Gateway Public Schools are Guiding San Francisco Children to Academic Excellence

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Gateway High School sophomore David Fong.

With public school applications due February 18, many San Francisco parents are scrambling to complete their school selection forms. When Liana Szeto, founding and current principal at Alice Fong Yu Alternative Elementary School went through the enrollment process for her own two children, she remembers keeping her options open, visiting public, charter, and private schools across the city. The eventual school of choice for both her children surprised some. Both her children, Clifton and Alyson, attended and graduated from Gateway High School, a small, college-preparatory public school in San Francisco.

“I visited many schools and sat in on classes. As an education insider, I was really impressed by the quality of teaching at Gateway,” says Szeto. “Anyone can teach to exceptional students—all they have to do deliver the information. At Gateway, the teachers really teach. By making the instruction come alive, they help the children learn.”

From her professional experience as a school principal, Szeto was also looking for a strong sense of community that she knew was critical to a school’s success. “I was impressed by the level of parental involvement at Gateway,” adds Szeto, who served on Gateway’s board while her kids attended the school.

The Lee family would agree. Two of their daughters graduated from Gateway, their third daughter is a 9th grader at the school. “I attended Lowell,” says the girls’ dad, Alexander, “and I didn’t want the same big school experience for my daughters.” Gateway is a small school compared to many high schools in San Francisco, with only 400 students across the four grades.

“When I attended high school, I had 900 kids in my class. At Gateway the classes are small enough for kids to get the individual attention they need, and the small class size allowed my daughters to develop a rapport with their teachers,” explains Alexander. “Gateway offers the same advanced placement classes, but they have a commitment to identifying and supporting students’ unique learning styles and needs.”

Alexander also believes that Gateway was instrumental in helping his daughters easily manage the college application process. At Gateway each student takes two semesters of college admissions preparation classes, taught by one of Gateway’s two full-time college counselors. In all, Gateway students spend more than 135 hours in class with their college counselor. “When I was in high school, I think I met my college counselor once,” says Alexander, by way of comparison.

Gateway prides itself in having strong relationships with colleges across the country, especially within the University of California system. That relationship is built on the academic success of Gateway’s students, who graduate with course loads that exceed the UC curriculum requirements. Each year, close to 50 college admission counselors visit Gateway, helping pave the way for Gateway students to be accepted to all the schools in the UC system as well as Ivy League and small independent colleges across the country.

Beyond the rigorous college preparatory classes and individualized attention, both Szeto and the Lees value the diversity at Gateway. Their children attended predominantly Chinese-American elementary schools. By the time their kids arrived in high school, the parents believed that a more diverse school body would help prepare their children for the future.

Gateway High School freshman Venita Guang-Chan Tam (center) in class.

At Gateway, the school day is longer to accommodate the advanced course load and the school offers after school tutoring, and a learning center. But kids are not solely focused on academics. “My daughter Elizabeth played on the volleyball team, and Aleta on the Basketball team” says Alexander.

The Lee daughters, all with distinct temperaments, each received a differentiated learning experience at Gateway. Daughter Elizabeth attended UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and now works as a senior auditor with Deloitte & Touche. Daughter Aleta graduated from UC Berkeley in 2010, and is moving to Shenzhen, China where she will continue her work in the marketing department of TCL, China’s leading TV manufacturer.

Clifton Szeto, who recently graduated from the San Francisco State University, still retains many friends from Gateway. Alyson Szeto, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, like her brother, is following her mother’s footsteps and working towards a career in education.

So great has been Gateway’s success that 98% of their students attend college, and the school recently received a charter to open Gateway Middle School. The middle school will open with a 6th grade class and will offer a rigorous educational program with an emphasis on core academic skills, a small diverse learning community, and a commitment to preparing all students for college.

“As successful as we have been, the middle school will allow us to start working with the students earlier, allowing us to increase their academic achievements even further,” says Sharon Olken, who is leaving her position as the principal of Gateway High School to head the new Gateway Public Schools. Olken, who graduated with a masters in education from Stanford, still values her time with the students. She will continue to lead a student advisory twice a week in order to keep in touch with her first passion which remains Gateway’s trademark: excellence in teaching.

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