How Matin Abdel-Qawi champions A-G: A Conversation with a legendary Oakland educator

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A guest post from Families in Action

On Tuesday, May 25, Families in Action for Quality Education and Energy Convertors will co-host the 2nd annual awards ceremony recognizing the top high schools in Oakland that are providing access to rigorous A-G coursework for Latino/a and African American students: the A-G Quality School Awards. RSVP

Leading up to the celebration, we will be hearing directly from leaders and educators at the award-winning schools about their “secret sauce”: their best practices, what they’re doing to establish a college-going culture and how they ensure students are both prepared for college, and qualified to apply.

Matin Abdel-Qawi knows a thing or two about how to get a high percentage of African American and Latino/a students to complete their A-G requirements and graduate high school eligible for college. Abdel-Qawi now oversees high schools for the Oakland Unified School District. Previously, he was Oakland High’s principal, and before that he was principal for East Oakland School for the Arts (EOSA), a small school located on Castlemont’s campus. At each stop, Abdel-Qawi’s school succeeded in making students’ completion of A-G requirements a priority: EOSA had the highest A-G completion rate in the city when he was there a dozen years ago; at Oakland High, he oversaw a move to block scheduling and the instituting of a “No D” policy.

The following is an edited conversation where Abdel-Qawi shares some of what he has learned over the years.

EOSA: A small school with the highest A-G completion rate in Oakland

It’s really clear how we were able to accomplish that. We had a really high-functioning counselor in a small school who had the ability to meet with every individual student, identify where they were off the mark, and make appropriate changes to their schedules — add classes or what have you — in order to meet the A-G requirements. The counselor identifies where students might need additional support, but also where staff may need additional support as well, to make sure we have equitable grading practices.

It was that, along with having no D policy. We didn’t give students Ds on assignments, marking periods or semester grades. We put a series of interventions in place to help scholars who were on the border of failing to get that extra support they needed to raise their grade up to a C or better.

The No D policy was clear: everyone knows that in order to meet A-G, for any course, you need to have a C or better. What we found often happening was a student would get a D and feel like they passed the class, and they’re not really motivated to take that class again. To have that conversation with a freshman or sophomore — telling them that this is going to impact you in your college eligibility — is often a hard message to sell to a young person. By the time they’re seniors and they understand, it’s often late or close to too late because of the amount of work that needs to be done.

So just having a culture on campus of believing that all students can go to college and be successful, we had to put the systems in place to support that.

Block scheduling at Oakland High

The “No D” policy is in its infancy stage and serving a small number of students. So its impact on A-G is relatively limited at this point. The more impactful moves we made as a staff were largely connected to our 8-period block schedule.

Typically, a student only takes six classes per semester, so with 230 credits needed to graduate, the margin for error is very small. If a student fails a class, they fall behind and then they’re not on track to graduate on time. Take six classes and over the course of four years, that’s 240 credits. Super, super small margin for error.

But if a student takes eight classes, then your margin for error is much higher. Now you have 40 credits you can earn over the course of the year, instead of 30. So that’s 320 credits available instead of 240. The margin for opportunities is off the charts.

This allowed us to do remediation during the day. It was difficult to get a student to stay after school for credit recovery, with family responsibilities, sports and other activities. But if you do it during the day, it’s an easy sell.

On top of that you give scholars the opportunity to take additional classes, dual enrollment classes, and other electives. It makes for a much more well-rounded educational experience. And as a result of all that, more students met their A-G requirements.

This only works when the staff is on board. It took a year, plus a lot of conversations, research, professional development and visiting other sites before our staff realized the value, and they supported it unanimously.

The change was immediate. Our graduation rate skyrocketed.

How to get all Oakland public schools to 100% A-G completion

That’s the million dollar question, right? I’ve been in the position for about 8 months in a very unorthodox school year. But my belief is we need to create spaces and opportunities on all campuses for leaders, regardless of position, to come together with the expectation that this is our goal. Our goal is to create an environment where we get all of our scholars ready for a four-year university. Whether they choose it or not is up to our scholars. Our job is to get them eligible so it’s an option for them.

I believe our staff are more than capable, they’re extremely capable. There needs to be a space for them to have conversations that cover everything: from the way we support our young scholars academically and social-emotionally; how we create spaces for teachers to learn, grow, develop and lead; that other staff members like case managers, counselors, whoever it is, are invested in meeting this accomplishment as well. It takes an all-hands-on-deck approach.

We need student voice. The voices of students are integral for any campus. It’s impossible to believe you can create these systems if there is no student voice at the table.

Could a “No D” policy work for all Oakland public schools?

Yes, 100%. There’s no reason to think not. There’s a lot of people who will be opposed or are just scared of change in general. It’s imperative that the appropriate support systems are in place because a lot of people — students, families, teachers — will fear that a “No D” policy would mean that you will increase the number of students failing classes. That is not my experience, at Oakland High or EOSA. There are other schools in Oakland that also have “No D” policies. It works. The fear is there is going to be more Fs, but that is not our experience when you put the appropriate support systems in place. I think it could be a game changer district wide.

The FIA and Energy Convertors A-G Awards

I think these schools deserve an award because they’ve been working really, really hard and have been focused on this. There’s a lot that all of us can learn from from the work that those school leaders staff have done.NextCómo Matin Abdel-Qawi lucha por A-G: una conversación con un educador legendario de Oakland

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