December 2012

Downtown High School Principal Enjoys Job

Ellen Wong, as told to Jian Hong

After serving as Downtown High School’s assistant principal from 2009 to 2012, Ellen Wong was promoted to being the school’s principal, starting with the 2012 school year. The View met with Wong in her office at the high school, and asked her to explain how she ended up leading Downtown, which caters to students who’ve had difficulty at other schools. 

 “The reason I am here at Downtown High School is because of my son,” she said.

“If my eldest son hadn’t inspired me to pursue my passion for reaching out to the underserved youth population, I would not have found a rewarding career. I am very delighted to be Downtown’s principal. 

I immigrated to San Francisco from Taiwan when I was six years old. I attended San Francisco’s Lowell High School and the University of California, Berkeley, for math and science. Instead of entering the mechanical engineering field, I worked in the travel industry. But after twenty years working as a manager for recruiting and organizing the USA Pavilion at foreign trade shows, I no longer found my job fulfilling.

I took a year off to examine what I wanted to do with my life, besides focusing on my family. At first I thought about pursuing a business degree because I hadn’t studied business as an undergraduate student. After auditing some classes at San Francisco State University, I realized that I had no interest in business. But when I audited some classes in education, I was drawn into them because I had always been involved in my sons’ school’s Parent Teacher Association and enjoyed being a school volunteer. 

At the same time, my eldest son was not successful at Lowell High School. As a mother of two sons, I didn’t know anything about continuation high school, until I started looking for alternatives. I found out about Downtown High School, a continuation high school that offers project-based learning. Students apply what they learned from and did in integrated projects to a product they develop and create. Downtown fit my son.

In 2001, while taking graduate courses in education at San Francisco State University, I volunteered at Downtown because of my son. Volunteering ignited my passion for outreaching to underserved, at-risk, and low-achieving students. I found my niche in working with these kids. As a high-achieving person, I encouraged them to work hard and offered them guidance to accomplish their goal: finishing school. Like the Energizer Bunny, I was energetic to help them, giving them hope to go to college. When I saw those motivated kids graduate, I danced around and around. Such a wonderful joy I found nowhere else except Downtown.

After my son graduated from Downtown in June 2002, I was ready to volunteer there again. 

“I am ready to hire you, Ellen,” the new principal said, “as a part-time ‘classified person’ doing lots of data analysis and input for our school. Also, as the chairperson for the school site council.” I jumped for joy at such great news. 

As Downtown’s new principal, I love giving advice to students who are at-risk of dropping out. “You are the one in the driver’s seat,” I always tell them. Their decisions will determine what options are open to them. I realize that I can’t be successful with all of our students. If they are not going to be successful here, I want to give them counseling on what the next step might look like; what else is out there for them. They are leaving us, not because they are not successful, but because they haven’t found the right niche for them to be successful. I, as well as my staff, can’t serve everyone. I do my best to help students make transitions and find the next step for them to move forward in their lives. 

Everyone develops mentally at different speeds. Some young people need more time to mature to be able to help themselves. Some learn the hard way. They have to go through that experience in order for them to learn what to do next. I don’t think in terms of failure, but of finding the inspiration to move forward. 

What’s going in the family can prevent students from being successful. If students are able to deal with family problems quickly, they can be successful at comprehensive schools and on track to graduate on schedule. But if students are low on credits, they are referred to us; we have an accelerated credit program so they can earn credits faster here. If they come to us at the beginning of their junior year, they have the potential to recover enough credits to graduate on time. In order for them to earn credits, they must come to our school. We are a continuation school based on attendance. At comprehensive schools, they could have bad attendance, but still earn all their credits. But here it is strictly by attendance, so if they come half the time, they can only earn half the credit.

In order for a high school to be successful, we have to have solid and dedicated leadership, staff, students, supportive parents, and mentors, and share a common vision of where we are going. 

My goals for my first year at Downtown are not only to continue but to deepen the work I have started as an assistant principal for three years prior to being principal. One of the goals are: be very transparent and explicit with the whole community about our expectations and program. As part of that, we need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with students, with their families, and with my staff so we can provide our students with an abundance of support. We also need to be realistic with those “tough” students who have been in a gang. At the same time, we need to be sensitive to who they are and where they come from. But sometimes students and their families are not there yet to hear the whole conversation; everybody develops mentally, even families, at a different pace. Some families are very defensive about how they raise their children. You cannot hit them with the full truth. You have to give it to them in chunks. And lead them along the way. As educators, when we try to get people to a place, we have to build a bridge to get them there. If you are on two sides of the river, you need to build a bridge from both sides and meet somewhere in the middle.

My next goal, a personal one, is to provide career counseling to students. I missed the opportunity to take advantage of career counseling in high school. If I remember correctly, only a few career counseling classes were available then. Nowadays students have to take career college classes in high school. There’s a disconnection between education and career. Students need to have a clear vision of what career development means. Career counseling will help Downtown’s underserved population of students connect education — not just to a job — but to a career. 

After working 12 to 14 hours a day, I relax by reading. Reading is part of my life; my parents are prolific readers. It’s part of how I grew up. 

My hobby is Italian classical opera. I used to play a cello when I was in middle and high school. I really liked orchestra, but I realized that I was not a gifted musician; it took lots of practice. Not only that, I had to drag my cello out of the bus every day and walk six blocks from the bus stop to my house. So I gave up playing the cello. I hope I can pick up this hobby again someday, when I am not too busy at work.

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