The Principal Matter

Teachers said Principal Gil Cho was dictatorial. Students said he manhandled them. The school district said he was doing a good job.

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.

Teacher's aide Colleen Maltby and special day class instructor James Galgano are happy to be rid of Principal Gilbert Cho.
Courtesy of James Galgano
Teacher's aide Colleen Maltby and special day class instructor James Galgano are happy to be rid of Principal Gilbert Cho.
Principal Cho recommended Jesse Alsip (above) not be retained by the district. Alsip is fighting the decision.
Ashley Harrell
Principal Cho recommended Jesse Alsip (above) not be retained by the district. Alsip is fighting the decision.

In 1999, an evaluation he was given at Oakland High School cited that neither student achievement nor attendance had improved to an acceptable level. Among Cho's "challenges" it listed were submitting attendance and safety plans; making sure each student got a textbook; ensuring that all ninth graders were enrolled in algebra; and improving cross-cultural understanding among students, staff, and parents. The evaluation also pointed out that a perception existed in the African-American community that "the current administrative staff is not sympathetic to their concerns." Still, it recommended that Cho be retained.

Back on one of Cho's more positive evaluations in 1984 — wherein he was told he had potential — his supervisor gave him some advice he appears to have taken seriously. Maybe too seriously. "Do not allow the faculty to become too familiar," the evaluator wrote. "Some may say it even breeds contempt."

In 2008, there are reasons that contempt might slip into the relationship between administrators and teachers. After the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, schools became more accountable for how their students performed on standardized tests. For inner-city schools with poorly performing students, somebody would have to take the blame. Naturally, administrators and teachers pointed fingers at each other.

A group of MLK staffers who have been under Cho's reign for four years see him as a textbook case of a principal who failed to work effectively with them. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, they invited SF Weekly to a second-floor classroom to complain about the principal.

Colleen Maltby, a teacher's aide, said that last year three African-American students reported to her that Cho had taken them to a classroom to discipline them, become enraged, and thrown a chair across the room.

"They came back 10 or 15 minutes later and they were pale and shaking," she recalls. When she spoke with the boys' families, they told her they didn't want to make any reports because they didn't want to be involved with the police.

Cho's purported disparate treatment of Asian students and African-American students seems to come up again and again. Though she wasn't present at the meeting, guidance counselor Lonetta Spears, who is African-American, wrote to the new schools superintendent, Carlos Garcia, to express her concern. "There seems to be a double standard in the way Asian students and Latino as well as African-American students are treated," she wrote, citing frequent suspensions of African-American students for offenses Asian students managed to get away with, and the revocation of the Black History Month assembly.

"Most of the students that have been targeted have been African-American," agreed special day class teacher and union representative James Galgano.

A gruff teacher of 27 years with a prominent white beard, Galgano has been instrumental in organizing the anti-Cho campaign. He routinely sends out hundreds of pages of documents aiming to get Cho expelled from the district. They include a detailed list of faculty members who have left the school since Cho arrived, which adds up to 46 staffers — about a third of the teachers each year. Some have retired, but according to Galgano's count, 36 of those left because of Cho.

Not all instructors are anti-Cho — some say they've never had a problem with him, but none of those faculty members would talk on the record. Regardless, a 2006-07 survey distributed and collected by the United Educators of San Francisco teachers' union found a generally negative consensus. The survey graded a dozen middle-school principals in 14 categories and awarded each a "GPA." Cho's — 1.69 — was the lowest in the district. His biggest problem area was "respect from faculty."

Garcia, who declined to be interviewed for this story, and the Board of Education are aware of the situation. They've received more than 20 letters complaining about how Cho's management style poisoned the atmosphere of the school. The letters address so many problems it's difficult to sum them up.

Some of the accusations against Cho: excluding teachers from decision-making; failing to put a system of discipline in place; not providing enough books; taking the word of troubled students over teachers; and retaliating against teachers on the Union Building Committee, MLK's arm of United Educators of San Francisco.

A letter from April Holland, now a vice principal in Pacifica who described herself as "one of the people Mr. Cho drove out of the district," painted a near-utopian picture of a pre-Cho MLK. Under James Taylor, the previous principal, the school was a "fertile ground for those who believed in shared decision-making," she wrote. Although there was plenty of vociferous scheduling and policy debate, she remembered, everybody loved and respected each other. Staff potluck dinners and parties abounded.

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