Celebrating 11 Years of Community Building at Oakland’s Community School for Creative Education; A Conversation with Emma Paulino

When Dr. Ida Oberman, approached longtime community activist and Faith in Action East Bay Director of  Organizing and Leadership Formation,  Emma Paulino, about starting a public Waldorf school in the East Oakland Flats, Paulino was skeptical.  Oakland had seen parades of school developers over the years, and as Paulino stated, many of them, “came with their own agenda, to create something for themselves.” And many were not ultimately focused on the needs or agenda of the community.

As the Community School for Creative Education celebrates its 11th anniversary, showing impressive academic growth for Black and Brown children and, still working in and building community (and still enrolling students), I wanted to check in with Emma on her voyage with the school and what is next.

“This is the real deal”

Paulino travelled a long road with the school, from initial skepticism, to becoming a mentor and partner to Dr. Oberman, schooling her and her team on what it takes to authentically engage the community and build a school to meet community needs.  Oberman and her team then went about doing the work.  Initiating 1 on 1 conversations with community, education, and faith leaders, as well as their target families, and running Waldorf based drop in play dates for families, modeling the caring community they wanted to create in the school.

Families got it, though some of the meetings were sparsely attended, families came away convinced.  There was support for a diverse and integrated Waldorf School in the San Antonio neighborhood.  Paulino set the bar for Oberman from the outset, she would never support something the parents didn’t support.  After months of walking the streets of Oakland, interfaith visits, meetings at CDCs, and community centers Paulino was convinced “that Oakland was ready for Waldorf.”  But asked whether “Waldorf is ready for Oakland.”

Building a Diverse Community in Oakland with a “real sense of humanity and belonging”

This work out in community, and deliberately reaching across ethnic, racial and faith communities, and delivering presentations in 5 languages created something special.  CSCE is one of the most diverse schools in Oakland.  And it is showing some of the greatest academic gains for Black and Brown Children.  But it is so much more than that. 

Paulino described the special atmosphere, “there was hands on learning and parents loved this, they could connect with it, this was not happening in the district.  It had an impact in a way that no one else is going to provide, a real sense of humanity and belonging…My child is going to belong and be a part of his own development…to learn how he learns best”

And you can see the numbers.  In a City described as the 14th most segregated in the country, you have a school that represents Oakland’s diverse populations, slightly overrepresenting Latinx children (64%) and closely approximating Black (18%) and Asian (9%) students.  The school also has a higher percentage of English learners and special needs children than OUSD

You can see all the data here.

And beyond representing Oakland’s communities the school worked to consciously honor them.  Oberman described one of these conscious efforts to recognize and honor home cultures—the celebration and explanation of a range of cultural holidays.  “It’s so important that we recognize and celebrate each other’s cultural holidays and traditions, that is one way we can build OUR community” Oberman added.

The school really did focus on the whole child, and bring in the whole family.   “Head, heart, and hands,” was more than a mantra, it was a daily lived experience.  Families volunteered in the classroom as and the school, and the academic results are real as CSCE has shown real progress with Black and Latinx children and their students showing some of the greatest growth on standardized tests.  These results also apply to students with special needs and English learners have outperformed the district for 3 consecutive years.

“Oakland is ready for Waldorf, is Waldorf ready for Oakland?”  The Fight for a Sana Antonio School

After a long fight, CSCE was approved.  It would be the first successful intercultural (what some may call urban) public Waldorf in the country.  Waldorf programs tend to exist in wealthier communities and tend to serve wealthier and less divers populations, often in private schools. CSCE, in contrast, was envisioned as a multicultural and integrated community situated in the Oakland’s Flatlands San Antonio neighborhood.  That is where the staff had been walking the streets and weaving together a community, and that was where the need was.

A community that would be stretched and tested, as the school, rather than being in the San Antonio Flatlands, was placed in The Laurel.  That’s roughly 7 miles away by car, but a world of difference in who had access to CSCE.  Rather than being in the Flats, where families could walk their children with babies in arms to school, the school was placed on the Slope, an area very accessible by car, but not by public transportation.  It took three different transfers on public transit and certainly was not walking from the San Antonio.  The dreamed of community school was developing into a commuter school for a very different parent clientele.  

It was a nice school for some of Oakland’s more privileged parents, but much of the community was left behind in the Flats, and unable to get to CSCE.  The community became significantly less diverse and free/reduced lunch numbers were at 32%.

This was not the school Paulino, the Faith in Action organizers, the staff, the community or any of the founders envisioned, and it would take a fight to bring CSCE back to the community. 

“It was the power of the community,” Paulino stated, “this was built for the community.”   They organized, went to the superintendent, met with Board members.  “It was a daily and ongoing struggle,” Paulino stated, and the community would not take no for an answer.  The next year they got their building in the San Antonio, and the community had its school.

“Not Just a School”

The vision of a community school, where diverse neighborhood families could walk children in, was finally happening.  However, this was always about more than a school, it was a partnership with Faith in Action and that meant this was about community and making a positive difference in the neighborhood and beyond.  This was beyond education, it was safety, housing and health.  They worked to reduce and clean up illegal dumping, beautify the neighborhood, and are now working to get a mobile vaccine clinic on site for the neighborhood, among other things.

“A community school not a closed-door school”

“This is a community school, not a closed door school, our families can bring what happens at home to school, all these things affect the child and you need to see the whole child” Paulino reflected.  And they are still growing, working with families and teachers on trauma informed education, as part of an international network of educators.

“I am really proud of this school,” Paulina concluded. 

And given the community building work, intentional and rich diversity and the learning gains for historically underserved students, the community and Oakland should be proud.

Now maybe they need a Waldorf high school

CSCE is now enrolling for 2021-2022!

What do you think?

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