OUSD’s Year in Review and the Challenges Ahead

By most accounts Oakland Unified is doing pretty well.  Our schools are as fully staffed as they have been in recent memory, public support is at historic highs, academically we are making progress and progress with some of most historically underserved students, and financially we are as strong as ever, with an improving bond rating.

So despite the rancor in Oakland, things are going relatively well.

Nobody should be satisfied either with where we are or even the pace of progress, but most should agree that we are moving in the right direction.

The District has developed some of its own notable successes, like Coliseum College Prep, which boasted a 91% grad rate, in the Flatlands.  It has also smartly expanded bilingual support, restorative justice practices and specialized support programs like the African American Male Achievement Initiative.

You can see from the graph below—the public is liking what they are seeing based on the most recent polls (you can click the graphic for a clearer image)

2016-08-22

 

But before we call it a day and proclaim mission accomplished there are some thorny issues that need to be tackled

Some Big Challenges Ahead

Overall Achievement and Equity– Even with the increases in graduation rates, they are still too low for many subgroups.  Native American students have less than a 50% graduation rate and English language learners, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, African American males and special education students are under 60%.  And while this is the best it has ever been in Oakland, it’s not good enough.  And as I keep harping on, Oakland has some of the most unequal access to quality schools in the country.

Read the report (above) page 32, low income students in Oakland are 18 times more likely to be in the lowest scoring schools on reading—the largest disparity in the country.  And while racial achievement gaps are slowly closing, they are still too wide for anyone to be comfortable with, I hope.

Facilities– While Oakland Unified had a slight uptick in enrollment this year from 36,981 to 37,089 students, it is a district with significantly fewer students than 15 years ago (even when charter students are added to district students).  And many charters are in private buildings.

Here’s the chart from the latest 2012 OUSD Facilities Master plan

2016-08-22 (1)

OUSD has some buildings bursting at the seams, and others less than half full, it also has undeveloped lots.  At the same time, the growing charter sector has struggled to find adequate school spaces, even as the voters gave them the right to “reasonably equivalent” public facilities in Proposition 39.  This is part of a larger issue of coordination between charters and the district, which is being worked through in the equity pledge.

So I know some folks don’t like it or personally agree but by law charters are public schools and by law they have a right to basically equal public facilities.  Oakland has not provided those buildings to charters (and I know it’s tricky) but right now OUSD is likely on the losing side of multi million dollar lawsuit from the State Charter Association.

We need to find a better way to allocate sites, and also settle this suit.  There are a lot more losers than winners if OUSD’s students are on the hook for legal fees and damages.  Some solutions in a future blog, but it’s completely doable.

Staffing stability and local trends

Without great, committed, responsive, stable staff nothing else will matter.  No workplans, no curricular changes, no technology, no restorative justice, or career preparation—it all depends on staff.  And Oakland’s turnover is too high, particularly in special education and harder to staff subjects.

This is a tough one, Oakland will never be able to pay what wealthier districts can, based on how  California funds schools.  We also will continue to have a high need student population, who really need, great and responsive teachers.

With rapidly rising rents and property prices, many Oakland teachers won’t be able to live here.  These and other factors conspire to continue a churn of educators and ongoing vacancies, and instability for children who need consistent, caring adults.

OUSD will need to work with the City, other local governments, and developers to get creative on teacher housing and affordability.  And we also need to do a better job with the incredible human capital in Oakland.  I am shocked to see the challenges we have finding bilingual staff, when we have a ton of smart, hard working, passionate former Oakland students, or others who would feel at home in Oakland, we might more deliberately develop.

But we will need to get creative here, and really do more with less traditional resources.   Adequate funding is a continuing issue in Oakland that requires a statewide funding fix.  And while we should work for that, we can’t wait for it.

Thank You

Oakland is doing relatively well.  This is a credit to the Board, Supe, staff, stakeholders and families.  This is incredibly, hard, hot, and contentious work, and the stakes could not be higher.  So let’s keep the progress moving, the debate robust and civil, and tackle some of our ongoing issues together.

I obviously have not agreed with everything the Board has done, but I have generally admired their commitment, and deliberations, in a very difficult and thankless job.

Looking forward to another year of progress, hopefully with more light and less heat.

 

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Torian’s Death, Trauma’s Effects, and What We Could Have Done

The Town is a violent place. The reaper prowls the “murder mile” and regularly camps in Deep East and West Oakland. And he touches too many Oakland families.  Not even city councilmembers are immune, as we were reminded when Torian Hughes, grandson to councilmember McElhaney, was laid to rest, after yet another seemingly senseless shooting.

The Chronicle ran a powerful piece that dug beneath the headlines, and what we see is a tragedy, or several tragedies.  The short story is simple.

Torian died on a bright, brittle Sunday afternoon. He and a 16-year-old friend had gone to a desolate stretch of Mandela Parkway to meet up with two acquaintances — a man police identified as 19-year-old Shiheim Johnson, and a 15-year-old whose name police withheld because he’s a minor. They had allegedly promised to sell Torian a gun.

Instead, the two pulled out guns and tried to rob Torian and his friend, according to court documents. When Torian resisted, the 15-year-old allegedly shot him.

He died from his injuries at Highland Hospital. His friend was not injured. Johnson and the 15-year-old were arrested in January and now face charges of murder, robbery and unlawful use of firearms.

The long story is much more complicated, and all too common.  Torian had lived in Oakland, hearing and seeing the gunfire symphonies.  He had experienced trauma, and was traumatized.  He was struggling with depression.

Torian had spells of fear and sadness, McElhaney said. In fifth grade, a counselor told McElhaney he appeared to be depressed. Although he began therapy, he remained haunted by past traumas and was never far away from crime and poverty.

and he was scared for his own safety and that of others.

Shortly before his death, Torian told his mother that he wanted to buy a gun. He’d been robbed several times, and the girl he was dating was a sex trafficking survivor who would occasionally run into her former pimp and panic, McElhaney said.

Put this all together and you have a young kid on a desolate stretch of Mandela Parkway, trying to buy a weapon for self-defense, from some other young men, both teens.  Something went wrong, and 3 lives are destroyed.  Maybe more when you throw in grieving families and friends, potential retaliation, or Torian’s friend who watched him get gunned down.  Trauma ripples and is born from tragedy.

We don’t know anything about the other young men really, but I will bet you that they will have similar stories, similar trauma, and likely similar mental health challenges.  Being born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong parents, where you are faced with being a predator, fighting back, or being eaten.

The line between victim and victimizer is often a fine one, and the thread that connects them can go both ways.  I have written before about kids that have been victims of violence, those who were “victimizers” (though victims too), and the traumas that shaped their worlds.

The thing about trauma—whether it’s the accumulation of chronic stressors, or more from one or a few extreme events, is that it changes the way that you see and react to the world.  It literally changes your brain.  Our normal “fight or flight” mechanisms are on overdrive, fear is more prevalent, and traumatized people generally “feel” a heightened sense of danger, and have a harder time distinguishing “real” danger from “false” danger.  Wested has some great resources that look at trauma informed schools and the research and science behind best practices.

I don’t know what went through the 15-year olds mind when he shot Torian, it doesn’t seem to make sense.  Why kill some kid who you are in a financial transaction with and apparently leave a witness unharmed?

But that’s the thing about trauma, it changes the way we react, it makes us do things that don’t seem to make sense, we may “feel” threatened, or overreact.

Oakland is a very dangerous place.  Many of our kids have seen extreme things, or live lives that regularly expose them to things kids should not see or feel.  Many children suffer from trauma, we see them every day in schools, and every day not in schools.  Trauma is a disability and we should treat it as such.  We need trauma IEPs, and students should get resources and specific services to help them through this.

One final thing about trauma, it can be healed, and schools can identify and address it.  The very poison that seeds trauma; danger, unpredictability and broken relationships is its antidote; strong caring relationships, safety, and predictability.  There is an increasing body of research pointing us to solutions that we need to incorporate.

Oakland is a very dangerous place, particularly for children.  With each violent event rippling in the lives of young people who see and feel them, creating more trauma, which creates more fear, a real need to protect oneself, and more violence.

Schools are the starting point, we can heal these wounds, and create our own positive ripples, even if one less family has to bury a child or wave goodbye to them as they are buried under years and tears, it will be worth it.

 

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