Category Archives: Essays
Before literature and history, there were stories, and in some cultures, even now, stories are the literature and history. Dr. Kal Phan, principal of Hiram Johnson High School, comes from such a culture and has his own story—a tale of war, privation and dauntless endurance. Ultimately, it’s a story of triumph. For Phan his story informs his mission at Hiram Johnson. “I am committed to stay at Hiram Johnson to continue to build on the dramatic positive changes that we have made in the past six years. I want the community to know about our excellent teachers and programs and the changes we’ve made.”
The Hiram Johnson story most Sacramento parents hear is that it’s a poorly administered, neglected high school with low test scores, an underserved student population, discipline problems, demoralized faculty and staff and crumbling infrastructure. School Board Trustee Ellen Cochrane says, “Johnson is the designated High School for the 95819 and 95816 zip codes but parents don’t want to send their kids there because of its reputation and the stories they’ve heard. But the true story is that the discipline, programs and student life have changed 180 degrees. HJ is not the fabled lowest-of-the-low school in Sacramento. It’s undergoing a renaissance. People don’t know that it teaches Mandarin, French, Spanish and ASL, runs a student led community tax return program out of its Corporate Business Academy or has tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships awarded to its students every year. Dr. Phan and the staff of HJ are creating these changes and many, many others.”
Phan, 51, is no stranger to challenge. He was born in a Mien village in a remote mountain of Laos during the middle of the U.S. supported Secret War in Laos in 1965. He grew up in a preliterate subsistence-farming world where school did not exist. When communists invaded his village in 1967, he and his family escaped to another village in Northern Laos. They walked through the jungle for almost a month. They had to escape again when the communists took over all of Laos in 1975. They had to escape at night walking for four hours from their mountain village to the Mekong River to cross to Thailand. They walked silently through the jungle with only one flashlight to avoid being seen or heard by the enemy soldiers. As they crossed the Mekong River, they could see flashlights from the communist soldiers trying to locate their boat to shoot. After they reached Thailand, they were housed in a refugee camp for four years. He worked in the tobacco field watering the tobacco plants with a bucket to earn 50 cents a day.
The tough and uncertain beginnings did not end when the family came to the USA. When Phan, who could neither read nor write, arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1975, the baffled principal placed him in the third grade at 15 years old. Over the summer Phan completed fourth and fifth grade and was bumped up to the sixth grade the next year. While making huge academic strides, the immigrants faced the uglier side of the United States. Some Alabamans didn’t welcome the Mien. One family woke one night to a ring of burning crosses.
But one Alabaman, a school administrator named Ms. Bumpers, told him: “You’re a good boy. You have to go to college.” He did not at the time know what college was, but he would remember her words forever.
Next, his family moved to the Richmond, California ghetto. The communist soldiers and the KKK were dangerous, but so was the hood of Richmond. Thirteen people lived in the house there; three of his three sisters and grandparents slept in the garage. Racist people threw eggs and tomatoes at their door. Thieves broke into their house and car to steal things. The family couldn’t afford to turn on the hot water, so Phan didn’t have a hot shower for the first four years of his life in America.
His education in Alabama had given him meager skills in English and in Richmond he continued to absorb the language along with the multiple, unending culture shocks. At Richmond High School a Vietnamese girl read aloud the daily bulletin. This struck him: if she could be such an integral part of the school community, maybe he could as well. He told his counselor what Ms. Bumpers had said about college, and the counselor enrolled him in the student help program, Upward Bound.
The eldest son in his family, he was determined to apply himself. He focused on his English, his studies, and modeled achievement for his four younger sisters and brother. He did well in high school, and was accepted as pre-med and engineering program in many colleges. He chose U.C. Berkeley solely because the campus was close to his family.
In college he focused on Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies. He became a leader as member of the chancellor appointed Asian Task Force and helped form the first Laotian student organization on campus. He became the first Mien person to graduate from a major U.S. university in 1985. Miss Bumpers was right.
Phan met his destiny and greatest challenges through education. He became the first Mien teacher in the U.S. in 1990. This meant more schooling. In 1998 he received his Masters in Educational Leadership from CSU East Bay and finished his Doctorate of Education at Mills College in 2015. Education had uplifted and liberated him, and he put himself in a position to help others rise. He became an assistant principal in 1998 and principal in 2004 in Richmond. He helped lead two high schools and a middle school to dramatic improvements.
Recruited to come to Sacramento in 2007, he served as an Assistant Principal at Kennedy High School, then as an Assistant Principal at Hiram Johnson High School from 2010-2015. Now as the Principal at Hiram Johnson, he becomes the first Laotian high school principal in the U.S. He represents a beacon of hope for Mien, Hmong Lao and other Laotians in America. He confronts a challenge that will define his leadership and possibly restore the reputation of the school.
Phan’s efforts to transform Hiram Johnson have already begun. Under his purview student suspensions have plummeted from 724 in 2009 to 274 last year, and falling. There is no gang presence allowed on campus and fights, once a daily occurrence, are rare. These changes occurred while Phan was an assistant principal and continue today.
Phan’s path to the job has not been problem free. Some teachers and community members were not pleased with the lack of full community involvement in his hiring. Phan was chosen using the interim appointment process with minimal community input. District administration vetted Phan using his success as interim principal at HJ, assistant principal and principal at prior schools and district administrator as the litmus test. Ten-hour days, personal commitment, unwavering determination and a willingness to learn are in Phan’s favor. He is eager to move towards reconciliation with a staff that has suffered many setbacks from a string of problematic administrators.
But there is no denying the winds of change. Michael Washington the Law Academy Lead Instructor marvels at the metamorphosis of Hiram Johnson, “People tell me I didn’t know you have a Law Academy or Corporate Business Academy. They were told negative stories about the campus but when they come and see they’re excited about what we’re doing and our programs. This is a completely different campus from 10 years ago.”
A pillar of Phan’s work centers on parent and the community involvement with the school. He has developed a Parent Center and sponsors parent involvement workshops. These steps are vital. The school should not be an alien institution, but part of a student’s expanding family. Hence Phan has recruited staff members who are fluent in Spanish, Hmong, Mien, Chinese and Vietnamese and presided over an increase of teachers and staff contacting parents. He personally attends local Hmong, Mien and Lao community and private family functions. He’s also built relationships with businesses near the school. In all these efforts we can see the merging of family and school, a lowering of barriers and a positive uptick in communication. With outreach like this the community itself begins to advocate for the school.
The next step for HJ is to catch the attention of the Midtown, Elmhurst, Tahoe Park and East Sac Parents who believe the old stories, says Board Member Cochrane. “I’ve had parents announce ‘my child will never go there.’ They haven’t seen the academic transformation. They don’t know what’s going on. For me, I have one important job to do—help Dr. Phan build a community coalition to support Hiram Johnson’s transformation. The work has started. I wouldn’t be surprised to see HJ be a blue ribbon school in the near future.”
Cochrane states, “Dr. Phan is working to make Hiram Johnson a great Sacramento school. He’s raised academic standards and wants them to climb even higher. His phenomenal personal story embodies an ideal for education that we all share: it should be available, for free, to everyone, and our public schools should care for our kids, should lift them up and move them ahead. He’s tackling every problem from the campus facility repairs to high quality programs, equity and student culture. His dream is to give children a better future.”
At Hiram Johnson, Kal Phan works to realize his dream. At every step on his journey, he says, “there was somebody who recognized something in me, and supported me. Our kids need that.”
East Sacramento Preservation wishes all our members and friends a Happy New Year. After more than two years working to help the neighborhood oppose McKinley Village, 2015 was a time to return to our roots. Below is a brief summary of what we’ve been up to this year and some plans for next year.
Our popular Speaker Series hosted three outstanding presenters with unique talents and deep historical understanding of Sacramento.
Paula Peper–Historian and author of several books about our beautiful park neighborhoods and trees
Bill Burg–State Historian, author and Sacramento trolley history expert
Wes Green–design genius and owner of Twigs Floral Design
When ESP’s Judy McClaver started to volunteer at McKinley Pond three years ago she never imagined that she would become an award winning neighborhood icon. Her efforts have forced the city to address the issues at the pond. ESP supports her and the cadre of pond volunteers’ incredible dedication and hard work. She serves on the city pond committee and worked daily to clean and preserve the pond. (City Parks denied her use of the boat, so her garbage patrol and island work are curtailed.) However, park maintenance has stepped up and is now keeping trash cans empty on regular basis and the City reportedly has hired a pond maintenance company starting Jan 2016. We’ve set aside a portion of funds to donate to the rehab effort, once the city is able to create a workable plan. (At the end of this article is Judy’s “pondlife” list. Amazing what we have in the city!)
This year’s National Night Out was a packed bonanza. SWAT, canine, car patrol, bike patrol, fire, politicals—they all came, as did the neighborhood. It was a party.
Essays, provocative and informative, tackled East Sac issues with humor and insight. Our most popular essays were Airbnb, Pond Update, Exact Spot, Insist on Trees, No Permit, Illegal Building Draws East Sac Neighbors’ Ire.
ESP has joined multiple neighborhood associations in the effort to preserve Sacramento’s tree canopy. We are cosigners on numerous comments and letters to the city and support the healthy preservation of our canopy. We also promoted the retention of snag habitats, whenever it is safe to do so.
When the city sends us information, we share it. From parking, palm pruning, to events and meetings, we send it your way. When neighbors ask for help with city issues, we step up.
ESP supported the Ethics and Transparency movement led by the League of Women Voters and Eye on Sacramento. We stand firm with Eye on Sacramento and know there is much more to be done. However, we offer kudos to both groups for their work.
ESP featured Nextdoor in an article on the web site. The fun of this was that we drove to San Francisco and visited the start up. What a great group of innovators.
For more than seven years East Sacramento Preservation has been the pour and clean up team at Pops in the Park at East Portal. In 2016 we’re helping out at East Portal and Bertha Henschel Parks. If you’d like to pour with the team, send us an email!
Supporting SCUSD and school events is a pleasure. We post and spread the word about fundraisers, events and surveys.
Locals send us information about community events, farmers’ market, volunteer days, health and safety, river danger issues and individual efforts. We post all that come our way.
Traffic is an on-going concern in East Sacramento and our flag program on 33th and H is in its third year. Although flag theft makes the effort a little tricky, we know this is a great safety benefit to the community. ESP also distributes the Drive Like Your Kids Live Here Signs.
East Sacramento Preservation, Inc. is proud to support the designation of the Maple Avenue/38th Street Historical District that has been presented to the City of Sacramento’s Preservation Director. We should hear soon how the city will act on the application. These two blocks of 38th Street between J Street and Folsom Boulevard are a showcase of early 20th Century residential structures and the history of their occupants is long and important to the development of Sacramento. Many of the original occupants were captains of industry that have left a legacy of contributions to the city.
We are hopeful that this first historical district in East Sacramento will lead to other deserving portions and individual structures in the neighborhood being similarly designated. This is essential so that these resources are not lost to the speculative fever that is currently resulting in the wanton destruction of the residential fabric and character that helps make this community special.
News for 2016
An ESP High School Scholarship is under discussion. Our student board member, Emiliano Gómez, will be leading the study.
In the coming year we will work to improve the web site set up and delivery system. We love all feedback, positive and negative, and have read all your comments.
Our popular speaker series will continue with new and exciting speakers.
Please consider year-end donations to ESP. We’re an East Sacramento charity that works in your neighborhood. We spend money in no other place. All donations or membership will go to our established programs and is 100% tax deductible. All ESP community workers, writers, project organizers, forum and speaker series participants are non-paid volunteers.
Judy’s Pondlife List
Black-crowned night herons
Greater White fronted geese
Robins and other common Sacramento birds
Miscellaneous migrating birds
All the domestic ducks and geese were relocated by Judy to help preserve the pond and protect wildlife’s health.
Turtles—99% are red-eared sliders
And, of course, the ubiquitous, squirrel (most are Fox Squirrels with a few Grays)