Potrero Hill’s Independent Schools Thriving

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With summer break receding into the distance, Potrero Hill’s independent school classrooms are once again abuzz with energy, as students and teachers immerse themselves in the business of making friends, learning new concepts, and taking and grading tests.

Annette Bauer, head of school of AltSchool’s Dogpatch campus, which serves about 52 kindergarteners to second graders, is looking forward to a year of language immersion at the independent school’s 2265 Third Street campus. “This year at Dogpatch we are especially excited to be starting up the Spanish immersion program, where kids are going to be speaking Spanish all day long with their teacher Sophia Monica,” Bauer said. 

The school will also be introducing a German bilingual program, in which children will spend half the day conducting their studies in German and half in English. 

“We really see the focus at Dogpatch being multi-cultural and multilingual this year,” Bauer said.  “We’re going to be celebrating everybody’s cultures and backgrounds.  We’re starting the year with a focus on who we are; who we are in the community, and who we are in our families, and building our community at Dogpatch together.  That’s what I’m most excited about.”

Bauer notes that Altschool’s curriculum emerges organically.  For example, currently the Dogpatch campus’ lessons have taken an unexpected focus on mushrooms.  “We went to the park and we discovered that there were a lot of mushrooms growing, and the children wanted to pick them and bring some of them back to look at them more closely with magnifying glasses, so we started doing that, and then it just sort of spun larger and larger,” Bauer said.

Bauer has brought in as many different edible mushrooms as she could find to show the children. They’ve taken a trip to the Mission Bay Branch Library, where staff helped Altschool students find mushroom-related books.  Mushrooms will continue to be explored through art and cooking programs planned for the coming weeks.

“The point is, nobody planned to do mushrooms, but in some ways it doesn’t matter what topic you do with children, because you’re going to reach your targets and goals via that topic,” Bauer said.  “It could have just as well been birds.  Somebody might have found a bird in the park that needed help, and we would have spun into this bird study, and we would still be reaching our different goals and targets, like going to a library, learning how to use a library, doing research, going out into the community and talking with people, building communication skills.  All of these things are things that we can accomplish no matter what we’re studying.  So you capitalize on the enthusiasm of the children, and their passion, and then you sneak in all of your goals.” 

Leslie Grossblatt’s son, Zachary, is a kindergartener at Altschool.  He’s already engaged in the newly introduced Spanish immersion program.  Grossblatt isn’t only a parent of an Altschool student, but also works for the school as head of community and family experience.

“I think that what’s great from a parents perspective about Altschool, especially if you have the kind of  kid who is interested in exploring things on their own, and is self-directed, this is the kind of environment that will really let that kid grow, and won’t push them away from the things that they are interested in,” Grossblatt said.  “They will push them towards it.  If somebody is interested in making robots, or if someone is really interested in painting, or literature, or whatever it is, this school is designed to really help those kids capture that interest and run with it, and make that part of their curriculum and their experience.”

This year Altschool opened its first schools outside San Francisco, in Palo Alto and Brooklyn Heights. 

At La Scuola Internazionale di San Francisco, the Dogpatch’s Italian language immersion school, director of admissions Dunja Solari shared Bauer’s excitement about things to come this academic year.  She’s particularly happy about the school’s new Digital Atelier rooms, which offer an array of equipment, such as overhead projectors, webcams, digital cameras, Photoshop software, and 3D printers.

“We had two specialists visit from an organization called Reggio Children, to show us this technology, and we’ve had Digital Ateliers put in both the elementary school and the preschool,” Solari said.  “It’s a very interesting thing. It’s using a lot of projections, videos, and interacting with technology, and stories, projecting things on the computers, and kind of telling digital stories. It’s so imaginative, and it gives the children other tools for creativity. There’s a small one at the preschool, and a big one at the elementary school,” Solari said.

About 150 children attend La Scuola’s Dogpatch preschool campus.  Another roughly 50 students attend the kindergarten through eighth grade campus, which opened near Alamo Square last year.

“We looked for a long time in the Dogpatch, because we really wanted to stay there, but we just couldn’t find a location,” Solari said. “We were out-priced, and we couldn’t find anything that could be converted easily to educational use, so that’s why we decided to move away. Our preference would be to have both schools in the Dogpatch, but just the rate of growth there made that a little tricky,”

However, with their lease on Dogpatch’s campus secured for the next twenty-five years, complete with large playground area, and herb and vegetable gardens, La Scuola has no intention of vacating it’s preschool home any time soon. “We love being in Dogpatch, and we love our campus here, and the community.  If we could have found a space for our other campus here too, we would have taken it,” Solari said.

At Live Oak School’s 1555 Mariposa campus, last month head of school Virginia Paik walked through the spacious and well-lit building, seemingly gaining energy and enthusiasm as she stopped at classrooms along the way.  She peeped into the kindergartener room.  It’s 2:30 p.m., nap-time; the children lay puppy puddle style on the pillow- and comforter-laden floor.   Traversing the hallways, she passed students, teachers, and parents, stopping to chat with each one of them. She seemed to know everyone by name, and with a familial familiarity.

Newly completed, in use for the first-time this school term, Paik pointed out the “Grand Hall,” an open plan, communal space, which greets guests when they enter the building. “This is a space for the community,” she said excitedly. “Different things happen here. At this time of day it’s the lunch room, in the mornings it’s an assembly space, in the afternoons it’s an extended care space, and it’s where we have concerts and drama productions too.”

Live Oak is expanding, from one section per kindergarten to fifth grade to two.  Many ground floor features, including several new classrooms, are new, being used for the first time. “We’ve experienced an extraordinary demand on the school, and this allows us to open up the program to more kids,” Paik said.  “A quarter of our kids come from the Potrero Hill neighborhood, and it’s important to us that we have strong relationships, and roots in the neighborhood.”

Live Oak encourages its students to engage with the neighborhood through such activities as weekly visits to Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church for fifth graders, who help with the church’s food bank program.  The second grade class cultivates crops and plants at the Jackson Park learning garden. Eighth graders engage in community service at a number of organizations throughout the City.

“Another important element of our school, because we are a private school, is to make sure that not only are we going to set up a tuition structure that is accessible to a socio-economically diverse community, that we’re thinking about ethnic diversity and inclusion, and that our kids are learning about their role in promoting social justice issues,” Paik said. 

This year Live Oak’s charges $27,395 for annual tuition.  More than one-fifth of Live Oak families participate in the school’s adjusted tuition program, which enables them to pay from 10 to 95 percent of total expenses, according to need.