Who I am, For the Curious, the Supporters and the Haters

I was born young, gifted and Black, and grew up in Upstate NY.  Well I guess we are all born young.

My parents moved to a high performing school district, but we were the first Black family on the block and one of the few flies in the buttermilk in the school.  This created challenges and opportunities.  And embedded in me, a desire to create academically high quality schools, where students did not have to check their identity at the door.

Fast forward to the present day, I have an adult son.  Have helped start or run dozens of schools, lived around the country and the world, advocated for countless families, and seen the good bad and the ugly in public education.  This started with my own education, where I did receive strong academic skills, and the doors that opened for me as I struggled through my own drama.

The system is broken

Inequity is the hallmark of American education.  The best and worst schools can sit miles apart, often separated by artificial district boundaries.  And students who need and deserve the most tend to get the least, while the privileged magnify their advantages.  That’s the system, I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.

This was crystal clear when I worked in the 80’s at group homes and the schools associated with them.  These children were being trained for institutions.  And I don’t mean universities.

I, personally, had a lot going on in high school.  Despite being in the high 90 percentiles on my SATs, I only applied to two colleges.  It was a one page application, and the fees were waived.  I started at one of the worst state schools in NY SUNY Brockport, because they gave me a $500 CASH scholarship.  And I needed cash.

Several years later, I was off to Berkeley Law or Boalt Hall as insiders know it.  I wanted to be a public interest lawyer, Brown v Board of Education, that stuff.  I also started volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, working with a young man, “Johnny” from West Oakland.  He is a father now and Johnny is still and will always be my brother.  I see him often.

The introduction to charters

His school did not treat him with the concern and respect he deserved.  He was at times a challenging kid, but had been through so much.  And he would say to me after a particularly bad incident—“that was the bad johnny.”  I wrote a post about it.  But he wasn’t moving, his family didn’t have transportation, so I just looked for other nearby schools, and a “charter” school was opening pretty close to him.

I saw an article in the paper and called them up.  Awesome group of folks mostly from West Oakland, who had lived in and really understood the community, and they were starting the West Oakland Community School.  I still remember the mission around African American history and culture, leadership development and college preparation.

The union didn’t oppose the application, everyone knew that everyone was failing our kids, and nobody had any answers.  That was the mid late ‘90s.  Before any rich folks cared, and even now when they do—they tend not to care about schools like this.

Rights, realities, and reform

I was also doing some public interest law.  Working at Public Advocates (yeah the “anti-charter” folks), suing Oakland Unified for not serving English learners, but the district would rather fight than serve kids.  Just delaying, moving from forum to forum and paying lawyers upon lawyers.  I also worked suing SFPD around affirmative action and looking at the racial impact of the CBEST- teacher licensing exam.  The reality of the law is that it can only help so much and many formal rights never actually mean anything on the ground, and I personally was mulling whether law was the answer.

So I entered a Ph.D program at Cal.  My dissertation was on Voice or Choice in Educational Reform.  I started working with OUSD on school autonomy and sat on the SSC of one of the district’s pilot schools, I also continued working with charters, and increasingly was being asked to help with schools that were struggling.

Trying to answer the call

I have been called the patron saint of lost causes, the guy who will help do things when others won’t or think it’s too risky.  And I took on some of those in Oakland, when Native elders asked me to help with their school, I did.  Even though it was in debt had 1 board member, no staff, 13 kids, and an 80% attendance rate.  it’s now one of the top schools in Oakland, but that path has been a challenging one, with many a scandal, and a lot of costs weighing alongside benefits.

I have never been anti public education, anti-district, maybe.  The district drove me crazy.  The faceless “no” coming without rationale.  The instability and shifting leaders and personalities.  It was all too far away from the schools, and simple things were made hard.

Staff were working hard, and deeply committed, but it’s something about the system and the many masters it serves.  So I drifted more to the charter side.  Mostly because it gave US a vehicle to do our own schools—kind of FUBU charter schools.  If you don’t know FUBU, ask somebody.

It’s been a whirlwind since then.  I lived in Qatar during the height of the second Gulf War, working with their leadership on “madrassah istiqual” or independent schools, and comprehensive reform of their education system; curriculum standards, stakeholder surveys, differentiated school models—that kind of stuff.

And when I came back to the US, Katrina hit New Orleans.  I had a little money in the bank and just moved with my partner to New Orleans to volunteer.  I worked there with schools, doing needs assessments and basically squabbling with folks about equity.

I was hired by the National Alliance for Public Charters, but at a certain point, as I told them,  it was a waste of my time and their money, since I was having some challenges in getting along with folks, and accepting the way things were evolving.

So we parted ways.  Which is a recurring theme, if I don’t like how people are treating me in the sandbox, I will usually take my toys and leave, rather than fighting a system that will likely sap me dry, and distract from the real work.

A pull to community based charter schools

Then it was NY and back to family.  Working some more visible jobs, that were more politically engaged.  Again that just was not really my thing.  And I left and founded a community charter school incubator- where we focus on schools targeting underserved students and informally in developing leaders of color.  And we have been pretty successful.

We incubated the first autism inclusion school in Harlem, the first college prep school catering to students with emerging mental health disorders, several schools for over age under-credited kids, the first Montessori in NYC, the first CTE charter, several dual language schools, arts based schools etc.   But our focus has always been on working with the community to serve students who are left behind.  And our portfolio far over represents English learners, students with disabilities and low income students.  So for the haters, just do your homework.

Choosers and those left behind

But only working with schools misses something.  There are a whole set of families who don’t choose, and who may be increasingly concentrated in schools of default.  So I started a new nonprofit- Great School Choices—which works kind of on both sides of the issue.  We will help communities develop and continuously improve schools and ALSO support underserved families directly in getting access to better schools and full services and fair treatment.

As a lawyer I get too many calls about issues with students, and usually the student is being mistreated, often unlawfully.  But unless you have an advocate, in many cases, don’t matter what the law say.  The law in the school is the principal.

I do some pro bono disciplinary work, supporting underserved families in disciplinary hearings, but we need a more systematic way to support students in these proceedings and also to enforce the rights for other  vulnerable kids, like homeless and foster students—who have a set of formal rights that I would suspect are largely unenforced, across all sectors.

And I also think we really need to study and better understand what is happening with charter school admissions and why.  Long arguing for proactive supports around equity but also using testers to make sure admissions are fair.

So far no funders for the “Family Quality and Equity Center.”  But I am looking.

Don’t be a lazy troll

That’s about it, for the trolls and haters, please just do your homework—there is a lot of shit to talk about me for sure, and I have made a lot of enemies of all political stripes, and friends, but at least don’t be lazy, and talk some shit that’s on point.

Am I anti union?  No, I ran a union school, I was the first board president to voluntarily unionize in NYC, I am friends and colleagues with the union folks in NY, and we incubated the first NYC school that was designed by the founders to organize upon approval.  I have written of how unions can be good for charters and vice versa and have been invited to talk on union charter issues by the AFT.

Am I pro-charter? Kind of, kind of not, I am pro- good school, good meaning quality program and equity.  So I support many charters as a vehicle for community empowerment, but I have also called for charters to be closed, and have torpedoed a couple myself.  So it depends.

Am I a philanthrocapitalist shill? In the first 2 years of the non profit the only donor was me, I have made less now than I was offered my first year out of law school.  Am I looking for funding?  Hell yeah.  If a New Schools Venture wants to fund me or the UFT wants to fund me, I am taking all comers.  You won’t really get anything special for your money, but please donate.  And yeah even the haters—please try to buy my tongue by donating.

So let me end with one of my favorite poets, Nasir Jones

“You can hate me now, but I won’t stop now”

Dreaming Big at Roosevelt

“Dream what?” the teacher prompted, “Dream Big!” was the enthusiastic response, little arms wiggling in the air. Another great school visit in Oakland, to a community that is starting with a mission of creating community leaders and re-envisioning how school should be structured to support students not only in passing a test but developing as leaders.

And while the headlines on Roosevelt have focused on its outstanding academic results in math, the real story is about a school community working together to make school relevant and meaningful for students.  This may be a longer route to test success, but it’s built on a strong foundation—the people themselves and a set of processes that give them ownership over the program.

Blow up the factory model

The traditional model of schooling—the factory model—is not working.  Or at least it’s not working for many children.  This idea that we group kids by age, put 30 of them in a room in rows, where they are expected to sit basically silently and be taught to by a lecturing teacher for a series of disconnected 50 minute periods.

It’s a hard model to break from, because most of us experienced it for over a decade, and it forms a silent backdrop to most of our thinking.  A model that we often fall back to.

Not at Roosevelt.  Early on the visit the principal talked about “blowing up the factory model” and slowly and surely the explosive charges are being planted, in math, the overall curricular design, and increasingly in English Language Arts.

Teaching to One

The factory model teaches to 30 or nobody depending how you think about it.  It’s usually a lecture aimed at the middle swath of learners with some differentiation, but probably missing a whole set of learners who are advanced, and another set that may be behind.

But the lesson is the lesson and we are all learning it together.

Teach to One is a model of teaching math from NYC that reviews student work on a daily basis and plans the next day’s lessons based on that review, grouping students based on needs and varying the modalities that they learn and practice skills.

This is different work for students and staff, and while it presented challenges, both the kids and adults I spoke to preferred this to the old way.

Outstanding results in Math

Roosevelt had the most improved math scores of any public middle school in Oakland, charter or district.  According to OUSD’s press release,

The math scores at Roosevelt have already improved more than nearly any other middle school in Oakland, including both District and charter schools. Teach to One uses an innovative approach that assesses each student to determine the instruction method that works best for them. The program then assigns each student a blend of teaching such as teacher-led instruction and student collaboration, virtual tutoring and interactive math software.

These results aren’t based just on the math program, there are strong committed, and thoughtful staff, that are making this program work.  I would encourage folks to take a look at their published school design plan for more information.

Next steps

While the Teach to One program is Math based, Roosevelt’s leadership has embraced the overall philosophy and is moving it beyond Math, truly working to personalize education in other subjects.

And something is clearly working in the school.  Students were engaged, seemed generally happy, and were learning.  Same with staff.

I really wish more people would actually get out and into Oakland’s schools.  We hear a lot of stories about how things are, and often how bad things are.  But the more I get out into schools and talk to our youth and educators, I am continually impressed.   Not by the shiny buzzwords of reform or slick PR campaigns, but by the real work, and authentic learning.

Big dreams are too often reserved for the Hills, it’s great to see Flatlands schools not only talking the talk but walking the walk with our kids.

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.