Leadership Team

Chris Livaccari
Head of School

Chris Livaccari is the Head of School at PKS, and a career educator, author, and former US diplomat who held posts in Tokyo and Shanghai.

Chris is the author of New Ways of Seeing: How Multilingualism Opens Our Eyes and Trains Our Minds for a Complex World (Asia Society, 2017), and co-author of Structures of Mandarin Chinese for Speakers of English I & II (Peking University Press, 2012-2013), Chinese Language Learning in the Early Grades (Asia Society, 2012), and the Chinese for Tomorrow series (Cheng & Tsui, 2007- 2009). Chris was a featured speaker at the 2016 Aspen Ideas Festival, has spoken on Chinese language education at the British Museum in London, and was the recipient of the US State Department’s Meritorious Honor Award, citing outstanding speeches written for two US ambassadors to Japan.

Chris was previously Principal and Chinese Program Director at International School of the Peninsula (ISTP) in Palo Alto, CA and the Senior Advisor for China Learning Initiatives in Asia Society's Center for Global Education. Before that, he served as Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society, where he created a collaborative national network of almost 40,000 students in more than 100 schools in 28 states that teach Chinese and their partner schools across 23 provinces in China. He has served as a member of the board of trustees of Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco.

Tenured as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in 2003, Chris served as a press officer for multiple visits to Asia by two US presidents and two secretaries of state. He was the founding director of the High School for Language and Diplomacy and a founding member of the faculty at the College of Staten Island High School for International Studies. Both schools were members of the Asia Society International Studies Schools Network, a national initiative to create globally focused public schools with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A magna cum laude graduate of Columbia University, Chris holds advanced degrees in East Asian literature from the University of Chicago and in applied linguistics from New York University. Chris is a lifelong learner of classical and modern Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, among other languages, and an essayist whose work has appeared in print and online in Foreign Policy, AGNI, The Aspen Institute and Education Week. 

Dave Lessing
Chief Operating Officer

Dave is passionate about the Presidio Knolls mission and educational model. He brings over 20 years of leadership and general management experience to his role at PKS, with a proven track record building and scaling organizations in a variety of fields ranging from internet technology to education. Previously, Dave served as Acting Head of School as well as a member of the Board of Trustees finance committee. In those roles, he helped close the landmark transaction that allowed the school to own our campus.

Before joining the Presidio Knolls leadership team, Dave was a senior leader at PsPrint LLC, where he scaled the business through its acquisition by Deluxe Corporation in 2011 and managed the web-to-print unit for several years thereafter. Dave also previously worked at Hotwire, Yahoo, and Deloitte & Touche in online marketing, business development and management consulting roles. 

Dave and his wife Judy have two children attending PKS. In their free time, they enjoy travelling, scuba diving, reading, and vacationing with family and close friends. Dave and Judy decided early in their children’s lives to prioritize Mandarin fluency and literacy, and he is proud to see their skills and confidence growing each year.

Dave received his MBA from Harvard Business School and his BS in economics, cum laude, from Miami University. From 2014-2016, he served as a member of the Presidio Knolls School Board of Trustees. 

Simona Chongo
Head of Preschool

Simona has led the innovative Presidio Knolls early childhood education program since 2009, shortly after the school’s founding. As a parent, former Board member, and school leader, she has played a central role in creating the warm, loving environment that makes the PKS preschool such a special place. She is passionate about children and works tirelessly with our parent association and staff to create a respectful, diverse, and vibrant community. She is especially committed to fostering our twin goals of progressive Reggio-Emilia inspired education and Mandarin immersion.

Simona and her husband have two daughters who are being raised in English, Mandarin, and Romanian. Her family enjoys traveling around the world in the summer and skiing during PKS breaks.

Simona has a BA in Languages and Literature with an emphasis in American Cultural Studies, as well as teaching credentials from Bucharest University in Bucharest, Romania. She is fluent in English, Romanian, and French and loves practicing her Italian and Spanish every chance she gets.

Lorraine Chao
Head of Lower Elementary, Grades K-2

Growing up in the Boston area, Lorraine was a reluctant speaker of Chinese. She learned Russian, Hebrew and French, and studied Linguistics in college. After college she decided to pursue work and life changes in Shanghai. She stayed for 12 years during which time she re-awakened her interest and connection to Chinese language and culture, part of her family heritage and personal identity.

Lorraine graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Linguistics. She has a M.Ed in Early Childhood Education from Lesley College (now University) and has taught preschool through 8th grade in the United States and China. In her seven years teaching middle school and kindergarten at the Shanghai American School, Lorraine established an ongoing relationship between SAS and its neighboring migrant school, helped develop the Middle School community service program, and was the K-2 literacy coach.

While in Shanghai, she also worked as the Bilingual Curriculum Coordinator and Academic Director for a group of local bilingual preschools, developing curriculum and teacher training programs to support joyful, creative learning.

Lorraine and her husband moved to San Francisco in 2014 when she joined the PKS community as a kindergarten teacher. She loves being a language learner and problem-solver along with her students and colleagues.

Denise Svenson
Head of Upper Elementary, Grades 3-5

Denise developed an appreciation for project-based and transdisciplinary learning while earning dual bachelor's degrees in architecture and building science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The first time she traveled abroad was for RPI’s Roman Studies Program in Italy, an immersion experience in both culture and language that was transformative, having grown up in a small steel town in Pennsylvania and in the first generation of her family to attend university. 

While at RPI, and in her first career as an architect, Denise developed a passion for promoting women in the STEAM fields. She worked as a teaching assistant for the Design in Wood courses at RPI, and had several pieces in state and national furniture competitions. Her dual passions for handcraft and architecture led to being awarded the Robert S. Brown Travel Fellowship, for which she traveled throughout Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark to study the relationship between traditional Nordic handcraft and modern architecture, culminating in a guest lecture at RPI post-graduation. She was an avid sprinter and hurdler in college, and was a member of the first women’s varsity track team at RPI, as well as a member of the Chinese-American Student Alliance.

Denise transitioned to a career in education after becoming involved in and inspired by a grassroots effort to start a diverse neighborhood school in Atlanta based on constructivist principles. She obtained a masters in middle grades education from Mercer University, and was a state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She has taught at four Mandarin language-focused schools, and brings extensive experience from three Bay Area Chinese immersion schools, including as the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program Coordinator at Shu Ren International School in Berkeley, and the math specialist at both at ISTP and PKS.

Denise enjoys playing tennis, especially family doubles, with her husband and two children (both of whom are thriving at PKS). She speaks conversational Swedish with her husband’s side of the family, and considers it a blessing to be able to raise her children to become bilingual. She and her family have enjoyed traveling together in China and Taiwan where the kids are taking over more responsibility with each trip.

Mike Levy
Head of Middle School

Mike has spent his career educating students around the world -- he has taught history, literature, economics, and Chinese in the United States, Israel, and China.

Mike began his career teaching in Quaker schools in the Philadelphia area. He then moved to China as a Peace Corps Volunteer and taught at Guizhou University.  After returning to the U.S., Mike taught at Saint Paul’s School in New Hampshire, and Saint Ann’s school in Brooklyn. Before joining PKS, he helped open Avenues: The World School in New York City, and was the founding member of their start-up team in Beijing.

Along with his teaching, Mike is also an author. His memoir, Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, won multiple literary awards and was a New York Times bestseller. His shorter work has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, and newspapers.

Mike graduated from Cornell University in 1998 with a BA in philosophy and religious studies. He met his wife, Ines, in his freshman dorm. They have a four- year old daughter at PKS, and a two-year old son hoping to be admitted when he is old enough.  Mike received his MAT from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He has also studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Israel.

Jiayi Spolarich
Chinese Curriculum Director

Jiayi Spolarich started her career as an interpreter with Veolia Water, with a passion to be a bridge to different cultures. While doing community outreach with a local elementary school to promote awareness of water conservation, her heart was stolen by the vibrant young spirits. With her passion unchanged, Jiayi altered her path to pursue it. She enrolled in graduate school and equipped herself with theories and practical strategies to “be the bridge” between students in the U.S. and Chinese language and culture. 

Jiayi graduated with scholarship for national student of excellence from Sun Yat-sen University in 2009, with a BA in English Literature and a minor in Spanish; received her MA in Curriculum and Instruction from Michigan State University; and completed the World Language Program from University of Wisconsin-Madison. She began her Chinese immersion teaching career in the U.S. in 2010, with experience in multiple settings including Post Oak Academy (a PreK-6 public IB school) and MVS (a 7-12 online school) in Michigan, Verona Area International School (a K-5 charter school) in Wisconsin, and finally, our Presidio Knolls School family since 2015. 

Jiayi remains actively engaged with research and best practices in the field. She is the coauthor of the recent book Chinese Immersion in the United States: Classroom Management for Elementary School Teachers, and has spoken on Chinese immersion education at the National Chinese Language Conference (NCLC), American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Annual Conference, and the Stanford University STARTALK program.

Born and raised in Zhuhai, a beautiful coastal city in southern China, Jiayi feels at home in San Francisco, where she met her husband Mike two days after she moved from the Midwest.

Gretchen Stanerson
Director of Auxiliary Programs

Gretchen Stanerson believes that learning should be exciting, joyful, adventurous, and have no bounds or limits.

For the past twenty years, she has worked in a variety of educational roles from teacher trainer to curriculum writer to preschool teacher and preschool director, putting her MA in School Leadership and her BA in Early Childhood Education to good use.

Besides working in education, she is a classically trained violin and violist who loves to read, knit, garden, hike, and explore the California Coast. She lives in SF with her two beautiful Main Coon cats: Chip and Duchess.