School Beat: Creative Arts Charter School

by John Perry on November 30, 2006

When people ask about the differences between my son’s private pre-K and his new San Francisco Unified School District kindergarten, a couple of images flash through my head. The sacks of cash are probably pretty obvious. But the piano covered in frosting needs more explanation.

Shortly after Ben started at Creative Arts Charter School (CACS), a K-8 located in the Western Addition, a friend called with a surprise offer. The tony private high school where she teaches was about to jettison a Yamaha baby grand for a fancier upgrade. Would Ben’s new school be interested?

Of course CACS immediately hired a mover and took grateful possession. Our family was glad to broker this donation, but we were really knocked out by what came next. A couple days after its arrival, a school-wide email announced a spontaneous party for the piano. Refreshments were to be served, and kids would be working the keys. How cool is that?

I don’t mention the frosted piano to illustrate the obvious differences between lush private schools and limited public resources. Instead I want to convey the energy, enthusiasm, and extraordinary sense of community that CACS offers.

Our decision to leave one of the area’s most sought-after private pre-K-to-8th-grade schools made us seem as freakish as the duck-billed platypus to some friends and acquaintances. But we’ve steadily reiterated our reasoning: The school we left was great, but after touring 14 elementary schools in the District, we couldn’t see enough of a delta between private and public. And CACS was our first choice.

Like many, we knew almost nothing about charter schools going into our search. We learned, in brief, that they are independent schools approved and overseen by the Board of Education. Operationally, charters are free to set their own curricula, programs, class size, etc. But they remain public schools, open to all through a separate lottery system.

Several aspects of Creative Arts attracted us. Inspired and founded on the Reggio Emilia philosophy, CACS uses this model in K-3. According to Reggio Emilia’s constructivist approach, education is a creative process in which students learn best by testing their own ideas.

In addition, project-based learning is central to CACS. This approach integrates different disciplines (math, language arts, science, etc.) into an extended themed-based project. A unit on ancient Egypt, for instance, might combine cultural history, environmental aspects of the Nile, the math and physics of pyramid building, and the science of (actually) mummifying a chicken.

We also liked CACS’s commitment to integrated arts education. Let me be clear: CACS is not a performing arts school. When you tour, don’t expect Fame-style dance numbers in the hallways. Instead, the school holds the tenet that art, dance, and music are foundational, not enrichments. We were excited to have three consecutive parent/teacher conferences this fall, meeting with not only Ben’s classroom teacher, but also the music and art directors. Because CACS provides arts classes at every grade level, all three teachers have already built relationships with our son.

The Orff-based music program—and even the music room itself—also mirror what was offered at Ben’s private school. So it came as no surprise that the CACS music director studied with the teacher back there. Like Reggio Emilia and project-based learning, Orff encourages hands-on, improvisational interaction with music as kids build their understanding of concepts and skills.

Another CACS parent, Margaret Rosenfeld stresses that her highly academic 7th grader has been consistently challenged at CACS. But she also cites his love of sports and notes, “People don’t usually associate athletics with a school that has ‘Arts’ in its name. But CACS offers volleyball, basketball, futsal, track, and more starting in 5th grade—for free. In the younger grades parents organize soccer and other teams. And as a school, we compete in the private school league, so it’s great to see our kids’ pride when they beat teams with custom uniforms and multi-million dollar facilities.”

Two other factors drove our choice. The school’s K-8 span eliminates a transition at middle school. And as a charter, CACS can set its class sizes. All California public schools are required by law to limit K-3 classrooms to 20 students, but CACS caps grades 4-8 at 24 when many other public classrooms exceed 30 students.

I know I’ve hit a couple topics so far that spark controversy—charters, middle schools, small class size—but I’m not here to launch a debate. I can only tell you that these aspects of CACS are crucial for our family. And we consider our charter school another great option offered by the District, just like language immersion programs.

Rosenfeld says that half of her son’s current 7th grade class started with him in kindergarten: “Having so many families still here has created strong and mature relationships—a whole web of relationships, really—among the kids and their parents.”

Like our close-knit neighborhood, a vibrant school community is an essential part of Ben’s landscape in growing up. His private school strove with great sincerity to achieve and affirm multicultural diversity, and it was largely successful. By its nature, though, private school is less socioeconomically diverse. And we increasingly felt we just weren’t “private school people.”

At CACS, we’ve found a whole different level of diversity—and, thankfully, general funkiness—where parents with piercings mix with “minivanners.” It’s this kind of spectrum that we want for our son and that keeps us in San Francisco.

John Perry, father of a Creative Arts kindergartener, is an active parent volunteer and a member of Parents for Public Schools.

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