Diana Chan legacy: school social workers

By Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle

Clarence Chan with his late wife's portrait: The couple created a
$1 million endowment. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Diana Ming Chan strongly believed in "dumpling diplomacy."

As a social worker for almost 50 years, much of that in San Francisco schools, she knew those in her profession could make a difference in helping struggling children learn. But school social workers were rare, considered extraneous among the demands on the state's limited education budget.

And Chan, one of two district social workers, didn't want to see the position disappear when she retired in 1999.

So, she served dumplings - to San Francisco's superintendent, school board members, politicians and anyone else who would listen to her appeals.

And they listened.

A $1 million endowment she created with her husband, Clarence Chan, to pay half of two social workers' salaries also caught their ear.

It was a rare direct donation to a school district, one that would perpetually cover paychecks.

By 2002, Chan had persuaded then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman not only to pay the other half of those salaries, but also to fund another 10 social workers, a number that has multiplied with the blessing of subsequent school boards.

In the past, the job was mostly associated with child welfare - taking children away from harmful circumstances - or helping families get food stamps.

It's now much more that that, said Robert Ayasse, UC Berkeley lecturer in the School of Social Welfare.
A study on the effectiveness of social workers in city schools showed that schools with that support had higher standardized test scores, Ayasse said.

School social workers support "the social and emotional needs of children so they can better access that education," said Ayasse, who coordinates intern placements.

Addressing needs


Sometimes that means individual or group counseling. It can also mean helping connect families to social services or working closely with teachers to manage behavioral issues and address each child's needs.

For example, if a child is perpetually truant, they find out why.

They are therapists, advisers, mentors, social-services referrers, counselors, teacher supporters, child advocates, parent trainers and more.

The job description "goes on and on," Ayasse said. "We don't just try to go in there and fix the kid."

There was no one like that to help Chan growing up. Born in 1929 to a former prostitute brought to this country through the sex-slave trade, Chan was sent to a San Francisco orphanage after her mother's death when she was 18 months old. She later lived with her father, who handed her off in the evenings to an opium addict.

At school, she was a troublemaker.

"In the early years, I was a naughty child, and I did not endear myself to teachers. I raised hell," Chan wrote about her early years in a Chinatown anthology. "I was an unhappy child."

Her fifth-grade teacher offered her a different worldview, inviting Chan and other students to her home. It was there, Chan wrote, that she played for the first time in her life.

Chan would later grow up to become a social worker, devoting nearly five decades to helping children with similar life stories.

Extending her loyalty


Despite giving much of her life to public service, she decided it wasn't enough.

With the support of her husband, an engineer and university professor, she took a chunk of their nest egg, compounded by good investments, and created the Learning Springboard endowment for San Francisco Unified.

Since the endowment was created, it has funded the $67,000 cost of one social worker position annually. For the past five years, the fund has paid for a supervising social worker who oversees 12 interns, meaning the donation supports 160 to 240 San Francisco students each year.

More than that, her commitment and financial backing spurred the district to embrace the need for social workers.

At her retirement in 1999, the district had two. This year, in addition to dozens of counselors and psychologists, there are more than 70 social workers, with another 40 to 50 interns, enough to staff each of the district's schools with a handful to spare.

"She made some good dumplings," Ayasse said with a laugh.

It's a rare commitment to the position. Statewide, there were just 448 social workers last year scattered among California's 10,000 schools.

Most districts budget for counselors and/or psychologists, but no social workers.

"Really, these positions address the barriers to kids' learning," said Kristen Edmonston, San Francisco Unified program administrator. "It really speaks to the need of high-quality mental health support in our schools."

Chan died in 2008, a year after her induction into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction.
The endowment lives on, and her husband makes sure of that. He still adds extra money in any year the endowment proceeds fall short of $67,000.

'She was a giver'


Would his wife be proud of what she accomplished with the endowment and dumplings?
Clarence Chan, 82, smiled.

"She never worried about being proud," he said. "She was a giver."