Power to the Parents; the Best Hope for Black Children in Oakland

We know there is no cavalry coming to save our kids.  If there was it would have already done come.  Centuries of educational exclusion where it was illegal to teach Black slaves, followed by decades of legal educational neglect during Jim Crow, and now a formal equality that exists largely on paper, but not the lived experiences of children and families.

The statistics paint a sad state and poor overall chances for Black children; only 7% of Black seniors were college ready in Math and 17% were proficient in reading.   The encouraging and depressing  part of it is that things are the best they have ever been, at least statistically.

Look at Oakland statistics.  16 years ago 2.3% of Black students in Oakland had passed the classes to even apply to the state universities, now its 23.6%.  Huge strides but a long way to go.

When I read the numbers and re-read the numbers, and see new numbers that say the same things.  It’s depressing.   But I also see really great things happening.

The Power in Community and Community Schools

When I am in the community it is energizing.    I have done some great visits this year to Roosevelt and Urban Montessori and the District has supported growth of some potentially powerful internal proposals, with its first dual language stand-alone middle school in SOL, and also supporting an exciting study abroad opportunity in Thailand, with Thrival Academies.

Mack made significant progress in its academic performance, especially for African American males, and Coliseum College Prep showed outstanding results

There has been progress and there is real hope.

Power to the Parents

Talking to parents in Oakland it’s a familiar set of challenge; substitute teachers rather than real classroom teachers, basic materials missing from some schools, struggling to get special education services, lower quality neighborhood schools, and even when we “move on up” (to quote the Jeffersons) it’s another set of challenges, having an equal voice and getting equal respect at the “good schools.”

Parents, rightly, wondered whether the “A” their child received was one that they earned and that would stand up to competition.  Whether the standards were high enough, with a creeping suspicion, or uncomfortable knowing that they weren’t.

And  parents generally have good and bad things to say about charters and district schools-unsurprisingly.   There are  huge disparities in the access to resources that again spanned both district and charter schools.  One OUSD school’s PTA raised 648K, other OUSD schools reported very little.  One charter had a $500 a plate fundraiser, and deep pocketed sponsors for it, another, raised almost no funding.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Cavalry

We know that there is no cavalry, superintendents change, boards change, studies are done, papers are written, reports delivered, meetings held, and things mostly stay the same.  It’s never going to be someone coming to help us. It has got to be the community fighting for theirs, and for those who can’t really fight yet, working for better schools, better access, and equal concern and respect.

Cavalry is the wrong metaphor.  It’s more like the Mau Mau or some indigenous defense forces.  It’s not someone from outside that will ever save us.  It is always us, and sometimes our allies, and an ongoing struggle for progress.

These are our schools.   It’s inspiring to see the families organizing and gearing up to fight for them.

Doing School Improvement Differently- Integration in Oakland

Oakland has a golden opportunity to make real lasting changes at two of its most impacted schools, through a happy coincidence of funding.  Whether it will take the opportunity is to be seen.

Last week OUSD announced  its receipt of the Federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) for two schools on the Havenscourt/Lockwwod Campus; Futures United and Community United elementary schools.  The grant runs 5 years and totals $17,246,920.  Which is serious money.

At the same time the federal education department has issued an RFP for SIG schools called Opening Doors and Expanding Opportunities,  to use economic desegregation as a means to school improvement.

From the rfp,

Through the Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities program, the Department invites interested LEAs and consortia of LEAs to apply for funding to develop ambitious blueprints focused on improving academic outcomes for students in SIG Schools or SIG-Eligible Schools by systematically increasing socioeconomic diversity, and offers the option to apply for funding for one or more Pre-Implementation Activities aligned to their blueprint. The Department seeks to support applicants who will explore and develop voluntary, community-led strategies that will positively impact the socioeconomic diversity in a significant percentage or number of SIG Schools or SIG-Eligible Schools where a substantial number of students are acutely impacted by a lack of student diversity, while also closing historic achievement gaps.

This grant lasts a little over 2 years, at up to $1.5 million a year.  Again pretty serious money especially when combined with SIG funds.

Integration works, hyper segregation doesn’t

There is a deep and wide body of research showing academic and social benefits of integrated schools.  And I don’t need a Ph.D, or to read any research to know that segregating students by race and income—or as is most often the case, hyper segregating them, when we create schools of almost all low income and  Black or Brown students. That is bad for kids, bad for schools, and bad for society.

Over the years Oakland has had a lot of school improvement planning and spent a lot of time and money, with mixed results at best.  It’s time we try something new.   Well something old that we have somewhat given up on.  There is money for it, there is public will for it across many political divisions, and the research backs it up.

Besides a little bureaucratic inconvenience I can’t think of any good reason not to try.


Oakland’s Newest School, And What it Signals

Great news for Oakland families in the OUSD Board approval of Oakland’s first new school in response to its call for quality schools, the district’s internal school development process.  The newly approved School of Language (SOL), a dual language program, fills a key gap in the bilingual pipeline.

OUSD has made huge strides in its services to English learners and bilingual pathway development has been an effective part of that.  The district now has five K-5 immersion programs and one K-8 program, but no stand-alone middle school dual language programs.  And parents are clamoring for one.  SOL at least partially fills that gap.

Districts need to strategically plan schools and innovate

It’s heartening to see the District thinking more strategically about the students and the school model needs.  I come from years of work in NYC where the District had a very active school incubation department—the Innovation Zone (I Zone) , and came up with some great models and replicated them.  Many of the hot educational trends came from or grew within the NYC DoE—Teach to One, early college high schools, career pathways—NYC DoE was ahead of the curve.

OUSD had its moment during the New Small Autonomous Schools, but seems to have mostly stalled, until now, in terms of innovative school creation, but there are costs to this new birth.

Too Many Schools in Oakland?

Oakland has a crowded field of schools—many observers, including several OUSD Trustees, would say too crowded.  By many measures Oakland probably does have “too many schools.”  And as we struggle with meeting district enrollment targets which are essential to meeting revenue goals, another school means slicing the existing pie a little thinner.

Or, it means expanding that pie by drawing from the 13,685 charter school students or the 17,572 students who presumably go to private schools but don’t show in charters or OUSD public schools.

Or it means closing or reducing the size of existing schools.

And as one middle school was birthed, another died, or was “consolidated” as the lingo goes. Sankofa, which was a K-8 receded to a K-5 by split vote of the board.  I don’t know the particulars and there usually are two sides to these stories, but the data case around low enrollment and low achievement for Sankofa Middle seemed clear from the one side that was presented.

These are the hard questions Oakland Unified will need to deal with, finances will be flat at best, district  enrollment while high for recent history will be under pressure from private schools and charters, and we have changing students and changing needs, and we need changing schools and school models.

Not Enough Great Schools

We may have too many schools in Oakland, but we don’t have enough great ones, particularly in the Flatlands.  Approving SOL is the right decision.  And I hope we see more strong responses to the district’s strategic needs and the call for quality schools.

This needs to go hand in hand with an increasing ability of the district to support community based school development.  Which means creating practical conditions for schools to be innovative and successful, and working with communities so that transformation at existing sites is done with community and not to it.

There are a lot of good things happening in Oakland schools, and SOL is one more potential flower in a patchy and uneven educational garden.  Every garden needs a turning of the soil, and as season’s change, some weeding and planting.

But it’s on us to make it a community garden, and be active informed, stewards, and deciders. Too long we have been more acted upon than actors, being fed whatever is served, or getting the leftovers from someone else’s feast, while we have all the raw materials for greatness in front of us.

Oakland’s Next Superintendent

Instability is bad for schools, and the churn of superintendents that Oakland has suffered has been bad for the system.  We are going on our 9th, correct that, 10th, superintendent in the last 16 years, with the inevitable stalls during transitions, and churns and learning curves as the new person comes in, with or without their team.

Running through the list since 2000, it’s a long one- Antwan Wilson, Gary Yee (acting), Tony Smith, Roberta Mayor (interim), Vince Matthews (State Administrator),  Kim Statham (State Administrator), Randy Ward (State Administrator),  and Dennis Chaconas.  Now we have an interim, in Dr. Devin Dillon, appointed last night, while we search for the “permanent” superintendent.

With each change, there is a period where things stagnate during the search, usually around 6 months, then things stall as the new person comes in and orients themselves, give that another 6 months, then strategic initiatives start to get implemented, and hopefully to gather some momentum, which takes years.  Then they leave.

Then a new person comes in and the cycle starts over again.  It can’t keep going like this.  A continuing cycle to nowhere.

A homegrown option?

Coincidence or not, EdSource ran a piece this week, Home-grown school superintendents bring stability, deep knowledge to their districtsThey run through the high rates of superintendent turnover and identify some notable exceptions to the trend of revolving doors; homegrown superintendents.

As Edsource noted,

A recent EdSource survey showed that 17 of the superintendents of the state’s 30 largest districts have been in their posts for three years or less. Nine of them were appointed in 2016 alone.

There was a set of supes who countered this trend though,

A small group of home-grown school superintendents in California defy the stereotype of a school leader who parachutes into a district, spends three or four years there, and moves on to a new job in another district.

And they run through a range of rationales for the home grown stability; local familiarity with the levers of change and resistance, a differing motivation—looking at making their home better rather than seeing this job as a stepping stone to the next one, and the sense of trust that long relationships create.

My first thought was…”shit, I wish we had a Supe for 4 years, can’t remember the last one.”  Superintendent Chacones, who I thought did a fine job, and was left holding a bag of financial crap from years prior, was the last Oakland educator I remember and probably the longest lasting in the last 20 years or more.

The EdSource article also highlighted Long Beach Unified, often cited as a diverse and relatively high achieving district- a model.  I don’t think its coincidental that their local leader has been at the helm since 2002.

While I would never advocate employment discrimination, I would love us to hire someone with young kids in local schools.  Or someone with roots here, a situation where she isn’t looking for the next bigger gig, but is 100% committed to making things better here.

Oakland’s schools too often serve as the backdrop for someone else’s story.  It’s time we make them the central character, and we need the next superintendent to make a long term commitment, this serial dating sh*t is getting old.






True Integration Stories, A Mom’s Real Challenges and Real Victories

(this is a guest blog from a socially conscious mother, who deliberately took on and struggled with sending her child to a school where he was the “minority”, heartfelt and honest account of the journey)

December 2015

Lest anyone imagine that our school integration story has been smooth, that my offspring are always on board and willing, that all this talk about awareness and multi-racial/classial friendships has been easy, today my son came home and told that he doesn’t want to go to school there anymore.

I’ve devoted so much to this program and pushing the integrated school idea. It has become my community, and, in a way that surprises me, a big chunk of my identity, too. This is more than my son’s education.

But it IS my son’s education. First and foremost, this is his.

So I put on my best loving-mom face (but, because he is 13, I try to not look “too” caring) and casually ask him why he wants to switch schools.

Boy:     Because. Because I am white.

Mom (losing all casual affect and with way too much shrill): WHAT?!? Boy, you want to go to MiddleClassSchool because you’re white? What does that have to do with anything?

Boy:     The kids tease me because I am white. They say I am the teacher’s pet WHICH IS WHY I DON’T WANT TO MAKE HOLIDAY ORNAMENTS FOR THE TEACHERS LIKE YOU ALWAYS MAKE US DO. And they laugh because I don’t know the things they do, they say I don’t understand things because I am white. They think I am rich and watch rich white tv. All of it.

Mom: Rich… television???

Boy:     Well, yes. But that’s not the point. I’m too white for there.

Mom (still confused): Wow, okay, but I need to know about this “rich, white tv”…

Boy:     Mom! Seriously, Project Runway!?!

Mom: Oh. Right. Well… Have you told your friends that this hurts your feelings?

Boy (with eyeroll): Oh, Mom. Really!? I’m 13. WE ARE 13!

Mom: Right. Have you, you know, just owned that you are white? Like when we showed up “on time” for that party only to be told by, well, the only other person there, that these parties start at least an hour later than the invite time? Remember, we just laughed about the differences of our white people ways?

Boy:     It’s not that simple. It’s just… It’s just… At MiddleClassSchool there will be other kids who are more like me. It seems easier.

Doorbell rings, dogs bark. Boy goes to finish homework, I make dinner. Moment passes. My stomach hurts.


If we need to enroll him at MiddleClassSchool, we will. But how do I know if that IS the right thing to do?

I recall my middle school years with a profound sense of horror. I was a wreck. I attended three middle schools: partly due to a move and partly because I felt, quite dramatically, that I didn’t fit in. I couldn’t fit in because I was somehow altogether different from those (also white middle class) kids. My deep belief that I would never fit in beget mysterious stomachaches and the impulse to rearrange the furniture in my room at 3am while listening to really bad rock ballads. I was soooooooooo different.

Early in high school, a popular football player friend privately confessed that he felt like a fraud and just knew he would lose his place at the cool table any minute. I realized then, in my 15 year old way, that the feeling of “not belonging” might just be one of those things that many of us share. If “Todd,” the paragon of all that is socially enviable in high school, believed he didn’t fit in, then we were all doomed to feel that, too.

My boy is in a geometrically compounded liminal space right now, everything is in-between. At 13, he is neither child nor adult; he is (bad at) both. He goes to a school that is neither middle class nor poor; it is both. He lives in a neighborhood that is both and neither, too. While I love all those neither/nor, gray spaces (in another life, I might have been a middle school teacher), it certainly must be hard to be an adolescent stuck in lots of them at once. Is this Liminal Space Effect (making that up) just too much? Or is this simply no longer working?

Maybe my son’s “not belonging” is taking the form of race/class simply because those are the most glaring places of difference in the Division-is-King land of early adolescence in IntegratingSchool? Certainly at MiddleClassSchool, middle schoolers who are just so good at noticing would find something else (the wrong socks, for example).

Maybe, too, the kid is being just being completely this age: totally self-involved. He might not be hearing how the kids harass AH for being a terrible soccer player or CF for getting sweaty when he eats spicy food or PM for getting food stuck in her teeth every day, etc. etc. If he only registers the stories in which he is implicated, his relative victimhood becomes greatly exaggerated. Is my son being overly sensitive or does he just need more support in how to deal with these things?

Though I am wondering whether this whole thing has been a misfire, too. I mean, if all integration is doing is reinforcing stereotypes, then what IS the point? I recall a study done with undergraduates who were polled before and after taking a university Introduction to Anthropology course: turns out, much to our anthropologist-chagrin, those courses often strengthened rather than challenged stereotypes. So, then, is this Integrated/ing School project just doing the same?

Or, alternatively, would we be bailing on integration when the going gets tough, right at the moment of The Real Test?

I need to listen to him, to “honor his feelings” as they say, but I also need to be the stable, sensible parent.

This Integrated/ing Schools thing does feel like a bigger “risk” than attending MiddleClassSchool. At MiddleClassSchool, I doubt I would be asking myself all these questions… I would just be talking to him about how challenging growing up can be, how this can be difficult but he is loved. I am not sure how to disentangle it all.

I broached the subject again as my son and I cleaned the dishes. I told him about my experiences, that this can be a hard time, and that his problems and feelings might well follow him to MiddleClassSchool, even if the particulars might be different. We talked about how his friends, who laugh because he doesn’t know all the Mexican-American cultural rites, are also middle schoolers who are smack in the midst of shifting from kids to young adults. All the kids are trying to figure it out…

Shockingly, he said he felt a bit better. So we will give it awhile, see what passes, and decide later.

When I am in the midst of these big feelings, it seems so huge, so all-encompassing, so dramatic. But this isn’t trying to escape Syria or deciding between spending our last bit of cash on food or medicine. It matters, yes, but it also kind of doesn’t. Trying to have perspective…. But I am not sure I feel better. This is hard.

To be continued…


**** December 2016 ~ 1 Year Later ****

He’s still at IntegratingSchool.

Throughout the second semester of 7th grade, I checked in with kid every few weeks and each time he would say that while things aren’t much better, he’s fine to wait it out. We talked at length over the summer and he admitted that things were better; in part because he was able to hear that everyone caught shit from everyone and that it wasn’t ever just his. Still, he wasn’t looking forward to going back to school but wasn’t interested in switching schools either. Maybe could he just sleep until 10am and screw around all day and not ever put away his laundry? Hahahahahaha, I hear you, kid. No.

My stomach was in knots his first day of school, terrified that the problems would have somehow amplified and that we had made the wrong decision. I tried my best to play it cool when he got home, desperately wanting to ask about his day and yet knowing that an afterschool snack would be foremost on his mind.

He came home happy – startlingly, happy (I know!). Each day that first week, he walked in the door laughing about something funny someone had said, telling me about his new teachers, talking talking talking. By that Friday, he casually admitted that he was glad we hadn’t switched schools. When I slid in some question about feeling like he didn’t belong, he replied “I think we just all grew up over the summer.”

At the end of September, we had another of our ritualistic VideoGameCutback conversations. He had been gaming online with a bunch of his school friends for hours on end and I suggested that perhaps he invite his friends over and hang out in person like, you know, people. He adamantly refused. They liked playing online. I made him look at google images of “40 year old gamer living in parent’s basement” and suggested a different trajectory for his life. I said “computer relationships are no substitute for human contact.” (Honestly, I spend a lot of time building meaningful relationships over the cyberweb and text machine and yet I was discounting his. *sigh*)

Pushing for me to reconsider my stance, the boy said “Mom. We LIKE playing online. It works for us. Can that be okay?”.

And it occurred to me that these kids had found a place where they were “equal,” where everyone started out as some blue alien on the same planet with the same set of weapons, where it wasn’t relevant whether they were playing in their own room with matching curtains/throw pillows or … somewhere else. These kids had done it, they had discovered a neutral zone where they could connect, where their differences were minimized and their similarities amplified. This was the place where they could all go on a quest together. (Yes, of course there is privilege in that these kids had access to the internet … For many of the kids growing up in poverty in our area, even as cars get repossessed or sold to cover rent, this connectivity is a valuable family priority).


Now it’s December again and a full year since the boy wanted to leave. With the distance of time and all that “growing up” the kids did over the summer, he says “I think I’ve been playing the victim card too much. It’s real that I’m the only white kid, but it’s not the only thing. It’s not, like, it’s not the only thing that has ever mattered. I’m done with that.”

Damn, kid.

I am glad he stayed. And I am glad he struggled.

(This was a guest post from one of my partners in crime Courtney at integratedschools.org, please take a second to just think about your choices and the impact they may have)