Guest post by Hae Sin Thomas, Great Oakland Public Schools
I have been an educator and education advocate in Oakland, California for almost two decades, and I have spent those decades working towards the achievement of those four words. In California, an Academic Performance Index of 800 is the minimum score for a school to be considered good. In 1999, Oakland operated 42 “red” schools, schools with API scores of less than 500. 38 of those “red” schools sat firmly in what we call the “flatlands” of Oakland, the area occupied by predominantly low-income communities of color. At that time, there was only one charter public school, struggling as well. In 1999, Oakland Unified was widely considered one of the worst school districts in the country.
In response to this crisis, families across the flatlands mobilized to demand reforms that supported small, autonomous, new schools and more rigorous curriculum in all schools. New and bold leadership responded to this call and brought school and principal accountability, greater autonomy over school budgets and programs, student-based budgeting, an options policy for ALL families, and a policy to close failing schools and replace them with new schools.
In 2010, the Oakland public school landscape has been dramatically altered. From 2003 to 2007, Oakland Unified closed 18 failing schools and replaced them with 26 new schools, most with carefully-selected staffs, new program designs, and greater autonomies. The district created a culture of accountability and performance, used data strategically, and focused on rigorous standards-aligned instruction. Oakland Unified has been the most improved urban school district in California for five consecutive years, and today, there are only 5 “red” schools.
There are also now 33 charter schools – six strong Aspire Public Schools, three top-rated American Indian Schools, as well as many other high-performing charters. Charter schools have made great strides, many dramatically increasing student achievement in some of our lowest-achieving neighborhoods.
Last month, a visionary new Superintendent and Board of Education adopted a bold direction to continue transforming the Oakland public school system into a center for innovation and full-service community schools.
So, are we close to GREAT yet? I wish I could answer with a strong affirmative. I would say we are at Better-But-Still-Overall-Mediocre. What will it take to get to GREAT for ALL schools and ALL children?
- Where we have excelled and need to continue to push hard is accountability. Naming traditional and charter schools that are failing as failing, making student performance data very public, removing ineffective leadership, and closing persistently failing schools has been an overall strength in this city. We need to maintain the courage to strengthen the accountability system, holding ALL adults and schools accountable for student growth.
- Though Oakland is a city with many resources, we struggle with partnership, alignment, and collective responsibility. Oakland Unified has not traditionally worked effectively with the City of Oakland, with labor, with community-based organizations, or with charter public schools. With resources constantly declining in this mad state, we must be much more strategic about sharing and aligning resources and working collaboratively around a common set of outcomes.
- Some of the success we achieved in the new schools we achieved because we gave these schools increased control over people, time, program, and money. We did not succeed in all of our schools because we did not give them the increased control and the additional resources and support they needed for a long enough period of time, especially in our toughest neighborhoods. Some needed to be buffered, supported and prioritized for at least five years to truly turn them around. The Los Angeles Locke High School turnaround (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/education/25school.html) shows us the amount of intense support and resources some schools require and the persistence necessary to see the turnaround through. We need to more effectively resource and buffer our turnaround schools and sustain them through a complete turnaround.
- Oakland’s reforms came through grassroots organizing for equity. Both the growth of charter and new autonomous schools came in response to angry community. Community accountability is a tremendous force for change, for hard conversations, and for disrupting the status quo, and one of Oakland’s greatest assets is its activist community. We must partner with this force and leverage it to push through the adult politics and more effectively serve our children.
A year ago, committed to seeing all of Oakland’s children get a quality education and afraid greatness could not be achieved without a more active and informed “public”, several of us founded GO Public Schools (Great Oakland Public Schools – www.gopublicschools.org).
GO Public Schools is a coalition of community members committed to pushing those hard conversations, driving those policy changes, holding the system accountable and creating an informed public force to make our schools great. We believe that it is the public’s responsibility to drive Oakland’s public school system to greatness and to ensure that all of our children get the education they deserve.
It’s not a conversation had very often across the education reform community – the role of the “public” in public education reform. It’s a conversation in Oakland we have everyday.