Ending Separate and Unequal Schools in Oakland

Most everyone says they want integrated schools.  Maybe not “too integrated” if you know what I mean, but “diverse” schools.  There is a significant body of research that says it’s good for kids too.  But integration ain’t happening.  Schools nationwide are more segregated than they were decades ago and nothing will change until we affirmatively act.

This issue was highlighted in a well-done series by KQED that initially looked at two Oakland families, one White and the other Black in the shared attendance zone of Peralta and Sankofa, schools with starkly different student populations, circumstances and outcomes.   Check out the graphs at the end.  One school is largely White and not low income, the other, largely Black and low income.

And I know.  I know.  We aren’t racist anymore.  Of course race doesn’t affect the experiences of children.  But the data says differently.  The most disturbing graph of the year can be found in the NY Times.  It shows the persistent racial and economic gaps in achievement in cities—and it’s a universal picture.  Black kids always do worse, even with similar income, and poor kids pretty much always do worse.  This is not coincidence or destiny, it is historical legacy, and current practices.

Separate and Unequal in Oakland- Parent Stories

I really appreciated the honesty of the White mother who initially chose the Black school, this is a snippet but she was thoughtful in her reflections overall and highlighted some of the challenges,

Her family felt welcome at the school (Sankofa). But there were challenges common in schools that serve mostly low-income kids. Eero had an inexperienced teacher the first year, frequent substitutes the next.

“It was like the bottom-of-the-barrel substitutes. Sankofa did not have the resources to retain like a full-time sub,” said Wohlfeiler. “What I saw of it when I volunteered was real disrespect for the children as a form of crowd control. I was watching the children just shut down.”

Peralta was a different experience.  And this isn’t to blame the school.  It’s the system, and the way privilege is formally and informally apportioned.  It really is a powerful article, so please actually read or listen to it.

A second piece in the series had similar sentiments

(the parent) was convinced her kids are not receiving the same quality education as kids in the wealthy Oakland hills. One of the most frustrating moments for her was last year, when her son was a junior in high school. She said he had a substitute teacher in one of his classes for months.

“He would say, ‘They’re not even teaching me anything. Mom, come get me, I’m not doing anything,’ ” Muñoz said. “How are we going to send our kids to college if we don’t have well-trained teachers?”

Segregation Hurts

Segregation hurts kids.  Low income and Black and Brown children lose academically.  And all children lose socially.  This threatens to continue our segregation and division as a society.  And Oakland is very segregated, both by race and income and usually both at the same time.  From the article and experts within it,

According to data compiled by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the average white student in Oakland goes to school with 37 percent low-income classmates. In contrast, African-American students in Oakland attend schools where 72 percent of fellow students are low income; for Latinos, it’s 84 percent.

When you concentrate poverty and wealth like that, it creates separate and unequal schools, like Sankofa and Peralta. In fact, the larger the difference in the poverty rate at schools for kids of different races, the larger the racial achievement gap, according to some researchers.

And further, better off children and White kids don’t lose academically by attending more diverse schools, generally.

So beyond historical legacies, some comfort level issues, and practical issues of transportation, enrollment and site responsiveness, why don’t we do something?

We Can Change This

Will is the main obstacle to changing this.  I was a little shocked by the statement from the District’s new enrollment guru, in a good way.  Normally this crap starts with a bunch of excuses, and devolves into the haze of bureaucratic rules- equity never to be seen, buried beneath heaps of well-meaning words.

This is what the new guy said—I hope he sticks around—smart, incisive honest commentary is usually frowned upon and oft punished,

“The system is broken and diseased,” said OUSD’s director of enrollment, Charles Wilson. “If everybody went to their neighborhood schools, then we might see greater mixing, but there is sort of this pantheon of five or six schools that everyone wants to get into, all above Highway 13.”

Wilson said the district is looking into ways to integrate the schools socioeconomically, including redesigning programs at schools like Sankofa to make them more appealing to middle-class families, and changing the priority system to give kids from higher-poverty Zip codes more of a chance to enroll in high-performing schools. But that’s still in the planning stages.

In the second article he also floated an idea about capping the percentage of high needs students at particular sites—which again is an interesting idea.  But there is an elephant in the room and her name is privilege.

Limited Supply of Quality Seats Means Someone Loses

I really hope that Wilson does not get run over by the privilege train.  When you are asking folks above the 13 to maybe go to a slightly lower performing school they may revolt, and they have a lot of time energy, bandwidth, and cultural capital.

Of course everyone will say we need to expand the number of quality seats—which I obviously agree with—but practically, we won’t have nearly enough soon enough no matter what.  And reform can’t hang on future hypotheticals.  Someone will have to give up their seat.  A seat that they thought they bought when they bought that 7 figure house.

But neighborhood attendance boundaries are not God’s law or the Constitution—they are creations of the school board, and can be changed.  And the basis of housing segregation is racism and what are now illegal housing practices.  Things I don’t think we should honor or continue.

I would go even further.  The Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas affirmed the ability of schools to use race as a factor in admissions.  And OUSD should.  I don’t have all the answers here, but we should include race and class as plus factors in enrollment, and also understand and address some practical issues.  This is up to us.

Transportation, Information, and the Hustle Factor

Choice systems (yes this includes charters) tend to advantage the relatively more advantaged.  And we need to understand and consciously counteract this.  As the article described,

“Middle-class parents are experts at gaming things,” said Janelle Scott, associate professor of education at UC Berkeley. “They have benefited from their own higher education, but also families who have taught them how to navigate complex systems. School districts have to be pretty savvy to make sure there is not this sense that one school is not dramatically better to get into, because parents will find a way to game that.”

Any system needs to account for student transportation, which already is problematic for students, really work to spread information more evenly and actively engage the unengaged.  We also need to make schools welcoming places for more diverse families.

So we need to listen to families throughout this process and also tailor supports to the challenges they are facing.

We have a chance to be a leader in balancing the scales for children and families in Oakland.

On one side are historical legacies and privileges and the other children and families who deserve more.  I hope we will have the will and vision to do the right thing.

The NY Times Graph of Race and Achievement Makes my Head Hurt

200 million tests aren’t wrong.  And its making my head hurt.

The NY times released an amazing set of interactive graphs this week showing correlations between NAEP tests—the so called nation’s scorecard—and family income and race.  The results are incredibly discouraging, and really the more you look at it the more your head will hurt.

I am stage 1 migraine as I look at the income correlations, there are a few outliers, but basically everywhere, income determines or is very highly correlated with achievement, and poor kids are significantly behind.   There definitely are districts that outperform the averages, and we need to dig deeper here.  I know from experience that some schools break this pattern and certainly individual students beat these odds.  But there is a depressing persistence found in the report the Times article was based on.

Basically, that sloped dotted line shows how closely related advantage and achievement are, and the closer those dots (representing districts) track the line, the stronger the relationship—and you can see the relationship is very strong.

Head is starting to pound as I click through the next graph that covers race (Hispanic, Black and White).  The achievement rates of each group are tied together in a tripod showing achievement of students of each race in any given district, but White students are always at the summit and Black and Hispanic ones make up the feet.  There are hundreds of districts.  I can’t find a single district where Black or Hispanic students outperform Whites, not even one where it’s close.  Each one you click.

Los Angeles- Whites, plus 1 grade above, Hispanics, minus 1.7, Blacks, minus 2.

Syracuse- Whites, minus 1.6, Hispanics, minus 3.1, Blacks, minus 2.8.

San Francisco- Whites, plus 1.3, Hispanics, minus 2.0, Blacks, minus 2.5.

New York City- Whites, plus 1.3. Hispanics and Blacks minus 1 respectively

Couldn’t find Oakland, but every one you go through looks like that, there is not a single district I found where it is even close, not even close.  There are no real outliers I found for racial achievement gaps.

Each one you click, one more confirmation, whether Blacks or Hispanics are further behind alternates, but never the leader.   Even when incomes between the races are the same, or Whites earn less, their achievement is still higher.

I guess this should not surprise me, I am a Black man, I work in schools, I went to school, I saw the subtle and not subtle belief gaps in the system and the way a seeming neutral curriculum actually alienates people of color, and I see the vast disparities that exist between districts and even within them, and the historical legacies that disadvantage some and privilege others.

But it still bothers me, that there was not one outlier, not one district where achievement was even close.  Maybe that says more about me, and that despite all the evidence around me to the contrary that I think a counter example must exist, that some locality should have broken the chains of racism and affirmatively addressed its legacy, but no.

I usually try to end on some profundity or humor, but right now my head just hurts.

Hearing the Silent Screams of Students Before It’s Too Late

It was a short note.  “I am sorry, I am not dropping out but I won’t be coming back to school, thank you for everything, I’m sorry.”

But it activated a red alert at the school, immediate calls to family, and a staff member dispatched to do a home visit.

The student had overdosed on their prescription meds, quaffing the whole bottle.  They were found in time and are recovering.

The signs of distress are easy to miss.  I have missed them myself before.  But this time we got it.

These are the real stories of our schools and children.

Sadness, depression, mental health struggles and hopeful recoveries.  Though they often don’t end so happily.  And these students need help.

The statistics are clear here

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2013 CDC WISQARS)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
  • Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs

This highlights the need for attuned staff that can read between the lines of a muffled cry for help.  Who take time to understand what this child is trying to say even when they don’t utter the words.

A Missed Cry and Lost Child

One of my most painful and enduring memories is the cry I missed.  It’s hard to even write about it years later.  He was one of my favorite kids, forged in extreme hardship…extreme hardship.  He had been expelled from a District school for pulling a knife on a child who was harassing him about his murdered mother.  And our charter embraced him.

He was one of those kids with a pure heart, you wonder how he maintained it given everything he had been through, but there was an earnestness to this child that is usually suffocated, that breathed large.  But he had learned some bad habits, and after long deliberations we moved him to another building, and another class.

He didn’t do well there, a couple of times, I was called as the resident lawyer to help him negotiate cop problems.  And back then they were just waiting for our kids—they had these unmarked cars and they would just watch the kids and note who they hung with and assume they were gang affiliated.

He took his own life that summer, cut his wrists and hung himself to be sure.

We missed the signs, the muffled cries, that went silent.  The screams that he never released.

I am sad, but I always think of that child, and in his community the beliefs are not so much that people pass from this world, but that the ancestors are with us.

And when I am tired, sick and tired, frustrated, or just want to do something easier, I know this child is sitting over my shoulder and hoping that I do better.  That I listen more, that I am more empathetic.

And I am listening, and while it’s deeply troubling to see the pain that these kids hold, we are doing better.  And at least in this case we heard the cry before it was too late.  I just hope we can all be better listeners going forward.

Do Black Minds Matter in CA?  What do the numbers say?

Kicking off Black History Month let’s take a look at the current state of Black education in CA.  Disturbing but not unexpected results came out from the recent Black Minds Matter report published by Ed Trust West.  Some lowlights;

Black students in California are LEAST LIKELY TO:

  • Become proficient readers by third grade;
  • Be placed in Gifted and Talented Education programs;
  • Master the mid-level mathematics skills that position students for success in college preparatory math courses;
  • Be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses;
  • Complete an Advancement Placement (AP) course;
  • Graduate from high school in four years;
  • Complete a college degree.


  • Be suspended or expelled;
  • Be taught by ineffective teachers;
  • Be identified for special education; and
  • Take remedial, non-credit bearing coursework as college students


Lots of difficult trends to deal with, and as the proportion of Black students decrease in the state we can expect a similar disinvestment in focus and solutions, unless we do something about it.  The good news is that there are a range of successful programs, and that we have real evidence that interventions matter and that these trends are created by bias, history, and current policy, and not inevitable, which means we can change them.


Take a look at some of the progress from the African American Male Achievement Initiative, or the decreasing suspensions that come along with changes in the disciplinary policies.


But, looking at the data, reviewing the report, and reading the book of history in CA, Black minds have not mattered or been prioritized.  It is up to all of us to write the next chapter

Real Innovation in Education

The revolution will not be computerized, to riff on Gil Scott Heron.  No the education revolution will not be computerized. The innovation we need in schools will not be technology based.  No algorithm is going to reach and teach our most vulnerable students, nor will a panopticon manage their behavior and develop the social and leadership skills they will need to prosper.

But over and over “innovation” means a computer, it often means reducing the human contact and relationships that are the glue of schools for underserved kids, and technology is what is funded.

Real innovation that changes the trajectories of our underserved kids will not come with a microprocessor—it’s rooted in human relationships.  And until we focus on those relationships and how we create healthy, supportive, and prosperous ones—focused on the kids themselves, we are bound for failure.

Years ago, I came to failing charter school, they had gotten tech grants, installed T1 lines (I know I am dating myself here), and had an 86% attendance rate.  New principal, new day, T1 lines are literally ripped out of the ceiling by hand, and the school is reorganized.  Small classes—less than 15 kids– smart engaged invested teachers are hired that look like the students and can relate to them, and we create self- contained classrooms in middle school, where the teachers loop for 3 years with that same cohort of students.  Teachers are with kids 6 hours a day for 180 or so days a year for 3 years straight.  That is a structure that forms relationships.

We had the highest attendance in the District the next year.  Kids had someone who would greet them every day, miss them if they didn’t show up, value them in the community, and push them to success.  No fancy technology, except the oldest one we know—the human mind.  And these were kids with major challenges, 96% free and/or reduced lunch, 15% homeless, all historically disadvantaged minorities.  The school eventually won a National Blue Ribbon Award.

And I continue to see the real innovations when I go out to schools.  Like Lavelle Preparatory Academy—that trains paraprofessionals extensively in trauma and wellness before they are hired, is creating the first program in a NYC public school that honestly and responsively addresses student addiction and substance abuse and really integrates a program to support students through mental health challenges and recovery.

Or another planning team we are working with, who will take kids as they come off Riker’s Island (yes they house juveniles at Riker’s-stupid and shocking I know), we will provide housing, counseling, paid work, and a responsive school.  This will be tied together through mentoring relationships with faculty, and also guys like them who went through the same struggles and came out the other side.  They will work in their communities doing community service and renewing the bond there with community members.  Where in some cases they were takers from the community, they will return as givers.

But yeah, no robot caretakers, or smart phone apps required.  The real work of education for our vulnerable students is caring relationships.  We all crave those, and they are the entryway to academic progress.

I used to run a training where I would say I have the four letter answer to all your problems, to engaging every student, and finding initially small and then escalating successes. L.O.V.E., real love and caring, not its stepcousin pathos, who pities and makes excuses.  The one thing I might quote George W. Bush on was that line about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” which we see parading as love or concern, but it is a whole different beast.

But true empathetic love, where we listen, understand, and push for our children the same things that we deserve and want, or better.  When we see us in them, and know that the pressures that many of us face creates diamonds where others see only coal.  If only we listen long enough to know where and how to look we can find diamonds in every child.

No technology is going to do that.