State’s oldest school reflects

When W. Carroll Tornroth entered kindergarten at Spring Valley Elementary School in 1918, Jackson Street was paved with cobblestones — and the school had already been in business for 65 years.

“We just had the one building on Jackson, and then around the side were little bungalows with portable desks and wood-burning stoves,” said Tornroth, who turned 96 in April. “We studied history, geography, reading — I learned a lot while I was there.”

Spring Valley is the oldest remaining public school in California. It celebrates its 155th anniversary Sunday, when alumni from the K-5 school will gather and compare notes from their time learning the three R’s.

Former students may also compare playground scars, such as the scrapes that remain on Sisvan Der Harootunian’s knuckles 63 years after he graduated and stopped playing handball at Spring Valley.

“My first day of kindergarten was traumatic, because it was the first time I’d been away from home” — all of three blocks away, Harootunian said. “But I was a good student, and I enjoyed it.”

When Spring Valley opened its doors in 1853, it was at the corner of Green and Gough, and later moved to Larkin and Broadway, where Helen Wills Park stands today. It set up shop at Jackson between Larkin and Hyde after the 1906 quake razed The City, according to Principal Lonnie Chin.

While students came to Spring Valley to study their basics, many also had firsthand experience with national and world events.

Harootunian was in second grade when the United States entered World War II and his young Japanese neighbor andher family were taken to the internment camps at Tanforan in San Bruno.

Because of Spring Valley’s long and storied history, Chin is gathering memories from alumni that will be published in a history book later this year.

However, there are no surviving alumni who remember firsthand Spring Valley’s place in the fight for Chinese civil rights. In 1884, Mamie Tape, a Chinese girl born in America, was barred from attending Spring Valley. When the school district created a separate school for Chinese students, the Tapes took their fight all the way to the California Supreme Court, predating the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision by 70 years.

Today, Spring Valley — now touted for its science-based curriculum — has little of its original infrastructure besides its 24-inch-thick walls and “the linoleum,” Chin said. “That stuff is tough.”

bwinegarner@sfexaminer.com

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