The Caustic Reformer 

Randolph Ward has proposed the boldest school reforms in America. But can Oakland's most hated man sell his vision?

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One middle-school principal felt that way after a recent school board meeting. During the meeting, JoAnna Lougin of Madison Middle School had given a presentation on the steps she and her staff were taking to improve test scores after they had declined following several years of steady growth. But she explained that her school, which is in the deepest part of East Oakland and is surrounded by boarded-up houses that squat behind chain-link fences, had difficulty attracting teachers, and had to get by with a series of substitutes in several classrooms earlier this year.

Ward would hear none of it. His voice rising, he snapped at Lougin: "As a principal in a school, you have to prepare for that. These things happen every year." The exchange made both audience and school board members cringe.

"I think he was so unfair and rude to me," Lougin said during an interview the following week at her school, which serves some of the city's poorest students. "This school used to have one of the lowest attendance rates in Oakland. I brought it up to 95 percent. You can't mistreat people like that. You can't continuously talk down to people who are on the front lines." Lougin had no qualms speaking frankly because she's retiring in June after more than thirty years in Oakland schools.

Even strong supporters of Ward's reforms acknowledge he has yet to generate excitement about the dramatic changes he's launching. "Dr. Ward has been cordial, but I don't feel he's been as accessible as Dennis," Denise Saddler, principal of Chabot Elementary School in North Oakland, said politely. Nonetheless, Saddler said she's "very excited" about the new reforms and enjoys controlling her own finances. "I was born in Oakland and I really want our kids to succeed," said Saddler, once an aide to former Mayor Elihu Harris.

Still, Ward's failure so far to forge strong relationships with principals and create enthusiasm for his reforms could prolong or even derail them. That's because the job of principals is about to become much more time-consuming. Principals will now be expected to be not only instructional leaders, but also small business owners who must master budgets and be comfortable about deciding whether to hire a reading specialist or lay off a janitor.

In a series of interviews in the past month with twelve principals from elementary, middle, and high schools, most expressed trepidation about hiring teachers based on whether you can afford them. "Let's say I interview you and you're a 15-year veteran and you look like you will be great for my school," said Amy Hansen, the well-respected principal of Oakland's Skyline High School. "But I may not be able to afford you. Now, I'll have to stop and think, 'How much better are you than the person who will cost me half as much?'"

The lesson of the Chaconas years is that someone has to consider the budget. But Oakland's principals aren't yet willing to agree that they are that someone. Some principals said that if they had wanted to run a small business, they would not have become educators. And while some of them said they do not necessarily oppose the reforms, they wonder if there are enough hours in the day -- most principals already put in more than seventy hours a week. "We're expected to be the fund-raisers, entrepreneurs, bookkeepers, and accountants," explained Lynn Dodd, principal of McClymonds High School in West Oakland, while she was working through spring break. "And we're expected to provide a safe haven for students, and we're expected to provide a culturally enriching environment. And we're expected to respond to the district's educational mandates, and we're expected to average 95 percent daily attendance -- which means immediate contact with parents to make sure students come to school. And we're expected to help students pass the high school exit exam, and state tests, and we're expected to meet the rules of No Child Left Behind.

"I don't know how long people will be able to maintain the stamina."

Ward said candidly that he does not believe all of the hundred-plus Oakland school principals will survive the changes. "We found that some of our principals didn't even know how use spreadsheets, let alone budgets," he confided. But he and Scott-George said they believe they can attract new blood to Oakland and raise sufficient private funding to help principals complete the overhaul of the district. Scott-George pegged the total cost of breaking up the central office into service operations at $40 million to $45 million. She and Ward say most of that would be paid by private investors. Ward says he hopes to make announcements about those incoming funds soon.

But as welcome as those millions will be, and as capable as Ward is of firing and replacing those principals who don't buy in to his vision, the single strongest group of employees in Oakland could still throw a wrench into his entire plan.


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