When Tony Smith took the helm of the Oakland Unified School District in 2009, he inherited one of the poorest performing school districts in California. Oakland has shown steady improvement in recent years, but last year's test scores still painted a dismal picture: 57 percent of students in grades 2-11 were one to three years below grade level in English Language Arts, while 46 percent in grades 2-8 were just as far behind in math.
And when kids fall that far behind in their studies, they rarely catch up. The school district's overall graduation rate is just 60 percent. That's right: Four out of every ten of Oakland's public school kids do not graduate from high school.
Even those that do get a diploma typically aren't ready for college. In 2010, only 33 percent of 12th graders had completed college eligibility requirements and only 11 percent of 11th graders tested college-ready on California State University's English Language Arts Program Early Placement Exam. In short, most Oakland students are woefully unprepared to compete and succeed in the global economy.
In response to these problems, Smith has launched what may be the most comprehensive and far-reaching plan to ever come out of the district. Since he took over the troubled school system, some 1,500 people have attended more than 350 meetings to create a five-year strategic plan for OUSD. The plan is big, it's bold, and it's innovative. "If we want radically different outcomes," Smith explained, "we have to create radically different programs."
Smith's plan looks at every aspect of a child's life that affects his or her ability to learn. No Child Left Behind, the federal education reform law enacted a decade ago, focuses mostly on test scores, so schools spend an inordinate amount of time "teaching to the test." But that's in stark contrast to how Smith's plan will approach "the whole child." For example, the plan not only recognizes that kids need decent nutrition to start their day, it examines whether there is a grocery store that carries fresh and healthy food in each child's neighborhood.
Last school year, 69 percent of Oakland's students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch because of their family's economic situation, while about 15 percent lived in subsidized housing. "We know from brain research that when we are at ease, we learn a lot more, and when we are hungry or emotionally distressed, the amount of our brain that is available for learning is lessened," the superintendent noted, during a recent sit-down interview at district headquarters.
Smith thinks that the school district can and must take on these types of public health problems. "An African-American child born in West Oakland is likely to live in a neighborhood with two times the concentration of liquor stores and fast food outlets than the rest of Oakland," his plan notes in its overview. "They are seven times more likely to be born in poverty and four times less likely to read at grade level by grade four."
And it doesn't stop there: "An African-American child born in West Oakland can expect to die almost fifteen years earlier than a white child born in the Oakland Hills."
To tackle some of these issues, the district intends to transform all its campuses into what are known as full-service community schools — community centers with a core emphasis on academics, but with an expanded focus on helping all kids develop a positive sense of self, while also offering family support and community development and engagement. "The connection between kids and the services they need has been fractured, and the district has to play a role in coordinating those services," Smith said. "We intend to put the call out to public health, to businesses, to community organizations, and to the families: Let's work together to lessen some of these obstacles."
Over the next several weeks, there will be an intense spotlight focused on Oakland public schools because of Smith's other major proposal: closing schools so that the district can re-allocate funds to operate higher quality schools. The district has lost nearly 30 percent of its students since 2000, and recently Smith revealed that he wants to shut down five elementary schools and consolidate several others on high school campuses. The planned closures have already sparked a backlash among parents at the affected schools, and the controversy is expected to intensify as the school board prepares to make a final decision on the proposal later this month. Smith estimates that the closures will save the district at least $2 million a year, and he intends to propose more closures over the next two years.
Although the focus on OUSD is currently on the school closure proposal, it's connected to Smith's sweeping new strategic plan. In fact, Smith plans to use savings generated from school closures to implement the plan, while also helping the district right its financial ship and address the relatively low pay of its teachers. It's a plan designed to help all of the district's kids, while giving extra attention to those children who need it the most — addressing their needs not just inside the classroom, but in their communities.
"If the district doesn't address some of these overarching issues," Smith warned, "it is doomed to repeat the failures of the past."
In dozens of states across the country, from California to Massachusetts, the full-service community school model has been shown to improve math and reading scores, and attendance and graduation rates. The model has been around for twenty years and is known by many names, including Bridges to Success and Schools that Never Close.
No two schools are alike, but they share some characteristics: They are open to families and the community before, during, and after school to offer services that might include medical clinics, adult and youth classes, a family support center that helps with child care, and employment and housing assistance. The cornerstone of the model is still academics, but delivered within a context that focuses on positive youth development and increased family, community, and business engagement.
"Over the next three years every school will be assessed to determine, 'What does this school need to better meet the needs of its students? Is health care accessible?'" said Andrea Bustamante, acting director of Family, Schools, and Community Partnerships. "Each of the six pilot project schools will be looked at individually. Some schools may not want to put major resources into after-school because many of their kids have classes elsewhere."
Bustamante said that schools are already being surveyed to see what partnerships exist. "We will ask the [Oakland] housing authority: What are they providing to our students and how can we collaborate? Some of our students get breakfast and lunch at school, but we might discover that a dinner is needed, so we could partner with a community group to provide a free or low-cost dinner that would increase parent engagement."
Exposure to violence is well documented as a major impediment to learning, especially in Oakland, where some kids come to school after having witnessed domestic violence, fights, or gun violence. "We have a variety of supports in place for after a traumatic event occurs: restorative justice to help kids and adults deal with conflict, and behavioral and mental health providers," Bustamante said. "But in our new model, the school could play a role in offering leadership and space for a community dialogue after a violent incident in the neighborhood."
School board member David Kakishiba, who chairs the district's Finance and Human Resources Committee, applauds the new model: "Research shows that when kids in grade K-2 are absent more than 10 percent of the school year, there is much less likelihood that they will read at grade level by fifth grade and even less likelihood that they will graduate from high school. Maybe there are housing issues, maybe it is a single mom with three kids, maybe there is joblessness, but we need to see how we can help this family so this child can get to school."
One of the tools that will be used to zero in on the "whole child" is a new framework for analyzing data that goes far beyond looking at test scores. Healthy Kids Healthy Oakland, a district task force, has begun to generate maps and data that reveal everything from the high prevalence of asthma to the crime and gun violence in neighborhoods.
To get a clearer picture of what kids are dealing with, the district will share information between the Alameda County Department of Public Health, the Oakland Housing Authority, the county Juvenile Justice Center, and the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council. Data about everything from poverty levels; life expectancy rates; distribution of libraries, parks, youth organizations, grocery and liquor stores; and crime rates will be examined to identify the challenges in each school's neighborhood.
A recent application of this use of data found that about one-third of the 6,500 black male students in the district live in public housing. "The key element in breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and poor health is education," said Jean Wing, coordinator of Research, Assessment, and Development for the district and former chair of Healthy Kids Healthy Oakland. "If you want to get to health equity, you have to get to educational equity."
The idea of equity being different than equality is woven throughout the plan. The district's Options and School Choice program, which allows parents to choose schools outside of their neighborhoods through a lottery-style system, has contributed to declining enrollment in some schools. Surveyed families said they would prefer to use their neighborhood school if safety, quality of instruction, and the physical appearance were equal to those in other neighborhoods. But, that's obviously not the case.
Vernon Hal, deputy superintendent for Business Services and Operations, said the district is moving toward a new way of allocating funds to schools. Instead of each school getting the same fixed number of dollars per students, there will be more discretion about how additional resources are used. "We need to look at what is equitable by moving away from basic allocation formulas," he said. "When one school's kids are far below basic and other kids are doing fine, getting the same amount of money per student is equal, but is it equitable?
"Schools that have been negatively impacted need resource allocation based on need," he continued, "not based on per student costs."
The strategic plan includes everything from developing a consistent curriculum to adding a focus on career and college readiness, and additional training for principals and teachers. If the goals in the plan are achieved, here is what a full-service community school might look like four years from now:
A fourth grader named Jason leaves his house with his single mom and his two younger siblings. They meet up with a group of kids being walked to school by other parents that have helped design a safe route. It's called a walking school bus. The route was redesigned based on data from Healthy Kids Healthy Oakland that looked at crime statistics for the neighborhood.
Jason's mom then brings her two younger children to a quality pre-school, invested in by local businesses and a nonprofit in partnership with the district. Then Jason's mom is on her way to a job-training program that she registered for at the school's parent resource center.
When Jason gets to his brightly colored, freshly painted school, he starts his day in the schoolyard, which has additional play equipment because data from Healthy Kids Healthy Oakland showed that more than 20 percent of the school's kids have unhealthy body weights. After free time on the play structures, the entire student body is led in physical activity that uses exercises known to strengthen muscles and help kids get ready to learn.
In his classroom, the day starts with each child saying one thing they feel good about. A district-wide core curriculum was developed that has subject and lesson guidelines known to increase reading and writing skills, and the teacher has received additional training in using multiple strategies to present material that is culturally relevant to her students. Since Jason is behind his peers in reading, a literacy coach helps bring him up to grade level. Jason's principal has been freed up from bureaucratic tasks so that she is able to provide more effective coaching to Jason's teachers.
In his after-school program, Jason takes a self-defense class that promotes positive self-image and discipline; he has a video class that looks at different cultures; and he has a one-to-one mentor from a school partnership with the local church. One day a week, business and community leaders speak to all the kids about career and employment options. Jason returns home to a mom that is more hopeful about her future, and more confident about helping him with homework because of the coaching she received at his school.
In a district that has made massive cuts already, how is OUSD going to pay for all this? "We have cut almost $35 million in the last two years and $20 million of that was from central office," noted Vernon Hal, the district's budget chief.
Those massive cuts are among the main reasons why Smith is adamant about the necessity of school closures. "Academic and fiscal solvency have to be tied together — our resources are stretched so thin that we are starving high- and low-performing schools because we have not been able to invest in every neighborhood," he said.
On August 24 the school board approved criteria to determine which schools are to be closed. A major emphasis was placed on the size of the school, because small schools are financially inefficient. On September 24, Smith presented an official list of recommended closures: Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park, and Santa Fe elementary schools. Smith also proposes consolidating several other schools. The school board plans to vote on the final closure list at its October 27 meeting.
But no matter how much financial sense the school closures make, there are a lot of unhappy residents who plan to put up a fight. "People will support their neighborhood school, as well they should. I have two kids in Oakland schools and it matters to me that I see people in my school family when I drop them off," Smith noted. "Hopefully, people will understand that if they only defend their own schools, then many of our schools will fail."
Melia Franklin, executive director of PLAN, a network that promotes racial justice by involving parents in public schools, agrees that school closures will be a disruptive process and thinks the school board should take more time to make its decision. "No one wants to see their neighborhood school closed, but we understand that this current configuration is not sustainable," Franklin said. "The district has a history of rolling out reform initiatives in ways that have not always invited community engagement. We would like to see a more extended process because there is no way you can get adequate feedback — we only have until October 26."
Is the strategic plan too ambitious? While some in the education community laud the goals of the proposal they wonder if they're realistic. "We appreciate the inspiring vision of the plan, but we hope that the district gets clearer about the priorities within the plan," said Marc Tafolla, policy director of Great Oakland Public Schools, a coalition of parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders whose purpose is to improve the public schools. "We would rather see OUSD choose three to five areas that they do well and not try to be everything for everybody. We want clearer outcomes so we can track to see if the district is doing what it says it will do."
Betty Olson-Jones of the Oakland Education Association echoed that sentiment. OEA is the main bargaining agent for teachers, counselors, nurses, psychologists, librarians, and social workers. "We are in support of the plan, but we need to see more benchmarks," she said. "We see a contradiction between the plan and some of the reductions that have already taken place where school counselors are being replaced by roving counselors. We have one of the highest ratios of counselors to students in the state: seven hundred students to one counselor."
The union also wants to see more flexibility for teachers. "If we are going to put a lot of time and resources into the social and emotional health of each child, we will need to put less attention on testing and test scores," Olson-Jones continued. "There are electives that have been lost because we have to spend so much time on test preparation. We want teachers to help design assessments that are relevant to our kids' lives."
But David Kakishiba, a veteran of the school board who helped lead the district out of state control, doesn't think the scope of the plan is too radical. "This is a fundamental game plan," he said. "The scope and scale are big, but the district is focusing on essentials: effective teaching and help for families so that their kids are ready to learn. The district has a role to play in mitigating the challenges that our children face. Can we do it for all of the kids? I'm not sure, but this plan has a better chance than any others."
Smith, too, is confident that the district can make the plan work. He also contends that its success is vital to the long-term well-being of the city. "We intend to be the lead agency to cut the youth incarceration rate in half," he said. "Some will say that is crazy, but we are starting to partner with Chief David Muhammad, the chief probation officer of Alameda County. He gets it that the earlier we support these kids, the more we will be able to change their outcomes. By the end of fifth grade, our young people need a positive narrative for the direction of their lives. Readiness for middle and high school isn't only about reading at grade level — it is about how kids feel about themselves and how they see their future."
Smith has a strong understanding of power and privilege and how that plays out in a city like Oakland. When asked how he first became aware of this way of looking at the world, he said, "My parents were in high school when I was born and they weren't together. I saw a lot of good stuff and a lot of very bad stuff and experienced a lot of instability. As a high school athlete, I played and traveled with a lot of African-American teammates and that had a big influence. At Cal, I began to understand the fundamental differences in people's experiences by race and class, and the implications for education."
When asked how he responds to critics who say these problems are too big to take on, he said: "This is what I believe in, whether I was the superintendent or not. It is extremely destructive of human capacity and talent to lose some of our children by not helping them learn. I will be relentless in the creation of a strategy to bridge the gap between the current reality and our aspirations. Hope isn't a strategy; having a high-quality plan is what gives us hope."
A few days before the interview with Smith, another shocking act of violence made headlines in Oakland: A six-year-old stood by helplessly as his father was gunned down in front of him. When asked what he thought when he heard about the incident, Smith said: "We have allowed the difference between the experience of that child's family and others to drift so far apart that many of us do not experience it as our loss. We live in a city that is one of the most violent in the United States and among the most violent for children and that is not good for any of our kids. It might be easy for some of us to say, I have had enough, but in low-income communities of color where opportunities and infrastructure have been stripped away, we have to rebuild or we are lost."
Christopher Chatmon, the executive director of the office of African American Male Achievement at OUSD, thinks the rebuilding has already begun. "The situation we face in Oakland is not unique — there is a national crisis in our urban schools," he said. "What is different about this plan is that heads of systems from the mayor to public health to juvenile justice to social services to the housing authority and the schools are sitting together in the same room and talking the same language. There is a quiet storm happening in Oakland and that gives me hope."
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