Monthly Archives: March 2012

Riding in the rain

On the road and all is well again

This week and next it’s all about the rain here in San Francisco (and after that, I’m going out of town). I’ve written before that I like riding in the rain, and this is true. I’ve realized, though, that I don’t like getting ready to ride in the rain. There are so many more accessories to worry about.

In the morning I put on the rain jacket, the rain pants, and the rain boots, and put my work shoes into the pannier inside a plastic bag. Then I put the waterproof cover on the pannier. Yesterday when I got outside I realized that my keys were inside the pannier, so I had to take off the waterproof cover, fish out my keys, lock the door, put them back in the pannier, and replace the waterproof cover on the (now wet) pannier.

When I get to work I take off the waterproof cover on the pannier, then the rain jacket, the rain pants, and the rain boots and hang everything up to dry. Then dig my work shoes out of the plastic bag and put them on.  Criminy, what a hassle. Thankfully the university has covered bike parking on all campuses, so there’s no need to cover the seat.

My son wears his rain pants all day, but he doesn’t work at a medical center. Also his rain pants have cool cartoon dinosaurs on them (my mom made them). Elementary school is the life! I might be able to get away with cartoon dinosaurs if I were at the medical center; I could pretend that they were a new kind of scrubs. But women’s rain pants only seem to come in solids. Whose idea was that?

Golden Gate Park is beautiful in any weather

It is often worth it once I’m on the bike, however, because I don’t really have to slow down much, and cars do, so relatively speaking, I feel like I’ve gained bionic powers. It does not feel worth it when it is both windy and raining and I have to shift down to first gear on a flat street, because I am being blown backwards and I can’t see anything.

But when I get to work and am finally rearranged, there is, at last, victory, because on really rainy days, the only dry people in the office are the bike commuters. The drivers and shuttle bus riders get drenched walking from the parking lot to the office.  Back before I started riding my bike I hated the rain because I was always getting soaked; just walking to the shuttle stop would fill my shoes with water. Now the rainy season is a hassle, but not much more. I never thought to buy real rain gear until I started riding my bike, but now I wear it even on the walk up to preschool. And it makes all the difference.

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Electric. Bicycle. Culture clash.

It's Electric! (boogie boogie boogie)

While I was getting lost on the way to Saturday’s class on getting kids on the road, I wandered through the park and library next door, and up to the middle school. There I saw an electric bike with a child trailer attached on the rear. Both of these are such rare sights that I immediately took a picture. Right after I did, the bike’s owner wandered out.

I asked him about his bike and he said he’d gotten it some time ago from a store in Oakland that was briefly importing electric bikes from Europe, and found them such poor sellers that it dumped them all at bargain basement prices. But he’d found the factory motor installed in it too weak, so he’d replaced it with a much more powerful motor, then upgraded the battery to boot. Worth it to buy even with the upgrades, he said, because the bike had a great compartment for the battery integrated into the frame. Then he said he’d just taken the bike up the hill with his two kids and their backpacks in the trailer, without even pedaling.

I was getting the sense that I was in the presence of someone who actually knew something about electric bikes, and this turned out to be the case. His name was Nick, he said, and he wrote columns for a new website, electricbike.com. Sure enough, he does. And then some. Well now.

It turned out he was a car mechanic but he loves bikes more. He thought car culture was crazy. “I tell people their car needs a $2800 repair, and they groan and tell me to do what I have to do. I tell them I can put an electric motor on their bike for $1000 and I’ll throw in the labor for free, and they tell me that it’s too expensive.” He was the first major fan I’ve ever met of electric bikes, and consistent with the tinkering evident in his own bicycle, he was not a fan of BionX, which as a closed system doesn’t allow swapping out parts. Talking to him was worth the embarrassment of showing up late for a class I was supposed to be helping to teach.

I mentioned meeting him to the other parents who were teaching the class. Like almost everyone with kids in the city, they were pretty excited about the prospect of electric assist, although none of us actually had one. Great for seniors riding in the city, said one. Another couple had an 8 year old and 5 year old, and they were commuting to school on a tandem with an Xtracycle FreeRadical on the back, which sounded like a totally awesome ride to me. But the dad, who teaches at Sunset, complained that the Xtracycled tandem was actually harder to get up hills than their old Xtracycled bike with both kids on the back.

What he really wanted for the school commute was a Metrofiets.  Who doesn’t? But they were put off by the cost, and I hear that: I find the cost of a Metrofiets daunting, and university professors typically make more than elementary school teachers (for reasons that elude me).  Nonetheless, unlike me, they were actually willing to make the trip down the Peninsula to Bay Area Cargo Bikes to test ride one, something I’ve avoided as I figure it could only lead me to want to buy another bicycle.

Families on bikes in the heart of the city

They’d been thinking about electric assist, and knew they’d need it if they actually got a box bike, but were having a hard time getting over the feeling that using a motor was somehow cheating. I knew exactly what they meant. It feels like I should be able to ride my bicycle without an electric assist, even though I know that my kids’ current weight is nearing the limit of my abilities. To me and to them, an electric assist felt less like a cool accessory and more like a necessary evil. It felt like compromising the bike for some reason. Heck, some riders feel that way about fenders, or for that matter, brakes. We had all seen the Xtracycle with the red handlebars and an electric assist riding in traffic every morning (there aren’t that many family bikes in this town; you start to get to know them). Not only did we all find that a little scary, it seemed kind of annoying that the guy on that bike doesn’t even bother to pedal.

Looking over downtown San Francisco

What’s more, thinking about the cost of an electric assist really irritated me for some reason. It took me a while to figure out why. Eventually I realized, and this is embarrassing: it was resentment. Parents in other, flatter cities can carry their kids without paying for electric assists, why couldn’t we? Isn’t it enough that we already have a much higher cost of living? When I tell people outside the Bay Area the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco ($3275 as of last month), they typically gasp in disbelief, and say, “I could buy a mansion for that where we live!” Yes, I knew that already, thanks for sharing. We live surrounded by fog 11 months of the year and pay $4.50/gallon for gas (albeit rarely). San Francisco is one of the few places in the country where I know couples who are both well-paid lawyers and who are nonetheless raising their kids underneath the stairs, Harry Potter-style, of a 1-bedroom apartment, because that’s what they can afford. We all make compromises to live here. On top of all that, I have to drop a grand on electric assist when everyone else in the world can haul kids on their bikes fueled only by righteousness and an extra serving of oatmeal in the morning?

This is embarrassing to admit because we are happy to be here. Lots of people say they would be thrilled to trade places with us (although when push comes to shove they usually balk at the prospect of raising their kids in a garret under the stairs). So we’re going to pay more to ride our bikes than we would elsewhere. Why should this be any different from anything else that costs more in the city?

San Francisco isn't Copenhagen

Anyway, I got none of this angst from the electric bike mechanic, or from his website. It was all about the thrill of having a motor. He pointed out that the cost of using an electric assist was bupkis: “You spend more on power if you forget to turn the light in the closet off in the morning.” I now realize that part of the issue with electric bikes is trying to reconcile bicycle culture, which views motors with suspicion because they’re related to cars, which have a bad habit of mowing people down, and mechanic culture, which views bicycles as a neat way to use motors without having to register a vehicle, get a license, or avoid mountain bike trails. But if it’s going to happen anywhere, it will happen here, in the City by the Bay, Gam Saan, with its countless hills.

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Free riders

A passel of kids' bikes waiting for riders

On Saturday I went back to the Outerlands, specifically to Sunset Elementary School, to attend one of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Family Biking Series classes, On Road with your Children. To my astonishment, I was asked to attend in a vaguely instructional capacity.

I find it a somewhat depressing comment about the number of families in San Francisco with school-age children (there aren’t many) that I would be considered even vaguely qualified for this assignment. The guy who built up the tricked-out Kona Ute our PTA treasurer used to ride was there. The co-owner of Ocean Cyclery, which sold us my Breezer and our child seats was there. I was outclassed. I can, it is true, research any topic into submission, because doing research is my job and because I’m compulsive. But research is no substitute for experience, so this class involved some ugly duckling moments. The class met at the back of the school, and I had trouble even finding it until other people showed up so I could follow them. The parents teaching the class had been riding bikes for years and it showed; they were more graceful on their bikes than I have ever even aspired to be. And I found out that I was wearing my helmet wrong. All in all, it was a humbling experience.

Lubricating chains: virtually all of them were rusty, because the Sunset is permanently socked in by fog

And it was a hugely informative experience. I didn’t bring my kids; they were at their swim lessons. It is just as well. Neither of them is competent enough on a bike yet to keep up with the kids who showed up for the class. (We are the blind leading the blind over here.) I will, however, take my son when he is more skilled. SFBC’s instructor for this class is fantastic, warm and lively and hugely competent at wrangling both kids and parents. Apparently he has been leading these classes for years. It shows.

This kind of thing isn't helping with the helmet either

Matt and I signed our son up for summer bicycle camp this year. We didn’t thrust this upon him; he has been angling to attend bike camp since he heard that such a thing existed. But we’re all pretty excited about it. We are having trouble teaching him to ride safely because we live on a great big honking hill. Our efforts to talk him into going down to the park, where it’s flatter, to ride always fizzle; his enthusiasm evaporates with the walk down and on the rare occasions when we’re successful, he is too tired to walk back home. Although it is ridiculous to drive such a short distance we would do it, but he hates riding in the car. Bike camp seems to resolve a lot of problems at once; most importantly, it’s taught by someone much more qualified than we are.

Practicing riding in a crowd

We had both harbored ambitions that at the end of a summer at bike camp, our son would be qualified to ride his own bike to school. Attending this class disabused me of this fantasy. The area around the school was slightly hilly, but nothing particularly troublesome for an adult rider used to the city. It was much more difficult for the kids, who were, I realized, mostly riding bicycles that weighed more than half what they do. I have ridden a heavy bike before, and remember how hard it was to start and stop and get up hills, but at least I had a lot of gears to use. The kids did not. No one is selling ultra-light bikes for kids, so I don’t see any realistic way for mine to handle anything more than minor elevation on their own. And the hills along our commute to school are anything but minor.

Practicing riding while looking for cars behind

What’s more, supervising kids on the streets of San Francisco was terrifying. The area around the school is very lightly trafficked, but at stop signs things fell apart. The kids attempted to wave drivers ahead of them, then lurched out into the intersection as those cars actually moved, or waited for cars to stop, then tried to take their turn only to be rushed by drivers who’d grown impatient. There are a lot of decent people behind the wheel in San Francisco, but a lot of jerks as well. I suspect that these kids, as well as our son, would learn to navigate neighborhood streets like these with more practice. But we go through much more serious traffic on our route to school, and I would not trust my kids in some of those intersections for years to come.

Bumpity bump

Overall, I realized that riding in the city is too much to expect our kids to do alone at this age. Our son will not be riding to school on his own bike next year, or the year after. He wants to pedal, so a trailer-bike or tandem may be in our future. But he will not be riding solo.

We are going to be working harder as he grows, and that is daunting. We had talked about possibly not needing an electric assist if our son began riding his own bike. But I cannot imagine hauling my kids up and down the hills to school without help once their combined weight exceeds 100 pounds. We are now in the position where buying a bike accessory that costs more than our bikes themselves seems inevitable.

Despite this, I find I don’t mind the thought of keeping them on our bikes longer. My children have been growing away from me since the day they were born. Even in the newborn barnacle months, they were already exploring the world. It is thrilling to watch them grow more independent, but I know that eventually they will tire of being hugged, of sitting on our laps, of being picked up. My son is in first grade and already conscious that being affectionate with parents is not something that older children do. But when we’re walking or riding up a hill, all of this is forgotten. They look at the climb and want to be small again. “Mommy, will you carry me?” they ask. And I say, yes, I will carry you. I’ll carry you up the hill. I could carry you forever.

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Retro child seat

Possibly the world's most awesome child seat

I spotted this achingly cool child seat on a bike parked at a construction site near campus. I couldn’t believe it. The black leather seat, the chrome back–it looks like it was lifted from a modernist bar for preschoolers. It totally outclasses the Huffy.

I remember when I was young, my parents took my sister and me on bike rides in the wire baskets on the handlebars of their bikes. It was horribly uncomfortable, of course, and I sincerely doubt those baskets were rated for the weight of children. But it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Some of my earliest memories are from those rides; seeing the trees dripping with moss during my family’s brief time in Louisiana, or bumping along on the gravel road that led to our house in the Seattle suburbs (this was long before they were built up for hordes of Microsoft employees).

Our parents sometimes tried to take us on walks when we were young, but like most kids our age, we simply didn’t have the stamina to go very far. My parents’ bicycles, with a kid in each front basket, gave them range. Now that we are parents, our bicycles make us free as well.

The seats we use for our children, however, lack style, even compared to a wire front basket. They’re plastic. Putting our kids on the back of the Kona MinUte is an improvement. But overall, the child seat market resembles nothing more than the toys that you can buy at big box stores: giant plastic sandboxes in the shape of turtles, or plastic play kitchens with colors that fade within a few months. There are twee alternatives, of course, like the wooden play kitchens that mimic everything about the plastic ones except the price, which is ten times higher. But I’d prefer to sidestep this market altogether.

This child seat, which looks pretty vintage, is in a class by itself. If my parents had had seats like this they could have ridden with us for hours. I’ve never seen anything like it before. But I want one.

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San Francisco destinations: Parnassus Heights

The route to preschool: Staircase #1

We live on the main campus of the university where I work, at the inflection point between the approach to the mountain, which is steep, and the mountain itself, which is really steep. We’ll ride our bikes up to where we live (I wrote about the hills we face on that trip) but after that we pretty much throw up our hands. For short distances, we walk, and for longer distances, we take the shuttle or we drive. Unless and until we get an electric assist, this is unlikely to change.

The route to preschool: Staircase #2

This frustrates my daughter, whose preschool is a couple of blocks straight uphill from our house, because no matter how many times she requests a bike commute to school or back, it has never happened. Even when we return from a ride to our son’s school in the morning, we park the bike in the basement and walk her up to preschool. Maybe someday we’ll have the foresight to walk a bike up the hill and blast on down with her on board at the end of the day, but we haven’t managed it yet. Also I would only feel safe doing that shortly after a brake tune-up. It’s a straight shot down.

The route to preschool: Staircase #3

At least it is a very pretty walk. Much of the campus is difficult place to build anything, although the university has managed to pack more clinical and lab space onto the site than anyone ever thought was possible. Nevertheless a lot of trees were left standing around.

The university was founded in 1868, but only moved to the Parnassus site thirty years later, in 1898. The land was donated by San Francisco’s mayor at the time, Adolph Sutro. His motives may not have been pure; the land around Golden Gate Park, which he owned, was largely undeveloped at the time, and putting a university there spurred development that might not otherwise have been as lucrative. At the time, many faculty members viewed the Parnassus shelf as hopelessly inaccessible—then as now, it seemed insane to put a hospital halfway up a mountain. But no one was turning down free land.

One block up from us: Why not commute by zipline?

Many of our neighbors live in buildings that are the equivalent of several stories above us, even though they are only a block away. One of my daughter’s classmates lives in an apartment complex above the preschool, on a hill that is so steep that it has been reinforced with steel bars to prevent mudslides from burying a portion of the campus in the rainy season. I once suggested that she run a zipline from their apartment window to the preschool for a quicker commute in the morning.

I have been locked out of this building more times than I care to remember

The Parnassus campus is extensive and labyrinthine, and after five years working at this university, I still have difficulty navigating it. When my children were babies I had many frustrating experiences trying to find the pumping stations for nursing mothers scattered around campus, which were thick on the ground but almost impossible to locate. Eventually I learned enough about the campus that I was able to find my way around by getting in the general neighborhood of a room using the letter and number code, then asking people to direct me to the exact location like a bat taking soundings. This is how I navigate the campus to this day, and although I used to find myself locked out of buildings on a steep hill with no apparent path back to campus on a monthly basis, that now happens to me only about once a year.

This driveway block is too penny-ante to draw the tow truck, but our neighbors aren't going anywhere by car

Parking around urban hospitals is always difficult and expensive, and this one is no exception. As a result, I have lost count of the number of times that we have missed work meetings, pediatrician appointments or been late to school because someone parked in our building’s driveway. It is better when we ride our bikes, but there are, astonishingly, ways to block even a bicycle from leaving our building.  However the university is very aggressive about protecting its right of way, and our children have come to love the sight of the tow truck barreling up the hill to remove yet another car.

I would never have imagined that a site like this would draw more than a trivial number of bicycle commuters. Before I moved here I thought that Seattle, where I grew up, had a discouraging number of hills, but the hills around this campus really mean business. Yet the 200 bicycle parking spaces on campus, which are spread across a bike cage and several racks, are woefully inadequate, and there are bicycles locked to parking meters and fences for several blocks on either side of campus. The university is currently building a new bike cage twice the size of the existing one, and new racks are put in almost monthly, on nearly every level surface. Yet this is nowhere near meeting demand.

7:45am, and the bike racks are filling up

I believe that infrastructure drives bicycle commuting. We are more likely to ride in places that have bike lanes, especially when we’re carrying our kids. Parnassus Heights makes it clear that infrastructure also works in reverse. The campus is such an appalling place for cars that many people simply give up driving, even if that means riding a bike up the side of a mountain. Even my colleagues who commute from the suburbs park in the garage at the level of Golden Gate Park, take the elevator up, and walk around campus rather than attempting to drive to their ultimate destination. We can park in our building, but find that it is rarely worth it to drive anywhere else unless we’re leaving the city altogether. And there’s no guarantee that someone won’t be blocking the driveway anyway.

This campus brought to you by MC Escher

But this is a shift in perspective that makes sense only in hindsight. I still have conversations with my son’s classmates’ parents that make me realize this. When they see us on the bike in the morning, these parents sometimes ask, “Did you really bike from your place? Over the hill?” And I am thinking, well, where else? We didn’t sleep in the park last night. Yet at one point, taking a loaded cargo bike up any hill seemed insane to us as well. But now my perspective is: at least we don’t have to go all the way up.

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People love to talk about bicycles

Unable to stop talking about bicycles since July 2011

I have found that I need to be careful when asking people about their bicycles, particularly as a way to make conversation, unless I’m sure I have some time available. Unlike many topics, the topic of bicycles inspires long-winded stories from even the most reserved people I know. I am, of course, no exception.

Example #1: My son’s school principal is a wonderful man in many ways, warm and caring. But he is not particularly chatty and hates public speaking, two quirks that have probably kept him from applying his prodigious talents at one of San Francisco’s more renowned public schools.

Some other parents have mentioned that he sometimes rides his bike to the district office at Civic Center to avoid the nightmare that is parking down there, and when he held the door for me as I was leaving the school one morning after dropping off my son, I asked him if he still did that. Oh yes, he said, and he was off. He told me that he used to commute by bike exclusively, until recently one of his sons decided to stop driving and donated his car back to his parents. “I’ll admit it’s faster for me to drive,” he said—true in his case because he’s arriving to open the school every morning well before 7am (ours is an early start-time school).

Morning assembly

But the story he really wanted to tell me was about his old bike, which he kept in the school yard before the bike racks were installed, “a total junker” covered with rust and just functional enough to make the run down to Civic Center and back. He evidently kept the bike unlocked in the yard for almost two years, until recently it was stolen. “Someone must have spent two hours sawing through the fence to steal my bike, which was worth $20 at most! It was complete junk!” He was amused and so was I.

This conversation was more than twice as long as any other I’ve ever had with him, and he seemed unaware that he was holding the door open for me the entire time, for over 10 minutes.

Even gerbils like to ride tandems

Example #2: My department is spread across multiple campuses, an inconvenience that allowed our dean to negotiate some prime real estate for our operations on many of them. Recently one of my colleagues moved from another campus over to ours. She is an unassuming person who quietly controls several million dollars in federal grants and has published hundreds of papers, and until last week I knew virtually nothing else about her.

I saw her after she moved in last Friday, and complimented her on the small sculpture of a tandem bicycle on her desk. It turns out that she is a serious touring tandem cyclist, and she and her husband have ridden their bikes on trips across multiple continents (I didn’t even know she was married). She had many excellent photos of their rides over the last several years.

When I mentioned we were interested in riding with our children, she immediately rattled off the names of two rental agencies in the Bay Area that offered adult tandems, and volunteered to look up the names of the stores where they had purchased their bikes, “They all offer test rides! That’s how we figured out we wanted to buy one. Some of them must have kids’ tandems. I will ask the next time we’re there.”

Transportation is a topic that never gets old; we all have to go places, just as we have to eat and sleep. But most of my conversations with my colleagues about transportation involve my nodding politely and commiserating about their difficult drives from the suburbs to San Francisco. “It takes me an hour to drive across the bridge most days, but it’s so much better than when I lived in Houston and drove three hours to work each way!” Conversations like this eventually make me want to gouge out my own eyes. I’ve found I’m pleased to spend some unexpected extra time talking about riding bicycles instead. Bicycles make people happy.

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City talk

Running out of bike parking

On the way home from the grocery store, in the Mission, Matt and I saw a delivery bike hung up above the entrance to a bar.

“That doesn’t seem very practical.”

“Maybe the rider is nine feet tall.”

“Then the bike would have a bigger frame. That’s a normal-size frame.”

“Maybe he’s nine feet tall with really short legs.”

“Oh, yes, that seems likely. But it IS hard to park a bike around here.”

Heading up the hill, we saw a wheelchair chugging along, mom in the seat carrying her daughter, with the dad on a rider deck behind.

“Whoa! Three people on one wheelchair!”

“Now THAT’S an electric assist!”

If only.

It was sunny and warm all weekend, but thanks to having a preschooler at home who still naps, and with the Breezer in the shop for a few days, we spent more time indoors than anyone else we know. We did at least walk to the farmer’s market, to get some kale and strawberries and so our daughter could see the dog valet service, which for some reason she had been talking about all week. When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought valet bicycle parking was novel, but very little surprises me now.

“Look, it’s the Dog Barking!” [Yes, really.]

“I want to see the doggie ballet! Where’s the doggie ballet?!?”

“Doggie VALET. Valet, not ballet. It’s right there. The dogs don’t dance.”

“WAH!”

“Uh oh.”

More crying ensued with this morning’s earthquake at 5:30am. Why can’t these quakes ever happen when it’s time to get the kids up for school? At least it didn’t set off car alarms this time around.

Bicycles everywhere

In the evening, overhead at a restaurant: “Everyone is all about biking these days. All my friends have been getting bikes. What is up with that?”

“You should tell her about your blog,” Matt whispered.

“Oh hush.”

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San Francisco destinations: Rosa Parks Elementary School

Welcome to Rosa Parks

We started riding our bikes in large part to solve the riddle involved in getting our son to his elementary school. For the first year, we all went to kindergarten together. Our daughter was in child care downstairs at my office, so we’d drive to school, play on the yard until the bell rang, then I’d drop Matt off for the express bus and head to my office. Matt would take the express bus back, pick up our son at after-school, and I’d meet them with our daughter in the campus parking lot. This worked pretty well, although it was time-consuming, until we enrolled our daughter in preschool closer to home. At that point things got more complicated.

From the outside, just another urban public school

San Francisco is one of the cities in the United States that operates a public school lottery system. I know there are others (Cambridge, Los Angeles, Champaign, Berkeley, etc.) but this is the one we know best. There is no guaranteed neighborhood assignment. So at that time you toured a bunch of schools, listed up to seven that you liked, and hoped you got one. If you didn’t, you would be assigned to the closest school with openings. This can be intimidating but also offers huge opportunity. There are citywide schools that offer more than the general education curriculum, including foreign language education, K-8 schools, a Montessori school, etc. Most schools are pretty good and some are terrible, but because people hate the lottery system so violently, the perception is that only a few highly-desired schools are acceptable and the rest are hellholes.

For people who appreciate the charms of being underrated, this misperception offers an enormous opportunity to beat the system. We found it surprisingly easy to find schools we liked that none of the other preschool parents we knew had even heard of, let alone toured or listed on their applications.

From the inside, a garden

There is a lot of herd mentality with a school lottery. There are about a dozen schools of the 100 or so in the city that get over half of the first choice requests from parents. They tend to have higher test scores. Parents we know like high test scores: they seem objective. But it only takes a little reading to realize that they are highly correlated with demographics. Schools that don’t have a lot of poor students have high test scores; schools that have more have lower scores. After reading some articles I realized that I could easily derive a formula: for every percentage point of students getting free and reduced price lunches, expect a 5 point drop in API (from a max of 1000). I made this up but it works pretty well in most circumstances (schools with a large share of Chinese-American kids tend to outperform their demographics, however).

San Francisco Unified School District enrolls about 60% free and reduced price lunch students. The school nearest us has ~10% free and reduced price lunch students. Its test scores are ~950, as expected. It is wildly popular and completely oversubscribed. On tours they indicate that parents are expected to contribute $1000 to the PTA annually, which I’m sure discourages certain families from even applying. On the flip side, we a toured Spanish immersion program in the Mission that had ~80% free and reduced price lunch students. Its test scores were, predictably, ~600. Poor students do poorly, because they tend to be English language learners, because they’re hungry, because they may be in transitional housing and lack heat and light, whatever. Wealthy students with educated parents do well no matter where they are (and the state has the demographic breakdowns to prove it at the Department of Education website). There are just more of them at certain schools.

My son learned to eat vegetables by growing them

I have a different perspective on all of this now, but at the time, like many parents facing the lottery, we pretty much lost our minds. Like everyone else at our preschool, we wanted the brass ring schools, the ones that had great scores. We knew it wasn’t that important, really, but a school with high test scores seemed like, if nothing else, a useful insurance policy. And it’s hard to buck the tide. Other parents said things like, “Well, 900 API is like an A, and you want an A school for your kids, right? You wouldn’t accept a B or a C school.” And thanks to relentless fundraising those schools had money to burn; their facilities were nicer, the selection of extra-curricular activities was better, and afterschool programs had won awards. It seemed easy enough to look past the occasional signs of near-rabid parental intensity to get the goodies.

Despite this, we did take the (in hindsight excellent) advice from Parents for Public Schools to tour every school within a reasonable commute distance, no matter what its test scores or perceived popularity. The internet is not your friend during the school search. With hindsight, it told us nothing useful, and often made us doubt ourselves for no good reason.

Morning PE--the Cha Cha Slide

Our favorite tour by far in our busy pre-kindergarten tour season was Rosa Parks. It is not a school that had traditionally gotten any buzz in the San Francisco parent community. Middle-class families like ours tend to shun schools named after civil rights leaders, strongly preferring schools named after dead philanthropists or expensive tree-lined neighborhoods at nose-bleed elevations. I like to imagine SFUSD opening a new school named “The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Nob Hill Academy.” Even if it were in the Tenderloin, I’ll bet it would be hugely popular with parents.

What we liked about Rosa Parks on our tour:

  • A state class size reduction grant ensured that all classrooms were capped at 20 students
  • A beautiful historic building with ample space, including both a cafeteria and gymnasium; we had toured schools without either and wondered what they did on rainy days or for assemblies
  • A sunny and well-stocked library, staffed by a full-time librarian and media technology teacher
  • Daily Japanese language education by native speaking senseis, funded by the district; by 5th grade, at least one Rosa Parks student had passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test
  • A new edible garden program funded by a major grant, now expanded with a chicken coop and new plantings in what was formerly blank blacktop on the upper yard
  • UCSF graduate students teach science in the upper grades—this is the only school where this happens, and their faculty advisor insists that it is only school where it ever will happen
  • Grammy-nominated artist Anthony Brown teaches jazz at the school—again, Rosa Parks is the only school with this program
  • More parents than visitors on the tour, which suggested to us both that we could get in and that parents were engaged
  • Representation by LGBT families (LGBT parents have the same effect on schools that they have on real estate)
  • Harder to describe, but a peaceful feeling: students were engaged in their work rather than throwing spitballs (which actually happened on one of our tours) even when we visited a room with a substitute; upper grade students were eager to show us their letters to Japanese pen pals; kids walked down the halls instead of running
  • A warm principal who reminded me of Mr. Rogers; later, when I called the teachers’ union for their opinion on schools (we didn’t want to walk into a labor dispute), we learned he was highly regarded by teachers as well. Last week he led an impromptu ballet class for my daughter and another preschooler in the hall after drop-off.
  • Academy-award winning PTA president. Parents who attended last year’s a garden workday got to hold the Oscar. Did you know that Barbie doll clothes fit an Oscar? I didn’t either, but her kids figured it out right away.
  • An enormously rich history that deserves another post on its own; Rosa Parks, formerly Raphael Weill, was the site where Dorothea Lange came to document the process of Japanese internment, where one of America’s most distinctive photographers, John Gutmann, took some stunning pictures, and where San Francisco schools began their re-integration in the 1960s
  • Parents I wanted to hang out with, maybe the best indicator of all

Building the upper yard garden

There were 12 people on our tour of Rosa Parks. The parent representatives said they were thrilled with this turnout. We had toured another school with well over 100 other people, in which the parent leading the tour complained how few of us showed up.  He wasn’t joking.

More than one person on our tour asked why there were so few of us and why, historically, no one had applied—the year prior to our enrollment Rosa Parks received fewer applicants than there were places available. The parents leading the tour sort of sighed and said that the combination of neighborhood and low test scores meant most people never even visited. We knew low test scores were explained by the high proportion of English language learners and SpEd students, so they didn’t bother us much. They had nothing to do with what our son would learn in a supportive environment. The neighborhood was admittedly a little grimmer than we’d hoped for, but I’d seen worse.

Now we have chickens. Yes, we are that trendy.

An unspoken reason for low enrollment (there were other schools in worse neighborhoods with worse test scores that were considered much more desirable) was the fact that the school was 40% African American and 20% Latino. Less than 10% of families were “white” as the district defined it, and many of those were Middle Eastern families where the women wore hijab and everyone spoke Arabic. When I mentioned touring this school to other white and Asian-American parents we knew who’d actually heard of it, there were, on occasion, curled lips, and comments I would be embarrassed to repeat. Last year I overheard one of my co-workers complaining to all and sundry that the district had assigned her to a horrific Title I school, Rosa Parks, and she wouldn’t be caught dead sending her son there. When I asked her what she didn’t like about it, she admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she’d never visited. I told her we were very happy there.

Although it was not in our neighborhood (we live near the obscenely popular nosebleed schools, and knowing that our odds of getting into a school that people spoke about using exclamation points!!! were near-zero, we had expanded our range), Rosa Parks made our list. It was the school where we were placed in the first round assignment, not surprising given that only 44 families applied for the 40 available kindergarten spaces, and many of those were placed in schools they’d ranked higher. After a week of emotional flailing about not getting a school closer to home, we enrolled.

New upper yard garden, still in progress

It would be a huge understatement to say that we have never regretted this decision.

We could not have asked for a better environment for our son, who was nervous about the transition to kindergarten. He joined a wonderful group of children and we adore them all. As long as he is with them, I have no fears about his voyage through the rest of the city’s school system. His teachers have been more caring and supportive than we had dreamed was possible. He is excelling academically despite being one of the youngest children in his class. Working in the school garden has led him to eat new vegetables, sometimes with gusto, a battle we had assumed was permanently lost. In his first year he went on over a dozen field trips (making me feel like I was rooked as a child). He tries to trick us by speaking in Japanese at home and strangers in Japantown compliment us on his accent.

That would have been enough. But for us as parents, there was more. Sometime in the middle of our son’s kindergarten year, I realized that not only did I know the names of all of our son’s classmates, I knew the names of all their parents. And I knew the names and ages of all his classmates’ siblings. I often knew where those siblings attended preschool, or if they were older, the names of their teachers.

First week of first grade

And I liked all of these people, some mildly because I barely knew them, some quite a lot because I knew them well. I liked how they were raising their kids, and I liked that I saw them in the classrooms when I volunteered, and I liked that his kindergarten teacher sometimes had more chaperones for field trips than she had expected. I found that I didn’t mind attending school events like PTA meetings and work days that I had always assumed I would dread. Two parents organized a drop-in Friday coffee klatch, which continues. When I think about school community now, I think about a crying kindergartner being successfully comforted by another classmate’s dad, or watching my daughter meet and play with her future classmates before she turned two.

Rosa Parks was not our first choice school, but it should have been. We hit the jackpot.

In our second year, the school became (marginally) more popular, and even though it was located in a not-terrific neighborhood, parking in the morning was getting more challenging. We couldn’t carpool in the morning anymore, and driving our son was making us crazy.

New bike racks filling up on a Saturday morning

When we returned from Copenhagen with what seemed to us like a novel idea to start bike commuting, we were surprised to realize that other parents at the school were already way ahead of us. Some were riding cargo bikes to school with their kids on the back, or tandems, or trailer-bikes, or jury-rigged bikes with their kids on the top tube. Our principal rides his bike to district offices to avoid having to park there. We had, astonishingly, never even noticed. These families had already asked the district to install bike racks.

Rosa Parks in 1942, but looking much the same 70 years later

Rosa Parks is a school in transition. It is still in a borderline neighborhood, its test scores have jumped but are still nothing anyone would brag about, and the community is still rough around the edges. But I yield to no one in the value I place on a good education for my children, and I am confident that we have chosen well. And we are in transition, too. Rosa Parks is the right place for us. We are, in many ways now, enjoying the ride.

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