Sharing the stoke of surfing with San Francisco students
By Neal Kearney
San Francisco’s Johnny Irwin always hoped to make a positive impact on society. It wasn’t until he graduated from college and gave traditional teaching a go that he found his true calling: teaching students about what he knows best—surfing. From the way they pop up onto their boards to the historic past and present of wave riding, Irwin has developed a curriculum for a surfing elective class at a growing number of Bay Area schools, and shows no sign of stopping there.
The idea was born at Leadership High, located in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, where Irwin took a job teaching social studies in 2012. As a white man in a position of authority at an ethnically diverse school, Irwin worried about being accepted by his students.
“There was a huge sense of distrust,” Irwin remembers. “I’m the kind of person that symbolizes a lot of the fears and anger that is a reality for a lot of these kids.” The relationship improved over time, but he was still finding it difficult to connect with his students. Enter City Surf Project.
The program was the result of a Leadership High School spirit event in which teachers organize a week of educational activities that can be taught outdoors. It was in this special setting that Irwin realized he could better inspire his students through sharing the joy and sense of purpose that he experienced himself as a kid learning to surf.
“I just thought back to learning to surf with my dad—the sheer excitement, joy, and adrenaline I got from it hooked me instantly,” he says. “Surfing with him taught me so much about life: expectations, goals, overcoming fears, simple pleasures. My aim is to provide this kind mentorship to inner-city kids whose options are limited in this regard.”
The surf trip became the talk of the town back at Leadership. The kids were raving about it, so Irwin decided to approach the administration about teaching a surf elective. He was able to convince the faculty that this experience wasn’t any ordinary P.E. class—that the students could not only connect to the beautiful ocean that’s practically in their backyard, but also be empowered to try something new.
Thus, the City Surf Project was born, co-founded by San Francisco paramedic and Head Surf Instructor Hunter Chiles. By attaining nonprofit status, their passion project has been able to garner more resources for the kids, including funding for transportation and equipment costs.
Irwin left his teaching post at Leadership in 2014 to focus on City Surf Project, which is now also operating at Mission High and, soon, Independence High. “It has really snowballed,” he says. “More kids are signing up every year.”
Irwin visits the schools to lead classroom discussions that explore surfing-related topics, from its storied history to a surfer’s role in environmental stewardship and conservation. Twice a week, depending on the conditions, he brings students to beaches like Pacifica or Ocean Beach for ocean time and surf practice.
With such a surf-centric history and culture, Irwin feels that Cowell’s Beach on Santa Cruz’s Westside is the perfect place for their end-of-the-semester field trip.
“It’s a chance for the students to use all of their new oceanic skillsets—warming up before getting in the water, assessing conditions and strategizing their approach, and catching waves,” he says. “It’s the culmination of all the hard work they put in throughout the semester.”
This May, during their final day of class, the students were joined by local standouts Anthony Tashnick and Darshan Gooch, who gave them some pointers and encouragement. Gooch was impressed. “I saw some kids who were hesitant about getting out in the surf in the beginning, but by the end we had to practically drag them off the beach,” he says. “It’s a great idea and I hope to be here to help out next year.”
Irwin dreams of implementing a surf class in every city school in San Francisco, and then branching out to Los Angeles and beyond.
Leadership High junior Ashley Monterossa says she has embraced a new low-stress lifestyle thanks to City Surf Project. “Everything is so chaotic in the city,” she says. “You hear the buses, you hear the sirens going off and the police, and it’s like, ‘OK, where can I go to get my own space and just connect with nature and find peace within myself?'”