Another flatlands success story

Steven Thomasberger (pictured below), the principal of Allendale Elementary School in East Oakland, says schools like his often “become accustomed to feelings of mediocrity and worse.” So after his students made huge gains on state tests, he decided they should celebrate. He wrote this piece about the evening. – Katy

On Thursday night, Allendale celebrated. I had the profound pleasure of hosting a party for third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students and their families. This was an unheard of celebration of academic success for students in this flatlands neighborhood tucked just below the Interstate 580, between High Street and 35th Avenue.

We told the kids, “Dress up as if it was a graduation, come with your parents and be honored, and be proud of your achievement.” Their accomplishment was to score at or above grade level on the California Standards Test. Their test scores made Allendale one of the most improved schools in Oakland, which is the most improved large, urban school district in California. My bit of hyperbole in my address to the parents was, “I guess that makes us one of the most improved schools in California.”

Not only did we improve our state score by 63 points to 741, but we made all the national goals (AYP) for the first time. We also made great progress in closing the “achievement gap” that exists for African-American and Hispanic students. Both groups changed their performance dramatically. Our Hispanic students raised their scores by 100 points!

There would be little dispute that we have the right to celebrate, but schools like Allendale don’t often hold a ritual like we did. We become accustomed to feelings of mediocrity and worse. So, when I first heard how well our students performed I vowed that we would recognize it.

I was especially committed after last year’s fifth-grade graduation. Graduations are always a joyous time in schools as students are promoted to the next level, and whole families come to the school to witness and praise their children’s efforts.

Last year one of my fifth-grade teachers told me the story of a father who came up to her at the end of the ceremony and said, “This is my first time at the school. I just wanted to introduce myself.” The teacher bluntly told the father that he was a little late. He should have made the effort to show up much sooner than the student’s last day.

I agreed with the teacher that some parents are notably absent, but it also made me realize that we hadn’t provided the opportunity for parents to celebrate before the final day of elementary school. Here was our chance. Invitations were sent to the families of 113 high-achieving students (over 40 percent of all of our third-, fourth- and fifth-graders). Although I kept a public face of confidence, I was very anxious if many families would show up. We had never done this before.

I should have had much more faith. Between 250 and 300 students and their families came to receive their certificates and witness the event. Cambodian, African-American, Chinese, Hispanic –- all beaming with pride.

Two former Allendale principals spoke. Herman Long began in 1971. Steve Stevens was the principal during the late 70’s and 80’s. They echoed each other’s comments that the Allendale community has always been a “proud, hard-working, working-class community” deeply concerned about their children. Well, tonight they had reason to show that pride.

Allendale’s teachers and staff have shown that they can move beyond just teaching to knowing if their students are learning, and what do if they aren’t. Yet we all know, parents, teachers, and students, that there is a lot more work to do. At the end of the program 11 of our top students rang our 120 year-old school bell. We rang it ten times. Ten times to signify that we won’t be satisfied until 10 out of 10 of our students are academically successful. – Steven Thomasberger, Allendale Elementary School principal.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Nextset

    Great to have good news. And it’s great to read positive results from OUSD teaching.

    I would like to think that working the elementary students hard and getting improvements to their scoring makes a difference in their later work. I sure hope it does.

    The problem is the performance issues that come with puberty. It seems to me that if the kids are under controls and making progress they should have a better chance to do well as adolescents.

    I’m not sure that is the way the stats play out. At puberty the haves and have-nots tend to separate and the behavior curves become apparent. Aggression becomes an issue in the boys – socialization becomes important in managing the boys if not all the students. “The gap” becomes the issue after puberty. Which is why we can get improvements at this stage. The trick is maintaining the standards through 8th grade into 10th.

    So I don’t think this story settles things. It’s a good start.

  • Monica Navarro, 3rd grade Teacher

    Well, considering that most children of this generation and socio-economic bracket are beginning puberty around fourth grade, I would say that it’s an issue that definitely comes into play for the upper grade teachers. I also hope,as we all do, that not only “working students hard” but inspiring them as mentors and teachers to achieve and dream is what will build their resiliency and hope that they do have the power to change the situation that they’re in and create change in their communities and the world. Yes, giving students and their families a moment to shine and honor their accomplishments was just one step in this process, but in retrospect its significance was felt.

  • Millie Murrah

    We need more people like you who really care about all our children. This is where it starts. If the kids do not start out on the right foot all is lost. These are our future leaders. Keep up the wonderful work.