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.

Diversity

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.

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