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The safety factor

After I returned from an education reporters’ conference and caught up on the follow-up coverage of the Piedmont Avenue Elementary School incident, I was struck by the ending quote in Erik Nelson’s story:

Parents at the school have worked hard to convince community residents the school is safe and worthy of sending their children to instead of private school, said Dave and Caitlin Martindale, who have a kindergartener at the school.

“It’s hopefully not going to set things back,” Dave Martindale said, adding, “but people believe what they read in the newspapers.”

I live near Piedmont Avenue — where BayWolf diners enjoy braised duck and wine pairings (around the corner from the revving bikes in front of Egbert Souse’s dive bar), and where Cesar patrons sip cocktails over pricey tapas dishes.

Granted, my demographic expertise is mostly limited to observations made while strolling the neighborhood, grocery shopping and waiting in line at Fenton’s Creamery.

But I was slightly surprised to see that just 6 percent of the 345 children enrolled at Piedmont Avenue Elementary this year are white, and that roughly half come from low-income families, according to demographic data reported to the California Department of Education.

Then I looked at a map handed out last week at an enrollment forum (see Slide #5 in the OUSD presentation). Less than 25 percent of neighborhood families chose Piedmont Avenue Elementary as their top choice for the 2008-09 school year.

Last year, I wrote a series about the factors at play when families choose schools for their kids. Race and class were at the top. But one issue that I now realize that I overlooked was safety, or perceptions of safety.

If you were already set on attending a particular school and you learned that a young child had lost his front teeth and, later, suffered a head injury, would you change your mind?

What questions would you ask the principal about how the school handles discipline and after-school supervision, and what would you hope to hear?

Is suspension data on the check list, along with test scores, when parents are exploring school options? What do you think it tells you?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Michael

    People make their decisions about whether to send their children to neighborhood schools based on a lot of factors, many of which have nothing to do with data. Word-of-mouth is perhaps the most important factor. Do you know anyone from the neighborhood or your social circle who sends or will send their children to the school? What do they know of the school? What is your impression when you drive or walk by? Does it seem chaotic or orderly? Can you picture your child at that school (race and income factor into that answer, consciously or not).

    We lived near Piedmont with our preschool-age son 8 years ago, and the rap on Piedmont then was that it wasn’t really a neighborhood school, that most kids came from outside the area. There was an effort by some local families to change that (I think Kerry Hamill was involved). But it’s always a risk when you try bring about change at a school; few parents want to experiment with their own kids. They’d rather be in the second wave after the school has already begun its transformation. So it’s hard – not impossible, but really hard – to get momentum behind those efforts. I don’t think it’s helped by the fact that OUSD doesn’t seem to endorse neighborhood schools that much because they feel it promotes segregation (probably true).

    So the easiest thing to do is just avoid the risk – move to another neighborhood or seek out another public or private school.

    But to answer your question, if I’d heard of the recent Piedmont incident while considering that school, it would definitely give me pause.

  • Nextset

    Michael: I disagree that it’s the easiest thing to do is just avoid the risk – move or send the kid to a better school. I know families that are stretched to the point of financial ruin to send their kids to $15-20K private high schools. They reconsider their decision every year and continue to do so. Paying for the Catholic School dominates their work, vacation, retirement planning and financial lives (200k mi car, etc.).

    It’s not easy but they do it because they don’t want their kid to become like the public school kids.

  • Sue

    Maybe it’s not easy for the majority of Oakland families to change schools. I don’t know. We had no trouble pulling out younger son out of our neighborhood school in kindergarten, and transfering him to Munck where he was safe. He’s in 5th grade at Munck this year.

    We bought our house based on the statistics for that neighborhood school, too, so it was a really big disappointment when we found the reality didn’t match the stats.

    But maybe our tranfer experience was anomalous. Maybe it’s normally really difficult to transfer a kid, and we just happened to be lucky – in the right place, at the right time, and didn’t mess it up. Could be.

  • Realist

    Nexset: I know many public school kids that are great kids, and would welcome them as role models, babysitters or employees. They work hard, are responsible, and really have it together. It is unfair to generalize and say “don’t want them to become like the public school kids”.

    Believe me, I know a handful of private school kids (Catholic schools included!) that I wouldn’t want my kids to be like either! There is a mix of both kinds of students at private and public schools. However, since public schools can’t pick and choose students, and are required to educate everyone, they have more kids with issues they have to tend to. That doesn’t mean that ALL children in public schools are thugs or dysfunctional.

  • Katy Murphy

    Speaking of perception, while I was at Redwood Park this morning, I briefly overheard two power-walkers talking about the Piedmont Avenue incident.

    One of the women said something about the elementary school that I didn’t hear, to which her friend responded: “It’s always looked rough.”

    That’s not the first time I’ve heard schools described that way by those who, presumably, haven’t stepped foot inside. How does an elementary school “look rough” to the casual passer-by? I’d be surprised if the woman’s impression was formed by the physical condition of the building or grounds. Today, anyway, they looked clean and tidy, with a big grassy field and flowering bushes.

    Considering the school’s racial make-up (roughly two-thirds African-American, just 6 percent white), what could she have been referring to besides race?

  • Foothills Mom

    FYI, here’s the complete 2007-2008 ethnic demographic breakdown on Piedmont Avenue Elementary from the CA Dept of Education:

    Asian/Pacific Islander/Filipino: 7.3%; Hispanic/Latino: 12.5%;
    African American: 64.1%;
    White (non-Hispanic): 6.4%;
    Multiple Race or no response: 9.9%.

    I’m a parent with 2 kids at the school, and I can confirm that it’s an even more diverse school than this data suggests, in each category. For example, there are Bosnian, Russian and Italian kids in the White category; there are Kenyan, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Nigerian kids in the African American category. At least 10% of the school is mixed race. In many ways, it is a United Nations of a school and I’ve actually been very happy with my kids’ experience there so far.

    Michael (above) says very honestly: “But to answer your question, if I’d heard of the recent Piedmont incident while considering that school, it would definitely give me pause.” I completely understand this statement, but I also ask that everyone keep in mind that the Chronicle articles reported the fact that the child was hospitalized (and that thank goodness he is now home and feeling better physically). The rest of the article’s allegations regarding violent incidents are just that — allegations. The sources for those allegations are the Dad and the 7-year-old child who was injured. We don’t yet know the rest of the story and we haven’t yet heard from any adult eye witnesses. It was a horrible outcome, but please can we keep in mind that because something is printed in black and white in the newspaper doesn’t mean that the story is complete. I still believe that all people, and especially all children, should be considered innocent until proven guilty by a thorough examination of all of the facts.

    Finally, I’m sure everyone joins me in wishing the child every possible chance for a good recovery — physical, mental and emotional — and a fresh start next year. Hopefully, since he was a transfer into Piedmont Avenue both years, he will go back to his neighborhood school and start again.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Thanks Katy for a little reality on the race issue. I too was shocked at the racial makeup when I first saw groups of Piedmont students walking single file down a neighborhood street which reflected a very different demographic than the students. Get the numbers for the District as a whole and I bet they’re just as stark. Probably moreso in middle school and beyond. I’m sure safety (or the perception of it) is at the heart of the issue.

  • Foothills Mom

    One more quick bit of information — the kids that “TheTruthHurts” may be seeing walking single file down the street (if it’s after school) are the 10 to 15 kids who are picked up by City of Oakland staff for an after school program. They are walked over to the Mosswood Recreation Center by 2 young adults.

    The program is relatively low cost and it is likely used by families who live closer to the Mosswood Rec Ctr, which is just outside the Piedmont Avenue school zone.

    The 10 to 15 kids who are walked down to Mosswood are all pretty well behaved, from what I’ve observed, and the 2 young adults are really good with them, but it’s hard to imagine that they could somehow be representative of the school as a whole, since 15 is only 4% of the 340 kids at the school!

    Thanks for reading my post, and letting me add information to the discussion.

  • Michael

    @Nextset: When I said “easiest,” I didn’t necessarily mean literally. We stretched to get into a different neighborhood, and we’re stretching moreso so our oldest can attend a private middle school. But it was easier to make that choice than it would have been to take a risk with a school with which we had doubts/concerns. In other words, it’s easier to go with a known quantity – a good school or a neighborhood – than take a risk with a borderline school.

  • Michael

    Oh, and yes, “rough” is definitely a code-word for black or Hispanic – whether the parents realize it themselves or not.

  • Sharon

    You’re right, Michael. But I would put it this way, “…whether the parents are willing to admit it to others out loud, or not.”

  • cranky teacher

    Foothills mom is raising a very interesting issue: Was this even done by a child?

    From the beginning, I was confused that an elementary school kid could knock out another kid’s teeth with a punch — they are simply not that strong. Tack on the second incident and I become even more skeptical.

    When I was in first grade, a kid got his head broken open by a kid swinging his belt, but that was just stupidity. Obviously, though, if kids were using rocks or bricks real damage could be done.