What Really Happened at the Castlemont Charters and What Could Have Been Done

Some ink is starting to spill concerning the recent closure of two Oakland charter schools, Castlemont Junior Academy and Castlemont Primary Academy, assessing what happened, who is to blame, and what should be done.  But before we get our chonies too twisted, let’s take a look at what really happened, at least from one perspective.

I worked some on the original school design and have followed the developments closely.  Many know it better, so I am open to hearing more, but here is “the official story” and then my own analysis.

The official story

The East Bay Express has provided the most coverage thus far, here is their story

When nonprofit Youth Uprising opened two new Oakland charter schools in 2015, they were hailed as anchors of a “cradle-to-college” education pipeline serving families in a troubled deep east neighborhood. Private donors, and even the state of California, showered the schools with grant money. Parents and community leaders praised the charters.

But both schools failed to enroll enough students and quickly ran out of money. One, Castlemont Junior Academy, was shut down entirely in 2016. The other, Castlemont Primary Academy, is currently being merged into a district-run public school.

These closures have not come without costs.  Firstly, anytime a student moves schools involuntarily, there is a cost to their learning.  But there are also a set of financial costs that the District may have to bear.

Again from the Express,

Now, according to Oakland Unified School District officials, taking on the students will cost the district as much as several hundred-thousand dollars.

And the operator of both charters, the Castlemont Community Transformation Schools (CCTS) organization, still owes the district at least $22,101 in unpaid rent — at the same time OUSD is facing a $14 million budget shortfall.

A couple of the school board members have expressed surprise and dismay, and are calling for increased oversight and transparency.

School-board directors Gonzales and Torres questioned why they were kept out of the loop. “Parker [Elementary] is in my district,” Gonzales said. “All I got a letter that said it’ll be a seamless transition to merge the schools.”…

Gonzales said the issue isn’t about the risk, but rather the costs — and the fact that school-board members are asked to constantly approve new charters, but then are kept in the dark when they fail.

“They were supposed to be able to run that school all year with the money they got from the state,” Gonzales said. “What happened to all that money? The public has a right to know.”

Angels rush in where fools fear to tread

Folks who live and work in the community see the lost lives of too many of our children, and we live with an intense urgency to do something.  Every year that we don’t do something another year is lost for many children.  When I worked with Youth Uprising on the charters the sense of urgency hung in the air, like a stale poisonous smoke.

There is a push to do it now, which I completely understand.  The unknown risk of doing it now versus the known risk in not doing it now.  For me it was maybe too much too fast, opening two schools at the same time, serving very high needs kids and not having a known staff.   As I remember the schools were somewhat late in the hiring cycle and struggled to find and keep high quality experienced staff from the beginning.

School funding, cuts and the school death spiral

Enrollment also presented two challenges.  First, the schools didn’t hit their overall numbers.  Second, by advertising as full service schools they attracted very high needs students.  I know there is this narrative (which is sometimes true) around charters attracting higher achieving students, but there is another dynamic, where schools can promise high supports and attract parents with very high needs students.

When I visited the middle school, half of the students had special needs.  And in California, you really don’t get the resources to serve high needs students.  Those kids need strong experienced teachers and robust supports, and in a first year charter, they just didn’t get really get that, despite best efforts.

Charter schools can go into a death spiral.  Funding is driven by enrollment.  So without students you lose funding, so you need to cut the budget meaning cutting staffing or programs, which makes the school less attractive to families, so they leave, funding goes down even more, so you need to cut more, etc.

Meanwhile, there are a set of ongoing stable major costs (facilities, core staffing), so you can’t really cut your way out of the death spiral.  Cutting costs may just accelerate it, as families see the program receding and choose to leave the school at a faster pace.

When a charter school closes

Recently, both the CCTS schools surrendered their charters, sending student back into the system or to other charters.

The Express captured the two contrasting perspectives on it this way,

Backers of the folded schools say their rocky road illustrates how difficult it is to serve primarily Black youth using the charter model. Others say the episode is emblematic of a district that has allowed charters to expand too fast, and that there’s not enough oversight and accountability.

As someone who provided some help in planning the schools, visited them and has known many of the players and have cared about those kids and watched the drama unfold, the truth as always is somewhere in between, though I do have some commentary and quibbles.

First, if the school owes the district money it should pay its debts.  There were a series of backers who got it off the ground, they should contribute to setting the books straight with OUSD if need be.  That only seems fair.  Not that the $22,000 owed will solve the District’s $25 million dollar deficit.  But whatever the number, it should get zeroed out.

Strange complaints

However, it is a little peculiar to hear OUSD, which is bleeding students, with its own under-enrollment problem, complaining about a plan to re-enroll a set of charter students en masse into a district school.

Parker Elementary is doing a great job.  Those kids will be well served there, and moving the students alongside a set of staff members, as a group, will provide some continuity for the kids.

And let’s be clear here, the principal at Parker isn’t a chump.  When faced with taking these students in, he demanded resources as part of the deal.  And he got them, as described below.

So yes, there are costs associated with taking in students mid-year, the size of which and net impact are disputed, but I would say there are also benefits.  As the Express reported,

Gonzales estimated that it is likely to set OUSD back more than $300,000, because it will cost an extra $3,925 to take on each new student at Parker Elementary through the end of the year.

Simmons and Thomas (trustees at CCTS) disagree. They claim the short-term cost is actually about $100,000, and that Parker Elementary will also get four full-time, and one half-time, CCTS staffers, who are already grant-funded. They claim the ultimate cost to the district will net out to zero.

I would have to see the math to analyze this.  But again this should be a long term boost to enrollment, for OUSD, which should more than cover any deficit from the partial year of service, over time.

It’s also a bit strange to hear that some trustees were unaware of this situation.  The board chair of OUSD was on the Board of CCTS alongside a high level OUSD staff member.  I personally had heard about the schools’ challenges several times, I don’t think there was any secret, or conspiracy of silence.

And I assume that CCTS follows the Brown Act Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act, so any OUSD director or member of the public could have attended a board meeting or reviewed board documents.  And if they wonder where the money is, any charter school worth its salt should produce the financials.  You should be able to clearly see where money went.

An all too familiar story

The actual story doesn’t have much intrigue and will probably sound familiar; ambitious educational plans for underserved students, lower enrollment than the budgets assumed alongside fixed costs, budget deficits, cuts, consolidation by closing the middle school, declining services, more cuts…

Sound familiar.  If it doesn’t yet, it likely will as OUSD stares down a somewhat similar budget challenge.  Parts of it probably sound very  familiar to the Sankofa parents.  Who recently had their OUSD middle school “consolidated” with those students enrolling at other schools mid-year.

The implications of CCTS for charter oversight

Some charter schools will close.  When they can’t attract enough students, balance the books or deliver the program they promised.  They close.  There is a cost to families when this happens.  And a cost in blood, sweat, and tears to school staff, founders and the community.

In this case the families ended up at a really strong school, and that school got additional resources.  It’s not an altogether happy ending, but this is how the charter system was written up. And indeed, as with Sankofa, it happens at district schools too.

And what would more oversight look like?

The OUSD Board president was on the Board of CCTS and so was a high level OUSD staff member.  They joined after challenges started, in an effort to help, but they knew.  And I am sure the charter office was getting financial reports and knew as well, a lot of people knew.  And anyone could have found out by just asking the school or school’s board.  More “oversight” is not really the answer here.

Urgency versus capacity

One area that could be looked at is the green lighting for school openings even if a charter is approved.  I admittedly don’t really know the law in this area in CA, but I know the logic.

As a guy who incubates charter schools and works with startups, there are a few key things you need to startup strong; an (experienced) high quality school leader, quality teachers that match the needs of your students, sufficient enrollment/funding, a facility, a viable curriculum and education program etc.  And the heavier the lift in terms of the challenges of your student body, the more stable each of those areas needs to be.

Many times in my work with new school we are telling our teams to wait a year and many times they want to charge ahead.  So maybe as schools startup, there is more deliberate look at their capacity to open successfully, by checking in on some of these key areas, with real milestones.  Ideally the schools, funders, and the authorizer are in a real partnership to serve students and work together for success, which may entail some hard conversations.  I worry about overreach, but I also worry about schools not really being ready.

In the short term, there are no winners when a school closes.

“Oakland to a Fault”

A Sister spoke at a recent Board meeting and described herself as, ”Oakland to the core, Oakland to a fault”  And that is kind of how I see CCTS. They feel the need and they wanted to do everything at once;  elementary and middle school, a 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. program, universal counseling, free Summer school, a real full service program for our most challenged students, those often facing trauma and multi-generational poverty.

They wrote a check that our kids deserve, that their bankbook could not keep.

Angels rush in where fools fear to tread.

But, I guess given the choice, I prefer to rush in with the angels alongside folks like CCTS, rather than sit on the sidelines, with the fools, who just watch and criticize, while a daily toll is taken on our youth.






The Second Best Charter School in NYC and the Perils of “Accountability”

I worked with one of the top scoring charter schools in NYC.  It was also one of the worst schools in the City.  This school is a cautionary tale for the unceasing push to simplistic accountability formulas and how schools can manipulate the numbers while not really delivering the goods.

The school had the second highest proficiency rate for 7th grade math scores of any charter school in the City (93% passed), and also had strong ELA numbers.  It was a middle school, so it makes sense to judge performance based, not where kids come in, but their status as they progress, and their preparation for the next level.  So I looked at the highest grade served.

“No Excuses” run amok

The school was also cited as having the highest attrition rate in the City, with 31.7% of students leaving in that year, and similar attrition in the prior ones.  The school had also failed to return a single classroom teacher in either of the first two years.

It was “no excuses” run amok, for the kids and teachers.  There was an early report of bathroom graffiti, so the bathrooms were closed except for a few times during the day.  The staff reported to me with some strange self-satisfaction that a student had gone to the bathroom on herself, because of these closures.  With a quip around “that will teach them to take care of the bathrooms.”

Kids were suspended all the time, and many parents left rather than facing the punishments.  The school had a 28% suspension rate—so more than 1 in 4 students were suspended in a given year.

Teachers were similarly worked to the bone.  Because of the constant staff departures, there was always a need to cover classes and most teachers worked from breakfast to the end of the school day without a break.

A similar harshness in dealing with the staff prevailed.  So much so, that the teachers voted as “teacher of the month” a colleague who had been fired the previous month.  I would call that a morale problem.

I know that someone is thinking they cheated on the tests.  They didn’t.  They “cheated” on their student population.  Like so many schools do.  Let’s dig in a little though.

How did this happen

The school was a charter school with a lottery for admission and freedom to set its own policies.  It was located in a largely low income neighborhood, with many first generation Caribbean immigrants.  Many highly motivated families, even if they had not achieved the American dream for themselves, they were supremely hopeful for their children, and worked with them and pushed them hard.  Many families were accustomed to relatively harsh conditions and showed what might be called “tough love” to their kids.  I am speaking in overly broad stereotypes but stick with me.  And there were certainly some families who appreciated the rigid discipline and “no excuses” culture.

But many more didn’t.  And roughly a third of the school voted annually with their feet to leave.  But these were not the average student, low achievers, English learners and students with special needs left at higher rates.  Parents that were frustrated with the lack of responsiveness or services would leave.  Or those facing what they saw as unfair punishments or conditions would just withdraw their child rather than continue to be subjected.

And here’s the kicker, in order to be promoted from grade to grade you needed to pass your classes and show proficiency on the State test, by scoring a “3.” While in the traditional department of education schools and almost every other charter you only needed a “2.”  So students faced with repeating all of their classes at this charter school, or withdrawing and attending a different school, would always just leave.

Shit, I would leave if that’s what the school told me.  That my kid had to sit in the exact same classes for another year, I would get his file walk downstairs to the DoE school and enroll him.  So, to sit for the test in year 2 you had to show proficiency year 1.

I also have to add that the school did have a great math teacher that year, who did hold it down with the kids that had made it to 7th grade, and did a great job teaching them.  So it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, but some of it was.  But those most challenging kids, or those that started 5th grade far behind were either gone or hadn’t advanced to the 7th grade.  And by year 3 there were no special education students in the 7th grade at all.

Lessons for Accountability

I am the accountability guy.  Schools are there to increase student learning and social development, if students aren’t progressing or subgroups of students are stagnating, we need to look hard at what is happening, and whether other answers might be needed.  But the way we tend to judge school accountability—by looking at proficiency levels of students as the key indicator—misses student growth, and can distort the overall picture.

Student attrition and the composition of the student body are crucial factors that are often missed when we look at school quality.  Again I remember the old days of test prep, where the rules distorted school’s instructional focus.  Where the schools energies were targeted around that minority of students on the cusp of moving up or down a performance level, because that was what was measured and valued for “accountability.”

So if a student needs 75% correct answers to be proficient, then all energy would focus on those students in the 70-80% range on the pre-test, those who might slip just below, or those that might climb just above the bar.  And for the focus put on them, focus was taken away from students who weren’t close or likely to sit on the cusp of a cut point.

That is basically how we have looked at accountability in California for the last couple of years, looking at pure proficiency scores.  And it doesn’t necessarily tell us much about school performance.  It may, but it may not.

Thankfully the California State Board of Education has improved this process.  We are making some progress here with updates to our accountability system, which EdSource is doing a good job covering.  But we still have a ways to go, both on some the details of the measures, as well as making them accessible and useful for families.

And there are a range of small technical decisions in the accountability formulas being made that will, determine whether accountability really measures the value schools are adding or whether it creates a set of data points that nimble schools can game.  We will be keeping our eyes on these decisions, and hope that you will too.  The devil will be in the details, and it will be up to us to catch and exorcise demons, before they haunt another generation of California’s children, obscuring school quality and rewarding cheaters, rather than informing parents and identifying the virtuous.



What Is ‘School Accountability’ and Why Should Parents Care About It Anyway?

This is a guest post from education blogger Laura Waters, I thought it might be helpful to some of our readers here at Great School Voices.

If you’re a parent like me, at the start of each school year you eagerly learn all about the course content your child will study, the enrichment opportunities available, the field trips your child will take and the school supplies your child will need as you brace yourself for that evening’s trip to Staples.

If you’re a taxpayer like me, you know how much of your money goes to public education.


In other words, you are well-informed about everything that goes into your child’s educational experience, which we can call “input.” But what about the output? How much do you really know, outside of parent-teacher conferences and the quarterly report card, about your child’s learning outcomes?

The answer is likely “not much,” and that’s true across America, both at the micro-level of your specific child and at the macro-level of schools, districts and historically under-served subgroups like English-language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and students from economically-disadvantaged homes.

Yet, according to federal law—once called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—schools and states are responsible for both inputs and outputs in order to ensure adequate school quality and equity.

Another word for this sort of responsibility is “accountability,” a much-maligned word in the education arena, often clustered with other imprecations like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” “standardized tests,” and “value-added teacher evaluations.”

But accountability simply means that states are responsible not only for adequate inputs like sufficient funding, ambitious course content standard and high-quality instruction, but also for outputs like accurate measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. They are also responsible for intervening in the lowest-performing schools through extra funding, new leadership and other turnaround strategies.

These strategies, of course, are mere inputs. If student achievement—the ultimate output—remains stagnant then those initiatives represent wasted resources and, more urgently, wasted time for that school’s students.


Over the last several years federal and state accountability legislation has come under attack from a duo of strange bedfellows: Tea Party/Trump-ish acolytes who wave the banner of local control and teacher union leaders who disdain objective measurements of student learning, at least when they’re tied to teacher evaluations and job security.

ESSA, America’s new federal education law, provides wiggle room to accommodate this political pressure, a kind of NCLB-lite, extracting federal teeth to gum onto the cachet of hands-off government.

Yet states still must, like under NCLB, administer annual standardized tests to students in grades three through eight, intervene in the lowest-performing schools, report progress for historically under-served subgroups, and submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education.

But states can also play limbo (how low can you go?) with tying student outcomes to teacher evaluations and with how they measure school quality.

Daria Hall of Education Trust warns:

We have to be really cautious because we know that states have a long track record of not making tough decisions when it comes to the interest of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners. If states are going to walk away from those students, we are going to lose whatever progress we’ve made with those students, who now make up the majority of our public school population.

Clear and sober data can help parents make informed school choices and learn more than what goes on that Staples shopping list. That’s a key goal of accountability systems. Now if only states could accept responsibility for the elements necessary to ensure that all students have access to the input of effective instructional services and the output of developmentally-appropriate proficiency.


An original version of this post appeared on New York School Talk as Beyond Staples: How Parents Benefit from School Accountability.

Listening to Our Young Sisters; The African American Female Achievement Initiative

“We are a movement starting from the self that asks what we can do as individuals to make conditions better for young Black women.”  That is how the African American Female Achievement initiative (AAFAI) was described to me by Sultanah Corbett, one of the founders of Oakland’s effort to better understand and better serve African American females.

An effort that we will be highlighting this year through posts from the young women themselves and those who work with them on this blog.

A Homegrown Program

For over 30 years Ms. Corbett has been working with students using a social justice and equity lens.  Those experiences highlighted the need for something different, particularly as it relates to African American females.  “Black girls were struggling” and seeing some of the specialized programs that were developing for Black boys, “We needed the same for our girls, specialized programs and specific resources” and from there, AAFAI was born.

Not in a downtown office or foundation boardroom, in classrooms, and lived experiences.

Since then, AAFAI joined a national research partnership, took a recent trip to the White House and spurred the development of a dedicated office in OUSD.  But Ms. Corbett’s feet are still firmly on the ground in West Oakland working with young women at her school.  She is also looking to expand the program here, and develop schools in Oakland as models of what can be done for the nation.

The need for AAFAI

AAFAI’s  co- founder Dr. Corigan Malloy described the need and current context,

With over 25 years of teaching experience, and ten of those years dedicated to teaching in OUSD schools, I’ve concluded the educational experience of Black girls in Oakland, while varied, is a common one in that the girls are a population that has been left behind when resources are distributed to improve the academic lot of students.   Being female, black, and poor presents a challenge for “success” in American society, and this mindset is not uncommon in education, and in Oakland, where historically, children of color are underserved.  Black girls are the fastest growing population of incarcerated students; are disciplined more often and more harshly than their White and Asian counterparts; and are expected to sally forth despite their treatment.  Black girls, most recently, have become the national “buzzword,” as myriad factions attempt to finally address their plight, but oftentimes, this new attention remains minimal.  Black girls are under constant pressure, scrutiny, and seen through less than favorable lenses by those assigned to protect, provide for, and teach them.  As such, Black girls continue to strive and excel under circumstances that are challenging and unfair.  Black girls succeed, but their success is often largely due to their will and the strength of their own perseverance, and willingness to overcome the odds.

I covered some of the data in more detail in a previous piece, but the statistical disparities are striking.

Alongside massive disproportionality in suspensions,  African American girls have roughly a double rate of chronic absence at 20%.   And while there are lower reading proficiency rates for Latinas at 3rdgrade, 24% proficiency versus 31% proficiency for African Americans.  When it comes to graduating high school and completing the A-G college entrance requirements 61% of Latinas were eligible for UC and Cal State while only 36% of African American girls were.

Girls that start out ahead, end up way behind, something is happening in schools.

The numbers scream what the students are telling us, schools aren’t working for our African American girls.  This confirms the experiences of Ms. Corbett of 30 plus years working in education.  “This population needs special attention…We need culturally responsive programs to help them develop socially and academically.”

The question is not whether there is a problem, it’s what are we going to do about it.  And why hasn’t more been done already?

What’s Next?

This will be a year of listening and elevating the voices of these young women.  We will be working with AAFAI, students and schools, to tell our young sisters’ stories, conduct action research, and also address decision makers with recommendations.

When I first interviewed Ms. Corbett on her background, she called herself a “citizen researcher.”  That term is resonating right now for me, both because my favorite book last year was “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine, which pondered the “citizenship” of Black folks, and then to hear Obama’s farewell address and his call for all of us to engage as “citizens.”

As President Obama so eloquently stated,

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title:  Citizen.”

I hope that many of you will follow our “joyous task” of helping to tell these stories, or if you have stories of your own or your school does, we welcome your participation in our shared role as citizen researchers.

The task is on us to improve this great city of ours, and we have at least one obvious starting point.


What The Atlantic Got Wrong About Charter Schools and “Segregation”

George Joseph’s article, What Betsy DeVos Didn’t Say About School Choice, claims that charter schools “have pushed more low-income, minority students into even more racially segregated schools.”

While there are many problems in Joseph’s article, I’ll just run through some of the top issues.

Black Folks Have Agency

First, Black folks have agency. Black folks choose and support charters—check any credible poll. We are “pushed” to choose sometimes subpar and homogenous charters, because other neighborhood options are worse. Joseph should talk to some of our parents; they could explain “segregation” as we, the victims, use the term.

Most Black folks wouldn’t call Morehouse or Howard segregated. Separation and segregation are different, segregation in this context is aligned with racism and involves the use of power, of excluding us and leaving us with less than a fair share. To say Black families are “pushed” by charters misses the point—they are pushed by a historically racist system that I personally don’t think has really changed its spots. But that’s just me.

So yeah many Black folks choose to attend charters that are mostly Black, might there be a reason for that? Maybe the school is more culturally responsive, maybe it is less racist, maybe it’s in the neighborhood? But let me just give one example that will illustrate many of the problems with the article.

When I moved to Oakland, I helped start an “Afrocentric” school, the West Oakland Community School. I still remember the pillars: leadership development, college preparation and African-American history and culture. The group was centered in West Oakland, a center of the Black community and a place of pride. Many know it as the birthplace of the Black Panthers.

We had a lottery for admission, and unsurprisingly no White kids applied. It was all Black or mixed kids. It catered to Black kids who often felt like outsiders in less “segregated” schools or equally segregated district schools that were less culturally responsive.

Integration Isn’t Magic

No Black person views sitting with a bunch of White kids as a magic potion for college. Many Black parents realize that there are real material benefits to being in schools with more White people. Those schools tend to have more resources and get more attention.

But there is often a cost. Recently, one of the parents who made it into one of Oakland’s more exclusive public schools told me how she overheard another parent telling a staff member that she didn’t want her child in the class with the Black child. The staff member didn’t rebuke the other parent. And her child soldiered on as one of the few Black students. And the mother worries about the subtle or not so subtle messages her child gets. So that’s the burden we often bear.

More African-Americans Support Charters Than Oppose Them

Black folks are smart about our chances, every real poll you see will show more African-Americans support charters than oppose them. We aren’t a bunch of dupes. We see the flaws in all of our choices and do the best we can.

And I bet you dollars to donuts that the richest and Whitest “public” school in almost any city or state is not a charter, at least what I know from California and New York, it’s a neighborhood zoned school with exclusive housing prices, or it’s a gifted and talented program or specialized high school.

Plus there is a whole chicken-and-egg issue with Joseph’s article. In my work assisting school leaders in founding and running charter public schools, most of them target underserved kids and locate the school in the neighborhood, because transportation is difficult. And in New York City charters are actually required to give preference to neighborhood kids. So yes, those schools are for the neighborhood kids and will reflect the almost exclusively Black and Brown neighbors. And even as Oakland or Brooklyn gentrifies, let’s be honest, not too many White kids apply in the lotteries.

Finally, though I could go on, the article acts like segregation started with charters. It started with the traditional public schools, and is perpetuated by a host of rules that the “system” lays down.

While I think the chicken-and-egg issue confounds the research, I would love to see the golden time before charters, when the schools were rapidly desegregating in the 90s and early 2000s, or even a trend of desegregation in localities before charter schools started.

I am an integrationist personally, given an equal playing field. I think we learn the lessons we need best together. And we should write rules that encourage that. But something feels a little off to get lectured by a young journalist about Black parental choices and charters causing segregation.

But hey, maybe I am wrong and Mr. Joseph will send his kid to an Afrocentric school and help us break the chains, rather than lecturing and blaming Black parents for trying to do the best for their kids in a rigged system.