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.

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