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
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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.

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