“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.
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.