A Pleasantly Unsettling Visit to Oakland’s Urban Montessori

“My number one goal is that students are happy and want to come to school.” In this age of test-based accountability those are rare words to hear from a school leader, but I heard them last week at Urban Montessori Charter School, an extraordinary school, that has me thinking.

Schools generally are not very fun, at least the formal parts.  And when you review surveys, it’s depressing.  Student engagement steadily drops from 5th to 11th grade—where 75% of 5th graders report being engaged, by 11th grade it is a paltry 32%– and this doesn’t even count the kids who have voted with their feet, and stopped showing up.

Particularly in urban areas, with more low income children, schools are often places where a rigid behavioral order is prized.   “Good schools” have silent hallways, students sitting up straight, tracking the teacher, and not talking out of turn or to their neighbors.  School reform, has long been plagued by an “other people’s children” problem.

The warped view of what low-income, Black and Brown children “need” dominates school designs, by folks who often look nothing like and don’t understand or truly value the experiences of these children or families.  While reformer’s children need inquiry based schools that develop the inner child, many schools for “other people’s kids” prize order and compliance.

Take a “body break”

This was upside down at Urban Montessori, and I am just so used to the other type of school, that it was a little weird—even though I liked it.  Kids came in and out of classes and got up as they pleased, they were eating (and yes spilling) food during class, talking to each other leaning on each other, acting the way kids normally do.  Instead of the pin drop atmosphere prized by so many (for other people’s children) it was a beehives buzz of activity.

As I walked through the courtyard a young Brother was running (and I mean running) through it.  As unobtrusively as I could I just asked if he was supposed to be somewhere.  He paused, “I’m on my body break” and he zipped off.

I looked out the window, I saw several—mostly boys of color- running, getting body breaks.  Rather than struggling with kids to keep them seated, the teachers let these birds fly.

And the kids did seem happy, and they were nice to each other.  Nothing is ever perfect, but it reminded me how far we have gotten from trying to understand our students and fit the schools to them and their developmental stages.   Where mostly we just present these kids with round holes and wear down the edges of their square or octagonal pegs.

At Urban Montessori, young children get up and wander, they lay on the floor, they blurt things out, and talk with their friends—these are all punishable offenses in many elementary schools.  It is also normal childhood behavior.

And while in some ways this must be hard as a teacher to let go of the control, it must also make the job easier because you also aren’t policing a predictable range of normal behaviors that somehow became criminalized in the classroom.  And you can actually focus on working with students or addressing real issues rather than ones we have made up.

An Integrated school in Oakland

Another striking element (which again speaks to how brainwashed I have become) is that the school was integrated.  The apparent racial breakdown looked something like Oakland as a whole, and kids within classes were not self-segregating.  I copied a graph on their demographics at the end of the post.

There was also a broad integration of learners in classrooms, it was not apparent which children had special needs or were English learners, everyone was practically learning together—and because the model focuses on individual students, and the school has developed a robust needs identification and support program, many children were getting individualized support.  So it’s like all kids are special with individual needs, and without the apparent stigma you sometimes see.

Speaking to staff, all of this was continuing hard and deeply reflective work.  Where staff themselves were constantly troubleshooting and designing solutions.

And again I was impressed by the staff’s continuing digging to do better.  When I would compliment them, they would say how they needed to keep doing better and talk about that next set of challenges. So yeah they have a good cross section of Oakland attending, but staff noted that achievement gaps persist, and so do opportunity gaps.  And those are the issues they are focused upon now.

A better view of school quality

I was painfully reminded of some of my old school monitoring visits- a clipboard in hand counting the number of students “on task” (which really meant who was actually or pretending to pay attention) and coming up with percentages to define engagement/quality.  Such crap.

So much of what is defined as school quality has so little to do with real education, the visit today was a pleasant reminder of how far off course we often are.  If kids aren’t happy at school, feel those emotional connections, the engagement and eventual self-motivation, then we have failed

And next time I am asked to do monitoring visit, I am going to ask how we measure happiness.


Demographic makeup of Urban Montessori


Wasted Air on Dead Issues in Oakland

Common enrollment is like the Sharia Law of Oakland’s education debate- something that is not going to happen, but is trotted out as a convenient boogey man for all that supposedly ills us.  Common enrollment is dead in Oakland—politically it has no chance.  I have long predicted this death, the time of death has been called, and there won’t be a resurrection, without some massive public outcry.

But again and again we hear about the threat of common enrollment.  The East Bay Express ran a recent piece on school board elections.  I won’t copy the quote but they devoted 185 words to the fight against common enrollment.  And the rest of the article really framed the issues in the district, as a charter school versus district school divide.

And politically maybe that is true, but in reality it doesn’t matter that much.  And while funders of candidates on both sides may be deeply invested in the fight, I don’t think the average parent is, nor should they be.  Give me two minutes to explain why.

Charters aren’t THE problem or THE solution

The issues facing Oakland are only marginally related to charters and charters are more a symptom of the challenges of the district than the cause.  And in reality, by law, the OUSD Board has limited authority to check the growth of charters or even the sharing of public buildings.

Given this, we would be better served by a substantive debate around the district’s issues that the Board does have authority over, and an airing of practical strategies to improve outcomes for students and families.  A discussion of how candidates will strategically address the long term issues facing OUSD, rather than these fiery rhetorical contests, that are mostly irrelevant.

OUSD’s actual authority over charters

State law sets the threshold for charter approval and it says that when a set of conditions are met by a charter applicant, then the district “SHALL” approve the charter.  So legally once a charter petition meets the conditions it is legally supposed to be approved.

Well, the District should just say that charter applicants didn’t meet the conditions of approval you might say.  Charters then have a set of appeals to the County and State.   And so a charter turned down by the district—if sufficient—will likely be approved by the County.  This gives OUSD less actual oversight than if OUSD approved the school themselves.  So illegally denying charters will not resolve this issue, and will actually exacerbate it.

So if your whole platform is about denying charters—it’s not much of a platform.  Or at least it’s not legal, and not likely to be successful.

Similarly with buildings, the law, Proposition 39, approved by the voters, says that public charter school students from the district get “reasonably equivalent” facilities.

I know many disagree with these laws, but they are the law.  Change them if you wish, but until then, it’s the law of the land.

The big issues we need to hear about

So while the debates focus on things that either A, won’t happen, or B, the Board has limited authority over, we don’t focus on the consequential choices that will be facing the Board.

School Access Equity– The district sets its own enrollment rules, and it could reallocate education opportunities with rule changes.  We could cap the overall concentration/segregation of students by race and class at any site.  We could prioritize stability in schools for vulnerable students, even if their families move, and we could change attendance zones and deliberately create more integrated neighborhood catchment areas.  According to the stats, Oakland has some of the most unequal school access in the country.  We can change that and reallocate opportunities to the students most in need.

The Coming financial crisis– While our schools are still underfunded, we have benefited from significant one time funds from a strong state budget and schools are relatively flush with cash.  This will change.

First, the state budget will recede at some point, and even more importantly, the State has been playing with funny math in terms of pension contributions, and a huge deficit has developed—that local schools and districts will have to pay.

Projections I have seen, have the pension and health contributions basically doubling over the next five years- this will swallow up any additional state funding.  How are we going to plan and deal with this?

Human capital development and retention-I don’t care what the salesman from Pearson said, ain’t no computer going to teach your baby.

Great schools and particularly great schools for kids facing challenges require strong, stable relationships with caring skilled adults.  With rents skyrocketing, a deeply flawed and unequal statewide funding system, and an ongoing and worsening teacher shortage, we need inventive strategies to develop and keep great staff.  Without those structures nothing else will matter, no reforms will stick, no professional development, nothing will matter if we just keep churning staff, and can’t keep those bedrock educators.

The debate we need

If every charter school closed today—that would not solve any of the District’s problems.  It would not improve the quality of education or the outcomes for kids.  And in any event that is not happening.  So why is that all we hear about?

I want some concrete answers to the issues facing the district and some actual programs.  We all want a great neighborhood school in every ‘hood.  But that seems like more a dream than reality right now, and while some families enjoy that luxury—others are told to keep waiting—with a pretty direct correlation between neighborhood wealth and school quality.

There is a coherent set of policies that the current board has advanced, and as I have argued—by almost any measure the district is making real and substantial progress in boosting achievement and getting its finances straight.  What are the critiques or further improvements that the school board challengers would implement?

So I get that the charter debate captures many of the bugaboos and buzzwords and makes for good political theater.  Sharia law always rallies the troops.  Governing requires more than theatrics though, and without real debate and real plans, we are threatened to get a theater of the absurd rather than a functioning school board.

Student Actions at Castlemont Inspire Hope

With everything wrong in the world, it is inspiring to work with kids and see them take the lead while we dawdle.  Great story in the news this week, where students from a neighboring district, San Leandro, saw the challenges that their neighbors in Castlemont were facing, and they did something, raising money through a charity run and donating it to fight student hunger.

These students showed a clearer moral vision than any adult in Sacramento, crossing the mythical school district line to help students, born on, or who couldn’t move to, the right side of the tracks, and taking action in the face of need, while most of us just bemoan the problems.

You can watch the tape here

And here’s an excerpt from KTVU,

A group of students from San Leandro High School participated in a fundraising run and donated all proceeds to help a group of Oakland students fighting poverty and hunger.

Students from the Jefferson Service Awards Club at SLHS held the run Monday afternoon in the Oakland Hills. They enlisted the help of the school’s cross country team to make the 8 mile run that ended at Castlemont High School. The run started with seven students and grew to about 100. Each donated cash to participate.

The money will go directly to the football team at Castlemont High School. Head Football Coach Edward Washington said more than half of the players on the team are dealing with financial issues or hunger. He said at one point, a few of them were homeless.

“It’s an eye opener of how they’re so close to us and this is happening in our community,” Cindy Mai, a senior at SLHS, said


“If we have people like this that work off of love and operate with love it would be a different paradigm in our community,” he (A Castlemont student)  said.

The students said the fundraising run was challenging, but rewarding.

“It was difficult, but compared to what they have to go through it’s nothing,”

This sense of empathy and action give me hope, and also their clear-sightedness on looking beyond traditional though imaginary boundaries.

Tear down the walls

I will continue to argue that The political boundaries that we draw between districts and within them in setting attendance zones, make absolutely no sense when a moral lens is taken.  Why should one district (ahem..Piedmont) with less challenged students have $5k more to spend than its needier neighbor (cough…Oakland).  And especially when we look at the histories of some of these boundaries (cough…racism and redlining), that separate districts and also set attendance zones.

I will also continue to argue that integrating students is generally good and hyper segregating them (by race and class) is always bad.  But that’s what our enrollment rules do.  So as these students looked across political boundaries for solutions, systemic reforms have to as well.

Please take a look at the story.  Amidst all the garbage and negativity, the youngsters have clearer eyes.  And I hope we can learn some lessons from them, that we are all in this together, that the dividing lines, political, racial and otherwise are artificial, and empathy and concrete actions can make things better.

I hope some of the adults are listening, and that they will start breaking down some of these dividing lines as well.

How Unionized Charters Can Be a Good Thing for Schools and the Union

More charter schools are unionizing.  I predicted this a while back in New Orleans, but we are seeing it in Oakland too.   A recent article in Oakland magazine highlighted a number of East Bay charters where teachers are organizing.  And while there are some sweaty palms and gnashing of teeth, this may not be a bad thing, and may be a good one.

Charters and unions are often seen as diametrically opposed.  This isn’t really an accurate history since one of the philosophical architects of the “charter school” was Albert Shanker, but it’s a current rhetorical reality.

On one side critics wonder whether unions will undermine charter school autonomy and lower standards, and on the other advocates see unionization as a way to ensure teacher voice and staffing stability necessary to maintain high quality.  The truth is somewhere in between, and like most charter issues really depends on how local communities play it out.

I have seen the good and the bad.  I have led a unionized charter and worked with several others.  And while there is some self-satisfied snickering in the dickier wing of the so called charter movement, when unionized schools struggle.  There often isn’t a similar recognition of high performing unionized models, like the continuing success and recent National Blue ribbon Award for the University Prep Charter High School in NYC.

And when we look closely at University Prep., we see some interesting and effective innovations, that I hope would transfer to more collective bargaining contracts.  So the “laboratory of innovation” idea that birthed charters, has some real relevance within collective bargaining contracts.

Some schools need a union

I know this is heretical in charter world, but some schools are better off with the balance and professionalism a Union can bring.  I have seen schools that turn over 90-100% of teachers year after year, with grueling schedules, rigid accountability for teachers, but administrators reined free.  Kids suffered.

As I will describe, the context of unions in charters is also different.

Some unions need charters

As a practical matter, charters are a potential growth area for unions, but more importantly, they can bring needed changes.

A couple of years back I was eating with my union homies, and one of them, a national organizer described how their teacher’s union was operating on an industrial model, where it needed to move towards a more professional one.

This is right on.  And in the same way that charters can be laboratories for effective practices in education, the individual nature of charter contracts can lead to experimentation in terms and ways to provide voice, set working conditions and compensation.

The “professional” work day at University Prep.

University Prep. had teachers work a “professional” day, if you didn’t have a teaching assignment you didn’t have to be there.  There was not a set check in time in the morning and a time to leave, with every second meticulously bargained around.  Those time cards, and the idea that work is based on teachers being at the factory for 8 hours a day, that mark the industrial model, were discarded.

Teachers were trusted to do their jobs like professionals (imagine that).  I don’t think there was another unionized school in NYC –out of 1100 that did that.  Teachers loved it and are presumably more effective for it. Teaching every day, and getting up every morning, is grueling.  This was a very simple contractual fix that made everyone’s lives better.

Unions in charters are all about micro bargaining among people that see each other every day.  There are no “excessed” teachers,who are passed on through the system.  And colleagues feel it when their fellow teachers are not pulling their weight, as someone else in the building has to pull more.

Meanwhile the charter deal itself instills a sense of urgency in everyone on the building—if the school is closed, the union is done.  This creates a dynamic where everyone is focused on school performance and meeting the charter goals.

The Biggest Benefit of All

Too much blood is spilt and too much effort is wasted in the charter –union wars.  And it’s stupid, basically the same kids, basically the same staff, basically the same goals just different sets of advocates arguing their camp’s position.

It’s crazy that the Unions in some cases argue that public school kids (in charters) should get less funding.  And similarly the savagery that some of the charter groups have in attacking the unions, and what seems to be sometimes like glee, or at least an “I told you so moment” when a unionized school fails.

All the money spent, pro and anti, the marches for and against.  The fiery speeches, indictments and name calling.  Does the average parent care—I don’t think so, does the average staff care—again I don’t think so.  Families want good schools where kids are treated fairly, and staff want schools where they are supported, can be effective, and are treated fairly.

Neither unionized schools nor non-unionized charters have a monopoly on serving families or treating staff well.  I can show you examples and counter examples in each category.  It’s not about union or non-union.  Those are adult advocate issues.

And this can be the biggest change we could see from more unionized charters, getting everyone focused on quality and equity, rather than some phantom of staff organization or governance model—that the real clients, families and students, generally couldn’t care less about.

The Charter School Transparency We Need in CA

Sunshine is a great disinfectant.  Peering behind the curtain of public institutions allows us to oversee them and hold them accountable.  That’s why I along with many others, were surprised to see Governor Brown veto AB 709, a bill to increase charter transparency.  After some research, though, I understand this veto, and I also see a way forward that everyone should agree to.

A look at the Bill

The East Bay Times, reported on the veto,

Assembly Bill 709 would have required that charter schools comply with the same state laws governing open meetings, open records and conflict of interest laws that traditional public schools do.

Sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, D-Carson, the bill would have required all charter schools to disclose how they spend taxpayer money, including budgets and contracts. It also prohibits charters’ board members and their families from profiting from their schools.

More technically, it would explicitly apply the Brown Act Open Meeting Law, the Public Records Act, the Political Reform Act, governing conflicts of interest and Government Code 1090, which applies criminal penalties for conflicts of interest

I sit on a charter board in California, and have sat on over a dozen, and I agree with each of these goals; open meetings, open records, disclosures and prohibitions of conflicts of interest, but when I dug a little deeper there is a poison pill in the bill, that could critically undermine charter operations.

And indeed, this very same bill was vetoed in the prior session.  Which seems to say its more about scoring political points than actually passing legislation.

There is a common sense compromise that would meaningfully move transparency and accountability forward.  So, I would hope that our representatives can settle for three quarters of a loaf, rather than throwing the bread out with the bathwater.

The Accountability we need

Charter schools are public schools by law, they take in millions in taxpayer funding and perform one of the most vital public functions, education.  So they need to be transparent, accountable, and avoid conflicts of interest.  But charters are often mom and pop, community grown enterprises, starting with almost no money and really relying on board members and staff to get the school up and running.

So what is the right level of accountability and transparency?

Open Meetings and Open Records– Charter board meetings and committee meetings should be open under the Brown Act, allowing the public to observe and comment, and providing access to basically all the documents produced.  Budgets, policies, reports, anything produced by the school that doesn’t have some legitimate confidentiality issue should be public under the Public records Act.  And certainly anything around the use of public funds or produced by them has to be public.

The public has a right to see how its money is spent, how its schools make decisions, and ultimately how they are doing.  This seems like common sense, and if boards aren’t willing to accept this scrutiny they should just start a private school.

Disclosing and Avoiding Conflicts of Interest– The public trust requires that money is spent for children and that shysters don’t use schools as a vehicle for personal enrichment, through fraud or self-dealing.    Charter boards should make annual disclosures (which mine does), and conflicts of interest should be prohibited.

The political Reform Act does that, but Government code 1090 goes too far, potentially applying criminal penalties for actions where a trustee may have an “interest.”  Where historically the standard has been whether the transaction is fair, and at arms length, where conflicted directors don’t vote, and don’t profit.

Why does this distinction matter?

Most independent charters start small and depend on the kindness of board members or founders.  I have seen folks mortgage their house to give the school a donation or no interest loan to get it off the ground.  And in many cases trustees or founders donate the startup money or take initial obligations on under their own name while the school is starting up.  Government Code 1090 would criminalize those who helped with financial transactions in startup or those who make contributions to the school for a specific project because they have an “interest” even if there is no personal gain.

Again, even a no-interest loan could be criminalized.

This goes too far.  Yes, all these transactions should be publicly reported.  Yes, conflicts where self-dealing occurs should be penalized and probably criminally penalized.  But to prohibit any “interest” goes too far and misses the nature of independent charter school startup.

As trustees and founders of schools trying to help underserved students and families, we are intently “interested,” often throwing our own money into the pot when its empty—and that is the vast majority of these “interested” transactions, not the shysters who make the newspapers.

Getting to Yes

99% of charter folks will agree to the Open Meeting Law, Public Records Act, and Political Reform Act.  This will guarantee to the public the right to observe and comment on board deliberations, review and analyze school documents, budgets, and policies, as well as requiring disclosure of any conflicts or potential conflicts of interest.

Transparency is essential for public schools, and charters should adopt these rules themselves even if the State doesn’t require it.  But from the State level, I hope we will see an amended bill that includes the three areas mentioned, and I hope that the charter schools will support it and the governor will sign it.

Too often these fight are just politics, politicians proposing bills to make political points, with no possibility of passing.  Charter school transparency is too important to ignore, or only symbolically address.  The public is rightly hungry for transparency, so I hope our representatives can deliver three quarters of a loaf in the next session rather than one more stale retread of a failed political fight that will never make it to the table