Fixing Public Schools for Everyone

As Oakland gentrifies, incoming middle- and upper-class families are rallying around schools — public schools.

Insider a kindergarten classroom at Learning Without Limits, a K-5 school in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
See more stories about...
Sophie Quinton
Oct. 10, 2013, 9:22 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Oak­land, Cal­if.

OAK­LAND, Cal­if.”“Kathy Cash has prom­ised her 7-year-old daugh­ter that — from kinder­garten through col­lege — she’ll fight to keep her in the best schools. So Cash went in­to pan­ic mode when she real­ized that Sophia’s pub­lic ele­ment­ary school was threatened with clos­ure. In the spring of 2011, 16 out of 17 teach­ers at Learn­ing Without Lim­its, a col­lege prep school in Oak­land’s heav­ily Latino Fruit­vale neigh­bor­hood, re­ceived lay­off no­tices. Most LWL teach­ers are young and new to teach­ing, and have zero job se­cur­ity when budget cuts hit Cali­for­nia’s seni­or­ity-based sys­tem.

Cash, a stay-at-home mom, star­ted con­ven­ing weekly par­ent meet­ings soon after Sophia entered kinder­garten in the fall of 2011. Even­tu­ally, ad­vocacy from Cash and oth­er con­cerned par­ents helped push the Oak­land Uni­fied School Dis­trict to reach a com­prom­ise: Learn­ing Without Lim­its would be­come a part­ner charter school, main­tain­ing its ties to the dis­trict but gain­ing more autonomy over staff­ing. “You don’t just get to make a de­cision on my child’s fu­ture without my con­sent,” Cash says of the school dis­trict.

Oak­land’s low-per­form­ing urb­an schools have been whipsawed by a steady stream of crises and edu­ca­tion-re­form ef­forts for more than a dec­ade. “The gen­er­al theme for me is how much change has been done, how hard they’ve worked, and how little there is to show for it,” says Cali­for­nia State Board of Edu­ca­tion Pres­id­ent Mi­chael Kirst of Oak­land schools. There are high-per­form­ing pub­lic schools in Oak­land, in­nov­at­ive pro­grams, and com­mit­ted teach­ers. But ab­so­lute out­comes re­main abysmal. Only 32 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and 28 per­cent of Latino third-graders read at grade level. Less than half of high school stu­dents pass courses they need to ap­ply to a state uni­versity.

Now there’s a sense that the dis­trict may be shift­ing to­ward a more col­lab­or­at­ive, po­ten­tially more ef­fect­ive ap­proach to im­prov­ing edu­ca­tion. It’s a change that has been fueled by par­ent lead­ers like Cash, a new school board, and a polit­ic­ally act­ive com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tion called Great Oak­land Pub­lic Schools, pop­ularly known as GO.

Loc­al edu­ca­tion lead­ers know all too well that there are no sil­ver-bul­let solu­tions for im­prov­ing urb­an schools. That’s why GO is fo­cused on chart­ing a middle course. “We’re not the charter people. We’re not the dis­trict people. We want to be the qual­ity people,” says ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Jonath­an Klein.

Since its found­ing in 2009, GO has fo­cused on dis­sem­in­at­ing clear in­form­a­tion about pro­gress in the dis­trict’s schools, con­ven­ing edu­ca­tion lead­ers, and or­gan­iz­ing the grass­roots. Dur­ing the 2012 school board elec­tions, 300 people showed up at GO’s of­fices to make calls on be­half of can­did­ates en­dorsed by the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s mem­bers. When lay­off no­tices hit Learn­ing Without Lim­its, GO was there to help the school’s over­worked prin­cip­al re­search a solu­tion that wouldn’t re­quire the school to leave the dis­trict.

Part of GO’s mis­sion is to ad­voc­ate for change in a man­ner that is care­ful and builds con­sensus. In a re­cent ef­fort to im­prove teach­er qual­ity, GO began by con­ven­ing com­munity groups, in­clud­ing a loc­al chapter of the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on. The as­sembled co­ali­tion com­mis­sioned a re­port on Oak­land from the Na­tion­al Coun­cil of Teach­er Qual­ity, which helped con­vince dis­trict lead­er­ship to pi­lot three teach­er-eval­u­ation ap­proaches at six schools. The vari­ous eval­u­ations in­clude ob­ser­va­tion, stu­dent test data, and par­ent and stu­dent sur­veys, and they will be im­ple­men­ted school-wide. No con­sequences are at­tached to the scores teach­ers re­ceive — the stated goal is to provide bet­ter feed­back.

If the par­ti­cip­at­ing schools find the pi­lots help­ful, they could help gen­er­ate more sup­port for pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment for teach­ers — without set­ting off alarm bells for the uni­on, which doesn’t want to tie teach­er’s job se­cur­ity or com­pens­a­tion to a sub­ject­ive meas­ure. Uni­on lead­ers want to see teach­ers sup­por­ted in­stead of de­mon­ized; they also want to make sure that teach­ers have a voice in ef­forts to im­prove the schools.

Even so, GO’s polit­ic­al activ­it­ies can some­times put it in con­flict with the loc­al teach­er’s uni­on, as happened dur­ing a re­cent school board elec­tion. “They’re As­tro­turf for charter schools,” charges Oak­land Edu­ca­tion As­so­ci­ation Pres­id­ent Trish Gorham. The uni­on was as­ton­ished at the amount of money GO’s PAC was able to raise in a city this size: more than $186,000, in­clud­ing three dona­tions of more than $35,000. The Cali­for­nia Charter Schools As­so­ci­ation gave al­most $50,000, ac­cord­ing to loc­al edu­ca­tion re­port­er Katy Murphy.

In­creased com­munity in­volve­ment in Oak­land schools is a trend that isn’t likely to turn around any time soon. On the state gov­ern­ment front, a new Cali­for­nia law gives Oak­land a reas­on to in­crease col­lab­or­a­tion. The Loc­al Con­trol Fund­ing For­mula, en­acted in 2013, is set to dir­ect more state money to the needi­est stu­dents, with a re­quire­ment that school dis­tricts en­gage par­ents and com­munity mem­bers in plan­ning how to spend it. In the 2013-14 school year, the school dis­trict is hop­ing to get $331 ex­tra dol­lars per pu­pil, and to see that in­crease to an ad­di­tion­al $1,580 per pu­pil an­nu­ally by 2020.

Chan­ging demo­graph­ics have also helped fuel a more in­clus­ive ap­proach to school im­prove­ment. Between up­wardly mo­bile par­ents like Cash — who are be­ing en­cour­aged by GO and oth­er com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions to speak out — and an in­flux of middle- and up­per-class fam­il­ies to the area, OUSD schools are com­ing un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from par­ents.

Middle-class ar­rivals who fled the high costs of San Fran­cisco are de­mand­ing qual­ity pub­lic — un­der­line pub­lic — edu­ca­tion in Oak­land, says James Har­ris, a school board mem­ber whose can­did­acy was backed by GO. That re­quires in­nov­a­tion to oc­cur with­in the dis­trict. “It’s easy to all day long go to the table and say, ‘Here’s my charter, and I’m out,’ ” he says. “What can we do to say, ‘Let’s use their in­nov­a­tion? Let’s in­vite their in­nov­a­tion?’ “

There are great teach­ers in Oak­land, and a lot of people look­ing out for kids, says Cash. “When I was grow­ing up — I didn’t hear about that, I didn’t get to see it,” she says. Cash was born in Nicaragua, but has lived in Oak­land for most of her life. Al­though she has both an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree and a bach­el­or’s de­gree, she thinks a lot about how much more she would have achieved aca­dem­ic­ally if she’d felt so well sup­por­ted. Then she vows to do more for her daugh­ter.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­stated the year Kathy Cash’s daugh­ter entered kinder­garten. She did so in the fall of 2011.

What We're Following See More »
MAJORITY OPPOSES ‘BATHROOM BILLS’
Poll: Three-Quarters of Americans Support LGBT Protections
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

A new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute "found 72 percent of Americans now favor passing laws to protect lesbian, gay and transgender people from discrimination, including three-quarters of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans." A majority also opposes "bathroom bills," of the kind passed by North Carolina.

Source:
PROCEDURES NOT FOLLOWED
Trump Not on Ballot in Minnesota
21 hours ago
THE LATEST
MOB RULE?
Trump on Immigration: ‘I Don’t Know, You Tell Me’
1 days ago
THE LATEST

Perhaps Donald Trump can take a plebiscite to solve this whole messy immigration thing. At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last night, Trump essentially admitted he's "stumped," turning to the audience and asking: “Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”

Source:
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
3 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
×