Parents at the Center; A Rare and Encouraging Night of Community Engagement with OUSD

It was an encouraging night in Oakland.  Over a hundred parents filled the hall at Acts Full Gospel to have a real discussion with the top brass from OUSD on the state of the schools and the superintendent’s Community of Schools policy.  There were some heated debates, and real disagreements, but we came together as Oakland family, broke bread, and talked it out-like functional families do.

Lakisha Young, founder of the Oakland REACH, set the tone for the evening in addressing the superintendent and her staff. “It gets so nasty in this work, when folks who don’t have kids in this system, no grandkids, no dogs, no puppies, no parakeets, and but they think they can speak for you and they speak for me… It’s important for us to treat folks like human beings.  We recognize you are doing a hard job, we are still going to jam you up, but I want to appreciate everyone the room.”

This was a needed breather from the predictable chaos and nonsense that is called the OUSD board meeting. I usually need to take a shower after attending or even watching.  Those meetings can be downright dangerous, both physically and psychologically.  They are not safe places for children or sane adults. 

That needs to change, but that is another post.

Putting Parents at the Table and Keeping them off the Menu

“Now is the time for parents to rise up and tell the system what parents need.” Young intoned, “the voices of parents need to be at the table in the beginning.”  And more than once I heard parents themselves repeating the mantra, that you are “either at the table, or on the menu.” 

At least for one night, real parents were at the table, and the superintendent and her top staff were listening, taking notes, and engaging in real dialogue.  There was agreement around the need for all children to be college ready and a depressing amount of agreement about our current “pick your poison choices” in the Flatlands.  Basically, you can go to a district school that you are unhappy with or a charter you are unhappy with, maybe for different reasons.  I only heard one parent, of the dozens talking about quality, who was satisfied. 

The only way that changes is if we have a system that is accountable to the actual parents.

Creating Quality Schools Across a System that Currently is Lacking

Superintendent Jonhson-Trammell introduced the Community of Schools policy by telling her own story.  How she rode busses over an hour each way to school, getting up at 5:45 to get to school on time.  How she rode AC transit alone from 2nd to 5th grade.  That is the hustle we go through for better schools.  And that is the hustle many of our current parents are still struggling through to find high quality options.

The reality of Oakland is we have two public school sector and neither delivers consistently.  Charters are roughly 30% of kids and the district is roughly the other 70%.  You also have roughly 30% of school aged children who attend neither a district or charter in Oakland.  Last I saw, 15% of Black elementary schoolers in Oakland charters were reading on grade level and 14% of district kids were.   

For most families they don’t care whether the school is a district, charter, private, or home school—they just want a good, safe school, that accepts and celebrates their child and culture. 

Most of our parents are not getting this.

The Superintendent stressed this issue, “of the need to create quality schools across the system” and also to get creative.  For instance, SFUSD has a long-term lease for a property that generates $2 million per year.  Rather than having half empty buildings, we could generate revenue to actually support our students.  Ultimately this means “operating fewer schools with more resources and getting over this deficit mindset and thinking about how we generate revenue.”

Real Community Conversation

The majority of the time was in small breakout groups, themed to the 5 functional areas in the Community of Schools: facilities, school autonomies, enrollment, charter authorization, and sharing best practices.   We had real conversations, from real parents.  By and large they were difficult and painful stories, and calls for solidarity and support.

“We got to get our Black folks together, that’s why I am here, I get passionate about this.” One parent stated emotionally.  Others raised the need to fight for the parents who couldn’t be there, and share the information.  That we needed “To education ALL parents from ALL cultures, about how the system works,” because many families had no idea.  And really how little most of the families present at the event initially knew until they got involved with the Oakland REACH. 

One parent described choosing her school for the name and nearness to home, only to have a rude awakening in seeing single digit reading scores.  She enrolled at a higher performing charter school, but that too had its challenges.

Many parents had no idea they could pick any school, many had little knowledge of charters or the enrollment deadlines, or how effectively advocate for themselves or their child in the system.  But they were learning, and this knowledge is power.   Now that they were at the table, they were not backing down in challenging the district, each other, or the community.

A New Beginning  

This is a beginning,” Young said as she closed out her introduction, and the superintendent said the same thing.  We need to hold them to this.  We need a new beginning here, that places parents at the table, and their needs and experiences at the center.  We also need to have forums where we can talk, learn, agree, disagree, but mostly listen. 

It was a good night in Oakland, I look forward to more.

What do you think?

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