Is San Francisco's new 'dream' school living up to its potential?

May 26, 2016

Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School is the only non-charter public middle school in Bayview-Hunters Point. Sixty percent of the kids in the school’s inaugural sixth grade class live in the neighborhood. 

For a long time, the odds have been stacked against these kids. Data from Bayview clinics from 2013 shows that almost 70 percent of youth in the area have been exposed to at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Children with four or more ACEs are more than 30 times more likely to have learning or behavioral problems in school. Plus, there’s a history of segregated schools there: the NAACP sued San Francisco Unified School District twice in the 1970s for failing to adequately desegregate schools. 

Last year, following much publicity and promotion, the school district opened a new school that it hoped would address some of the needs of families in the neighborhood.

A vision for a dream school

The end-of-year appreciation dinner at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School takes place in the cafeteria. The members of the choir are all wearing dashikis, and they're led by a man who conducts just as enthusiastically as they sing.

This is no typical school cafeteria. It’s part of a sparkling new $55 million campus, with blond wood paneling and a full wall of windows that looks out to sweeping views of San Francisco. Parents sway and clap; children giggle and whisper. This was just the kind of moment the district was hoping for at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new campus in August 2015.

“We are gathered to celebrate the manifestation of a vision,” founding principal Demetrius Hobson told attendees that day. “A vision that strongly communicates to the children and families of San Francisco that the adults of this city care about their futures.”

The district’s strategic plan, called Vision 2025, calls for personalized learning plans for all students. It puts an emphasis on STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math — to best prepare students for 21st century jobs. It acknowledges an exodus of children from San Francisco and also admits that SFUSD has not always served low-income children of color — like many of those who live in Bayview — as well as it could.

The new Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School was built on the site of the old Willie Brown College Preparatory Academy. When the first Willie Brown opened in 1992, the promises were not so different. The school advertised great teachers and quality education within walking distance of home. But when it closed in 2011, the school was barely functioning. Enrollment was only at around 30 percent of capacity. Test scores were some of the lowest in the state. The building needed eight million dollars in repairs. The district decided to tear it down and start again.

At a press event for the new school, district superintendent Richard Carranza spoke of a promise made to the Bayview community that Willie Brown would be “the premier middle school not only in Northern California, but in the state of California, maybe even in the country.”

A rocky beginning

Despite the high ambitions of the school, its course over the past year has been rocky. When students arrived at the beginning of the year, parts of the campus were still under construction. Principal Demetrius Hobson resigned only a month into the school year, and almost a dozen faculty soon followed suit. At the end of September, a group of students, parents and residents of the neighborhood took their concerns to the school board.

 

“It deserves an F. It failed. It has failed our children, it has failed our community,” one speaker said.

 

Another student talked about being pushed into a locker on the first day of school. People talked about total disorganization. They say kids were running all over campus without proper supervision. Many speakers touch on a major — and basic — safety issue: physical violence at school.

“We were sold a dream of how great this would be,” Rionda Batiste shared tearfully. “I was so excited, because I fully believed that this could be the one thing that could stop the violence in our neighborhood. I am so tired of seeing our children die on the streets."

Batiste kept her son at Willie Brown, and during the past year she’s gotten involved with the school’s PTSA. Several of the parents who were at that board meeting in September have also joined the PTSA to try and solve some of these issues.

 

Facing challenges

At a PTSA meeting in March, current principal Bill Kappenhagen spoke about the school’s lack of a comprehensive behavior policy.

 

“We weren’t very clear, as a faculty, on what our expectations were of students,” he told the PTSA. He explained that he has been working with faculty to make sure those expectations are clear. But that’s not happening quickly enough for some parents, including PTSA president Dan Harrington.  

 

“We need to know what those things are now, that students will be judged on,” Harrington said. “So we don’t wait and waste the rest of the year with just a few students who aren’t acting right interfering with the education of the majority of the students who are.”

Kappenhagen interrupts Harrington to say, “The answer is you’re not going to get an answer today. You’re not. There’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to get buy in.”

 

It’s a little tense — and it’s complicated. Parents, understandably, want to have rules in place for their kids, now. But Kappenhagen stresses that to do these things right, it takes time. And he stresses to me, when I meet with him, things have gotten better. There are now systems in place where they didn’t exist before — like in the cafeteria or in weekly all-class meetings.

 

“It's really an opportunity for us to redirect as necessary,” Kappenhagen tells me. “It's also an opportunity for us to build community and culture.”

 

Robotics teacher James Robertson says that kind of building has to happen in the classroom too.

“Bringing in students that are coming from so many different areas of San Francisco, a lot of the kids didn't know each other,” Robertson told me. “When kids do know each other that comes with challenges, but also when you bring in kids from really different areas, that also comes with challenges.”

Creating community in the classroom

Robertson says he and the class have put in a lot of work to address those challenges so they can actually learn. And that’s paid off. Robertson says almost every student in the class has had a moment to shine. Students like Aaron Jones.

 

“I’m going to honor roll,” Jones proudly tells me. “Me and my dad and all the boys in my family, we have dyslexia, and a disability that makes us so we can't speak or understand what other people can. It's been hard, but I'm going to make it.”

 

A holistic approach to students

Making sure that kids make it means not only boosting academics, but also supporting kids and families in a more holistic way. Which is where Willie Brown’s Health Center comes in.

Amber Goldman is the wellness coordinator and social worker at Willie Brown. She says the school has a partnership with the Department of Public Health. That means Willie Brown has an on-site nurse practitioner who can do things school nurses can’t, like prescribe medication. That’s important because it’s easily accessible, and students don’t have to miss school to get checked out.  

“Often what we see with students is that they don’t make it to the doctor, and when they have these pains they can’t concentrate in class, and they’re irritable,” Goldman explains. “So it’s really cool that we have this here.”

Balancing promises and reality

The Wellness Center had even bigger aspirations: to provide healthcare services to the families of students and the Bayview community. But Goldman says that won’t be happening in the foreseeable future.

There are other promises that have not yet been met. Those personalized learning plans that were such a selling point in the district’s Vision 2025? Unclear when those will be in place.

“Some pieces have fallen off and we may be not going back to collect them,” PTSA president Dan Harrington tells me.

At the appreciation dinner at the end of the school year, Harrington receives an award. He walks up to claim his certificate with a huge grin, and gives the squirmy student who hands it to him a bear hug.

“The real reason I’m there is because I care about not just my son's education, but as I've met more of his classmates, I care about all their education,” Harrington tells me.  

He is not only the PTSA president. Harrington now works as an educational aide at the school. But despite his obvious commitment, he’s conflicted about keeping his son Dominic at Willie Brown.

 

Beyond the issues with the school, he’s struggling with something that many San Francisco families are dealing with: whether they can even afford to be here. He’s a veteran, and his family doesn’t have a lot of resources.

“Sometimes you wonder, 'Is it all worth it,'” he says. “I could try to take my veteran self and my family somewhere else where it costs a lot less. Even though this is my home town and I've been so dedicated to it.”

It’s families like these that the San Francisco school district has pledged to support with its Vision 2025. It’s clear that Willie Brown Middle School is working hard to fulfill that goal. But what’s not clear is whether it’ll happen in time for the students that are here now.