After 8 Schools and Almost Giving Up, I’m Graduating From MetWest and Headed to UC Davis

This guest post is by Camille Marley Brewster (aka Mars), who is graduating from MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District this month.

During my time in Oakland I’ve been to eight different schools, some district, some charter, one home-schooling program twice, and then finally ending up at one very different and special high school, MetWest, that I graduated from this June. Also, I’m excited to say that come next September, I’ll be attending UC Davis as a part of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences with an interest in Clinical Nutrition.

Who am I? My name is Camille Marley Brewster, but I go by Mars and I’m a born and raised California city girl. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most prominently, Oakland, have become my hometowns. I was only 7 when my single mom and I moved to Oakland after being on the East Coast to take care of family for eight months. I went to kindergarten out there and began the rest of my education here.

When I first started school in Oakland I went to the local public school a few blocks down from our apartment building, Lakeview Elementary. They didn’t have a proper after-school program and just let the kids out to the busy intersection of Grand and Lakeshore, right at the highway exit. My mom felt really uneasy about my safety as no staff member ever seemed to be watching over those kids until they got picked up. Right away, my mom decided I needed something different and put me on the waitlist for EBCC (East Bay Conservation Corps Charter School), a charter elementary school in Emeryville that focused on Civic Literacy.

It always seemed, at first, like I had more and better opportunities at the charter schools than the district ones. It took a little more than a month, but I was accepted into the school and almost instantly got to participate in so many life changing events, even as an elementary school student. As early as the first grade, I was learning about the four R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, & Rot” and I never would have been able to go out to Washington, D.C., as a second-grader to give a speech about “Buddy Reading” to the Congressional Congress of Civic Literacy (an audience of about 400 leaders) if it wasn’t for the school’s imagination and innovation.

Like any school, though, they had their flaws and my mother withdrew me after my fourth grade year. They were completely unorganized and cared more about their reputation than the students sometimes. I first saw this in my third grade year when they lost my STAAR Testing and then without warning me or my mother, pulled me out of class to retake it.

They never informed the district of their mistake and my anxiety over the event showed in my test score results, which we received the following summer. This is when my mom first found out, because I, as a third grader, of course didn’t understand the situation as clearly as I do now and didn’t tell her when everything first happened.

They say “everything happens for a reason.” So I guess it was perfect that my mom pulled me out of EBCC (who were in the process of changing their name to Civicorps) and then placed me into home-schooling instead, because the summer before my fifth-grade year I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Home schooling was just what my situation called for, as I needed flexibility in my schedule to learn how to balance my life with my new label.

During my semester in home-schooling as a part of the K-12 Cava program, I was my own teacher, sitting at the kitchen table at my mother’s work (she’s a nanny), learning on the computer. The program itself wasn’t the issue, it was my need for social interaction that was lacking. I didn’t have many neighborhood friends, most of my friends were always from school, so without a physical school to go to, I was lonely.

After the first semester of fifth grade and me becoming more adept with my new condition, my mom placed me in another regular district school, Chabot Elementary School. I felt they were unprepared for my medical needs due to lack of resources and although they had a school nurse I found myself avoiding eating all day so that I could also avoid going to the office at lunch for my insulin shot. Maybe I just didn’t want to be treated differently by the other kids, but I soon found out this was impossible anyway.

Middle School was more of the same old same old. I went to Oakland School for the Arts (aka OSA), an arts-focused charter school. They had great ideas on how to improve education while promoting passion among their students for their art emphasis, but they also were extremely unorganized. They were packing the school with more and more students in hopes of receiving more money from the district and sponsors. In the end, it was a disaster and certain art departments got zero funding while others seemingly got it all.

For example, I was in the visual art department and the main art room that we worked out of wasn’t even big enough to hold each one of the middle school students in the department! This issue was never fixed when I attended the school, but three to four times a year the theater department got more funding to go on awesome and expensive field trips while we were cramped in a room without enough chairs.

This seems to be the biggest issue with non-district schools: funding.

After going back to home-schooling for a bit, I ended up at another public school for the second semester of my eighth-grade year. Claremont, despite its reputation, made me feel more connected to its community than I had to any school community in a very long time. I remember one time I was in English class and a boy saw me checking my blood sugar under the table. He then proceeded to ask me if I was a Type 1 diabetic. This was the very first time that anyone had made this kind of distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

I almost cried then and there, simply because for the first time ever I didn’t need to try and convince anyone that I wasn’t a diabetic because I “ate too much candy when I was little” or that I could actually eat anything I wanted as long as I gave insulin for it (so many people mistake Type 1 diabetes for what they think they know about Type 2).

This, to this day, is still the one thing I love about district schools, they don’t have the power to discriminate against kids labeled undesirable because they have to accept everyone. I was always able to find someone, whether it be a student or a teacher, that wasn’t completely ignorant about other people’s struggles and didn’t grow up in a bubble—a feeling I got a lot about the community at certain schools with the power of this “selectivity.”

I went to one of the biggest high schools in Oakland for two years, Oakland Technical High School, and failed miserably due to the lack of attention I received from the teachers and administration.

I really just gave up on school entirely. There were many times in math class when I would sit by the door to the classroom and wait for attendance to be called before slipping out of class simply out of lack of interest, but because of the class’s student to teacher ratio I was never caught. I don’t think the teacher ever really noticed either.

I transferred one last time to this very special school I mentioned earlier, MetWest High School. This school, while a part of the Oakland Unified School District, was more like an independent study school than anything else. It helped me believe in education again and I began to see opportunities to prove my intelligence left and right, after only a few days of being there.

We would have normal school hours three days a week and then spend the other two out in the world learning through internships. My internships have helped me realize my love for working with others my age on projects to better the future or help others. That’s why I want to be a nurse or work out of a hospital, besides the fact I’ve already been close to hospitals and the medical world for most of my life.

I was also given the chance to take college courses before graduating high school and am now that much closer to getting my degree in college in my next few years. I feel like I am actually being prepared for the world.

This is what education should look like and feel like. And I love that every single flaw I could possibly think of in this school is not only being worked on by administrative staff but also includes teachers’ and students’ voices. I was given the amazing opportunity of being on the Student Council and Prom Committee this year as a senior. I’m both sad and happy to be graduating from this wonderful school because while I will miss this type of environment, I now have clear goals for my future and life.

Grand Jury Questions Charter Achievement and Advocates for Common Enrollment in Oakland-Our Analysis

The Alameda County grand jury released a report on charters in OUSD this week which will have some fodder for pro and anti-charter groups.  And while there were some insights, at times the analysis was insufficiently nuanced and at others it seemed to misunderstand the context or the law.  Some of the more simplistic analysis probably will lead to misleading headlines that may not reflect reality.

For instance, the East Bay Times’ article was titled, “Grand jury Report:Better Management Needed of Oakland’s Charter schools.”  It focussed on some questionable test score analysis (see below), and wanting OUSD to “manage” charters more, which is not the role of the authorizer under California law.  The data and testimony is a good starting point, but the grand jury’s analysis was not sufficiently grounded in law or context.

Validly studying school performance or charter school performance requires understanding and nuance.  Sadly, student background characteristics have larger effects on achievement than schools tend to, so any comparison of schools really needs to look at growth and achievement of similar students or that in demographically similar schools, this nuance is missing in the report.  And the State Charter Association sent some additional data that seems to challenge the report’s findings around student performance.

So let’s take a look at some of the findings, recommendations and critiques.

Test score comparisons

The anti-charter headlines will likely focus on the academic comparison, which is written a little strangely and leaves maybe a worse impression than it should.  I am copying the original here, and the BOLD type is my insertions.

Using the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress Test Results for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics for 2015, the Grand Jury determined that of the 37 Oakland charter schools that participated, 17 scored below the blended average of all Oakland unified public schools (with 20 scoring at or above) and 24 scored below the statewide average in English. Nineteen scored below OUSD averages (and 18 scored at or above) and 23 scored below the statewide average in mathematics. Within these results, there were 15 Oakland charter schools that scored below OUSD averages in both categories (and 22 didn’t). Many of these charter schools have been in Oakland for years and scored similarly on the previous API tests that are no longer in use.

So this says to me charters, are on average, doing about as well and maybe better than the district averages on one narrow measure; the first year of a new test.  And demographically we know that charters are more likely to have low income students and English language learners, while district schools have a higher percentage of identified special education students.  In this context it’s hard to know what to make of the academic data comparisons without more nuance in terms of similar schools or similar students.

This became even more murky when I asked the California Charter Schools Association about the data, here is the table they sent

What percent of students are meeting/exceeding standards on 2014-15 SBAC tests in charters vs. non-charters?

ELA Math
charter average 41% 33%
non-charter average 25% 22%
OUSD avg. (charter & non-charter combined) 30% 25%
how many charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 18 charters (out of 36 with data), 50% 17 charters (out of 36 with data), 47%
how many non-charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 54 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 70% 56 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 73%

By this data comparison, a significantly higher proportion of charters are performing above the public school averages than OUSD-run schools.  But again without some more analysis of who the children are and what their learning gains are we really don’t know what this data really says about school performance.

Greater charter- district collaboration

The report also highlighted the need for more than “a tangential relationship” between the district and charter schools identifying special education, facilities, and common enrollment as potential areas of improvement.

As they stated around facilities—charters use space much more efficiently and that allows them to better focus resources on the classroom,

Most charter schools are fully enrolled and therefore occupy space efficiently. This allows a charter to focus funds on teaching. On the other hand, OUSD is responsible for 130 buildings, many of which are under-enrolled schools that are far below maximum occupancy. Furthermore, each school must be staffed. Without closing or consolidating schools, the district must continue to maintain many of these underused structures, thereby diverting funds from the classroom.

However they also noted that the charter law has lower building standards, and that charter facilities while up to code may not provide the same protection during an earthquake.  There would seem to be a win-win here, creating full buildings, and safer kids, by using district facilities for charter students more efficiently, which is also required by law.  But I won’t hold my breath.

The logic and desire for a common enrollment system

Much like the 73% of survey respondents, the Grand Jury noted the challenges families have in accessing schools and the logic of a common enrollment system,

A recurrent issue addressed by witnesses is the existing multiple enrollment systems whereby OUSD schools and each charter school must be accessed separately. The Grand Jury views this as an undue burden on families to seek out each school separately and enroll using that school’s unique application and apply by its deadline. The Office of Charter Schools is a proponent of the common enrollment concept currently being evaluated by the Oakland Unified School District. This system allows families to review and select their desired choices from a single integrated process thereby providing an equitable access for all Oakland students.

Misunderstandings of Law or Authorizer Role

There were a few factual or legal issues that I think the grand jury missed.  It argues that Oakland should manage its charter growth more and that it only authorize schools that sign the District’s Equity Pledge.  While I personally half agree, and agree wholeheartedly that charters need to collaborate more with the district.  OUSD, by law does not have this discretion.  The Charter Law requires that a district approve a charter that meets the legal threshold and the districts legally don’t have the power to add their own new requirements, like the Equity Pledge.

The grand jury also seemed to envision more of a school inspector regime, with a more than doubling of charter office staff.  A bigger office won’t necessarily lead to better oversight, and the district should be hiring bilingual aides, or special education teachers, not more central office staff.

I always welcome more honest data, and this is a good first step, I just hope over time we commit some resources to the deeper analysis we need of student growth to understand what is really working for children and families and how to best serve them.

The Silent 73% Lose Again in Oakland

73% of families in Oakland favored common enrollment in the only survey I have seen.  No it wasn’t scientific, yes it was just one of several questions in a more general survey (which to me gives it credibility), yes it was online so it was probably not representative.  But it had over 500 respondents and 73% said “yes” when asked, “Would you prefer to only have to complete one application and enrollment process for all public schools in Oakland (District and Charter).”

Too bad for them and the thousands of other families that might benefit, it won’t happen.  Another example of the extremes squeezing the middle, and the less vocal being drowned out by the privileged.

Oakland Magazine recently ran a piece discussing this controversy, and while the Board has not yet voted to approve or reject Common Enrollment, given the organized opposition, I don’t think the proposal has the votes right now to pass—with several board members saying they would vote no.

Families I talk to generally want a single enrollment system.  They really don’t care if they are at a charter or district school, they want a good school that treats them and their child with concern and respect.  It doesn’t make sense to fill out the same information on 10 different forms for 10 different public schools each with a different enrollment process.  This process should be simple and facilitate wide access and help find good educational fits.

A Conspiracy of Narrow Interests

As I have argued before, common enrollment is not perceived as boon by charter operators, many are fully enrolled and this will introduce uncertainty, as well as a new sense of transparency for those who might prefer to operate in the shadows.  There is a significant charter “no” side, that sees no specific benefit to common enrollment, and fear turning over their enrollment processes.

The district “no” side was expressed by Director Torres, who critiqued the proposed common enrollment system, seeing charters as, “the other guy”, which the district should not facilitate family access to.

Philosophically I disagree, I think every child in Oakland is a child that the district should be concerned with, but that’s just me.  So “the district” is against common enrollment because more families may choose charters.

The narrower interests of key actors conspire against the desires of families.

Who Should Count?

73% is a large majority in a very contested city.  If someone else wants to do some more polling, I would love to see that, and some more (multilingual) nuance, but I haven’t.    All I have seen is flapping gums, people saying they are speaking for the families of Oakland, but as far as I know this is the only survey that has actually asked families what they wanted.  And no, this is not a call for some biased push poll by an organized interest group looking for parrots for their position.

A quarter of Oakland public school children (11,776) are in public charter schools, even more children (17,572) don’t attend a charter or district run public school, while the district’s enrollment is 36,392.  Many families straddle different sectors.  And any inclusive family organization needs to as well.

Politics will kill common enrollment in the short term in Oakland.  Amidst vocal opponents, those who see it as a threat, those who would rather operate in the shadows, and schools that are doing fine without it, common enrollment will die a slow and quiet death.   Narrow organized interests will overcome the majority will.

There has got to be a day when we look beyond our narrower interests and have the political will and courage to move beyond this dynamic.

Charter Schools: The Stepchildren of Public Education

Education Week picked up our blog reviewing the last 25 years of charters and looking forward, take a look

The 2 Real Rules of Expulsion Hearings

Four hours in an expulsion hearing gives you time to think.  And afterwards, you are wrapped tight so it takes a little time to unwrap and you need to think more.  I do these things too often as part of my work. Well I don’t get paid for it, so “work” may not be the right word… as part of my duty.  Experience has taught me that two rules govern the vast majority of these proceedings, proceedings that can forever change a child’s life.

I have sat on both sides of the table, as a school leader disciplining students, and also a school board member hearing disciplinary appeals.  Mostly I just get calls from families or educators, with stories, and show up to help them deal with school or district staff.  And there are two simple rules that govern most every disciplinary process.

Rule #1- If you have a lawyer you win, if you don’t, you lose and probably don’t show up, conceding all of your rights, and having a scarlet letter branded onto your child’s permanent record

Rule #2- If it’s something really wacky, a Black boy is on the sharp end of the lash

The Realities of School Discipline

Schools regularly screw up the disciplinary process, district schools do, charters do, everyone does.  Educators aren’t versed on the education code or even the specifics of their own policies, and there are almost always procedural or substantive issues.   And honestly I want my teachers focused on teaching, not court cases.

My schools lose, schools I am squabbling with lose, if the family has a competent lawyer they almost always win.  Like I said before, most families don’t even fight, and if they did fight alone, they would probably still lose given the technical nature of the proceedings, and in some ways how it is stacked against the kids.   The district has lawyers, access to witnesses, other district staff form the judging panel and rule on the evidence that can be admitted.  Those odds change drastically when you have a lawyer.

But it’s messed up that you need a lawyer to have a chance, and it’s obvious who has more access to lawyers and who doesn’t, which leads us to rule #2

Rule # 2—The more crazy the story it is the more likely it is to have a Black boy as the one the crazy stuff is happening to.

Your son was choked by school staff and they didn’t tell you- Black boy.

You are out of school for 9 days on a 5 day suspension and the secretary says you can’t come back-Black boy.

You are drawing and coloring posters in 9th grade math all year- Black boy.

Your “class” consists of picking up garbage and dumping the school trash cans- Black boy.

You are getting expelled for something nobody ever gets expelled for- Black boy.

It’s always a Black boy.

Expulsions Matter

Expulsion is a scarlet letter, it will come up in lifelong background checks, and it may affect your college admission and employment.  Kate Weisburd illuminates these issues in her recent article “Ban the other Box.”

While the U.S. Department of Education is moving towards the elimination of criminal background questions on the college applications, most still ask about expulsions, and 90% of colleges use that data in admissions decisions.  It also may affect lifelong employment for more sensitive or security positions.

Think about the stupid things you did in middle or high school, or that your friends did and you were there or helped.  It’s crazy that those mistakes can follow a child for life, while a crime is likely sealed.

And believe me those specters do not follow all children equally, who can get a lawyer and who can’t is not evenly distributed.  At the same time Black and Brown children and particularly Black boys face disproportionate punishment for the same offenses and are more likely to have the police called.  The above article summarized one study,

Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. Coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline

A Right to Counsel

So some groups are predictably over punished, those same groups have less access to resources to fight that injustice, and the consequences of losing or conceding can be enormous.  Students should have a right to counsel in these proceedings, not just a right to pay for counsel but a public defender, or other free counsel.

The school to prison pipeline starts early with school discipline.  This is all predictably laid out before us.  We need to change the rules of the game, and that means protecting our most vulnerable students rather than abandoning them in a game stacked against them, which tends to be nasty, brutish, and all too short.