ELECTION 2022: Mayoral Candidate Gregory Hodge Answers to Students in his interview with Great School Voices

Gregory Hodge is a social change activist and organizational development consultant with Khepera Consulting. Working as a strategist, meeting designer, racial equity trainer, facilitator and coach, Gregory works with a range of groups from small nonprofits and foundations to public agencies, particularly school districts and foundations. Greg served as the Executive Director for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and as the Chief Network Officer for the Oakland-based Brotherhood of Elders Network. He is a coordinating partner in designing the Healing Generations Institute with the National Compadres Network. His clients include: the Association of Black Foundation Executives, The California Endowment and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. As a leader in his community, Gregory served two four-year terms as a member of the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education beginning in January 2000, including a year as president of the board. Greg is a Fulbright-Hayes Fellow, recipient of the Gerbode Fellowship and board chair of the Rockwood Leadership Institute. He is a proud father of five, active gardener and lives in Oakland, California.

Great School Voices sat down with Hodge to ask him some questions on behalf of Oakland’s students.

ED REFORM PLANS: The state of public education in Oakland has been in crisis for generations, and with the pandemic, it has only gotten worse, with estimates being that half of high school students haven’t returned.  What will you try differently to improve the outcomes for us students, and how will you measure your success?

First, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I particularly enjoy questions from students, and it’s a really good question. I think that one of the things that we’ll do differently is first, have a community conversation about what our schools need, how they can better serve our students. One of the things I’d like to do is a Mayoral Summit and bring together all of the stakeholders, students, parents, labor, teachers, principals, administrators, community folks to talk about what it means to get a good education in Oakland and to really redefine that. I hope to engage our students in a different kind of way than what has happened in the past. I think we ought to be talking about what 21st century education looks like in Oakland and to be more collaborative, Especially given what’s happened during the pandemic, we should create the virtual platforms for learning where we can open up the virtual classroom in ways that are really different, while we continue to come together in person because we need to.  We need to be social.  The mental health issues around depression and suicide ideation and all the things that have happened for students coming out of the pandemic as well as families has been really tough. I think that we can turn this moment of crisis into an opportunity to really rethink how we educate our kids with partnerships that work for us —by elevating parent and student voices and investing in their mental health.  We can also build partnerships with our county, community and other providers. I think that there’s a lot we can do to shift education here in the city.  Lastly, we need to look at the nuts and bolts around our budget and think through what we can really afford in terms of fully resourced schools for all of our students. I think that we can do that in partnership with students and families and in ways that we have not necessarily done well in the past. 

SCHOOL CLOSURES: What is your stance on school closures? How do you think Oakland should make sure that students don’t fall through the cracks as schools get larger with consolidation? 
I think that we ought to put a moratorium on closures for the moment.  The timing of closures during the pandemic was just horrendous. We need to be clear headed about what schools we can fully resource and where we can really afford the right size number of schools. 

I would propose two things: 

  1. An independent audit of all of our schools in terms of the cost. We don’t really trust a lot of times what the district tells us, what advocates say, and what the unions say. There needs to be a more even handed view of where our budget is and what we can really afford. That is not just our annual budget, because we’re going to get a windfall from the state because of the state surplus in this next cycle. But also, Oakland Unified has generally had a structural deficit based on a few things such as declining enrollment. Now we’ve got to think about how we resource – in an equitable way – schools for all of our students. 
  2. We need to have an equity lens around any future decisions on closures or consolidations. We have to think through what makes sense from a racial equity standpoint around the schools that have been served the least. I agree with much of what came out of the reparations for Oakland students through the work that others had done.  I think that’s a way that we need to think about how we go forward with clear information and more consensus around what the solutions are. While we’ve had all kinds of fights around charters, and many parents have chosen with their feet.  40% of our kids go to charter schools now. We’ve got to figure out what that means to have a system of schools as opposed to just a school system. 

TRUANCY: Truancy is a pressing issue for a lot of Oakland students who see their friends and classmates become a part of the juvenile justice system, essentially putting a young person through the school to prison pipeline.  Do you think there should be an alternative solution for addressing truancy and what would that be? 

The situation and dynamic has gotten better over the years because as we’ve started efforts to keep our juvenile hall facility smaller, we got more empty beds, and as I understand it, than we ever have. Taking cops off of our school campuses was one beginning of a solution because some things that were normally youthful indiscretions or bad choices that weren’t necessarily harmful to a lot of people resulted in that downward slide toward truancy and extended absences from school. There’s a way that we ought to be checking into why a kid doesn’t go to school. What’s really behind it? Is there something going on at home? Bullying or other social dynamics? When I was on the school board, a lot of times those were the questions that we’re trying to get to. You’d typically start to see problems with a kid early in the third or fourth grade and no adults were really paying attention except from a punitive place.

By the time you get to a kid who’s in third or fourth grade who’s not reading at grade level, there’s a certain embarrassment and shame in it. Then you find other reasons that kids aren’t necessarily going to school, in addition to not having an engaging curriculum. That’s a huge problem. Kids aren’t coming into schools where they can see themselves in their history and where they can see their identity in how they move through the world.

I think that we have to catch this early and continue to do as much as we can around diversion programs and other activities that would actually keep kids in school. 

HOMIES Empowerment is going to start a school. It’s very reminiscent of some of the social justice based schools that we’ve seen in Oakland in the past. It’s an organization based in East Oakland. They’ve been around for a while. Dr. César Cruz is the CEO, and they’ve got a lot of different projects from a community garden to a community pantry and other things that have been really helpful in The East Oakland neighborhood. I think those are promising developments when it comes to kids who we can’t necessarily serve well in our traditional schools. For example, Street Academy has a long 50 year history of working with a lot of the kids who needed an alternative form of education. There’s a lot of ways that we can talk about that, but I think we need to respond in ways that make the most sense to young people themselves. 

Often we don’t ask young people what they think. That’s the great thing about this interview is that you’re asking questions through the voices of students. That’s really important for us to listen in deeply to what students have to say as well as families, parents, and caregivers and be able to construct the solutions that we know can work and can keep kids engaged and moving through their educational process. 

DUMP THE D: Where do you stand on Dump the D, a campaign dedicated to making D a failing grade so that students can retake courses and get a C or higher so that they will be eligible for UCs, which consider D a failing grade? What are your plans on giving students more information about what it takes to be eligible for a UC before it’s too late? 

There are lots of ways to evaluate student work. There’s portfolios and other ways to think about student achievement in more creative ways and really understand that everybody is not a great standardized test taker. If a kid is not necessarily going to school and showing up, that’s more of a challenge. There’s a way to move past that, like how we’re moved past some of the ACT and SAT requirements for college admission. There are a lot of ways to evaluate a student’s readiness.  The plans for getting more information about UC eligibility really revolves around academic counseling. The ratio of one counselor to 250 or 300 kids is just absolutely ridiculous and that is the ratio in many of our schools. We need to focus on parents and start in middle school by letting them know what the requirements are and what are the things that we need to prepare kids for.  And to say it early and often. 

I think all kids ought to be college prepared. Regardless of whether you choose to take a gap year or are interested in vocational, technical kinds of training, you ought to have the option. I think the goal for me is to be A through G compliant for every single student in Oakland Unified. The way we get there is by the earlier the better in terms of how we share that information with parents and other caregivers as well as with students. 

SAFE SCHOOLS: What do you think is the appropriate balance in making schools a safer place without criminalizing students? How do you think schools should address threats of shootings?

That is a huge issue. 

What happened over at the King Estates campus was just horrendous and what’s happened even at Tech where kids were practicing or playing a Pop Warner game and getting shot at. Being traumatized in that way is just really just unacceptable in any society. I think that we’ve got to do a much better job. The balance that we’ve got to strike is making sure that school culture works with restorative justice, and work with appropriate conflict  resolution and other kinds of mediation to resolve problems that happen at schools before they even get started. I’m not a big fan of metal detectors, but I do think that if there’s a point at which the availability of guns is so rampant and so easy to put your hand on a weapon in Oakland that it may be a moment that we do that.

Again, I think that we need to be cognizant of what students want. It’s a theme. What I’ve said so far is that we have to ask students what they think about their own safety. I think that we have to do it in partnership with the Department of Violence Prevention from the City of Oakland. Programs like the Macro program and other behavioral health responses, nonviolent responses, or non-policing responses to some of the issues are going to be important as we go forward. I think that community policing in and around our school sites is going to be part of the solution too.  The more that we hear about and understand where the tensions are and where conflicts are early before they even really escalate – I think community policing is part of the solution to that, when you have beat cops who understand the schools.

I was reading with interest the former chief of the Oakland Unified Police Department that’s now since been disbanded, but he talked about what happened at King Estates. He himself said that having cops in schools would not have prevented what happened. And it was really telling because he says this in the context of the pain and the trauma of it. 

And he basically suggested that we need to have much better police presence in and around neighborhoods as well as in hot spots around the City. I think that what could have prevented some of that would have been more information sharing with trusted adults, with trusted police officers who could have said, “Hey, this is something that may be about to go down,” because as I understand it was not a random shooting. There were students who were targeted as part of that and maybe even adults. And so all I have to say, I think that we can do a much better job on the prevention side, keeping schools safe. I’m not one of those people who thinks that you can make every public space safe without the culture of the community shifting. It’s really unacceptable to have so many weapons available on the streets, from ghost guns to guns that are brought in from Reno and other parts of Nevada, outside of California. I just think it is a societal problem that we’ve got to do something about. 

MEASURE QQ: What will you do to make sure that Measure QQ is implemented next election, considering the let down that we cannot vote this November?  What can you do to encourage youth civic engagement and involve youth in your role considering we cannot vote? 

Young people need to keep asking the hard questions. We ought to be doing as many forums, town halls and listening sessions with our student population. With Measure QQ, it’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long to actually implement student voting for school board members. What we can do in the short term is continue to have mock elections. When I ran for office, there was one moment where kids first held a mock election for school board members, and it was really powerful because students were very candid about who they thought was listening, who they thought were really paying attention to the needs of students. I think in short of full implementation of Measure QQ, we ought to be doing more of that. That would become almost a tradition in the city that during our citywide elections, as well as for school board candidates, that we ought to be listening in to what students have to say and actually preparing our students to participate in democracy in that way. 

All of these are steps toward greater participation. Even in this current election cycle, my biggest fear is that we just don’t have a good voter turnout, that enough people won’t care about what’s going on in city politics to actually come out and vote. I just really hope that our next generation of voters feels a lot more informed, a lot more engaged, a lot more able to participate, in these really important civic processes, because our future really is dependent on young people moving in ways that are different toward climate change, toward economic equity and sustainability in the city, towards public safety and all the big issues that we care about. These are issues that matter to young people now and will matter to them in the future. 

Do you have any closing words or final statement that you want to make?
Yes. To your audience and particularly to students and the families of students, we want you to know that we love you and that we care about Oakland as the adults who are in leadership roles, whether they’re formal leadership roles or elected leaders. We really care about the future of our city, we care about our safety, we care about our unhoused, we care about the economic opportunity that often doesn’t make its way to our working class community. I think that going forward, please stay involved. Get involved in your school government, get involved in your neighborhood councils, whatever the places are that you can engage with people to bring better understanding around what the big issues are, and then act in ways that are innovative, act in ways that are transformative. I just want to encourage folks to do that because we’re all out here trying to do our best to make our community better than the way we found it. I just think that students and young adults have such a huge role in that process. 

For more information on their candidacy, check out their candidate website linked here and additional information at FIA Oakland.

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