Sunday, May 29, 2011

We say goodbye to the school on the hill

Friday was Jack's last day in SFUSD's Language and Learning program. Designed for preschoolers with mild to moderate speech and social issues, it was the only early intervention service SFUSD offered Jack.
He started L&L a year ago, squeezing in a month of classes before summer break, then picking up again in autumn.

I remember his first day; his assignment was to Malcolm X, a small elementary school with a gorgeous hilltop view in Hunter's Point. We drove along with garbage trucks down Cargo Way, turned to pass the old power plant site, and headed uphill through the projects to arrive at the school. Jack's teacher, Miss Jeanna, welcomed him and I took off for a few hours, returning to see the kids walking down the hall toward the school doors together, each holding onto a different color of the walking rope. Jack was calm, but his tongue was sticking out a bit, and at the time that was his indicator when he was stressed -- first days can be like that! L&L gave him many challenges: Miss Jeanna kept the day structured with fine motor and gross activities, reading, singing, art, and snack. Everything is designed with communication in mind. Some of the kids this past year were simply speech delayed while others, like Jack, had sensory and social issues. He definitely made progress at Language and Learning, particularly improving his ability to share his space and tolerate a schedule. His speech is better, but social communication was hampered by the other kids' limited communication skills -- this year he probably had the best speech in his class. We deeply appreciated that Miss Jeanna (along with her aide Miss Shamika, whom Jack adored, in part, because he said she always smelled so nice) and Jack's teachers at his preschool approached his challenges the same way, so both programs reinforced each other.

I felt sad saying goodbye to Miss Jeanna. She's the best kind of teacher, smart and kind with incredible reserves of patience and creativity. SFUSD is lucky to have her. I also would not hesitate to recommend L&L placement at Malcolm X. The principal and staff obviously care deeply about their kids, most of whom come from the nearby neighborhood. The school is immaculate and the Language and Learning kids are kept as separate as possible from the other students, to minimize the fear some of the youngest kids might have for those big elementary students!

But we move on now, continuing at Jack's preschool (of which I will write about in a few months) until August when he will start kindergarten!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The lottery

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), in an attempt to make school placement equitable, runs a lottery each year. Every San Francisco family has a chance to send their child to any public school, and preference is given to families who live in low test score and dense population areas (having a sibling already enrolled in a school gets you an even better chance to have your second get in there as well).

We prepared for this year's lottery. I researched the prospective kindergartens online, then we narrowed down the options by proximity and eliminated the schools that would require nearly an hour of driving (one way). SFUSD announced that starting with the 2011-2012 school year all schools would offer inclusion spots, but we would only consider a space in a school with an already-existing inclusion program. During tours, I spoke with some parents who had been told point-blank by school staff that they did not want inclusion. And those were the ones who admitted it! I'm sure there are others who also are not keen on inclusion, but kept their mouths shut. We really wanted to meet the inclusion staff and see how they would work with Jack. Some schools did not emphasize their inclusion programs and were less than enthusiastic; those schools also did not make our cut.

Here is the list of schools we put on our lottery list:
1) Clarendon. A lovely school with great student diversity and a staff who obviously love their jobs. It's generally regarded as one of the best elementary schools in the city and I fell in love with it.
2) Miraloma. An up-and-coming school with a young principal who seems to truly embrace inclusion. It was the only school we toured where the staff set up a meeting for parents interested in the inclusion program, at which we got to meet the inclusion staff and the principal. Miraloma also has a gym and an auditorium (most SF schools have a combined space), and the gym has a climbing wall, which we loved. They also have a cute garden and chickens, which was a surprisingly strong point for me.
3) Lakeshore. Nice location, good grounds, impressed with inclusion staff.
4) Argonne. The resource specialist sold me on the school. She is experienced and a huge asset to a school with very strong test scores. Not a great location for us, but we thought the drive would be worth it.
5) Dianne Feinstein. Our safety-net school.

I rustled up our paperwork and documents, waited in line at the SFUSD downtown headquarters, and then we waited.

The envelope from SFUSD arrived, and Hans opened it.

Have you read Shirley Jackson's book "the Lottery"? It's a grim tale of an annual village superstition where one person is stoned to death to ensure an adequate harvest. The victim is chosen by lottery. The look on Hans' face as he read the placement letter was not as grim as it would be for one about to be stoned; it was more an expression of disgust and disbelief. We got none of our choices, and were offered a school without an existing inclusion program. We'd "won" the SFUSD lottery.

For me the biggest frustration is all that wasted research time, with zero payoff for the hard work. And I know we're not alone, for quite a few other families in our area got none of the schools on their lists either. Some are now waiting for round 2 results. Others may home school.

In the end, we hit the jackpot in a different sort of lottery, one we were happy to win -- Jack was accepted to a small private school that welcomes kids with minor to moderate learning difficulties. Thanks to grandparent funding, he'll start there in the fall.

So goodbye to SFUSD, with its broken promise of a good education for all.