Great Oakland Public Schools??

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 ( 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.
  4. 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 –

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.

7 Replies to “Great Oakland Public Schools??”

  1. As a California resident and taxpayer I was stunned to find out that “under current school law, charter school administrators don’t have to say whether they have any financial ties to their schools.” It is not surprising therefore that some of the charters in CA, most notably in Oakland, have been involved in scandals and tax frauds. (Google charter school fraud in California).

    As for for the state tests that form the basis for API scores, I can assure everyone that there is absolutely no validity to these scores because there is almost no security for them, especially for charter schools that have little oversight from the state. These tests are in the hands of administrators and teachers before and after administration. They are often given by teachers who have no proctors in the room. They are collected by teachers and/or administrators who might keep them in their offices for days before sending them to a central location. It is a fact that many charters and regular schools are just drilling the students on exact test items! Imagine how high SAT scores would be if they were handled in this way!

    There is a lot of fraud going on right now in public education and citizens need to be informed and vigilant.

  2. Isn’t it strange that ed-reformers have total distrust of the average teacher, but trust blindly anyone who agrees with them (TFA, EdTrust, etc) or works in a charter school?

  3. This is not even up to Eduwonk’s usual low bar. It’s nothing but advertising for this lady’s organization.

  4. Was this a press release or a advertisement by a pr firm. Once again the standardized test are great thus the schools are great. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland and how nothing is how it appears. In Glenn Becker word in arguing with Idiots: “with very few exceptions ,our public schools are disasters based on a antiquated tenure system and unnmotivated teachers using overstuffed classrooms inside decaying buildings to pass on much of what they don’t know to their undisciplined, uninterested students. (many teachers woulden’t even know that that was a run on sentence.) (Beck, p. 62) These are the type of people we are arguing with they take the high road and wish to go on to their next promiotion. They think money will fix everything in their utopian world where charter schoools take public funds but are not held accountable for the money that circulates their coffers. They keep taking public funds but become upset when they are asked to open. Free public funds for the companies but no reinvestment programs are established.sn5f

  5. While the community involvement of this story sounds great, most of these reforms started with the state taking over the district for fiscal solvency. Under the largely unchecked power of a state administrator to do what he thought was best for children, this devolution of power able to occur. So, does it take the state to take over dysfunctional in order to put in place such rational reforms?

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