In April, the Portola Planet was informed of a new school moving into the neighborhood. The Alta Vista School out grew their measly 3,500 square feet in the Mission and needed something bigger. The Portola gave them that opportunity, 27,000 square feet bigger! Head of school, Ed Walters, invited me over to see what the new school looked like and to tell us about their philosophy on education and why the Portola was the right place for them.
The school was founded in 2010 by seven families who wanted to create a “progressive, project-based, independent elementary school”. Their Mission neighborhood location quickly became crowded, with 5 classrooms squeezed into the space of a typical family home. So the hunt was on for somewhere more suitable, and 450 Somerset Street presented the ideal option. Ed said the main reason was the building. It was an old Catholic school, associated with the church across the street, a school all ready to move into. Money could therefore be spent on improvements rather than the expensive building of classrooms and lengthy change of use processes with the city. Ed went on to say that the Portola is such a nice neighborhood. Very peaceful, low traffic (important for a school) and a very school friendly area.
One of the founding families was a chief scientist at Twitter and as such it comes as no surprise that technology litters the classrooms. Ed says the focus of the school is on science, math’s and technology. All classrooms have smart boards and elmos (camera based projection system, not cute red monsters). iPads for every student in the 3rd grade, and they teach programming starting in the 2nd grade. Just the sort of school needed to create the next generation of technologists in the bay area. At the moment there are 90 students in class. The grading starts with junior kindergarten, their youngest is around 4 1/2 years old, and they are running a 3rd grade class right now. Their plan, each year, to add another grade through to 8.
The school looks at education a little bit differently. It isn’t just about giving the students the information to memorize, they provide experiences for them to learn. For example lots of game play (with cards and dice) making class time a lot of fun. Their approach to the curriculum is also a little bit different. Ed posed the question, “Is the data the important piece, or is how to think and solve problems more important?” He went on to say that, “Data in the 21st century is in your hand. Modern technology allows finding information fast and trivial. But machines are no smarter than us, so we focus our teaching on giving students understanding of the process not just the memorizing of results.” They look at the California Standards and don’t think they are strict enough. So they typically educate a grade ahead of what the CS requires. So their first graders do multiplication and division, which is typically a third/fourth grade standard.
All of this modern approach to education does come at a cost. At $20,000 per year, their teaching comes at a premium, but Ed mentions that 20% of the families in the school gets some form of financial help. 10% of the schools operating income is put aside to help those less wealthy and it ranges from a few dollars to almost full tuition. It would be great to learn that as the school grows, we see some of the families in the Portola given a chance to attend.
Overall my short trip around the school was very positive. They’ve been at the new location just 25 days and Ed says they will be reaching out to the Portola community over the coming months. The Portola Planet will keep in touch and we are so pleased to see such a highly regarded school land in our patch. Welcome to the Portola, Alta Vista school students, faculty and staff.