The first dedicated schoolhouse to be built for the neighborhood was neither big enough nor safe enough to serve the needs of families in Sunnyside in the long term, but for 18 years it was a busy and productive place. During this time, Sunnyside emerged as a vital neighborhood, no longer ignored by City government and able to garner its share of public monies. Community and parental involvement was effective and intense, centered on a newly founded PTA. Then a group of mothers helped bring to the City’s attention the schoolhouse’s dangers and inadequacies. When it came time to build a replacement, rather than drag the process out for a decade, as the City had with the first provisional school in a cottage, that new building went up in just a few years.
Smaller School, Smaller Lot than Today
The new schoolhouse opened its doors to students after a grand ceremony on Sunday 11 April 1909. Here is the photo featured on the cover of the Municipal Record. Due to the refusal of Pacific Gas and Electric Company to connect the school to utilities without a large payment, it had stood empty for months after being completed. The price of building it was $24,696 (about $640K today).
Before going into detail about student and community life in these years, here is some clarification about the position of the school on the lot. The school board had yet to acquire the nine lots that face Foerster (where the present school is below in purple), which are a part of the current school lot. The first school was built in the middle of the fifteen lots they had purchased in 1902—where the current playground is. The acquisition of those additional lots was discussed by the school board almost immediately after this schoolhouse went up, but it was years before the purchase was made.
This schoolhouse was a three-story wooden building. This was allowed under new regulations after the Great Fire in areas that were not considered to pose great mass fire risk—less dense areas like Sunnyside. And certainly in 1909 it was pretty sparsely developed. Here is a photo taken at this time on Sunnyside Ave (Monterey Blvd now) at Detroit Street, facing west. The school is visible from blocks away, because there is so little in the way of development. That was soon to change in the 1910s and 1920s, which meant this schoolhouse would be outgrown.
First I will describe what I found regarding student life, then parent and community groups, the principal for these years, and finally how a larger school building came to be built—the one that stands today.
Student Life: Music, Art, Parades, Flags
The everyday life of a grade-school student doesn’t leave much trace in the public record, but there are hints in the newspapers and school-board records about certain aspects. The number of students in 1913 was 448, which must have been crowded in a building that had only ten classrooms. To compare, Glen Park School at the same time had 622 students, but much greater capacity. By the 1920s the number enrolled at Sunnyside had dropped into the 300s; the City had built more schools by then (like Commodore Sloat), perhaps shifting students elsewhere. This schoolhouse had grades 1 through 7, at least by the time of the 1924 annual report on the schools.
In one of the very few publicly available photos from this time, pupils are shown raising the flag, something that happened daily. (I have no clue why the photo is strangely marked up.) The flagpole can also been seen in the first photo of the school, above, placed in a prominent position in the middle of the schoolyard. (From SF History Center.) Notice the make-shift buildings in the background–the bungalow tradition in SFUSD goes back a long way.
Sunnyside students definitely took field trips. In 1909 they lined Van Ness Avenue along with other students to welcome President Taft. In 1915 they participated in a parade that received the Liberty Bell during its tour of the US. In 1925 the boys went downtown to march in what was called the Loyalty Day parade (read more here). All through the 1920s at the end of April the Masons held annual “Public School Week” events, which involved a trip to Commodore Sloat for a ceremony. On a Saturday in 1916 they trooped off to the grand opening of Monterey Boulevard, where they were given rides in the automobiles of drivers testing out the new wide, freshly paved road through Westwood. Each got a new little American flag to wave along the way.
In the Annual Reports of the school board, many activities are described. In 1925, the Supervisor of Music reports: “[The pupils] have been given remarkable demonstrations in performances of concerts, piano recitals, selections for plays and school functions, light operas, military parades with bands, Boys’ Week, patriotic celebrations, graduation exercises, and demonstrations for outside clubs and associations, programs of California Teachers’ Association, downtown clubs, Public School Week, Music Week, etc.” (Report for the year ending June 30, 1925, p.14., from archive.org) Whew.
The Director of Art told how the SF students had visited the Cizek Exhibition that year, which featured art by Viennese children under the tutelage of Franz Cizek, the great reformer of children’s art education in the early 20th century. The director said the exposure “greatly stimulated their interest in art.” (Ibid, p.13.) The Sunnyside PTA hosted a special lecture about this exhibit, so parents could learn about it.
But of course their academic studies must surely have taken most of their day. These are the quotidian things that leave so few traces. If we had a photo from this time of a classroom, it might look like this, pupils studying by natural light from the windows, with desks in close rows.
In the early years, the entire graduating class of Sunnyside was usually listed in the newspapers—rarely more than a dozen children in the 1910s. Often the elaborate program planned to celebrate their achievement took more column inches than the list of names. It is personally touching for me to see the names of the children of certain Sunnyside families who histories I have gathered—this might be one of the few times their name would make the newspaper. Reaching the 7th or 8th grade all too often marked the end of formal education and the beginning of working life for the children of these working class families.
Afterschool Wireless Entertainment
Like most other children in San Francisco, Sunnysiders listened to the radio program “Big Brother,” which was on KPO in the late 1920s. The late-afternoon program was like many children’s radio programs at this time. The host Lyle Tucker said: “I like to give the girls and boys what they like—funny stories, their own letters, and a good story which will have a little educational value hidden among the fun so that they won’t suspect they are being ‘preached at’.” (Read more here.)
Listeners were encouraged to write to him, and he published letters in his SF Chronicle column. It was in that column that fourth-grader Bernice Bowman, 643 Edna Street, had her letter printed in 1926. She wrote to tell Big Brother what happened to her on Mt Davidson: “The other day a bunch of us children started for the top of the mountain where the big cross is, and I came across a big snake. He was a long black fellow, and I was afraid of him. I ran down the hill and you could not see me for dust. Please tell me over KPO when you read my letter, if the snakes around these hills are poison.”
Bernice’s mother made her practice her music lessons for one hour each day. “Don’t you think that is very cruel of her? I am an expert at playing jacks, and I like it much better than playing on the piano.” (SF Chronicle, 3 July 1926)
Earlier that year Jack Lynch, a first grader who lived at 300 Montecito, had occasion to appeal to Big Brother to help find his lost dog. The dog was a pedigreed deerhound named Dumbo. Jack came to school one day, desperate to find his beloved pet. The principal, Miss Ephraim, made an announcement in all the classes about the lost dog. His friends all joined in the search, but to no avail. The next day Jack announced he would go to KPO, so Big Brother could “broadcast the news that Dumbo is still missing and I’ll bet you Big Brother will help me find him.” But sadly the dog was not found. (SF Chronicle, 7 Jan 1926)
Baseball, Soccer, and Volleyball Moms
There was some physical education at Sunnyside at least by 1911, when a “physical culture” teacher named Luella McCarthy was assigned to the school—and 16 other schools—so it is unclear how often she actually visited. Phys Ed at this time was much concerned with new standards and ideas, helping children develop properly, acquire good health habits, and so on—much more proactive than merely leaving them to their recess games. As far as competitive sports go, Sunnyside teams were mentioned regularly in the SF Chronicle during the 1910s and 1920s. The Public School Athletic League baseball games reported Sunnysiders playing against Monroe, Bernal, Glen Park, and other schools. Soccer also featured in the team sports the school participated in, as well as track events.
Not to miss out on the drive for fitness that was a minor mania during this decade, the mothers of Sunnyside formed their own volleyball team!
School Life, Community Life
One thing is clear reading the news of the time, that then, as now, active parents made a big difference in school and community life. The influx of residents to Sunnyside after the Quake and Fire of 1906 brought greater energy to the work of community organizing in the neighborhood. The school itself was used right away as a meeting place for the Sunnyside Improvement Club, which held their weekly meeting there for many years to come. But it was the rise of mothers’ groups that made such a difference to the public face of school-community activities.
A Parent-Teacher Association was founded at Sunnyside School in 1923, but before that there were other organizations. The Sunnyside Mothers’ Club was formed in 1916, and a year or so later the Sunnyside Social Center (which was actually a group, not a place). Both held meetings and events at the school, which likely had the largest facilities in the district at this time—a large assembly hall in the basement. A rising new newspaper institution, the “women’s page,” meant there are records of these and other activities throughout this time.
But apparently there were limits to what the school board would allow its facilities to be used for. In 1910 the Sunnyside Improvement Club announced its intention to hold a ball at the school to raise funds to pay for the new sewer system in the district (now that is truly local taxation). But the school board told them in no uncertain terms that fund-raising and dancing were out—educational functions only. They held the event at the Glen Park Pavilion instead (which once stood near the Recreation Center in the Canyon, destroyed in 1931).
The PTA Rises
In November 1923, a chapter of the national organization the Parent-Teacher Association was formed at the school. This was an important time for changes everywhere in thinking and practice regarding child development and early-childhood education. The national organization made materials and speakers available to local chapters, so that parents could better understand enlightened child-rearing and education. (Read more on the history of this institution here.)
The Sunnyside School PTA seems have been a whirlwind of activity during these years, as well as having one or more mothers on board who apparently made sure its events and works got into the SF Chronicle on a very regular basis. Here are just a few of the announcements from 1925.
Although the Improvement Club was not allowed to hold a dance in 1910 to raise money for a sewer everyone benefited from, the mothers of the PTA seemed to have played the card game whist at least weekly, without posing any issue for the school board. Other events and activities included: mother-daughter nights; weekly days out at the newly opened Fleishhacker Pool all summer vacation long; Halloween costume parties; founders’ days; music programs; business sessions; school dances; and of course, seemingly endless rounds of whist. This was in addition to featured speakers on subjects relating to parenting and education.
After the new Sunnyside Community Hall opened in 1926 (where the Korean Evangelical Church is now at 620 Monterey Blvd), the PTA met there regularly and served something mysteriously called a “Boston Hot Lunch.” If anyone reading this has even the slightest clue what this long-lost tradition is, please write me (see About on menu above).
The Sunnyside PTA thrived: two years after forming, they won recognition for recruiting the greatest number of new members that year of any chapter and were presented with a special banner from the umbrella organization, the Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations. Good going, Moms!
One Dedicated Principal
During these years, the principal of Sunnyside School was Miss Janette E. Ephraim (1858 – 1940). She was appointed principal in November 1910, for a probationary period of two years, and then elected full principal in January 1913. Her retirement in July 1927 coincided with the building of the new school that year (San Francisco Teachers’ Journal, vol.11). So for almost the whole of the first schoolhouse’s existence she was its head.
She was born in San Francisco in 1858 to a prosperous immigrant couple from Germany, a middle child in a family of nine—the first in her family to be born here. They had lived in New York before coming west in the mid-1850s. Her older sister Adeline was also a school teacher. Janette began working in San Francisco schools in 1876, at about age eighteen. She had completed four years of high school, a remarkable thing for woman in the 1870s, but then this was true of all the Ephraim sisters (according to their statements on the 1940 Census).
That she began teaching in 1876 was revealed in 1916, when there was a threatened “shake-up” of veteran principals by the school board. The Chronicle listed all the older educators with their dates of hiring. The front page story ran: “The disturbance affects the older principals, whose age, the Board thinks, unfits them for active and efficient work.” (SF Chronicle, 2 Mar 1916)
But Miss Ephraim survived the purge, and went on to another eleven years at Sunnyside. She did lie about her age as she got older; on the 1900 Census she stated her age as thirty, at a point when he had already worked as a teacher for twenty-four years. When she finally retired, she was sixty-nine years old. Of course for the Census in her last year of life, she got her age more or less right; anyone who lives past eighty tends to be rightfully proud.
The PTA news in the Chronicle during her tenure clearly showed that she actively participated in community life at the school; she was often listed among the officers. That she cared about her pupils is perhaps evident from the anecdote related above, when Jack Lynch lost his dog Dumbo and she had it announced in every classroom, to aid in his search. That she cared about children afterhours is evident from her involvement in benefiting the Hebrew Orphanage (see below). She seems to have liked amateur dramatics, as her name showed up in other productions.
She lived all her life with members of her birth family, in a large house on Broderick Street in the Western Addition. The 1940 Census shows her living with four of her elderly sisters, some single, some widowed, a niece, and a brother. When she died in 1940, her obituary was prominent in the Chronicle:
Sunnyside’s new schoolhouse was one of a great many civic projects that filled the years after the Quake and Fire of 1906, as the City pushed for less corrupt practices in governance. The Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915 marked a decade’s long upward climb for San Francisco, into the strata of world-class cities, and out of the mire of god-forsaken, fortune-hunting, Wild-West warrens of lawless corruption. That’s the way the story goes in any case.
For this neighborhood, the acquisition of a real schoolhouse was a marking point. That, combined with viable plans for paving for our dirt roads, constructing real sewers (the first sewer for the school was a wooden one), fire protection, more street lights, and other infrastructure basics, meant that ordinary families found living here a more attractive prospect. Before this, it seemed that living in Sunnyside required a willingness to dig a well and an outhouse, put out your own fires, keep a cow for milk for your children, deal with great roadway wash-outs when the creek flowed in winter, and other extraordinary capacities. Now Sunnyside joined the ranks of ordinary suburban life, as were so many other out-lying neighborhoods in San Francisco.
While a great boon to the neighborhood, the new schoolhouse was still inadequate. The schoolyard was almost completely undeveloped, and considered too small. The matter of purchasing the land that bordered the grounds on the west, along Foerster Street, was raised at Board of Education soon after the building went up, and then repeatedly for many years, until it was actually bought in the mid-1920s (shaded in turquoise here).
But the biggest headline, the grassroots action that seemed to move forward with greater urgency the matter of better facilities at Sunnyside was the group of mothers who went to the Board of Education in July 1925. They told how the school was a firetrap, that it was unsanitary, and poorly heated.
Despite being denigrated by a member of the board, who said “Twenty-five other schools could be named in worse condition,” the mothers had sufficient impact that the board then declared its intention to have the facilities inspected just one week later (SF Chronicle, 29 July 1925).
Those three valiant mothers named in the article—Grace Mansfield Gadd, Violet Fenner, and Dorothea Miller, to give them their own names—supported by many other unnamed parents, helped make happen a new larger, safer school building—this time with good speed. Ironically enough none of the three women were longtime Sunnyside residents, all moving away soon after this; they were just courageous parents who took the right action at the right time.
The new building was completed and opened just two and a half years after they made their plea to the school board.
That story in the next post: Sunnyside School: the present building, 1927 to 1950s (to come). (Read the first post here: Sunnyside School: the cottage-house years, 1896 to 1911.)