Willie Brown Middle School was touted as a beacon of progress in San Francisco’s public school system.
Until it opened.
For the first time in a decade, the San Francisco Unified School District was unveiling a brand-new school. The building would be beautiful and energy efficient, with tall windows and a bust of the former mayor himself. The teachers and principal would be fresh and diverse, many from outside The City. The children would focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
But that starry-eyed image began to crumble from the first day of school in August 2015, when one sixth-grade student went home on her birthday pondering whether middle school was supposed to be this chaotic.
“The first day of school there were, like, multiple incidents of physical violence,” said Kandace Landake, whose daughter Tyra was assaulted there on numerous occasions throughout the school year. “The first month was just incident after incident.”
Willie Brown failed in its first school year because the founding staff favored installing new technology over enforcement, according to parents and staff. The result was fighting, cursing and horseplay from students who — at about 11 years old — are inclined to act up without direction. Mixed with the early staff’s unfamiliarity with the Bayview community, and the unique trauma some students experience in the area, the disorder proved too much for some.
Within two months, founding principal Demetrius Hobson resigned citing personal reasons and a dozen staff members quit over the year, including seven by last October. The first year of school, which ended in late May, would prove to be a disappointment.
That’s why current principal Bill Kappenhagen is looking toward a fresh start next school year. The school will roll out its first seventh-grade class, equipped with new teachers, and introduce a new crop of sixth graders to the mix.
“Things get better every single day that I’ve been here,” Kappenhagen said June 18, standing with a quiche in his hand in the back area of what he called the school’s “cafetorium” — a combination cafeteria-auditorium. “But by no stretch of anyone’s imagination are we the school that we aspire to be.”
Inside the cafetorium, Kappenhagen and his students were displaying their achievements over the first weeks of summer during an extended-learning program at Willie Brown. That included African drumming, cooking and claymation videos.
Now seventh graders, the pioneering students made it through a tumultuous introduction to middle school. At least one parent is not prepared to send her daughter through another.
Landake, who sent her daughter to Willie Brown under the promise that she would later be accepted to almost any public high school in San Francisco, is now considering sending Tyra across The City after the repeated assaults against her.
Landake said her past experience with Herbert Hoover Middle School, which her son attended, and Willie Brown has shown the schools are run like they’re in two different school districts.
“They’re running a madhouse over here,” she said.
Landake said many parents are not involved and will not attend meetings when their children get into trouble. The staff who handle such issues are for the most part young and diverse, but “some people are not ready for that community,” she said. “This is the Bayview.”
Willie Brown served just 200 sixth graders in its first school year, with a staff of several dozen. Dan Harrington, who heads the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association, said there were a variety of issues that led to the high staff turnover.
“Some pointed to family issues. Some pointed to the high cost of living in or around San Francisco. And others just seemed simply frustrated and needed to go,” he said.
Eleven of the dozen staffers who left were not from San Francisco, according Kappenhagen. One worked in The City for a year prior.
“I know that we as a school may have underdelivered on many of the promises that were made,” Kappenhagen said. “I think with the installation of me as the principal and going forward with next year’s new hires, and the teaching staff that I’ve had an opportunity to recruit to this school, it’s going to be a new year.”
A longtime principal with connections to the community and the founder of a charter school in Washington, D.C., Kappenhagen took command of the reeling campus last October. In the last several months he has run a campaign against cursing and horseplay, which once plagued the campus, and restructured the school schedule to make it more palatable for young students.
“We were so gung-ho on so many levels, but the facility wasn’t ready, the previous principal wasn’t ready, he had not prepared the faculty for the work that really needed to be done,” Kappenhagen said.
The previous administration put student expectations and behavior management on the backburner, instead focusing on technology and innovation, Kappenhagen said. All students at Willie Brown were issued a Google Chromebook or have access to one.
“My purview is that we have to do good school well before we can add on technology and innovation and all that other stuff,” he said. “Kids thrive in an environment where there’s clear, consistent and predictable expectations.”
Standing before the entire school early this year, Kappenhagen made one of those behavioral expectations clear. He issued a directive to his students and staff: No more swearing. Since then he’s seen a difference.
But for Harrington, the PTSA president, some of the changes may be a situation of too little too late.
“The horse is already out of the stable in some of the behaviors and expectations and standards,” he said. “They probably addressed them too late in the year.”
As for Landake, she’s giving the school the first three months of next year to sort out its problems.
“If this year starts off the way last year did I’m just going to pull [my daughter] out,” Landake said. “I don’t see them aggressively trying to stop what’s going on.”
Not all of the issues at Willie Brown are behavioral.
Nate Kinsey, conservation manager for the school district, said at a San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association meeting Tuesday that Willie Brown was supposed to be the district’s “shining star, green, awesome school.”
“And then it kind of disappointed us,” Kinsey said.
Willie Brown faired well against other SFUSD schools in terms of using natural gas, but was “still not very efficient on the electricity side,” he said.
“It’s the most electricity intensive school in the school district and it’s brand new,” Kinsey said.