Tuesday, December 23, 2014

School Tour: Sunnyside Elementary School

Sunnyside Elementary School

Website: http://www.sunnysidek5.org/  

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).

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