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Willie Brown Middle School finding its footing after bumpy start

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Armon Taylor, 11, right, and Temon Howard, 11, operate a voice-commanded robot in the Willie Brown Middle School maker garage. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)
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It’s 1:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday and June Sadler, site coordinator at Willie Brown Middle School, is collaborating with three other educators about the newest after-school programs offered at the school.

Sadler excitedly ticks off the list of programs that launched beginning this semester: photography, engineering, theater, art, music and chess. An after-school cooking class that was offered last semester when the school opened is on the agenda for this semester, too.

“We’ve become more of a family. We trust each other now,” Sadler said. “In the beginning, there’s always a kind of, ‘What’s going on? What are you here for? What’s your motive?’ Now I think everyone is clear about what our motives are.”

As Willie Brown Middle School enters its second semester of existence this winter, that sentiment is echoed by nearly everyone on campus, from students to teachers to even the principal, Bill Kappenhagen, who was appointed to that role after the school’s founding principal Demetrius Hobson unexpectedly resigned a month into the school year, citing personal reasons.

The first new public school to open in The City in a decade, Willie Brown Middle School was trumpeted by the San Francisco Unified School District as a high-tech institution in the Bayview boasting state-of-the-art labs, technology and more. Each classroom is outfitted with an Apple TV and Epson projector. There are 240 Chromebooks, 80 iPads and 40 Hewlett-Packard laptops available for students each day. The campus features sweeping, million-dollar views of The City.

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But Hobson’s departure left the SFUSD leadership scrambling to restore stability and fill the void as the teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco, called for the district to tackle a number of “critical issues” facing the school, from better communication between the site administration and teachers and parents to a behavior policy and adequate safety plan.

When the principal left, other problems came to light as well. Six other faculty members also resigned, reportedly for personal reasons, within the first semester. There were no regular staff meetings. The end-of-summer three-day boot camp designed to help students transition into the school year was canceled after the first day because the building used for the program on campus was declared unsafe by the fire marshal.

While some problems that surfaced were typical of any middle school — a challenging age for students who grapple with hormones, bullying and the fresh independence of having different teachers for different subjects — the school’s newness also presented additional areas of strife. The school is only one-third full this year, with 200 students enrolled in sixth grade, and classes were initially spread out throughout the campus, making the school feel emptier.

“With a brand new building, there’s some things you take advantage of when you have a school that’s existed for yours … like how do students enter the school building?” Kappenhagen said. “How do they enter the cafeteria? How do they behave in the hallways during passing time? How many minutes of passing time?”

He added, “Those are all things that have to be thought about and created and incubated in a different way than you would have to do if you were running a school that existed already.”

Kappenhagen began his role as principal of the school in mid-October, after spending a decade as assistant principal and principal of Burton High School in Visitacion Valley. His first step, teachers noted, was to sit down with each educator on campus.

“He’s very much teacher-centered,” Denise Sutro, coordinator of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), said of Kappenhagen. “He didn’t come in and dictate changes. He really took time to listen to everyone and then we worked on solutions.”

Changes that were implemented almost immediately included introducing homerooms for students. Kappenhagen also began hosting a “principal’s chat” each Wednesday morning, in which the entire school gathers in the “cafeterium” (the school’s state-of-the-art cafeteria and auditorium that features floor-to-ceiling windows, a baby grand piano, and professional-quality lighting and sound systems).

“The school opened with a really ambitious educational plan that was not necessarily developmentally appropriate … for sixth graders,” Kappenhagen said. “What I’ve done is I’ve been able to retool the master school in a way to make it more developmentally appropriate.”

It’s clear that Kappenhagen’s enthusiasm is contagious on campus, from the way he greets faculty and students to the excited tone of his voice when he describes his job.

“It’s the best job,” Kappenhagen said, beaming. “Where else can you play ping pong or chess … and call it work?”

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