Tech titan's high-grade gift to S.F. middle schools

By Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle

Marc Benioff, founder
Photo: Steve Jennings, Getty Images For TechCrunch

Some months ago, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and schools Superintendent Richard Carranza met with founder Marc Benioff to ask the tech titan for some financial support to boost access to technology in the city's 12 middle schools.

It was a gutsy plea - enough to buy hundreds of iPads, provide wireless access in classrooms, and leave enough extra to train teachers to use all of it well.

But Benioff was frustrated by the size of the request.

"You have to think bigger," the CEO told them.

Instead, let's start with $100,000 for each middle school principal to spend - an "innovation grant" to pay for what is needed most at each school, Benioff told them.

And, by the way, yes to the iPads and the rest, too, he added.

The three city-school-tech leaders are scheduled Monday to announce the $2.7 million donation, the largest single-year business investment in the district's history.

But Benioff isn't done.

He asked the mayor, who has made the city's middle schools his top education priority, what else he wanted for the 12 sites.

Lee didn't have an immediate answer.

"You don't ever get to do what you really want to do," Lee told The Chronicle.

Offer open for a year


With pen poised above a checkbook, Benioff told Lee he had a year to figure it out and come back for more.

"We wanted to make this bigger," Benioff said. "The city and school district weren't ready for us to do more."
How much more?

"We're loaded with money," he said and the mayor's focus on preparing middle-school students for the future workforce is a perfect match for the tech company's philanthropic foundation.

"Why shouldn't San Francisco have the best 12 middle schools in the country?" Benioff said. "What is preventing that? We are their partner in this."

The school district and mayor's office are already planning, working with the schools, parents, teachers and others to think big.

"I know that I don't want to take his money and waste it," Lee said. "You want to make sure it has the kind of impact it deserves.

"Mayors just dream of these opportunities."

Business support


The long-term goal, however, is to bring more businesses into the district's philanthropy fold, following's footsteps, Lee and Carranza said.

That's already happening, the mayor said, with Autodesk agreeing to load 3-D technology onto the iPads.

With the innovation grants, principals have been buying additional technology, including equipment and supplies for robotics clubs at Presidio and Roosevelt middle schools.

Teachers have been incorporating the tablets into class work since the beginning of the school year.

(Unlike Los Angeles schools, which had to confiscate iPads last week after students took them home and hacked into them, San Francisco middle-school kids can use them only in class.)

In Griffin Gorsky's seventh-grade science class at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Friday, students spent the first part of class taking a paper-and-pencil test and then switched to the iPads to draw a picture of an eye and then make an audio recording of a poem they wrote about their own eyes.

"My eyes are mysterious, big and wild," Ruqaiyah Angeles recited into the tablet. "My eyes are brown and shiny like a bronze medal."

She read the rest of her poem and then held the tablet's speaker to her ear to make sure it had recorded. Then, with a push of an icon, she electronically turned in the work to her teacher.

"In the olden days, no one got to do that," she said.

The incorporation of the tablets hasn't been without some struggles, Gorsky said at the end of the class.  There have been some wireless issues, and some students can't seem to remember their log-in information.

One artistic student created a picture of an eye on the tablet, only to accidentally and irrevocably erase it.

In the past, computers and other technology have been pushed into schools, but were never fully utilized by untrained teachers or were left to collect dust after they broke or became obsolete.
The tablets aren't the goal, Carranza said.

"The iPads are just a tool," he said, adding that the donation is related to the district's emphasis on STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

Critical thinking


For example, students are already making iMovies with the tablets, rethinking the actions of historical figures and embedding historical documents, he said - a combination of doing critical thinking using a high-tech tool.

"I think it would be shortsighted for anyone to look at this and think it's about iPads," he said. "This is really about putting the T in STEM."

For Benioff, it was about making a seven-figure down payment on what he promised would be a long-term partnership.

"All the city has to do is tell us what they want," Benioff said. "This will not be our last grant."