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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 founder Marc Benioff, who has given nearly $35 million to Bay Area public schools in the past five years alone, contributed $100,000 through his charities. 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. 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.
Willie L. Brown Jr., the man himself, now occupies a penthouse office with a spectacular view of the west span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which happens to be named after him. As mayor, he famously gilded San Francisco City Hall’s dome with $400,000 worth of real gold. Brown’s best-known political achievements were in real estate development. He helped spur the rise of live-work lofts during the original dotcom boom and helped to turn San Francisco’s tawdry South of Market neighborhood into a booming tech startup district. After leaving office, Brown became a lobbyist; his clients included some of the biggest developers involved in transforming San Francisco into a corporate tech hub.
Small and compact at age 84, with a genial face, Brown greeted me in his office wearing an elegant purple suit. He explained that Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School was the second iteration of a school formerly called Willie L. Brown Jr. College Preparatory Academy—“part of a group of schools called the Dream Schools,” he said, “that were going to try to afford equal educational opportunity on almost a boutique, as-needed basis.”
To make sense of this remark, it helps to understand that San Francisco has been trying, and mostly failing, for half a century to give African American and Latino students an education comparable to that provided to white and Asian students in the city. Those efforts started in the 1970s after the success of lawsuits accusing the city of maintaining racially isolated schools in the Bayview. Attempted remedies over the years included busing and racial quotas for school assignment, but both approaches foundered, partly due to opposition from families, often white and Asian, who argued they didn’t want to send their kids across town to school. In 1978, California voters passed the state’s most infamous law: Proposition 13 severely restricted raising property taxes, and required a two-thirds majority to pass many tax measures. This gutted California’s education funding so severely that the state’s public schools, which had been ranked best in the nation in the 1950s, fell to among the worst in a few decades. (They now hover around 35th.) California currently spends less per student on public education than many low-tax states. Belying its progressive image, San Francisco spends roughly half the amount per public school student than New York City, where the cost of living is comparable.
After just a month, the first principal quit and an interim took charge. In mid-October, less than two months into the first school year, a third principal came on board.
By the early 2000s, the district’s next campaign for change was aimed at improving its most underperforming schools, aided in part by a $135,000 pledge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The district designated some of these new schools as Dream Schools. This plan involved requiring existing teachers to reapply for their jobs, sprucing up their buildings, offering foreign-language and art classes, and requiring kids to wear uniforms. The Dream School that was eventually renamed Willie Brown College Preparatory Academy—Brown 1.0, if you will, in the Bayview—opened in 2004 (the same year Facebook was founded and Google and Salesforce held their IPOs). Six years later, Brown 1.0 had only 160 kids enrolled for 500 slots, and its standardized test scores were among the worst in the state.
“We tried to make it work,” Brown insisted as we sat in his office. “We put kids in uniform, we did everything.” He shook his head as if astonished by the outcome. “I used my connections. I had Spike Lee teach out there! Every friend I had in the celebrity world I took to that godforsaken place for an hour. I shattered my resources in that effort. It was clear it wasn’t going to work.” It was eventually decided, Brown told me, that the school would only succeed if it had a new building.
This, it turns out, was actually kind of easy to obtain. San Francisco has plenty of money for school construction, because asking San Francisco voters for permission to borrow money to build better schools is an easy win: Voters approved four such initiatives from 2003 to 2016, raising a cumulative $2 billion. Money to raise teacher salaries, by contrast, can require lengthy union negotiations and raising taxes. (As I write this, residents are voting on a proposition that would tax property owners to raise teacher pay.) The money for the new Willie Brown Middle School was a mere line item in a 2011 bond issue that raised $531 million.
When those funds came through for Brown 2.0, the school district was facing an existential crisis. Over the previous four decades, enrollment in SF public schools had fallen by nearly 40 percent, from 83,000 to 53,000, even as the city’s population grew by almost 100,000. Part of that loss was due to the skyrocketing cost of local living, which drove middle-class families to the suburbs and left San Francisco with the lowest number of children per capita of any of the nation’s 100 largest cities. As San Francisco’s population became more affluent, parents started to send their kids to private schools in droves. Around 30 percent of the city’s school-age children now attend private school—one of the highest rates in the nation. More shocking, in a city that is 54 percent white, just 13 percent of school-district kids are white. Starting in about 2010 and driven by this new, wealthy tech workforce, the city likewise became a laboratory for tech-driven innovation in private education. Nine new secular private schools, many of them with a science and math focus, opened in San Francisco between 2010 and 2015.
This all made what looked to me like the basic premise of Brown 2.0 eminently sensible: Emulate the new tech-driven private schools, court their funders, and help kids in one of the poorest parts of town. Perhaps the district could even start to reverse a decades-long decline in enrollment.
The sheer number of mishaps at Brown, right from the start, defies easy explanation. According to the district, Principal Hobson, who declined to comment for this story, tried to quit as early as June of 2015, two months before the school opened. The superintendent talked him into staying but, a district official told me, his heart seems not to have been in it.
The summer before the kids showed up for class should have been a time when Hobson and the staff trained and planned, and built a functioning community that knew how to care for 11- and 12-year-old kids and all their messy humanity. Instead, according to one former teacher, the primary teacher training was a two-week boot camp offered by Summit Public Schools meant to help teachers with the personalized learning platform. Teachers who attended that boot camp told me that as opening day inched closer, they worried that Hobson had yet to announce even basic policies on tardiness, attendance, and misbehavior. When they asked him how to handle such matters, according to one teacher who preferred not to be identified, “Hobson’s response was always like, ‘Positive, productive, and professional.’ We were like, ‘OK, those are three words. We need procedures.’ ” When families showed up for an orientation on campus, according to the teacher, Hobson structured the event around “far-off stuff like the 3-D printer.” That orientation got cut short when the fire marshal declared Brown unsafe because of active construction.
After the school opened, Lisa Green took time off work to volunteer there. “When I stepped into that door, it was utter chaos,” she told me. According to parents and staff who were there, textbooks were still in boxes, student laptops had not arrived, there was no fabrication equipment in the makerspace or robotics equipment ready to use. According to records provided by the district, parts of the campus were unfinished. Teachers say workers were still jackhammering and pouring hot asphalt as students went from class to class. The kids came from elementary schools where they had only one or two teachers, so Brown’s college-like course schedule, with different classes on different days, turned out to be overwhelming. When Hobson quit, district bureaucrats sent out letters explaining that he had left for personal reasons and was being replaced by an interim principal.
Shawn Whalen, the former San Francisco State chief of staff, says that pretty early on, “kids were throwing things at teachers. Teachers couldn’t leave their rooms and had nobody to call, or if they did nobody was coming. My daughter’s English teacher walked up in front of the students and said ‘I can’t do this’ and quit. There was no consistent instructional activity going on.”
Teachers also became disgusted by the gulf between what was happening on the inside and the pretty picture still being sold to outsiders. “I used to have to watch when the wife of a Twitter exec would come surrounded by a gaggle of district people,” said another former teacher at the school. “We had a lovely building, but it was like someone bought you a Ferrari and you popped the hood and there was no engine.”
Early in the school year, another disaster struck—this time, according to district documents, over Summit’s desire to gather students’ personally identifiable information. The district refused to compel parents to sign waivers giving up privacy rights. Contract negotiations stalled. When the two sides failed to reach a resolution, the district terminated the school’s use of the platform. (Summit says it has since changed this aspect of its model.) This left teachers with 80-minute class periods and without the curriculum tools they were using to teach. “Teachers started walking away from their positions because this is not what they signed up for,” said Bill Kappenhagen, who took over as Brown’s third principal. “It was just a total disaster.”
The adults had failed to lead, and things fell apart. “The children came in and were very excited,” says another former teacher. “They were very positive until they realized the school was a sham. Once they realized that, you could just see the damage it did, and their mind frame shifting, and that’s when the bad behavior started.”
Hoping to establish order, Kappenhagen, a warm and focused man with long experience in public school leadership, simplified the class schedule and made class periods shorter. “I got pushback from parents who truly signed their kid up for the STEM school,” he said. “I told them, ‘We’re going to do middle school well, then the rest will come.’ ”
Xander Shapiro’s son felt so overwhelmed by the chaos that he stopped going to class. “There was an exodus of people who could advocate for themselves,” Shapiro said. “Eventually I realized it was actually hurting my son to be at school, so I pulled him out and said, ‘I’m homeschooling.’ ”
Green made a similar choice after a boy began throwing things at her daughter in English class and she says no one did anything about it. “I don’t think any kid was learning in that school,” she says. “I felt like my daughter lost an entire semester.” Her daughter was back in private school before winter break.
The first year of any school is full of glitches and missteps, but what happened at Willie Brown seemed extreme. To learn more, I submitted a public records request to the district, seeking any and all documentation from the school’s planning phase and its first year. Among other things, I got notes from meetings conducted years earlier, as the district gathered ideas for Brown 2.0. It all sounded terrific: solar panels, sustainable materials, flatscreen televisions in the counseling room, gardens to “support future careers like organic urban farming.” Absent, though, was any effort to overcome some of the primary weaknesses in San Francisco public education: teacher and principal retention issues, and salaries dead last among the state’s 10 largest districts.
Eric Hanushek, a Stanford professor of economics who studies education, points out that among all the countless reforms tried over the years—smaller schools, smaller class sizes, beautiful new buildings—the one that correlates most reliably with good student outcomes is the presence of good teachers and principals who stick around. When Willie Brown opened, some teachers were making around $43,000 a year, which works out to about the same per month as the city’s average rent of about $3,400 for a one-bedroom apartment. After a decade of service, a teacher can now earn about $77,000 a year, and that’s under a union contract. (By comparison, a midcareer teacher who moves 40 miles south, to the Mountain View Los Altos District, can make around $120,000 a year.)
The tech-driven population boom over the past 15 years has meant clogged freeways with such intractable traffic that moving to a more affordable town can burden a teacher with an hours-long commute. According to a 2016 San Francisco Chronicle investigation of 10 California school districts, “San Francisco Unified had the highest resignation rate.” That year, the article found, “368 teachers announced they would leave the district come summertime, the largest sum in more than a decade and nearly double the amount from five years ago.” Heading into the 2016–17 school year, the school district had 664 vacancies.
Proposition 13 takes a measure of blame for low teacher salaries, but San Francisco also allocates a curiously small percentage of its education budget to teacher salaries and other instructional expenses—43 percent, compared with 61 percent statewide, according to the Education Data Partnership. Gentle Blythe, chief communications officer for the SFUSD, points out that San Francisco is both a city and a county, and it is therefore burdened with administrative functions typically performed by county education departments. Blythe also says that well-intentioned reforms such as smaller class sizes and smaller schools spread the budget among more teachers and maintenance workers. It is also true, however, that the district’s central-office salaries are among the state’s highest, as they should be given the cost of living in San Francisco. The superintendent makes $310,000 a year; the chief communications officer, about $154,000, according to the database Transparent California.
District records show that at least 10 full-time staff members of Brown’s original faculty earned less than $55,000 a year. The Transparent California database also shows that Principal Hobson earned $129,000, a $4,000 increase from his Chicago salary. That sounds generous until you consider that Chicago’s median home price is one-fourth that of San Francisco’s.
On Monday, May 15, at the blocklike concrete headquarters of the San Francisco Unified School District near City Hall and the opera house, I took a drab old elevator up to the third floor. Walking down a short hallway, I entered a tidy, small office and shook hands with Blythe and three other administrators: Joya Balk, a director of special projects who supervised planning for Brown; Tony Payne, the interim assistant superintendent for principals, who served as interim principal after Hobson quit; and Enikia Ford Morthel, the assistant superintendent for the Bayview. They all told me that the Brown disaster narrative was unfair and overblown.
Payne dismissed the notion that Brown saw unusual levels of violence. “No kids were seriously hurt,” he said. “So, you know, a kid throwing a pen in a classroom, that’s middle school.” He pointed to the fact that violence in predominantly African American schools is depicted differently than in predominantly white schools. “I saw worse behaviors at Presidio,” he said, referring to a middle school in a more affluent part of town where he was principal for three years. “A fight happens at Presidio, and the narrative is ‘Oh, how do we help that student? What’s going on with that student?’ A fight happens at Willie Brown: ‘Oh, that’s because it’s a terrible school.’ ”
Payne struck a similar note on the teachers leaving Brown. “Looking back,” he said, “you could easily say, you know, of course we’re going to lose teachers the first year. Right? This is hard work.”
In Payne’s view, Brown was a “super-good-faith effort to build a state-of-the-art school that is still ongoing. The startup metaphor is a really good one,” he said, “where you have to iterate. You can’t expect everything to run perfectly on the first day. And I think, you know, that process of storming and norming and developing a community is going to be challenging under the best of circumstances.”
To be sure, Brown was the most ambitious new-school launch ever undertaken by the district, and is still populated by children and teachers who deserve encouragement and every chance to succeed. The allure of the startup metaphor is likewise understandable—except tech startups are launched by entrepreneurs backed by investors who understand the risks they are taking, while Brown was started by government employees with little personal stake in the outcome.
Those government employees, says Hanushek, the Stanford economist, “are not idiots, and they’re not against kids. It’s just that when push comes to shove, the interest of the kids isn’t ahead of the interests of the institutions.”
Some teachers were making around $43,000 a year, about the same per month as the city’s average rent of $3,400 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Hanushek suggests another reason for bureaucrats’ temptation to believe that their innovations will make a difference: Unable to solve deep systemic problems like improving teacher salaries, those tasked with improving specific schools do what they can and hope for the best.
Something similar might be said about the philanthropic efforts of local CEOs. Salesforce’s Benioff recently gave $250,000 to support the June effort to levy a parcel tax to raise teacher salaries. His charities also give an impressive $100,000 each year to every middle school principal in San Francisco—for them to use as they wish—as part of what he calls a Principals Innovation Fund. Partly thanks to Benioff’s fund, all of San Francisco’s middle schoolers now have access to computer science courses.
But a lot of philanthropic efforts have focused on gifts that generate good press while mostly avoiding the diseased elephant lumbering around the room: Critically low school funding combined with the Bay Area’s tech-money boom have made living in San Francisco untenable for teachers.
Even some uses of Benioff’s Innovation Fund can feel less on point in the face of high teacher turnover—like a teachers’ lounge that looks like a cool coffee shop or student work tables that fit together like puzzle pieces to “look like Google and Facebook and Salesforce,” as one school principal told a reporter.
The Sara and Evan Williams Foundation paid design company Ideo and the school district to collaborate on a sweeping redesign of the school lunch experience, including, according to a foundation spokesperson, “a minor investment in technology to support the rollout of vending machines and mobile carts.” The foundation also donated to a district-wide initiative that targeted students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The spokesperson told me via email that the foundation did consider “all aspects of the public school system, including low teacher salaries. We’ve chosen to focus on the connection between hungry kids and learning because it reaches the most vulnerable students. When addressing a system, there are many points for intervention and no one funder can take on the entire entity.” (She also clarified that the organization’s contribution to Willie Brown was dramatically lower than the district claimed—$48,000, not $400,000.) None of the foundations that donated money to Brown would discuss what went wrong at the school. Neither Salesforce nor the Williams Foundation made anyone available for an interview.
In the end, we sent our younger daughter back to private school—because Landake and Green told me not to send her to Brown and our efforts to place her in a different public school failed. Our private school discount was gone, and the cost was painful, but I was grateful to have the option. Still, I hated the way it felt. Our older daughter is getting a great education at a public high school, all public schools need community support, and I could not convince myself that I’d made the right decision. It is entirely possible that our daughter could have thrived at Brown.
Last August, as the school year began, I set up another meeting to take a look at the school. I drove there one morning and found the principal—the school’s fourth in two years—greeting kids outside. His name was Charleston Brown, and he seemed terrific. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, a Division 1 football player at Alcorn State in Mississippi, he was charming with a gentle humility. Kids got out of their parents’ cars and shook Brown’s hand as they walked onto campus. He led me on a tour, accompanied by Blythe and Ford Morthel.
“The headache of being a new school, even three years in,” Brown said, “is that you have to build the traditions, build the culture.” He had implemented college T-shirt Thursdays and school T-shirt Fridays. He walked me down hallways newly decorated—by Principal Brown himself—with college pennants. We stopped to observe a sunny science classroom where students sat quietly at desks and paid attention while the teacher handed out a worksheet with the questions “What does it mean to be ‘On task’?” and “Why is it important to be ‘On task’?” Next, Brown took me to see a robotics elective in another sunny room, where a dynamic teacher named James Robertson zigzagged among tables while bright-eyed kids diligently built little machines.
It all felt promising. Test scores from Brown’s second year, the most recent available, did find the student body losing ground: The portion of Brown students testing at or above grade level in English fell about five points, to 21 percent; in math, about three points to near 10 percent. It is too early to expect Brown’s scores to rise, but those numbers doubtless played a role in depressing enrollment—with only 111 kids in the incoming sixth grade, and 382 overall, Brown is currently about half full.
On the upside, the number of families ranking Brown as a first choice has begun to rise, and I’ve heard that many families are encouraged by the nascent community forming there. In fact, Robertson, who has been teaching at the school from the start, told me a hopeful story: “I have kids who stay after school for hours, and I knew parents would have no idea what their kids were doing if they didn’t see it. So we had a robotics night, and they gave presentations, and they programmed in C++ and set up all the sensors. The kids know 12 different mechanical systems of movement. They gave a formal presentation. I just watched parents crying.” He added, “Ultimately, building a beautiful building is great, but community is the heart and reality of a school. And that takes time to build.”
Principal Brown also struck me as a good leader. But I worried. The district’s salary for a principal with his experience starts near $100,000. It looks like the district’s strategy for turning around Brown 2.0 included paying Principal Number Four about $29,000 less per year than Principal Number One.
Brown lives in Fairfield—an hour’s drive to work without traffic. The salaries for principals in that town start around $114,000 a year. If the Fairfield–Suisun Unified School District offered him a job, he could hardly be blamed for taking it.
Daniel Duane is the author of six books; he’s at work on the next, about California.
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