Hope and Challenge in the Clintons’ “Day of Action” for Oakland Schools

Heartwarming pictures and memorable stories mark the Clinton Global Initiative’s visit to Oakland last weekend for a “day of action.”   With Oakland’s own, “Beast Mode” Marshawn Lynch, Mayor Schaaf, and President Clinton volunteering at the Lockswood-Havenscourt Campus, which houses several; co-located OUSD schools; Community United being one of them.

Beneath the newly painted surfaces, and after the celebrities and photographers left, Community United (CUES) has another story, one that aired on KQED last week.  A very different one, “Students at East Oakland School Left Without Special Education for Months.”

But let’s lead with the good news.

The convergence of local philanthropy, businesses, the Clinton Initiative, OUSD, students, families and many local volunteers is a wonderful showcase for the schools and the work we can do together to improve them, at least the facilities, which is a starting point.  The facilities we house children in signals the value we place on them, and kids and families get this. And seriously, what kid will ever forget meeting Bill or for that matter Chelsea Clinton.  The projects look great, and it looked like great fun to see Oakland kids working alongside the mayor or Marshawn.

“We came back from Spring Break today,” shared a 5th-grader, “and everything was repainted! Now it’s like all new, it’s really cool. I want to say thanks to all the people who painted it!”

On the other hand, and this is not to diminish the “day of service” work, when we peer under the hood there are real challenges at these schools, that despite good intentions, we aren’t meeting.

From the KQED story,

Juan Diego’s second-grade teacher, Pablo Pitcher-Deproto, along with several other teachers at this school, say none of their students were regularly pulled out for help, from the time school started in the fall until February.

“As a teacher I’m trying, but I know I’m providing absolutely nothing to that student except safety, security and a place to be,” Pitcher-Deproto said.

The Oakland Unified School District says the special education teacher assigned to CUES went out on medical leave the first week of school. So kids with special ed needs were assigned to Kimberly Lum, a special ed teacher at Futures, the school next door.

“Last year I was only assigned to Futures, so I had about 15 students,” Lum said. “But then this year, they said, ‘OK, well, we’re also going to throw in CUES as well.’ So it’s been very stressful.”

Lum’s caseload basically doubled. To complicate matters, she had no aide this school year. She had to juggle 28 students, the legal limit in California. She says at least 10 more students were left without any services at all.

“What I’m most mad about is the students are losing out,” Lum said. “Invariably the child either sits and struggles to work or just doesn’t do the work, just sits there crying and saying, ‘I can’t do the work,’ which they can’t.”

By January, teachers at CUES were increasingly frustrated. They say they sent letters to Oakland’s superintendent and to the California Department of Education, but received no response.

“This wouldn’t happen at some other schools in the district, but because we are out in East Oakland, where a lot of people maybe aren’t going to speak up, this continually happens,” said first-grade teacher Sarah Fuller.

Students at CUES are overwhelmingly from low-income families, most are Latino and African-American, and many have immigrant parents. The neighborhood is fraught with gun violence. Fuller says that, if anything, the district should pay closer attention to this school.

“It’s a systemic problem. It’s not the students who aren’t making progress. It’s the grownups who aren’t giving them the tools to make progress,” Fuller said.

In January the district finally assigned Lum an aide and in February hired a new special education teacher to see kids at Community United a few days a week.

“We really, really care,” said Neena Bawa, director of schools for Oakland Unified’s Programs for Exceptional Children. “We really are trying our best and we really know that it’s important and a priority to make sure that all of our students, among all regions, all of Oakland Unified, all of their needs are being met.”

There are no “bad guys” here, which makes it even more difficult.  We are in a labor market where it’s hard to find qualified special education teachers and aides, particularly bilingual ones.  While OUSD is paying more competitively, qualified teachers will have a range of job offers, and overall OUSD may not be the first choice.

And finally we are dealing with a historical system where the folks who need the most tend to get the least.  I agree with the teacher that this condition would probably not exist at Hillcrest or other Hills schools.

I don’t want to be the perennial killjoy here.  I do appreciate the work done, the Oakland Ed Fund, Clinton Global Initiative, OUSD, and all the folks who came out for a “day of action.”   I just can’t help feel the irony here in a “day” at a school, when we need a new era of action to fix what ails CUES, and our most historically neglected and underserved schools.

Even if it was only a “day”, the model is right– we need to bring resources (including human resources) to these sites, and the community needs to converge in a sustained way to support ongoing development.

If every long journey begins with a single step, then maybe a new era can begin with a single day.

I hope so.

What do you think?

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