Stanford professor: Oakland’s small schools work

photo courtesy of Angie Taylor, Oakland Community Organizations

Overall, Oakland’s small schools initiative has been a success, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond told the superintendent and the school board — which commissioned the research — tonight. Hundreds of kids, teachers, principals and parents, many of whom wound up in the overflow room upstairs, applauded the findings before sharing their own stories.

I know, that’s a pretty simplistic thing for me to say about a movement that started with some fed-up parents some 10 years ago and that grew into a high-profile, Gates Foundation-funded strategy (or was it a tactic?) to improve education in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Oakland Unified has created dozens of new schools as a result. Not all of them have succeeded. Some are no longer open.

In the seven years since the first small school opened, however, the district’s enrollment has dropped from more than 50,000 to about 38,000 students, and its budget has shrunk accordingly. Interim Superintendent Roberta Mayor — who was brought in to help the district recover, financially — said as soon as she arrived that it was time to take another look at the small schools.

That, of course, made people pretty nervous.

Now, as the board considers whether to close up to 15 schools to save money, Darling-Hammond’s summary findings might help some of them remain open. She recommended, for example, that the board “try not to have undefined mergers where you just put two schools together without a clear design.”

In an elaborate statistical analysis, the Stanford team tried to gauge the average gains made at each school after taking into consideration other factors, such as parent education and poverty. They found that new small schools, on average, pushed students further beyond their statistical norms than old schools did. (The presentation is posted on the board agenda.)

They also did case studies of BEST and EXCEL high schools, ACORN Woodland, EnCompass Academy, ASCEND, Elmhurst Community Prep, and Oakland International High. The full report should be available next month (and Darling-Hammond might come back for further discussion; so many students spoke tonight that she left before answering all of the board members’ questions).

While the initiative is commonly called the small schools movement, Darling-Hammond said, “It’s really the new schools movement in Oakland.” She added, “Our task was to say, `Are these newer schools succeeding?’ and the answer is `Yes, they certainly are.'”

They certainly are popular. Kids waited for hours just for a chance to step up to the mic. They talked about the extra attention they received from teachers and staff, the college opportunities they never thought they’d have, and how much cleaner and safer the campuses are.

“Our schools are clean, they’re safe, there aren’t any fights or violence or drugs going on,” said Ashley Heedley, 16, who goes to Leadership Prep at Castlemont. “That’s why you guys shouldn’t combine our schools. You should leave them the way they are, because they’re perfect.”

What do you think would happen if the board decided to merge some of the small schools back together?

Katy Murphy

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

  • Nextset

    Seems like this info will help the Charter movement. The school district needs to out Charter the Charters if that’s what the families want.

  • Parent Cynic


    Can you reconcile what you heard last night about the Stanford report and what we were being told its conclusions were at the “right-sizing” community meetings?

    At the “right-sizing” meeting I attended, this report was characterized as showing that schools under a certain number of students (can’t remember exactly), say 350, were inefficient and unworkable. Time after time, the OUSD spokesperson kept referring to this Stanford report as the grounds for closing many of these small schools. Your summary of the presentation of the report at last night’s bd. meeting makes the report sound almost diametrically opposed to the spin that OUSD was putting on it last week.

    What gives? What is your take on this? Did OUSD seem dismayed last night at the Stanford testimony that small schools work in Oakland?

  • Katy Murphy

    Parent Cynic: Yes, Linda Darling-Hammond’s name was cited on the “optimal size” slide shown at those community meetings, but that was from a different report, altogether, than the research she did on small schools.

    I asked Darling-Hammond about that optimal size slide in an interview today. Interestingly enough, she said she never defined a school’s optimal size, herself, but rather that she reviewed existing literature about the subject (from various perspectives, including cost-efficiency).

    She said she’d send me the information on that review, and I’ll post it when I get it.

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