Now Playing

Much-Hyped New STEM School in the Bayview Has Already Lost Its Principal

The city's latest experiment in education reform gets off to a horrible start.

From left, school namesake Willie Brown, former principal Demetrius Hobson, and Mayor Ed Lee.

 

Just six weeks after city leaders and school district officials launched an ambitious, STEM-focused middle school in the Bayview, the school's widely championed principal has already resigned. In a crushing blow to parents, students, and faculty members at Willie Brown Middle School, principal Demetrius Hobson, who was credited with recruiting a star lineup of teachers to the new school, unexpectedly resigned late last week. The reasons are still mysterious and the former administrator did not answer messages left on his cell phone, but the news has left the city's education community feeling severely disappointed.

The subject of a long and much-talked about feature by Sarah Stodder in San Francisco's September issue, the new school opened its doors in August with a grand plan: to give the chronically underachieving Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods a game-changing school that would not only reverse decades of disadvantage, but attract bright middle schoolers from all over the city to its magnet program. Back in March, San Francisco Unified School District superintendent Richard Carranza promised that the new Willie Brown would be among the top middle schools in the state, if not the country. 

Hobson was touted by school board members and education advocates as a visionary who was able to rally community support and hire top-notch teachers for its inaugural class of 200 6th graders. The principal’s abrupt departure—which comes even before construction work has wrapped up on the $55 million new building—casts a dark shadow over the school’s big ambitions. The news was broken in a letter handed to parents as they dropped off their children on Friday morning. Signed by Carranza, the letter offered little explanation, saying only that “Mr. Hobson has cited personal reasons for his resignation.” On Friday, the district’s director of middle schools, Tony Payne, stepped in as interim principal. Payne, who has been on campus in a supervisory role since the start of the school year, will lead Wille Brown while the district seeks a permanent replacement. 

The leadership change raises questions about Willie Brown’s stability, and shines a light on early growing pains that the administration might otherwise have had a chance to work out more quietly. Parents describe a host of disciplinary issues, as well as stumbles in implementing some of the much ballyhooed STEM programming, which had been presented as a hallmark of the school’s approach.  

Marlena Jackson, a scientist at a biotech company and longtime Bayview resident, was excited to enroll her daughter at Willie Brown. But now, she says, some of the school’s promised state-of-the-art facilities are not being used for their intended purposes. “You see this bioech lab with lab benches, and I don’t even think there’s a curriculum for that space. And there’s a maker space that lacks the tools it needs for it to be a maker space lab,” says Jackson. “There’s been a lack of transparency on the district’s part for parents to figure out what can we do to make sure that the school is getting what it needs.” Follow-up calls about these spaces to interim principal Payne and the school district’s communications office were not returned by press time. (Update, 9/22: Gentle Blythe, chief communications officer for the school district, counters that students have used the maker space for coding and an activity involving building mazes. "The maker space is a long-term project for which we have funding; it just needs to be phased in," she writes. Of the biotech lab, Blythe clarifies that it was built for eighth-grade classes, which don't exist yet. She adds that some sixth-grade science classes are held in the lab, and that "in the long term this is a space intended for full utilization.")

Delsa Rendon, an Excelsior resident, says she chose Willie Brown for her son in part for the personalized learning plans tailored to students’ strengths and their individual needs. But, says Rendon, her son is "doing work that he’s already mastered, so he’s very bored.” Rendon also describes an ongoing bullying problem that her son is facing, and she says that Principal Hobson hadn’t been returning her calls. (Finally, on Friday, interim principal Payne called to discuss the situation, she says.) Her son “would like not to come anymore,” she adds. “He doesn’t see that this is something that they can fix unless there’s a lot of hands on deck, taking care of the students who are doing the disruption.”

Calls to Hobson’s cell phone were not returned, but Payne acknowledges the bullying situation. “Middle school is where we see a spike in bullying. They start to become more self aware, and the dark side of that is bullying and teasing,” he says. “Unfortunately, with so much going on as school is getting started, communication has been an issue. We have a strong wellness and counseling staff on board who was addressing it, but that wasn’t communicated to the family, unfortunately.”

The personalized learning plans hit a major setback when the school district’s contract with a software supplier, Summit, fell apart because of a disagreement over contract language, says Payne. No software means no personalized learning plans, which has been a big letdown for Rendon and her son. “Teachers were trained on this software,” she says. “It’s been very disappointing.” Payne says the school needs time to regroup. “The deal falling through with Summit was a major blow,” he says. “It’s still going to happen. We just need to do it through a different vendor.”

Not every parent is ready to give up on the school, however. Shawn Whalen, a Portola resident, is hopeful that the leadership setback is only a bump on the way to a flourishing school. His daughter, he says, is thriving there. “She loves her teachers, and she’s always referring to cool academic projects in exactly the way we’d hoped when we signed her up,” says Whalen, who works at San Francisco State University. But the behavioral struggles plaguing some of his daughter’s classmates have not escaped his attention. “There’s no question that there have been some growing pains about how to deal with these converging communities and how to work through the behavioral issues,” he says. “I’ve been nothing but impressed with the quality of teachers there, and with regard to the school succeeding or failing, it’s going to be tied to the ability of the district to make sure that we keep those teachers there and provide the right support.”

 

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Email Lamar Anderson at Landerson@modernluxury.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Lamar Anderson on Twitter @srslynow