Friday, September 30, 2011

Growing Pains at New K-8 Aiming to Be One

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Removing the slash was one of Maria Dehghan’s first decisions as Buena Vista Horace Mann’s new principal.
“I said, please take that slash off,” said Dehghan, referring to how the school’s sign used to read: Buena Vista/Horace Mann. “A slash means division.”

Slash or no slash, there have been some initial growing pains at the newly merged elementary and middle schools that form the Mission’s only K-8 program. The merger brought together Buena Vista, a kindergarten-through-fifth grade bilingual school with an active parent association and improving test scores that made it the second-highest-ranked Mission District elementary school, with Horace Mann, a sixth-to-eighth grade middle school that only recently began to emerge from a difficult period.

“Everybody knew going in, it’s going to be a traumatic transition in many, many ways,” said former Horace Mann principal Mark Sanchez, who has started this year at Cleveland Elementary School in the Excelsior. Sanchez was a big advocate of the K-8 switchover, because stand-alone middle schools tend to fare worse than conjoined schools, he said.

The San Francisco Unified School district announced early this year that the two schools would merge. Last year Horace Mann was designated a high-need school and qualified for a federal School Improvement Grant of $1.3 million over three years.

Even though Horace Mann received the first installment before the schools merged, the new K-8 will have access to the funds, Vice Principal Larry Alegre said.

Some of the more immediate logistical concerns: a playground not big enough for all 600 students at once, which proves tricky in scheduling recess, and different start times for the middle and elementary school students, which is logistically difficult for parents with kids in both.

Another difficult issue has been the lack of student drop-off zones. The school’s influx of young children jumped, so the line of parents’ cars at drop-off and pick-up times can get out of control.

“It seems like a nightmare on Bartlett Street,” said Megan Windeler, the mother of a fifth-grader who bikes with her son to school.

“But it seems amidst all the confusion, both schools are working together to make it one community,” Windeler said.

Like other parents, Windeler was attracted to Buena Vista Horace Mann by the social and academic perks of a K-8. She transferred her son, who was in the fourth grade at Marshall Elementary School, to begin fifth grade here this fall.

“You have the continuity, and the pairing up of the older kids and the younger kids,” she said, explaining why she likes K-8 systems.

“It keeps the older kids grounded.”

Principal Dehghan said that the school plans to take advantage of the K-8 system by implementing programs that cross grades, like mentoring clubs and reading buddies.

“A K-8 provides the opportunity for people to work more in a community school,” Dehghan said.
Speaking at the school’s PTA board meeting, a parent agreed. “If you are an eighth-grader who reads at a third-grade level, you can still read to a second-grader. It works.”

Alegre said that parents from Horace Mann could opt to keep their children in English-only classes, and that 22 incoming sixth-graders also chose the latter.

As Mission Loc@l reported earlier this year, there was concern among parents about merging two distinctly different schools. Buena Vista had an active parent coalition, while Horace Mann typically had fewer parents at meetings. The demographics were also strikingly different.

Students at both schools were largely Hispanic, according to the California Department of Education, but there were many more white students at Buena Vista than at Horace Mann — 64 compared to 4.
But the demographic differences haven’t deterred parents from both schools from returning. Ninety percent of Buena Vista’s kindergarten-through-fourth-graders returned to the merged school, according to Alegre, and 70 percent of Buena Vista’s fifth-graders opted to start their middle school careers at the merged school.
Alegre now has a waiting list for all grade levels.

The adjustments continue, but the older students are getting used to the younger ones, and teachers are getting used to being in an environment with 400 more students.

Watching it from afar, Sanchez still thinks that K-8 is the best way to go.

“[In K-8] we have that knowledge of particular students. The education becomes more personal.”

He predicted that the transitions will smooth out after a year.

“Expect it to be hard,” he remembered telling Buena Vista parents as they toured the building in the spring.

“But at the end of the day, it will be brilliant school.”

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