What’s an Arts-Based Program? Let’s Ask Russian Hill School.

Russian Hill School
Director Bonnie McFadden assists a student with her costume.

When NurtureList was just getting off the ground, one of the first schools to welcome us was the Russian Hill School (RHS).  I met Director and Founder Bonnie McFadden and  Admissions Director Heather Piper during a tour of the school, which is housed in a victorian building with a beautiful outdoor classroom space.  I was struck by the artwork produced by students, which cover nearly every surface at the school.  To learn more about RHS’s unique arts-based mixed-age program, I sat down to interview Bonnie and Heather and also got their advice for parents in the preschool search.

NL:  What was the impetus and inspiration for starting RHS? At the time, were there other arts-based programs in San Francisco?

Bonnie:  Back in the 1980s, I moved from Washington state to San Francisco to paint, to be an artist.  I was in my early 30s at the time.  I had a teaching degree, and I had taught in both elementary school and middle school previously, but I knew that I wanted to be the type of teacher that moved around from classroom to classroom, and that wasn’t possible in the public school system.  So my goal in San Francisco was to work as an artist.

When I had my daughter, the opportunity to build a small school out of my own home presented itself.  It was attractive to me because I could construct my own program based on my teaching and art background.  It was very small at first, just 6 children for the first few years, then we grew to 12.  The curriculum developed organically.  We specialized in an individualized approach, with a very low student to teacher ratio of 4:1.  We grew by word of mouth and became a feeder school to many of the private schools in the bay area.

We were limited in size and could not really ramp up our operations while still working out of my apartment.  In 2003, we became a non-profit and raised money, which allowed us to move into our current home on Divisadero Street.  At that point, we were able to hire many more talented teachers, and significantly expand our program.

NL: So what is an arts-based program, as it is practiced by RHS?

Bonnie: I’m so glad you asked because the meaning is a bit subtle.  Many parents, when they first come tour the school, see the beautiful artwork and think that the school is about creating art.  But the school is actually about using art as a vehicle to develop a holistic set of skills to prepare a child to succeed in kindergarten, including social readiness, self esteem, eye-hand coordination, concentration, language, pre-math, and pre-reading skills.  Children don’t come to RHS to become little artists- they come to develop autonomy, confidence, and focus.

I also want to add that we use a very individualized approach– there is no single recipe for readiness that fits every child.  Everyone has something to learn and our teachers really work hard to figure out the right approach for each child.  All of our teachers have masters degrees and two are actually practicing artists.  They have all been with the school many years.

NL: An aspect of your curriculum is to instill in a child that “it takes time to create something of worth”, which really resonated with me and is something that I hope I can teach my children in the future.  Can you share an example of how RHS instills this quality?

Bonnie: A lot of our unit-studies, which are learning processes that span a few months, are geared towards helping children develop a deep understanding of a theme or skill.  One of my favorite examples is our summer unit study around the wonderful book The Sign Of The Seahorse, by Graeme Base.  It’s a wonderful, complex story about ecology and what we are doing to our planet, but also about good versus evil.  It begins with the teachers reading a part of the story each week to the students.  Each reading begins with the group recapping what happened in the last installment.  Soon, the children begin to act out the story itself and start to incorporate music and song into their acting.  Finally, the unit study culminates in a musical play put on in the classroom.  The students wear costumes that were actually made by an earlier generation of students.  By the end of the unit study, all our students, regardless of age, have really internalized the story.

NL:  Can you talk a little about the role of parents in RHS?

Heather:  At RHS, parents are really the fabric of the school and they tend to form a very tight-knit community.  Therefore, it’s important for prospective parents to want to be part of this community.  Families tend to do a lot together here– they create opportunities for the kids to play sports together, have playdates, and go on outings.  Our parents are also very involved in helping the school raise money and host events.

NL: What’s the next step for a parent who is interested in RHS?

Heather: They should call the office and get an application to apply.  When this first step takes place varies.  Some parents start to get to know us as early as the pregnancy phase, but others have reached out to us when their child was four or five years old.  Following the application, I speak with the family to find out what they’re looking for, tell them about our program availability, and sign them up for a formal tour.  The parents then come to an evening tour and presentation which is a comprehensive overview of RHS.  At the evening tour, they talk with the Director and founder as well as a few parents of RHS students to get more of their questions answered.  We also refer prospective parents to current parents to get more candid feedback as well.  When the child is 2.5 years old, they come back on a tour with the entire family.

NL: Many parents find the preschool process stressful.  What general advice would you have for them as a parent yourself?

Heather:  My advice to parents would be to look at as many environments as they can.  It’s really hard to tell the difference between a play-based or Montessori program just by looking at one or two schools.  They should read up on different education philosophies and determine what kind of environment they can envision themselves in.  Selecting a preschool is a commitment not only for the child but for the family.  Parents should try to envision themselves as part of each school’s community, as preschools are spaces for both parents and children.

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