A hundred years ago, children dressed up for class picture day. The boys, wearing jackets and ties, and the girls, in demure dresses with giant bows perched on their heads, lined up before the front door of Spring Valley Elementary School and stood still for the camera.
The pictures, part of a collection donated by alumni, date back as far as the 1910s, shortly after the school moved into its current, post-1906 earthquake home on Jackson Street near Hyde Street. But back then, the school had already been open for six decades.
Today Spring Valley, which celebrates its 160th anniversary this week, has a claim as the oldest public school still operating in California. In order to catalog more of the school’s history, volunteers are continuing to collect photos, stories and ephemera for a book.
Sisvan der Harootunian, a 78-year-old who has contributed to the book project, still has vivid memories of Spring Valley, where he started kindergarten in 1939.
“That stage, we had a play of the writing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ by Francis Scott Key,” der Harootunian said while in the cafeteria.
Der Harootunian remembers listening to radio broadcasts in class as World War II raged, as well as a Japanese classmate who was sent with her family to an internment camp. He also remembers the snacks served with milk.
“To this day, if I eat a graham cracker, it reminds me of Spring Valley Elementary,” he said.
For the past 10 years, former principal Lonnie Chin has been collecting memories from former students, such as der Harootunian, and past teachers to fill the book about the school. Chin, who led the school from 1977 to 2010, hopes to place the completed book at the San Francisco Public Library, with a digital version online.
“There are some things that need to be remembered,” Chin said.
Chief among them is Spring Valley’s place in civil rights history. In 1884, Mamie Tape was barred from attending Spring Valley because of her Chinese ancestry. Her parents won a lawsuit in California Supreme Court, seven decades before the U.S. Supreme Court decided the more famous case for school integration, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
“The irony of this school not being open to Chinese in 1884 — when I got here the neighborhood was primarily Chinese,” Chin said. “I think it’s important that history is preserved.”
To contribute to Spring Valley’s memory book: