A Charter School “Moratorium” in Oakland Would Be Wrong, Illegal and Stupid

Rather than asking why so many families attend charters or even more pay for private school in Oakland, there is a misguided effort at a charter moratorium.

This is not only illegal, it’s counterproductive—which makes it stupid.

Case in point: Unnamed Charter School, a school soundly denied by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), was approved on appeal to the County. That’s right, the school district doesn’t have the final say on who gets to open a charter school.

So, not only did the school still get approved, it has a different authorizer, so now OUSD has less authority over it. Rather than taking the opportunity to think how the district might work with a committed team to serve kids, OUSD stalled the school. And rather than working with the new charter to coordinate with existing district schools, the school may now draw students from an improving  and high quality program at Parker.

For those advocating a “moratorium”—formal or informal—it’s time to rethink that. You can’t do it.

The “wild west” of charter schools is a problem, but it won’t be solved by denial, or grandstanding. It will be solved by talking. And if you start with a moratorium…well, there ain’t much to talk about.

A Primer on Charter Law

I know some don’t like charter schools, but the legislature created them, and wrote a law to govern them. Change that if you will, but that is the law. And that law does not allow a “charter moratorium.”

Let’s take a look at the California Department of Education website:

On what grounds can a local governing board deny approval of a charter petition?

EC Section 47605(b) specifies that a local educational agency shall not deny the approval of a charter petition unless it makes written factual findings, specific to the particular petition, that:

  1. The charter school presents an unsound educational program.
  2. The petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.
  3. The petition does not contain the required number of signatures.
  4. The petition does not contain an affirmation of each of the conditions described in EC Section 47605(d).
  5. The petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of all of the 16 required elements of the petition.

Note that pesky “shall not deny” language. Basically, if a solid, comprehensive plan is presented in the charter with a solid team behind it, the district is supposed to approve the charter. And if they don’t approve it, the charter can be appealed to the County, and then the State. With each body taking a fresh look.

Districts can deny all the charters they want, but if charter applicants have good paper, a good team, and a good lawyer, they will still be approved later on down the line. So, a “charter moratorium” both violates the law and more plainly—it don’t make no sense. No legal sense and no moral sense, if the goal is to best serve students.

Too Many Schools, Not Enough Great Schools

I don’t think anyone in Oakland could argue that we don’t need more good schools. We may have too many schools, but you are high—really, really high—if you think we have too many great schools.

We have some great district schools and some great charters, some struggling charters and some struggling district schools. And I may be naïve here, but I always thought it was about the students and families. I thought it was about giving all families access to high quality, culturally-responsive schools. But somewhere the debate that families care about, the one about quality and access, has been overtaken by the professional debate, of charter versus district.

Progress can’t stall because the district is struggling with its portfolio or pocketbook. And by the way, this is not a post about Unnamed Charter School itself. I have heard very positive things, but haven’t read the proposal or attended the hearings.

This is a post about how to productively move forward. In reality, if OUSD thinks it can, without legislation, impose a moratorium on charters, it’s just wrong. And just ceasing approvals will be counterproductive, and destroy relationships that should be continuing to build.

Charter school students are roughly 30 percent of public school children in Oakland, that is not changing. The district can either figure out a way to work with the sector, or the sector will just do its own thing…or 38 different things, which I agree 100%, is not good for kids and families.

But neither is a moratorium. I hope we can keep our eye on the ball, and remember what parents want and need, rather than the professionals.

We Got Our Homegrown Superintendent in Oakland. Now What?

The community spoke. We wanted a homegrown leader, who understood OUSD and could hit the ground running. And now we got one in the appointment of Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell for superintendent. 

Whether we actually give her a chance is another question.

But before the mud flies, let’s pop a cork. We need a leader and we got one.

She is eminently qualified, if a bit new to the top spot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I, among many, have high hopes. She knows our kids, schools and staff. And knows what it takes to make them better.

The initial reviews are good, focusing on her instructional knowledge, ability to work within the system but still show bravery when needed.

Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge praised the hire, noting the unanimity of the Board:

The OUSD Board of Education demonstrated its own grit in selecting a new education leader for Oakland Unified—we unanimously brought forward Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

With considerable support from a community panel and OUSD students, Dr Johnson-Trammell was recognized as a talented and committed educator.

She is a third-generation Oakland educator and a product of Oakland public schools. We are excited that we have looked within our own organization to nurture and support this capable educator.

We trust she will successfully navigate this new opportunity in a city and school district where she has taught children and supported families and educators for decades. Oakland is fortunate to have her.

Similar praise came from Hae-Sin Thomas, a long time OUSD educator, now CEO of Education for Change:

I have a lot of confidence in Kyla—she is a strong instructional leader and I am glad that we have someone who will maintain a keen focus on teaching and learning through all of this financial stress.

Kimi Kean, another longtime OUSD educator who worked with Dr. Johnson-Trammell as a principal and on the OUSD executive team, now Area Superintendent of Aspire Public Schools, was equally supportive:

Kyla has deep roots in Oakland. Her mom was an OUSD educator and principal. Kyla will be in Oakland for the long haul and is rooted in and committed to the students, families and staff of OUSD. Also, I appreciate that she has been a principal in Oakland—I think that will resonate with Oakland principals.

I haven’t heard a critique yet in my small survey, nor received that kind of side-eyed look you often get.

She is homegrown, has worked in the schools and with our students, and knows Oakland, so what could go wrong?

Will We Give Her a Chance?

Much love to anyone willing to take on the accumulated challenges of OUSD. She did not cause these problems and I hope she won’t be blamed. It’s a lot easier to run someone out of town on a rail than it is to build a better railroad. And I really hope these fools don’t come in screaming about Jim Crow, or in her case she may be seen as “aggressive” or some other loaded term.

Nevertheless we need her to persist.

It’s a tricky time in Oakland right now, even beyond finances. OUSD is making progress in some areas, and it is also starting some difficult conversations around privilege and inequality, culminating in an ambitious equity policy. It will take real courage to finish these conversations and realign opportunities and resources. And I am pretty sure Dr. Johnson-Trammell could tell some stories from her own experience. I believe she went to Montclair.

We know the problems—structural deficits, a state loan hanging over our head, teacher shortages, high cost of living, broken funding system, declining district enrollment, high needs kids and families, to name a few. Things are going to have to change and there will be fallout. There will be some losers, but what we really need is stability and a strategic plan with strategic investments and the courage to see it through, in spite of the interest groups and current entitlements.

The superintendent can’t do any of this alone—it will take a village. And now that we have our chosen sister, it’s on us to treat her fairly, and be sure that others do as well.

 

Here’s a short excerpt of Dr. Johnson-Trammell’s bio:

Born and raised in East Oakland, Ms. Johnson-Trammell is a fierce advocate for Oakland public schools, having attended Montclair Elementary and Montera Middle School. She holds a communications degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and earned her Ed.D. from UC Berkeley in educational leadership.

Ms. Johnson-Trammell’s commitment to Oakland and urban education is evidenced by more than seventeen years of service in several capacities including elementary school teacher, middle school assistant principal, elementary school principal, Director of Talent Development, Associate Superintendent for Leadership, Curriculum, and Instruction and Elementary Network Superintendent.

The Importance of “Fit” and the Costs of Student Mobility

One of the schools I volunteer with is a “maker” school.  It is built around empowering students to create their experience and even the physical environment.  This starts day 1 of school where they literally construct, using tools and timber, the stool they will sit on.

For some families and kids this is fun and exciting work.  For at least one family—they turned around and took their child somewhere else.  While they probably didn’t realize it, both their initial decision to enroll and the one to leave, likely both significantly, negatively affected their child’s education.

Mobility matters

The more students change schools the worse they do.  I have written before about the benefits of increasing the traditional grade spans—creating 6-12s, Tk-8s, or Tk-12s.  There is a solid body of research that says children and particularly high needs children do better with fewer transitions.  And now, even more compelling data has emerged around the negative effects that any movement between schools by students has.

Edweek recently highlighted these issues, and pointed out the disturbing outcomes, not only affecting students who move, but the schools themselves and the students who remain.

In a report on student mobility by the National Academy of Sciences, Chester Hartman, the research director for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, noted that high-poverty urban schools can have more than half of their students turn over within a single school year.

“It’s chaos,” he said in the 2010 report. “It makes all the reforms—smaller classes, better-trained teachers, better facilities—irrelevant.”

In fact, in a study of 13,000 Chicago students, University of Chicago researcher David Kerbow found those who had changed schools four or more times by 6th grade were about a year behind their classmates—but students in schools with high churn were a year behind those in more stable schools by 5th grade.

“It is unclear how school-based educational programs, no matter how innovative, could successfully develop and show long-term impact” in a high-churn school, Kerbow concluded.

So basically, if kids are mobile between schools—it doesn’t matter what schools are doing.  All those fancy powerpoints and process maps on reform, aren’t worth the toilet paper they are printed on.  A priority investment needs to be on student stability.

Why kids move?

Sometimes it is fit, the kid at the military school who might be better served at the arts school.   But often its circumstances beyond the student’s control

Again from Edweek,

The most common causes of student mobility are residential moves related to parents’ jobs or other financial instability. A 2010 Government Accountability Office study followed students who entered kindergarten in 1998 through 2007. It found 13 percent of students changed schools four or more times by the end of 8th grade, and highly mobile students were disproportionately more likely to be poor or black than students who changed schools twice or fewer times. The same study found families who did not own their own homes made up 39 percent of the most highly mobile students.

Similarly, a 2015 state policy report in Colorado, which tracks student mobility in its districts, found mobility rates in 2014-15 ranged from more than 17 percent for students in poverty to more than a third of migrant and homeless students, and more than half of all students in the foster care system.

So our most vulnerable students are most mobile, and it matters for student learning

Student mobility undercuts learning

Students, particularly high needs students, need stability in school; stable relationships, predictable routines, a sense of knowing kids and adults and being known, and any move can have huge consequences.  Again from Edweek,

Various studies have found student mobility—and particularly multiple moves—associated with a lower school engagement, poorer grades in reading (particularly in math), and a higher risk of dropping out of high school.

While research has found students generally lose about three months of reading and math learning each time they switch schools, voluntary transfers, which are more likely to happen during the summer, cause less academic disruption and may be associated with academic improvement if they lead to better services for the student.

Why this matters for Oakland

This matters for Oakland’s enrollment debate for two reasons.  First, we need to work to get the right fits for students from the outset.  To help families understand the options they have and to help them to enroll in the best school for their child.  There is something wrong where Farmersonly.com has a better system to match lovelorn White folks, than most families can find to match schools.

Secondly, we need to emphasize stability as a policy preference.  So even where families may move, we need a system where children, and particularly high needs children, can practically stay in the same schools, which may mean transportation.

Our enrollment rules and processes really are up to us.  And no reforms will root, where children are constantly churning.  With so many variables beyond our control, and many complex reforms with unproven results—giving high needs students stable learning environments is something we definitely can do, that we know will matter.

It would have mattered to the family that dis-enrolled from our maker school, who now will be pounding the pavement in Oakland for rare high quality seats, even rarer after the school year has started, and their child is likely stumbling further behind.

2 Things You Need to Know about the “Charter Movement”

Everything you hear about charter schools is true.  And everything you hear about charter schools is false.  That’s what 20 plus years working with them has taught me.

They send high numbers of low income kids to college, they pick and choose students, they are safer.  They disproportionately suspend certain kids, they save taxpayers money, they are run by hucksters. They outperform traditional district schools, or they don’t.

It’s all true.  This duality was highlighted in the recent John Oliver segment, which was seen as critical of charters (and has twisted more than a few knickers), highlighting fraud and lax authorizing, but the segment started with boasting about the college going success of KIPPsters.  And both are true.

Whether charters tend to meet their promise of delivering innovative equitable education, depends nothing on the label, “charter”, but the plan and people behind it.  There is no essential ingredient to a charter, except independence, about the weakest organizing principle you can think of.

There is no common content in charter schools

Charter law varies widely between states, authorizer practices vary even more widely.  And the individual charters themselves run from end to end of the spectrum.  This is both in terms of program, and also in terms of outcomes.

Just within Oakland you have military schools, Waldorf, Montessori, arts schools, schools that emphasize testing, schools that don’t, schools that suspend a lot of kids, schools that suspend very few.  Many of these schools don’t necessarily like or even respect the educational methods of their “colleagues.”

Same with students served, some charters over-represent high needs students, some under-represent them, some outperform the district, some underperform.  It’s the gamut.  Outside of the label and resisting control—Charters don’t see themselves as some collective.  And there is no common genetic marker in the DNA of charters, just a shared birth story.

I have long argued there is no “charter movement” just a bunch of folks who want some independence from districts—for all range of motivations, most good, some bad, some the jury is out on.

So charter folks honestly need to lighten up when a comedian pokes fun at some real malfeasance (and clean the house).   I don’t defend “charter schools” some charter schools are horrible.  Look no further than Livermore.

I have lobbied for charters to be closed and others not opened.  There is nothing magic about the label “charter” that makes a school better.  Or worse.  More ethical, or less.

The charter=good and charter=bad worldviews are both wrong some of the time.  And they will continue to be because there is no essential content in a “charter.”  So we need a new paradigm.

It sounds trite, but we really do need to discard the content-less labels and look transparently  at school quality, ethics, and equity.  That is exactly what families care about—if anyone bothered to ask them.

After 8 Schools and Almost Giving Up, I’m Graduating From MetWest and Headed to UC Davis

This guest post is by Camille Marley Brewster (aka Mars), who is graduating from MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District this month.

During my time in Oakland I’ve been to eight different schools, some district, some charter, one home-schooling program twice, and then finally ending up at one very different and special high school, MetWest, that I graduated from this June. Also, I’m excited to say that come next September, I’ll be attending UC Davis as a part of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences with an interest in Clinical Nutrition.

Who am I? My name is Camille Marley Brewster, but I go by Mars and I’m a born and raised California city girl. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most prominently, Oakland, have become my hometowns. I was only 7 when my single mom and I moved to Oakland after being on the East Coast to take care of family for eight months. I went to kindergarten out there and began the rest of my education here.

When I first started school in Oakland I went to the local public school a few blocks down from our apartment building, Lakeview Elementary. They didn’t have a proper after-school program and just let the kids out to the busy intersection of Grand and Lakeshore, right at the highway exit. My mom felt really uneasy about my safety as no staff member ever seemed to be watching over those kids until they got picked up. Right away, my mom decided I needed something different and put me on the waitlist for EBCC (East Bay Conservation Corps Charter School), a charter elementary school in Emeryville that focused on Civic Literacy.

It always seemed, at first, like I had more and better opportunities at the charter schools than the district ones. It took a little more than a month, but I was accepted into the school and almost instantly got to participate in so many life changing events, even as an elementary school student. As early as the first grade, I was learning about the four R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, & Rot” and I never would have been able to go out to Washington, D.C., as a second-grader to give a speech about “Buddy Reading” to the Congressional Congress of Civic Literacy (an audience of about 400 leaders) if it wasn’t for the school’s imagination and innovation.

Like any school, though, they had their flaws and my mother withdrew me after my fourth grade year. They were completely unorganized and cared more about their reputation than the students sometimes. I first saw this in my third grade year when they lost my STAAR Testing and then without warning me or my mother, pulled me out of class to retake it.

They never informed the district of their mistake and my anxiety over the event showed in my test score results, which we received the following summer. This is when my mom first found out, because I, as a third grader, of course didn’t understand the situation as clearly as I do now and didn’t tell her when everything first happened.

They say “everything happens for a reason.” So I guess it was perfect that my mom pulled me out of EBCC (who were in the process of changing their name to Civicorps) and then placed me into home-schooling instead, because the summer before my fifth-grade year I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Home schooling was just what my situation called for, as I needed flexibility in my schedule to learn how to balance my life with my new label.

During my semester in home-schooling as a part of the K-12 Cava program, I was my own teacher, sitting at the kitchen table at my mother’s work (she’s a nanny), learning on the computer. The program itself wasn’t the issue, it was my need for social interaction that was lacking. I didn’t have many neighborhood friends, most of my friends were always from school, so without a physical school to go to, I was lonely.

After the first semester of fifth grade and me becoming more adept with my new condition, my mom placed me in another regular district school, Chabot Elementary School. I felt they were unprepared for my medical needs due to lack of resources and although they had a school nurse I found myself avoiding eating all day so that I could also avoid going to the office at lunch for my insulin shot. Maybe I just didn’t want to be treated differently by the other kids, but I soon found out this was impossible anyway.

Middle School was more of the same old same old. I went to Oakland School for the Arts (aka OSA), an arts-focused charter school. They had great ideas on how to improve education while promoting passion among their students for their art emphasis, but they also were extremely unorganized. They were packing the school with more and more students in hopes of receiving more money from the district and sponsors. In the end, it was a disaster and certain art departments got zero funding while others seemingly got it all.

For example, I was in the visual art department and the main art room that we worked out of wasn’t even big enough to hold each one of the middle school students in the department! This issue was never fixed when I attended the school, but three to four times a year the theater department got more funding to go on awesome and expensive field trips while we were cramped in a room without enough chairs.

This seems to be the biggest issue with non-district schools: funding.

After going back to home-schooling for a bit, I ended up at another public school for the second semester of my eighth-grade year. Claremont, despite its reputation, made me feel more connected to its community than I had to any school community in a very long time. I remember one time I was in English class and a boy saw me checking my blood sugar under the table. He then proceeded to ask me if I was a Type 1 diabetic. This was the very first time that anyone had made this kind of distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

I almost cried then and there, simply because for the first time ever I didn’t need to try and convince anyone that I wasn’t a diabetic because I “ate too much candy when I was little” or that I could actually eat anything I wanted as long as I gave insulin for it (so many people mistake Type 1 diabetes for what they think they know about Type 2).

This, to this day, is still the one thing I love about district schools, they don’t have the power to discriminate against kids labeled undesirable because they have to accept everyone. I was always able to find someone, whether it be a student or a teacher, that wasn’t completely ignorant about other people’s struggles and didn’t grow up in a bubble—a feeling I got a lot about the community at certain schools with the power of this “selectivity.”

I went to one of the biggest high schools in Oakland for two years, Oakland Technical High School, and failed miserably due to the lack of attention I received from the teachers and administration.

I really just gave up on school entirely. There were many times in math class when I would sit by the door to the classroom and wait for attendance to be called before slipping out of class simply out of lack of interest, but because of the class’s student to teacher ratio I was never caught. I don’t think the teacher ever really noticed either.

I transferred one last time to this very special school I mentioned earlier, MetWest High School. This school, while a part of the Oakland Unified School District, was more like an independent study school than anything else. It helped me believe in education again and I began to see opportunities to prove my intelligence left and right, after only a few days of being there.

We would have normal school hours three days a week and then spend the other two out in the world learning through internships. My internships have helped me realize my love for working with others my age on projects to better the future or help others. That’s why I want to be a nurse or work out of a hospital, besides the fact I’ve already been close to hospitals and the medical world for most of my life.

I was also given the chance to take college courses before graduating high school and am now that much closer to getting my degree in college in my next few years. I feel like I am actually being prepared for the world.

This is what education should look like and feel like. And I love that every single flaw I could possibly think of in this school is not only being worked on by administrative staff but also includes teachers’ and students’ voices. I was given the amazing opportunity of being on the Student Council and Prom Committee this year as a senior. I’m both sad and happy to be graduating from this wonderful school because while I will miss this type of environment, I now have clear goals for my future and life.