How to resurrect a public school in SF

Elementary school graduations are cute, yet they hardly match the hat tossing euphoria of the U.S. Naval Academy or the pomp of an Ivy League procession. But don’t tell that to the first-ever fifth-grade class graduating from the Chinese Immersion School at De Avila Elementary this month.

With the mythological phoenix as their mascot, they deserve a celebration fit for rising from the ashes of public education in San Francisco.

De Avila is in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury and it symbolized the vicious cycle that destroys a school: low test scores, a lackluster PTA, a rough neighborhood that scares prospective families away. Eventually De Avila closed and became a shuttered eyesore.

Then in 2009, an over-enrollment of kindergarteners sent the school district scrambling to find space. Re-opening De Avila was a quick solution for families who hadn’t won any of their choices in the school assignment lottery.

“My wife sat on the couch crying,” said Tom Hsieh, who had to decide whether to send his daughter to De Avila, pay for private school or move out of San Francisco. “I watched all my friends leave The City once they had school-age kids, and we faced the same crisis.”

But Hsieh had to stay. He was an elected official on the Democratic County Central Committee and a political consultant with deep local roots. His father was one of City Hall’s early Asian-American supervisors and the first to run for mayor.

Hsieh decided his only option was to use his professional organizing and fundraising skills to turn De Avila into a school he would want his daughter to attend.

He had a rough start rallying the unlucky parents assigned to De Avila. Some walked out of the first meeting, presumably headed for private school.

Still, Hsieh felt a language immersion program was a winning idea to save an undesirable public school. If done well, it would cater to discerning parents and compete with the private schools that now enroll a third of San Francisco’s kids.

Hsieh focused on raising $120,000 from 80 families. He knew a strong and well-funded PTA would attract even more parents with the skills, time and resources needed to create a highly functioning school that benefits every student.

Hsieh’s wife, Nicole, led the newly formed PTA, staying up until midnight after working as an art teacher by day in Daly City.

“Tom and Nicole are visionaries who helped parents believe this could be done,” said Rosina Tong, the school’s founding principal. “When Tom talks, people listen. Nicole is very practical. She helps make Tom’s big ideas happen.”

Not to say there weren’t spats. Harnessing lots of over-motivated parents isn’t easy.

“I’d rather have parents that are too engaged than not engaged,” Tong said. “I feel lucky we were able to create a successful school when it could have gone the other way.”

Today there is a sustainable bench of parent leaders.

“Many families contributed,” Hsieh said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when everyone grabs an oar and moves in unison.”

The accolades are impressive. This year, De Avila was recognized as a California Distinguished School. Tong also won the mayor’s Principal of the Year award.

Parents citywide now covet De Avila as a top pick, even more so than some of the schools Hsieh desperately tried to get into five years ago.

“Our kids were pioneers and are better for it,” Hsieh said. “We all are, because we went through the fire together.”

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at Email him at

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