Head of School's 2015 Year End Update

Head of School Jeff Bissell

At the end of calendar year, there is a natural tendency to cast a backward glance and take stock of the previous months. We are surrounded by the top 10 or 50 or 100 of this or that; songs, news stories, movies, books, restaurants, influential people and on and on. I join in the year-end accounting and talk about some of the concrete, measurable ways in which our school has made progress vis-a-vis the CAIS strategic vision that we first articulated in 2012-2013. 

I want not only to note our progress in absolute terms, but also in relative terms. California independent schools share information with one another freely and willingly, which makes it relatively easy for a school that is willing to do a little work to benchmark itself against other schools. In addition, I have recently embarked on a series of visits to Chinese immersion schools around California and other states in order to take the pulse of what peers in the field are doing. 

Here is a look a CAIS activities and accomplishments in 2015 through the lens of the Strategic Vision’s eight areas of focus.

Dual Language Immersion Curriculum and Instruction

Chinese Program

CAIS is a pioneer in Chinese immersion educationOur experienced and dedicated Chinese teaching team continues its focused work on adapting the reading and writing workshop models to Chinese, under the guidance of Chinese program director Kevin Chang.  The goal is to build writing skills and reading strategies that students naturally transfer between languages.  In Chinese we are part of a pilot project for a newly published series of leveled reading materials that greatly facilitate guided reading within the workshop model.

The internal and external (ie, standardized) assessment of Chinese language proficiency that we do at CAIS greatly surpasses any Chinese immersion school of which I am aware, either through school visits or exchanges at academic meetings around the country.  We administer the Oral Proficiency Interview, the Writing Proficiency Test and the Standards Based Measurement of Proficiency.  We have a greater collection of Chinese faculty who are certified testers and raters on our faculty than any other school in the US, a result of deliberate and ongoing professional development by experts from around the country who regularly visit CAIS.  Our assessment data in Chinese have enabled us to make revisions to our curriculum and instruction as needed.  We have also validated our student achievement level in Chinese—no other immersion school in the US posts assessment scores that are as strong as CAIS’s.   

English Program

Classroom libraries have expanded to match leveled reading needs bestUnder the leadership and guidance of Director of Curriculum (English) Cristina Calcagno, and with the hard work and dedication of our faculty, CAIS has made significant progress in the implementation of a workshop model for writing in English largely based on work out of Columbia University’s Teacher College.  In the early childhood division (ECD) this has taken the form of bookmaking.  In the lower school many of you have recently attended your children’s publishing parties which represent the culmination of a deliberate writing process focused on specifically articulated skills.  In the middle school, we have have articulated a scope and sequence of writing skills for grades six through eight.  English language arts and English social studies teachers are collaborating about how to implement the workshop model at the middle school that has been so successful in the lower school.

We are also implementing a workshop model in reading at the lower school level.  Each grade has recently seen a massive influx of books into the classroom as we systematically build classroom libraries to support a reading curriculum based on leveled reading materials and instruction in reading skills and strategies.  Where appropriate, some of our curriculum units have had reading workshop instruction folded into existing subject content.


Authentic International Learning

CAIS international programs are being woven into the curriculum experienceLast year CAIS sent 100 students in grades five, seven, and eight on educational programs to Mainland China and Taiwan.  We hosted over seventy Mainland and Taiwanese in San Francisco.  Many of our students will graduate from eighth grade with almost two months of experience living and learning abroad—much of it in a host family environment.  The scope and ambition of our international programs is simply unheard of at other Chinese schools and distinguishes our graduates among their peers from other schools around the Bay area and around the country.  Simply stated, nothing compares.  This year, our international learning coordinator Emma Loizeaux has joined forces with Digital Chinese Initiatives Manager Adam Ross and Chinese program director Kevin Chang to form the Chinese Learning Collaborative (CLC), a CAIS-based team that is focused on the deliberate integration of curriculum, technology and travel to enhance Chinese language and cultural learning.  The team is meeting periodically with Chinese teachers in grades five, seven, and eight to ensure that each grade contains a curriculum unit that will adequately prepare students for the Taiwan, Beijing, and western China trips respectively, leveraging tech resources to do so.


Educational Technology

Students master tech tools as part of daily classroom lifeA few years ago technology moved out of the lab and into the classroom.  Now, supported by both Chinese and English speaking educational technology specialists Chen Xiaoqing and Kerri Willa, technology skills are integrated into the core curriculum and devices are available in all classrooms, with the middle school supporting a one-to-one program.

This year we opened the purpose-built Phanachet Design Lab at the middle school and brought in a new director, Jason Mickelson, to run the lab, teach design and technology classes, and integrate the lab into the core curriculum. In lower school we now offer coding classes to students in grades three, four, and five.

Chinese teaching and instruction is increasingly supported by digital content, created by digital Chinese initiatives manager Adam Ross.  Pockets of our Chinese curriculum may now be delivered as “blended” learning or by using a “flipped classroom” model.  


The Student Experience:  Support and Challenge

CAIS employs more teaching associates (TAs) per student in grades PK-5 than any other California independent school for which there is data.  In addition, our average number of students per class is far lower than the majority of schools with whom we compare ourselves.  This translates into a great deal of individualized attention.  Additionally, in recent years director of student services Grace Huang has grown our outstanding student services team to seven members, including two learning specialists, two Chinese language support specialists, and two counselors.  CAIS has one of the largest student services teams among independent schools in California. I feel particularly good, not only about the number and quality of our student services team members, but also about the way in which they work collaboratively with our dedicated faculty on behalf of students.    

High School Connections

In lieu of opening a high school …  This school year CAIS is piloting an advanced online Chinese language course for high school students.  The purpose of this offering, developed by Digital Chinese Initiatives Manager Adam Ross, is to serve our graduates who wish to continue studying Chinese at a high level in high school where no appropriately challenging course may be available.  The course offers both synchronous and asynchronous instruction.  CAIS is currently offering two sections, one to students of the Bay School who count the CAIS online course in the Bay curriculum, and another open course for all students who meet the prerequisites.  Earlier this week at the reunion for the CAIS graduating classes of 2008 through 2015, I spoke with several graduates who were currently enrolled and enjoying the advanced Chinese online course.    

World Class Professional Team

Some of the inaugural China Faculty Institute participants A school is only as good as its teachers.  Each year the CAIS board of trustees makes a generous financial commitment to the professional development of our teaching faculty.  Funds are available for teachers to continue developing their craft both in areas that are aligned with the strategic vision as well as discretionary funds which may be used by teachers exploring other areas of teaching and learning.  A major professional development initiative that was made possible by the generosity of the CAIS parent community at ShowCAIS 2014 is the China Faculty Institute (CFI).  This past summer the inaugural cohort of 17 teachers spent two weeks traveling and learning about Chinese education in northern Yunnan province.  We plan to repeat this program each summer.  This kind of mission-consistent opportunity is rare among independent schools.  Finally in the area of leadership development, CAIS has in past years supported new and aspiring leaders through participation in two-year leadership development program offered by the California Teacher Development Cooperative (CATDC).  This year we have our first cohort of three Chinese language teachers enrolled in the leadership development program, a recognition of our need to ensure that the leadership of CAIS includes talented individuals who can contribute understanding of and perspectives on Chinese language and culture.    

Beginning in 2012, the CAIS board of trustees embarked on a multi-year strategic effort to ensure competitiveness and transparency for teacher compensation at CAIS.  CAIS achieved competitiveness with PK or K-8 independent day schools in the Bay area ahead of its scheduled plan, largely due to generous donations by the CAIS community at ShowCAIS 2013.  Last year the board refined the benchmark schools we use, and as a result we are now in the midst of a new effort to ensure competitiveness with the new, more selective pool of schools.  This is an issue of great urgency, given the rising cost of living in the Bay area.    

In an effort to attract, reward and retain top tier educators at CAIS, we have recently embarked on an effort to determine what other factors—in addition to compensation, are motivating to our faculty; what would make CAIS a better professional home?  This effort has taken the form of facilitated group conversations during inservice days as well as one-on-one meetings with faculty that I am holding on school day afternoons.  Our hope is to identify and address a variety of issues that are generated by the faculty to make CAIS a better place to work.

CAIS is recognized throughout the US as a leader in Chinese immersion education.  This is reflected not only in the documented achievement of our students, but increasingly in the prominent role our Chinese language teachers play on a national level.  Over the last few years, CAIS has sent numerous Chinese language faculty members to present at national conferences such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the National Chinese Language Conference (NCLC), the Chinese Education and Research Center (CLERC) and Computer Using Educators (CUE).  Presentations by our Chinese teachers consistently make CAIS the most well-represented and influential Chinese immersion school at these national meetings where the most important dialogs on Chinese language learning take place. This make me tremendously proud.

In support of our Chinese program and teachers, CAIS also employs a team of administrators in positions that do not exist at monolingual schools: Chinese program director, international learning coordinator, digital Chinese initiatives manager and Chinese educational technology coordinator.


On August 31, 2015 we welcomed middle school students to the new 888 Campus, completing a successful $10-million capital campaign supported by 250 gifts from our generous community.  This marked a milestone in the school’s history—it was the first campaign of its size that CAIS has ever conducted.  The new facility features large, flexible 21st century classroom designs, a sound-insulated performing arts room with a sprung wooden floor, a versatile 2,000-square foot learning center, a state-of-the-art design lab, two large and fully equipped science labs and well designed outdoor spaces including an entrance garden and a roof deck.  The 888 Campus will have a positive impact on all CAIS students both in the present and in years to come.


Long Term Financial Sustainability

CAIS has seen admissions demand rise in recent years, and the school is near its capacity for enrollment. The CAIS board has pursued a prudent style of fiscal management and paid attention to maintaining healthy financial reserves. Under the guidance of Advancement Director Pam Winthrop, our community has increased its generosity, and we have greatly increased our fundraising revenue in the past two-plus years. The school has a very low debt load.

Fourth Grade Coding Class