School Beat

by Susan Yip on January 12, 2005

Applying to the San Francisco public schools is becoming as stressful for parents as applying to private school. A few years ago, the district scrapped its neighborhood schools policy, which usually sent kids to the school nearest home, in favor of an assignment process allowing parents to list up to seven choices. But what happens to people who don’t get any of their choices?

Two years ago, my son Eric was assigned to Balboa High School. How did that happen? Balboa certainly was not one of our four choices of schools. I had heard worrisome things about Balboa’s reputation, and when that letter arrived, I was ready to go protest the assignment.

Through instant messaging, my son soon learned that many of his middle school classmates got Balboa too. Some parents were outraged, but others took a more sensible approach, saying we ought to visit the school and hear what they have to offer our kids. I agreed to go along.

The visit was arranged and I went with some trusted parent-friends. We met some equally nervous parents from schools like Hoover and James Lick. We listened to the administrators, then heard from some current Balboa seniors. Everyone promised a good, safe school experience, and the students talked enthusiastically about their activities and plans for college. We were taken in small groups on tours led by students. This gave us a chance to talk to the students without restriction and they really did seem happy with their school.

One surprising thing was how small the class sizes were. Currently there are fewer than 1000 students enrolled at Balboa and classes are often in the low 20’s. So after more thought and discussion and visits to Balboa with my son, we decided he’d try it, keeping in mind he could always apply for another school the next year.

He’s now a sophomore at Balboa and I have to say that I’m glad he’s there, and am glad to be at a school with such responsive administrators. The teachers have been good and classes are sufficiently challenging. The programs Balboa promised have proven to be enriching experiences for Eric. He participated last year in the Young California Writers Workshop, a program run by the Magic Theatre in which a playwright comes to school and works with selected students for weeks helping them write short plays. It culminates in performances of these plays by professional actors supervised by a professional director and performed at the Magic Theatre.

Eric also joined the Mock Trial team, which met twice weekly in the fall and ended with a competition between other high school mock trial teams who presented their cases at the SF Superior Courthouse, adjudicated by attorneys who served as judges. Some of the students played lawyer roles and some were witnesses, but all learned a lot about legal procedure and being put on the spot.

Balboa has a strong sports program and Eric participated in some of the running teams, cross country and track in the spring. The varsity football team made it to Turkey Bowl this year but lost the championship to Lowell. Maybe next year….

The School to College program is currently offered to juniors and is run by volunteer attorneys from the SF Bar Association. The goal is to get more students into college, and kids are mentored by the attorneys who spend their Monday afternoons at Balboa. Highlights of this program are a trip to southern California to visit college campuses and then another trip to campuses in the Boston and New York area. To date, no interested student has ever been turned down for this program. I’ve seen the video and it looks like one fun time. This program also picked up additional sponsorship from the SF 49ers as of last year.

Philanthropist and theatrical producer Carol Shorenstein Hays adopted Balboa and soon there will be a drama program within their Small Learning Community system. Ms. Hays has underwritten costs to re-do the Little Theater and the auditorium. She also hosted a special performance of the Lion King to which all Balboa students were invited. Balboa also gets some Bill Gates grant money for help with special programs. While some other schools are scaling back programs due to budget cuts, Balboa is expanding their offerings.

Balboa has improved considerably in recent years. Response has been extremely positive to our Open Houses, with some parents signing up their children on the spot. This fall, the PTSA gained about twice as many enthusiastic parents to help with projects like boosting sports teams. Things are looking very optimistic at Balboa. Safety hasn’t been any problem for us, and transportation by Muni has been fine. There’s also an SFUSD school bus that ferries students free from the Richmond and Sunset districts.

So I’d advise parents to keep Balboa High in mind when making your high school choices. The Principal, Patricia Gray, welcomes everyone to come visit the school and take a tour. The school phone is 469-4090.

Remember, no matter where your child is assigned, go visit the school before you panic. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Susan Yip is a parent of a sophomore at Balboa High and serves as parent rep for the GATE/honors program at Balboa and is a member of the PTSA. Her son Eric is a student member of the School Site Council.

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