May 2014

Dena Fischer 1965 — 2014

Dena Fischer, community crusader for public education, lost her 17-month battle to Leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, and died on March 26, 2014. She was forty-eight years young. Dena leaves behind her 10-year-old sons, Sam and Henry, and her husband, Brad Rothenberg.

Dena moved to Potrero Hill with Brad in 2001. The Hill’s diversity, and their desire to educate their children in a public school environment, was the inspiration for Dena’s passion and commitment to making sure all children in the community had an opportunity to receive a high quality education filled with family resources and enrichment opportunities. 

Dena began her professional career in Hollywood at Creative Artists Agency, where she ran the Story Department and oversaw script development. She went on to be a development executive at two movie production companies, New Regency Entertainment and Douglas/Reuther Productions, where she helped produce several major motion pictures. 

After moving to the Hill, and becoming a freelance writer and editor, Dena was the driving force behind the successful 2005 campaign to save Daniel Webster Elementary School, which had been slated to be closed by the San Francisco Unified School District. As part of the effort she co-founded the Potrero Residents Education Fund (PREFund), a nonprofit that evolved to support public education and operate a bi-lingual preschool, on two sites, that serves more than 100 children, one-fifth of whom receive tuition assistance. 

As part of her PREFund work, Dena was instrumental in securing critical funding for three programs, Playworks, Reading Partners and Edgewood social services, which provided the infrastructure needed to turn Daniel Webster around. In large part as a result of Dena’s efforts, Daniel Webster Elementary now has a waiting list of students who want to attend the school, a highly sought after Spanish Immersion program and rising test scores; a huge change from prior years, when it was ranked last among SFUSD’s elementary schools. 

Dena was a tireless champion of PREFund’s mission to underwrite local education initiatives to build stronger schools. She believed that every child deserves a high quality education. She expressed her advocacy with a deep resolve, a nuanced understanding, an eloquent voice, and a spirited sense of humor. Dena was never afraid to roll up her sleeves to have tough conversations or do the hard work. Dena talents as a writer and editor, equipping her with a clear and persuasive voice, infuses PREFund’s written work. In addition to being a PREFund member, Dena served as Daniel Webster’s Parent-Teacher Association president for two years.

Scores of Hill and Dogpatch residents, current and former Daniel Webster teachers, students and families, along with SFUSD board members, San Francisco Supervisors and other civic leaders gathered on April 9, 2014 on Daniel Webster’s playground to celebrate Dena’s many community contributions. Longtime Hill resident and former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos spoke at the memorial. “Dena’s work had a profound impact on this community, and she was tireless in her commitment to ensure there were good educational institutions in this neighborhood that would keep young families here,” said Agnos. “This neighborhood has changed for the better because of her.” 

Principal Moraima Machado spoke, as did other PREFund founding members, Jennifer Betti, Stacey Bartlett, Katherine Doumani, Debra Grassgreen and Melissa Millsaps. 

Dena was a lover of musicals and show tunes. The ceremony opened to a ukulele serenade by Sam and Henry’s fourth grade Daniel Webster classmates and teacher, Richard North. A traditional Jewish song was performed by Daniel Webster drama teacher, David Greenbaum, and a cello and flute version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” was performed by former 20 year veteran Daniel Webster music teacher, SFUSD arts administrator and renowned bay area jazz musician, John Calloway. Brad shared touching personal observations on his wife, his love for her and her commitment to the community.

The SFUSD Board of Education is expected to pass a resolution put forward by the Daniel Webster community to name the school’s library The Dena Fischer Library, a fitting commemoration of Dena’s passion for literacy, her achievement in supporting a vital tutoring program, Reading Partners, and her many hours tutoring students and organizing the library. To honor Dena’s commitment to bringing harmony to Daniel Webster and the surrounding Potrero Hill community, Topher Delaney, local landscape architect, donated an Olive tree that’s now part of the school’s garden. Attendees to the celebration of Dena decorated the tree with notes of gratitude.

Introduced by Susan Olk at the former salon Mani Pedi some 12 years ago, longtime friend and fellow PREFund founder Jennifer Betti shared Dena’s recent thoughts on the Hill’s future. In Dena’s own words…”I want to be sure we stay focused on ensuring that the legacy of improving education for all kids on Potrero Hill continues and expands and that the community built around Potrero Kids Preschool and Daniel Webster Elementary continues to be diverse, inclusive and compassionate.” Betti closed her remarks with, “To honor my courageous, funny, loving, infectious, gorgeous dear friend, we have our marching orders from Dena herself. This is how we can honor her best.”

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