two classes of 22 kids (44 total) in each grade throughout elementary school.
  • Location: TBD, but priority is central, well-served by transit and ability to reach Exploratorium with reasonable ease.
  • Longer Day, After Care Available: Extra time at school in order to go deeper into areas of exploration. Balanced by breaks for kids. They expect to provide after care.
  • Teacher Development Focus: Heavy emphasis and detailed strategy for constant teacher professional development and iteration. Plus, they'll always have a Master Teacher and Emerging Teacher in each classroom, which makes a 11:1 student:teacher ratio.
  • Founder Team: This is a new venture, so it’s key to feel confident in the founders and the team they’re building. Emily Bobel is the former Executive Director of Teach for America-Bay Area, which suggests that she’ll have good access to a pipeline of high quality teachers. Ryan Chapman has founded and lead past new education ventures and is the parent of children in the SFUSD system.
  • Project and Inquiry Based Learning Balanced with Area Specific Learning: The New School SF uses an inquiry arc around broad themes to go deep in to cross-discipline learning. The founders seem aware that other exclusively-project based learning programs have stumbled on the fundamentals, so they also have stand alone chunks of time devoted to core skills in literacy and numeracy. I didn’t know what any of this meant until I read their petition. Thankfully, in the document the founders spell out how their days, weeks and months are structured, as well as assessment systems. They are hiring a Curriculum Director.
  • Character Education: They plan to focus especially deeply on self-reflection and making Restorative Practices an even more central, proactive part of the school than is typically found at SFUSD. The character curriculum appears to be less in-your-face than what I’ve read about for some of the high profile charter schools in other parts of the country, but seems authentic to our city and like something this team could execute well. But honestly, I'm still not really sure what it's going to look like. It's a question mark for us.
  • Mixed Income Community: This is a school that is heavily focused on equity, but through the strategy of developing a mixed income community. This is a growing national trend. The New School SF is going to hire a Community Manager to work with parents and teachers to develop a very intentional community. The families at the Pop Up session we attended were mostly, but not exclusively, middle and upper middle class, but the founders appear to be very focused on attracting applications from working class and other less well-to-do families. I assumed that there was a selection bias at the Pop Up for families who can spend a weekend day at a school event.
  • Spanish Instruction, not Immersion: Regular Spanish instruction, also woven into other parts of the curriculum.
  • Partnership with the Exploratorium: Both for student use and professional development for teachers.
  • Longer Day: Extra time at school in order to go deeper into areas of exploration. Balanced by breaks for kids.
  • Parent Involvement Expectations: As I mentioned in a previous post, they are not emphasizing heavy parent involvement day-to-day at the school. They want to focus on involvement that works for every family, while promoting a strong, equitable community.
  • Funding: Emily and Ryan are surprisingly sanguine about the amount of fundraising needed. They say their funding gap is small and that they are confident that they’ll be able to close it through private philanthropy rather than parent fundraising. If so, hallelujah!
  • Charter Status: Hearing date before State authorities in March 2015. SFUSD Board denied their charter petition, which is pretty typical for the School Board. The State has a better record of approving charter petitions, though it's still a gamble.
  • Applications: Separate lottery, which has no impact on your SFUSD or private applications. Easy applications open and online here. Due February 20th, with notification coming at the same time as the SFUSD process.
  • Free!

We are a family of people who like being a part of new ventures. If you can also tolerate/enjoy risk, this might be a great school for your family. The New School SF -- as conceived purely on paper! -- really aligns with all of our priorities (assuming the location isn’t impossible to get to), including:

  • Clear mission of academics (with an emphasis on deep learning and inquiry) and character development supported by a strong, equitable community. Our kids love love love project-based learning, and taking their time to go very deeply into their work. Part of the reason our eldest is having such a tough time at his SFUSD TK is that they never do more than scratch the surface of a topic or project because there’s just no time. The New School SF also appears to value rigor, which is really important to us, though I’m still not quite sure what level of rigor they’re hoping to achieve.
  • Heavy focus on teacher excellence and the appearance of the network to be able to pull it off. We've only seen one other school -- AltSchool -- that has the same focus on constant teacher improvement. But we haven't looked at many private schools, so there may be others.
  • Character education that appears to be deliberate, fully integrated and authentic to our San Francisco community.
  • The mixed income community seems pretty essential to me for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that character education within a bubble community is just theoretical learning. Our kids (and we) have to be in safe peer-to-peer environments full of tensions and contradictions if we're going to really grow as people. I grew up in some mixed income schools and really valued and loved that aspect of those schools. It's had a huge impact on me throughout my life.
  • Longer day, but balanced with breaks. As I said above, our kids like to go deep in to projects and subjects. I used to not get why people thought a longer day was a good idea. It seemed like a straight up bad idea to me. But my son now spends his days having to ping pong between shallow explorations of different topics at his SFUSD TK. It’s a huge part of why he is not thriving in that environment. He used to spend long days at preschool going deep into all kinds of projects that he loved. But there just isn’t enough time built into the schedule of his current school, or most SFUSD schools, to go much deeper into anything. My kids love and need to move their bodies -- a lot -- so I appreciate that the founders seem very aware of the need to balance these elements.
  • I want my kids to learn Spanish.

The Exploratorium relationship is a plus. And the thoughtful take on parent involvement. I don’t mind fundraising and volunteering in the classroom, but if we can focus on being involved in other ways, we’d be much happier.

We’ve applied to the New School SF despite not knowing the location of the facility. It’s currently our top pick for our kids. But it's definitely an unproven risk.