When Good Intentions Go Bad, Opportunity Hoarders and Equity in Oakland

Existing rules and the dynamics of choice tend to increase inequality.  There don’t need to be any bad actors.  As parents we all do try to do the best we can for our children.  But that pattern of choices, and neighborhood assignment, tend to reinforce and increase the distance between children of advantage and those without.

I had some great feedback formal and informal on my last blog, Choosers, Losers, Abusers and “Opportunity Hoarding” in Oakland, and it got hundreds of views a day, Anna a thoughtful reader, noted

I think a main takeaway re: “opportunity hoarding” is that it can occur even when people’s stated intentions are to increase equity–as both those pro and those against common enrollment would describe themselves. See http://neatoday.org/2015/10/21/how-good-schools-and-good-intentions-widen-the-achievement-gap/ andhttps://tressiemc.com/2016/01/28/the-limits-of-education-reform-a-road-paved-with-the-best-intentions/

I wish there had been a more creative and (IMO) progressive solution to revamp enrollment on the table; as I think the writer of the second blog post would say, in a choice-based system like Oakland’s, we can be assured that those with privilege will continue to be “choosers,” regardless of whether charters are part or separate or combined lottery. For instance, what if all schools (district and charter) that would otherwise fill up at the initial lottery phase were required to set aside a certain number of slots for foster and former foster kids?

The articles cited, particularly the second one, are a bit wonky but insightful.  The short of it; the persistence and reproduction of racial inequality, within schools, and between schools won’t be solved by our current policies, and they dynamics of districts, schools, and parental choices only make this inequality worse.

We need to consciously work for equity and think outside the box.  I like Anna’s idea of a set aside for high needs students at the best schools, with transportation and deliberately designed supportive programs.  Every small school will not immediately be able to serve every challenge well, but what if all schools (district and charter), coordinating with the district and looking at needs, agreed to build out specific high needs programs.

So Hillcrest may develop an expertise and deliberate supports for a set of foster students, Montera develops an integrated program for students on the autism spectrum, Aspire develops expertise and an integrated program for dyslexic students, maybe every above average school needs to reserve 10% of spots, or the District invests in expanding seats at those schools where it makes sense.

We can enlist educational advocates that would volunteer to help non-choosing students make better choices with better fits, monitoring and supporting student progress and creating feedback loops for future choices and program improvement. This would take some coordination, cooperation, and policy changes.  We would have to look as one community at our children and what their needs are and try to better plan to meet them.

The system, and our individual choices within it (mine included), conspire against equity.  And anyone watching the train can see it plowing along, who is in front, who is in back, and who isn’t even on it.

We need to conspire together as one community of schools, charters and district, to change this.

I guarantee you it won’t happen on its own.

Choosers, Losers, Abusers and “Opportunity Hoarding” in Oakland

School choice can divide us into winners and losers.  In fact it already has.  I am talking about charters. But not just charters, also those lucky enough to be able to choose where they live, with corresponding quality neighborhood schools, or have the resources to hustle their kid into an-out-of neighborhood or private option, the so-called “opportunity hoarders.”

I don’t blame anyone.  We all have to do what is best for our kids.  But this does segment us into at least choosers and losers, and as I will argue abusers.  Those families with the most resources get the most out of the system and those with less tend to reap the least.  Choosers are in better schools, and losers, increasingly are concentrated in schools of default—schools that choosers didn’t choose.  This matters.

The “peer effects” research would back me up here on this segmenting.  That is, high achieving motivated peers increase achievement and low achieving highly impacted students tend to decrease achievement.  So students can benefit or suffer from the composition of the school they attend.  This has the effect of reinforcing privilege and inequality on each end of this spectrum.

The Abusers

The abusers are folks with exclusive options who want to limit the choices of others.  So let’s look at what it takes to move to the Hillcrest attendance zone.  Zillow puts the 94618 median home value at $1,344,900.  This is a small and exclusive club, with high performing neighborhood schools, and still a huge migration to private schools in middle and high school.  So it does bother me when I hear these families arguing against charters or a dead-on-arrival common enrollment system, that 73% of parents favored.

Granted there are legit critiques of both, but something is off when our most privileged families, who have all the choices, are working to restrict choices for our less privileged ones.  Some families have the time and means to attend marathon board meetings and repeatedly voice their opinion.  Others are taking care of their own or other people’s kids, still at work or sleeping for another early morning.  The  voices that can show up should not be privileged as they are, and allowed to overcome the will of nearly three quarters of families who want common enrollment, but they will.  Privilege usually wins.

When you are in the club with an overflowing plate, and you want to limit the choices of folks starving for opportunities, or tell them not to change tables, to just wait for it to get better, something is wrong there.  It’s crazy.

Are you an “opportunity hoarder”?

A commenter on my blog, was a self-confessed “opportunity hoarder.”  Never heard the term before but love it.  It’s defined in the research,

“When members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, & enhanced by the network’s modus operandi, network members regularly hoard their access to the resource, creating beliefs & practices that sustain their control” (Tilly, 91)

The result of this hoarding is durable inequality.  Something ringing a bell here.

This is not to say everyone shouldn’t have a voice.  But if your privilege is undermining opportunities for drastically underserved families, and you are actively working to limit their choices, that to me is a problem.  If you really want to help, give up your kid’s spot and trade it for a Flatlands kid.

Or if we really want to equalize access to high quality schools we should totally do away with neighborhood zones as the first criteria and make need and racial and economic diversity primary factors in school assignment, automatically assigning our highest needs students to the highest performing schools.

Of course some folks at Hillcrest and Chabot, would have to give up their seats.  They could attend a Flatlands school and wait for every neighborhood to have a quality school, as it seems they expect the Flatlands families to.

I don’t think many Rockridge parents will take this deal.

They bought into their privilege.

But what about those that can’t buy in, who struggle to make rent in the Lower Bottoms or the Deep East?

Once common enrollment is officially buried, and the spectre of charters fade, I don’t think we will hear much about how to make Oakland fairer or to support the most challenged families in getting into better schools.

That’s how privilege works, you can pick and choose your house, schools and battles.

While other families fight daily for survival amidst ever narrowing choices.

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The Facts on Oakland’s Foster Students and How We Can Do Better

It’s National Foster Care Month and Oakland’s numbers are crying out for action.  We can do better, we need to do different, and this month and ongoing I will be shining a light on these children, our children.

First let’s look at the facts—which are dismal—you can see the charts below from Oakland Unified.  But let’s review.  First, that “no data” in A-G completion, means that no foster students graduated even eligible to apply to UC or CSU.  There are 357 foster kids and not a single one in OUSD qualified.  More than a fifth (22.7%) are chronically absent, there is a mere 33.3% cohort graduation rate and less than 8% are proficient in math or reading.

These are children that face real challenges, and tend to have less supports, there ain’t no trust fund waiting for them—without academic skills, they will face an ongoing uphill battle.

And there is something more tragic about this, they are our kids, by an accident of birth born in their circumstances.  And they do rely on us, and “the system.”  And there ain’t no love in the system, so it’s really up to us.

Many of you know that I worked in group homes for years and have continued to work with foster kids in the East Bay.  And these dismal numbers don’t even begin to reflect the even more dismal circumstances and treatment these children get.

While they have a host of “rights”, those are really only rhetoric without someone to enforce them.  And even, when, I a lawyer, intervene, I still get the run around.  Kids are suspended when they shouldn’t be, they aren’t allowed back to school when they should be, they are overmedicated, and when they don’t like the meds effects and don’t want to take them they are punished.  And again, I know this is illegal but one child I work with was told he couldn’t come to school unless he took his meds.

They also have the “right” to stay at their school.  And to have the District pay for transportation, but many kids have a half dozen or more different school placements.  Always being the new kid, retaking the same classes, having a jigsaw puzzle transcript that doesn’t add up to or even show a path to graduation, much less a career.

We have to do different

Kids need advocates, they need to learn to self-advocate, and they need support that is not tied to ever changing schools.  So, my new idea.  Develop an out of school advisory and leadership development model that helps students complete high school and have a college and career pathway, this would be alongside a student support process that would have lawyers, law students, and social work students, coordinating and advocating for kids’ rights.

We (my not for profit- Great School Choices) have started conversations with partners—Big Picture Learning, on the advisory model, Alameda CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Berkeley Law School, Cal State East Bay, among others.  We have no money, just a need and an idea.

These are our kids.  And their results, and the lives we have given them say more about us a society than them as individuals.  When you look at the numbers—we have failed them—we have failed.

We need to break this cycle, anyone else want to join the conversation on how to help.


FOSTER YOUTH STATISTICS- foster students in gray




LCAP Engagement - Foster Youth

Real Stories of American Indian Public Charter School

It was over 15 years ago, when elders in the Native Community asked me help with the American Indian Public Charter School.  A school, then in revocation, and now rated among the best schools in the City, state, and country.  But at that time, nepotism reined, the school was in debt, had no employees, only 1 board member, who lived in NYC, I think 15 enrolled students, and terrible academics.  These elders were asking that OUSD close their school if it didn’t change.  I was young, naïve, and stupid enough to offer to help.

Weeks later, I was the board president of a school that was in revocation, was failing by all accounts on all measures, but was drastically needed by Oakland’s Native community. Many people don’t know it but Oakland was one of several federal relocation centers, where Native Americans were encouraged to move off of reservations to, so there is a surprisingly large and diverse Native population here.

Crazy like a fox or crazy

In any event, the Board/I hired Dr. Ben Chavis, who had already been identified as a candidate—well the candidate, since it was summer and nobody else was applying.

Ben is pretty famous or infamous depending on your view point.  But nobody wanted this job, and we needed someone who was crazy to turn things around.  Whether he was “Crazy as a Fox” as his book was titled or otherwise crazy is a chapter yet to be written.  He now sits accused of a variety of offenses, and was forced out of leadership of the school, now a group of schools called American Indian Model Schools (AIMS).

When the school year started we had 23 students, taking all comers, including students that were expelled from OUSD schools.  I still see some of our students.

We bargained our way out of debt, and while it was rocky, and crazy, there was something really special about that year.  We had to come together to make it work.  A teacher gave birth, and would regularly bring her baby, the kids would hold it at times during class, the baby became a unit on measurement, and a part of the community.  The Native community provided tons of services and we really built a strange but strangely functional community.

Ben was “unconventional” I remember one of the first days of school, a parent called me and said Ben cursed at them.  Shocked, I called Ben, he blurted out, “yeah I cursed at them, that mother……..”

Me, “Ben you can’t just curse at parents.”


“Dirk and Effing law” Ben would mutter to staff members after our calls or meetings.

It was one of many such exchanges, another that I didn’t witness, but heard the legend of.  An older adult brother of a student went to get the student out of class during school, he didn’t have the paperwork to get the kid, and roughly pushed past a staff member to go into the classroom.  Ben challenges the young man physically, they step outside, Ben takes his belt off and wraps it around his fist, and wins a one punch fight with the young man on the school steps.

I know this sounds terrible, but in a way I think the kids saw it more as he is fighting for us.  He is protecting us.

Ben grew up poor, on the reservation, and he carried this with him.  He would fight anyone—dudes on the street, the union guy, local reporters, federal education officials—I am serious.  No I really am serious.

He recalled a story of a teacher who offered him a buck or something to regularly come to school.  Which he did, and he did the same thing for our kids, perfect attendance for the year, you got $100 cash, miss one day I think it was $50.  I know there are a lot of studies on paying for grades and how it doesn’t work.  I think this did.  It kind of tricked kids initially to coming back to school, but then they found community and wanted to stay.   And we went from 85% attendance to over 99% in one year.

And it was big deal to kids, he would come to an assembly with a big wad of bills and peel it off for students, younger siblings watching with their mouths open.

Authorizer oversight was pretty absent.  District staff showed up at the school once, and Ben shredded them, “what the F… do you know about our kids? Who are you to judge us? Get the Eff out of here.” And they did, not sure if they ever returned, certainly not for years.  And because the school was successful, I don’t think they wanted to have that fight.

The school became a darling of philanthropy, and an exemplar of the kind of tough love stories that the media eats up.

Success and a changing student body

American Indian was growing into one of the top performing schools in Oakland, but it was changing.   When I would go to the Pow Wow at Oakland Tech, or see Native folks in the community they would increasingly complain about the school and say there were no Indian kids there.  And increasingly they were right.

The school was attracting and recruiting a different demographic.  We used to joke that we know we made it when the White kids came, well the Asian kids did, and I think they now make up the largest racial group.  Academically, American Indian was a very strong school, winning the National Blue Ribbon alongside a host of other accolades.  But it wasn’t serving the same kids.

I continued to lead the Board, but my relationship with Ben continued to fray, and at a certain point, it had to be him or me.  And it was him, I moved to Doha.

I look back to American Indian, and through it all wonder whether it was worth it.  All the late meetings, the weekends talking to parents trying to be the good cop to Ben’s sometimes bad cop routine.  And all the challenges I got in the community and still get.

Would Oakland be better off without AIMS?  I don’t think so.  Even during those turbulent years with Ben, I still think that many kids got something they otherwise wouldn’t have.  And when I see our kids (well they are adults and college graduates) now, and talk about it, they knew Ben was crazy, and were smart enough to take some of his shtick with a grain of salt.

There were costs—real and substantial ones—no doubt.  And I can’t speak to the current allegations.  But I knew the odds of those early kids, and while we did have real losses that still haunt me, I do think we are better off.

Our Schools and Our Struggles

And even with changing demographics at the school, it is still serving low income students, and by the academic results, serving them very well.  It is a different school, that maybe should have different name.  But through all this struggle and drama the Flatlands have some very high quality schools, and it will be up the current board, staff and community to keep and evolve them.

That is the promise of charters to me, the chance to do our own schools, struggle through our own evolution, and succeed or fail on our own merits.

Nobody said it was easy, but if we work for it, it is ours.

Schools to Celebrate- Fostering Wellness on Staten Island

People said we were crazy when we applied to start John W. Lavelle Prep Charter in Staten Island.   It was a college prep middle school that would cater to students with emerging mental health challenges.  There were no other models to look at in NY, and these kids often faced immense challenges.  This is what charter schools were designed for.

They said we were crazy, literally, the “crazy team for the crazy kids.”  Lavelle was one of my Charter Incubator’s first clients.  I use client loosely, because these teams usually have no money, so we worked for free in the hope that at some point we can get paid.  My authorizer friend called us the St. Jude of non-profits—reserving our efforts for hopeless cases.  But we saw hope here.

The team had hit roadblocks in getting approved, several unsuccessful rounds, with opaque reasons for not being approved.  We did have a few political cards to play and got a meeting with the State official that was resistant.  They told us they would never approve a charter with such a high percentage of special education students because, “the normal kids would not have role models.”

I was biting my tongue to stop from biting this person’s head off, it was hard but I made it.  We went with an open lottery and got approved, did affirmative outreach, and got our sped percentage to 33%.  But as I tell our teams, that’s then the real work starts, the chartering is the easy part.

It has not been easy.  It’s never easy.

There were no big funders knocking at the door, we had some great local support, but while we showed outstanding student progress, our overall proficiency numbers are lower than Staten Island’s.  Our kids are demographically very different, much higher sped numbers, higher free and reduced, and many more African American kids.  And we had kids being hospitalized, holding their spots until they came back.

This year is our first graduation, 12 students graduating with Regents Diplomas, everyone (100%) with a college acceptance, and I turned my paying gig into a volunteer opportunity, joining the Board.  We received a second charter for an over-aged under-credited school , that re-engages students through careers.  We are working on a residential portion for our most challenged students, an autism inclusion program, a sober and sobriety supportive component, a culinary arts program that will target English learners, and a range of other niches to meet the needs that are going unmet.  Yeah we are crazy.

National Charter week is always an ambivalent time for me.  I hear frauds, or at least tainted heroes (in my opinion) expounding their successes, in yarns that tell only half the story, with kids often paraded as props.

While those real heroes, doing the day to day work—and the hard work– with the children, that others (charters and district schools) would rather pass down the line, toil to make things better for children.

So as tassels turn on Staten Island this summer, I can unapologetically raise my glass to the amazing work that the staff, board and community have done to make a crazy dream into a supportive reality for children who may have been lost.  And I look forward to more craziness.

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