Noe Valley Voice December-January 2000

December Is Nail-Biting Time for Preschool Parents

By Heidi Anderson

For many parents, December can be an anxious month. And it's not just because they can't afford a Poo-chi robot dog. These parents are occupied with the task of finding a school for their child.

They must weigh what schools in San Francisco have to offer and make a decision. For parents who live in Noe Valley and want the cozy feel of a neighborhood school, this means choosing from among two Catholic and four public schools, and several private schools as well.

Deadlines for applications for both the parochial and public schools in Noe Valley are about the same. For Fall 2001 enrollment, applications must be received at the end of January for parochial school. At press time, the San Francisco Unified School District had not issued its deadline, but it will most likely be the end of January as well. In January the process of looking, finding, and deciding on the best school for one's almost 5-year-old reaches a fevered pitch.

It's a job most parents do not enjoy.

Fear and Loathing on the School Trail

"What I hear about public schools is not encouraging," says Min Wolf, a San Jose Avenue resident whose 5-year-old attends the Tiny Tots preschool program at Upper Noe Recreation Center.

Until recently, Wolf's child went to St. Paul's Parish Preschool on Valley Street. She now plans to apply to St. Paul's for her child's kindergarten education because she has a priority standing to be accepted. However, she still might consider public school if someone can reassure her about the process.

"I worry about the lottery system for getting the public school I want," Wolf says. "I read an article in the Sunday paper last summer about a woman who had a terrible experience getting a good public school for her kid. And to be honest," she adds, "I haven't heard much more."

Whichever school Wolf chooses, she wants to have an active role in her child's education. "I'd like to know that parents are involved."

Church Street resident and mom of two Ann Powell shares Wolf's qualms about playing the lottery for public school slots. But she feels even more uneasy about a piece of advice she received from a public school parent. That parent told her to lie about her address or her child's ethnicity to increase her chances of landing the school of her choice.

"If I go for a public school, I'm going to do it honestly, but I realize my chances of getting a good school are slim," she says.

These parents' fears are not completely unfounded. According to Margaret Wells, director of student placement for the San Francisco Unified School District, a judge ruled in December 1999 that the district may not use a child's race as a factor when deciding where to assign students. However, says Wells, the district is still committed to creating ethnically balanced schools. And for that reason, they'll continue to mix and match students.

Wells says district officials under new school superintendent Arlene Ackerman have spent months searching for a placement formula that is both legal and fair. The school district is planning to announce the new formula in early December.

Meanwhile, if parents do not wish their child to go to his or her assigned school, they may ask to enroll at an alternative school (or two or three). But to do this, they must fill out an "optional enrollment application," and cast their fate to the school district's human and digital sorters.

Since the best schools are often swamped with applications, parents have no guarantee they'll get their top choice.

Alvarado Gets a Thumbs-Up

Despite the red tape and uncertainty, many local families embrace the public schools. These parents and kids, along with their school principals and PTAs, are beckoning choosy parents in Noe Valley to give their neighborhood schools a closer look.

Josie Iselin is the PTA president at Alvarado Elementary at 625 Douglass St. Alvarado is the neighborhood school for about half of Noe Valley.

At one point several years ago, this school, with a student body of 465, faced troubling student achievement and low neighborhood enrollment. But Iselin is now presiding over a surge of parent enthusiasm for Alvarado's blossoming curriculum. "The school has a great energy," says Iselin, who lives near the school in Noe Valley. She rattles off several improvements, such as a computer lab, a fulltime science teacher, and Alvarado's Spanish-immersion program, which half of the students attend.

Add to that a list of programs like gardening, mural-making with professional artists, and after-school tutoring, and you have what Iselin says is "more than what most private schools can offer." Alvarado's PTA has 100 members this year.

Iselin noted that the school district cut Alvarado's budget by $41,000 this year (several San Francisco public schools experienced similar cuts), but the PTA is prepared to take up the slack as best it can to keep the momentum going.

Fairmount Starting to Lure Locals

Fairmount Elementary School at 65 Chenery St., which currently enrolls 370 students, has taken its cue from Alvarado's success. PTA President Chris Loughran says her school is following Alvarado's formula, from adopting the Spanish-immersion program to heavy recruiting of neighborhood families, right down to the student gardening club.

Fairmount also received a "Christmas in April" last spring, where various Bay Area businesses donated volunteers and cash to spruce up the school.

Loughran provides an exhaustive roll call of events and programs at Fairmount: Family Game Night, conflict resolution training for parents, a read-a-thon, a collaboration with volunteers from the Noe Valley Ministry, and a monthly open-door "principal's chat."

Like Alvarado, Fairmount also suffered a budget cut. Fairmount lost about $30,000, and the PTA is scrambling to cover programs rather than eliminate them. While it was decided to cut the library technician position and parents are filling in for now, a science program was patched together with PTA money and special grants.

Fairmount received another grant of $15,000 last year to increase parent involvement. Some of that money has been used to launch both English and Spanish classes for parents.

This is all beginning to entice neighborhood families to send their children.

"I'm tickled pink that we really are starting to draw more local families," says Loughran, noting that neighborhood enrollment is now up to about 20 percent of the student body. The PTA at Fairmount doubled this year to 75 members.

Edison Runs a Tight Ship

Closer to 24th Street is Edison Charter Academy, 3531 22nd St., a school that was privatized by Edison Schools Incorporated (the names are coincidental). This was done three years ago in an attempt to radically improve student achievement, which had lagged for several years.

Parent Dwight Duke's daughter has been at Edison for nearly two years, and he praises the school for its orderly atmosphere and long instruction hours. Edison's 500 students attend classes for eight hours a day. The school also requires uniforms. Duke likes Edison principal Vincent Matthews, too.

"Every morning he stands on a box with a megaphone and gives a pep talk to the kids," Duke says. "He always tells them, 'Have a great learning day!'"

Matthews does like his job. "The Edison design is playing out just as it should, and I'm really enjoying this," he says.

Student test scores for reading and math were in the teens before Edison became a charter school, and this year students are testing in the 30s and 40s. Matthews attributes the improvement to the longer school day (average for the school district is about six hours) and richer curriculum.

Rich indeed. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students each receive an iMac computer for home use. Parents, students, and teachers have an intranet system for communicating via web-site postings and email. Students have two electives each day, choosing from art, music, P.E., and Spanish.

Their workday is also intense. Students receive two 10-minute bathroom and water breaks a day, plus 35 minutes for lunch. (Elementary students in San Francisco's public schools receive a total of 30 minutes for recess and 45 for lunch.)

Rooftop Stays Up There

Across the valley and up the hill at 443 Burnett Ave. sits an aptly named public school, Rooftop. It teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade in two campuses across the street from each other. Principal Richard Curci has led Rooftop for three years. The school houses 600 students.

In its capacity as one of the district's "alternative" or magnet schools, Rooftop does not have neighborhood boundaries as such, but rather draws students from all over San Francisco. For the past two dec-ades, Rooftop has enjoyed a reputation as one of the top alternative schools in San Francisco. The students routinely perform well on academic achievement tests.

But ironically, Curci notes, the school is sometimes penalized for its success. Due to the students' higher test scores last year, the district cut $86,000 from Rooftop's budget. "I've become an entrepreneurial grant writer (applying to various organizations for special one-time gifts of cash), and the PTA raised over $100,000 last year to supplement our $50,000 budget," Curci reports.

He says the PTA also generates money for tutors, field trips, and visiting artists. All this makes for a rich arts environment, which Curci believes is vital to an excellent education.

Rooftop is so popular that 60 prospective parents showed up recently for a scheduled tour. But not everyone who chooses Rooftop can win a spot for their child. There is always a waiting list, Curci laments. And although he's an advocate for Rooftop, he asks parents to keep an open mind about other schools.

"I tell them [the key to a school's success] is a combination of parents' and teachers' extra time. That is what makes the difference." In Curci's view, any school can be transformed into a winner.

Parochial Schools Stress Tradition

About two blocks east of Alvarado sits a 60-year-old Noe Valley institution, St. Philip's School.

The Catholic school at 665 Elizabeth St. boasts a kindergarten-to-eighth-grade program that enrolls 250 students. Principal Steve Farren says the school "has a lot in common with other Catholic school programs, providing a very traditional curriculum and diverse student body."

Farren says about 60 percent of his students come from the surrounding Noe Valley neighborhood.

Parent involvement begins, as is usual in private school programs, with tuition. St. Philip's costs $3,048 a year per child, with a discount for families with more than one child enrolled. About $400 is taken off this fee if the child belongs to a family that is active in St. Philip's Parish.

The PTA is also an essential part of the school. "It supports the school in three important ways: parent education, financial support, and social events," says Farren.

St. Paul's School, at Church and 29th streets in Upper Noe Valley, is another long-established parochial school. It boasts a brand-new school building, with a computer lab and complete Internet hookup for every classroom.

Sister Ann Cronin is the principal and the only person of the cloth on staff at the school of 250 students. She says the student body grew by 30 children last year, and that 30 to 40 percent of St. Paul's students live in the neighborhood.

She reports that the children and staff are enjoying their new digs, but everyone is eager for the seismic retrofitting going on next door at the main church to be done.

According to Cronin, St. Paul's has a strong reading program. "Kids who go on from here do very well," she says. Religion is also taught daily, for 30 to 40 minutes, at each grade level.

Tuition at St. Paul's is $3,200 per year, and scholarships are available.

But at both schools, prospective students must pass a test to determine whether they are ready for a parochial school environment.

Once the child is accepted, parents commit to a certain number of volunteer hours per year (20 per family at St. Philip's, 30 at St. Paul's). Most parents devote their hours to fundraising projects. Both schools take applications starting in December and have deadlines in January.

Parents Group Says Go Public

Parents who have financial or other reasons for choosing public schools but who are frustrated or confused should contact Sandra Halladey. Halladey is a founding member of the San Francisco chapter of Parents for Public Schools (PPS). She lives on Castro Street and walks her children to Alvarado every day. Her group is part of a national organization dedicated to improving public schools.

Halladey feels strongly about helping parents who become alienated or stressed even before they enter the public school maze. "We like to bring together families who are in the public schools with families of preschoolers so they can help them navigate the system," she says.

Working hand in hand with the local PTAs, she offers tips on such things as completing optional enrollment forms and touring schools. PPS members meet regularly with school district officials to lobby for large and small changes, all of which are meant to create a more parent-friendly environment in the San Francisco public schools.

To link up with Parents for Public Schools, call 695-1949. For more information about any of the schools described above, please call their offices:

Alvarado School 695-5695

Edison Charter Academy 695-5848

Fairmount School 695-5669

Rooftop Alternative School 695-5691

St. Paul's School 648-2055

St. Philip's School 824-8467