Photograph by Alejandrina Hernandez

Photograph by Alejandrina Hernandez

Principal of Downtown High School, Ellen Wong.

April 2014

Downtown High School Principal Discusses Opportunities and Challenges

Liz Melchor

This is the second in a series of View interviews with principals of public schools located in the neighborhood. A different school will be featured monthly throughout the spring.

Ellen Wong is in her second year as principal at Downtown High School. She’d previously served as assistant principal for three years. 


View: What should the community know about Downtown High School?

Wong: The community should know that we are a continuation high school. This means students are assigned to us. They don’t choose us as a school. A continuation high school, as defined by California educational code, serves students that are at least 16 years old and have not been successful at their comprehensive schools. In our school district, students are referred by their school to the Pupil Services Department. We are one of two continuation high schools in the district. The other one is Ida B. Wells, which is located in the Fillmore. They have a choice of which one they would like to attend. At a comprehensive school they are on a semester system, while at the continuation schools we are on a quarter system. With the quarter system students earn final grades every nine weeks. So in the eye of the student, it is faster because they are earning it sooner. They do not have to wait four months to earn credits. 


View: Is it still broken down into traditional grades, such as ninth, tenth, and the like?

Wong: Yes. So typically a 16-year-old student is a third-year student, but when they come to us we break them down by grades according to their credits. So if you are 16-years-old and you come to me with five credits, then you are in the ninth grade. 


View: What else should people know about the school?

Wong: Well, we are a wholly project-based school. This means we have six projects taught by two teachers. They develop interdisciplinary, thematic project-based curriculum. Our curriculum is on a semester basis even though the grades are on a quarter basis. So students get to choose a project based on their interest. For instance, one of our projects has a music theme and students get to learn to play instruments. Another project has a drama theme. We have a partnership with the American Conservatory Theater and the students are receiving acting lessons from one of their core actors. Other projects integrate community service. One of the projects, where the major theme is environmental science, they do habitat restoration at McLaren Park and Heron’s Head Park. Another project has a food theme and they go and volunteer at the Food Bank packing food. They have also volunteered at Glide Memorial serving meals. I have another project that is an experiential project where the students run the ropes course at Fort Miley once a week.


View: Is there a workforce development component?

Wong: We have a workforce development partnership with Jewish Vocational Services where the students are in a one-year program and they stay after school and do workshops on job skills. Then they do an internship in the spring. For the last three years, this has been with Rec and Park. Some of the students who do well, then get summer jobs with Rec and Park, or some move into part-time jobs after they graduate. JVS also has other opportunities for successful graduates from Downtown where they can be working in other industries.


View: What about graduation rates?

Wong: The rate itself can be tricky because it is calculated based on incoming ninth graders and we are not typical. So typically we would have 50 to 60 graduates a year, and our graduates can graduate every nine weeks because we are giving final report cards.


View: How many students are from the neighborhood?

Wong: We serve students from all over San Francisco, but our students primarily come from the Southeast corridor of the City: Bayview-Hunters point, the Mission, Potrero Hill, Excelsior. Four percent of the kids at Downtown are from Potrero Hill specifically. Typically, the students who come from the neighborhood are referred to us from International Studies Academy.


View: What are some recent and ongoing initiatives?

Wong: Some of the neighbors may have noticed that on the Kansas Street-side of campus, we are restoring the native garden. We have also enlarged the green footprint with the removal of several hundred square feet of concrete. This is the eighth year for Downtown High School in this building. Before us, ISA was here. There were some redwoods planted on that side that ISA must have planted. We had to enlarge the basin there for the health of the trees. The other thing we are hoping to do, coming up in the summer of 2015, is apply for a grant to build an edible garden in our upper schoolyard. We currently don’t really need that space as activity space, and this will allow it to become a learning space. We have some visions, but we aren’t quite there yet; first we have to get our grant. Part of the vision is to invite the community and other schools to visit us.


View: What about other physical improvements?

Wong: We just went through the Proposition A bond. That was completed in the summer of 2011. The school had a facelift. It is a very welcoming space for our students. We receive many positive comments from visitors about how clean the school is, that there is no graffiti, and what a great space it is.


View: How can the community volunteer or get involved?

Wong: We would love to get some academic tutors. We want to have tutors specifically for the California High School Exit Exam. We don’t offer test prep classes as part of the regular school day. We do have afterschool programming. We have some enrichment programming. Students can take a cooking class once a week. We have weight training and aerobic/cardio activities twice a week. And we have online classes every day so students can do credit recovery. We have a debate team after school. But it would be great to have access to some tutors in the neighborhood during specific times of the year to work with our students to give them the skills they need for the exit exam. They can contact us directly, but as a tutor they will need to register with the San Francisco Education Fund (www.sfedfund.org) in order to be fingerprinted, TB tested, and attend an orientation. 


View: What are some current challenges?

Wong: Many of our students have truancy issues, so keeping the students engaged and making sure they come to school is always our biggest challenge. 


View: What are some current strengths?

Wong: We have a really dedicated staff. It takes a lot for them to develop curriculum. It is not something they can take off the shelf. It is something that the teachers have to create. The projects really work for our students because each project is a small learning community. You really get to know your teachers well, and they get to know the students. Those relationships are really important to keeping the students engaged and coming to school. 


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