Tuesday, October 28, 2014

School Tour: Sherman

If there is a dream school in my list of schools - it is Sherman.

The dream is sweetened by the fact that if we stick it out till September, we will get a spot. On the tour, they told us that Sherman clears its wait list every year by September. They have done it for last several years ( 10 yrs if I recall them saying correctly).

With that assurance (any is gravy in this unpredictable SFUSD lottery!), here are my notes from Sherman tour.

1. School building and Premises
The school building is a little dated and old. Not as new ( new looking like Claire Lilienthal or New Traditions). There are 2 playgrounds - lower (which was resurfaced over summer) and upper yard and an outdoor garden.

The school had many different entrances but now they are all fenced off except one with a ramp access that is monitored.

The outdoor garden is huge with a new compass/sun dial and vegetable garden. It has a lovely little water fountain/pond. The garden is open during the day for the kids to sit and have lunch or sit at during recess if they don't want to be with other kids in the noisy playground.

I also liked that they have a separate cafeteria and auditorium. They have a large library which seemed very well stocked.

We didn't actually see the classes in action as that would have disturbed the kids but the classrooms looked roomy, bright and kids looked actively engaged.

2. Focus on Reading, Writing and Comprehension

With its engagement with reading partners and focus on reading/writing and comprehension, the entire school's philosophy is focusing on literacy/comprehension helps in Maths and Science. The school has seen their scores increase in Math's and Science since they focused on literacy/reading/comprehension.

I saw kids in 1st and 3rd grade focused on reading in their classrooms.

The kids looked engaged and happy in classrooms. They were not "disinterested/ too quiet like my experience in other school. They were certainly loud/boisterous on playground ( as I would expect them to be!)

3. Small class room sizes

The PTA raises a ton of money ( I believe ~ 300,000) of which a major chunk is spent to keep the class size of 22 students in 4th and 5th grade. I didn't quite follow the Math but apparently PTA/school writes a check to School district which in turn staffs 2 extra teachers at the school.

4. Math's/Science/Tech

Sherman has a full Tech lab as well I believe they are working on integrating tech in curriculum/classroom. They are also focusing on Science and Math as that is one area of improvement.  They teach science and leverage their outdoor garden to teach.

5. PTA
If a school has a dynamic strong PTA, I felt it here. There are stories of parents who banded together to improve the school. The pioneering parents ( I met one of them during the SFUSD Fair and she impressed me much!) are now turning around Marina Middle School.

The current PTA is clear in its goals and are driven to make them happen. I liked that they were vocal, had a great rapport with the Principal and were very accommodating to working parents. Morning PTA ( just after drop' offers) to encourage participation, family style kids events ( soccer practice where parents hang out with wine), homework help as part of after school program etc.

After care is till ~ 6:00 with variety of seasonal activities.

I visited Sherman during the Halloween event and saw the community in action. My son loved the huge slide and the haunted house for the kids.

The woman manning the giant 3 story tall slide told me about the school, the emphasis on reading/writing and how they are training teachers to teach their kids science and maths better. Her kids love it there. I saw another parent watering the garden on a weekend.

My husband went on a self directed tour during Halloween event as he missed the actual tour. He could peep inside classrooms and take a look around. He spoke to few parents during the SFUSD and Halloween event and came away with the same impressions that I had on the tour.

This is one PTA that loves their school and know how to market their school well.  Very dynamic, engaged and vocal PTA members.

As far as my son, whenever he hears us we discuss schools and Kindergarten at home, he asks me "Mamma, Sherman?"

I do hope for his sake we make it in. He is already sold on the school that has the 3 story slide!

I will have to deal with the anxiety and stress of waiting it out till the 5th round! Or even the week after the school begins.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

School Tour: Thomas Edison charter Academy (TECA)

Thomas Edison Charter Academy

Website: http://www.teca-sf.org

Location: 3531 22nd St, San Francisco, CA 94114, Noe Valley/Mission border

Grades: K-8

Total Enrollment: 600

Kindergarten Size: 88 - two general education classes of 22, two Spanish-English dual immersion classes of 22

Student-teacher ratios: 22:1 ratio K-3, 32:1 ratio grades 4-8

Time: 8:20am-3:00pm; early dismissal at 1:00pm on Wednesdays

Before school care: Starts at 7:30am through Playworks (not sure of cost)

Aftercare: Until 6pm every day, also‚ through Playworks ($325/month)

Apologies for the lack of pictures. I was sick in the days before the tour, and so was a bit tired that morning and plumb forgot about taking photos.

If I am being completely honest, TECA made the short list for touring because it had the potential to be something of a "safety school." Assuming the first-come, first-serve admission process used in previous years, I planned to visit on the first tour date and apply at the first application session, and then I would potentially have TECA in my back pocket.

However, TECA has changed their admissions process to a true lottery because it is more equitable. I actually completely agree with that, and I felt a little bit guilty about my plan because the old process seemed to unfairly favor those with the work/childcare flexibility to take the first opportunity to apply. With this change, there is less urgency to apply at the first date, especially as I will not have seen any other public schools yet.

The drive was pretty easy, and parking wasn't too hard - about 20 minutes total, although I made the mistake of driving down the Chattanooga Street side of the school, which was clogged with parents double-parking to drop off their kids. I was glad that the tour started around the same time as the school day so I could see that gridlock. The exterior of the building itself is beautiful, and the building was renovated a couple years ago to be ADA compliant.

Parent Q&A

We began our tour with a lengthy Q&A in the large gymnasium/auditorium with a handful of current parents. The tour group was huge and I definitely missed some things, as it was hard to hear. One of the parents was a high school teacher, and shared that he felt that TECA was preparing students to succeed at academically rigorous high schools.

Kindergarten classes - The kindergarten spots are split evenly between two general education classes and two for Spanish/English dual immersion. Siblings get first priority, followed by San Francisco residents, and anyone in the state of California can apply. They noted that in years past their wait list moved a lot, but I wonder how much that will change with their new lottery.

Kindergarten classes have an aide, bringing the ratio below 22:1. The aides may or may not be California credentialed teachers, although this year two of the aides are credentialed in other states.

Teachers - The tour leaders found the teachers responsive and available by both e-mail and phone. Parent-teacher conferences were described as "very substantive." Teachers are given support through teacher coaches who both co-teach and evaluate their fellow teachers.

Discipline - TECA uses a visual chart to help guide student behavior, although I am not sure if this is only for kindergarteners. The children start day on green and the goal is to move to rainbow by the end of the day. They mention that teachers find little things to reward to move kids up from green. The school is also shifting toward restorative practices as is going on in SFUSD. The school has recently hired many support staff, and will be hiring a dean for discipline.

Spanish/English Dual Immersion - The Spanish immersion program was started by parent interest a few years ago, which is why it currently only goes K-3. The program will go to fourth grade next year, but they are not sure what the plan is for fifth grade. Unlike SFUSD, TECA does not reserve a certain percent of slots for native speakers or non-speakers, and TECA does not pre-test students applying to the immersion program. After students are admitted, language skills are assessed to balance the immersion classes between native and non-native speakers.

Another difference in how TECA does Spanish Immersion is that in all grades the children are taught 50% Spanish/50% English, i.e., one language in the morning and the other in the afternoon. One of the parent tour leaders had his child in the immersion program, and as his family did not speak any Spanish, the 50-50 split made it a little bit easier for them to help their child. However, one downside was that he felt the curriculum, at least in kindergarten, seemed a little bit limited because the kids tended to work on similar concepts in both halves of the day so that the children could see the same ideas in both languages. He is happy with the program overall and did feel that it got less repetitive as the kids moved on to higher grades.

Parent involvement - Several of the programs in the after and before care were started by parents. For example, yoga is offered in the morning on Wednesdays, after school piano is offered one time per week, and soccer teams were started by parents. Any reasonable idea with a plan is considered.

Universal breakfast - Another interesting program is universal free breakfast, which is served to all kids at their desks right at the start of school. They have found it helpful, even for kids who had breakfast before coming to school.

Aftercare – Aftercare includes homework help, recreation, and enrichment programs. Students can be enrolled in the afternoon program part time, but it is not available for drop-ins.

Homework - Homework is four pages per day for the kindergartners and they have a week to complete it. The amount of homework is evolving and has actually decreased recently. Some of the homework is optional.

Specials - Each quarter, the kids have a special - arts, music, or dance. There are also assemblies once a month for each grade where the kids perform or display their work. The parent leading the tour listed PE as one of the specials, but the school website actually suggests there is PE every week.

Tour of the Building & Classrooms

We split into smaller groups and started our tour out in the very large asphalt yard. There was a nice play structure in a fenced in area at one end that I assume was for the younger grades, but we only saw it from a distance and it was not discussed. A learning garden (built with a grant a parent applied for) was mentioned, but we did not get to see it.

Our tour guide remarked that the elementary kids do not really mix with the middle school kids because of the way that lunches and recesses are staggered. Mostly kids mix with students in their own grade. The kids have two recesses plus lunch.

We peeked into both the dance classroom and the music room, but there was not much to see, as there were no classes going on in either space. These rooms were on the lower level of the school and it seemed a little dark, especially the area outside the music room. I hope that when kids are there they keep it a little brighter.

We walked upstairs to the visit classrooms. The hallways upstairs were bright and the walls were covered with colorful art and projects from each classroom.

We first visited a general education kindergarten classroom and then a kindergarten class being taught in Spanish. The walls in both classrooms were covered in the things that you would expect - different representations of letters, numbers, simple words, and lots of art, except obviously in Spanish in the second classroom. In both classrooms, the students were sitting on the floor, surrounding the teacher, and seemed engaged and eager to participate. There was a second adult in each kindergarten class, presumably the aide, although in both classes they were standing by while the teacher gave the lesson.

We did see that behavior chart the tour leaders discussed with each child's place marked, and I have to admit that was a little off-putting. I realized I am not a big fan of the public tallying of everyone's behavior.

I was pleasantly surprised to find I did not have a visceral negative reaction to seeing the kids in uniforms, as I have never liked the idea of school uniforms.

We went to the art classroom next, but unfortunately again there was not an actual class going on. The parent leading the tour mentioned that his child (who is either in 1st or 2nd grade) had done pop art and made a jellyfish mobile, and they explore many different techniques.

We very briefly peeked our heads into a first grade class and a second grade class, both of which were receiving instruction in English but I have no idea whether they were immersion classes or gen ed classes. The second graders were doing a unit on books about uncommon friends and were reading Charlotte's Web. We also popped into a first grade class being taught in Spanish. The kids in these classes also seemed generally focused and engaged, but our visits were fleeting, as we were short on time. We did not get to see any higher grades, which would have been nice and useful given that my kids will eventually be in those upper grades.

Q&A with Principal Lynch

We concluded with a Q&A with the principal in the cafeteria, back down in the lower level of the school. This area of the school also felt a little bit dark, small, and closed in.

I liked the principal, Olivia Lynch, a lot. She is in her second year at TECA. She is originally from Panama, and then moved to New York City as a kid. She spent a few decades in NYC in various different roles in education – teaching at various levels, starting schools, being a principal at elementary and middle schools, etc.

Principal Lynch chose TECA because she felt that it was an innovative and courageous place. She noted that being a charter means they do not have the bureaucracy of SFUSD, and it is easier for them to identify and solve needs.

Principal Lynch explained that TECA does the same testing as SFUSD, and Common Core testing started last school year. TECA also does Fountas and Pinnell hands-on one-on-one assessments in kindergarten through second grade 3 times a year. In third through eighth grade, they also do measures of academic performance each year, finishing up in October. Children are also given reading evaluations and other periodic assessments. She did note that the curriculum is similar to SFUSD.

Among the biggest challenges facing the school is getting more resources, including more room for common spaces, such as a library and a computer room. They may ask SFUSD for portables to get that space. I had not appreciated that there was no library until then, which is something to consider as I realized in that moment that having a library is important to me.

Finally, Principal Lynch talked about how the school has begun implementing project-based learning. Last year they had an innovation fair. They also have stipend positions for five teachers to facilitate project-based learning.


This did not come up in the tour, but according to the information sheet we received, the school is 77% Latino. 77% is way over our 50% of one group threshold. The classrooms I visited seemed to reflect that number. Interestingly, the tour was more diverse than that. We have to think carefully about how we feel about this issue.

Overall, I do like TECA and it felt like it could be a good fit, but I am skeptical that it will be among the schools we like the best. There are some concerns, but, with their new admission process, we have time to see other schools and consider where TECA ranks for us.

What are your thoughts about TECA?

Also are my notes too epic? I like to remember the details and want to pass along as much as possible to my husband, who will only be able to make a couple of tours. As a result, this is a lightly edited version of my actual tour notes.

Openings at SF Community K-8 for Spring Semester!

This just in from SF Community:

If you're considering an SFUSD spring transfer, SF Community School (SFC) has a just a couple open spots in each of the following grades-- K, 1st, 2nd, and 5th.

To learn more about SFC, visit my-sfcs.org and/or sign up for a tour on eventbrite.com.

Please note: Applications for spring transfer are due at 555 Franklin on or before 11/19. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

School Tour: Presidio Hill

I am really not sure how I felt about Presidio Hill School.

I liked parts of it, felt some parts were too much, didn't like other aspects of the school ( besides tuition ;). This post is really for me to sort through these thoughts.

We made our way across to Presidio Hill, had light traffic, found parking challenges and finally made it  to the school a few minutes after the tour had officially started. Parent volunteers greeted us at the door and escorted us to the library, where the rest of the group was assembled listening carefully to the headmaster Scott Duyan.

I really liked the parent volunteers. Very friendly. Casually dressed and not snooty. In contrast there were a lot of brand name bags/shoes/watches and an air of importance in the roomful of hopeful parents. Not Chanel or Prada but designer nonetheless. It could be my insecurities but I did notice this as did my husband. It was my lesson for future private school visits - hopeful private school parents dress up!

The headmaster focused on schools philosophy of education, progressive differentiated learning, hands on projects based curriculum to help students learn the "process" and not focus on answer. He mentioned how in Maths class for instance they would talk/discuss how the solution was arrived at rather than whether the answer is right or wrong. This really impressed me.

After the Q& A, we were led by parent volunteers to tour the school. We went with the TK group as our son would be eligible for TK. The TK classroom was small but bright. The kids were working on the table doing their arts/crafts thing. A parent volunteer helped. Kids were not distracted by us but kept working. As kids were done with their work, they went about solving a big picture puzzle or reading a book.

The TK classroom has a yard right outside their classroom which I could totally see my son spending all his time on. Next we went to K classroom where the teacher was teaching phonetics in a very traditional way. She said the letter and what it sounds like and the kids repeated and went on to write it out. One parent commented on this style teaching and the parent volunteers were unsure about it. There were responses like different teachers have different styles to kids have to learn their alphabets right?

To be very honest it, it put me off- but I am not sure how else do kids learn alphabets?

The other reaction was based on what my son is doing in preschool now. He is learning phonics and alphabets. And trying to write. If we do send my son to TK then he will be doing this essentially for next 2 years. While I am all for not being too academic and be more fun in early education years; I am thinking hard about paying $$$ for things that will be repetitive/ what he already may know by then.

We saw a few upper grade classrooms ( don't recall exact grades). But the way science is taught in class rooms, the school has stewardship of mountain lake and kids pitch in to maintain/clean it, was very cool. the upper grades also go on overnight trips to Catalina island to learn Marine Biology. Which while exciting fell in a "feels live over the top" category to me.

I liked their well stocked library, use of ipad's in classroom and generally well kept facility. The classrooms are small though bright and cheerful. This coupled with small class sizes ensures that the teacher can literally stand in one place and keep an eye out on all kids.

The school has an roof top play area which is also used for recess. PE classes are in Julius Kahn which I love as a location.  Music is part of curriculum and we saw the class in action drumming and thumping along. There is after care for a fee with lot of enriching and entertaining options which are changed seasonally.

The school is less diverse than public schools - it stood out glaringly to me.

We also saw the new building that they have acquired to expand their campus. This is where the TK and K classes will be housed. Its a beautiful house and they are in the process of converting it into classrooms and will be ready for Fall 2015 class.

If we were eligible for K class, I would pursue Presidio Hill further. At TK and with the huge tuition I have second thoughts. Maybe we need to see a few other privates to compare/contrast.

Which other private schools have a TK? Or accept late summer boys? I will probably modify my school tour list to focus on those.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

School Tour: Spring Valley Science

I am trying to write up my thoughts on the few schools that we have toured so far quickly. Before it all merges together in my head.

I have driven past Spring Valley school on many occasions and so was pleasantly surprised to see it listed as Science focused school in the neighborhood. Proximity +  Science/Maths focus. Double win.
When I toured the school, I was the only parent there. The principal, Lisa Kwong led the tour and I came away impressed with the dedication she has to the school and the students. The school building looked warm and inviting. Colorful student potraits and some 3-D art on the walls. An aquarium outside the office. Large, airy and bright classrooms.

Spring Valley has a Spanish and Mandarin  Cantonese Language pathway along with GE classroom. In the Kindergarten Spanish classroom, I liked how the teacher used whiteboards and “fridge” magnets to teach them phonetics. The kids were energetic and engaged. They were either leaning in or standing up to respond to the question asked. Very eager little learners. I even saw a parent volunteer in the classroom.

The classroom layout with individual tables, assigned seating, buckets of pencils/crayons/other art supplies on the table looked similar to what I have now seen at other schools like Sherman and Claire Lilienthal. I suppose that is standard across all schools in SF.

The kids wear name tags with their classroom # on them and they are allowed to go out of their classroom with a buddy. Like if a girl has to use the restroom, another girl accompanies her. I suppose that way they become friends and come back together without wandering off/getting lost. There were couple of lost kids wandering in the hallway but the principal quickly pointed them to their classrooms.

The principal and the staff genuinely care about the students. She asked me not to take pictures with kids. She also made a special announcement to the kids (as they were unexpectedly testing the fire alarm due to some malfunctioning issue) not to panic and to continue what they are doing. During the announcement, one of the staff went to one of the classrooms to make sure they heard it ok. Even the principal peeped into a couple of classrooms and asked the students if they understood what she had just announced.

I think it was the GE Kindergarten class whose usual teacher was on leave that day. The principal helped the substitute teacher lead the class to the computer lab room and back. Even before recess she instructed the substitute teacher to let the kids use restroom before taking them to the yard. And while in the classroom, the kids were at their computers working/playing/learning. they were talking to each other; asking questions. It was not chaos but orderly. 

The examples lead me to believe they genuinely care about the students.

One thing the principal did mention was that the school scores had steadily improved in the last few years. She expects the scores to lower due to change to Common Core and computer based testing. To that end they have started making the kids use computers and be more comfortable with tech. But they do differentiated in class learning based on student skills and how to keep them motivated/challenged. She gave me a couple of examples of kids who were moved to a higher grade and one for whom an advanced syllabus was devised based on teacher/parent and kid input.

They also have an outdoor garden with an outdoor educator, a large well kept school yard with play structure, a computer lab. I don’t recall seeing the library or the cafeteria. But I see it listed on the handout .

They have a fairly new PTA and it’s not as active as other schools. That’s probably because most parents in this school are working full time. Maybe someone here from their PTA can chime in.

 They have after care provided by Chinatown YMCA and the district managed child managed program.
Lisa did mention that while there is variety of activity with Chinatown YMCA, the teachers quality may vary (as they are students themselves). V/s the district managed program which is consistent in teacher quality and is good. 

Before school care as such is not provided. The school yard has a supervisor from 8:15 am so they ask parents not to drop off kids before then.

 All in all I liked the passion and dedication of the Principal and its staff.Spring valley is a gem of a school close to our neighborhood. 

Before shortlisting it, I would want to learn more about their PTA and goals. After touring 4 public schools (Alvarado, Sherman, Claire Lilienthal and Spring Valley), I do think its the PTA that makes a difference. As was discussed in comments section of Alvarado school, an active PTA to me means that the parents and school care for all the kids in a way a single parent cannot. They hold each other accountable. It brings up the entire cohort/class and provides opportunities for everyone. And I don't only mean in terms of money and volunteer time at school ( which of course is great in times of underfunded schools or worse during recession).

I personally have a few friends from my own elementary/middle school who had a great positive influence on me. While they were directly influencing me; their parents were also shaping their character- which in turn had a good influence on me. I hope for my son to make some such friends at school. 

What do you all think in terms of cohort, friendships and PTA? Do kids are elementary schools form life long friendships? What about families becoming friends in schools? Would love  to read your responses!

Another Alvarado School Tour – Beautiful School, some questions about TK

As a middle school teacher I’ve had the benefit of meeting students from all over the district in my 6th grade classes.  The students from Alvarado always seemed very well prepared, socially and academically.  Alvarado was my top choice school for several years.  Last year when they opened the TK class I was very excited, and I had been looking forward to touring.

Our tour started on the yard, a beautiful sunny day.  We were broken into two groups and shown around the school.  Both tour guides love the school and their enthusiasm was infectious.  We were taken by a TK classroom first.  We did not go inside, but there was a lot of busy noise coming out of the room and the teacher was decorating a wall.  I wasn’t super impressed by the room itself, didn’t have much writing on the walls, and all the kids’ projects seems identical.  I couldn’t actually tell the difference between the room and any K classroom I’ve ever seen.  The teacher said Hi! And we were moved along, to a 1st grade immersion classroom.  As other parents have noted, the class was extremely quiet.  The teacher was actively pulling kids for a guided reading group while 30 strangers were in her room.  All the kids were on task, independently reading.  As a teacher I thought this was awesome!  Reader’s workshop is the core of the literacy block and the kids were on task even with an enormous distraction.

We also visited a GE K classroom.  It seems like a very happy, literacy rich space.  We walked into the Art room, 2 kilns! The teacher is actually employed by the district and not the PTA, she corrected the woman giving the tour about this. We also saw the “secret” garden. They have a huge after school program open to all, an active PTSA (both English speaking and Spanish speaking parents seem super involved)  and an Early start that is very convenient for our family. Overall the tour had me impressed (except maybe about TK) until the question and answer session with the principal.

In general the principal was very open about her school and her transition from being AP at Everett to principal at Alvarado.  She said it’s been a big change for her.  Two things stood out for me during the question and answer section.  First of all someone asked questions about test scores and she answered that we are currently in a “vacuum” because the state tests were cancelled last year to be replaced by the smarter balanced assessments this year.  While technically this is true, the district continues to collect data via reading assessments, an integrated writing assessment and the CLAs (Common learning assessments.)  I would have liked her to speak to this.

Secondly, someone asked about the requirements for getting into TK and she started to answer that it is based on birthday (true) then went off on a tangent about how she was so happy to start the TK program this year because adding 22 students allowed her to hire an Assistant Principal.  She was obviously thrilled to have and AP, but this didn’t technically answer the question and showed very little pedagogical knowledge about TK, other that how it is helping her do her job.  When the woman who asked the question repeated it, the PTA tour guide simply referred her to the website.  As a parent of a student attending TK it was a little off putting to be interrupted and not feel like our questions were being answered.

Overall, I think Alvarado as a community is pretty self-sustaining, I am sure my daughter would get a good education there.  It might turn out to be a first choice for me when she starts kindergarten, but I am not convinced by their TK program.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

School Tour: Alvarado

There is nothing much that I can write about Alvarado that is not already written by previous posters here.

Its a solid school with a very involved parenting community. It was one of the first public schools we toured. And I really liked the "school" like building ( compared to some "home" like buildings of private school), bright and cheerful artwork by kids peppered all over the hallways, the outdoor garden, the spacious yard to play during recess. I like the ceramics Arts kiln, the concept of yard coaches to streamline recess and reduce conflicts/bullying.

Kindergartners have separate restrooms attached to their classes and use the yard at specific times when older kids are not around. The play structure in the yard looked big and well maintained.

The principal is new to the school but has a solid record. She met us (parents) in the cafeteria / auditorium for Q & A. She was enthusiastic and enthused about the school.

But a few things that stuck out for us.

1. The PTA raises a little over 400 K /year. Its no surprise given how big the school is.They choose to spend that on money on things like science take home kits, class size reduction, math tutors, PE coaches and art & literacy programs other than school supplies. The PTA  also is heavily involved in a lot of sprucing/cleaning work at the school hand's on. Like painting the cafeteria/auditorium over the weekend; shampooing the Principal's rug etc.

It seemed a bit odd to me that parents were volunteering to do this work instead of spending money on a janitor. I overheard this feedback from couple of other parents who were discussing this as well.

Having said that, the school and the classrooms do look a bit dated and worn with use rather than the well kept interiors of not just private schools but other public schools like Claire Lilienthal or even  Spring Valley.

2. The Kindergarten classroom seemed to be in chaos. The substitute teacher was reading a story while the kindergartners seemed to do their own thing. Some were talking, others walking around yet others doing something else like scribbling. I couldn't help contrast it mentally with the kids at other schools who continued with their task on hand.

I wish we had got to see the actual school teacher in action. Maybe the class tour would have been more realistic.

3. We saw the kids in Spanish Immersion 1st grade. The kids seemed awfully quiet. Not in a way that they were focused on task but just as if they were a quiet bunch.

This coupled with the chaotic K classroom didn't leave a good impression in my mind.

4. I really loved the artists in residence and the studio. Our tour parent volunteer joked that this is where all the "junk" your kids will come home with is made. It offended the artist/teacher but resonated with all preschool parents on the parents who all laughed (probably imagining their kid at the studio and the artistic by products that will come home).

5. The library is being renovated. The kids seemed crammed in the little library and were naturally distracted when our rather large tour group made its way to the library.

Having read so much about it, I wanted to fall in love with Alvarado. When I saw the large group of parent waiting for the tour, it confirmed its popularity. I was let down. That's why I guess touring a school is so important!

 Did you tour Alvarado? How was your experience? What are your thoughts?

TK and then to K - New Blogger

Hello and ¡Hola! to all the people reading this blog and looking for Kindergarten and TK classes for next year. I am part of a bicultural (Mexico and US) family living in Bernal Heights. I have two young daughters, one eligible for TK next year. I have been reading the blog for the last 2 years, in anticipation of my daughter reaching school age.  I hope to be able to help others find the right school while sharing my own process.  I am also hoping to tour all the TKs that we are interested in this year as well as some schools that only have Kindergarten, because honestly I don’t want to have to tour again next year.

As a bilingual family we are only looking at Spanish immersion and bilingual programs for Kindergarten.  We are open to English or Spanish for TK, as there aren’t currently very many bilingual options.  In addition, we speak Spanish at home and any literacy skills she learns in TK will transfer to Spanish in Kindergarten. We are only going to be looking at public schools.  Although there are many fine private schools in the city, I am a public school teacher myself. On a teacher’s salary it is impossible to consider paying for school – we make too much to qualify for significant financial aid and too little to actually pay tuition.  My husband and I both attended public schools and I can’t realistically justify something different for my children.

My oldest child is four years old, born in October. Truth be told, I have very mixed feelings about Transitional Kindergarten.  I would honestly prefer that she start Kindergarten in the fall.  I was a young K and always felt fine with my peers.  My daughter will have already done 2 years of preschool by the time she starts and she will be ready. Since California is providing this extra year for her, I really want it to be worthwhile and different enough from Kindergarten that she won’t be bored.  I would be perfectly happy for her to attend TK at one school and switch to another for Kindergarten if that is what is best for her, but I am also going to be looking at schools that have both programs.

We are looking at schools in the South/East side of the City – mostly Bernal Heights, Glen Park, Mission, Noe Valley.

As of now the schools we will be touring for TK:
Junipero Serra
Zaida T. Rodriguez

For Kindergarten:
Paul Revere
Moscone (Bilingual Program)
Sanchez (Bilingual Program)

I will also tour any new TK programs announced on October 25th that are on this side of the city.

I already toured Alvarado and I will have my review written soon!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Parents for Public Schools workshop

As I mentioned in my first post, I went to a Parents for Public Schools workshop.  Some things I learned, besides the overwhelming number of elementary schools:

The speaker started off the evening talking about the K2C Savings Account, which I thought was odd but also nice as I had heard of it in the news but didn't know any details.  (The K2C website mentions that this is incorporated into the public school math curriculum.  Do they really do this?  Seems like a neat opportunity.)

How the lottery works - I'm sure all you attentive SF K Files readers already know the details, but I was really vague about how this process worked.  For example, I didn't realize that each K program is treated as an independent assignment/lottery process for the first step, so I really didn't understand what they meant when they said that listing more choices helped your chances of getting something that you want.  Tonight I rummaged around the SFUSD webpage and found this fact sheet.

Another fun fact that I didn't know -- elementary schools have one of 3 different start times.  (Thanks to commenters and a friend's mega-spreadsheet, now I know they are 7:50, 8:40, and 9:30 although possibly with some extra variation e.g. McCoppin.)  This information and other basics are in the Enrollment Guide and Enrollment form which are released at the Oct 25 Enrollment Fair.  I don't want to wait that long!

PPS has a mailing list, which I just signed up for, and they also have parent ambassadors at each school that they can connect you with.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Trying to avoid the dread..

PotreroHill 2

Hello everyone!  I'm DFB aka "the dread-filled bunny," a silly name that is a fair description for how I feel at the start of this adventure.

Back when I first graduated from college, I had a couple blogs with various friends.  I have fond memories from then.  Now, many years and a kid later, I don't have time for these things.. or do I?  I have been peeking at this blog off and on for years, and now it's my turn to live it.  I was intrigued by the community around this blog and excited by the prospect of getting feedback from all of you during this search.

I've purposely avoided thinking about this moment for five years.  I am by instinct an over-researcher, over-thinker, maker-of-spreadsheets.. but so far for this K search I have nothing but a short list in my head.  This week I went to a Parents for Public Schools enrollment workshop, and my heart started pounding.  SEVENTY-TWO PUBLIC ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS????  I am not a fan of having too many choices.

These are the things that I am thinking about at the start:
  • Public versus private? We both went to public schools.  I am a believer in public school, he is not.  With an only child, we can probably make a private school work financially.  
  • Mandarin immersion. We are very interested in mandarin immersion.  Our son is currently in a mandarin daycare/preschool.
  • Location, location, location. We live in Potrero Hill and both work nearby, so I really want to keep our school commute short as well.
  • Academics.  Having a strong academic program is really important to Mr. DFB.  I think I agree but I am not sure where in ranks in relation to everything else, and am not sure if it needs to be a focus in elementary school. I want an environment that will nuture our kid's intrinsic desire to learn.
We've barely started making our list of schools that we're going to tour.  Here's what it looks like so far:
  • Public: Starr King, JOES, Daniel Webster
  • Private: CAIS, PKS, Live Oak, Alta Vista, Brightworks (really excited to see that Confused toured it already!)
Time to go make a spreadsheet.

School Tour: Brightworks

Brightworks learning area
Brightworks. One of the first few schools we have toured. And boy, am I impressed or what!
I apologize in advance for a rather lengthy review. But there were way too many things that I loved about Brightworks. 

Bright, energetic space. Check!
Enthusiastic teachers. Check!
Small classroom sizes. Check!
Progressive curriculum tailored to student's interest. Check!
Project based hands on learning. Check! Check!

I absolutely loved what I saw. Reflecting back on my school years, this is a school that I would have wanted to go when I was a kid. 

K classroom
The tour itself was innovative and different. As we were let in to the facility, we ( as in adults and the kids) were allowed to wander and take in the different aspects of the school - the K class room and their little library loft, the kitchen, workshop, small spaces for kids to focus on English and grammar, learn maths, social science etc. This was followed by a small presentation on the schools charter, learning philosophy and then we had age appropriate (called "bands") breakout sessions. 

The kids learn physics, geometry, algebra, science etc through real life projects - like they are learning now about lenses and photography; they learnt about mirrors the last semester and actually built a mirror with many lenses to roast a marshmallow. The kids worked and reworked the prototype and actual device till the rays could be concentrated enough to roast the marshmallow just right. Each project is called "Arc" and has 7-10 kids from an age "band" with a staff coordinator. 

English and Grammar Learning Area

The kids learn to read and write and draw as they work thorough these projects - initially researching (called explorations phase) and prototyping , then building( called expressions phase)and lastly demonstrating and showcasing their projects via written and oral presentations (called exposition phase).

After each project, they take a week to decompress and chill out ( lay on the floor and read or just draw). Next project is then planned based on interest and what skills kids/teachers want them to learn and the entire school space is reconfigured to support that. For instance, they added a black room to help kids understand photo development process. 

Photographs exhibition wall
Few other things that are different from "regular" schools - mixed age classrooms, using real materials to build stuff, using power tools and having exercise routines to help build hand-eye co-ordination, going on field trips every week. 

But its not all free will and fun and games. As one teacher put it, he is trying to teach his middle schools maths and social science. If the kid is not interested in learning that he has to justify and explain it to Gever (Founder)  or Ellen (school director). More likely the kid returns enthused about why he needs to learn rather than be "indulged" and give a pass. The older kids also teach younger kids that help them hone empathy and deepen their understanding. 

Parents of kids and kids themselves were there at the tour to respond to questions and how they like being at school. Some of the K parents gave examples of how their kid plays with Lego's or blocks "better" since starting the school. They will quickly try to draw what they want to build before attempting to build complex Lego structures. That is impressive to me!

One parent whose kid is in middle school there did mention to me to go to public SF schools for elementary years and then come to Brightworks in middle school when kids need more motivation and closely monitored social atmosphere to gain confidence and thrive. Not to mention that would save some serious $$$ as well. 

K reading nook above their classroom

Some more background/notes on Brightworks:
  • Mixed age small school in a warehouse setting - 120 kids all in the same facility. Not sure what the plans are when the school grows in size.
  • Handful kids in High school. As the schools is pioneering in project based learning, they can't create a transcript (today) that will be accepted in a Berkley like under graduate school. But who knows in next 15 years - Berkley or a Stanford may start accepting students with such "alternate" experience and may even start evaluating them differently at the time of college admissions! 
  • Kids create a portfolio of projects over their lifetime to showcase their learning's and skills. Which personally I would value more than transcript grades. But my practical side doesn't agree with it yet.
  • Outdoor  time is on a playground 2 blocks away 
  • Everyone including K kids go on fields trips using public transportation. They learn about navigating the city, using clipper card etc. The older kids also learn about nutrition ( by buying lunch or just a packet of chips & soda for lunch and then getting hungry during the rest of day )
  • Currently backed by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as Paul Allen Foundation. I respect them both immensely as well as the work done by the foundations. But I worry what happens if the funding runs out? 
  • Parents volunteer in classrooms and on field trips or by sharing expertise.
  • Community lunch on Fridays by parent volunteers to learn cooking and sharing
  • School starts at 9:30. But before and after school care available.
As an adult Brightworks is a brilliant concept. Having learnt my basic skills in a regular school; Brightworks would be an excellent way to channel curiosity, learn how to create things ( prototype, re-iterate, build, test, correct till you are satisfied), tenacity and patience to ensure "real life" skills. Skills that are important when you enter workforce. 

But as a replacement to mainstream education, I am still a bit hesitant. 
I got the feeling that kids learnt in depth about projects that they worked on. They have pockets of deep information. But am not too sure if they have baseline education in all subjects all across the board.

The founders and teachers agree, Brightworks is not for everyone. 

We will probably visit once again to understand their plans on growth, future funding, how kids who leave Brightworks for public high schools or college adjust to "regular" style of learning having done things differently all their school lives. 

Or maybe start with a summer camp for my son if they offer one to test waters before making the plunge.