It’s Elementary

Boy, am I sore. This turned out to be one of those epic weeks for me, walk-wise: I got an idea that had me visiting sites all around the city, causing me to have to walk a total of 28.75 miles in two days. But I can’t really complain, of course, since this was all my idea. And I am getting some great exercise…

My subject this week? Schools. I’ve been thinking about writing about our schools for some time now, but I couldn’t settle on a compelling angle. And then the Redwood City School District (RCSD), our public K-8 school system, decided to put a bond measure (Measure T) on our upcoming ballot. As I read through the measure, it occurred to me that not only had I not visited any of our K-8 schools since my kids outgrew the system, but that there were a couple of RCSD schools that I had never actually seen.

As a responsible voter I felt that it was my duty to pay each school a quick visit. And if it gave me something to write a blog post or two about, well, so much the better!

In laying out my path, I was surprised to learn that the Redwood City School District consists of sixteen separate schools serving more than 8,800 students. And those are just the K-8 public schools: that does not count any of the private, parochial, or charter schools that serve children of elementary school age within Redwood City. Since Measure T only applies to the RCSD schools, I focused solely on those. Which was fine with me, since walking to sixteen separate schools over a span of two days was daunting enough!

Although I recognize that having an RCSD school somewhere in Redwood Shores might be a good idea, I’ll selfishly admit it: I’m glad that there isn’t one yet, since the additional 10-12 walking miles it would have added might have put me over the edge. As it is, I couldn’t get out of climbing the hills up to Roy Cloud, so I scheduled that for my first day to get it out of the way.

The bond measure hopes to raise money to be used for projects grouped into three main categories:

  • School upgrades and repairs to keep educational facilities safe, clean, and in good repair
  • Projects to ensure that students have access to same quality of classrooms, education, and services as in neighboring communities
  • Educational technology and facility upgrades for 21st century learning

Given my limited amount of time, and given that I was visiting while most schools were in session, I could get no closer than the fences that protect each school. However, I did make an effort to see as many sides of each school as possible. Aware that many of the issues that Measure T hopes to address are not things I could observe from the outside, I nevertheless wanted to get some idea of each school’s general condition.

So how were they? Overall, not too bad. Some are better than others, of course, and in some cases (here, Orion) the maintenance needs are clearly visible:

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Peeling paint was not much in evidence at the other schools, however. What I did see is a lot of large, single-paned windows that really should be replaced with more energy-efficient double-paned units. And I saw quite a few “portables”—modular classrooms brought in temporarily to increase a school’s capacity—that perhaps should be replaced with more permanent buildings. Garfield, for example, appeared to have quite a few of them tucked in behind its main building:

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On the plus side, due to a previous bond measure, years ago a great many of the schools received new library buildings and/or “multi-use” buildings built from a standard design. Adelante Spanish Immersion School (west of Alameda de Las Pulgas and south of Stulsaft Park), for instance, has both, right up front (the “library” building is the one on the left with the windowed cupola, while the “multi-use” building sits to its immediate right):

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Those buildings, at least, seem to be in good shape on all the campuses that have them. But in Adelante’s case they are just two of a hodgepodge of building styles: the campus also has old cinder-block buildings housing the school office and classes, as well as newer classroom buildings all nestled in a quiet residential area.

John F. Kennedy Middle School sits nearby, not far across Alameda de Las Pulgas. Kennedy is a big school, with large sports fields and many buildings. Although it has the rows of long, low block buildings that are typical of many RCSD schools, here, at least, they seem to have been upgraded with new windows and other amenities. Which made Kennedy stand in sharp contrast to its nearby neighbor, Henry Ford Elementary? This school, which fronts onto Massachusetts Avenue, just looked old and tired to my eyes—although the play areas and equipment looked good. Ford may be a fine school—I can’t judge the ability of a school to educate its students simply by looking at it, of course—but it could stand to be spruced up.

Most of the RCSD schools lie within the city limits, but a couple do not:

  • Selby Lane School is in Atherton.
  • Clifford, although it has a Redwood City address, is partly within unincorporated San Mateo County and partly within San Carlos.
  • Fair Oaks is in the North Fair Oaks part of unincorporated San Mateo County.
  • Garfield (on Middlefield at 8th Avenue) is listed on the RCSD website as being in Menlo Park, but seems to also be in North Fair Oaks.

Clifford is in a very nice area, and was a very nice looking school. Selby Lane is in what has to be the wealthiest area (there was a house for sale a couple of blocks down the street; the owners are asking $11.8 million), but surprisingly it was not the nicest school of the bunch. It consists primarily of three long one-story block buildings that are end-on to the street. Selby did receive the standard library and multi-use buildings that many other schools got, and the administration building does look relatively new, but otherwise Selby Lane doesn’t stand out from the crowd of RCSD campuses. At least Selby has made an effort to screen the school from the street, making it less obtrusive within the neighborhood and giving the students a heightened sense of privacy.

From Selby Lane, the RCSD school in the wealthiest area, I proceeded directly to Garfield, a school within an area that is very much on the opposite end of the economic scale. Only a mile and a half apart (actual walking distance), from their surroundings these two schools could well be on separate planets. To get to Garfield you cross El Camino Real and walk down Fifth Avenue, following Semicircular Road to Middlefield. On my way I couldn’t help but notice the new signs that North Fair Oaks has installed to identify the area, such as this one (each is unique in design):

North Fair Oaks

Garfield has a lot of history associated with it, having been created back in 1926. Its main building appears to have once been the entire school:

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Over time a number of buildings have been added to the campus. Most recently, portables. From what I can tell Garfield is a good, clean, functional school facility. But it seems to me that Garfield needs some upgraded windows, along with better landscaping up front to jazz it up and make the campus a bit more inviting.

At Garfield I was struck by a slogan painted above their gym:

Learn from Yesterday
Live for Today
Hope for Tomorrow

Is it just me, or could this stand to be a bit more positive? “Hope for Tomorrow,” in particular, doesn’t strike the right tone in my mind. These kids need to be encouraged to take charge of their future, not just hope for the best. Off the top of my head, perhaps “Make your Tomorrow”?

Taft Community School (on 10th Avenue and Bay Road) and Fair Oaks School (on Fair Oaks Avenue, close to Second Avenue) were my next destinations. Both appeared, to my eye, to be somewhat drab and run down. I didn’t observe any peeling paint or anything—it’s just that neither school had much pizzaz. But I was delighted to note the banner on the wall of Taft’s multi-use building thanking STARTUP:EDUCATION (Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s education foundation) for donating technology to the school. I later saw a similar banner at Hoover School; other RCSD schools may also have benefitted from the STARTUP:EDUCATION foundation, but if so either they didn’t post banners or (more likely) I missed them. Either way, I remember when the Redwood City School District proudly announced that they were a beneficiary of this foundation, and I’m glad to see that kids really do seem to be benefiting.

Hoover School (on Charter Street, close to the intersection of Middlefield Road and Woodside Road) is another large concrete jungle that could use some updating. Every building on this rather large campus seems to be original; I didn’t see a new library or multi-use building among them. Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover, though, Hoover is proudly displaying a number of banners that highlight the school’s a very good academic record. And they apparently have a new angel in the pharmaceutical research company AbbVie, who along with The Heart of America Foundation recently provided five free books plus a backpack to each Hoover student. Nice…

Heading back to the northern end of town, I dropped in on Orion Alternative School, in the Mezes Park area. By now it was early evening, and the school was deserted—which meant that at long last I could actually set foot on campus! Orion may be the smallest school in the RCSD system, but other than the peeling paint I noted earlier, and some weeds, overall it seems to be in pretty good shape. I only saw one building that needs upgraded windows.

Last up, McKinley Institute of Technology and North Star Academy. If you aren’t familiar with these, they are two entirely separate schools sharing the old McKinley campus (just across James Street from Sequoia High School). McKinley is another Redwood City school with a beautiful old main building (built in 1927!):

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Not only is it the main building, but it is almost the only building. This technology-focused school only appears to have four other buildings: one that houses a handful of additional classrooms, a library, an older multipurpose building (that I think is a cafeteria) and a newer multi-use building. At one time McKinley had yet another building that housed another handful of classrooms, but since 1997, when North Star Academy was founded, that building became part of North Star along with the blacktop space where North Star’s main academic building now stands. North Star and McKinley share the outdoor portions of the campus (blacktop play areas and the sports field), plus the library, gym, and multipurpose room.

From the front, McKinley looks to be in very good shape. Head around back, though, to the wing that juts out towards the old multipurpose building, and things look a bit more tired. Back there is the P.E. room and (I believe) the music room; from the outside it is clear that some upgrades are needed.

As for North Star, the two-story academic building looks pretty good—although I’d give it a good coat of paint. The older classroom building (that also houses the school’s offices), seems pretty tired and is in need of an upgrade.

After sixteen schools and almost 29 miles of walking, to my eyes our elementary schools look OK, if not a little weary. But that’s just one man’s opinion. I encourage you, before this November’s election, to get out and take a look for yourself. You don’t have to walk, of course: driving is just fine! But if you can, take a look at a school or three (particularly, ones you’ve never seen before). Realize that there is much more than what you see on the surface, but that appearances set a tone and thus do count for something. And then read the text of the ballot measure. Your observations of the RCSD campuses will help you make a more informed decision on Measure T.

5 thoughts on “It’s Elementary

  1. To all of my tennants. At an average value of an appartment at $ 350,000 that means an assement of about $ 120 per unit. If measure T passes, please consider this your 30 day notice of a rent increase. After all its your “Fair Share” Thanks… The Landlord !

  2. One quick clarification: In your fourth paragraph you distinguish between the “K-8 public schools” and other categories of schools, but all three charters in Redwood City (the homegrown Connect and charter-management-organization newcomers KIPP and Rocketship) are actually also K-8 public schools. (Also, at least two and perhaps all three of the charter schools are housed in the district facilities you toured.)

  3. I think it’s great that you went to see all 16 schools. That’s a lot of miles! The quote at Garfield that disappointed you is from Albert Einstein. Please note that many of the facilities improvements that are needed may not be visible from outside the campuses: the legal requirement to meet seismic safety codes, safety issues like controlling access to the buildings (so guests must go through an office before being able to get to classrooms), ability to support technology (Internet connections), etc. Again, thank you for raising interest in this topic!

    • Glad to hear the background on the quote – but I still think the school could use something more upbeat! As for non-visible needs, absolutely. I tried to mention that in the article but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. Thanks for emphasizing the point. And thanks for reading!

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