Parents and Kids Should Not Need to Win a Lottery to Have a Quality School

I am an Oakland parent, and below is the text of my speech at the Oakland REACH kickoff event.

Who here wants the best for your child?

This a question that every parent here is faced with every single day. Although “the best” for us all means different things, we all want them to find success, to do better than we did.

And we at the Oakland REACH believe that success shouldn’t just depend on living in the right neighborhoods or being lucky in the lottery.

We as parents spend so much time trying to find the best options for our child, and then we still have to hold our breath to get picked in a lottery. That creates a lot of anxiety.

Who’s been there before? Who knows what I’m talking about? Hoping and praying your kid gets picked?

I went through this with my daughter. I wanted her to have the best quality education, I was in search for a school that would provide her with that. But my neighborhood options weren’t great.

But I was determined. After applying for schools and trying to transfer my daughter to another district, I did finally find a school in Oakland that could give her the best education. But it was a hassle and struggle to do so—it was hard to find resources—and it shouldn’t have to be.

We as parents should be able to put our children in our neighborhood schools, drop them off, and know that they are getting a quality education that will allow them to go to any universities or be in any industry they chose.

That’s why I’m part of the Oakland REACH because it’s time to make it easier to find good, safe and quality schools in our neighborhoods. Because here at the Oakland REACH we care and want the best not only for our children, but all children in Oakland public schools.

Who doesn’t want to feel powerless anymore?

Good news, there is hope. If we work together, we can be so powerful.

Please join the Oakland REACH, stay connected with our work.

The Oakland REACH is giving you a seat at the table so we can change this for our kids.

Breaking the Cycle in Oakland: A Woke Grandparent’s Story

Connie Williams is a mother and grandmother of Oakland public school children, she also graduated from Oakland public schools. She is one of the lead parents in the Oakland REACH, a new parent driven organization advocating for quality education for ALL of Oakland’s families with a focus on equity.

Making our Voices Heard

We are the Oakland REACH. We are here, we’re excited, and we couldn’t have come at a better time. Why? Because we are parents who are fed up.

We’re fed up with the way the school system has failed us time and time again…first with the way the system has failed us, and now with how we are watching it fail our kids and grandkids.

We are here to make our voices heard. And to break this cycle.

We are fired up, and ready to go!

Are you ready to go?

An Oakland Journey and a Dark Secret

Then let me take you on this journey with me—why I’m standing here today.

This journey began when I graduated from an Oakland public high school and walked across that stage with a deep, dark secret. I was graduating high school with A’s and B’s, and yet, I couldn’t read.

My mom trusted this school, and the school failed us.

This was my reality—and because I couldn’t read—it became my kid’s reality.

And I’m here today because I’m fighting like mad to make sure it’s not my grandkids’ reality.

Not on Our Watch

Standing up and saying I couldn’t read was my wake-up call. And I hope it’s your wake up call, too. This cannot be our reality anymore. Not on our watch.

So there is a problem. Do I have all the answers? No. But TOGETHER, The Oakland REACH have a voice to make the powerless parent powerful.

So far, we, The Oakland REACH, already talked to over 300 parents and grandparents at community meetings we hosted. We learned more more about the district budget, making our voices heard, sharing information, and receiving your feedback.

We’re woke now. And we ain’t going nowhere. We demand change. We’re breaking the cycle.

Woke Parents, the System’s Worst Nightmare

Mama Williams graduated from an Oakland public high school with A’s and B’s, but she couldn’t read.  This week she was organizing with nearly 100 other Oakland parents at DeFremery Park in West Oakland the goal was “breaking the cycle.”  You can see the video here.

They were part of the first class of an ambitious parent empowerment program, The Oakland REACH.  And it was invigorating to see parents, grandparents and great grandparents coming out to stand together for better schools and better access.  It’s an ambitious program, to actually listen to families and build an agenda around their needs.  And while many people talk parent empowerment most are not really living it.

Hopefully they are not “too ambitious”

There are a lot of hard truths to be told in Oakland, across the public education sectors.  Neither the charters nor the district are consistently delivering for our underserved families that really need high quality, responsive schools.  The numbers bear this out, but I don’t need numbers, I know the stories behind the numbers.  So do these parents.  They have lived the numbers.

And I have a sense that they will be unsparing in their attempt to turn over the system.  In this first meeting, I heard about special education, the tyranny of charter lotteries, and quality and responsiveness questions around charters and district schools.

Unlike the professionals, these parents were not focused on the political battles about public education sectors.  They were focused on getting real access to quality schools, and making their voices heard within those schools.

That is their strength but I hope it does not become their weakness.

Everyone says they want parent organizing but they don’t

Interest groups want parents as props.  They really don’t want them as leaders.  It’s a sad truth.  I have been in those meetings when some rich (usually) dude talks about activating parents with talking points and pizza.

But when those organized parents go off script and start voicing THEIR concerns, yeah not so much interest in funding that.  And if they are now organizing against jacked up practices in their own schools, or the charter sector more generally, yeah that’s a definite budget killer.

They make you pick sides in this game.  You can get funded by the unions, or the charter/choice folks, with very little room in between.  That is the tightrope the Oakland REACH is walking, but someone has to.

Honestly, it was more of a dance than a tightrope walk.  The event was a celebration of real stories and calls and response, and not a bent knee begging for change, but a demand.  A demand for those parents who struggle to play a rigged game with unwritten rules, who were dismissed, pushed out, and left feeling defeated by the system.  Where schools don’t believe in your child, coach them out, and cripple their futures.  They were failed by the system.   Though I would argue the system did not fail—it did what it is supposed to do, pick predictable winners and losers.  But they were not sitting quietly through the predictable outrages.

“Fired Up and Ready to Go”

They were together supporting each other, “fired up” and “ready to go,” the energy crackling in the air with each successive call and response.  “Do I have all the answers- no, but we together can make a change…We’re woke now.  And we ain’t going nowhere, we demand change, we are breaking this cycle.”  Mama Williams said.

The crowd erupted.

We have been waiting for change for too long in Oakland’s underserved communities.  Glad to see the waiting is ending, and looking forward to the battles ahead, alongside these authentic, powerful and determined parents.

More to come.

What Black and Brown Parents Want, What they Get, and Why Charters

Our parents almost universally want more challenging schools, at the same time they rightly believe that education is unequal according to a recent study.  I say, rightly, because there is compelling evidence of a broad and wide belief gap about the capacity of kids of color, and in reality, our kids often do get the short end of the stick.

Remember the settlement over “fake classes” last year in Oakland,

The suit cited cases in which youths had been assigned to “sham” courses that had them perform tasks in the school office or pick up trash.

Schools cited in the lawsuit had students retake courses they had already passed or sent them home early because there was no room in classes, attorneys said. Some schools employed rotating substitute teachers rather than fill full-time vacancies, the suit said…

“Their futures were treated as less worthy than their counterparts in more affluent communities,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel. “Imagine as a parent if you asked your child what did you do in school today and you were told, ‘Well, I took out the school trash and cleaned erasers,’ day after day, week after week.”

One plaintiff, Erik Flood, said he spent a lot of time not learning during his four years at Fremont High in Oakland. He was assigned to three service classes at one point, filing paperwork in the school office or doing nothing, while taking credit-recovery classes online after school.

And this has a huge cost.  If the student doesn’t graduate there is an immense cost in lost productivity to them and society, and even if they do graduate and go to college they need to take (and pay for) remedial classes.  So they could take those classes, pay for them, receive no real college credit and leave school with debt.  In fact this happens all the time, and the overall costs of these remedial courses have been estimated at 1.5 billion with a “b” dollars.

This cost is not evenly distributed at all—believe me that kids in Piedmont would never have a class that consisted of picking up trash.  These practices took place at Castlemont and Fremont.  And while it is egregious to have students perform busywork, the effects are no less when a student has a class with permanent substitutes (as described at last week’s board meeting).

This is the way that “the system” works.  Regardless of the good nature of the person on top, there are old patterns that reinforce privileges and inequality.  Oakland is getting better, but its high quality schools are the most income segregated in the country-don’t believe me—here’s the report.

Look through it- there are no districts where things are fair.  This is not “districts” per se—its society, but if you are a kid picking up trash instead of taking chemistry- it’s the District or the school doing that to you.

I have a series of longer stories of frustration in working with districts, even smart well meaning people tend to be chewn up, and things that should happen don’t, especially for underserved families.

Charter Options 

That’s why many Black and Brown families choose charters. That’s why I did.  The existing system is rigged, and I question whether we will ever dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.  Despite all the challenges, strange alliances and bedfellows, we know the system.  And while charters are not perfect and often very imperfect, many of us hope that charter autonomy will give local communities the power to really control their schools and design them for their children.

This promise is a work in progress, and so far largely unfulfilled.  But for myself, given the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, I know what the devil has in store for me, while if I can swim strongly enough, maybe I have a chance in the water.

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