Ten years ago this month, your humble narrator’s former colleague, Peter Jamison, wrote a scathing exposé on the video game outfit Zynga, creators of the inane “Farmville” time-waster. 

A decade down the road, that video game probably seems like a particularly ill-conceived memory, as does the tax-laden red carpet this city laid at the feet of such companies. But one line from that story does feel relevant now. Zynga CEO Mark Pincus reportedly gave his subordinates the succinct marching orders of, “I don’t fucking want innovation.” 

And, lo, he didn’t get it. 

One month ago, Mission Local wrote about how the San Francisco Unified School District crushed nascent efforts of personnel at Rooftop School cooperating with parents’ attempts to form so-called “pandemic pods” — even if the district employees’ underlying goals were to ensure those pods be equitable and not undermine the public school system. 

Those goals, in fact, were met. 

But Rooftop principal Nancy Bui was castigated by her district superiors, and her actions triggered the threat of an Unfair Labor Practices complaint from the teachers’ union. 

Via a public records request, we have obtained numerous emails between Bui, assistant superintendent Jason Hannon, and various United Educators union officials that underlie this situation. These are not entirely pleasant conversations. And, if one chooses to tumble down this rabbit hole, there are any number of carrots to be unearthed. 

Hannon, at one point, appears to question why Bui would contravene district policies regarding pods that actually hadn’t been stated or codified at the time of her actions — but then notes that the policy the district is formulating would lead “to brick-and-mortar school settings in small learning communities along similar lines of thinking as the ‘pods.’” 

That is: The district is moving toward a policy similar to the policy it markedly does not endorse and the principal was in error for abetting. 

The union’s claim that Bui’s actions potentially constituted an unfair labor practice — that teachers would be mandated to minister to pods without some manner of contract negotiations — is never borne out within the many emails we obtained. Our calls to the district and union asking if this claim was, in fact, valid were not answered. Bui denied it, repeatedly, in the emails. And, in the end, the Unfair Labor Practices complaint was never filed. 

Regardless, Bui was made to sever ties with parents forming pods or, it seems, even talk about them. Hannon, in subsequent emails to union leaders, asks them to report back if they have any information about Bui continuing to do so — “so I may follow up immediately.” 

An administrator seeking compromising information on his subordinate from the union feels a bit unusual. But the school district rebuffing bottom-up attempts at innovation? That doesn’t feel so unusual at all. 

Because, in this matter, the district didn’t want innovation.

When Craig Kilborn hosted The Daily Show, the term “fake news” meant something else. But semantics matter, and the meanings of words can change, rapidly, and take on sinister tones. 

And that’s definitely the case for “pods.” 

As we noted last month, “pod” is just the Centers for Disease Control’s preferred nomenclature for a small group; it merely implies a handful of students in an educational setting. 

But, buffeted by heavy media coverage of privileged, largely white parents forming their own de-facto schools in backyards or garages and perhaps even poaching public school teachers to lead them, the term became a loaded one. Among forces that have long hoped to weaken the public school system, “pandemic pods” — or, more problematically, “microschools” — have been a perverse blessing

This was not the goal of Bianca Rowden Quince and Gail Cornwall, the Rooftop parents who initiated the formation of that school’s students into pods. They wanted to stave off an exodus from the district and provide support for students within the school’s existing framework — while also creating a potential stepping stone for an eventual return to in-person instruction. They appealed to Bui to help divide up the pods equitably, and Bui agreed. 

Rooftop, located on two campuses not so far from Twin Peaks, has more than its share of pushy, white, well-off parents. But one-third of its students are also qualify for subsidized lunches. Bui’s allotments — of all the children in the school — ensured that the pods would be equitable by race, gender, and economics. 

Cornwall says that many students who may otherwise never have socialized are now learning together and seeing one another in physically distant in-person meetings (none of the pods, to her knowledge, meet in person for educational purposes). She further stresses that Bui’s actions “did function to stop many parents from going the microschools route, from coming together and hiring a teacher.”

After Bui assigned families to pods, it would have been quite a bit more awkward for a parent to buck this assignment, withdraw from the public school system, and head out on their own — especially if the perception was that they would rather not have non-privileged, non-white children in their cohort. 

It’s hard not to see this as a positive outcome. But union fears that teachers would be expected to work with pods — which Bui vehemently and repeatedly denied in the emails — appear to have spelled doom for district involvement, regardless. The specter of “microschools” may have played a role as well. Bui last month complained in an email that Hannon continually and inaccurately used this term to describe the situation at Rooftop, potentially stoking union fears. 

“‘Microschools’ on a national level has meant an exercise in White privilege and the dismantling of public education by forming exclusive, homogeneous, and predominantly White groupings,” she wrote in an Aug. 5 email. “Rooftop pods, in contrast, are about inclusion and diversity, and are intended to keep students enrolled in SFUSD.”

And, again, that appears to have happened. But both the district and the union moved, expediently, to curtail involvement with this program, perhaps due to negative reactions based upon what it wasn’t rather than what it was. 

This is our first pandemic, so everything is, again, a bit unusual. But an SFUSD principal being innovative and proactive — and having her wings clipped — is not unusual. 

“This is the district being lazy,” sums up a former longtime principal. “It would take a lot of work to get structures like those at Rooftop off the ground — especially if this became the expectation and every school community was looking for this.” 

Rooftop is, again, a school with more privileged families than many. But, the former SFUSD principal continued, “this could have been a way to get more resources to students whose families don’t have as much.” 

School bus for Rooftop pods story

The notion that a program that can’t be duplicated well at every school should not be attempted at any school is not one the district holds itself to in all facets, incidentally. The city’s grotesque inequities are plainly revealed by the fund-raising disparities at Parent-Teacher Associations from one school to the next. But the district hasn’t yet proposed pooling the money and divvying it up equitably.

The district “didn’t trust the parents were doing something good and innovative that they should troubleshoot,” says another former longtime principal. “Instead they just shut it down.” The district, by default, “goes into CYA mode [Cover Your Ass]. They are acting out of fear instead of thinking creatively.” 

When asked for comment, Hannon sent the following: 

My number one priority is to support students and families by way of supporting my site leaders.  I was notified by the teachers union of concerns regarding the formation of pods and microschools.  Naturally, I informed my site leaders of these concerns, with the goal of working with my site leaders so they may address these concerns with their staff in support of students and families and resolve them at the site level.

Per district policy and keeping in line with the labor agreements we are bound to, and in an effort to bring a resolution between my site leaders and their staff, I instructed my site leaders to consult with me (supervisor) prior to engaging any further in this matter.  The Unfair Labor Practice charge was ultimately not filed against my site leaders.

I appreciate that this situation highlighted the challenges my site leaders face in balancing the needs of students, families, staff while upholding district policies and labor agreements.  I believe our collective partnership will continue to work in service of our kids and vision for equity and social justice.

The emails received by Mission Local in response to our public records request include one on July 24, in which Bui was told by Hannon that “I would strongly encourage you to reconsider making any public statements about this issue,” after she told the New York Times that the inequities associated with “pods” and “microschools” are “the antithesis of what Rooftop is all about, which is inclusion and diversity.” 

Bui wrote last week that neither Hannon nor the district had responded to her request for “guidance” on how to address Mission Local’s questions, so she declined to speak at this time. 

Downtown view from Mission High School. May 9, 2020 around noon. Photo by Kerim Harmanci.

Zynga’s Mark Pincus didn’t desire innovation. And Zynga, while extant, is no longer the force it was 10 years ago; like so many San Francisco businesses, its real value turned out to be in the property it owned

The San Francisco Unified School District owns plenty of property, too. But land wealth is not a route to success here. We don’t need quality farm video games, but we do need quality public schools. 

The District has, commendably, done a hell of a lot to maximize the possibilities of distance learning. It has, commendably, put many laptops into many kids’ hands. But distance learning is an inherently limited proposition and the district has done considerably less to address the needs of working parents attempting to earn a living while a kid sits in front of a computer (full disclosure: It me). 

The hubs (née “learning hubs”) aimed at accommodating the children of the city’s neediest families were largely a brainchild of the Recreation and Park Department and Department of Children, Youth and their Families. The School District’s major contribution here, it seems, was to request the term “learning” be removed.

Parochial schools have had plans in place to get kids back in the building as soon as the Department of Public Health allows it. If this goes smoothly, and if the hubs go smoothly, the district will be left answering questions about when public school parents might expect the same. 

The district’s disavowal of even an advisory role regarding parent-formed pods, then, does not bode well. Parents, meanwhile, were excited to hear about nascent plans for outdoor learning in McLaren Park during a recent Board of Education meeting — but that plan appears to have gone up in smoke even before our air quality went up in smoke. 

With our kids’ future on the line, failure is not an option at the San Francisco Unified School District. 

But, without innovation, neither is success.  

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