Saturday, January 10, 2015

School Tour: Miraloma Elementary School

Miraloma Elementary School

Website: http://www.miralomasf.com/

Location: 175 Omar Way, San Francisco, CA 94127, Miraloma Park (West of Twin Peaks)

Grades: K-5

Total Enrollment: Approximately 365

Kindergarten Size: 66 – three classes of 22, starting in 2015-16

Time: 7:50am-1:50pm (early release one Thursday per month at 11:20am)

Aftercare: MEEP until 6:30 p.m. (full or part time, fee based), YMCA until 6:00 p.m. (full or part time, fee based), SF Rec & Park until 5:30 p.m. (fee based)

Miraloma is the school of my dreams – well, at least the dream of walking my kids to school. As it is our Attendance Area school, my husband came with me on this tour. It took us about 5 minutes to walk there, which we expected as we often visit Miraloma Playground next door. So refreshing to not have to allow extra time to find parking!

The Miraloma tour was self-guided, which made it a little bit different than most of the other tours I have attended. The tour document was very detailed and there were parents at every stop ready to answer questions, but at the end of the walking tour portion, I was not really sure what I had gotten out of it. We were not able to enter any classrooms – I was glad we were not interrupting any instruction (I always feel bad about that), but at the same time I missed having that chance to get a peek at the classroom experience (even though I am the first to admit it is a random snapshot that does not tell you much at all). You can review the Miraloma tour document here - http://www.miralomasf.com/newsletter/docs/miralomatour.pdf.

We were very rushed at the end of the tour because we were told (and the information in the confirming e-mail says this too) that the principal’s Q&A would start at 9:30, but at 9:10 when we were about to view the kindergarten classrooms and yard, we were told that the principal was about to start. We did not want to miss seeing the kindergartners, so we ended up missing the beginning of the Q&A.

Tour

Because the tour document is pretty thorough and the in-progress construction obscured some of the physical appearance of the school, the tour recap will be brief.

Library & Auditorium

The tour started outside the library, which appeared to be decent-sized but maybe smaller than Lakeshore’s. We were not able to enter the library as there was actually a woodwind music class taking place inside.

Across from the library was the auditorium. The auditorium is apparently only large enough to fit about half the school at a time, which sort of makes its existence a bit curious.

Garden

We went outside to visit the huge garden, which runs almost the entire length of the school on one side. We also got to visit the four chickens, who my kids already know well from our post-Miraloma Playground visits.

Kindergarten Classrooms & Yard

We went downstairs to look at the kindergarten classes. Again, unfortunately we were not allowed to enter the classrooms. The kindergarten classes are all on one end of the building and two of the three classes face the kindergarten/1st grade yard where we could view them through their large windows. From the windows we could see that the kindergarten classrooms are very large, and looked well-stocked and decorated.

Their yard is great with a slide and climbing structure, and some imaginative play structures. During recess, the kindergarteners share the yard with the first-graders. On Fridays, half of the kids go to Miraloma Playground next door for their recess, and that is staffed partly by parent volunteers and paid monitors.

Upper Yard

We then saw the upper yard where the 2nd-5th graders play in staggered recesses. The yard is big and open with basketball hoops, a play structure, and a slide. Currently, part of it is taken up by three portables that will be going away at the end of the construction over the summer.

During the Q&A we could see recess going on and despite the fact that there were lots of kids in a variety of activities, the yard seemed spacious.

Cafeteria and Gym

The school has a separate cafeteria and gym. As with other schools, they stagger lunches. The cafeteria is nice and bright as it has one wall of windows looking out onto the upper yard. The gym was small but seemed appropriately sized for elementary school students.

Notes/Comments from Current Parents Along the Tour Path

Regarding aftercare, we were told that are enough spots for all the kids who want to do an afterschool program, as there are three – MEEP and YMCA, which are both held on campus, and SF Rec and Park’s program, which is held next-door at Miraloma Playground. Unfortunately, there are currently no language programs as part of aftercare enrichment. The Rec and Park program is mostly free play so most people do not choose it for kindergartners as it is a bit much for them.

There is a rolling drop-off in the mornings staffed by parents as parking is somewhat hard in the neighborhood.

As for technology, some of the teachers have iPads, and some have other computers. There is no computer lab, but according to the tour document, there are computers in the classrooms. Students do get some of their homework via Google docs and some work is required to be done online, including some research, so they do learn to use technology.

Q&A 
The tour ended with a Q&A in the cafeteria with the principal, Sam Bass. As I mentioned, there was conflicting information about when the Q&A was supposed to start so we missed at least the first few minutes.

This is the principal’s first year. I had heard great things about the school’s very popular and well-regarded former principal, but friends touring earlier this season told me that they really liked Mr. Bass. I could see why – he seemed quite personable and dynamic.

Loss of QEIA Funding

The first question we heard asked about the impact of the school losing its QEIA funding, which is a big part of why the school has been able to have smaller class sizes. The principal responded that in the past eight years, there has been a lot of improvement at the school, partly due to the leadership of the prior principal and partly attributable to the QEIA grant. That grant plus money raised by the PTA helped fund reduced class sizes, a K-2 reading specialist, a full-time social worker, a PE coach, a garden teacher, etc.  Next year (2015-16), the grant is going away, and the school has been having discussions about how to prioritize what they want to keep. They have decided that smaller classes are the most important priority. Starting next year K-3 will increase from 20 to 22 students, as in the rest of the district, but for 4th-5th grade, class size will stay at 25 or fewer students rather than going up to 33 students.

It was disappointing to hear that the school is going to lose the smaller class size in the lower grades, which was definitely appealing to us and many others I am sure, but it is great that they are planning to maintain the reduced class sizes for 4th-5th grades. Although I wish I knew how feasible it is for the school to really afford to do that long-term (though I know Miraloma has been one of the top fundraising schools), and it was not clear which extras are going away.

The upside of the increased lower grade class size is that there will be six more spots in kindergarten next year, increasing the odds of getting in, assuming interest remains the same.

Mini Q&A with current 4th Graders 

At this point, four fourth-graders came in to talk about the school and field questions. While they obviously picked kids who would make a good impression, it was a nice twist and they did great. Two boys, two girls, racially diverse. They talked about how they really love their teacher – apparently they have a teacher with a very dry sense of humor. The kids noted that they sometimes work in large groups, sometimes small groups, and some things are done individually.

They talked about the different afterschool programs, cementing the impression that the Rec and Park program really is mostly playtime. The YMCA program is a mix of homework and recess and MEEP is a mix of homework, playing, and enrichment.

For homework, they said in third-grade they got a packet on Monday that was due on Friday. Now that they are in fourth grade, they received longer-term assignments that are more substantial, such as reports and essays.

The students all said they enjoyed getting to work in the garden, and three of the four kids loved eating things out of the garden while the fourth loved the chickens.

Diversity

At this point, Principal Bass took over again and was asked about diversity.

He noted that the school only has 16% percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, which he states was unusual for the district. It was interesting to me that he did not elaborate what made it “unusual” is that it means Miraloma has a significantly less economically disadvantaged population than the district average. The principal noted that they have a small number of English language learners. As for racial and ethnic diversity, he stated that the school is 50% white, 18% Asian, and then approximately equal proportions of other ethnicities. There was no further comment about racial diversity. There are lots of LGBT families and staff (including the principal). He considers it very inclusive population.

He noted that the school also has students on the gender spectrum and the teachers go through gender sensitivity training. The younger students get presentations about differences. The school’s social worker, who they call the feelings teacher, also works with students regarding these issues.

Common Core

Regarding Common Core, the school anticipated the changes and started moving toward the new standards in English Language Arts before the curriculum was adopted. Moving towards the math standards has been more recent. Principal Bass noted that the school understands the challenges for parents with the Common Core teaching being very different than how parents learned in school, and so they are trying to help parents better support their children. For example, two nights before the tour, the school hosted a math night for parents to help them understand how to support math learning when students are home.

Curriculum & Differentiation

For math, the school uses the district curriculum of Everyday Math, but also uses Singapore Math, which they believe is a more effective way to teach math so kids have a depth of understanding.

For several years, the school has been using the Readers’ Workshop Balanced Literacy program from Teachers’ College Columbia, which ensures that students are reading at the right level. The school also uses Fountas and Pinnell assessments for K-5 and does three reading assessments year. This is the third year that the school is using Writers’ Workshop. The PTA has sent teachers to Teachers’ College for more professional development.

Even kindergarten students generate written product, and learn about narrative versus opinion writing. One of the parent volunteers noted that even though it sounds very daunting and academic for kindergarten, she feels it is taught in a manner very appropriate for their level. She gave the example of her daughter, who at the end of her kindergarten year wrote four-sentence letter to Barack Obama about an issue she was very passionate about.

Regarding differentiation, teachers are trained to provide it in the classroom, and the principal felt that where kids need more of a challenge, the teachers can provide that in the class. An example he gave was a class where they were working on “10+_”, i.e., adding 10 to other numbers that were less than 10 (10+5, 10+6, 10+7, etc.). Some kids have already mastered that and so the teacher can have those students work on adding 10 to numbers above 10. Other kids might not be ready to do “10+_”, and so with those children the teacher will have them working on adding within ten. Teachers also have resources to send additional material home.

Inclusion

Regarding inclusion, they have a new K-2 special day class. They have paraprofessionals weaved into the classroom for students with IEP warranting that support.

Special day kids are mainstreamed into PE, garden, and recess.

Care Team

The school has a care team made up of the principal and certain other staff, including the social worker, who meet when there are students who have issues warranting greater intervention and support. They try to come up with a plan to resolve the issues and work with parents.

Conflict Resolution

The school uses RTI (Response to Intervention). The staff has had a lot of training and teacher professional development on this approach. It is focused on motivating positive behavior. Tier 1 is school wide tools to motivate everyone’s positive behavior. Tier 2 is students who perhaps need a daily check in with an assigned staff member to make sure that things are going well and they are on track. Tier 3 would be students who need even more support than that.

Kindergarten Orientation

The kindergartners usually have an orientation the Friday before school starts. The first couple of weeks of school are all about structure and easing the students into the routine.

Cell Phones

One parent asked whether cell phones are a problem. The principal said that it has not been a problem. A couple of kids have them for special reasons. For example, if they walk home by themselves or they take MUNI. He noted that he used to be the assistant principal at Denman, and cell phones were a big problem there.

Student Population

More and more of the younger grade kids are from the attendance area. The current parents encouraged families to stick it out through the start of school if they really want the assignment. Last year, there were six spots open on the first day and four new kids came in after the 10 day count.

Social-Emotional Curriculum & Bullying

Regarding the social-emotional curriculum, they use Second Step, which is a once per week class where they address different issues like bullying or trying to be a better friend.

The principal stated that he deals with discipline maybe one time per week. They also use restorative practices. He again talked about how much easier things were at Miraloma than at Denman Middle School where he dealt with fights, phones, and bullying.

I was a bit amused by how much he was not selling Denman in comparing it so unfavorably to Miraloma given that Miraloma now feeds into Denman. That is the place where next year’s K parents are supposed to send their kids in six and a half years (and current Miraloma parents in even fewer years!), so if you are freaked out by the middle school feeders, all that talk probably did not help.

Principal’s Final Thoughts

Principal Bass described Miraloma as, to him, "a magical place on the hill”. He feels there are no weak links on the staff and that they have a very supportive PTA, not just regarding the money they raise but the high level of parent involvement and volunteering. And he goes home happy every day.

My Final Thoughts

So I definitely am a bit smitten with Miraloma. The proximity is a huge plus – seriously, walking to school would be amazing. We know a few families there, including a couple siblings starting K in the fall, and having visited the playground next door and the chickens in the garden for years makes us feel we can fit right in. But the assignment system and the fact that our attendance area has way more kids than kindergarten seats make it dangerous to get too attached. And I agree with one of the parent volunteers we talked to who wished the school was not a 7:50 start time school and that there was language in the aftercare programs. The diversity is definitely a consideration too, though I have come to be a bit more flexible about that by necessity.

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