San Francisco’s Sunset Elementary School was founded in 1996 to accommodate a state-mandated reduction in class size. Assuming leadership six years later, Sophie Lee transformed an “average” school into a high-performing, tech-savvy, multicultural, inclusive community.
Principal Lee introduced the Caring School Community program, which emphasizes community cohesion while honoring student autonomy. Students learn how to set class norms and goals and to empathize with other students. A mentoring “buddy” system strengthens relationships between grades; classes of different grades work on projects together, support each other by attending performances, and go on field trips together. Classroom meetings and restorative circles celebrate successes and enable issues to be resolved collectively. Each week, a Star Student from every class is recognized for demonstrating Sunset’s core values of being Respectful, Responsible, Caring, Fair, Safe, and Helpful, after which the Star Students have lunch with Principal Lee. This special time ensures every student can build a relationship with the principal.
Within the Sunset staff, vertical teams work at K-5 alignment while grade level teams analyze assessment data using district rubrics and share ideas and reflections on curriculum, focal students, and best practices. Twice a month, faculty professional learning meetings equip Sunset teachers with practical skills to evoke student thinking such as wait time, open-ended questions, deep probing, discussion prompts, and cooperative structures such as Turn and Talk. Teachers, district, and community speakers conduct presentations about Reading and Writing Workshop, strategies for English Learners, inclusive practices, and ability awareness, plus other topics. Sunset teachers regularly reclassify English Learners who meet linguistic and academic criteria as fluent English proficient. General education teachers are very receptive to mainstreaming Special Day Class students into their classrooms. Experienced teachers mentor new teachers and assume numerous leadership roles in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science, as well as the Instructional Leadership Team.
Under Principal Lee’s guidance, a parent-teacher committee developed an Instructional Technology Roadmap to ensure all students learn technology skills, from typing to creating claymation videos. With PTA assistance, Principal Lee procured equipment for a Technology Lab and 1:1 devices for all students. Digital technology has transformed teaching and learning in Special Day classes.
To strengthen arts education, Principal Lee revised the Technology Consultant position to that of a STEAM Consultant. She attended a national Administrators for the Arts program that included visits to museums, classes at dance studios, and bookmaking at a print workshop. The San Francisco Ballet now conducts a school program on site. All students attend classes in drama, visual arts (including ceramics), choral and instrumental music, and contemporary dance, reflecting Principal Lee’s belief that arts enrich the lives of all students.
Principal Lee attends PTA meetings and events and empowers parents with meaningful leadership opportunities. She taps community resources so classroom teachers can give students more individual attention; community members, student teachers, high school students, and parents mentor Sunset students in reading, writing, and academic habits. Beautifying the school environment, parents painted an outdoor mural and worked in the gardens, in addition to volunteering in school. The PTA has underwritten enrichment consultants in art, outdoor science, and technology.
Concurrent with these cultural, academic, and technological advances, Principal Lee spearheaded a “greening” project that engaged parents and a nonprofit in transforming the once-barren concrete schoolyard into a flourishing outdoor Learning Garden with raised garden beds, a greenhouse, a butterfly garden, and native plants and trees. In the gardens, students record science observations while practicing key writing and literacy skills.
Principal Lee’s commitment to public education stems from her own experiences attending San Francisco’s public schools.