Metro Desk: Oakland 

All Shook Up
A few weeks ago, ten school counselors in the Oakland Unified School District got letters telling them that next year they would be reporting for work to a different campus. Veteran high school counselor Emma Borens was one of them; she has worked for the district twenty years and spent ten of those at Skyline High School, where the tales about her dedication, compassion, and popularity with students are legion.

Skyline is one of the highest-performing schools in the district; when Borens learned she was to be transferred to McClymonds High School--well known as one of the most troubled--she was unpleasantly surprised, to say the least. Students, parents, and teachers were equally upset, and barraged Superintendent Dennis Chaconas with e-mails. Skyline students, grads, and community members even drummed up rallies in her defense: one on campus, and one outside the district office before the last school board meeting.

Before you dismiss this as one campus' tempest in a teapot, consider another factor complicating Borens' transfer. "There are about 62 counselors in the district, 27 of whom are African American," Borens says. "Of the list of ten who were supposed to be involuntarily moved, seven of them are African American, and to me those numbers just don't add up. Not anyone on that list was white, and it makes me wonder about how they went about choosing the people to be moved." She's not alone in wondering; it's a question also being broached by the Oakland NAACP.

The NAACP has been keeping an eye on Chaconas since last summer, when the then-new supe began firing and reshuffling key school-system players in an effort to shake up the administration, which has for years been criticized as ineffective. George Perry, chairman of the Oakland NAACP's Education Committee, says that the dismissals have disproportionately affected African-American administrators. He estimates that more than twenty were released last year, and the involuntary transfer of the seven African-American counselors (the other three on the list are Asian American) is part of a bigger, as yet unexplained, district pattern.

While Perry agrees that some of the dismissed administrators were not performing well at their jobs, he says some of Chaconas' decisions are confusing. Most perplexing to him is the dismissal of Brenda Bias, former principal at Calvin Simmons Middle School, who was let go midyear after an accreditation snafu despite the fact she had taken the necessary coursework and had over twenty years of experience in another district. "The position of the NAACP is that Chaconas has gotten rid of administrators who were effective and at schools where there were good test scores, and we don't understand that," says Perry. "Out in the community, it looks as though he is targeting black administrators."

The NAACP's executive council agreed that the organization should take an "aggressive" approach to investigating the dismissals--Perry, as well as NAACP and state Republican Party secretary Shannon Reeves, approached Chaconas several times last year for discussion but don't feel they've achieved much of a resolution. Perry now plans on taking his complaint directly to the school board, as well as to sympathetic community groups. He may well find support from people like Skyline parent Wanda Harmon, who has been very happy with Borens' work and is distressed at her proposed transfer. "Skyline has 88 percent students of color whereas we only have two counselors of color--that's 40 percent--and if we lose her, my goodness," she says.

Marching Orders
School district officials, however, say that the transfers are nothing more than an attempt to move experienced counselors to schools that need their services. District spokesperson Ken Epstein points out that the new teachers' contract allows the district to do involuntary transfers for the good of the district, and the counselors are just a few of about 35 people who were given new assignments for next year. School board president Jason Hodge, himself a Skyline grad, points out that experienced counselors are, after all, rare and valuable. "They've got excellent skills, and those skills are needed in other areas in the district. They've got a pretty good counseling staff at Skyline, and there are schools like McClymonds that really need that stability," he says. "We've got to move them to sites where there are weaknesses; we've got to look at folks who have a genuine, sincere desire to work with students and have a track record with moving students through the school in four years and getting them on a college track."

Chaconas is known--and has been greatly lauded--for his decisive managerial style and for his efforts to chop out the district's deadwood. Last year, just a few months after taking office, Chaconas announced he was replacing one-third of the district's principals (29 people) in one fell swoop; over the last year, that number swelled to 35. The new supe also trimmed the district's top-heavy administration, sending 100 teachers working desk jobs back to the classroom and greatly reducing his own staff. He instituted the infamous "March 15 letters," which alert underperforming staffers that they will not be returning to the district's employ the following fall. His reform efforts have also extended to giving teachers a long-awaited 23 percent raise over three years. All of these measures have combined to solidify his reputation as a tough but effective leader. But perhaps, as Borens' supporters suggest, instead of moving people around the district, he should be bringing new people in.

Lean on Us
Part of the problem, nearly everyone agrees, is that there aren't enough counselors to go around. Four years ago, in the wake of a teachers' strike for pay raises, the student-to-counselor ratio was bumped from 325-to-1 to 500-to-1. (The Oakland Education Association and the school board negotiated to use the money saved on counselors to give teachers a half-percent additional raise.) If that ratio seems overwhelming, consider this: the state average is actually a whopping 979 students per counselor, leading many to wonder if a lack of on-site counseling could be a factor in outbreaks of campus violence. State schools superintendent Delaine Eastin has asked the legislature for an additional $60 million to boost the number of counselors, but those funds are not included in the governor's budget for the coming fiscal year.

In Oakland, as in other districts, the stop-gap solution is to move the most experienced counselors to the most challenging schools--but that may just be a short-term solution to a long-term problem. "There are other ways to fill in the gaps," says Borens. "Just transferring one person to another place doesn't necessarily settle the problems that exist at that school site."

In the meantime, says Skyline head counselor Sharon Bowles, existing staff are overworked. They get stuck doing reams of clerical work to churn out report cards, schedules, and applications, and yet they also must attend to the students' varying needs, which encompass academic, social, and career development. "We try to hit all those areas so we can spread ourselves as thin as possible to assist students, but we definitely need more counselors: that's [priority] number one, to reduce the ratio. Number two is we need some retraining," says Bowles. Along with Borens, she supports the idea of a counselor-to-counselor mentoring program, and she suggests that the district should call on its retired employees to give advice to the newer staff. She also hopes that one day there will be enough counselors that they can each specialize in areas such as improving student attendance or providing college advising or career planning, instead of having to do it all.

All those things are still a long way off and certainly won't be resolved in time for the next school year. As for Borens, she's still waiting to find out where she will go when campuses open next fall, but she appreciates the ruckus the Skyline community has made on her behalf. "The wonderful thing that came out of this is, sometimes you don't know if you're making a difference and a crisis like this hits and people will come to the front and say, 'You mean a lot to us,'" she says. "There is no way to say how much that means to a person who really is committed to doing a good job--no matter where I happen to be placed--although I would like to keep my current position and finish out what I need to do for my years remaining before retirement."


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