Potrero Hill Schools Engage Their Community

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Prototyping station. Photo: Jennifer Longaway

Last month, Starr King and Daniel Webster elementary schools, The New School San Francisco, and Live Oak School collaborated with PREFund, a nonprofit that encourages Potrero Hill families from a diversity of incomes to raise their children in the community, to produce Maker Fest, one of a number of individual and collective school events held this year. 

The Maker Fest had “an incredible turn-out,” according to Emily Bobel Kilduff, head of The New School, a charter academy.

In May Daniel Webster will present its annual Taste of Potrero event, which raised more than $150,000 in 2018 to fund educational services. 

“Nerdy Derby,” organized The New School parents. Photo: Jennifer Longaway

“It’s really become a neighborhood event,” said Webster Parent-Teacher Association president Julie Shumate. “And the word is getting out outside of the neighborhood too. The money it raises goes to really important stuff, like tutoring, social workers, lunch monitors. All of what we raise goes right back into the school. It’s great that we get the chance to do something like this, and that it’s enjoyed by everyone in the community, whether they’re part of the school or not.”

 “Our school had one of the longest waitlists this year compared to other elementary schools in the District,” Shumate continued. “Word is getting out that we’ve got some good mojo going on. We have a really different mix of ethnicities, cultures, different kind of background. It’s really a melting pot.”

“Every year we’re adding a new grade,” said Kilduff. “We’re building a new curriculum, expanding the community.” 

Kilduff wants her school, which is in its fifth year, to model different ways of approaching education, forward-thinking methods that could be adopted by traditional public schools. 

A parent-volunteer from Daniel Webster working with a student. Photo: Jennifer Longaway

“Very few schools…have this kind of progressive curriculum,” she said. “We established ourselves as a laboratory for learning. We’re continuing our work with the Exploratorium. We work with them to build our curriculum. We’ve added more kids this year to our student body. We submitted a petition for our charter renewal…and we’re asking to extend to middle school.” 

According to Kilduff lower income families should get preference in the school placement lottery. “It’s totally in line with the District values,” she said.

Downtown High School is a “hidden gem,” according to Jodie Tsapis, a social worker and director of the school’s Wellness Center. Downtown caters to teenagers who were unable to excel at more traditional campuses. 

“We serve a unique population in the sense that all the students here were assigned to the big comprehensives, and those schools, for whatever reason, did not serve these students,” Tsapis said. “We didn’t want this to be a miniature version of a big high school. It’s a true alternative.” 

With just 175 students, Downtown is one of San Francisco Unified School District’s smallest schools. It offers incentives to pupils who maintain greater than an 80 percent attendance rate. 

“This school is kids motivating to come to school despite the odds,” Tsapis said. “Everything is intentional and by design. This is very close to a therapeutic high school. One of the things we do is we talk to the kids about why they think they had issues in their previous school. Something we hear a lot is that they felt invisible. We’re addressing that, the issue of invisibility.” 

Unlike traditional schools, Downtown High School students don’t take finals. Instead, they put on exhibitions at the end of the year to demonstrate what they’ve learned. 

“Sounds dreamy and it is,” Tsapis said. “But it’s also a hell of a lot of work. It’s important to support the staff and acknowledge how hard this job is. Everyone, the students and staff, are part of their community.”