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.

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