Around 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 11, a graduating eighth grader on the honor roll took the podium to speak at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School's graduation ceremony.
Standing proud in her red satin cap and gown, the girl thanked her mom, her classmates, her teachers, and, finally, the school's controversial principal Gilbert Cho, who had recently been transferred to a new school by the Board of Education.
"I know MLK will miss him next year," she said, and congratulated Cho for being "a hands-on principal."
She meant it as a compliment, but after student accusations that Cho had hit a student and put another in a headlock (an internal school investigation found that he had used reasonable force to break up a fight), the adjective had a different resonance for some in the audience.
It's difficult to say how many students were aware of the allegations against Cho. But their satisfaction at his departure became apparent later in the ceremony.
Before distributing diplomas, Cho stepped up to the microphone. "As many of you know," he began, "I'll be leaving Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle School next year."
There was a beat, and then the students erupted into applause.
For a significant number of the teachers, this was as amusing as it was deserved.
Since Cho took over at the school in 2004, a vocal group of teachers and parents has complained about his condescending, dictatorial management style; his reported manhandling of students; and his dismissive treatment of the teachers' union. Some staff have quit. Some retired early or left for other districts. Many have written to the Board of Education and the superintendent, and several have filed grievances with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Despite all the complaints, for three consecutive years assistant superintendents evaluated Cho and apparently recommended that the board award him new contracts.
In California, it's widely recognized that because of the strength of the teachers' unions, it's nearly impossible to release an ineffective teacher. What many don't realize is that sometimes a problematic administrator can bounce around in a district (or, in some cases, many districts) for just as long. Cho has been an administrator in California elementary, middle, and high schools since 1987.
Back in the auditorium, in a smart black suit and diagonally striped purple tie, Principal Cho stands quietly before the audience, his face expressionless, as he waits for the inappropriate applause to subside. He adjusts the microphone, as if that might be the problem, and continues his speech, invoking a fatalistic passage from Slaughterhouse-Five that appears in the book each time someone dies.
"The great author Kurt Vonnegut said, 'And so it goes,'" Cho tells the audience. "With that, I would like the class of 2008 to stand up."
Surrounded by the cracked sidewalks of four city blocks in the Portola District, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School looks a bit like a penitentiary — but a colorful one. Chains hang from the tall red-orange gate that encloses a circular assembly courtyard. Surrounding it are cream-colored buildings filled with orange lockers and echoing hallways, where teachers say fights of some kind — often triggered by somebody talking smack — break out almost daily.
The main office looks out over the front of the school, where on the last day of school this year, freed students are running amok. Almost all of these King Cobras (MLK's mascot) are Asian, African-American, or Latino. The school is predominantly Asian (40.1 percent), and the Asian students — as seen at the graduation ceremony accepting their awards — tend to be the ones who excel. Of the eighth graders who graduated with a 4.0, all but one was Asian.
The next-largest population is Latinos (22.8 percent) and then African-Americans (18.8 percent). It's a similar demographic profile (with fewer white students) to the school district as a whole, but the test scores at MLK have consistently fallen just below those of the district.
As expected for adolescents from different cultures with different levels of achievement, racial tensions abound. Slurs are shouted through the halls, and fights between students over race are not uncommon. On the last day of class, a seventh-grade African-American student told SF Weekly he "wanted to stick chopsticks up that Chink's ass." He was talking about the principal.
Though Gilbert Cho declined to be interviewed for this story, some of his work history can be gleaned from documents provided by the Oakland and San Francisco Unified School districts.
According to his résumé, Cho attended UC Berkeley and majored in psychology; he also received a master's in education from Harvard. He later worked as an intern in the Office for Civil Rights in Boston; as an ESL teacher; as an English and college prep teacher for Chinese students; and as a consultant to Boston's Department of Education. In 1982, he went to Hong Kong to work as a consultant for the Chinese International School.
Cho returned to California and became a project coordinator of bilingual education in 1984, the same year he took the California Basic Skills Test, which qualified him to become an administrator in the state. He scored about average in math, and on the low end of average in both reading and writing.
Cho's files reveal relatively little about the man himself, other than that he steadily worked his way up to principal and jumped from school to school all over the Bay Area. In 22 years, he has worked in five districts — Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and San Francisco — and 10 (soon to be 11) different schools.
Jim Dierke, a principal at Visitacion Valley Middle School who is also head of the Unified Administrators of San Francisco union, said it takes about five years for a principal to make a difference at a school. Cho has never stayed at one that long.
Cho's evaluations are as inconsistent as his location. Sometimes he needs improvement in planning; sometimes it's his strongest asset. He is sometimes praised for raising attendance, other times told he needs to work on it.