The district is getting $8.7 million this year for Oakland middle schools.
Alexiah De La Pena was immediately fascinated by software coding last year when she learned to move animated characters across a screen in her sixth-grade computer science class at Elmhurst United Middle School in East Oakland.
“It was challenging and fun at the same time,” said De La Pena, 12, who is again taking the class this year as a seventh-grader.
What De La Pena did not know was that Elmhurst wouldn’t even have a computer science teacher, or any computers for such a class, if it wasn’t for Salesforce, the San Francisco software company that has donated $23.6 million to the Oakland Unified School District since 2016. In fact, the entire district had no organized computer science program before Salesforce came along, and now all of its middle schools offer computer science.
That is one way among many that Elmhurst Principal Kilian Betlach and other Oakland middle school principals say that Salesforce’s sustained financial support in recent years, along with regular volunteering by company employees, has made a qualitative difference in the functioning of their schools (Salesforce pays employees for a certain amount of volunteering).
“It’s integral to what we’re doing now and the type of school we aspire to be,” said Betlach, who supervises a campus with 720 students, most of whom are from low-income families.
Salesforce recently announced it would give another $8.7 million to Oakland middle schools for the current school year to support computer science, math programs, teacher training, and the needs of immigrant children. The company is also donating $8.5 million to the San Francisco Unified School District, which it has been bankrolling since 2013 and where support has expanded to the elementary and high schools. Combined, the two districts have so far received $67.4 million and 45,000 hours of volunteering from Salesforce (which has also made almost $23 million in education donations elsewhere).
That largesse has included annual Principal’s Innovation Fund grants of $100,000 or more to every middle school principal in Oakland, where principals have used the money to build libraries and computer labs, supplement salaries, support special education initiatives, and develop mentoring programs. In Betlach’s case, he spent some of the money on tall, café-style chairs and tables to give students a feeling for the kind of work environment that has spawned so many startups in the Bay Area.
“Absent these dollars, our school would look and feel really different,” Betlach said. “We would function at a much lower level.”
Salesforce’s donations to Oakland and San Francisco schools have steadily grown over time as the company itself has grown, a reflection of Salesforce’s long-standing commitment to spend 1 percent of its equity, employee time, and product on philanthropic ventures.
The company’s investments in Oakland schools, starting at $2.5 million in 2016, have increased despite repeated controversies over budget shortfalls in the district, high principal turnover, and a recent grand jury report that blamed many district woes on poor business practices and a broken administrative culture.
Asked about Salesforce’s staunch support in the face of the school district’s difficulties, company cofounder and co-CEO Marc Benioff said simply: “We’re doing this in perpetuity. It’s very important to us.”
“We’re a company that’s built on the support of all stakeholders, not just our shareholders, and one of our stakeholders in our company is our kids,” Benioff said. “They have the stock in our future. So I’m there to serve them.”
Asked about the grand jury report, Principal Betlach said Salesforce has been very strategic by giving money directly to schools. In a case like the districtwide English Language Learner and Multilingual Achievement initiative, which gets Salesforce money, the program is very highly rated by teachers, he said.
“I’m sure that’s a fact they are not ignorant of. I don’t think they are blindly throwing money at the issue,” he said.
Indeed, Salesforce Chief Philanthropy Officer Ebony Beckwith, an Oakland resident herself, said her company tracks metrics of success on a quarterly basis for the school programs it funds.
“We make sure everything is measurable,” said Beckwith, adding high words of praise for Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who has been on the job for two years since the last in a series of short-term superintendents left district finances in shambles.
Johnson-Trammell, for her part, praised Benioff for truly listening to educators to find out what kind of help they need.
“The listening actually isn’t lip service,” she told the audience at the Presidio Middle School event in San Francisco where Salesforce announced its latest grants.
For Oakland’s schools, that approach has helped significantly to produce positive results, according to Trammell-Johnson and others, such as:
• The number of middle school students taking computer science went from 82 in four middle schools in 2016 to 1,750 in all middle schools, and the demographics of those taking the classes now represents the whole student body.
• The number of African-American students being referred for behavior problems at one middle school (now part of Elmhurst) dropped 47 percent, a trend attributed in part to the work of a mindfulness coach and a restorative justice coordinator Salesforce funded.
• Last year, more than 900 immigrant children (about half the number of newly arrived kids in the district, including unaccompanied minors and refugees) received counseling, case management, group therapy, and case management to address housing, food, legal, and medical needs.
Beckwith also highlighted training and other support Salesforce provides for school personnel, which not only improve services for students but also help with recruitment and retention of principals and teachers.
Last year, for example, Salesforce sponsored almost 200 hours of professional development for math teachers and coaches.
At Elmhurst, Principal Betlach pointed gratefully to Salesforce’s helping teachers and administrators with the escalating costs of being a teacher, like the price of recurrent credentialing exams, now more than $100 each, a significant sum when the starting salary for an OUSD teacher is $41,000.
Westlake Middle School Principal Maya Taylor, meanwhile, believes this year’s higher rate of return of teachers at her school is due in part to her using some of her principal innovation grant for retreats and breakfasts at which staff could build community and talk about ways to improve their jobs. In the past, the school would have to hire as many as 10 teachers each year, but this year there were only three vacancies.
“They just were not staying,” she said.
Like Betlach, Taylor said Salesforce’s positive influence on her school goes well beyond providing dollars. Salesforce employees regularly help with a variety of needs, ranging from serving a Thanksgiving meal to setting up for arts night to bringing robotic toys for students to experience.
“Salesforce has integrated itself and become a big part of our family here,” Taylor said.
Bonnie Wu, an executive assistant to several executives in sales at Salesforce who has been a regular at Westlake, said her team has exposed kids to a variety of jobs in the tech industry that don’t involve computer science. One who got a lot of interest was the woman responsible for filling seats in Salesforce’s luxury boxes at different entertainment venues, and the sports paraphernalia she displayed.
“The kids were oohing and aahing over that,” Wu said.
Roosevelt Middle School Principal Clifford Hong credited Salesforce marketing experts with helping his 604-student school increase enrollment by more than 80 students since 2016 through the use of well-crafted postcards, brochures, and other messaging materials.
Hong is excited that on Nov. 14 Salesforce is going to be hosting a summit for Oakland and San Francisco middle school principals at Salesforce Tower in San Francisco for professional development and collaboration.
“That’s really missing in public education, more regular sharing of best practices,” Hong said.
A veteran of teaching in New York City and Oakland who has been principal at Roosevelt for 10 years, Hong said he knows of no other company that has shown the same broad and sustained and commitment to schools.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said.