Action (Still) Needed to Serve Oakland’s English Language Learners and How “Dreamers” Can Help

asian child

Almost 25 years ago as a bright-eyed and bushy- tailed law student I worked on the so- called “Zambrano case”, where OUSD conceded that they were not adequately serving English Language Learners (ELLs) and promised to do better.  The central issue raised was the lack of sufficient bilingual staff in Oakland and the District’s structural inability to serve its students. Mind you, by the time I had reached the small part of the case I worked on it was nearly a decade old, and the District seemed more interested in fighting than complying, ironically crying broke, while paying through the nose for lawyers, and eventually paying our attorney fees too.  But lawyers came before bilingual services.

In some ways it’s déjà vu all over again in 2015 when it comes to the services that ELLs are getting, though at least we are beyond the denial stage.  The latest troubling reports on the achievement and chances of ELLs (or general lack thereof) in Oakland, The Review of Services for English-Language Learners in the Oakland Unified School District, which can be found here.  The short of it is that the District does not have the human resources or sustained training to meet ELL student and family needs, with discouraging end results.   It seems that for some, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Roughly a third of students in Oakland are ELLS, less than half of them can expect to graduate from high school in four years, and less than a third will have successfully taken the classes to even apply to the UC or CSU system, the A-G course requirements, while only 20% do matriculate to college.  In the modern economy, prospects are dim for these students.

The good news is that the District is being transparent and has some plans, which is a huge step forward from my lawyering days.  The bad news is that unless we address some of the underlying issues, a new set of policies, and some new isolated offerings of professional development are unlikely to bring the real changes that we need.  Oakland, except for the Native community, is composed of newcomers, and there is no reason to think that that trend will decrease.  Whether we came from the Great Migration, in an effort to escape Jim Crow, the more recent Northern ones across the Southern border, across the seas, or one of a thousand other journeys that ended in Oakland, we are the diaspora, and OUSD must better anticipate needs and serve our students and families.

The Problems

First, there is huge mismatch between the current staff at the District and the cultural and linguistic needs of families, both instructionally and in the front offices.  We do not have enough bilingual teachers, and we can’t keep those that we do have, which is mix of uncompetitive compensation and probably also some working conditions. We need staff that speak the language, understand the culture, and can protect, support and engage these students.

Some lowlights from the report on ELL students:

  • Some students have to rely relying on Google Translate in class
  • High rates of bullying: 90% of newcomers in one school said they were bullied, and many others reported remaining silent to avoid being teased
  • An overwhelming disengagement from academic work and discourse. In observations, 90% of elementary and 86% of secondary students either did not read during class, or read with no clear purpose or scaffolding.

Second, there is a nonsensical mismatch between student needs and the programs that OUSD offers.  I need to quote this to make the point.

“One powerful finding is that bilingual education is non-existent at the secondary level in OUSD; none of the secondary schools surveyed had bilingual programs.  Outside of ‘Spanish for Spanish speakers’ courses, there are no opportunities for students to formally study academic content in a language other than English.”  A variety of such programs exist in San Francisco and I would expect in most major districts.  Just think about it: what kind of education is a 9th grade newcomer going to receive in Oakland, when she doesn’t speak the language, has only a ‘Spanish for Spanish speakers’ course, and has no formal scaffolding to learn the language or access to the formal academic program.  Now imagine she speaks Arabic, or one of the dozens of less prevalent languages.  What are her chances?

Unfortunately, we know what her chances are: in secondary schools, 93% of ELLs are multiple years behind in reading, and they only have about a 10% chance of being reclassified as English proficient.  I haven’t taken math in a while, but those are pretty terrible odds.  And again, if you don’t graduate with career skills and/or attend college, you will have a tough and contingent life, there probably is not a trust fund waiting for you, just a trail of low-paying jobs where you exist at the mercy of a manager, replaceable and exploitable.


But recognizing the problem is the first stage of recovery.  And indeed there are solutions.  Oakland has some exemplary programs: Urban Promise Academy (55.9%) and LIFE Academy (33.6%) are successfully working to reclassify ELLs.  And while schools are not widgets, where we can just recreate the successes next door, there have to be effective practices there that can be drawn from and expanded.  Programmatically we need to look at how other districts explicitly link academic content with English language development, and engage newcomers in rigorous academic programming, at all levels.   It is inexcusable that no such programs currently exist at the secondary level in Oakland.

The staffing issue is more complicated and depends on a host of outside factors, mostly the competitiveness of Oakland as a long term, stable employment choice for school staff.  Currently Oakland’s salaries are not regionally competitive, the new contract should help with that, but realistically, Oakland will struggle if it is competing on compensation alone.   We need to get creative if we are going to hire, train, develop, and retain the workforce we need, that matches students linguistically and culturally.  How can we do this?  Make Oakland Dreamer Town USA.

The so called “Dreamers” are those 65,000 yearly undocumented high school graduates, many of them come from Oakland and California, they have the linguistic skills and cultural competencies needed for our kids, and many of them, despite being qualified, motivated, and competent are denied educational opportunities, and jobs.   Let’s lay out the welcome mat for them here, assuring opportunities in higher education with local colleges, supporting them with housing options, and hiring and training them to work in our schools, at all levels.  While many communities are closing doors, we need to create more pathways and open existing ones wide.

We also need to really match families with programs that meet their needs, not every school will have a counselor that speaks Tagolog, (and indeed one secondary school did not even have a Spanish speaking counselor), but at enrollment parents should understand their options and be steered toward programs that have linguistically and culturally competent staff.  And parents should be given the range of options for their children in terms of the type of language development support they receive, alongside some rough explanations of how different models may work (dual immersion versus sheltered immersion, etc.), or why.  Oakland will never be able to represent every language in every school, but we can do significantly better expanding options and deliberately matching families to programs and staff.

Oakland, we have to do better.  There is some low hanging fruit here in better matching parents, and providing some bilingual secondary programs, but addressing the larger workforce and training issues will require creativity, vision, persistence, and ultimately a substantial commitment to students who for too long have been neglected and left behind.  Unlike 20 years ago, looking at these issues, I don’t see bad guys at OUSD obstructing, rather it is the bureaucratic consistency and incrementalism, but unfortunately the results are the same.  If we don’t want to be here reading the same report again 20 years from now, we need revolutionary change, which starts with new ideas, and requires a demonstrated commitment to meeting the needs of ALL students, a commitment that has earned a lot of lip service but produced precious few student services over the years.



Getting honest on charter school admissions, and catching bad actors

honestSome time ago, at a charter school near you, I went to enroll a foster child, let’s call her ”Keasha”.  She needed a good school, that was smaller and more personalized.  Brushing aside my lack of legal authority, we asked the receptionist for an application.  She explained that the school may not have any spots, described the school culture in fairly negative terms, underemphasizing the clubs and afterschool activities, and noting that many students resented the closed campus for lunch.

I still asked for an application.  She then told Keasha that she needed to take an “admissions test,” a series of math problems.  An “admission test” or other preconditions to enrollment in a charter school is illegal; they are public schools and, by law, must admit any student who applies if there is space, holding a lottery if there are more students than spots.  Full disclosure, I am a lawyer and reviewed most of this charter years back, including admissions, and I know there is no fracking admissions test, and as a fairly empowered Black man, I have learned it’s best to just listen sometimes, without betraying my credentials, and see how far people will go.

Keasha answers, they are graded, she does well, and then is offered a spot for admission.  Rather than blasting the receptionist, I contacted and met with Board chair, who is a colleague.  He explained, it was not an “admissions test” but one to determine placement, and the school, being small, offered only two options in terms of 9th grade math.  He earnestly apologized and said he would push training for the leadership and the front line staff on these areas.

I personally felt like there was also a racial tinge to the issue and the underselling of the school to a student who might be perceived as more difficult, and was a different race than the office person and the majority of the students.  I really don’t think this was a policy, but really the way a front line worker interpreted her job and chose to act, which had a particular racial impact.  And as the initial face of the school, with wide and largely unchecked discretion, these front line workers matter.

I have worked with charter schools for over two decades, and I do see the subtle and not so subtle ways that schools can and sometimes do manipulate the student bodies coming in to increase the test scores coming out, or to more generally serve “their kids.”  This is not the only “admission” test story out there, alongside subtle and not so subtle counseling out of students who may be more challenging.

Furthermore, seemingly neutral rules can also be used to screen out students: a very short enrollment window where only the chosen few are informed; creating hurdles to application, like requiring multiple meetings before providing applications to families; limited or no translation of application documents or limited distribution.; and “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” disciplinary policies, where students are given little leeway and staff are full of excuses why they can only serve the “good” kids.

I have seen schools suspend or threaten to expel students for being absent too much, homeless students rack up uniform policy violations, and other school rules that have the effect of pushing more (perceived) challenging students out.  These students are almost never expelled; instead they are threatened with continuing punishments and potential expulsion, so the parent withdraws them, interrupting their academic year, and enrolling them mid-year when better options are likely full.

I wholeheartedly believe that these are exceptions to the rule, and a small minority of schools with a small minority of staff who act in ways that subtly or not so subtly discriminate.  The vast majority of charters are really working to meet and serve the needs of underserved students.  In New York we created the first college preparatory school that catered to students with emerging mental health issues; in Oakland the American Indian Charter School was created to uniquely meet the needs of, at that time, the lowest achieving population in Oakland; Oakland Charter Academy, was created in the Jingletown community to meet immigrant family needs that were not being met by the district, and the Reset Foundation is currently working on a charter for young men re-entering the community from juvenile facilities.

The vast, vast majority of charters are not started for the money or the glory, but to help kids.  And many charters are showing extraordinary results with underserved students.  But if charters claim to be public schools, and most all of the schools I have worked with deliberately tried to serve high needs populations, we all really do have to work to serve the public.  And that means calling out bad apples.

This is part of a larger systemic issue where schools often choose students while we imagine students choosing schools. It was entirely predictable which students the local district schools would recommend apply to our charters, sometimes based on a perceived match, but often on a desire to push out more difficult or failing students—those  with big thick files.  I once had a conversation with a district principal about one of our students who was caught lighting a fire in the bathroom; he told me the student would have automatically been charged with the criminal offense of arson and expelled.  Our school charged him with the relatively minor offenses of possession of contraband and putting others at risk. He got a couple of days of suspension and some counseling.

If we are honest, the game has always been rigged, with zip codes and family wealth being pretty directly correlated with educational opportunities.  Anyone who looks can see the vast disparities in the district schools, and between districts, often based on where students physically can afford to live.  If you don’t believe me, go from the deep East Oakland or West Oakland schools to Piedmont, just a few miles, but a world of difference when it comes to its public schools.  Or drive from the Flatlands up through the Hills and watch the housing prices rise alongside quality school options.

In charters, the increased flexibility and autonomy can be used for good or nefarious purposes, and sometimes the line is actually fairly grey.  I remember expanding our class size to add a sibling of a current student who had just moved out of a very difficult and rural family situation, and who would struggle in a larger District middle school.  I have also heard school leaders say how kids looked like “trouble” and were told there was no room, when there was.

We need to stop the straight-up discrimination.  In employment discrimination, one of the best ways to ferret out bad actors is using “testers” diverse job applicants with similar credentials applying for the same job.  We should use “admission testers”, who would try to enroll more “diverse” learners at schools and record their treatment. This would be immensely helpful as it is in the employment context. The trickier issues are around schools that may liberally push out the more challenging students, often based on completely legal and public school policies that parents technically agree to when they enroll their student, even if they never read them or had them explained.  For these situations, charter authorizers should require transparent tracking and publication of attrition rates, AND schools with disproportionate rates would suffer a financial penalty that would go to the school where the student was received.  And overall, we need to really track and publicize data for all the schools around enrollment, attrition, discipline, and expulsion, and this data should be shared with parents as they make their choices.

While these measures would not solve every problem, it would catch the worst offenders, shine light on abuses, and also reset the financial incentives, which right now can be to push more challenging students down the line, with good actors increasingly carrying the responsibility shed by bad ones.

There is a viewpoint expressed mostly behind closed doors, sometimes with a complicit authorizer in the room, that the so-called “charter movement” should admit no fault around serving all students.  That making any admission about selective or discriminatory enrollment practices changes the narrative to a defensive one, and we are better just playing offense.  Were this football, I probably still wouldn’t agree, but it’s not a game.  And until we engage this debate as a cooperative struggle rather than a rhetorical death match, we really can’t claim to be a public school movement.

I sardonically joke during trainings (my day job is partially incubating charter schools and working with schools on improvement planning), that I can give school leaders the two-step secret to the high test score performance: recruit high achievers and kick out the “bad” kids.   Unfortunately, there is truth underlying the joke, which echoes across all sectors of American education.  And while some laugh at the joke, others frown, and a third group is taking notes.


Making school choice work for ALL families. We need an app for that.

My friend’s grandson was struggling in his elementary school, a very smart kid, he had regressed over the last couple of years.  He can be a tough kid, he has seen more than he should have, and holds a reservoir of anger and sadness.  But he has been labeled at his school as “the bad kid”, they don’t give him the support he needs, and it’s clear they want him to move on.  In fact, after a year of struggling, it’s clear to everyone that he needs to move on and find a new school, get a new start, and find a better fit.

My friend doesn’t have internet or a working computer at home, so when I asked her to look at the District’s webpage or to look at charter schools, she couldn’t really.  She is also physically disabled and generally has a hard time getting around.

I looked at the District options for enrollment, we had missed deadlines, there were basically lists of schools with no sense of quality or the programs offered, and it seemed we just needed to show up to the enrollment office to really get help.  I did reach out to charters, again we missed lotteries, some were very helpful in giving us information about getting on the waiting list, one didn’t even mention the waitlist option, one never got back to me, and another had an online application, but I never got any receipt or sense of where we are on the waitlist.

For something this important there has to be a better way.  Families need better information and guidance through the matching process, one that meets families where they are.  In a world of multiplying school choices and increasingly diverse school quality and programs we need to consciously level the playing field to assure that we don’t diverge into choosers and losers, with non-choosers being increasingly concentrated in default schools, and choosers escaping to the best.

How much energy is spent on getting farmers to hook up, or matching so called cougars and cubs?  With the immense needs and enormous consequences, why can’t we create an eharmony-like app for schools and a common enrollment system where families can fill out one application and submit it for as many schools as they want, based on their preferences?

We need; (1) an app-based system, in multiple languages, and relatively simple to navigate for less literate families (2) that is universal, including all district and charters (3) containing school quality information that families want and value (4) a range of filters around school programs and parent preferences (5) that comes out into the community and is facilitated by trained community members at pre-schools, parks, community centers, churches, and anywhere that families gather.  We also need to embed equity into it, moving the most challenged up in the line, and working to assure that non choosers participate.  A robust system would also push reminders to parents, maybe information about how they can support their child, and other opportunities for enrichment.  And ideally we create a set of feedback loops, where parents can provide simple feedback on experiences, that adds to the reliability of school quality information.

Oakland has a range of school options, of varying quality, supporting different student needs, ranging from the Military Academy to the School of the Arts and Street Academy.  Many families already actively choose, and those with more resources tend to get more.  School choice is not going anywhere, but it is up to us to create a system where the students who need the best schools, get them, rather than continuing to perpetuate the inequitable status quo.

What’s more important, creating apps so that any subgroup can find a date or hook up, or one to help Jose find the right school? Sadly, the market has spoken.