Noe Valley Voice May 2003

Children's Day School Grows Up

By Pat Rose

On a sunny spring morning, three Teddy Bears water the pink camellias in the garden at Children's Day School, using their pint-size watering cans. "This will make the flowers more beautiful," says one preschooler as she runs off for more water. A group of kindergarteners skips from the playground to the garden and over to the henhouse and farm, to check on the chickens and the sheep. Morgan Taggert, the environmental education teacher, surveys the garden plots that each class has planted and tended: tomatoes, basil, and onions sprouting in the first-graders' pizza garden; alfalfa and oats ready to harvest in the kindergarteners' section. "They grew these crops to feed the hens," she says. And the hens must be hungry--their egg production has increased to four eggs a day.

On this little-more-than-an-acre campus on Dolores Street, just down the hill from Noe Valley, Children's Day School (CDS) is growing right along with the plants and the animals. Currently a combination preschool and elementary school with 168 students, CDS will open a middle school, grades 6 to 8, next fall. Much of the credit for putting the middle school in place, say parents, goes to Rick Ackerly, CDS's new headmaster, who took the helm in July.

"Rick has brought experience and leadership to the school," says Noe Valley mom Katie Danforth, whose son Shea is a preschooler. "In the first year he's been here, he's been able to point the school in the right direction." She's enthusiastic about the addition of a middle school. "Shea has gotten to know the older boys here. They often walk him through the gate in the morning. Having the older children here has had a very positive impact on the younger kids."

"We have the essential ingredients of success for a middle school right here in our preschool and elementary school," says Ackerly, as he greets children at the campus gate, calling them all by name. "This school is a place where people come to grow--in fact, it is the most fertile ground I have ever seen."

Ackerly, who has worked as a headmaster at several schools during his 26-year career, most recently at St. Paul's Episcopal School in Oakland, has a track record of revitalizing schools and increasing diversity in enrollment. At CDS, he has begun that process by instituting a sliding-scale tuition policy for families in need.

Located directly across from Mission Dolores, CDS sits on the oldest continuously operating school site west of the Mississippi. St. Joseph's Hall, which houses the school's classrooms and administrative offices, was originally a Catholic elementary school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. It became a preschool in 1983 and was later incorporated as a nonprofit independent school in 1996 by a group of parents. In 1997, the decision was made to add an elementary school, one grade per year, which was completed this year.

The school's philosophy--"Instill a passion for learning and teach social responsibility for others and the environment"--starts in preschool, says Ackerly. "Play is an important component to learning," he notes. "But here they're learning to care about the world around them at the same time, by caring for the plants and animals and each other. We don't want to change that approach in middle school. We want to expand on it."

Ackerly says the school integrates Spanish, art, music, drama, environmental education, and physical education into the curriculum through project-based learning: students use their math skills in art projects, and grow caterpillars into butterflies to learn science basics.

Noe Valley parent Debra Levin says her daughter Elizabeth, currently a fifth-grader who will start middle school next fall, enjoys the school's challenges. "Because of CDS's emphasis on problem-solving, she feels more independent and in control of her life and has become more responsible," says Levin.

Levin also likes the school's close proximity to Noe Valley. (Noe Valley families currently make up about 20 percent of the school's population.)

Hae-Lim Minus, who has two children at CDS--daughter Erin, a first-grader, and son Justin, a fifth-grader, who will also start middle school next year--is very enthusiastic about the expansion through eighth grade. "I think the middle school fills an important need in the community. There aren't that many private coed schools in the city, especially on this side of town," she says.

Minus, whose husband passed away last summer, says her family has received tremendous support from the CDS community, including Justin's teacher Andre Perry, who made it a priority to spend time with Justin on the weekends.

In fact, parents praise the teachers as the school's greatest asset. "The teachers' encouraging and nurturing style has given my daughter more confidence to take more risks," says Levin. That kind of encouragement will be critical in middle school, says Levin, when many girls lose their confidence and can become withdrawn.

And the teachers like coming to work. "I like teaching at CDS because the children sprint through the gate every day excited to come to school," says kindergarten teacher Emily Van Allen. "I think it's just as fun to be a teacher here as it is to be a child."