There is one election in Oakland this year, for the District 5 school board. With a divided board, the person elected will have the opportunity to cast a deciding vote. With so much at stake, we wanted to hear directly from the candidates so voters and the public can better understand their views and plans for their time in office. Students will be those most affected by the decisions the board makes, so we collected student questions from the Oakland Youth Commission to ask candidates Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez and Jorge Lerma. You can watch a video of the interview below, followed by a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity. Here is a link to our interview with Ritzie-Hernandez.
Great School Voices: Thank you so much for being here today for the Great School Voices interview. If you could just start off by introducing yourself.
Jorge Lerma: Good morning, everyone. My name is Jorge Lerma, I am a lifelong resident, and native of Oakland, California. I am running for the open vacancy in District Five of the Oakland Unified School District. And what I bring is a lot of experience and willingness to make the world a better place for all of us.
GSV: School Safety is a major concern for everyone in Oakland, especially with school shootings in the last year on campuses. What ideas do you have to improve school safety?
Lerma: Yeah, great question. And it’s the right question. School Safety, let me say this first, it’s not just about the school, it’s connected to what’s going on in Oakland, and our community and what’s going on in every neighborhood. It has to do as much with equity as it does with disparity. Everybody thinks that creating safer schools, in the old days and the old way of thinking, meant security, police, guys or people walking around and stopping fights. No, we have a different notion of school safety. So it’s not just about the school. It must involve the city council, the mayor, and leaders from the county and the state. But there are things that we can do at the school site. One, the first step, is to set expectations. There must be an ongoing discussion about safety and code of conduct at every school every day in every classroom. It must be connected to the classroom curriculum. It’s not a separate thing, or something that you talk about when there’s a problem. Safety and wellness are discussions that should be a topic in itself. Review of the previous day or review of a situation that came up in the classroom. Dialogue is the first way to remediate a problem. And identify methods and techniques that people can use in the classroom, at the school site, whether it be debates, discussion circles, the spoken word. These feelings and these topics must have a place in the school curriculum. So yes, school safety is a complicated issue. But there are things that we can do both in the school and with the community.
GSV: Graduation rates have been steadily improving but still average at 75% of EUR USD students. What do you think can be done to boost graduation rates to 100%
Lerma: Graduation rates have been improving, but let’s break it down. Different ethnic groups, different cultural groups have different results. I don’t accept that improvement must be a crawl or a simple little improvement. I’m not satisfied with simple improvement. I want to see acceleration. I want us to break out of this cycle of just slight improvement. No, we want to break out completely. And it starts with the question of, ‘What’s the objective of high school graduation? Just to graduate with a high school credential? Or is it about graduating with A through G requirements to go on to college? Or is it to graduate to get in some kind of career training?’ So there’s a couple of questions that I have about high school graduation rates. Yes, overall, there’s improvement. All the high schools that I’m aware of are doing a terrific job, principals, teachers and staff. But we need to accelerate what we’re doing, so that graduation is not just a diploma, but our map to the future.
GSV: Why do you think District 5 has become a popular district for charter schools, and what do you see is your role in supporting both the district schools and charter schools?
Lerma: My role on the school board is to make sure that all the schools, district or charter, keep to the same standards, and are achieving schools. That all schools develop and use the best practices to instruct their students. That being multidimensional instruction, diverse, inclusive ways and approaches so we’re not just lecturing, or some linear (that means some straight) hands-off kind of approach. That’s my primary job. There’s some requirements overseeing the charter schools in a minimal way. But I will say this, as for the popularity of the charter schools in the community, that’s a community decision. That’s a family decision. If all the schools maintain high academic standards, there’s room for everyone. For those who are in district schools, they will be pleased and those who choose charter public charters, they will be happy. No one is going to be left out. We have room for everyone. This is a time that the city must come together and educate all the children. There’s no one preferred method. I want to see the district schools become the best schools possible so that people want to come to our district schools. But in Oakland, we also have open enrollment and choice that gives the options, the last option goes to the family.
GSV: What ideas do you have to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline?
Lerma: Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline begins with providing all Oakland’s students with early childhood opportunities by getting to be a competent reader by the third grade, by having a diverse workforce, by having child development, an inclusive curriculum, and a diverse workforce, a workforce that looks like the students. It’s not one thing, there’s not this bad school that we have to go in there and reform. When adult behaviors change, student outcomes will change. The way we’re going to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline is by providing equity, equity, more opportunities, embracing diversity, our instruction should be multicultural and representative of our humanity, it should reflect the contributions of all the diverse life styles and in our in our, in our city. So, yeah, dismantling is important, but it doesn’t happen in high school. It doesn’t happen in middle school. There are elements of dismantling, but it’s all about providing equitable resources for our students and being inclusive.
GSV: What is your stance on school closures? And how do you plan to vote on future proposals around consolidating schools?
Lerma: I understand. I don’t look forward to school closures. I’m not promoting school closures. Because I understand the schools, the real estate that they’re on, where they’re located, is a legacy issue. It’s a gift from when Oakland was more of an industrial city, when it was an agricultural center and we had these large tracts of land, and we had the population to sustain the schools. But that’s no longer the case. People are leaving Oakland because of the high rents. The jobs are no longer industrial jobs. We have a problem with gentrification. We have an issue with high rents. We’re losing children in the inner city. We need to reinvest in schools to keep them open, because as I said earlier, when students leave a school because the parents feel that it’s low achieving, or underperforming, and they go across town to take their student to another school, while they’re not doing it intentionally, schools are kept open because every student represents a monetary resource (it’s about $15,000, more or less). So when a student leaves a particular school, or the family leaves the location, they also take what represents as a financial resource to another school. So no, I don’t look forward to closing schools, but there may be a way to repurpose our schools, so that if they need to be modified or changed, they can continue to serve the community as clinics, as training sites, as parent education sites, small hospitals. What I like to see is the school sites themselves become a place where maybe we can consider housing for the homeless, or we can consider housing for our employees classified and certificated. It’s a complicated issue. Am I going to run to close the school? No, there’s got to be a lot of study and research. If we have to do it, how can we do it in the way that most benefits the community and least hurts our students?
GSV: What do you think about the use of restorative justice practices in schools? Do you think there should be a bigger emphasis on them?
Lerma: Restorative Justice has proven to be an effective method of communication and problem solving, no doubt about it. But as important as restorative justice, the school has to be just. Restorative Justice as a technique of improving communication cannot be denied. But the larger goal too is to restore humanity, to restore our kindness, to restore our communities in every school. No one technique can do that. We need to continue to build and restore our health and wellness by working in collaboration, by working in partnerships, by having a student voice on the community advisory board, the CPAP (the board that I sit on) which there are 55 communities councils across Oakland, that help maintain wellness and security in each community. Historically, students and families have not participated in that great resource. We need the parents to be on site. Again, things need to be always culturally competent. Whatever we do, in one language, we have to do it in multiple languages. I believe in the power of strengthening affinity groups, working with the people that look like you from your community, as much as working across the board, across nationalities, across language groups. So both approaches: working as an ethnic, Afrocentric, Latino centric, Asian centric, but also working as a community centric approach. So Restorative Justice? Yes. Expanding the program? Yes. But it can’t be the only program. We have to have Restorative Justice as part of our life in school, every day.