A Judge and His Important Decision:
Interview with Founder Justice Harry W. Low

Justice Harry Low

About Justice Harry W. Low (Ret.)

In 1980, Honorable Harry Low, then a Judge of the Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco was approached by the Honorable Carol Ruth Silver, who had just been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to establish a Chinese-English immersion school in San Francisco. Silver and her friend, Mimi Luk, a Deputy District Attorney, approached Judge Low with the idea. With Justice Low's endorsement, they then turned to Bernard Ivaldi, Head of the French American Bilingual School, who gave CAIS, initially named the Chinese American Bilingual School, its first home—two auxilary gymnasium rooms in his school's building on Laguna Street.

Today Justice Low is an arbitrator with JAMS, a mediation and arbitration service. Justice Low has 25 years of judicial experience in civil, criminal, and government law and has authored opinions on virtually every area of California law. He has served as Insurance Commissioner for the State of California; Presiding Justice for the Court of Appeal, 1st District, and judge for San Francisco County Superior Court and San Francisco Municipal Court. He is the recent recipient of the Spirit of Excellence Award from the American Bar Association, and the Judge Lowell Jensen Public Service Award, from Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeley, his alma mater. He is former president of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and San Francisco Police Commission.

Q. Why did you agree to endorse and support the founding of a Chinese-English immersion school?

A. When Carol Ruth Silver and Mimi Luk first approached me in 1980, the critical need for bicultural, bilingual education was evident. In the area of global politics, the Iran-Iraq war resulted in serious international crisis: 66 Americans had just been taken hostage in Iran on November 4, 1979. In the United States , very few individuals spoke or understood Farsi, especially at the levels of leadership and policymaking. We had to borrow interpreters from the British and they didn't have many to lend out. In the meantime, in the business arena, General Motors was learning the importance of bilingualism the hard way. They were promoting the new Chevrolet NOVA in Latin America. Too bad “ No Va ” means “the car doesn't go.” Pepsi was advertising “Come Alive with Pepsi” in China—which was translated “Pepsi will bring back your dead ancestors.” At the time there were many articles written, and comments from national leaders about our deficiency in languages. The late Illinois Senator Paul Simon was calling the U.S. “linguistically malnourished.”

With the world becoming evermore intertwined, the need for cross-cultural communication and understanding was growing increasingly clear. What better way than to start it off with little kids?

For the founders of CAIS, foremost in our minds was our commitment to providing an excellent education to a diverse mix of children in San Francisco. It was our belief that by instilling an international perspective through the study of language, culture and the arts, we could open the doors to the world for children who studied at CAIS. Learning a foreign language, especially Chinese, would increase the students' appreciation of other languages and cultures. We all agreed that it would provide a global, intellectual outlook in our students and encourage respect for diverse cultures.

Q. Were there naysayers at the time, and if so, what did they say?

A. There were always naysayers. People asked, "How will you get people to pay for a school like this?" But there weren't too many Mandarin programs around, no immersion, so there was a niche that needed to be filled. Sure, there were after-school programs, and weekend, heritage “Chinese schools”, but no school for other groups—non-Chinese—where they could learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.

Q. What was the tuition rate when it opened?

A. About $3,000 to $4,000.

Q. What was the first day of school like?

A. I wasn't able to be there, but I know that eight students were registered and four had dropped out, so it made us all nervous. It was kind of scary. There was some thought about perhaps postponing the opening. But were all dedicated to make it happen. I know this much, those four students received superb attention! (laughs) Eventually it got off the ground. When we got to 50-70 students we felt we had made good strides.

Q. What were some of the bigger challenges in the early days?

A. In the beginning, each academic year was fraught with new obstacles to overcome. Time and time again we were confronted with the dilemma of how to fund our program while keeping tuition reasonable. The Board sought to raise funds to meet at least 20-25% of the costs of operating the school in order to keep tuition levels manageable. CAIS received the support of the community, local and overseas. The Board of Trustees was, and continues to be, committed to diversity and maintaining a robust financial aid program.

Q. What, in your opinion, what were the key factors that enabled the founders to create and start CAIS?

A. We had a good team of very dedicated individuals—civic leaders, parents, and educators. We knew it was ambitious, but our sense was, “Let's give this a good try.” It got off the ground slowly but soon accelerated.

Q. What factors other than the CAIS community have contributed to its success?

A. From the beginning, bilingual education was gaining popularity in many parts of the Untied States. Greater China and other Mandarin-speaking regions were rising in economic and political power and Mandarin was becoming an increasingly important world language. CAIS was increasingly recognized by the public as a very credible educational experiment. CAIS' students, though small in number, were viewed by the community as future international leaders and worldly thinkers due to their outstanding education and personal attention from faculty.

Q. Do you think times have changed with regard to the attitude toward Mandarin language education compared to 25 years ago?

A. Yes. I think it's quite commendable that the rest of society is recognizing the importance of learning a vital international language and teaching it to young children. We just need to spread bilingual and bicultural education further and wider! I don't think we are fulfilling our duties by teaching children a little bit of another language or culture. We can't afford to be stuck in the dark ages, putting our heads in the sand.

Q. How do you feel when you visit CAIS today?

A. It feels wonderful. It's really a great achievement, I would say. It's commendable that the students and faculty and parents through all these years have supported this school so vigorously and it still thrills me to see all these kids speaking Mandarin, not only children of Chinese heritage, or Asian kids, but non-Asian children too. I commend the CAIS parents. Many of them, or even most, don't have a clue about Mandarin, don't speak it or understand it, but yet here their children are speaking it and learning it, and I'm so delighted.

Q. What do you see as CAIS' challenges as it moves forward?

A. One issue is space. CAIS enrollment will soon reach maximum capacity and shared space between the French-American International School and CAIS continues to be competitive, as each school needs more class and meeting rooms. The original goal of Chinese-English language and cultural immersion education needs constant review and bold steps to maintain its relevance to modern society. Future strategic plans must be made to perpetuate growth and sustainability. Also, CAIS needs to offer additional languages, similar to what students in European schools now learn. In addition, there is the issue of staffing. The administration recognizes the importance of recruiting and retaining excellence in faculty, so critical to our outstanding reputation. In programming, CAIS must purchase and maintain innovative scientific and educational technology to provide for our students in a rapidly changing community. Lastly, while we have been fortunate to enjoy the support of generous parents, foundations and friends, the Board continues its assessment of longer-term plans for maintaining this support, such as building an endowment.

Q. Those are tall orders. Do you think CAIS will meet the challenge?

A. I am confident that CAIS is up to the challenge of the next 25 years. I have no doubt that just as those pioneer parents and faculty of 25 years ago managed to attain their goals, our present community is equally committed and determined to accomplish even more for CAIS. Congratulations to all of you on the grand achievements of the past 25 years and I look forward to the next 25!

To hear from more of our founders, read:

"A Mother's Dream, An Activist's Vision "
by CAIS Founder Carol Ruth Silver