Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tour Notes - San Francisco Schoolhouse

I realized it might be worthwhile (to at least a couple people) to post my tour notes from San Francisco Schoolhouse, especially as some families are still exploring kindergarten options for this fall. I toured before joining the blog so I did not post my notes earlier, but even though we ended up not applying, we really liked the school. The school still has open spots for 2015-16 and upcoming tours (http://www.sfschoolhouse.org/admissions/).

Among the reasons we did not apply were that the location was would have been very difficult for us and we felt we did not have the bandwidth for a parent participation elementary school at this time. And, honestly, we liked it so much that we did not want it to be a back-up and knew that if we were accepted, we wanted to be able to attend.

San Francisco Schoolhouse

Website: http://www.sfschoolhouse.org/

Location: 301 14th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94118 (at the Beth Sholom Synagogue), Inner Richmond

Grades: Currently K-4, expanding to K-8 by adding one grade per year

Total Enrollment: 44

Kindergarten Size: One class of 11 (12 maximum)

Time: 9:00am-2:00pm (I believe that next year it will be 9:00am-3:00pm for grades 4-5)

Aftercare: 2-4pm After School Enrichment Program

Tuition: $9,350 for 2014-15, $10,350 for 2015-16

San Francisco Schoolhouse is one of San Francisco's many new independent schools, having opened its doors in 2011 with two students.  It is a bit of an outlier for us as it is not near our home or on my husband's commute path downtown, but I was intrigued by the unique parent participation model, low student-teach ratios, the personalized "project-based, hands on curriculum" touted on its website, relatively low cost, and the very good things I have heard from a few friends involved in the school. My son currently attends a co-op preschool that we love, so the idea of an elementary school inspired by those types of schools was something I was curious about, although I knew that the classroom obligation would be much less and different.

It took about half an hour to get to the school for the 9:30 a.m. tour, which was not bad, but I had to consider whether we could do it every day. I found street parking easily about a block away, though it was may have been easy because street cleaning had just ended and the tour began about half an hour after school started. The school currently leases its space from the Beth Sholom Synagogue.

We were greeted by two women who were among the first to enroll their children in the school. They chatted with us as we waited for the remaining tour attendees, another current parent, and the head of the school. The parents were quite personable and clearly excited about and happy with the school.

The third parent and the head of school, Daniel Popplewell, arrived and chatted with us briefly before the actual tour began. We were then split into three groups, each of which visited 3 classrooms. Daniel passed out clipboards and pens and asked us to write down things that we considered "progressive" education as we walked around. My group was led by one of the parents.

Tour 

Outdoor Space

We first walked through the outdoor space, which was a very large concrete area on the second floor with two basketball hoops and several riding toys and tricycles. The area is also used by the synagogue's preschool, though not at the same time. We were told that this is also where the kindergartners have lunch and that the 1st through 4th graders walk to nearby Argonne Playground for lunch.

School Building 

When we entered the building that housed the classrooms, the walls were covered in lots of cheery art, which was nice given that school had only been in session since the day after Labor Day, just a few weeks before my tour. I'm guilty of not remembering much about the content of the stuff on the walls - my brain basically processed it all as "letters, numbers, colorful art and projects, yep, looks like classroom and school hallway walls to me" - although there was a very cute series where the kindergartners had drawn pictures and alongside was text with a "what you don't know about me" blurb for each child.

Classrooms

My group visited kindergarten, first grade, and the combined third/fourth grade.

The kindergarten was delightfully boisterous. Some kids were happily and messily painting, one table showed the aftermath of some very messy play with clay/play-dough, other kids were building with blocks, and some were working with paper, scissors, and glue. The teacher – Miss Bridget – explained that it was "work time," which was basically a free choice time, and that later in the day for "table time" another teacher would come and they would work in smaller groups.

The first grade also had no desks, but a couple tables and a couch. Four or so children were working on reading with an assistant teacher just outside the classroom at a table. Inside the classroom, the teacher, Rebecca - one of the founding teachers, was working with a couple children at a table. A couple kids were working with manipulatives on a table. And two kids were sitting on the floor listening to books on tape, which I thought was pretty neat. The classroom was small, but it had room for books in a small "library." The kids looked engaged, even working semi-independently, and I liked that they still had a bit of freedom to move around.

The combined third/fourth grade classroom had eight third graders and four fourth graders, and was led by the school's newest teacher, Susan. Still no desks as the kids were all seated at tables with about four kids to a table. The kids were learning how to actively read a text, i.e., mark up the text with notes about things they found interesting or confusing. It was an interesting process to watch, especially as the kids were at the very early stages of learning how to do this and needed lots of support from the teacher.

I was encouraged by the fact that all of the teachers seemed like the kind that my kids (most kids?) would enjoy spending time with. I'm a little bummed my group did not get to see the second grade class, as they were apparently working on a neat math lesson using coins.

Q&A

We ended with a Q&A with the parents leading the tour and the head of school. Daniel was recently hired and is the school's first head of school. Daniel came from Odyssey, an independent middle school in San Mateo for gifted students. The parents explained that Daniel was hired in part to help the school develop a unified curriculum as the school does not yet have one. I found Daniel to be very likeable and he seemed to both have some clear ideas for the school on some issues as well as appearing receptive to being flexible as to what would work best for the community on others as the school moves forward.

Future K-8 Expansion

The school plans to expand to K-8, and while their current space definitely works for K-5, it is too small for K-8. They may end up in two locations though they would be near each other.

Learning by Doing

Daniel reflected that he believed kids learned best by doing, and talked about the school’s project-based learning emphasis.

One of the examples of project-based learning that was mentioned at the Q&A was that Jack, who is currently the second grade teacher, and was one of the founding teachers, once had a project for the kids to build a house. They had to figure out how to put it together and make it work, including making working plumbing.

One tour attendee noted that there were "values" on the walls of the 3rd/4th class that seemed written by the students themselves. Daniel noted that the idea of self-generated expectations was something that existed at all levels - students, parents, staff.

Differentiation

One of the parents described the school as being able to "meet students where they are," which is the lure of small class sizes for me - presumably more opportunities for differentiation within the same class. An example was given of multiplication being taught to different students in different grades because kids were ready at different times. In addition, one parent also noted her daughter and classmates had struggled to learn multiplication at a different independent school, but when she came to SF Schoolhouse, her teacher understood that the students needed a stronger foundation before moving on to multiplication, and all the kids got it.

Technology in the Classroom

One of the more thoughtful and interesting answers from Daniel came when he was asked about technology in the classroom. He noted that the students do not currently have computers in the school, and pointed out that a lot of them are going to have that access once they get home anyway and so do not necessarily need it at Schoolhouse. In addition, at his prior school, where every child had a laptop, he noticed that sometimes everyone was engaged in their technology rather than interacting, which was a negative.

Library

The school does not have a library, although the classrooms have books, some of which are brought in by the teachers from the Richmond branch library. They have also made regular public library field trips for the older students.

Snacks and Lunch 

The school is nut-free, but, because it is in the synagogue, it is also meat-free so parents have to be creative about the lunches packed for the students. There is no cafeteria or on-site food service. There are apples in every classroom for morning snack so kids have apples every day.

Parent Participation

The parent participation obligation is a family job, requiring approximately 10 hours per month of work, and a classroom obligation to chaperone 5 Adventure Days per year, if you have one child at the school. Some of the Adventure Days are on site, some are not. Other than this, there is not much expectation of parents being in the classroom.

Diversity

To be honest, the school did not appear very racially diverse, although I did not see all four classrooms. Obviously, that does not mean that the school lacks other kinds of diversity - LGBT families, socioeconomic diversity (which feels possible with a sub-$10K tuition), etc. That said, there were a lot of visibly racially diverse parents on the tour, which leads me to believe the school will be more diverse as it grows. That factor was not a deal-breaker for us, especially as my family has, as a result of all our school tours, had to reflect on how racial diversity plays out across San Francisco schools, and given all the other things SF Schoolhouse had to offer.

Open House

About a month after the tour, I attended an evening Open House at SF Schoolhouse where we prospective parents had a great opportunity to meet with the teachers in small groups, sit in their classrooms and hear their perspectives, and ask them questions. It concluded with a Q&A with the teachers and Daniel, the head of school. I did not take extensive notes, but a few things stood out to me.

All of the teachers were enthusiastic and passionate about the school and progressive education. They discussed that with the smaller class sizes, they can keep narrative records of the children’s progress and that is how they can report and discuss with parents where there kids are and how they are doing.

Jack showed us one of his students’ projects – they were learning about maps and created their own 3-D map of a neighborhood with streets and buildings. It was still in progress, but a great example of hands-on learning.

Rebecca also told us about a project where the students made (and ate) raisins. She also explained that one of the things she really liked about the school was that they had the freedom to stay with a project or a concept for longer than initially planned. If the kids need more time to get a concept, she does not have pressure to move on and can work on it longer.

Ultimately, I left with both an even more positive impression of the school and the unfortunate certainty that the daily drive would probably be too much for our family.

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