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Benioff takes hands-off approach with donations to S.F. schools

Jill Tucker | August 24, 2015 | SF Chronicle

Original article

The list of high-tech moguls looking to disrupt, remake, revamp and ultimately “fix” public education is long — from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, not to mention William Hewlett and David Packard, to name a few.

In San Francisco, the big name in education philanthropy is Marc Benioff, but his patience and hands-off approach to change are a departure from many of his peers.

The Salesforce.com founder continues to test that approach, and will announce Monday that his long-term commitment to city schools will include a $6 million grant for this school year.

It’s the third year in a row the CEO and his Salesforce.com Foundation has written a multimillion-dollar check to the school district — and not the last, Benioff said in an interview. This is the third year in a long-term investment program, he said, with a goal of $100 million and the best schools in the country.

Public education in the U.S. is a big liability, and it will take the full weight of society to turn it into a great asset, Benioff said. But people overestimate what they can do in one year, while underestimating what they can do in 10.

Benioff is in it for the 10 years, he said.

“We’ll do anything to make SFUSD a successful school district,” Benioff said. “You can see we’re taking this very seriously.”

Benioff’s nondisruptive, few-strings-attached tech philanthropy is rare in the public school world, where “fixing” often means take-it-or-leave-it funding tied to a giver’s vision. Many have their own ideas about how to fix schools, focusing funds on pet projects to improve teaching, reorganize high schools or push a more modern version of vocational education.

Donor stipulations vary

The Gates Foundation, for example, pushed the small schools movement several years ago, offering districts like Oakland Unified millions of dollars, but only if they opened new schools that limited the number of students enrolled. The effort left the city with too many schools and not enough money to support them after the Gates infusion ran out.

In New Jersey, Zuckerberg donated $100 million to “save” public schools through an imposed reform agenda that focused on charter schools and a union-opposed idea to revamp teacher compensation, a controversial effort that produced questionable results.

“Philanthropy is a long-term game, and not many people get that or have the patience for it,” said Suzanne DiBianca, president of the Salesforce.com Foundation. “You have to shoulder up support in a way that’s much deeper than just throwing money over the wall and saying, ‘Good luck to you.’”

This year’s Salesforce.com donation will continue efforts to bring San Francisco schools’ technology up to date, while expanding to 21 the number of $100,000 grants given to principals.

Everybody plays a part

The funding is paying for district-developed ideas, and principals will have full control, buying whatever they need or want to try. That could be new computer programs or apps, funky classroom furniture, laptops, art supplies, musical instruments or “maker” labs where students can tinker, creating computer games or building things like robots or computer-engineered paper airplanes.

“It’s a little like a venture capital approach,” DiBianca said, adding that the principals share ideas as well as successes and failures.

Hoover Middle School Principal Carline Sinkler is just about to get her third $100,000 grant. In the first two years, she bought furniture, computers, library materials and a big-screen television with Apple TV access. All of that might not sound like a big deal, but it has changed everything, she said.

Tables replaced rows of desks. There are new chairs for students who fidget. There are butcher block tables where children can tinker. A maker space has a 3-D printer. And the big TV? It can roll around, allowing groups of students to connect to it with their iPads and share ideas.

The money bought “stuff,” but that stuff has shifted the way students learn and the way teachers teach, Sinkler said.

“I’ve been able to think like a designer,” she said. “I can actually make some massive shifts in the way our space looks and feels.”

This year’s Salesforce.com money will also help fund computer science curriculum district-wide and expand the district’s Zynga.org Game Design Academy.

Technology and beyond

Also on the list: digital citizenship classes that include everything from privacy settings on Snapchat and other social media sites to cyberbullying, with the San Francisco nonprofit Common Sense Media spearheading that effort.

These are basic skills schools often are unprepared to teach, but represent “real things that matter to kids with devices in their hands, whether or not they’re at school,” DiBianca said.

It’s not just about tech, as the money will pay for 14 coaches and teachers who will focus on improving middle school math classes.

The 2015 funding brings the three-year total spent on city schools to about $14 million — a “game-changer,” said San Francisco Superintendent Richard Carranza.

“This partnership is providing the resources we need to provide our students with the best hands-on science, technology, engineering and math education in the nation,” he said.

In addition to the cash, the company has ramped up employee volunteer time in schools as well — 1,500 the first year, 5,000 hours last year and 10,000 hours this year.

“The city is going through a renaissance,” DiBianca said. “If we want to keep all these tech employees or keep people in the city, we’re going to have to have great public schools. They can’t cover it with the resources they have.”

Page updated on 08/24/15