Hill’s Public Schools Begin Year with Renovations, Innovations

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Two months into the 2015 school year Potrero Hill’s public schools are completing or commencing campus renovations and modernizations.  Some schools have introduced new courses, one is piloting a revamped curriculum, while another is grappling with significant enrollment declines.

Daniel Webster Elementary has moved temporarily to the Enola Maxwell/International Studies Academy campus, as its 20th and Missouri streets site is being equipped with a new library, interior corridors, and added flex space.  According to second grade general education teacher, Ronald Russo, the Webster community has “been welcomed with open arms by the administration and staff of ISA.” Although the logistics of getting around in a new space are tricky, Russo said that it’s been “wonderful” so far; some ISA students are former Webster pupils, while others have younger siblings that attend the elementary school.

Webster’s teachers have formed professional learning committees, to collaborate on lesson preparation and practice them in front of their peers. The idea, Russo explained, is to “fine-tune their teaching and work together to hone their craft.”

A number of families left Webster last year for private schools, shrinking the school’s population by 10 percent, to 275 students. Webster’s Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), which conducted exit interviews, found that some departing parents were uncertain about the school’s leadership; others were concerned about the lack of nearby, high-quality, public middle school slots.

The exodus has impacted Webster’s financial stability and its sense of community. According to PTA president Max Garrone, “every family that departs means that friends are going somewhere else…[The movement] is particularly tragic since Daniel Webster has been poised to become an overwhelming success.”  Webster’s PTA is working to address financial gaps through renewed fundraising efforts.

Garrone praised the school for its diversity, the caliber of its teachers, and its dedicated parent community. “We’re literally at the turning point to make that happen with some of the best general education teachers in the business, a great Spanish immersion program, an arts program, physical education throughout the day, and the funding to build a STEM program,” he said.

Downtown High School continues to emphasize a project-based approach to learning, offering such classes as Acting for Critical Thought – which teaches, in collaboration with the American Conservatory Theater, acting, literature, and grapples with issues of oppression and identity – Publishing and Performing Our Perspectives – in which students learn about backstage careers, such as theater production and marketing, and write monologues on socially relevant issues – and Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative, which focuses on environmental education, natural history, and habitat restoration.  These courses provide DHS students with an opportunity to imbibe critical and academic skills while applying them, in real time, to concrete ends.

This year DHS premiered a new project, Farming Organically to Revolutionize Kitchens, in which students learn to grow produce and cook meals in the school’s food science kitchen. An edible garden, which was constructed on DHS’s campus over the summer, provides a platform for students to make decisions about every stage of the food production process, from what to plant to what to cook.

As assistant principal Todd Williams put it, “if we’re proactive, [the students are] less likely to create their “own brand of fun.””

The school is committed to keeping alive the legacy of Ed Cavanaugh, a beloved DHS teacher who died last summer. Cavanaugh founded the popular Get Out and Learn, an experiential outdoor program that promotes leadership and community building through hands-on activities, such as backpacking, sailing, and boat-building. DHS is seeking a new instructor to partner with Cavanaugh’s co-teacher, Erin Waddell, to help lead the course.

Ongoing challenges include promoting student engagement, fostering higher attendance rates, and creating a greater sense of community among the 175-member student body.  The “traditional program does not work for [our] students,” said DHS principal Ellen Wong.

This year ISA is piloting a complete redesign of its curriculum, in line with the San Francisco Unified School District’s Vision 2025, to help “better and more equitably prepare students for the demands and opportunities of life and work in the 21st century.”  ISA is adopting a project-based learning approach that’s informed by student-driven inquiry and topical issues, such as immigration and international development.

Each course is now co-taught, and involves the synthesis of two subjects in a way that demonstrates the connections between disciplines as they exist beyond the academic sphere. For instance, 10th grade physical education and physiology are being taught concurrently, with a final project that involves students designing medical devices.  There are classes combining international relations and engineering, English and social studies, Spanish and art.

The interdisciplinary model is intended to challenge students to apply skills as they learn them. In the combined Spanish I/Art I class, Artey y Yo, for example, students are asked to exercise their developing knowledge of the Spanish language to study Spanish art, music, and poetry.

Like all high schools, ISA faces the challenge of transitioning incoming ninth graders from middle school into the rigors of college preparation. The school offers a combined ninth grade Physical Education + Health in College and Career class that emphasizes holistic well-being—physical and emotional—with the hopes that it’ll help students during this challenging transitional period, and improve the ninth grade retention rate. Students are tasked with compiling a toolkit of resources for teens that they can refer to when needed.

Principal Darlene Martin believes that having Daniel Webster’s younger students on campus will inspire greater maturity, growth, and accountability among ISA students. The school is looking for ways for the two student bodies to work together as reading and math buddies. For the time being, Martin said, the high schoolers are very protective toward the younger students; being careful when crossing paths with them, for instance, though this is doesn’t happen much due to the school’s separate schedules.

Last year, Starr King Elementary School underwent extensive reconstruction of its buildings, culminating in a new perimeter, entrance gates, top floor, and an administration library. Classes being renovated were moved to temporary bungalows on the playground. The bungalows are now gone, and students and teachers are thrilled to have their playground back.

Now a portion of the playground is being renovated, as part of SK’s “greening project.” The Green Schoolyard 2.0 will include an edible garden, greenhouse, and science laboratory which, in conjunction with a nearby kitchen classroom, will be used to support environmental education. A stationary bike will be installed that students can ride to pump irrigation water through the garden. The new play space is designed to promote active and creative play and outdoor learning. Garden planting is expected to begin this month.

Starr King offers three tracks: General Education, English-language; Special Education – which consists of an autism-specific special day program, a full inclusion program and resource specialist program services – and Mandarin Dual Immersion program, which prepares students from various backgrounds and home languages to be “bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural” through bilingual instruction and classwork.

Earlier this year SK was ranked by GreatSchools.org as SFUSD’s most diverse elementary school.  According to one staff member, who preferred not to be named, SK has a diverse population, but students in the three tracks are not well integrated. Informal mixing takes place during recess and lunch, but there’s no subject matter integration.  Integration is “always a goal and a challenge,” she said, one that the school plans to pursue more formally in the future.