Tag Archives: Rosa Parks Elementary School

Car-free role models

My son’s 2nd grade teacher rounds up the class.

I’ve liked all of my son’s teachers in elementary school. His kindergarten teacher taught reading so well that most of the class was above grade-level at the end of the year. The legacy of that is still visible in my son, who is currently obsessed with reading three books at a time and can only be dragged away for mealtimes when we literally pull them from his hands. His first grade teacher, who grew up in Japan and only moved to the US a few years ago, amused her class endlessly by having them correct her English spelling and grammar (which was difficult, as it is nearly perfect). But the most interesting teacher so far is his second grade teacher.

At Rosa Parks teachers make classroom assignments, and they accept parental requests. When my son finished first grade, our son asked for the first time that we request a particular teacher; he wanted the woman, not the man. When we talked to his first grade teacher, she was unconvinced, and so despite his request we left his placement to her judgment. Our son was disappointed in August to learn that he’d gotten his first male teacher. At the time, he knew his current teacher only as a large figure with a loud voice; he seemed scary. That impression lasted about an hour on the first day of school this year.

“We have that same taillight on our bikes!” says a girl in the class.

My son’s teacher is, in fact, a big guy with a booming voice, and he does not take an iota of crap from any of his students. He is also, to their delight, goofy. He wears sarongs and pink glitter nail polish and plays guitar in class. He reads them books way beyond their grade level and his default assumption is that they are capable and independent. The kids adore him. And although he commutes from Berkeley every day, he (along with his wife and daughter) is car-free. He takes BART across the bay and rides his bike from the station to school. He is by no means the only bike commuter at the school. However it means a lot to my son that his beloved teacher, like us, does not own a car. It makes him feel cutting-edge instead of deprived.

When people visiting from out of town see my son’s teacher for the first time they are intimidated by his size. Within a few minutes, when they start noticing details like the nail polish, and the way kids crowd around him, they grow envious. Is this what sending kids to school in San Francisco means, they ask, that your kids get teachers like this. And I suppose it does. I know that growing up in a small town I never had a teacher half as cool.

Living in San Francisco has other perks. “Guess where he’s from?” asked one parent early in the year. “The United States,” said another. “No, he’s not,” said the first. “Well, he’s from Texas,” said a third. “Exactly!” said the first.

Welcome to the real America.

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Rosa Parks Fall BBQ

One part of the bike parade

On Saturday we headed to the annual Rosa Parks PTA Fall BBQ. We have been there before, but this was the best year ever, because this was the first year there was a bike rodeo and a bike parade. Attendance exceeded previous records, and so many people came by bike that they had to create overflow parking. We are a mighty bike community.

The Madsen and a few other bikes stayed behind during the bike parade.

My husband says that bikes are to schools as lesbians are to property values: a marker of great things happening. I have been taking photos like crazy on school mornings because the amazing new kindergarten class at Rosa Parks is simply packed with family bike commuters—4 Yuba Mundos, a bike with a Trail-Gator, a bike with a trailer, and so on. Plus the families I wrote about last year keep on keeping on. Not only were many of these families there on Saturday, there was a new bike on the yard, a real-live Madsen. I didn’t meet the family riding it but was told that they recently moved to San Francisco from Japan. I assume that they must live close by because this was an unassisted Madsen.

Two kids on one 20″ bike slay the obstacle course. Who needs Fiets of Parenthood? We have Fiets of Childhood.

Kids on their own bikes were out in full force on the lower yard, and before and after the parade (which was led by the principal). Not every kid who wanted to ride had a bike so they began loading each other up on their bikes to make sure everyone got a spin. I had to laugh thinking about how much angst we’d had over child bicycle seats. With kids old enough to sit up, you can simply seat them right on the top tube. It worked in My Neighbor Totoro, it works for a dad at school still hauling his now-1st grader to school that way, and it definitely worked for the kids. Sure, a spare saddle or a foam pad is a nice addition, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary. And the weight distribution is very good, right between the wheels and probably better for the bike than a rear seat. When they couldn’t fit two kids on the top tube in front of a rider, they improvised, and put one kid on the top tube while the other stood on the back. I had no idea you could fit three kids on a such a little bike. And these kids went fast once they loaded up.

More of the bike parade whizzes by, and Rosa Parks smiles above it all.

I’ve written before about how much I love our son’s school, which not only is a wonderful community for our son but provides me with endless entertainment, including camping with friends from school and digging up tombstones at kids’ birthday parties. It just keeps getting better. The other morning my son and I met two families coming up Webster Street on the way to school and formed an impromptu bike train up to the school yard. This morning I rode and chatted with one of the Yuba moms on the way from school to work; she took that bike, with her preschooler on the deck, up the heinous Post Street hill. They went slowly but never faltered. I never dreamed that I could have so much fun commuting. Fortune smiled when the San Francisco school lottery sent us to Rosa Parks.

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Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

They’re running out of bike racks at the farmers market.

We got up on Sunday to catch a 5:30am flight from Portland to San Francisco. The kids wore their pajamas for the whole trip. When we got home, we remembered that we’d left nothing in the fridge when we left but soy sauce, lemons, and ollalieberry jam. So even before napping, we headed to the farmers market (fortunately a Sunday market) and the grocery store to buy: everything.

Staying in Portland made us want to live in Portland. Matt loved the idea that we might actually buy a house, and I loved the idea that we might actually have a yard where we could garden. And there were all those bikes. We even saw a double trail-a-bike, something I had heard existed but never spotted in the wild. And all those clearly marked bike paths, that made it possible for newbies like us to get where we were going, eventually.

San Francisco greeted us with fog and temperatures in the mid-50sF (where they have remained). It was a culture shock to return to such a dense city, in both a good and a bad way. There are no unattached houses in our neighborhood and no front yards. It is impossible to grow tomatoes on this side of the fog line, and anything metal left outside grows rust and/or moss. But having such an easy walk to the farmers market and the grocery store was so nice. We always see friends there, and Sunday was no exception. Everyone admired our bike trailer/hand cart. In California, the produce is always local. And when we couldn’t bring ourselves to actually make dinner after making the week’s lunches, we walked across the street for sushi.

The last couple of family bikes after our late departure

San Francisco has more bikes now too, it turns out. This morning was our son’s first day of second grade. I can’t believe how much he’s grown! I ruined my street cred by renting a City CarShare to carry all our gear on the first day of school (I couldn’t get both it and my daughter there on the Brompton). But Matt rode with our son to school on the MinUte, joined by at least five new biking families! Three Yuba Mundos (at least one assisted), one Trail-Gator, one trailer. One mom asked, “Are you Hum of the city?” Well, whoa. Yes I am. My name is Dorie, by the way, and I need to update that About page.

Before we left on our trip, our kids begged to plant poppies. We found some pots and bought some seeds and prepared to console them when such sun-loving plants gave up before blooming. But when we returned, we found, to our enduring surprise, the first flower. We are glad to be home.

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Vacation: all I ever wanted

In 1st grade, our son learned to love reading

Last week my son finished first grade (this beggars belief, but is nonetheless good). When he finished kindergarten last year, we learned that summer camps in San Francisco typically take a week’s breather between the end of the school year and the first week of camp, which left us scrambling. This year we decided to sidestep this issue by staying home with our kids and goofing off all week.

Here comes trouble.

Matt and our son started the weekend off with a bang by driving to Reno for a martial arts tournament on Friday afternoon. My daughter and I headed to the 2nd annual Rosa Parks end-of-the-school-year Parental Happy Hour at the Park Chalet in Golden Gate Park. Although it was odd to be there without my son, we had a great time. My daughter spent most of the time there filching French fries from other families’ baskets and feeding them to unwitting toddlers. Then she ran out into the road (not closed to cars on Fridays) and I decided it was time to head home.

Headed to dinner and a movie in the Tenderloin

On Sunday we rode to the Golden Gate Bridge’s birthday party. On Monday we rode down the Great Highway to the zoo and back. On Tuesday we walked to the children’s playground at Golden Gate Park and rode the carrousel, and then headed out for the first date night we’ve had in, uh, a really long time. During which time a couple of bikes went back to the shop again. So on Wednesday we went back to the beach to build sandcastles—by that point, only the southbound side of the Great Highway was closed.

Taking a break from the swans at the Palace of Fine Arts

On Thursday we went to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium—by car, this time, as Matt was not yet ready to face the Presidio hill again. After a long afternoon spent playing with sand and fog and building PythagoraSwitch, we finally talked the kids into heading home. Our daughter was thrilled on the way out to see “A PINK PRINCESS!” It was a lovely young lady celebrating her quinceanera, who was indeed dressed up like a princess, right down to the tiara.

Alas, we did not get the bike-in discount on this trip.

On Friday we drove with one of our son’s friends from school and his sister to Pescadero to pick strawberries. The boys were diligent pickers, and filled up three flats between them. Their sisters took a more relaxed approach. My daughter’s strategy was to walk up to me and ask me to give her some berries to fill her basket. Then she would sit down and eat them all. I have to admit that this was efficient.

Demonstrating the commitment to eating strawberries.

Ultimately we ended up with five flats of strawberries, only two of which we managed to pass off to our friends, and despite making freezer jam, a strawberry cake, strawberry mimosas, and freezing an entire flat of strawberries for some to-be-determined future use, in addition to serving strawberries at every meal and for random snacks, we still have unbelievable quantities of strawberries lying around, not to mention two boys that will not stop asking when we can go berry picking again, and who will eat strawberries until they gag and clench their stomachs in agony if you make the mistake of saying, “Not until we finish the ones we have already.”

Excavating the back yard with a jackhammer

On Saturday we went to visit another of my son’s classmates, who was celebrating his seventh birthday. Like my office, his home is located on the site of one of San Francisco’s former cemeteries, and over spring break, while digging in the back yard at random, he found a big rock that father identified as marble. For his birthday party, he wanted to dig up what he had decided was his tombstone. So that’s what we did. Another dad from school, who works at a major construction rental firm, brought a jackhammer, and everyone dug out the rock.

This is unquestionably from the former cemetery.

It turned out that it was in fact a grave marker. Random tombstones are evidently not uncommon in the city. When San Francisco moved all the graves to Colma, the workers at the time evidently often chose the move-the-bodies-but-leave-the-big-heavy-rocks-in-the-ground approach. The kids spent the rest of the party cleaning out the inscription, while the birthday dad began researching the identity of the deceased and the question of what exactly you do with a tombstone dug up for your son’s seventh birthday. This was unquestionably the most memorable birthday party I have ever attended.

Spotted at Sunday Streets: kid sleeping in Xtracycle FreeLoader

Our last day of vacation was a return to Mission Sunday Streets. This is always great by itself, but was even better with a visit from Jen of Loop-Frame Love, who was visiting San Francisco for a conference. Our son was delighted to see another classmate’s family performing in the capoeira demonstration (and some friends watching from the sidelines), and as usual we hit the doughnut shop. Our PTA president, who was there with their triple tandem, took my mamachari for a test ride and loved it (ha!) Sunday Streets was even more packed than last month, and it was sad to see the party on the streets die off as cars appeared again at the end of the afternoon. So we rode home to catch a last dinner with some of our favorite neighbors, who are, alas, moving to Marin.

Capoeira!

Although I stayed up too late most nights, I am not sure, after this week, that I will ever be able to convince myself to leave San Francisco again. This city is unmatchable. This week, our son starts bike camp. And on the weekend we are going camping with the tombstone family and some other friends from school—we will of course haul our supplies to the campsite by cargo bike. And I can’t wait to find out what will happen next.

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Filed under Brompton, cargo, destinations, family biking, rides, San Francisco

Another day, another commute

Usually cheerful, but not always

For the last couple of weeks Matt has been taking our son to school, because I’ve had various committee meetings at the end of the term (e.g. Admissions, and here’s my tip for getting into graduate school: Follow The Instructions.) When my son found out that I would be taking him to school this morning, he was not happy. “I don’t want to ride on your bike,” he said. When we asked him why, he said that I was too slow going downhill, that he didn’t like slinging his backpack over the back of the Bobike Junior, that my bike didn’t have a double kickstand, and then the rest of his complaints trailed off into vague mutterings. What can I say? He dislikes change. Also: he’s right. My bike is slower than Matt’s.

But things improved once we got moving, as they usually do. It is quiet in the morning but there’s always a lot to see in the city.

We trailed behind a backhoe for a while in Golden Gate Park, and all kids love construction equipment. My son’s mood improved markedly at this point. (The city is re-striping a separated bike lane across the park.)

As we were headed into the Panhandle, we were passed by an electric bike (a Hebb Electro Glide, if I read the logo right); the rider was pedaling slowly and moving fast, and we both found that fun to watch.

After that, we caught up with a recumbent hand-cranked bike ridden by a man with one leg (presumably custom, certainly nothing I recognized). We kept up for a while, but he blew past us and another bike on the way up the hill to Alamo Square. It was extremely impressive.

Sweet new bike racks!

When we got to school, we locked up at the new bike racks, along with another early arrival. By the time we reached the playground, my son was cheerful again.

It’s harder for me after dropping him off. My commute to work from his school goes up Webster, an arterial frequented by some of the nastiest drivers in the city. I have yet to go three blocks on that street without someone blasting a horn, apparently because I exist. One driver once honked at me and shook her fist while I was walking my bike through the crosswalk with the light. Getting off Webster I turn onto Post, and go several blocks uphill on a steadily increasing grade. To pile insult on injury, there are always multiple trucks parked in the bike lane. Once I get to the top of the hill, the only way to enter the campus is by making two left turns on busy thoroughfares (or riding on the sidewalk, but this is illegal in San Francisco, and the potential fine is large).

It’s annoying, but it beats driving.

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Filed under Bobike, Breezer, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

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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Filed under commuting, destinations, family biking, San Francisco

These are the ways we ride to school

First day of first grade

We have found that our son’s elementary school contains an embarrassment of riches (for the record, this is an under-enrolled Title I public school in San Francisco, not the usual candidate for perceived awesomeness, a complete sleeper of a school). These riches extended, we learned this year, to a range of bicycle commute strategies with kids.

Bicycle commuting to school in San Francisco is not like it is in other locales. Kids enrolled in lower grades can’t usually ride on their own, due to traffic and hills and distance; this is a citywide school, and some families are coming from quite far away. Moreover, the after-school programs at our school are mostly off-site, and students take the bus from the school, meaning that there’s no way to take a kid’s bike along after school lets out. Finally, we haven’t yet had bike racks installed at the school (we’re on the list) so there’s no place to leave a bike even if kids could ride. The teachers who ride bring their bikes into the school building, but this isn’t something that would work for a bunch of kids.

So typically we all have to ride with the kids with us somehow, and as I’ve mentioned before, city people rarely use trailers (they ride below the sight line of cars, tip on uneven pavement, don’t fit in the bike lane, etc. etc.) That means kids on our bikes. It is more challenging than the run-of-the-mill bicycle commute to school, but it’s worth it. We are often ad hoc, but we are ready to roll. Herewith, a morning’s worth of photos; an incomplete list of the ways we ride to school.

School bike #1: Bike Friday triple tandem

#1 (and by far the coolest):  Bike Friday triple tandem. Our PTA treasurer and his partner ride this bike with their daughters, who are in kindergarten and 2nd grade. They say it is the best way to commute with two kids to school in the city, and I believe them. It is easier for their dad, who is about 6’ tall, to captain, than it is for their mom, who is more like 5’4”. She reports that she needs help on the hills from the girls and she needs to concentrate while riding. The girls have to synchronize their pedaling with the parent who’s captaining; this is, I am told, not necessary on all tandems, but it is necessary on the Bike Friday [update: not exactly true; my brother-in-law wrote to tell me that any tandem could be retrofitted to have freewheel cranks that let one rider stop pedaling]. Our kids desperately want a triple tandem.

How they afforded it: They used to ride the girls to school on a tricked-out Kona Ute, which they bought and modified by hand while their youngest was still in preschool. They sold the Ute to finance the tandem, which they got for about 1/3 the list price by buying it used on eBay after searching for a used triple tandem for some time. The seller, based in LA, was unwilling to ship it, but they had a cousin in LA they visit regularly. He picked it up, and on their next visit, they took it home with them. The Bike Friday packs up in a suitcase!

How they store it: Bike storage is no joke in San Francisco. The girls’ aunt lives on the same block they do and has extra storage space, so they keep the big bikes at her place (they also have an adult tandem that they found used for free and had their bike shop fix up).

School bike #2: Surly Big Dummy

#2: Surly Big Dummy. Our friend Shirley takes her girls (1st grade and 2nd grade) to school on the deck of her Big Dummy. While they’re in school, she takes the Dummy out to do errands. I have talked about the Dummy before. It is a fun bike.

How they afforded it: They have a car that was in a horrible accident and needs several thousand dollars in repairs. Last year, they decided to skip the repairs and drive it until it failed and buy a Big Dummy (plus another bike to come) with the money they saved. When the car dies, they will be car-free.

How they store it: “It’s a problem.” They have a very small garage space with their rental apartment and squeeze the bike alongside (I presume that they don’t care about the finish of the car as it’s effectively totaled). When the car finally dies and is hauled away, however, they’ll have a very generous bike stable.

School bike #3: Giant + spare saddle on the top tube

#3: Giant with a spare saddle. One of the kindergarten dads has bolted a spare saddle to the top tube of his bike. He puts his daughter on board and takes her to school that way. When I talked with him about it, he said that although his method was totally inappropriate for long rides, their commute to school is a gradual descent over about 10 blocks and so he just coasts slowly the whole way, then drops her off, pops off the spare saddle and commutes to work.

How they afforded it: He had a spare saddle lying around anyway: this modification was free. If you had to buy one, I don’t know, $10-$20?

How they store it: No extra storage needs; it’s just a normal bike with a saddle on the top tube!

School bike #4: Kona MinUte

#4: Kona MinUte: I’ve written about our MinUte before. We ride our son to school on the back deck; we added stoker bars and some foot-pegs. This is a great bike and a flexible set-up.

How we afforded it: We bought bikes in lieu of a second car we’d been saving to buy (thank goodness).

How we store it: The MinUte isn’t much longer than a normal bike and thus has no real storage issues; Matt keeps it in a shared cubicle at his office, for example. But at home we are rich in space suitable only for bicycle storage thanks to a vituperative 50-year grudge match between the university (we live in university housing) and the local neighborhood association that prevents the partially-conditioned basement under our building, which the university was legally obligated to make ADA-accessible, from being used for a more practical purpose such as housing, or, for that matter, parking more cars.

School bike #5: Breezer Uptown 8 with Bobike Junior

#5: Breezer Uptown 8 with Bobike Junior. I haven’t written much about riding with the Bobike Junior before, as it usually makes more sense for Matt to ride our son to school on the MinUte. But with his recent injury, I’ve been handling the daily trip to school, while Matt walks our daughter to preschool then takes the N-Judah to work.

The Bobike Junior takes some getting used to, as the seat rides high, which makes the bike more tippy. It felt unstable at first. But as I’ve gotten used to it, I’ve come to love this seat. My son rides very close to me, almost as close as a backpack, and I like that when we start the ride, he hugs me from behind. It is easy to have a conversation with him because he is so close. I can turn to talk with him at stoplights and he comments on the ride, encouraging me to go faster downhill (I’m cautious; I don’t have disc brakes). It is a bit of a hassle to fit a pannier underneath this seat, and once it’s on, it encroaches a little on his foot pegs. Nonetheless, I will happily ride with my son on the Junior until he won’t tolerate it anymore.

That said, I have a suspicion that this seat might be less appealing to a shorter rider. I am 5’7.5” (to be painfully precise) and that is apparently tall enough that I can handle loads put higher on the bike without much trouble. When our friends with the triple tandem had their Kona Ute, they report that the mom had trouble handling the bike with the girls up so high on the back; she is ~3-4 inches shorter than I am. I’ve noticed that shorter people often mention they prefer to keep the load down lower, but on the other hand, there is a metronome effect. The lower loads are more stable, but if you lose control, it is a nightmare righting the bike again. The higher loads are less stable, but if you lose control, it is much less trouble righting the bike again (assuming you are tall enough). I find that I like the ease of righting the bike given that my kids bounce around a little, but some people prefer just the opposite. This is not something I’ve seen discussed much but I suspect it may be part of the reason people have strong opinions about the Xtracycle/Yuba lines (lower loads) versus the Ute and regular bikes with child seats (higher loads).

How we afforded it, how we store it: See above, blah blah, didn’t get a planned second car, it’s a normal-length bike so no atypical storage concerns, but we have tons of bicycle storage space as a side effect of a long-running town-gown battle.

These are some of the ways we ride to school. And this explains, I imagine, why our kids are begging to get a bike as obscure as a triple tandem.

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Filed under Bobike, Breezer, cargo, commuting, family biking, Kona, San Francisco

Three, three, three

Daddy made it home in time for cupcakes

Today was our daughter’s birthday. Now she is three.

What she wanted for her birthday (among other things, including: a big girl bed, playdates with her closest preschool friends, a trip to the ice cream store) was to ride on the Yuba Mundo to school with her brother for morning Rajio Taiso (since that video was shot, the middle yard has been replaced with an edible garden and the wall has been painted over with a mural, but the tradition continues in the lower yard).

Since we started riding and our daughter started preschool near our house, her chances to visit his school, which she loves, have dropped significantly. Each of our bikes currently carries one kid, and the prospect of riding all the way there just to turn around and go back home is not especially appealing anyway. So trips to school have pretty much been reserved for times when one of us is on the road and the other drives both kids to school, as the alternative of dropping her off at preschool before 7am is unappealing to say the least.

But for now, we have a bike that carries two kids (and then some) and it was her birthday, and she was already disappointed that Matt was out of town. So I packed up the bike the night before, and in the morning, loaded up both kids. Just getting to the street in the morning on such a long bike is an undertaking, particularly when Matt is away. By the time I got outside, I realized it was raining. Fortunately the kids were in multiple layers.

All aboard!

Getting our son to school is a non-trivial trip, although most of it is a pleasant ride along the Panhandle before morning rush hour. However there is no avoiding the hills between home and school, and at some point we have to soldier up and pick the best of a bad lot. Our best route is a steep climb up to Alamo Square, then back down. On a bike that weighs over 50 pounds. With two kids on the back. In the rain. Round trip. I figured I could push the bike if I had to.

It turns out that with that kind of load, forgetting the rain gear was zero problem for me as the rider. I was so overheated after I got to the top of Alamo Square that the rain was turning into steam about six inches from my body, like a low-rent halo.  But I managed to make it up to the top without stopping. Yeah! I’m a mule!

When I stopped at the light on the downhill, a couple pulled up in a car next to me, and rolled down a window. Both were laughing. “Did you know that your little one signals when you do?” asked the passenger. “Like this!” laughed the driver, sticking out his left arm. “It’s SO cute!” I had no idea, but I was delighted.

Although it was a grind of a ride, it was a lot of fun. Along the path in the Panhandle it’s easy to talk with the kids because there’s no traffic noise, and for some reason, the acoustics of the Yuba Mundo are pretty good; I can hear both kids and they can chat with each other. Their conversations often make no sense to me, but they seem to enjoy them. And commuting on a long bike with two kids on the back is apparently more than twice as entertaining to the world at large as commuting with only one. Other riders frequently commented (“WOW!”), drivers stopped in the street to stare and grin and wave. As our friends with the Bug Dummy note, everybody loves a parade. I never enjoyed our driving commute, so it’s nice to feel that we’re now improving someone else’s, although it feels like cheating to get congratulated for doing something we love. Our son’s entrée into the schoolyard felt like escorting a visiting monarch, as kids walking to the school yelled his name and pumped their fists in the air when they saw us ride by. “Cool bike!” they shouted.

Riding back up the hill to Alamo Square was harder. It’s steeper on the return side, and I was tired. About halfway up I stopped for a while and invited my daughter to enjoy the view. “Are you going slowly, mommy?” she asked. She is no dummy.

By the time we got to the Panhandle again the bicycle commute was in full swing in the opposite direction. My daughter had taken to singing me songs, mostly Particle Man, a song that does not yet bore me even though she knows only two words. “Particle Man! Particle Man! Particle Man! Particle Man!” We saw hundreds of riders, mostly on their way to work, and with the rain, poison-frog-yellow Ortlieb panniers had sprouted off the side of many bikes like horizontal mushrooms.

"I'm a present!"

Every once in a while I’d see a dad (only dads for some reason) with a child seat on the back of the bike, or with a trailer-bike. I’ve realized that parent riders recognize each other instantly. They rang their bells in salute, we smiled and waved hello! Hello! My daughter was thrilled with the attention, which she seemed to take as worldwide recognition of her birthday. “I’m three!” she yelled. “I’m three!”

It was a hard ride, but I never could have imagined how much fun it turned out to be. There are so few of us with children in San Francisco; it’s not a family city. People give up on the schools without even visiting (our son’s lovely school is, astonishingly, under-enrolled). Parents flee the commute, not realizing they could ride as we do. We few, we happy few.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo