• Thursday, May 2, 2019

Strategic Vision Update Part 5

Since the strategic visioning process was launched earlier this school year, I have heard from an inclusive sample of stakeholders including students, faculty and staff, parents, trustees, and alumni about their experiences at CAIS and their aspirations for the future of our school and our children. I have also talked with area high school deans about how CAIS alumni do in their next chapters. There have been one-on-one conversations, meetings, roundtable discussions, surveys, and days-long offsites. As hoped, through this process rough consensus has emerged around a few compelling ideas. It has become clear to me that there is a desire and a need to reimagine CAIS’s most foundational commitments: (1) a strong Chinese immersion program, (2) a strong culture of learning, and (3) a strong emphasis on character and community.

The image this brings to my mind is the ancient bronze dǐng (see right for more details) or tripod—a symbol of strength and unity supported by three sturdy legs. CAIS stakeholders have been contributing to the creation of a strategic vision for our school’s future revolving around three foundational commitments (strong as the supporting legs of the Chinese dǐng)


Our Culture


When you look at it, this is really just basic blocking and tackling (did I just really just flip from archeological to sports analogies?): high level Chinese, strong academics and good human beings. So what is re-imagined about that? Here is a taste:

Reimagining Chinese Immersion

Our students develop an impressive level of proficiency in Chinese. When we look at our assessment data next to that of other Chinese immersion schools, we compare quite favorably—our students’ median assessment results in listening, speaking, reading, and writing are as much as two years ahead of their peers in other immersion schools in some grades. Yet rather than be content with our relative success, we need to look for ways to develop an even higher levels of absolute proficiency. We have three levers for this: time, staffing, and pedagogy, and I look forward with pushing (pulling?) all three. In the area of pedagogy, we know that student engagement and motivation drives proficiency, but also that proficiency drives engagement and motivation; it’s a virtuous cycle that we need to improve. I want all CAIS students to graduate with a high level of proficiency and also a motivation to continue learning Chinese and learning in Chinese.

Second, we need to place more deliberate emphasize on what I have come to call “the Immersion Bonus.” I wrote to the CAIS community about this phenomenon last December in a piece called “Immersion Superheroes.”  In addition to the linguistic and cultural benefits of Chinese immersion, there are numerous other “bonuses.” I refer to them as the “cognitive bonus,” the “character bonus” and the “cross cultural competence bonus.” I put it this way in December:

Humility, curiosity, empathy, connection, appreciation for difference, respectful engagement with a diverse world; these are some of the observable outcomes of deep immersion in a world language and culture…. To these attitudes and aptitudes, I would add the ability to take linguistic and cultural risks in unfamiliar situations with imperfect or incomplete semantic tools—meaning making and problem solving all day long every day, without much of a safety net. This requires a tremendous capacity for perseverance and resilience.

Reimagining Our Culture of Learning

By traditional, recognized academic measures CAIS students perform well. Our median ERB scores are above both suburban and independent school norms. Our high school admission record is outstanding. Yet these are the same measures that were used to measure your academic success years ago. As we look forward we need to strengthen an overarching set of skills and habits of mind that transcend the traditional disciplines—skills such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication—sometimes called “the four C’s.” Moreover, we need to emphasize connecting learning to meaning and purpose and guard against an unhealthy focus on the kind of metrics that can have the effect of stifling curiosity, joy, and risk-taking.

Reimagining Community and Self

Years ago, in Beijing, I had a high school student (who happened to be from California)—let’s call him Davin.  Davin was studious and possessed great natural intelligence. His Chinese was excellent—he knew this and was quite proud of it. But he was also self-centered, rude, obnoxious, disdainful of others, a terrible listener and culturally tone deaf. One day I called him into my office for The Conversation. “Davin,” I said, “it really doesn’t matter how well you speak Chinese if no one in China wants to have anything to do with you. You will never succeed unless you you are nicer to people.” That is to say, it does not matter how successful we are with legs one (Chinese) and two (learning) of our tripod if we are not fostering good people who take responsibility for themselves and are kind to those around them. At CAIS we need to foster individual responsibility and a community that is supportive and welcoming of all its members, recognizing that diversity is a key to excellence. This needs to be at the center of our work.

Over the next few months the board of trustees, vision advisory team, educational leadership team, and the CAIS faculty will continue to flesh out work around the three legs of the vision—Chinese immersion, the culture of learning, and character and community. In the fall of 2019 the vision will be rolled out, along with specific working implementation plans and success metrics. I look forward to the work of the next few months, and I look even more forward to serving at a school that is ever striving to improve and to strengthen the three legs of our strategic tripod that unify our vision.

In closing, I want to draw on tradition at CAIS by leaving you with the almost four-decades-old words of our school’s founder, Carol Ruth Silver. In the summer of 1981, just one month before CAIS opened its doors its first students, Carol Ruth told East West magazine:

What we want our students to achieve is a true and profound bilingualism, an increased respect for others, an open-minded outlook and a more adequate understanding of the world around us. In our opinion these things are exactly what is needed to produce good, well-rounded citizens in modern America.



A dǐng or tripod from China’s Western Zhou dynasty (1050-771 BCE), from the San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum

Many of you have had the chance to visit San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, just a few minutes walk from CAIS. If you have strolled through gallery 14 on the 3rd floor, you know it contains a few examples of Shang and Zhou dynasty (i.e., first and second millennia BCE) bronze vessels. One of the most impressive kinds of vessel is called a dǐng 鼎 or tripod. In ancient times these large, stout, three-legged vessels represented strength and unity; emperors used them to symbolize their control over the vast Chinese empire. Today in China, images of the sturdy, three-legged dǐng are still frequently used to convey a sense of strength and stability.

 Jeffrey Bissell | 毕杰夫

Head of School
Chinese American International School

Early Childhood Division Pre-K 42/52 Waller Street, SF, CA 94102
Lower School K-5 | 150 Oak Street, SF, CA 94102 
Middle School 6-8 | 888 Turk Street, SF, CA 94102

Tel: +1 (415) 865-6088






  • Chinese American International School


    Early Childhood Division (Pre-K) | Alice A. Carnes Center
    42/52 Waller Street 

    Lower School (K-5)
    150 Oak Street 

    Middle School (6-8)
    888 Turk Street 

    San Francisco, CA 94102