Tuesday, December 2, 2014

School Tour: Synergy School

Synergy School

Website: http://www.synergyschool.org

Location: 1387 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110, the Mission

Grades: K-8

Total Enrollment: 192

Kindergarten Size: One class of 24, includes 6 Young Kindergarten students. Two teachers.

Times: 8:30am-3:00pm (doors open at 8am); early dismissal at 2:10pm on Wednesdays

Before school care: 7:15-8am

Aftercare: 3-6pm (2:10-6pm on Wednesdays)

Tuition: $17,300 YK-5, $18,000 6-8, for 2014-15

Apologies (again) that there are no photos. The very first thing they told us was that picture taking was not allowed, which is a shame because the space was light and inviting, and there were a lot of great projects up on the walls even though I actually toured way back in early October.

I was really excited to tour Synergy. I know a couple of families there and they love it. I was also curious to see what I have heard is the most diverse independent school in the city, as well as an independent that is not over $25,000 per year per kid. In addition, I wanted to learn more about their approach to progressive education and project-based learning.

We were greeted by two  students - one in 3rd grade, the other in 5th. Both were confident and composed, and talking with them was a nice way to start the tour. They showed us the agreement wall where all the kids acknowledged the school's agreement system (more on that later) and pointed out the different classrooms as they led us to the art room where our orientation was held. The building was bright and open with lots of natural light coming from the big windows.

We had the Q&A first, followed by a tour around the school. A lot of the information presented is also in their admissions packet - http://www.synergyschool.org/admissions.

Rita Franklin, Admissions Director, led the Q&A. There is no head of school, but instead 3 teachers share the administrative leadership roles. Rita teaches kindergarten half time in addition to her administrative duties.

Teacher cooperative - The structure of the school is a teacher cooperative, which means teachers have a lot of input into how the school is run. Any teacher who is 80% time or more sits on the Board of Directors of the school, which also consists of 51%+ non-teachers (founders, community members, alumni parents, and alumni students). Teachers also participate in creating the curriculum.

Progressive education - The school's philosophy is progressive education, which to them means learning by doing, using manipulatives, having conversations, teaching different perspectives, etc. Students frequently work in small groups, and have tables not desks - all the way from K-8.

Diversity - The school also has a strong emphasis on diversity - not only does the school reflect the diversity of San Francisco by its enrollment, but they also talk about it in class in ways appropriate to the grade level of the students. For example, in kindergarten they might have a conversation about skin color and look at paints to figure out which color matches each person's skin tone. The older grades might talk about how a text would be different if it were written by someone of a different race or gender or background.

Evaluating prospective students - They accept all kinds of kids with lots of different abilities. In the evaluation of a prospective student, she wants to see if the child can sit still while she reads a book, is not a hitter or a biter, etc. Similarly, the play date is very casual. It is really the parents who tip the scales on who gets admitted and who does not as it is about fit.

There will be 14 kindergarten spots next year, which is actually a lot for the school.

The Agreement System - Synergy utilizes an Agreement System which embodies "[t]he core tenets of encouragement, cooperation, respect, responsibility and logical and natural consequences." Students and teachers agree to these six agreements:

I agree to make Synergy a respectful learning community, free of bias, by...
1. keeping a safe place, without prejudices, for everyone’s body and feelings.
2. respecting all property.
3. participating academically.
4. participating in all other school activities.
5. being in a designated space.
6. agreeing to leave quickly and quietly when waved out.

"Waving out" was explained as a way to help kids learn to self-regulate their behavior. Essentially, if a child is not paying attention or playing around, the teacher makes eye contact and "waves" to the child in a manner where the child knows that s/he needs to get up, walk to the door and touch it, and then return to his/her seat. All this is done without interrupting the lesson. There is no teacher anger and there is no shame for the kids. They practice waving out at the start of the year and by a couple weeks in, the kids get it.

Communication with parents - There is regular communication with parents, including curriculum night before school starts, 2 parent conferences a year, a blog for kids in grades 4-8, Google classroom that allows parents to see their child's homework, e-mails, can call the classroom, a weekly newsletter - the Wednesday Word, and curriculum e-mails.

Homework - With regard to homework, there is none in kindergarten. In first grade, students get a packet of assignments and a time frame to complete them. Only reading and spelling are mandatory for 1st graders - the rest is optional. For 2nd-3rd grade, the kids get a package on Monday, which is due on Friday - it is more work, but manageable. Starting in 4th grade, students start learning self-organization for completing homework on time. By middle school, homework is about 2 hours per night and the kids really have to learn to to manage their time. The assignments are a mix and could be research, reading, work for a group project, etc.

After school - After school programs include yoga, chess, etc. Lots of opportunities for running and jumping.

Combination classes - The school uses combination classes - Young K/K, 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 6-8 together in some classes. Instruction is very individualized, e.g., kindergarten they expect to have some kids reading, some working on sight words, some with nothing. In middle school, math and English language arts are taught by grade but history and science are taught in mixed grade classes.

The curriculum is taught in three year cycles so that a child who is in a 1/2 classroom as both a first and second grader is not re-learning the same material twice. Similarly, middle school students in mixed classes also would get fresh material each year.

Arts, PE, etc. - Each child gets performing arts experience.  Every kid is in a play every year, and the plays are usually based on a book. Every child takes Spanish. The amount of Spanish increases each year.

Tour of Classrooms

I loved this tour because we saw almost every class and kids in every grade.

Lower Grade Classrooms

We first visited the music class where third graders were playing xylophones. It was a simple tune, but they sounded really good! I was impressed that they didn't lose it with all these strangers staring at them, but as each kid participates in a school play each year, maybe the kids just get over the stage fright!

We visited the 2/3 classroom, although all the children were out.  The room was cheery with lots of books. There was a a chart with tips about how to choose books to read. The kids had tables, not desks, and at each child's place his or her name was written.

We then visited the 1/2 classroom. The 1st graders were working on phonics and decoding, while the 2nd graders were out at PE.  The kids were learning about consonant blends, and the ones they had already covered were on the wall (e.g., th, wh, ch, sh, etc.). The wall decorations included a map of San Francisco with what looked like kids' drawings of their homes.

Someone asked how the school decides whether a 2nd grader should be in the 1/2 or 2/3 class. It was clarified that the academically advanced 2nd graders were not automatically put in the 2/3 class. Rather, the school looks at the whole experience for both the children and the classes. They consider the boy-girl ratio, they might split up cohorts, they factor in emotional development, etc. They do not consider academics or parental input.

Next we visited the kindergarten classroom where the kids were having center time in groups of six. They do math in groups of four. Spanish is taught in groups of 12. There are often only 12 children in the classroom at a time.

The kinder class was very loud and busy, but I thought it was great. The kids appeared to be working on reading/language arts. Various kids were writing, using manipulatives, coloring, looking at letters, or reading on their own. Some kids were working with the teachers. The kids rotate stations over the course of center time.

It was noted that the classroom had a dollhouse and a few other things that were a little more like preschool because these are young kids who still need to play. I agree wholeheartedly with that!

Kindergartners start the day outside and have other opportunities for outside time during the day so that there is a balance of sitting and moving.

We visited a 4/5 classroom where the kids were writing in diaries about themselves. We also popped into the other 4/5 classroom where the students were reading books and writing notes about the books.

Upper Grade Classrooms

We visited a 6/7/8 science class. As it was early in the year, they were working on learning good note-taking practices.

We next stopped by the decent-sized library. There is a part-time librarian.

We then visited a 6/7/8 history class. The kids were working on a comic strip of history. Each group of four had a particular era for which they had to draw a panel. The kids work at tables of four with at least one student from each grade. The students were using laptops to research ideas for their panels. The computers are shared at a ratio of one laptop for two students. The teacher explained that his students did get opportunities to use technology, such as for making movies, but for the comic book project he really wanted them to hand draw the panels rather than print out pictures from the Internet. It was a very cool project and the kids were busily engaged.

We next visited a middle school language arts class where the kids were writing poems. The subject was their Farm School visit, and each student was choosing different types of poems to write from a "menu" - literally a menu with certain types of poems listed as appetizers, entrees, or deserts.

Community Trips & Events

After we left the language arts classroom, we were told about some of the different trips that the students make. The Farm School is near Bodega Bay and I think they said that the kids go up there two times per year. It is a week-long trip and they do various different projects there. Every other year the kids in grades 4-8 go camping for 4-5 days, and then in the alternate years they go to the snow. K-3 also alternate snow and camping.  8th graders also go to Costa Rica for 10 days. There are lots of other small field trips. Some trips have parent participation. The camping trip is a family event. All these trips sounded really cool . . . and like more money on top of tuition. Something to keep in mind.

The school also has community service events, such as a vegetable picking day and cooking a Thanksgiving day meal for seniors.

An interesting new thing that Synergy is doing this year is instead of having younger grade students have a buddy in a higher grade, which they did in the past, they have "families." One child per grade plus a teacher constitute each family. The families do events together, such as all going out to dinner. I thought this was a pretty neat way to foster community.

Outdoor Space

We headed outside and first went to the "soft" yard, which had a rubber ground cover and a sand area. There also trees for climbing - I love that. There were clever benches that convert into picnic tables. The yard also had a play structure and an apple tree that the students and teachers can actually pick and eat fruit from. There are usually two teachers per yard for the K-5 students.

The kids eat lunch outside on the soft or hard yard. The school is not nut free but kids are not allowed to share food. Kids are also required to get their hands cleaned with wipes before going inside and then wash their hands once inside. The kids are apparently conscientious about which other kids have food allergies, and some kids choose not to bring nuts to school if their friends have allergies. There is a food delivery service option, and approximately 30-40 kids order food each day.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the younger kids come out for lunch a half an hour early and leave early. But, otherwise, all the grades eat lunch together. After lunch, the kindergartners have quiet time for about 30 minutes per day except Thursday when it is 20 minutes. During quiet time, students are read to and are able to relax. The kindergartners are given an opportunity to finish their lunches later as often kids do not eat their entire lunch during lunchtime.

We then visited the "hard" yard, which was a big asphalt area. There were basketball hoops and the usual yard markings. PE class was happening and the kids were playing various games with balls. There was a lot going on and the PE teacher was actively participating and encouraging the kids.

The school does have several sports teams for kids in 5-8, despite its small size, and the teams do well. The sports include basketball, soccer, indoor soccer, and cross-country.

Final Thoughts

I liked Synergy an awful lot, but I left remembering the words of a friend also currently immersed in the kindergarten search who told me she was not going to tour any private schools because she did not want to fall in love with something she could not afford. I am pretty sure we could afford Synergy for one kid with some careful planning, but, man, that second kid!

I know my kids would love and thrive in Synergy's project-based learning environment. I do not think I would have concerns about diversity as both the faculty and student body were at least visibly diverse. The location and start time work. My impression was also that my kid's late-ish birthday is not an impediment, and I think he would do well at the assessment and playdate, as described. The many things we love about it are strong enough to keep it in the mix, despite the financial concerns.

Readers, what are your thoughts about Synergy?

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