See How a Waldorf School in Oakland Is Embracing the Head, the Heart and the Hands to Help All Kinds of Students

“Johnny” (not his real name) was a newcomer from halfway around the world. For the better part of the first year, he wouldn’t take his jacket or backpack off and hovered near the front door of the school. Silent, he honestly preferred the front office staff to his class, so he waited for the next disruption, the inevitable next exit.

But rather than punishing him, the Community School for Creative Education Charter School (CSCE), supported him and waited for him. And waited. And waited. And finally, he came around.

Fast forward two years, now Johnny sits next to his classroom teacher and is struggling not to blurt out answers when other students are speaking. He fidgets, he wants to help, and he’s fully engaged—maybe a little too fully, but that’s a good thing.

This is just one story of an amazing little school in Jingletown that is getting it done the right way: intentionally planning around student social development and embracing parents and children in a more authentic way than you usually see.

A School That Kids Deserve

“Kids deserve beauty,” the school’s executive director Dr. Ida Oberman told me when I remarked on the physical layout of the school, “and they need to feel safe to grow.”

Lots of natural light, plants, murals, and walls covered with student work. What was once a dumping ground in the back parking lot is now a play area, garden and more. It has been transformed.

But the first thing you notice are the classrooms—they are big, bright and welcoming. They feel and smell homey, like a simmering pot of soup. The early childhood classroom had tastefully warm, muted tones. The chairs, tables and furnishings were better quality than you see in most schools. There is an investment in the physical environment.

“You don’t need to go to Syria to find trauma, you can find it right here,” Dr. Oberman told me. “We build the environments to support students and help them feel safe.” The overall design of the school, with few sharp angles and deliberate areas with less sensory stimulation, certainly achieves this.

Staff facilitate classes that are both safe and fun, with lots of movement, songs, art, hands-on activities, and stories to introduce the formal content. An integrated arts program creates opportunities for expression, which Oberman describes as the “spark for growth.”

This Is What Parent Engagement Should Look Like

In the early childhood room, there is a built-in kitchen with an island separating it from the main room—like an open design kitchen. Parents and students are cooking the day’s soup. Meanwhile students work in small groups and adults circulate the room. I’m not sure who the “teacher” is, who the “aide” or which adults are parents. The class is supposed to feel like home, and it does.

A lot of schools talk about an “open door to parents,” but here you actually see it. Families are in the classroom, in the halls, receiving community services and building an intentional community, where they are real partners. This has been a long term deliberate effort to build community from the diverse families and it’s still a work in progress, but it’s working.

An Urban, Integrated Waldorf

Keep in mind, this is a public school, a charter school, but it’s based on the Waldorf model—which is typically only found in private schools.

I admittedly don’t know much about Waldorf education, which is based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, but on Wikipedia, the schools are described as pursuing an ultimate goal “to develop free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence.”

What I saw in practice was kids moving, playing, talking, drawing, telling and listening to stories, and generally being engaged, having fun and learning. The young ones squirmed as young ones do, and there are built-in free play times, as well as circles to refocus them. And the older kids were pretty much just digging into their work, working in groups, a good hum of activity in the air.

It’s sad that integration is exceptional and worth noting, but it is exceptional, and worth noting at CCSE. The school is roughly 82 percent low-income, 43 percent English-language learners (ELLs), and 17 percent students with special needs. Racially the school is 44% Hispanic, 3% Native, 8% Asian, 18% Black, 10% White and 10% multi-racial. That’s a relatively good cross-section of Oakland and the neighborhood and over represents ELLs and students with special needs compared to OUSD.

At CSCE, though, integration goes beyond just percentages. Here, you see students mixing in different classes and lunch tables (ahem, Berkeley High), you see the kids playing together, sitting together and working together. You even see the same with the parents. There has been an intentional and meaningful effort to make everyone feel at home at the school and build a community.

This is working, particularly for students that tend to struggle academically such as English-language learners and students with special needs, who showed outstanding results compared to peers.

Population ELA Proficiency

CSCE

ELAProficiency

OUSD

Math Prof.

CSCE

Math Prof.

OUSD

ELLs 17% 3% 15% 6%
Special needs 15% 6% 21% 6%

 

The Real Success

We all know that test scores are part of the game, but that is not the endgame at CSCE. For them it is about liberating individual students and helping them find their voices, while growing as part of the community. “We create opportunities to care for emotional needs as well as academic ones,” Oberman explains.

“We are here not just to serve the community but to be a part of it,” she goes on. And judging by the smiles from children and familiar interactions with families, that is actually happening.

I often bemoan the “other people’s children” problem and what we allow and expect in many urban schools in challenging neighborhoods. But I don’t see that there. I see a school and a community working to “settle for nothing less than beauty.” And the signs of progress are already showing.

Oakland, We Are Failing Our Foster Youth. These Kids Deserve Better.

The system lies.  Rosy language disguises the routine inequities.  Promises made are seldom kept to some.  You can see this in black and white in OUSD’s recent report from the Foster Youth Advisory Commission, which shows how these youth are shortchanged.  These are some of our highest need and lowest performing students, and while they generated roughly $750,000 from the state’s funding formula, they received only $250,000 in services.  Something needs to change.

These are literally our kids, they are technically wards of the state, and the state is us.  We are failing.

Nobody contradicted the financial numbers at the meeting, and nobody promised to make it right.

Foster youth need and deserve our support

Through an accident of birth, some children end up in foster care.  These are some the strongest and most resilient children you will ever meet.  They have unlimited potential, but they face immense challenges.  They frequently change schools and lose learning time, face trauma and instability, are disproportionately disciplined, more likely to have special needs and a variety of other challenges that  show up in academic outcomes.

Only 4% of OUSD foster youth met state standards in math, with none exceeding the standard, and 9% met or exceeded standards in English language arts.  I think these are the lowest rates for any subgroup in the district.

Distinct needs for specialized supports

These youth often have distinct needs that don’t fit into the standard support structures.  They DO need a dedicated central office staffer to support and monitor programs and sites, and also more specific developmentally appropriate supports.

Because foster youth tend to be highly transient, as placements change, and also to have more constricted time, needing to check in at placements by specified times that may not align with afterschool schedules.  They need a different more individualized support structure.

And foster youth do get lost in the shuffle.  OUSD actually can’t even accurately say how many foster children it has, and many sites themselves are unaware and unsupportive of the foster children they have (which is also a charter issue).  Our youth deserve better.

The numbers don’t add up and kids lose

Despite the funding coming in, there are only two full time counselors for foster youth, both work at large comprehensive high schools.  There are no counselors serving middle schoolers or elementary schoolers.  There is almost no support for foster families.  And despite the real and substantial work that foster youth are doing themselves to listen, define, and propose improvements, they are volunteers, where they should be stipended, for doing the hard work that we have neglected.

I have to applaud the young people, the committee and the dedicated OUSD staff, and the brother who was leaving OUSD for Peralta Colleges that have been working on these issues.  It is clear that real work has taken place on the committee, with real committed folks digging in on it.  That work should be honored.

This is money dedicated for foster youth.  It is allocated to the district and to schools to serve them.  We owe this as an ethical and legal duty.  And if ethics aren’t incentive enough, I know there were some lawyers in the audience.

Hard choices, broke district

OUSD is in a financial crisis.  Money is short to come by.  Foster youth are not a power constituency in the district.  And in the shuffle for a piece of a shrinking pie, the big dogs usually eat first.  That is how politics work, despite pronouncements of equity.

These youth deserve better from us, and I hope we deliver.

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A Different Kind of Integration: Bringing Students With Mental Health Challenges Into Our School and Watching Them Thrive

I have written about John W. Lavelle Prep Charter School before. I helped start it as a middle school, built on the crazy idea that you must integrate students with mental health challenges with the general population for them to be successful.

Mind you, these students tend to have the highest dropout rate of any disability category. And not only were we reserving roughly a third of our seats for them, we were promising to prepare them for college.

As our students got older and the student population grew, we extended Lavelle to K-12. Last summer all of our seniors graduated with college acceptances and regents or advanced regents diplomas. This graduating class was 60 percent students with special needs and 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Everyone doubted us when we applied to start this charter school targeting students with emerging mental health challenges, but nobody is doubting now. They want more schools.

One Track: The College Track

“We needed a level playing field for kids with mental illness,” says Dr. Ken Byalin, the founder of Lavelle Prep, as he explains the genesis of the school. “There were some special education programs, but there were big gaps in service as students got older.”

Sometimes these kids needed to be academically challenged, too. “There is also a set of kids who were highly impaired by mental health challenges, but academically high functioning, who again received little or no services.”

Dr. Byalin is himself a longtime social worker and program director in mental health services, and a founder of the Verrazano Foundation, which combats stigma and discrimination against those with mental illness. Having worked in mental health for decades, he was aware of some of the failed approaches. “Segregation has not worked in mental health,” he says.

Instead, he had very simple ways to do things differently. “Students need to be integrated in secondary school to be successful in college, and we need to create unitary programs, where everyone gets the same thing, and they all sit in the same classes and all learn the same things.”

That philosophy guided the school design: small classes of 17 or less, with a teacher dual-certified in both special education and a subject matter (such as algebra or English), along with highly-trained paraprofessionals. All staff get training on working with mental health challenges.

Often in “inclusive” classrooms, there are two teachers and really two simultaneous classes. Students may physically sit in the same class, but in fact different teachers are teaching different content. At Lavelle, it’s one class for everyone. As Dr. Byalin says, “There is only one program at Lavelle Prep, and everyone participates.”

Dealing With Your ‘Stuff’

All students and staff also participate in a robust wellness curriculum. We all have “stuff”—as the school lingo calls it—and we all need to learn strategies to deal with it. This begins the process of de-stigmatizing emotional challenges.

And once mental health challenges are de-stigmatized, students and families start to talk about them.

Traditionally, families are known to reject services for fear of being stigmatized, but at Lavelle families are more likely to talk about services and much more likely to accept offers of help. Sometimes they even ask for it.

What’s Next

I was an early funder, and I went on to work with the school as one of my original charter incubator clients and eventually joined the board. So I may be biased here. But the future is bright on Staten Island.

Here, the Lavelle Prep team plans on creating a network of charter schools, connected by the unifying theme of integrating students, but catering to different subsets of learners at different school sites.

The first new school has already opened and graduated students, New Ventures Charter School.  New Ventures targets students out of school, we re-engage them through internships, and again, an integrated and emotionally supportive program.

While all the schools would work inclusively with any student who applied, they would tailor programs to support specific populations. For instance, one school would cater to students on the autism spectrum, another would cater English-language learners—with more programs developing as more needs emerge that we have the capacity to meet.

Changing Mindsets

So if this integrated approach is so successful, why isn’t everyone doing it? The biggest challenge we have is one of mindset, according to Dr. Byalin. “We are still wedded to segregation, people don’t believe in integration…and there is always a resistance to change.”

This has all been very hard work with some missteps and stumbles, as at any school. There were times in the first year when I worried about making payroll, as we were just scraping by financially. And despite the mission, we weren’t attracting traditional funders. But a dedicated and seasoned staff really pushed the school forward and pivoted when we needed to, in the end providing a unique and uniquely successful program.

A few years back a potential funder visited Lavelle Prep and was unimpressed. I think they expected to see children who were struggling with their disabilities, confined to “special classes.” Instead they saw integrated classrooms where the students with special needs were basically indistinguishable from other students. To the funder these classrooms weren’t special enough—they looked just like regular classrooms.

And while our lack of buzzwords and shiny bells and whistles hasn’t made us the darlings of philanthropy, an integrated school where no student looks “special” is exactly the point.

Here’s the Test for Charter Schools Under DeVos and Trump

As school choice advocate Betsy Devos assumes the role of secretary of education, charter school camps have formed for and against her. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supported her, while the coalition of independent charter schools in New York City (representing over 100 schools) opposed her. And in California, while school leaders have almost universally opposed her, the state’s charter school association is sending somewhat mixed messages.

This should not be a surprise. As I’ve said before, there is no unified charter movement. There are simply many different actors who see charter schools and the autonomy they promise as a means to an end. In the big charter tent you have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. But as I will argue, the sector still has some interests, and this nomination offers immense risk and potential opportunity.

Support for Choice in the Community

Any credible poll will show that Black, Brown, and low income families support charter schools. Many communities of color also have long histories of alternative and private schooling in the face of segregated, subpar or no public options. And a likely increase in support for charter schools and school choice from the federal government through Betsy DeVos might help free underserved communities from sometimes weak neighborhood options.

Charter schools can be our FUBU schools (FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us”—a hip hop brand from the 90s), empowering communities to control local schools and deliver high quality, culturally responsive programs to our children. It’s not that simple, and it is incredibly hard work, but many of us have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the traditional public schools and wanted to do something different. Given the devil and the deep blue sea—we jumped.

Choosers and Losers

School choice is not a panacea. Choice by itself doesn’t necessarily improve quality or equity and may make things worse. There are choosers and “losers”—those who don’t choose. And the schools themselves may also start to pick and choose students, sometimes taking the “easy” ones and passing the more challenging kids on.

The federal government has a crucial role in setting some basic ground rules for equity and enforcing them. And because I don’t think we can trust local jurisdictions, those rules need to bend toward justice. Things like charter school admissions, charter authorizer behavior, as well as rules of the game in serving students with special needs or treating “minorities” with equal concern and respect. All of this can be influenced by federal spending and rulemaking.

And the secretary of education needs to be the secretary of all schools, given the reality that 47 of the roughly 55 million students in the U.S. go to traditional public schools, with 3 million in charters and over 5 million in private schools. Nothing D.C. does will change those ratios significantly. So the focus needs to be on that largest sector, and remembering the intent that charters would act as laboratories to feed practices into the traditional schools.

Evaluating the Secretary’s Reign-Quality, Equity, and Transparency

If, under this new administration, those of us who support charter schools sell our principles or forget who our master is, that stain will outlast any education secretary.

A rush to create more schools for more schools’ sake is an unwise one. Charters promise a set of academic and non-academic outcomes, and accountability is essential. Just opening the floodgates to more schools will likely reduce quality. And it won’t help families. (That seems to be the Detroit story, from my admittedly limited knowledge.)

Equity has to be at the forefront of accountability, for the sector to be credible and ethical. Charter schools have had some historical challenges in serving all students. This is a critique that hits some times and misses at others, but is equally applicable to the traditional public zoned schools or gifted-and-talented programs and specialized high schools. Authorizers and the public need to look hard at who is being served and who isn’t and why, with consequences for offenders.

Charter schools are public schools and need to be transparent with the public’s money and authority. I get that not all charters act like public schools, but they are and they should. And to build and maintain public confidence, we need to be transparent, and allow for public analysis.

The Charter School Final Exam

A school cannot serve two masters, to butcher a phrase. In this new administration, the charter sector faces new challenges and opportunities. But the real question that each school must answer is, “who is our master?”

In a time when many Black and Brown children and families are anxious, and immigration raids at schools are a real possibility, many schools and districts nationwide are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” that will defy the feds and won’t cooperate with ICE.

If that master comes calling, will the charters pick up the phone, or barricade the doors?

Charter schools were here before DeVos and will be here after her. The communities that charters draw their lifeblood from are here even longer, and communities have long memories. Charters sometimes are accused of not being of the community. If they want to assure their roots in the community, they need to pass this final test, and answer resolutely as to who their master is, lest short term gain turn to long term ruin.

 
This piece is adapted from one that ran in the Amsterdam News as Betsy DeVos’ Charter School Test on February 9, 2017.

If Our Protests Keep Looking Like This Then Can We Really Say the ‘Left’ Is Right?

The alleged assault on secretary of education Betsy Devos by a protester blocking her entrance to a DC public school, was just one in a series of recent incidents where the Left’s protests have crossed the line.  “Black bloc” anarchists used violence to shut down a troll at Berkeley, you can also see one of the frequent Oakland Unified BAMN protesters seemingly assaulting a trump supporter last year, and there was this viral video of a Nazi getting punched.

While I do get some inappropriate giddy feelings to see Nazi’s get punched.  It’s wrong, and I know it’s actually not helping.  In fact it probably hurts our cause, feeding the resentment and stereotypes that have created this reactionary moment in American history.

We should be on the right side of history.  This moment too shall pass. And these times will likely be judged by historians as dark days of the Republic.  Whether the Left emerges as just another bully or a principled opposition depends on us.

What language of protest?

Growing up I was more “the ballot or the bullet” from Malcolm than, the principled non-violent civil disobedience of Dr. King.  And I don’t rule violence out as a final answer, or self-defense.  As Malcolm said you need to answer in the language that the oppressor will understand, and at times when the naked violence of the State is exposed we need to fight back.

As Malcolm said, “(w)e will work with anybody, anywhere, at any time, who is genuinely interested in tackling the problem head-on, nonviolently as long as the enemy is nonviolent, but violent when the enemy gets violent.”

And despite the hyperbole in the media, that is not where we are right now.  Yet.

We are still in Dr. King’s paradigm, or should be, using non-violent disruption to expose moral truths.  As stated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word, tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth… the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Flooding the airports with bodies and shutting down the international terminals every time folks are detained, highlights the illegality and unfairness and showcases the stories of our brothers and sisters.  We need more strategic and coordinated direct action to continue to expose truths.  Breaking widows at a public university or attacking some peaceful but misguided crackers is a distraction that takes the debate away from our issues, and gives the moral high ground to those who really have no claim to it.

Are we getting played?

Back in the day, when I was a more active protester, we knew there were agent provocateurs in the crowd.  They would say the craziest shit, challenge the legitimate leaders, and were planted to actually derail or delegitimize the protests.

When I see a bunch of seemingly White folks covered in Black, playing right into the hands of the right wing media, while claiming to speak for Black and Brown folks rights, my Spidey sense starts to tingle.

These are not folks who are down like John Brown.  They are not there volunteering with kids or espousing Black liberation, they are throwing rocks, often at Black and Brown folks who are at work trying to make a living.  And in Oakland or Berkeley the cops probably agree with the sentiments of the crowd.

For those long in tooth like myself, you may remember COINTELPRO, the government’s largely successful effort to discredit social movements in s the 60s.  Here are a couple of the key tactics, from Brian Glick’s The War at Home

  1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit and disrupt. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
  2. Psychological warfare: The FBI and police used myriad “dirty tricks” to undermine progressive movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists. They used bad-jacketing to create suspicion about targeted activists, sometimes with lethal consequences.[43]

Whether this actually is a new kind of COINTELPRO or not, we need to shut it down.

The troll won at Berkeley, gaining a national stage for drivel.  Betsy Devos went in to  a side door of the school and the meeting still happened.  You can punch a Trump supporter, but he won the election.  Those tactics aren’t working, except to elevate trolls, Trumps and neo-Nazis.

New rules

First, these “Black Bloc” folks need to change their names to the “White Bloc” we don’t want to be associated with you.  From what I see you aren’t Black, and you aren’t asking the Black community what we want or even pretending to listen.  We want nothing to do with you, even in the coincidence of the name you chose.

Second, we need to police our actions and protests, even if there is no leader.  If peaceful actions are disrupted by idiots, those idiots need to be disrupted by the community.  If people are afraid to show their face, they should be confronted in the crowd, if folks start breaking shit or attacking peaceful people, we should conduct a citizen’s arrest and hold these idiots for the cops.

Third, they need to know they aren’t welcome at community events if they can’t be part of the community.  If they want to do their own violent protests at Trump Tower, or out in Walnut Creek (BofA’s home office) or Wells Fargo or wherever—they should do those themselves not hijack the legit protests of the community.

We need to stand together in resistance.  And we need to act. But if we sacrifice our principles in the process or allow ourselves to be manipulated, we will definitely lose the battle, and may lose the war.