Huge contributions from tech titans, a STEM-packed curriculum, gadgets everywhere: Willie Brown Middle School was supposed to set the bar. Then it opened.
ON THE WINDY afternoon of March 17, 2017, I opened my mailbox and saw a white envelope from the San Francisco Unified School District. The envelope contained a letter assigning my younger daughter to a middle school. This letter was a big deal; San Francisco’s public schools range from excellent to among the worst in the state, and kids are assigned to them through a lottery. The last time we put her name into the lottery, for kindergarten, she was assigned to one of the lowest-performing schools in California. Then we got a break: A private school offered a big discount on tuition. But now our discount was gone, so we entered her in the public-school lottery again.
RIPPING OPEN THAT envelope, I found that she had been assigned to Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School. I knew who Willie Brown was—Speaker of the California State Assembly for 15 years and two-term mayor of San Francisco from 1996 to 2004. The school, however, was new to me. So I grabbed a laptop, poked around on Google, and pieced together an astonishing story.
Willie Brown Middle School was the most expensive new public school in San Francisco history. It cost $54 million to build and equip, and opened less than two years earlier. It was located less than a mile from my house, in the city’s Bayview district, where a lot of the city’s public housing sits and 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. This new school was to be focused on science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM, for short. There were laboratories for robotics and digital media, Apple TVs for every classroom, and Google Chromebooks for students. A “cafetorium” offered sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, flatscreen menu displays, and free breakfast and lunch. An on-campus wellness center was to provide free dentistry, optometry, and medical care to all students. Publicity materials promised that “every student will begin the sixth grade enrolled in a STEM lab that will teach him or her coding, robotics, graphic/website design, and foundations of mechanical engineering.” The district had created a rigorous new curriculum around what it called “design thinking” and a “one-to-one tech model,” with 80-minute class periods that would allow for immersion in complex subjects.
The money for Brown came from a voter-approved bond, as well as local philanthropists. District fund-raising materials proudly announced that, through their foundation, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams and his wife, Sara, had given a total of $400,000 for “STEM-focus” and “health and wellness.” (The foundation says that figure is incorrect.) Salesforce.org, the philanthropic arm of Marc Benioff’s company Salesforce, has given nearly $35 million to Bay Area public schools in the past five years alone; each year the organization also gives $100,000 to every middle school principal in San Francisco and Oakland.1 The Summit Public Schools network, an organization that runs charter schools in California and Washington state and has a board of directors filled with current and former tech heavy hitters (including Meg Whitman), made a $500,000 in-kind donation of its personalized learning platform, according to those fund-raising materials.2 That online tool, built to help students learn at their own pace and track their progress, was created in partnership with Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s funding organization.
As the school’s first principal, the district hired a charismatic man named Demetrius Hobson who was educated at Morehouse and Harvard and had been a principal in Chicago’s public schools. Students from four of the Bayview’s elementary schools, where more than 75 percent of kids are socioeconomically disadvantaged, were given preference to enter Willie Brown Middle. To ensure that the place would also be diverse, the district lured families from other parts of town with a “golden ticket” that would make it easier for graduates from Brown to attend their first choice of public high school.
The message worked. Parents from all over the city—as well as parents from the Bayview who would otherwise have sent their kids to school elsewhere—put their kids’ names in for spots at the new school. Shawn Whalen, who was then the chief of staff at San Francisco State University, and Xander Shapiro, the chief marketing officer for a startup, had children in public elementary schools that fed into well-regarded middle schools. But, liking what they heard, both listed Brown as a top choice in the lottery. Kandace Landake—a Bayview resident and Uber driver who wanted her children to have a better education than she’d received, and whose children were in good public schools outside the neighborhood—likewise took a chance on Brown. One third-generation Bayview resident, whom I’ll call Lisa Green, works at a large biotech company and had been sending her daughter to private school. But she too was so enticed that she marked Brown as her first choice in the lottery, and her daughter got in.
On opening day in August of 2015, around two dozen staff members greeted the very first class. That’s when the story took an alarming turn. Newspapers reported chaos on campus. Landake was later quoted in the San Francisco Examiner: “The first day of school there were, like, multiple incidents of physical violence.” After just a month, Principal Hobson quit, and an interim took charge. In mid-October, less than two months into the first school year, a third principal came on board. According to a local newspaper, in these first few months, six other faculty members resigned. (The district disputes this figure.) In a school survey, only 16 percent of the Brown staff described the campus as safe. Parents began to pull their kids out.
By August of 2016, as Brown’s second year started, only 70 students were enrolled for 100 sixth-grade seats; few wanted to send their kids there. The school was in an enrollment death spiral.
It was hard to imagine sending our daughter to a place in such chaos. But I was also unsettled that so many people spent so much money and goodwill to do the right thing for middle schoolers, with such disastrous results. I wanted to know what had happened.
Daniel Duane – Read more on Wired.com