Oakland B.C., Why the Blame Game Won’t Help and Will Likely Hurt

The search for scapegoats in OUSD’s budget deficit is in full effect and is distracting from the search for solutions.  This was on full display at the recent OUSD Board meeting, where a lot of blame was laid with few real solutions offered.

The deficit is the business manager’s fault, it’s the old Supe’s fault, it’s the board’s fault, it’s because of charters, it’s FICMAT’s fault on and on.

Let’s be clear, there are many contributing factors, but the deficit is no one person’s fault.  There are structural issues in OUSD and its spending, and until the real issues are addressed folks can blame whomever they want, but without practical solutions, we will just keep digging the hole deeper and we know where that eventually leads.

If you weren’t here during the imperial Randy Ward days you better ask somebody.  State receivership sucked.

“Charter schools are the devil”?

And first among scapegoats is the charter sector.  I heard it at the meeting.

“Charter schools are the devil” from a kid who couldn’t have been in middle school—wonder where they heard that?  Surprising they would have such a strong opinion on a governance model.

Or a call to close or stop approving charters—which will not work, since they can just appeal to the County and get approved, giving the district less authority over them and creating an even more wild wild west.

Or a call to stop honoring the law passed by voters, Proposition 39 which gives charters a legal right to “reasonably equivalent” district facilities.  Which again you can ignore, but LAUSD found out the hard way, that you can provide facilities or pay plaintiffs.

And seriously, let’s look at the charter school as culprit argument.

Which means going back to Oakland B.C.–before charters.

Oakland B.C.

If charters are the root of all evil, then things must have been great before them –right?   I know the logic isn’t perfect there, but there has to be some relationship here.  So I spent some searching the interwebs for data on OUSD’s performance back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

The tests have changed markedly, so it’s hard to compare those, but we can look at eligibility for the University of California and CSU systems—which while changing too—provide a somewhat common standard of college readiness and also cohort graduation rates, which while not perfect, are comparable.

The Golden Age of OUSD- a 25% cohort graduation rate

Here is what the Tribune had to say in 2003 around the performance of students in OUSD, during the early charter years, compared to the most recent data found in the current OUSD LCAP or the District Balanced Scorecard

Thousands of Oakland high school students and parents celebrated graduation this month. But 75 percent of the ninth-graders on the books in 1998 had nothing to celebrate on graduation day four years later, according to new school district records released to The Oakland Tribune…

The district’s new records show Oakland almost totally failed to graduate students with the credits they need to get into state universities or University of California schools.  Only 7 percent of the freshmen who started school in 1998 graduated four years later with the classes they need on their transcripts to get into state or UC schools. For African-American students, that percentage shrinks to less than 3 percent… That means fewer than three out of every 100 black freshmen graduated on time from city schools with enough credits to get into college. The numbers are even lower for black male students.

So the cohort graduation rate here was 25% in 2105 it was 60.7%

The overall UC/CSU eligibility was 7% in 2015 it was 45.6%

UC/CSU eligibility was 3% for African American students, and even lower for Black male students now it is 30.1% overall and 18% for Black males.

The Good Old Days-1.7% UC/CSU eligibility for Black males, .5% eligibility for Latino males

And data from report, Failing Grade: Crisis and Reform in the Oakland unified School District

More than one-third of OUSD students are designated as limited-English-proficient, yet only one percent of those students are reclassified English proficient.

English Learners reclassifications rates were13.1% in 2015

African-American students accounted for 745 out of 1,618 graduates from Oakland high schools, or 46 percent.1 However, only 29 male African-American students, or 1.7 percent of total graduates, met the coursework eligibility requirements for entrance into a CSU or UC school.2 The figures are even worse for Latino males. Of the 258 Latino graduates, only 8 male Latino students were eligible for CSU or UC, or .5 percent of total graduates.3 N

So the African American male UC/CSU eligibility here was 1.7% now it’s 18%

The Latino male numbers were .5% UC/CSU eligible, and while I didn’t see males broken out in the district scorecard, the overall Latino eligibility rate was 44.1%.

The takeaways

First, despite the abysmal history of achievement for underserved students in Oakland, we have made huge progress.  Grad rates have more than doubled for all students and UC/CSU eligibility for Black and Latino students have increased ten-fold.  Further the reclassification rates of English learners have increased 13 fold.  So there are some good things happening in OUSD that we need to keep doing.  Budget crisis or not.

Second, as charter schools have increased in number, the districts performance has increased.  This isn’t to assume any cause here, or maybe even any relationship.  But I think it’s tough to argue that somehow, the charters are the cause of Oakland Unified’s problems.

You could take away every charter in Oakland today, and it still wouldn’t fix the district, and when there were almost no charters the district was broke as a bad joke—academically and financially.

So it’s time to get real about our hard problems and harder solutions.  Blaming the boogeyman is easy, and may draw applause from partisans.  But like those who burned witches when plagues struck, the crowd may assemble and cheer  meanwhile the vermin grow and spread, alongside the illness.

Choosers and Losers; A Long Overdue Look at OUSD Enrollment Rules and Integration

Oakland Unified has been doing some powerful work in studying its own enrollment patterns and proposing policy changes to improve equity.  This work will expose deep inequities, likely question some privilege, and hopefully start an honest conversation about how we work together to create better and more equitable schools.

The board will be hearing a report on this from the enrollment office at the 4/12/17 meeting.  And while I often critique meetings for being more noise than signal, there is useful data in the presentations.  So let’s dig into the enrollment data a little, look at some inequities, and see what we can do.

District enrollment rules tend to comfort the comforted and afflict the afflicted, to butcher a phrase.  The highest performing and most demanded schools tend to be in the highest wealth neighborhoods.  And because we often privilege neighborhood students in attendance at local schools, and parents with more resources tend to be able to navigate and exercise choices, those schools usually are less diverse.  Rather than being an equalizer the system magnifies inequality.

The Northwest is the Best (based on demand)

Here’s the slide showing the most demanded elementary schools

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Almost all of the highest demanded schools are in the Northwest, and Lincoln is the only school with over 50% free/reduced lunch.  And all but one of these schools is in one of the top two tiers of performance.

These are public schools, but looking at Hillcrest, something just seems off, in a city that is 72% free/reduced?  This is a public resource that should be shared more broadly.

Parents are good choosers but who is choosing

I would love to get some more information about who the actual choosers are and whether they are representative of the district.  Public transportation can be very challenging in Oakland to go out of your neighborhood, so again resources may determine who can practically choose.

All that said, by and large, when we look the relationship between school performance and parental demand, parent tend to want to go to the higher performing schools.  There is a fancy graph below, but basically if we see the schools (represented by the dots) clustering around the dotted line, it shows a moderately strong relationship between school quality and parental demand.

2017-04-11 (3)

There are some other great nuggets in the data, and I look forward to more analysis going forward.  But the big question, once we see the inequities is what we are going to do.

Next steps -policies and parents

Rightly, OUSD is beginning with community engagement sessions and a more detailed access study (thank you!) and they already have a set of specific policy changes proposed for study

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There is some great stuff here, policies 4,5, and 8 would all explicitly work to increase equity and socioeconomic diversity.  While other areas would enhance student stability or provide higher priorities to Oakland kids.  These are all good changes, but a couple of things are missing.

What else?- Rezoning and Different Choices

One, we need to consciously study changing neighborhood enrollment boundaries to deliberately create diverse catchment areas.  Racist zoning and relining practices created our current neighborhoods and correlate too closely with school quality maps.  There is no need to honor those decisions.  This will need to be thoughtfully done, but it could be done, and this is a sacred cow due to the slaughterhouse.

Second, people’s mindsets need to change.  Many parents of many different races and statuses for many different reasons will tend to choose schools that are more like them.  The private choices of individuals drive broader trends of segregation, KQED did a great job of showing the stark disparities between schools in the same attendance zone, based on the choices of parents.  Parents, and particularly parents who are privileged with greater opportunities or resources, need to look at their choices consciously with an open mind, and vote for justice with their feet.

My colleague who writes the Integrated Schools Blog has asked parents to take the “two tours challenge” to visit 2 schools where your child would increase the diversity there, honestly and openly with no commitments.  And I loved reading a recent success story from a mom who did it and chose a more diverse school.

So while policies matter here and the technocrats need to get it right, I think the most important thing we can do is hopefully have some changes of heart.  We all benefit from true integration, and no matter how good your school is academically, you won’t learn the lessons you really need in isolation.

Is California’s More Equitable School Funding Formula Just a Scam; Canaries in the Coal Mine

When California changed the way it funds schools by adding extra funding specifically for high needs students, it was applauded as a means to reduce inequality.  But as we start to see the funding sift through districts and schools, many are wondering whether these funds are reaching the intended beneficiaries.

I previously raised this issue as it pertains to the missing $500K  designated for foster youth in Oakland, but Public Advocates is suing Long Beach Unified and LAUSD over the issue and the SacBee ran an editorial “Brown’s school finance overhaul could be a cruel joke on poor kids” making this seem like more than an isolated instance.

We are relatively early into implementation of the new system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), and if we are already seeing these issues, this should be canary in a coal mine moment—where we step back and take a harder look at whether this system is working as designed, and fix it if it’s not.

I will dig into the specific cases in a minute, but a little background might be helpful for those who have better things to do than study school finance formulas.

A Simpler and Fairer Way to Fund Schools?

In 2013-2014 California revamped the way it funds schools.  The state consolidated the scores of funding streams, and (to oversimplify some) concentrated school funding in the per pupil payment for students, paying extra money for certain classes of higher needs students.  Districts and schools then had to outline the plans for spending this money generally, as well as the specific plans for serving these higher needs students with the extra targeted funding, so called Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs).

So let’s look at how this is playing out.

Oakland’s foster youth question

I previously reported on the missing $500,000 in foster youth funding in Oakland.  As reported by the Foster Youth Advisory Council, Oakland Unified took in roughly $750,000 in targeted funding for foster youth, but seemed to spend only $250,000 on direct services.

I did dig in on this some, and it really doesn’t seem intentional.  As the money sifts through the various levels, it sometimes mixes with other pots and gets spent more generally, rather than targeted to these students.  That is not to say it’s OK or legal, or any less harmful.  To OUSD’s credit (thank you Superintendent Dillon, or whomever fought for this in the budget wars), it did seem like OUSD was adding more specialized counseling positions, in response to the findings.

This was only raised because advocates dug in on the numbers, how many students don’t have those advocates?  We need to be continually vigilant in following the money assuring it goes to the children it was intended for.  Underserved children are not a high powered constituency and they can easily become casualties of back room bargains, as the bigger dogs crowd around a shrinking budgetary bowl.

The lawsuits

Two of California’s five largest districts are already being sued for not properly targeting spending.   And given what we have seen in Oakland, I bet that many more such suits are just waiting to be filed.

EdSource covered this in a recent article, “Long Beach Unified Accused of Underfunding ‘High Needs’ Students”, describing the situation,

Long Beach Unified failed to account for or misspent $41 million that should have been used to expand and improve services for students receiving extra money under the state’s funding formula, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. The group filed a separate complaint against the Los Angeles County Office of Education for approving the district’s spending plan last fall.

The obligations for Districts were described as,

In return for receiving additional “supplemental” and “concentration” dollars for “high-needs” students – low-income children, foster and homeless youth, and English learners – the Local Control Funding Formula requires districts to spend the money on these students.

The basic argument is that you get more money for certain students so you have to show how you spent that money to benefit them.  The districts dispute any legal violations, predictably, and argued they were following the “spirit” of the law, spending the money in ways that supported these high needs students most generally.

As a reformed lawyer, I have to tell you, that following the “spirit” of the law usually means you are at least technically violating it.

The intent behind the LCFF is commendable, but if early indicators hold up and we don’t change course, those good intentions may just be re-paving a well-worn path, if not to hell, to purgatory, when our most challenged students are promised and deserve something better.

Teachers, You Can Never Know the Demons Your Students Face, But There Is Something You Can Do to Help

This guest post is by an anonymous, Oakland-based educator.

One time my mom tried to kill me.

She chased me with a knife, cackling like a witch. It was hide-and-seek—but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a game. I trembled in a dark corner of the basement, which terrified me, but I was more terrified of her finding me. It was hours down there, in the dark.

She sometimes heard voices, and sometimes those voices would tell her to do very bad things.

But as a child, it’s just the two of you, hard to make sense of what is what, and this the person you love most, admire most and still do.

And that time with the knife, she later told me, the demonic voices were telling her to kill me. That is when she had to banish them.

That is how I lived. It wasn’t like that every day, and I love my moms, of course—but there were these episodes. You come home and all your stuffed animals are burning in a pile in the backyard—they were talking to your mom, they were evil, so she burned them. The cross that hung over your bed disappeared, it’s a sign, you rush out of the house and stay in hotel for a night.

She self-medicated. She drank, but she would never take medication. A proud Black woman, she would say she’d “never be a slave to a drug.” So she never took any drugs that might have helped her.

She would binge-drink and once I understood the symptoms of being drunk, I would scour the house and pour what alcohol I found down the drain. Thankfully she wasn’t a mad drunk and she never came after me, but I would pour every drop of alcohol out because she would drink it if I didn’t.

Her health got worse and eventually she was completely disabled. Life got worse for me too, struggling with where to sleep, among other struggles.

Thing is, nobody ever knew. About any of this. Nobody at school. Really nobody. I was good at just keeping it all in. Telling people my mom was “at the hospital” when they asked where she was, since she obviously wasn’t at the house I was often sleeping in. She worked in health care, so I wasn’t lying, but they just assumed she was working.

Many children live in a similar world of insecurity or fear, with their protector haunted by demons. But that is the only world you have as a child—or at least it is better than your other choices. And you learn early on to keep that world private and invisible to the outside world. Even though I was active and well-known at school, I was very alone, like so many children living through the mental health or substance challenges of their parents. Desperately trying not to attract any attention. Holding those secrets close.

One of my coaches pulled me aside once and tried to talk about my escalating drug use. Really gently, he talked about how his own child had a disability and he would have hated to have done something to be responsible. Even as a teen I understood the message. He had heard something and he cared enough to just talk to me. I appreciated that. I didn’t stop using drugs, and it didn’t relieve any of the underlying issues, but it mattered and I felt a little less alone. That was the closest any adult got to me.

Every educator likely has kids whose parents have serious mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues. Chances are, they also have young people facing down their own mental health demons.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adults live with a mental illness and 1 in 25 have serious mental illnesses. These numbers vary by race and other factors, as does the likelihood of getting treatments. And half of all chronic mental health issues materialize before age 14. Furthermore, roughly 1 in 10 Americans over 12 needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I studied psychology in college, because I wanted to understand if I was having mental health issues. Instead, I ended up in education. I don’t have the answers here, but I do have some simple advice for other educators, which is…you just don’t know.

You don’t know what some or many of your students are struggling through, things that might literally be life or death, or the more subtle wearing down of a kid’s psychological defenses. You really don’t. And you probably won’t.

But you can create environments where children are physically and psychologically safe. Where they will be known and cared for. Where basic needs are always met and more complex ones are increasingly met.

There is an invisible world educators interact with every day, because as children we learn to hide things from the world. I know there are things that I should but will never know about my students, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t act. We need to support that invisible plane that students sometimes exist on, even without seeing it, but knowing it is always there.

And I have also learned that persistent caring matters, just being there enough, asking for the 100th time how a child is doing even if they said “fine” 99 times. Just showing that I care for their well-being consistently in bigger or smaller ways. And sometimes kids will talk, and share, and that can help.

Whether children are struggling with their parent’s demons or their own, nobody wants to face them alone.

 

Check back for more in our series of posts from Oakland students and alumni. Please sign up now if you would like to get notified when new stories are posted.

A Good Meeting from OUSD;  How “the Public” Can Wreck a Public Forum

This is not an April Fool’s joke.  I attended a powerful, informative, and productive meeting of an official OUSD committee.  I repeat-not a joke.

Before I dig in, let me describe it.  I was a few minutes late, but got to the room at Skyline and saw an attentive circle of probably 25-30 folks.  They looked like our kids, some of them were our kids, a parent was leading the meeting, staff, advocacy groups and students shared meaningful information, the principal shared his insights and we mulled through some of the real challenges facing underserved students.

It was respectful and interesting and unlike most every other OUSD meeting—I felt like I heard from the people I really needed to, the actual kids, graduates, families, ground level staff, and advocates.  The public comments here were from the real public, who had a neck deep stake in the system getting better.

Students and parents were on equal footing with staff and advocates, and the meeting was focused on sharing information and working through real solutions.  And as I said a parent ran the meeting—though I assumed she was a district heavy until she introduced herself.  And we covered real content and adjourned on time.

Contrast this with typical OUSD meeting, where the speakers seldom are students, often don’t resemble the average OUSD student or reflect their needs, and there really isn’t a search for solutions.  It’s more of just making your (often tired and redundant) point, criticizing the board or staff, then not listening to anyone else, while you wait for your next turn to say the same thing.

Personally I need hazard pay or pre visit to Harborside, to attend an OUSD board meeting.  I know that some hold those meetings up as the pinnacle of democratic governance and the bedrock of the public schools.  But they are painful to me, there is no discussion with the public or real engagement, the meetings are horrendously long, and if you have actual parents with their kids there, they are waiting hours for two minutes of talk time. And then that’s it.

I don’t blame the board.  Some people come to meetings and act the fool, so then you need to put a whole set of blanket restrictions on everyone—the law treats fools and savants equally.  But this dampens the real deliberation I think we imagine taking place.  And with all the parents and community members in Oakland a very small percentage make the vast majority of the comments.   And God bless the Board members.  No, whether I agree or disagree, God or Darwin, or whatever higher power, may that bless you.

Most of these official board or committee meetings are not a good forum for public engagement or reasoned deliberation in my humble opinion.  But seeing this one in action I had some faith restored.

I am an optimist, I believe deeply in our common humanity, the power of empathy, and our ability to work through our problems together.  I would share the name and meeting times of this group, it’s a great model for how to do the work.  Problem is, I am afraid “the public” might wreck it.