Letters for the Week of October 19 

Readers sound off on Tony Smith, Addie's Pizza Pie, and Peet's Coffee.

"Tony Smith's Vision," Feature, 10/5

A Rose-Colored "Vision"

This article was well-researched, but unfortunately it gives a very sunny spin on a very dire situation. Having worked in the Oakland schools, in many schools and programs for the previous twelve years, I can only say good luck and God bless to Tony Smith! He will surely need it!A few points to consider:

1. The dropout rate may be higher than the school district's stated 40 percent, but even giving them the benefit of the doubt, those who do graduate are way behind, or largely functionally illiterate, so their ability to handle college work is very compromised. Most of our graduates will take two years or more in remedial classes in order to handle community college work. I'm not blaming anyone, just stating a fact.

2. You cannot maintain teacher dedication forever without pay increases for teachers who have actually lost ground over the past ten years. Of course, no one knows where these increases will come from. Make no mistake, despite public condemnation of teachers, they are mostly a very dedicated group.

3. Our dropout problem deserves more effort, but also more common sense. This group of students has no academic background and they are three to five years behind in basic skills. What they really need is vocational and educational training, and paid part-time jobs with stipends. A few school systems have managed to implement this system for dropouts and those at risk of dropping out. But not Oakland.

Honestly, it took me a long time to get this on a gut level, because it goes against all reason. But, from their point of view, the students have no reason to stay in school — it does not speak to their interests or their abilities. They have failed at school, and we, in turn, have failed them miserably. In the old days, we had a so-called "tracking system" for academic, vocational, and general students. Many claimed it was racist and unfair. Now it has been replaced by a system that breeds a higher dropout rate, more failure, and higher crime rates. I'm sorry, but we are not all meant to be brain surgeons. I'm not advocating a tracking system, but real jobs for kids who prefer to work with their hands or computers or play music — that's our best bet for winning back those who are at-risk during high school. Maybe these kids will go on to further training or college, and maybe not — but they will get a high school diploma and a skilled trade. And, most importantly, they will be off the streets during the crucial years, ages thirteen through seventeen.

4. The schools have failed the community, but the community — meaning many of the parents — have also failed their children. I know this is a harsh indictment, but it unfortunately has much truth. A successful school system would require all parents to sign a contract each year, asking them to fulfill their responsibility on a daily basis. They must make sure their kids get to school daily, do some work in school, behave themselves, and do their homework. It must also state that "unless the parent or parents do their part the schools cannot guarantee the safety and success of their children." This is an obvious truth, but it needs to be stated, signed, and sealed on a regular basis. The community must do its part. It is the essential partner in this entire process. In fairness, most parents are in compliance, but many are not for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.

5. Never forget who really has power in the schools. I know this from personal experience — the teachers have no real power, and even the principals have limited power. One could even argue that Tony Smith has limited power. Of course, he has a bully pulpit, and the right to rebuild a failing system, and envision a new one. But, the real power is in the hands of parents. What the schools fear most is a group of intelligent and organized parents who make reasonable demands and ask for accountability by schools and administrators, and are also willing to go to the press. In the state of current chaos, there is much blame, but not a lot of organized parents in the inner city.

Perhaps Tony Smith's plan will work, perhaps not — but a little common sense and a few concrete proposals could make a big difference.

George Cohen, El Cerrito

A Smith Supporter

Thank you for the terrific article on Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith and his vision to improve and strengthen Oakland's public schools. His vision is making our wonderful city even better for all of us. While there are many challenges, Superintendent Smith is obviously up to them — and, in our experience, is a good listener. Biotech Partners is honored to collaborate with Oakland schools and looks forward to increasing its presence and success in this improving district.

Jerry Metzker

Development and Marketing Manager, Biotech Partners

Put the Soul Back in School

I hope Tony Smith's vision is manifested and creates healing, but first of all, get over the food thing. Have you traveled through white America lately? Most people want their hotlinks and burgers, not kale and quinoa — no matter what race. It's so patronizing to think black people need white people to tell them how to eat.

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