Meet Dirk

I’m Dirk Tillotson.

I was born young, gifted and Black, in upstate New York. Well, I guess we are all born young.

My parents moved to a high-performing school district and we were the first Black family on the block—one of the few flies in the buttermilk in the school. This embedded in me a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door.

Fast forward to the present day. I have an adult son. I’ve helped start or run dozens of schools. I’ve lived around the country and the world, advocated for countless families, and seen the good bad and the ugly in public education.  This started with my own education, where I did receive strong academic skills, and the doors that opened for me as I struggled through my own drama.

Inequity is the hallmark of American education.  The best and worst schools can sit miles apart, often separated by artificial district boundaries.  And students who need and deserve the most tend to get the least, while the privileged magnify their advantages.  That’s the system, I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.

This was crystal clear when I worked in the 80’s at group homes and the schools associated with them.  These children were being trained for institutions.  And I don’t mean universities.

I, personally, had a lot going on in high school.  Despite being in the high 90 percentiles on my SATs, I only applied to two colleges.  It was a one page application, and the fees were waived.  I started at one of the worst state schools in NY SUNY Brockport, because they gave me a $500 CASH scholarship.  And I needed cash.

Several years later, I was off to Berkeley Law or Boalt Hall as insiders know it.  I wanted to be a public interest lawyer, Brown v Board of Education, that stuff.  I also started volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, working with a young man, “Johnny” from West Oakland.  He is a father now and Johnny is still and will always be my brother.  I see him often.

His school did not treat him with the concern and respect he deserved.  He was at times a challenging kid, but had been through so much.  And he would say to me after a particularly bad incident—“that was the bad johnny.”  I wrote a post about it.  But he wasn’t moving, his family didn’t have transportation, so I just looked for other nearby schools, and a “charter” school was opening pretty close to him.

I saw an article in the paper and called them up.  Awesome group of folks mostly from West Oakland, who had lived in and really understood the community, and they were starting the West Oakland Community School.  I still remember the mission around African American history and culture, leadership development and college preparation.

The union didn’t oppose the application, everyone knew that everyone was failing our kids, and nobody had any answers.  That was the mid late ‘90s.  Before any rich folks cared, and even now when they do—they tend not to care about schools like this.

I was also doing some public interest law.  Working at Public Advocates (yeah the “anti-charter” folks), suing Oakland Unified for not serving English learners, but the district would rather fight than serve kids.  Just delaying, moving from forum to forum and paying lawyers upon lawyers.  I also worked suing SFPD around affirmative action and looking at the racial impact of the CBEST- teacher licensing exam.  The reality of the law is that it can only help so much and many formal rights never actually mean anything on the ground, and I personally was mulling whether law was the answer.

So I entered a Ph.D program at Cal.  My dissertation was on Voice or Choice in Educational Reform.  I started working with OUSD on school autonomy and sat on the SSC of one of the district’s pilot schools, I also continued working with charters, and increasingly was being asked to help with schools that were struggling.

I have been called the patron saint of lost causes, the guy who will help do things when others won’t or think it’s too risky.  And I took on some of those, when Native elders asked me to help with their school, I did.  Even though it was in debt had 1 board member, no staff, 13 kids, and an 80% attendance rate.  it’s now one of the top schools in Oakland, but that path has been a challenging one, with many a scandal, and a lot of costs weighing alongside benefits.

I have never been anti public education, anti-district, maybe.  The district drove me crazy.  The faceless “no” coming without rationale.  The instability and shifting leaders and personalities.  It was all too far away from the schools, and simple things were made hard.

Staff were working hard, and deeply committed, but it’s something about the system and the many masters it serves.   So I drifted more to the charter side.  Mostly because it gave US a vehicle to do our own schools—kind of FUBU charter schools.  If you don’t know FUBU ask somebody.

It’s been a whirlwind since then.  I lived in Qatar during the height of the second Gulf War, working with their leadership on “madrassah istiqual” or independent schools, and comprehensive reform of their education system; curriculum standards, stakeholder surveys, differentiated school models—that kind of stuff.

And when I came back to the US, Katrina hit New Orleans.  I had a little money in the bank and just moved with my partner to New Orleans to volunteer.  I worked there with schools doing needs assessments and basically squabbling with folks about equity.  I was hired by the National Alliance for Public Charters, but at a certain point, as I told them,  it was a waste of my time and their money, since I was having some challenges in getting along with folks, and accepting the way things were evolving.

So we parted ways.  Which is a recurring theme, if I don’t like how people are treating me in the sandbox, I will usually take my toys and leave, rather than fighting a system that will likely sap me dry.

Then it was NY and back to family.  Working some more visible jobs, that were more politically engaged.  Again that just was not really my thing.  And I left and founded a community charter school incubator- where we focus on schools targeting underserved students and informally in developing leaders of color.  And we have been pretty successful.

We incubated the first autism inclusion school in Harlem, the first college prep school catering to students with emerging mental health disorders, several schools for over age under-credited kids, the first Montessori in NYC, the first CTE charter, several dual language schools, arts based schools etc.   But our focus has always been on working with the community to serve students who are left behind.  And our portfolio far over represents English learners, students with disabilities and low income students.  So for the haters, just do your homework.

But only working with schools misses something.  There are a whole set of families who don’t choose, and who may be increasingly concentrated in schools of default.  So I started a new nonprofit- Great School Choices—which works kind of on both sides of the issue.  We will help communities develop and continuously improve schools and ALSO support underserved families directly in getting access to better schools and full services and fair treatment.

As a lawyer I get too many calls about issues with students, and usually the student is being mistreated, often unlawfully.  But unless you have an advocate, in many cases, don’t matter what the law say.  The law in the school is the principal.

I do some pro bono disciplinary work, supporting underserved families in disciplinary hearings, but we need a more systematic way to support students in these proceedings and also to enforce the rights for other  vulnerable kids, like homeless and foster students—who have a set of formal rights that I would suspect are largely unenforced, across all sectors.

And I also think we really need to study and better understand what is happening with charter school admissions and why.  Long arguing for proactive supports around equity but also using testers to make sure admissions are fair.

So far no funders for the “Family Quality and Equity Center.”  But I am looking.

That’s about it, for the trolls and haters, please just do your homework—there is a lot of shit to talk about me for sure, and I have made a lot of enemies of all political stripes, and friends, but at least don’t be lazy, and talk some shit that’s on point.

Am I anti union?  No, I ran a union school, I was the first board president to voluntarily unionize, I am friends and colleagues with the union folks in NY, and we incubated the first NYC school that was designed by the founders to organize upon approval.  I have written of how unions can be good for charters and vice versa and have been invited to talk on union charter issues by the AFT.

Am I pro-charter? Kind of, kind of not, I am pro- good school, good meaning quality program and equity.  So I support many charters as a vehicle for community empowerment, but I have also called for charters to be closed, and have torpedoed a couple myself.  So it depends.

Am I a philanthrocapitalist shill? In the first 2 years of the non profit the only donor was me, I have made less now that I was offered my first year out of law school.  Am I looking for funding?  Hell yeah.  If a New Schools Venture wants to fund me or the UFT wants to fund me, I am taking all comers.  You won’t really get anything special for your money, but please donate.  And yeah even the haters—please try to buy my tongue by donating.

So let me end with one of my favorite poets, Nasir Jones

“You can hate me now, but I won’t stop now, you can hate me nnoooooowwwwww”



You can also check out some other stuff I’ve written in the past.

11 thoughts on “Meet Dirk

  1. Dirk,

    I am an associate of the Small Schools Coalition, and an educator at The Grauer School, a small (160 student) independent school with a curriculum that balances expeditionary learning and college prep. I read your recent article in the Contra Costa Times about Oakland’s thriving small schools and wanted to reach out as our organization aligns with many of the values you present in the article.

    The Small Schools Coalition is a non-profit, voluntary membership association that advances the interests of small schools, the students and families they serve, and the teachers who thrive in this optimal environment. We have 300 followers and are growing rapidly. We would also love to partner with you.

    SSC brings together a collaborative group of like-minded educational stakeholders to provide research on all areas of advancing quality small school environments. Our research provides you with compelling evidence to support our small schools programs and to enhance our marketing efforts.

    Implementing this partnership is simple. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter at SmallSchoolsNow, and visit our website, where you can find a rich library full of data that reinforces the benefits of small schools. Please let me know if you have any further questions or if there is any way I can support your work.

    Lastly, please check out Dr. Stuart Grauer’s latest book “Fearless Teaching” as well as his most recent article on the small school model featured in The Hechinger Report called “Forget Football and Prom – What Big High Schools Get Wrong.”

    Kindest regards,

  2. Dirk, I would so much like to meet you. I am one of the original supporters of California’s charter school law and of Oakland’s first charter schools. Retired now but a volunteer I Oakland schools.

  3. Fascinating stuff. Impressive. I need to get out of the doldrums. Glad to see you’re doing well, Dirk. Well, doing.

  4. Reading you is a treat. My thanks for all you do. (And I get why you won’t come down as pro-or-anti union, pro-or-anti charter school. So far as I can tell, It All Depends. . . )

  5. I enjoy reading your blogs. Have you read the works of Dianne Ravitch? I’ve worked in both public and charters (which are also public) since 1999 and have seen great things in both types of schools. I lived in the Bay Area for 19 years before relocating to Florida in 2019. California has nothing on Florida regarding school choice. It is alarming to see the amount of charter schools on every corner. If you haven’t read “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch you should. I’m unclear how charter schools have supported our black and brown students. While public schools have not provided the equitable outcomes of our most underprivileged, not diving deep into charter school data and ignoring the historical context of school choice is dangerous.

    1. thanks Adelfa, yeah I worked in NYC for several years and have met Dr Ravitch a couple of times, I get all the critiques of choice, and I get the ahistorical way that folks approach it, though I would say the same for the traditional district schools, the racism that drove the creation of segregated schools in the public system that were and are separate and unequal, also drives the disparities in charters, so there is no sector that has actually served Black kids consistently, and I dont have faith that either will, so folks need as many options as they can to try to find an escape route from a rigged game. I wish folks would address it from that perspective rather than district v charter– again the most segregated schools in NYC are the selective high schools– which are district schools– but the establishment doenst want to confront that– it is youth in Teens Take Charge that are driving that change not the adults– I do appreciate your comments and thanks

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