School Beat: Why I Love Starr King Elementary School

by Beth Weise on October 21, 2010

“Henri Matisse didn’t die when he was 32, he lived until he was 87!” my second-grader announced with much gusto over dinner the other night. This somewhat surprising statement came a week after she started talking about dots at dinner. Dots like in dim sum, she said, and dots that you paint with.

In the way of most seven-year-olds, the very round-about story finally became clear when she said they’d learned about a French man named Say-rah who painted that way. My children attend Starr King Elementary School on Potrero Hill and are both in the school’s Mandarin Immersion program. My younger daughter’s teacher, Ms. Zeng, had been teaching them about art and in that lesson “she had us make pictures with dots on the board and then we went to the back of the room to see them,” Zhou Yi (my daughter—all students in the program use a Chinese name with their Chinese teachers) told us.

When we looked up some pictures by Georges-Pierre Seurat in a book she said “Yes! That’s him!” and talked about how he did it all with dots and how died when he was 32, unlike Henri Matisse.

The dim sum comes, my 2nd grader explained, because the Mandarin word for dot is dian and as dim sum (that’s Cantonese, in Mandarin it’s dian xin, or 点心) is ‘dot-heart’ in Chinese.

The Mandarin Immersion program is one of four programs at Starr King. In Kindergarten, there are two Mandarin immersion classes, one General Education and an autism-specific Special Education program. Our school’s Spanish bilingual program is gradually being phased out and currently has a 2/3rd grade class and a 4/5th grade class.

My daughter’s story captures so much of what I love about her school Starr King:

I love that my daughter’s teacher told the class at the beginning of the year “I love art, and I’m going to teach you about art.” And she incorporates it into her class, even down to dim sum and dots. I love that they learned about Matisse and made their own paper cuts, even though what came home to us was a “monster in a swimming pool” and not lovely flowers.

I love that in the 4th grade, Zhou Qing, our other daughter, is learning about California geography and making mountains and valleys out of clay. The entire 4th grade, Mandarin, English and Spanish, went on a trip to the farmer’s market at Civic Center and as a chaperone I watched as the students grilled growers on where their farmers were located, connecting the map in their heads with the piles of beets, bok choy and chard in front of them.

I love that within the first two weeks of school our new P.E. program resulted in new lines painted on the playground and many long, involved descriptions of really fun-sounding games at dinner. I’m not sure what exactly they’re doing with the one that involves ping pong balls, ping pong paddles, hockey pucks, hockey sticks and a kick-call, but it sounds like a blast and is keeping all the kids moving, which is what P.E. should do.

I love that soccer has become something that our entire school community is involved in. There are multiple teams for 3rd, 2nd, 1st and Kindergarten, (second grade alone has three) that have parent coaches and players from all three language programs. The teams, nine that I know of, practice at the Potrero Hill Rec Center fields just two blocks away, walked up after school by parents. It’s so local, so concrete and so school-wide, a wonderful unintended consequence of the desire on the part of some 3rd grade parents just to get a little soccer game together.

The students come together on the soccer field, but also in the classroom. Beginning in fourth grade the General Education, Spanish bilingual and Mandarin immersion classes are mixed up and merged for English class.

I love the calm, loving competence of our office staff. One afternoon I got called in because my older daughter had managed to stand on and then fall off of a kickball, spraining her ankle. She was sitting on one chair with her foot elevated and iced.

Another boy came in to have a talk with the principal and was coolly, though not unkindly, told to wait.

Then a Kindergartner came in because she didn’t feel well. Starr King’s secretary, Carmen, took one look at her and pulled her into a hug, checking her forehead with her hand as she did. Then without missing a beat she pulled the trash can out from under her desk so the girl could throw up in it, all so calmly and lovingly that by the time I’d gotten my daughter ready to go, the obviously sick and scared Kindergartener was smiling wanly and waiting for her mom.

Mostly I love that during an era when I read daily about the total melt-down of public education in the nation, in an era when Waiting for Superman seems to be most people’s image of the state of public schools, my kids are learning and thriving in a wonderful public school that only a few short years ago was considered so bad it was on the closure list. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but the reality of their day-to-day experience in school gives me great hope, for our city and for our nation.

Beth Weise’s two daughters are in the Mandarin immersion program at Starr King Elementary on top of Potrero Hill.

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