Meet Denis Hill: New Head of School in San Francisco inspired by students

Longtime educator and native to Bay area says that 'it is absolutely possible for everything here to be run, led, developed, planned, and executed by our kids.'

ATI’s growing San Francisco community had a great start to the year.

When school finished last spring, 18 students went home for the summer. But by fall, over 40 students arrived, more than doubling their enrollment. New Head of School Denis Hill says he’s confident they’ll have 50 students beginning next fall.

“Not only do families talk to other families here, but we really give leadership and control to the students,” Denis says. “We’re setting up the conditions, but it’s the kids who take off and do really incredible things. People are so drawn to them, and it’s amazing to see.”

Denis’ teaching career began in Baltimore, where he taught for nearly a decade before returning home to the Bay area to work for Global Citizen Year, an organization that sends 18-year-old high school graduates overseas to live and work— like a gap year apprenticeship in a different country.  

“We wanted to help students figure out who they were, what they cared about, developed skills that matter, and be part of a community in a different way,” Denis says. “I was really sparked by that.”

At ATI today, he continues to advocate for all that’s possible in a young teen. He’s taken the past few months to learn about each student, coaching through their needs and evaluating what’s best for the school day by day — and he’s hopeful.

“I want our school to be the proof of what you can do with adolescents and of what it looks like to give students high levels of freedom and autonomy but with the right amount of structure,” Denis says. “Right now, there’s a really strong energy among our students. They’re building together this sense of work and sense of community, and it’s a joy for each other.”

Even new to the community, he believes fully in ATI’s vision that students are capable of extraordinary learning and extraordinary work.

“I envision our school being 100 percent student-run,” Denis says. “I hope that when a guest comes to the front door, it’s a student who greets them; that sitting at the front desk are two students participating in some sort of internship with the school; and that it’s our students who are facilitating their own courses while the guides support them in that.”

Denis also believes he’s not alone in this vision. He feels it from the students and their families, too.

“They’re craving it!” he says. “They want it, and it is absolutely possible for everything here to be run, led, developed, planned, and executed by our kids.”

And he trusts his leadership team to be the support that each student deserves to get there.

“It’s an ongoing learning journey as an educator to find the balance between the right amount of support but also giving true, authentic opportunity for students,” Denis says. “They need somebody asking them questions but also being okay if they fail — because they’ll learn from that. But already, we have the foundations for all of that as well as students who care a lot and already feel a sense of ownership here. We’re on our way.”

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