Graphics by Andra Cernavskis

While students at Marshall Elementary and George Moscone Elementary schools have scored well in state standardized tests, doing so has helped put them behind in acquiring technology.

Better test scores meant they lost out on the $45 million, three-year federal School Improvement Grants that added computers, iPads and laptops at the Mission District’s struggling schools.

But being tech deficient has not been a problem – until now. Starting in the fall of 2015, all students will take the national standardized tests, known as the Common Core, on a computer.

“If we can’t get more money from the school district, we won’t be ready for the Common Core,” said Marco Bianchi, the curriculum technologies integrator specialist at Marshall.  And even beyond that one test, those schools with more computers report that the earlier their students are introduced to computers at school, the better.

“The skills the kids are going to need to have beyond their school years are going to involve technology,” Bianchi said. “They are going to suffer if they don’t have that.”

Jacinto Noriega, who began working as a computer teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School only a few weeks ago, put it this way: “It’s like literacy.”

Getting the money to achieve computer literary at Moscone and Marshall is particularly difficult because the schools serve low-income students. Some 90 percent of the students at Moscone and 80 percent at Marshall are on free or reduced lunch.

“Parents can’t donate,”  Valerie Hoshino, the principal of George Moscone, said matter-of-factly.

Added Michele McMahon-Cost, president of Marshall’s PTA,  “A lot of our kids are living at the poverty line. The only time these kids get to use a computer is at school.”

At Marshall 250 students share 23, seven-year-old Mac Minis, and one teacher has managed to acquire an iPad for her classroom.  Bianchi describes the computers as  “a little antiquated.”

“Lots of times, people say we will have the money and will buy computers, but that never happens. It’s an abysmal situation,” said Bianchi. “The kids can’t use [the computers we have] effectively.”

Four years ago, Cesar Chavez Elementary, Bryant Elementary, Everett Middle School, and Buena Vista Horace Mann were all named struggling schools and received a $45 million federal school improvement grant that ended this year. The grant allowed them to purchase between $25,000 to $40,000 to improve their technology.

Cesar Chavez, for example, spent $31,262 on Apple MacBook Pros. Each teacher that wanted an Apple laptop received one. In addition, the school now has 30 Apple computers that are available to the students and two mobile carts—one with 30 iPads and another with 20 laptops.

“The other day I was in a kindergarten classroom and showing an iPad,” said Noriega, the computer teacher. “Within 20 minutes, they got it. Kids are fearless [when it comes to technology].”

Bianchi agreed. He said that he is not just concerned about the necessity of computers for the Common Core but also about the students learning about technology generally.  Students, he said, will need to know how to use computers in middle school for research papers and homework.

Introducing computers early on, local teachers said, made a big difference in their comfort level with technology.

The students at Buena Vista Horace Mann are more comfortable around computers than they used to be, according to James Canales, the computer and technology specialist at Buena Vista Horace Mann, “Even the kindergarteners can use computers,” Canales said.

At Marshall and Moscone, however, choices have to be made.

“A lot of times it comes down to keeping a teacher or buying equipment. That’s an unfortunate decision to have to make,” Bianchi said. “It’s whether we bite our leg or arm off.”

McMahon-Cost, the president of Marshall’s PTA agreed. “[Technology] is one of those things, as parents, that we think there should be room in the budget for, but the funding isn’t there,” she said, adding that the same goes for arts and physical education programs at the school.

The Marshall PTA has been making steps to improve the situation. This is the first year that they have included a $5,000 line in their fundraising objectives.

While Marshall has a computer teacher, George Moscone has never had one.

“There is no money,” said Hoshino, Moscone’s principal. “Our money is spent on a reading teacher, not a computer teacher.”

Hoshino said the kindergarten through 5th grade school of 362 students has 20 outdated computers in their computer lab.

“We have no money in the budget for computers.” Hoshino continued. “Basic supplies are the priority.”

In recent weeks, Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of, has promised $2.7 million to improve technology at the city’s twelve middle schools. The only school in the Mission that will benefit from this donation is Everett Middle School.

The San Francisco Unified School District does not directly fund technology for its schools, and the Mission’s elementary schools are rarely able to include lines in their own budgets for computers. The mayor and superintendent hope to improve the situation by developing more relationships with businesses like, according to Gentle Blythe, the spokesperson for the school district.

“This is just the beginning,” Blythe said of the donation. “The Mayor and Superintendent continue to work closely to bring in more partnerships that will ultimately help us improve all of our schools for all of our students. They have every intention of reaching every middle school student over the course of time, and ultimately every student in the district.”

At Marshall, budget constraints and have prompted the PTA to become creative when it comes to fundraising for supplies and programs.

Through a crowdsourcing website called, the PTA has been able to raise money for about five new projectors to be put in classrooms, according to McMahon-Cost.

The website works by allowing corporations to match donations made by parents, friends of the school, or others.

The website shows that on October 7th Marcelle Poulos, a 3rd Grade teacher at Marshall, was able to “complete a project” by raising the $699 to buy an iPad for her classroom.

In the description of the project on, Poulos wrote, “My students love multimedia presentations. We have a projector and I would love to be able to utilize the many education apps that are available on an iPad.”

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Andra Cernavskis is a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She is Canadian by birth but grew up in New Jersey and then San Francisco's Miraloma neighborhood. She has also spent time in Toronto, Buffalo, and Montreal. The Mission is one of her favorite neighborhoods, and she is thrilled to be back reporting in San Francisco.

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  1. It’s one thing to get funding for computers. It another to fund the staff to maintain the computers and train teachers on effective usage. To often schools get a grant for shiny new computers only to have them to fall into disrepair or under-utilization or obsolescence. At Everett due to the drawdown of SIG funding, the computer coordinator was let go. Consequently, Everett depends on SFUSD IT to maintain them which has resulted in 30% of the computers are now unusable while they wait for service. With computer testing as part of Common Core, I don’t see how it’s going to happen at some of these schools. There’s not even enough working computers to administer the test.

    1. I’m interested in understanding this problem better… do you know what sort of service the computers are being sent out for?

      1. By industry standards there are very few people to service and provide help to teachers. The few that we have, haven’t received much updated training, and get paid less than what the same job title city workers have so many have put in their 2 years in the district and make lateral moves to make more money. We need some serious infrastructure support, person power, training and massive amount of hardware to retool for the 21st century.

        One of the biggest problems that I see, is that teachers, as a course of employment aren’t assigned a computer. Most are older than their students, slow, and out of date. SF, lets spend the million dollars or so and get every teacher a laptop.

        1. context: I founded a tech company. I’m curious whether our employees already have the know-how needed to service these computers, simply as a result of being extremely proficient with computers for their jobs. I may be dreaming, but it seems worth asking to get a better sense of what the schools need done on an ongoing basis.

          If our employees do have the necessary skills, I know we have people who would be willing to volunteer hours to help out, and I bet the same goes for other tech companies. If we coordinated our efforts, it could be meaningful.

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