Back to Community Roots in the “Charter Movement”

As a longtime believer in the possibility of charter schools, the so-called “charter movement” has been a disappointment. But last week in New York City some folks got together at the Independent Charter School Symposium with the goal of fixing that.

Many of the ideas that initially attracted me to charter schools—community empowerment, authentic education for youth left behind, piloting promising practices to share with traditional schools—have often been drowned out by larger political forces. The educators and communities who should be driving the movement have taken a back seat.

Meanwhile the public tends to see folks like the current secretary of education as the face of movement.


It’s well past time for us in the community wing of the charter movement to reclaim our place in the debate. Last week’s symposium is a great place to start.

Back in the early 90s, charter schools were basically community schools. Getting a charter for your school idea was simply a vehicle to better serve the kids who were being failed by the system. These original founders weren’t bought into some market rhetoric. For the most part, they were educators from the district who simply needed the freedom to do more.

You may not realize this, but in NYC the majority of charters are still small independents, not the big charter networks you usually hear about. When I look back on the schools I and my colleagues helped start in those early days, I think of DREAM charter, which partners with Harlem Recreational Baseball in the inner city. I think of Lavelle Prep, a very successful school catering to students with emerging mental health challenges. I think of Mott Haven catering to foster youth and Neighborhood Charter of Harlem bringing autism inclusion to Harlem.

Same with our first charters in Oakland.  Oakland charter Academy was by and for the underserved Latino kids, West Oakland Community School, came out of the “ebonics” controversy with the express goal of serving African American Youth, and American Indian Charter School was started in partnership with Native non profits in Oakland.


There was no “privatization” rhetoric back then. The teachers union, which now opposes charters at every turn, rarely opposed them—in fact they were starting their own. It was gritty grassroots organizations trying, with varying degrees of success, to do better by kids that everyone agreed were not being served. We never saw ourselves as at war with the districts, and the districts didn’t view it as war either.

Sure, the headlines often go to the bigger charter management organizations and some of their outsized personalities, but I’ve always seen the heart of the charter movement as these educators, families and community-based organizations coming together to try to do better by kids.

But you’d never know it from the current state of debate.

Charter schools, unfortunately, have fallen victim to a polarizing narrative. First, it’s charters versus unions—even though many charters are unionized. Then, charter school advocates are increasingly linked to right-wing school choice supporters, who don’t reflect the population served or the educators serving them.

This debate ignores the roots of the movement, and it misserves the public and our schools, families and educators. It’s high time we challenged it.

I hope that’s what comes out of this symposium. I hope it fosters substantive discussions about why charters started and what they have become. I hope there is an explicit focus on race and equity. I hope we can explicitly reject that whole charters-versus-unions narrative and invite critics to the table to talk about how we can collaborate with and support the broader public education system.

Because the fact is charter schools are not going anywhere, and neither are the districts. Somewhere we got off track and instead of fighting together for kids and families, we started fighting with each other. I say it’s time we call a truce in the public school civil wars.

The stated purpose of the symposium was “to articulate a collective vision for the direction of the charter movement and all of public education.”

It might be a wildly ambitious goal. But it is sorely needed.

Saving the East Bay Children’s Book Project by Locating it in a School

A powerful literacy development non-profit that puts books in the hands of Oakland youth is on the verge of collapse, another victim of the rising rents, and Oakland displacement, but we can stop it.  The East Bay Children’s Book Project  can’t afford the rents and the community can’t afford to lose the services.  Thankfully there actually is an answer here.  Put the Book Project in an underutilized OUSD school.  This will help kids, help the non- profit and help the community.

West Oakland has 11 sites listed in the OUSD Blueprint advisory background document, 8 of those are underutilized and only Glenview is over-utilized.  And Lord knows we need better literacy development in the West, and to invest in our youth there.

The program needs space for roughly 20,000 books, and they actually can pay a nominal rent.

We need to break down the walls between community and schools.  In a time when space is at a premium and some schools actually have excess space to house non profits and support services, we need to figure out how to better integrate services. This is a great opportunity, if we take it, not a crisis.

“We’re Blessed to Have this Pace”

The Book Center has been doing powerful work in Oakland for years, and we need to keep it.  According to the article in the East Bay Express

The children she (the founder) works with may not know where their next meal will come from or where they’ll be staying that night, she said, but they’ll always have the books that she gives them.

“When I tell them, ‘Hey, do you want a book to take home?’ their little faces light up,” Alfaro said. “If they’re in the homeless shelter, they’ll have that book with them.”

East Bay Children’s Book Project has been providing that sense of stability to children since it began in 2005. To date, it has provided more than 1.6 million books for teachers, social workers, pediatricians, and others to give away to low-income children.

And the reviews from educators speak for themselves, again from the Express

Linda Grayson, a special education teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary school, said that many of the students she teaches have never owned their own book before. She lets them pick one out every Thursday to build their personal libraries…

Second grade teachers Jaine Kopp and Judy Washington, who work at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, know what that loss would look like. Taking home books is the highlight of some of their students’ weeks — and books from East Bay Children’s Book project have been there to comfort them in tough times.

When one child’s father passed away, Kopp said, the class read Badger’s Parting Gifts –– the story of a badger who leaves presents to all his friends to remember him by after he dies. After they read it, Kopp said, the students were moved and all shared something emotional for them.

“We’re blessed to have this place,” Washington said.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” Kopp added

Building on what Kopp said, if we lose this it’s gone.  And we can’t afford that.

Oakland Needs to do More with Less

The only way we will poise the district for success is rethinking the way it does business.  The new superintendent has echoed that sentiment.  Any astute observer sees that Oakland’s problems are structural.  No tinkering on the edges will really fix them.  But we do have a whole set of community assets that we underutilize.  We need to think about how we re-order our education system and connect it with the community and community needs.  We also owe the West a greater investment in its children.

Saving the Oakland Book Center is a win-win for the schools and community, I hope we can break out of our malaise and make this happen.  The community deserves better.

Bigger Than Bathrooms: Making Schools Safe for EVERY Student

A guest post from Ash Whipple, an Oakland student and one of Oakland’s Energy Converters.

I’m sure when you’re out in public, or at work, all you worry about when going to the bathroom is if it’s clean or not. Nobody likes public bathrooms, they’re dirty, and you never know who you’re going to come across in them, though usually it’s okay.

I want you to pause and think about that for a moment, every time you’ve been uncomfortable going into a public bathroom or have just decided to wait until you get home. Now I want you to imagine that doubled, tripled, quadrupled even. Imagine you need to go to the bathroom and you only come across one for the opposite gender. Compound that anxiety and imagine fearing for your life when doing something as simple but as necessary as going to the bathroom because you know you don’t belong.

That’s what it’s like for me when I try to go to the bathroom. I am transgender. I am neither male nor female. There is no bathroom for me. To be safe, I have to go to the bathroom that matches the gender people think I am. People give me looks, and I feel unsafe.

It’s a miserable experience. Sometimes at school, I wait all day until I get home because I don’t want to have to pick male or female. I am neither, and I shouldn’t be forced into one.

It’s a conversation no one wants to have, but we must discuss.

Transgender students need to feel safe going to the correct bathroom and not feeling alienated over such a simple necessity. This is a struggle I face everyday of my life. I look forward to being able to make educating others on this issue as well as helping the world become more inclusive for people like me.

Thanks to Energy Converters for sharing this—helping Black folx #navigate education. S/O 2 people converting negative energy to positive all over. #BeAnEnergyConvertor #DoWork Founder: @ccoleiii

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.

The Education Bet We Should Make-Child-Parent Education Centers

We are at a rare moment when public opinion and education research are aligned in California and we need to seize the day.  A recent poll showed that 67% of Californian’s supported increased taxes on the wealthy to fund early childhood programs.  Almost simultaneously Education Week reported on a remarkable study out of Chicago showing that quality early childhood support paid significant dividends to individuals and society.  Specifically, Child-Parent Education Centers (CPCs) returned investments at greater than a 10 to 1 for the public and had cumulative returns of 900% for the individuals.

Money, well spent, really matters in education.  And there are investments we can make that demonstrably pay off financially, not to mention the humane benefits of not living in poverty, and having the tools to be empowered.

I have often critiqued California’s school funding as being too low and highly inequitable.  To which many readers point out that there is wasted money in the schools and school system.  And this isn’t an excuse for waste, which occurs everywhere, but it is a case for proactive investment in things we know work.

A program that pays off

Education week reviewed the success of Chicago’s Child-Parent Education Centers, which have been operating since 1967, noting outstanding success,

CPC has one of the highest economic returns of any public or private financial investment. Cost-benefit analyses have shown that for every dollar invested, more than $10 is returned in cost savings in the areas of remedial education and criminal justice, coupled with an increase in economic well-being and tax revenues. That is an inflation-adjusted annual return of 18 percent over a child’s lifetime, a cumulative return of 900 percent… The strong success of the program’s first generation of schools was evident early on. Graduates performed on average six months ahead of their nonprogram peers in school-readiness skills. This success has been reproduced in the current program expansion. That and other impacts—such as higher rates of high school diploma attainment and college graduation, lower rates of crime and health-compromising behaviors, and greater economic well-being—have been sustained for decades.

These centers are working and they continue to work as the program grows.  It is important to look at the structure for clues to their success, and there are some obvious though underutilized gems that we should take away. I particularly appreciate the inter-generational (they are “parent-child” centers) and collaborative approach with families, again from Edweek,

After five decades and more than 250,000 families served, the CPC program is arguably one of the nation’s most effective social programs. Now in its third generation as a P-3 school-reform model, the program and its unique success provide an approach and set of action steps to innovate in education to produce even better investment returns. Collaborative leadership, engaged learning, small classes, and comprehensive family and instructional supports are core elements.

Developing and growing high quality programs is always challenging, but the elements here are relatively simple, and don’t rely on bells and whistles, but relationships and responsiveness.  Everything they are doing there we could be doing here.

The Public Supports these Investments

The latest polling from the Latino Policy Coalition and the CA NAACP shows strong support for investments in early childhood, and hopefully will move us to action.

The statewide poll was around a specific ballot measure that would provide,

$1.5 billion dollars in annual funding to increase living wages for teachers and educational staff; expand the availability of early childhood education for working parents; and improve classrooms and educational facilities.

Which 67% of likely voters agreed with, alongside some other findings of general support for investments in Early Childhood Education, specifically,

  • 75% say early childhood education programs are effective in preparing children ages 0-5 for school.
  • 78% say California has a great, some or a little need for additional funding for early childhood education. Just 14% say there is no need for additional funding.
  • 80% support using funding to improve existing early childhood education programs

So the public believes in the effectiveness of early childhood education, there is strong evidence that quality programs deliver tangible benefits to individuals and society and we have working models that we can draw from.

Why don’t we do this?

That’s a damn good question.