In the heart of San Francisco lies an international education landmark and leader, shaping the minds of tomorrow’s global citizens. Located in the vibrant Hayes Valley’s arts district, The International School of San Francisco (formerly French American International School) stands as the largest secular independent school in the region. At its helm is Melinda Bihn, a visionary leader with an unwavering dedication to nurturing a community where education transcends borders and fosters critical thinking alongside inclusivity.

In this exclusive interview, Head of School Melinda Bihn opens the doors to the school’s ethos, sharing insights into its forward-thinking approach and remarkable achievements. With a focus on cultivating not only academic excellence but also a profound understanding of diverse perspectives, The International School of San Francisco embodies a commitment to preparing every student who passes through its doors for global success.

Could you tell us about your background and what brought you to The International School of San Francisco?

I have been immersed in international education for a big part of my life. Although I didn’t follow a bilingual program, I learned French in high school and college, and spent a life-changing summer in Brittany and semester in Paris as a college student. After completing my master’s degree, I became an international educator, living and working in Austria, Germany, and Portugal, and then returned to the United States to work in independent education. 

While pursuing my doctorate, I was offered the opportunity to lead The International School of San Francisco. As a native of California, returning to my home state to provide bilingual education resonated deeply with me, especially considering my family’s ties to France and the fact that my great-grandparents immigrated from France to San Francisco over a century ago. It was like coming full circle.

Leading The International School of San Francisco, and fostering language learning and cross-cultural understanding in San Francisco, has been the privilege of my professional lifea truly extraordinary experience. 

What major changes have occurred at The International School of San Francisco since you took the helm of the school ten years ago?

Over the past decade, The International School of San Francisco has seen remarkable growth and development. Guided by an exceptional board and supported by dedicated faculty and staff across our four schools and two campuses, the institution has thrived on a strong sense of community. 

Investments in property near the campus have facilitated program development and better met our students’ needs. Initiatives like expanding the International Baccalaureate program and adding pre-K2 classes demonstrate a commitment to supporting the full educational journey of our students.

Additionally, the school has become a national leader in global travel programs and made significant investments in professional development for teachers, fostering experiential learning through summer grants for example. 

As the institution evolves, efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion have also expanded, reflecting a commitment to advancing equity and social justice in our diverse, urban community.

The school has been known as French American International School for several decades, what prompted the name change to “The International School of San Francisco”?

Our French heritage runs deep, as we proudly hold the title of San Francisco’s oldest and largest bilingual school.

Our commitment to bilingualism remains steadfast, and the name change reflects the vibrant international community we serve. Our families come to us from everywhere, from France, from all over the world, from every zip code in the city, from across the Bay Area, from down the Peninsula and in Marin.

Families from diverse backgrounds choose us for our unique blend of French and English education in a global context. As we equip students to navigate the complexities of the world and inspire change, our desire for a name change reflects our dedication to embodying this global perspective.

We aim to convey a clear message about our identity to the people of San Francisco and those interested in our school. The name “International School of San Francisco” effectively encapsulates this message.

Will the name change affect the French and International programs offered at the school? 

This change does not in any way affect our exceptional French bilingual and international programs. Instead, this step will ensure that our community and those interested in joining us understand the unique and powerful benefits of an education at our school. 

Our curriculum, from pre-K to Grade 12, remains unchanged, emphasizing bilingual education and the International Baccalaureate program. 

What sets our school apart in San Francisco’s educational landscape is our unique blend of bilingualism, the rigorous French program, and the international perspective of the IB curriculum, preparing students for global success. Additionally, our leadership in French and international education, along with diverse co-curricular offerings, distinguishes us nationally.

In its strategic plan, the school shows a deep commitment to
diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and environmental sustainability. Could you share with us some initiatives undertaken by the school in these two areas?

Diversity has always been central to our school’s mission and culture, ensuring everyone feels a sense of belonging through intentional efforts from day one. Our DEI program fosters connections, celebrates diverse identities, and integrates learning about identity into the curriculum.

Through affinity groups, student diversity council, and our DEI committee, we support and empower students, parents, faculty, and staff members to explore and affirm their identities and experiences.

Similarly, sustainability is woven throughout our curriculum, addressing global citizenship and stewardship of the planet. We engage students in units on environmental issues, school-wide service days, and discussions on resource use and climate change, all aimed at nurturing responsible citizenship, both locally and globally. 

What approach does the school take toward innovation and technology?

Innovation has been ingrained in our ethos since our founding in 1962 as a bilingual school. We’ve been pioneers in educational technology adoption and curriculum development focused on leveraging technology effectively. 

With the evolution of AI, our faculty are learning to utilize AI tools responsibly while teaching students to critically evaluate AI-generated content and understand its limitations. As part of various educational networks, including the Association of French Schools in America and the National Association of Independent Schools, we collaborate with peers, attend conferences, and engage in professional development to navigate the complexities of AI and technology integration effectively.

What is the school doing to engage and empower its community at large?

As an international education institution, nurturing and growing our vibrant and diverse community is a fundamental responsibility. We inherit and steward this community, ensuring that every member feels a sense of belonging and engagement. 

From welcome programs for new families and year-round opportunities for current families to connect and engage to ongoing connections with alumni and past parents, we foster a sense of community that starts on day one, and that extends beyond graduation. Our partnership with families, orientations, volunteer opportunities, and school-wide activities like the annual back-to-school picnic, community salon series, spring art show, movie nights, and the “Fan Jam” athletics game nights, reinforce this sense of belonging. 

Additionally, our urban engagement program enriches our community by connecting us with the intellectual and professional resources of San Francisco. Through salon events, mentorship programs, and day of service initiatives, we engage with the city, learning from and contributing to our community. 

Our urban campus further enhances these experiences:  we are situated in the heart of San Francisco’s arts district, facilitating connections and enriching our educational environment.

Article published in partnership with The International School of San Francisco.

The school will officially change its name in the 2024-2025 school year.



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