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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.
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.
"Then came Mr. Cho," Holland wrote. Staff meetings became an uncomfortable chore, Cho made unilateral and arbitrary decisions and reassignments, and new teachers were not given the support they needed. Although she isn't usually a complainer, Holland insisted, she "cannot allow this man to continue to take down the school I care about so much."
A letter from math teacher Jesse Alsip, who was new to the district in 2007, touches on Cho's discipline, resource, and retaliation issues. Alsip replaced another teacher who quit three days after the school year began. The classroom, he remembers, was completely unmanageable. In his letter, Alsip — who says Cho warned him not to join the Union Building Committee — complains of receiving no support from the principal. He was short 117 textbooks, he writes, which forced him to make 10,000 copies (the annual district limit per teacher) of course material.
Additionally, the students were "defiant, disruptive, and threatening of my health," Alsip wrote. "Students faced little or no consequences because throughout the year, the principal refused to enforce the schoolwide discipline plan passed by 80 percent of our school site through union negotiations."
Several months after Alsip started, an unruly group of students took control of the classroom and seized his laptop. According to Alsip, six students told the principal they discovered inappropriate content on the computer (Alsip didn't say what the students claimed to have found), and Cho put Alsip on unpaid leave for more than three weeks. At the end of an investigation, Alsip was cleared of the charge, he says.
But teaching a rowdy class didn't get any easier for Alsip, and Cho gave Alsip a "needs improvement" on his evaluation and recommended to the Board of Education that his contract not be renewed. It was not. Alsip — who said he collects disability checks for the emotional instability brought on by Cho — plans to file a grievance with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
He won't be the first.
In 2006, math teacher Michael McCacchren filed a grievance accusing Cho of discrimination and giving him negative evaluations based on a disability. The DFEH investigation took more than a year and included more than 900 pages of documentation. Although the district disputed McCacchren's claim, the DFEH issued him a right to sue and the district wound up settling. It agreed to remove three of Cho's evaluations from McCacchren's file, and he withdrew his complaint.
Another kind of complaint has come from two students, one in 2007 and one in 2008, who both accused the principal of patting their behinds. Both times, teachers quickly reported Cho to Child Protective Services. The district investigated the incidents and determined that the claims were unfounded, but will not release documents.
SF Weekly has obtained the more recent of those two reports. The school site harassment/discrimination resolution form states that although Cho did touch the male student on the behind, it was not done for sexual gratification or to "negatively impact the student's academic performance."
That was news to the kid's mother. After the incident, she went to see Cho, who she says denied the incident ever occurred. Meanwhile, her son's classmates began teasing him and calling him gay. "It really broke his spirit," she says. She then brings up the other incident that has had the school abuzz.
In January, several students and teachers say they saw Cho put a headlock on a sixth-grade girl and punch another in the arm.
Had Cho finally crossed the line?
Near the top of Bacon Street in the Portola District sits a four-tier stack of brown apartments that resembles a wedding cake. Marquesha McClendon, the sixth grader who says she was punched by her principal, has been living in the second layer since 2000.
The past two years haven't been her family's best, which is reflected in the home's decor. The adjacent, well-kept living room and kitchen, filled with family photos, plants, and one large goldfish in a giant tank, look fairly standard. But those who know this home intimately know it is a memorial ground.
John-John the leafy green kitchen plant is named after McClendon's uncle, who died in a car accident on February 17, 2007. Another plant, Maebell Perkins, sits in the corner, a reminder of McClendon's great-grandmother, who died a few months ago. Her husband had passed away just a few months before.
The giant goldfish is named Last, because he's the only one left out of 12. And the tank itself serves as a reminder of the hardest thing McClendon has ever had to go through — the loss of her father to prostate cancer in 2006.
"James had a way with the goldfish," says McClendon's mother, Latrelle Gaddies, who is giving a tour of her home. "He played with 'em. He stuck his hand in the fishtank. They knew him."
Gaddies, a petite, opinionated woman with a crop of magenta-highlighted hair, says her daughter — a daddy's girl — took his death hard. She began acting out and throwing tantrums, and her grades in school began to slip. The family clung to their faith and attended Olivet Baptist Church, where McClendon sings in the choir every Sunday.
Then — on January 16 — McClendon's principal hit her, Gaddies says. McClendon had been out in the hallway on her way to get water when what students have described as a "play fight" started. The principal was breaking up the altercation when Maltby, the teacher's aide, walked by.
Maltby reported that Cho wrapped his arm around the girl's neck as McClendon playfully pulled on her arm. Then, she wrote, "Mr. Cho swung around, still holding the girl in the headlock, drew his right hand all the way back, and punched [McClendon] in her arm three or four times, pulling his arm all the way back each time. I, like the girl, stood there in stunned silence as Mr. Cho dragged the headlocked girl into his office."
Maltby says that through Cho's office door, she could see him raising his hand and punching in a downward motion. She ran in because she thought Cho was beating the girl, but then saw that he was hitting the chair next to her.
Maltby collected statements from two adults and one student who witnessed the incident, and reported it to Child Protective Services and the school district.
No one informed Latrelle Gaddies until the next day. She got a phone call on her way to City College, where she is completing her undergraduate education. After learning her daughter had been punched, "I said whaaaaaaat?" she recalls. She turned the car around and headed for the school.
Gaddies spoke with Maltby and guidance counselor Spears. She didn't want to see the principal. "I was hot," she says. "If I would have saw the principal, I would have punched him in his face for hitting my daughter." She believed Cho's treatment of McClendon was race-related, and her daughter agreed. "He's mean to my culture, but nice to the Chinese," McClendon said.
Gaddies says she contacted several attorneys. CPS, meanwhile, handed the case over to School Operations and Instructional Support, the investigative arm of the school district. Investigator Richard Maggi came to the school and questioned those involved and witnesses. Cho was put on paid administrative leave.
Maltby, who filed the original report, somehow didn't make Maggi's list of people to question, she says. Near the end of his investigation, she says she approached him to tell him what she saw.
In his defense, Cho told the district that he believed he was breaking up a real fight. "I feel very strongly that I took corrective measures to stop this apparent fight," he wrote. He said he verbally warned McClendon three times to let go, but she continued her "vise-like" grip. That's when he lightly slapped her hand, partially hitting her arm. If not for the "minimum force that I exerted," Cho wrote, the student he had in the headlock would have faced a serious shoulder injury. "If I were to let go," he wrote, the 'fight' could have continued."
According to Maggi's file, one witness told the investigator the girls were in an armlock near the floor and did not respond to Cho's loud verbal requests to stop. "There was no excessive force and no one was in a headlock," the witness said, adding, "Mr. Cho did his job as a principal and broke up the fight, which is in the best interests of the students and staff at MLK." The witness (whose name was redacted from files given to SF Weekly) also told Maggi she overheard one of the teachers coaching the students on what to write on their incident reports.
In the end, Maggi concluded that "the amount of force used with the flat of the hand to have the victim release herself from the other student was not excessive."
After spending two days on administrative leave, Cho was back.
Teachers were appalled. "He's the Teflon principal," says Galgano, the union rep. "Nothing sticks."
McClendon said little to her mother about the incident. She wanted to forget it, but she says every time she walked by the office, she felt uncomfortable. Once, when she saw the principal in the hall, he apologized to her. "He said, 'You know I didn't mean to do that,'" she says he said. "Yeah, right," she fired back, and kept walking.
Gaddies, on the other hand, received no communication from Cho, which she found inexcusable. "This asshole ain't call me and sayin' nothing," she said. It's just lucky for Cho that her husband wasn't around, she added: "He would have hurt that principal."
Finding and retaining good principals isn't easy in the SFUSD, says administrators' union president Jim Dierke. There has been a shortage of administrators who choose to work in San Francisco, due to its high cost of living and the better-paying districts surrounding it. Needless to say, the district isn't quick to banish the ones it has.
Furthermore, there's just one person, an assistant superintendent, with the power to make that decision.
In Cho's case, that person would have been Jeannie Pon in 2005 and 2006, and Joan Hepperly in 2007. Their job as assistant superintendent of middle schools was to report to the board, and to make a recommendation on whether a principal's contract should be renewed. Despite the numerous complaints, Pon and Hepperly apparently gave the board the go-ahead on Cho.
The president of the Board of Education, Mark Sanchez, is now uncertain if he received the correct recommendation. "I've felt that there have been principals and superintendents that have acted like cheerleaders instead of being critical," he said.
Of the more than 70 school administrators who came before the board this year, about five contracts were not renewed, Sanchez says. (In Washington, D.C.'s school district — which awards contracts of only one year — 15 to 20 principals are reportedly given the boot every May.)
During his tenure, Sanchez says he has regretted renewing approximately five contracts. It's happened because of incomplete information from the assistant superintendents, who seem to prefer keeping the decision-making board "out of the loop," he says.
Cho's contract might have been renewed, but that didn't mean he couldn't be transferred. On May 27, 2008, that's what happened.
"I am writing to inform you that the Principal of Martin Luther King, Mr. Gil Cho, is being requested to continue his good work next year at another middle school," assistant superintendent Hepperly wrote. "Through this change of assignment, Mr. Cho will be able to bring great resources to his new administrative appointment that will benefit greatly from his extensive expertise and experience."
The letter proceeded to extol Cho for implementing new programs, securing grants, adding alternative sports to physical education, reinstating music and choir programs, and for raising the overall Academic Performance Index (API) of the school from 694 to 722. (Privately, however, a handwritten note in the district's investigative records indicated Hepperly planned that same week to "memorialize" a verbal reprimand given to Cho for unspecified reasons.)
For the teachers' union, this was an outrage and a total whitewashing of Cho's tenure. Galgano huffed that other faculty members were responsible for most of the accomplishments on that list. Although rumors circulated that Cho would be moved to AP Giannini, one of the top-scoring middle schools in the district, his file reveals that he will become interim assistant principal at Lincoln High School.
On a recent Thursday night, the Board of Education met in a closed session to discuss the Cho situation and other private matters. Both Cho supporters and his critics on the faculty were present.
During the public comment session beforehand, things got ugly. History teacher Judy Gerber said she didn't think Cho should be working with students. PTA member Carlos Ramirez countered that the teachers were in it for themselves and not for the students. Sanchez had to keep interrupting to remind everyone that they could be sued.
Then the school secretary, known as "Ms. Nancy," took her turn to speak.
She has been the school secretary "from the beginning," she said (the yearbook reveals that she has won the school's award for most spirit). She had been very upset that teachers slandered their principal, and wondered why everybody couldn't just work together. She sounded ready to cry.
"It saddens me to see these adults acting like this," she said. "Worse than the kids. If the adults can't get it together, then how are we going to have the kids get it together?"
When Ms. Nancy was finished, Sanchez thanked everyone for coming and quickly dismissed them for the closed session. In the hallway, the teachers discussed whether anything they had said or done would make a difference. They seriously doubted it, and offered condolences for those at Cho's new school.