Changing the Status Quo with Skateboards and Wellness

By Manasa Chilakala

San Francisco has long been an epicenter of revolutionary movements from being a catalyst for LGBTQ+ rights to the groundbreaking technology of Silicon Valley. In this bustling city is Sunny Zhang, an innovative and progressive educator who has been the Beacon Director at Aptos Beacon Community School in San Francisco since the summer of 2018. Sunny is a part of a network of Beacon Directors who work together to improve education access and quality in San Francisco.

With a background in psychology and neuroscience, Sunny began to implement her knowledge into bettering the mental health facilities in her community. She pursued this passion by becoming a family advocate and school social worker before bringing her expertise to Aptos Beacon Community School.

As an avid lover of school and education, Sunny was intrigued about the connections between education and the steps that schools and higher education institutions were taking to support their students’ mental health. As a firm believer that the development of mental and psychological wellness and security make the student feel grounded and whole, not just the academics and grades demanded of them in traditional public schooling, Sunny began to explore how to improve a system that so many people viewed as broken.

Sunny’s work speaks for itself, pushing against the status quo of public education. She expanded the wellness program at her middle school, and through the Community Youth Center of San Francisco and other nonprofits, provided more clinicians for mental health services and counseling for her students. She introduced the school to partnerships with the surrounding community, starting an after-school program that offers fantastic activities for students like surfing, theater, college and career counseling, and a robust Maker Lab where students could use new technologies and equipment, they might not have access to otherwise.

Sunny has even engineered skill building workshops for the whole family, centered around holistic health and wellness, including workshops for the whole school promoting yoga and other similar activities. She was also instrumental in preventing suspension and other punitive approaches by implementing tiered practices for restorative practices in her school district. She advocates for these progressive behavioral models that repair and prevent harm by encouraging self-reflection, critical thinking, and healthy methods of conflict resolution.

These efforts were not accomplished without some large challenges, namely coordination between her principal, the school district at-large, the Community Youth Center of San Francisco, and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. While everyone has the same vision and mission to uplift communities and students, even getting the messaging right on all sides can be a laborious process.

Sunny has also attempted to use the wonderful resources based in San Francisco, striving to leverage for-profit companies like Google who want to commit their philanthropic money to innovative educational ventures. However, Sunny has seen from experience that even partnerships with smaller for-profit companies can be tough -- the system often moves slowly, and many people from the principal to the school board need to sign off and approve various budgets and contracts. Despite these struggles, Sunny shows that perseverance and constant communication pay off, this time in the form of bringing in a new community partner to offer skateboarding classes for the afterschool program!

Although the San Francisco Beacon Initiative is in Year 1 of a 5-year launch, Sunny plans to solidify all the existing systems by the start of the next school year. This past year, they had to “build the plane as they were flying” while the repetition of trial and error became very familiar. Still, Sunny has succeeded in getting ahead of curve for her students, their families, and the teachers in the district. Her impact in the San Francisco community is perfectly exemplified by Maya Angelou’s words: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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