Hope, change, tragedy, success and rancor marked Oakland Unified’s 2015. The arc is seeming to bend towards justice, but given the persistence and depth of inequality, nobody can be satisfied with the rate of progress, or that any better outcomes are guaranteed unless we work for them.
- The Board Hired a Strong, Visionary Superintendent– After a national search we hired Antwan Wilson, coming from Denver, which is seen as one of the most progressive and successful urban districts, he brought a team and vision with him that could move the district forward, with a relatively aligned board.
- New contracts for staff– OUSD negotiated peace with unions and approved relatively large raises and instilled some more flexibility. We still need to create better professional conditions and get creative on how we attract and maintain top staff, but thinking about subsidized teacher housing is a good start.
- New school options- Roses in Concrete and Castlemont Community Transformation Schools (CCTS) opened as true community based charter schools, providing new options to underserved families. Did I mention that the CCTS middle schools is roughly 50% special education…Oh I forgot charters don’t serve those kids…
- Progress on African-American males– grad rates are up, suspensions are down, Oakland was named as one of the top districts in supporting young Black men. This is the result of years of advocacy and also the deliberate creation of an initiative to address these kids and their specific needs. It’s good to see more specialized programs going forward for different groups of underserved students that are culturally responsive.
- Progress on school culture- Good progress on the hard work of implementing restorative justice practices and moving away from the punitive disciplinary practices that failed to serve most students and families. Specific kudos for ending suspensions for willful defiance.
- More resources for Oakland students-Passage and implementation of bond measures as well as successful pursuit of large grants have brought more resources to Oakland’s students.
- Persistent inequality– Oakland continues to be one of the most unfair cities in terms of giving access to the best schools to low income and underserved students. I just have to repeat these stats.
(1)62% of White students and 57% of non-low income students were enrolled in a top scoring school in reading, however only 10% of low income students, 13% of Black students, and 7% of Hispanic students were enrolled in those schools
Conversely, (2)low income and racial and ethnic minorities are far more likely to be clustered in the lowest performing schools—and Oakland was dead last when it came to ghettoization by income, with low income students being 18 times more likely to be in the lowest scoring schools in reading.
- Special education outcomes are horrible- In OUSD only 9.6% of special education students complete the A-G requirements, 8.1% passed the CAHSEE (the now defunct high school exit exam), and around 5% met or exceeded standards on the State tests. We need major reforms in the way that services are provided and in hiring and retaining high quality staff (see number 3 below)
- The OUSD enrollment system sucks—that’s the scientific term for it, everyone from school board members to the average parent finds enrolling their kid confusing and opaque. 73% of the public want a unified enrollment system. And for those without access to quality neighborhood schools, it’s inequitable. Parents with the most resources have the best access and those with the least resources are often stuck in schools of default. Changing this has got to be a priority in the coming year. See above around access to quality schools by income.
- Staffing issues persist- For some of our most vulnerable students we do not have staff to support them, OUSD has chronic shortages in its special education staff and also in for English Language Learners, and until we can staff our schools to meet the needs of students, it won’t matter what policy is passed or what model is on paper. We need to get more creative on how to fill these crucial positions. I offered one solution in hiring “dreamers” but we need real answers now.
- Breakdown of civility– at times the Board meetings became spectacles of the absurd, with largely non Black “protesters” from the Oakland Education Association, BAMN caucus, shutting meetings down and calling our Supe a “Tom”. This created a toxic environment at meetings that really nobody would want to attend, particularly Oakland families, and that is the real cost—the closing of public dialogue to the public, by the loudest shouters on the block.
- Children killing and being killed or paralyzed– We just have to stem the violence that has taken too many, and has condemned too many others.
- Stagnation- For Oakland’s underserved students we have a mountain to climb, and doing a little more of the same, or asking the overworked staff of existing struggling schools to turn them around is unlikely to work.
I don’t have the answers here, but we as a community need to honestly engage in a discussion about what really is best for students and families, not in some hypothetical future when every neighborhood has a great school, and every student gets the resources they deserve, but now, when many Flatlands families (rightly) don’t think that they have quality k-12 options, and they don’t have time to wait for fairy tale futures.