Photograph by Alejandrina Hernandez

Photograph by Alejandrina Hernandez

Principal of International Studies Academy, Paul Koh.

May 2014

International Studies Academy Principal Discusses Unique School

Liz Melchor

This is the third 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 and summer.

Paul Koh is in his third year as principal at International Studies Academy (ISA), and in his eighth year with the San Francisco Unified School District. Before becoming a high school principal he taught history.

View: What should the community know about the school?

Koh: We are a very diverse population, not just the students, but also our staff. We have kids who come from all walks of life, San Francisco kids and international kids, who have immigration stories. If you look at our teaching staff, they also come from a variety of walks of life. Diversity is our strength. If someone in the community has a life challenge, there’s always a strong possibility of someone supporting that.

I’m thinking about one student who lives with just her sister, and they take care of each other. When she comes to school there’s a support network of friends and teachers who get where she’s coming from and understand that her context is very different than what we would describe as a normal context. Despite her circumstances, the student is going to go to college, has applied for a bunch of scholarships, and even won some. That’s the community feel we have. We are a family that takes care of each other.

View: It’s a pretty small school, do you know all your students?

Koh: I know all my students in terms of their names and faces and grades, but I don’t know my students as much as I want to, in terms of their story. I would like to get better at that as I get more experience in the school. 

View: Why go to ISA?

Koh: We have small class sizes, on average 20 to 25 students in the classroom, this is the practical reason. There’s going to be a lot more teacher to student attention than in a school where the class size average is 35 students. The other part is within the curriculum we try to make sure that we live up to our name, The International Studies Academy. Students take ethnic studies in the ninth grade and international relations in the twelfth grade.

Our students have opportunities to go on international trips, either with our teachers or with organizations like Build On, a nonprofit that tries to empower inner city youth by teaching the value of community service. Some students involved with Build On get to go on what they call “trek” and build schools in places like Malawi, Burkina Faso or Haiti. We have those unique experiences. 

Moving forward, we want to give that experience to more of our students and not just the ones that self-select into those trips. And so we’re asking ourselves if we redesign our school to be more project-based and service- learning oriented, capped off by these yearly treks, what would it look like if every student got the opportunity to go build a school or help a community, be it local, national, or international? 

View: Besides these goals, what are some other recent or ongoing initiatives?

Koh: One initiative is about trying to address the achievement gap with African-American boys. We are not where we want to be yet, but last October we created an advisory group for African-American boys called “Young Kings” that students can self-select into. It’s a place for our students to be who they are, talk about issues they have, and then move towards talking about their goals, hopes, and dreams. This is to reinforce positivity instead of reinforcing the negative experiences they may have had in school.

We’re also really trying to reduce the amount of suspensions. We don’t have the highest number of suspensions in the district, but we have a high concentration of students who fit the demographic of kids who have gotten suspended regularly. We have a restorative justice initiative that has been a district-wide initiative for four years. We have been working on community-building through our advisory programs to make sure our students feel a sense of belonging and to help them understand that if there’s a problem, there’s always a way to solve it. While some issues do require a break from school, we have been working really hard to make sure the restorative piece happens more frequently. 

View: So what exactly is the restorative piece?

Koh: We have rolled out a different type of discipline. We try to make our students understand that if you get a referral and you get sent out, our expectation isn’t just for you to sit in the office, but to talk with an administrator or a counselor. Then we’re going to circle back to the teacher and hear both sides. The student can say “this is my problem,” and the teacher can say “this is where I am coming from.” Together, they can figure out a way to solve this. This is less about, “I am sick and tired with this kid, so keep him out for a certain number of days.” 

View: Are there any recent or future physical improvements to the campus?

Koh: We did our modernization three years ago to make sure our campus is accessible. That was the last time we had construction. There are always improvements to be made on the school. We’d love more improvement. 

View: How can community volunteer or get involved?

Koh: If they contact me through the school website, I can pair them with the Build On organization, staff members, and/or current liaison. We have organizations like Urban Sprout, who does a gardening program with our after-school kids. There are opportunities for chaperones of field trips and campus beautification. There’s plenty of work to be spread around.

View: How many students live in neighborhood?

Koh: Most of our kids who come from Potrero Hill come from the Annex. Some of the kids come from Potrero, closer to the school. The majority of the kids come from the Bayview district. The rest come from all over the City; the Marina, SOMa, Chinatown. When I ran the numbers about 20 percent are from Potrero Annex-Terrace and 30 percent from the Bayview. We are very much a Bayview/Potrero Hill school. 

View: What are some current challenges?

Koh: For us to figure out how to get 100 percent of the kids to access the college and careers of their choice. Right now, if you look at the education results of America, it’s not that. I would love to be a model school that gives any kid access regardless of documentation status or race; we’ll get you to where you need to be. We’re small and we care a lot about our students. How to get 100 percent equity in our school is sort of like the million dollar question.

View: What are your current strengths?

Koh: Our staff is a willing group of folks who get what our students are going through. This is our asset. We’re a community that has a family feel. No student feels invisible. This is what’s great about ISA; students know this. They say, “it feels like family, like my home.”

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