Noe Valley Voice June 1997

Principal Can't Say Enough Good Things About Alvarado

By Denise Minor

It's easy to see why Alvarado Elementary School Principal Phyllis Matsuno wears comfortable shoes.

She dashes from classrooms to laboratories to the playground in short quick steps, propelled, it seems, by the excitement of being at the helm of one of the school district's rising stars.

"Excuse me," says Matsuno, abruptly stopping her explanation of the grant she just won to buy $300 worth of books for every class in the school. She climbs to the top of the outdoor play structure to talk with a kindergartener who has pushed another child.

Matsuno gets down close to speak with the girl, then hugs her and climbs down the other side to escort her to a bench for a "time-out."

"Did I show you the arts room?" the principal asks a moment later, as if the conversation had never been interrupted.

Matsuno, 54, is not the only adult buzzing with energy at Alvarado, the brightly painted school on Douglass Street between Alvarado and 22nd. The teachers, the school counselor, and the aides all seem caught up in the feeling of being part of something good.

"We've seen a remarkable turnaround at Alvarado," said the district's public relations director, Gail Kaufman. "It previously was identified as a school that needed to improve and in 1993 was made part of our Comprehensive School Improvement Program [CSIP]."

Schools that are named CSIP participants are given resources to improve, and if they don't, they are eventually "reconstituted," meaning reshuffled from top to bottom, she said.

But Alvarado "graduated" from the program in just one year. In the past three years, hard-working parents and staff have turned a school with a rough reputation into an excellent arts, science, and Spanish immersion institution.

"Alvarado is an exemplary school. It's one of the most competitive to get into," said Kaufman.

The turnaround is one of the reasons Alvarado was picked in April by Superintendent Bill Rojas as the site to launch his new computer donation program. The program will scout out corporations willing to donate used computers to the schools, some of which will be sent home with students who don't have one.

Matsuno credits her predecessor, Sande Leigh, with a large share of the metamorphosis at Alvarado. Lee implemented disciplinary measures that curbed the aggressive and disruptive behavior common in classrooms and on the playground at Alvarado.

Leigh also saw the incredible resource the school had in its 43 percent Latino population and began a Spanish immersion program for the kindergarten and first and second grades. Students are taught for the first part of the day in Spanish, then after lunch in English.

This year about half of the kindergarten and first- and second-grade classrooms are Spanish immersion. Only one third-grade class is Spanish immersion, but that might double next year.

"We're getting the overflow from Buena Vista," says Matsuno, referring to the popular alternative Spanish immersion school in the Mission District. "But our children in the immersion programs are doing even better than at Buena Vista."

Matsuno takes out a sheet showing that both English- and Spanish-speaking students at Alvarado scored higher than those at Buena Vista on the state's Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills last year.

"It's because we have such excellent teachers," she says matter-of-factly.

Matsuno offers a tour of the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms and randomly pulls out the "journals" the children write in regularly. The writing, in both Spanish and English, is very good.

State funds to reduce the number of students per class in the first three grades have also helped considerably in raising the level of instruction, says Matsuno. At Alvarado, there are a maximum of 20 students per class in those three grades.

Matsuno then shows off Alvarado's science room, where Kerry Harrell is planning her next lesson on frozen ice balls.

Harrell proudly displays the five microscopes on loan from the Mission Science Center, as well as the intricate botanical illustrations that some of her students have drawn.

"We have had three science teachers here that have been awarded for being exemplary," says Matsuno. "People from all over the country have come to observe our science program."

The principal then escorts the Voice reporter to the fifth-grade classroom of teach- er Ron Sousa. Dangling from the ceiling on strings are letters from the Portuguese pen pals Sousa lined up for his class when he was in Portugal last summer.

At various tables in the room, students are constructing a polyhedra village, a futuristic city made from geometric shapes.

In the hallways, Matsuno points out the fruits of labor of various student art proj-ects. On one wall is a three-dimensional rain forest. Above one doorway is a giant spider web, which is home to beautifully crafted little spiders the students have made. Around it are more figures from an African folk tale about a spider.

One classroom is decorated with geometric balls that combine the art of origami, Japanese paper-folding, with that of Mexican pi–atas.

The windows of the main staircase are brightly colored stained-glass art works donated to the school by professional artists. Outside on a wall of the playground is an intricate tile mosaic made by muralist Nancy Thompson.

"Alvarado is an arts-based school," says Matsuno. "You can see evidence of that everywhere."

Renowned Noe Valley artist Ruth Asawa launched the art education program at Alvarado three decades ago. Today her granddaughter, Lilli Lanier, comes to the school along with Kim Dang to teach art workshops to the children.

Fundraising by the Alvarado PTA also pays for classes taught by visual artist Jacqueline Reubens and dance artist Michael Koob. On the day the Noe Valley Voice visited, Reubens had just organized an exhibition by Alvarado students for the city's Youth Arts Festival.

"The parents at the school are extremely hard-working. It's because of them that we have dance, movement, and arts classes," says Matsuno. Parents also put out a school handbook and a newsletter.

Matsuno then leads the way to the resource room, where a reading teacher is testing a first-grade boy who in the fall had problems keeping up with his class. Children with reading problems are identified in first grade, given intensive tutoring to bring them up to speed, and then tested regularly.

"Oh, my gosh," said the teacher, holding up the page she just corrected. "He's over the top! He's reading at third-grade level."

Matsuno congratulates the boy, but he just squirms in his chair, apparently not comfortable with all the attention.

"We catch reading problems early," says Matsuno. "We don't want to let anyone fall through the cracks."

In a nearby room, counselor Nancy Hawkins is working on a grant proposal to keep her job funded. Near her are two sandboxes on tables and a dozen shelves filled with tiny figures of plants, people, animals, and cars. The sand and figures are the tools needed for "sand play," a technique for counseling children.

"It's a great tool for kids to work out their problems," says Hawkins, explaining that the children choose figures to arrange in the sand and then tell a story about what the figures are doing.

Besides counseling, Hawkins also organizes and trains the myriad of volunteers, interns, and student study teams at Alvarado.

Most district schools don't have a counselor and resource coordinator, says Matsuno, and she does not understand how they get along without one.

Hawkins and Matsuno briefly talk about a problem they are facing in the fall: the school will lose the majority of its African-American students because the Visitacion Valley housing where they live is being closed for renovation.

This year 19 percent of Alvarado's students are black, which is exactly the same proportion as in the city population. "We want the school to be as racially mixed as the city as a whole," says Matsuno.

She hopes to convince the district to give her another school bus, so she can offer enrollment to an area of Diamond Heights which is predominantly African American.

"But it's only a mile away, and the district won't give you a bus for a student population that close," she said. The mile is a hill, and too far for the youngest kids to walk.

The irony is that those families could be so much more involved in the school than families whose children are bused from miles away. "I'm working on it," Matsuno says with a definitive nod.

Hawkins brings up a similar issue. "We don't get many Asian children. I'd like to see that change."

Matsuno has tried, however, to give the students a glimpse of Asian culture. She keeps in close contact with Principal Liana Szeto of the Alice Fong Yu Chinese immersion school on 12th Avenue. The Alice Fong Yu students came to Alvarado dressed in dragon costumes to present a parade for this year's Chinese New Year.

Alvarado's students went to Alice Fong Yu to present a parade for Cinco de Mayo. "We plan to continue this collaborative arrangement," says Matsuno.

The two women met while attending a program the district developed to train its principals.

For Matsuno, the training was the culmination of years of professional and volunteer work in San Francisco schools. She started two decades ago as a member of the Noe Valley Co-op Nursery School, based at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez Street.

She and her husband, Kinya Matsuno, wanted to stay closely involved with the education of their three children, Michael, Miwa, and Mitchell.

Later, she became a parent volunteer at Alvarado. "My kids came to school here. We lived just across the street on 22nd," says Matsuno.

She then shifted into high gear and co-founded the Japanese immersion program at Clarendon Elementary School. "We had to fight for the program. It was over the dead body of the superintendent at that time," says Matsuno. "Now it is very popular."

(Matsuno speaks Japanese as well as Spanish, which she learned while serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras.)

Matsuno went on to become a paraprofessional aide at schools, and finally completed her teaching credential at San Francisco State University. Until this year, she worked as a reading and resource teacher at Paul Revere Elementary School in Bernal Heights.

Last year she completed the training to be a principal, and the day before school started last fall she was assigned to Alvarado. "It was so hard at first. I was working Saturdays, Sundays, and nights," she recalls.

But she's thrilled that she was handed what she considers a choice assignment.

"This is an extraordinary school, and it's because of the teachers and parents," says Matsuno.

"I feel very honored to be here."