Lessons from a “small school from the ‘hood”

photo of Oakland Charter Academy student by D. Ross Cameron/Oakland Tribune

The racial and economic achievement gap comes up, in some form or another, at almost every Oakland school board meeting. Yet there are a handful of schools here in this city that have made that gap invisible, at least on their campuses, and I sometimes wonder who is paying attention.

Take the Oakland Charter Academy, a charter middle school in Fruitvale with a Latino population of about 93 percent. Last year those students — the vast majority of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — scored a 902 this year on the state’s Academic Performance Index out of a possible 1,000 points.

The average Latino middle schooler in California scores in the 600s.

I wrote a story in today’s Trib about the loads of work that these kids (and those at the American Indian charter schools, which use a similar model) are putting in every day — and about the general skepticism surrounding their success. You can read it here.

This fall, the Oakland Charter Academy became the second public school in Oakland to win a National Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education. During the ceremony, OUSD’s charter school director David Montes de Oca said this:

“Throughout this country are people who believe not all children can learn. Sometimes it takes a small school from the ‘hood to prove them wrong.”

Has it?

What lessons can be learned from the academic achievements of Oakland Charter Academy and American Indian Public Charter School students? To what extent do you believe a school can help students overcome external factors and learn enough to compete with wealthier kids for spots in colleges or jobs?

Katy Murphy

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

  • Katy Murphy

    I started this blog in June of 2007 to create a space for people to discuss tough educational issues, and even to disagree passionately about those issues, while maintaining a reasonable level of civility.

    This particular topic has sparked a robust debate, which is a good thing. I’m not comfortable, however, with the tenor and the personal nature of some of the comments I’ve read recently.

    There is no reason dialogue must degenerate into personal attacks simply because it is happening online and mostly anonymously — although those conditions do seem to encourage us to treat one another in a way we wouldn’t think of otherwise.

    Here are the guidelines I set out in my first post, since many of you probably haven’t read them:

    “All I ask, for now, is that the discussion remain thoughtful and respectful (I’ll do my best). Whenever you can, use your full names. We all know how quickly meaningful discussion can devolve into petty bickering in these forums, and there’s enough of that going around these days.”

  • Small Town Kid

    Practising for the STAR tests by studying questions from the previous years tests may be illegal, but I suspect it is common – why would the state publish the old questions otherwise?

    I suspect studying old questions happens in a lot of schools – so I wouldn’t discount high test scores at charter schools for that reason.

    I don’t think that there is much cheating on the STAR test, and I also don’t believe that there is more incentive for charter schools to cheat compared to low-performing non-charters.

    I do agree that a testing scheme similar to the SAT tests would be a good idea to remove the possibility of cheating.

  • Nextset

    Katy: Steve Moyer’s comments above are useful because it demonstrates the sort of man he is which needs to be considered when entertaining his policy arguments (note that I post no conclusions of what that might be!). In a public blog you are going to have revelations of the personality of the various speakers. Some people will post in all caps – as if that gives their thoughts extra importance. Others will behave in ways that reveal themselves to be unimportant in terms of opinions. But as long as the blog is public and free these things occur. It’s certainly no fault of the Trib or yourself.

    To some extent you should allow them to occur. Serious people in positions of responsibility or those who are heading in life to those positions know who is who and why and will not be affected very much by lower orders popping off. The Trib can require advance registration of all bloggers, can directly censor a post (and plese do that openly so we can see something was censored) or even strike a post. But the censorship – which is your right and obligation – should be done openly so that all can see that something is being held back by you in your editorial capacity.

    But – we do need the different points of view on educational policy and we do need the passion we have nere. it’s what makes the blog important and over time will make it more influential. It would be best is this blog isn’t kept safe and tame. Just post more edtorial commentary from yourself on how you think the dialog is going. Cats can be herded…

  • Steve Moyer

    Here we go again. According to Jim Mordecai, I suppose any high school student who takes a Kaplan SAT preparation course is cheating, too, right?

    These kids aren’t given the tests ahead of time; they work on the subjects that are most prevalent in the tests a bit more as the test dates get closer, while maintaining their entire regular course-load. I’ll say it again; go talk to the students about their studies, then come back in here and throw out your charges.

    Meanwhile, Katy Murphy chimes in as the voice of reason after she rakes this award-winning school over the coals by quoting some random former “teacher” who knows nothing about the school other than that it is 96% Hispanic. She and her newspaper decide not to run the REAL story — which is that this amazing school won THE most prestigious national award.

    The Tribune and Murphy got what they wanted: Controversy based on racially-charged, unfounded accusations by a dredged-up, retired Oakland “teacher.” The paper and Murphy were more than willing to throw these hard-working students to the dogs in order to sell newspapers. Meanwhile, Mordecai goes on and on and on and on in this forum and Murphy writes in, pleased as punch that this sad, sickening debate continues.

    Mordecai, Murphy and the Tribune don’t give a whit about these children and their amazing achievement. I do. And you want to know why I’m upset? Give me a break.

  • G. Bird

    I’m sure that he didn’t do this on purpose, but Mr. Mordecai left out a crucial piece of information – the second part of the state law on preparing for standardized tests. Here it is:

    (b) A city, county, city and county, district superintendent of
    schools, principal, or a teacher of an elementary or secondary
    school, including a charter school, may use instructional materials
    provided by the department or its agents in the academic preparation
    of pupils for the statewide pupil assessment if those instructional
    materials are embedded in an instructional program that is intended
    to improve pupil learning.

    The STAR test is based on the state standards. If teachers are doing their jobs, they are teaching the standards. If, as part of their effort to ensure all students have mastered the standards that they are responsible for teaching, teachers have students review released test questions from previous exams, then they are in the clear because the materials are embedded in an instructional program that is intended to improve pupil learning. This seems pretty clear to me. Am I missing something?

    Is this what everyone is talking about when they are talking about cheating? It seems foolish to me if you DON’T use this as a method to improve student acquisition of the materials covered in the standards.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Mr. Moyer:

    Kaplan preparation courses for the SAT is not cheating but the rules also are not fair for those without the resources to have the option of paying for Kaplan test preparation.

    However, the SAT rules have nothing to do with a STAR test administered at each grade 2-11 by the State of California. That same state has passed laws pertaining to the STAR testing and test preparation that prohibits practicing for those STAR tests.

    As I have indicated in previous posts the SAT, the Exit Examination, these are different tests than the STAR tests. The objective of the STAR is to identify strengths and weakness of a student in relation to the the universe of students taking the test for a grade level 2-11. The test is to be taken only once and not practiced or the norm or comparison would be invalid.

    The SAT type of tests are not normed on a population except that there is a cut score defining passing. Colleges will define for themselves their cut score for admission. California defines the cut or passing score for its exit examine.

    The law’s prohibition against practicing for the STAR is not absolute as the law allows instructional materials [that]are embedded in an instructional program that is intended to improve pupil learning.” G Bird has correctly pointed this out.

    What I believe the law is referencing is the state adopted textbooks that included practice test questions that relate to STAR testing.

    The law requires release of one-quarter of the test items for each STAR test each year mainly as a check on the viability of publisher test items.

    To some it might seem that the released test items could be used to practice for the test. But, practicing for the test is prohibited and against the law.

    A case for using the released test items might be made if the test items were broken down and used as the standards were covered. However, using the items at one time is practicing for the test.

    That the State Department may encourage the use of the released test items; and that the school districts and charter schools of California use these released items for practicing for the STAR; is not an activity embedded in an instructional program such as a publishers’ practice test items; but an activity added to an instructional program to improve student test scores.

    Therefore, using State Department released test items is, in my opinion, a violation of existing law by all–the State Department of Education, districts, and schools both traditional and charter.

    Yet, if these high achieving charter schools were not to use release items and there scores dropped a few points, these scores would still be so high as to still deserve national recognition.

    The question would still remain as to the source of the magic that differentiates these four charter schools from all the other charter schools with a similar population. Discipline, hard work, longer time on task, how are these schools different from Jerry’s military school or KIPP that seem to have the same elements but are less effective?

    Jim Mordecai

  • Steve Moyer


    You continue to prove you know nothing about OCA. Explain the Johns Hopkins CTY program, as an example, since you know so much about what they are doing over there.

    Tell us about the textbooks they use at OCA, their curriculum, their after-school tutoring program (my son tutored there), their detention system, their Saturday school system, the way they find their teachers, their policies and procedures, etc. Go on, you’re an expert OUSD “teacher” and all; give us the rundown.

    I’ve never been to the other schools you cite, so far be it from me to venture a guess about how they operate. I don’t sit here pretending to know everything about something I know nothing about. But you do about OCA, all day and all night, ’til the cows come home, despite the fact you have never even been to the school. YOUR SOLE CRITERION IS THE RACIAL MAKE-UP OF THE SCHOOL. Simply pathetic. Go fight a cause over something you know something, even anything about.

    I pity the poor saps you taught in the Oakland school system. I’m sure your Hispanic students are all working the fields by now, since you continually write into this blog to say that because OCA’s students are of a certain racial make-up, they are obviously cheating on their tests.

    Sickening, sickening, sickening. I know these kids, and you are a pathetic excuse for a “teacher”.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Mr. Moyer:

    You are correct sir, my sole criteria in looking at the four Dr. Chavis model charter schools are their collective test score outcomes that are extraordinary, and beyond any other California schools with similar poverty composition based on free and reduced lunch count.

    Last year’s test scores indicate that these four schools are not closing the achievement gap but destroying it.

    Latest testing outcomes places all four Dr. Chavis model schools in the top ten for the State of California.

    If I knew more about OCA, or the other Dr. Chavis American Indian Public charter schools I may no longer be skeptical about their extraordinary test scores.

    Yet, confidence in the reliability of the test scores for certain schools would not change the fact that the current STAR tests scores are not reliable until the STAR testing system is better supervised.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Steve Moyer

    Katy Murphy — ever the hard-hitting reporter, on a mission to smear the reputation of a few award-winning Oakland schools and their high-achieving minority students — takes the time (and has the audacity) to write me to ask if I am an advisor to AIPCS. Great work, Katy.

    As I said in my first post on this blog, I am the commercial realtor who helped these schools find additional space for their programs two years ago. That’s how I became familiar with them in the first place. In the process I discovered these amazing programs doing amazing things in the city I grew up in, while the rest of OUSD offers up its daily “Jim Mordecai”.

    I am the real estate advisor for AIPCS, although not for OCA, which is the program I know better. My four sons are now grown (the youngest is at Yale), but I would have sent them to any of these fine schools without any hesitation.

    These kids — honored by the United States Department of Education, the State Superintendent of Schools and the Oakland City Council for their wonderful achievement — deserved a celebratory, praising article for their Blue Ribbon.

    What they got, instead, was some guy (a “teacher” who’s never been to the school) named Jim Mordecai and a jaded “education reporter”, Katy Murphy, raking them over the coals on Page One. Wow. Impressive stuff.

  • Katy Murphy

    Apparently, asking someone (in a private e-mail) if they served on an advisory group for a charter school is a pretty loaded proposition.

    Thanks for the response, Steve. I guess the short answer to my question is yes!

  • Nextset

    Steve Moyer: I’m trying to follow your posts and your thoughts.

    I am finding your raw emotion distracting. The level of acrimony in your writing is unusual for this blog. You seem to have personal relationships with some of the other people here outside of taking positions on policy. Are you writing to close associates, or posting for public discourse?

  • Steve Moyer

    I’m not in an advisory group. I’m the real estate advisor for AIPCS.

    I’m not at all surprised you’re trying to muddy the waters.

  • Katy Murphy

    Steve, I’m not trying to muddy the waters. Your name is listed in the most recent American Indian charter school petition (Page 9) as a member of an “advisory group.” I’m not sure why the distinction matters, in any case.

  • Steve Moyer

    All right, Nextset, I’ll explain why I’m so troubled by this. Pull up a chair.

    I’m a 13 year Oakland Public Schools kid. I went to Crocker Highlands, McChesney Jr. High and Oakland High School. I got a very fine education and thoroughly enjoyed my public school experiences.

    In the years since, I have witnessed the deterioration of Oakland Unified, ultimately leading to a receivership of our school system by the State of California. I am well aware of what is going on in my hometown system.

    In my adulthood, I have served on educational partnership committees for both Oakland High School and McClymonds, served on the Principal selection committee for Skyline, and served on Oakland High’s Wildcat Alumni Committee. I’ve seen what’s up over the years.

    I’ve seen our revolving door superintendency, our gross mismanagement downtown. I’ve seen some of the district’s best schools begin to fall off as part of the OUSD’s general malaise.

    Then, through the course of my business activities, I stumble upon a few small schools, 150 students each, doing it all RIGHT! I know what I’m looking at; I’ve been a part of the Oakland schools in one way or another since I was five years old.

    These schools have a remarkable model, and one that is working. They’re not cheating, they’re not using magic. They have discovered a system that works, and I’ve been there, seen it, experienced it myself.

    And they’re accomplishing it in inner city neighborhoods, getting incredible results from kids who aren’t expected to learn according to Jim Mordecai but have seen the light and are excited about their education and about their future. I can’t tell you how excited I am about that. So much so, if they ask me to help out in any way, I am 100% there every time.

    It takes several years to win a Blue Ribbon Award. It doesn’t happen overnight. There are various criteria the school needs to satisfy, to qualify for, in order to win this prestigious award. I’ve seen it taking shape since the fall of ’06 when I got involved, and I was truly elated for them when they won the award. Incredible!

    I even called my hometown newspaper — the Oakland Tribune — to make sure a reporter would be there for the ceremony. The paper sent its education reporter and a photographer. I was most pleased.

    The story never ran! Unbelievable! Then, a month later, this smear job makes Page One, starring Jim Mordecai.

    Do you know why Katy Murphy tracked down Mordecai? True story. Because the principal of OCA (Jorge Lopez) read a quote from Mordecai in an article a couple of years ago (“They’re either cheating or it’s a ‘magical’ school”), so Lopez blew it up in big letters and pasted it all over the school. He uses it as motivation for the students, as in, “See, people, even teachers, think you’re cheating because you’re Hispanic. That’s what the world thinks of you. So you better be inspired by that and work hard or that’s what you’ll find out there when you leave school.”

    So Katy Murphy visits the school to cover the award ceremony, sees this quote all over the place, goes out of her way to contact Mordecai, who promptly gives her this earthshaking quote (“I stand by my statement”). The man has never visited the school, and she smears their accomplishment with that quote in that article. And on that basis, Murphy and the Tribune kill the award story. Sheesh.

    This whole thing is beyond tragic for me, and it’s irreversible. It’s like watching a great and close friend get murdered on the street. All the talking in the world won’t bring him back.

    So, yeah, I’m as pissed as pissed can be, and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. All these years of being a fan of the Oakland schools, rooting for the underdog, rooting for exactly this kind of wonderful story that this is, and here are some of the great underdogs of all-time doing exactly what it is we all supposedly aspire for them to do if we’re wildly optimistic.

    They win the highest award attainable, only to get smacked around by this “teacher”, this reporter and this newspaper.

    And people want to know why I’m emotional.

    I guess I’m the only one who is outraged, which says a lot, I suppose.

  • Sue

    Steve, take a deep breath. Maybe three deep breaths…

    Now, can’t you use this “smear campaign” in the same way as the principal used the negative quote?

    Outsiders’ disbelief is a common reaction to unexpected success, but it doesn’t take anything away from the successful person or institution. OTOH, in reading all the comments on this topic, I’ve come away shaking my head a little about yours, and found myself paraphrasing that old Shakespeare quote: “Methinks the [gentleman] doth protest too much.”

  • Nextset

    Steve: The history helps a lot, thank you.

    I also went to public schools – and am concerned that quality and performance has gone out the window in modern times. Those who went to public schools then send their kids to private schools now. This is not good for society – to have public schools that block social mobility.

  • Jose, Former Student


    Mordecai job is to look out for the union’s turf just like gang members do in Oakland.

    Why would you think he cares about the students in the Oakland Charter Academy?

  • Steve Moyer

    Points well taken. But I refuse to act all calm and detached when steam has been coming out of my ears for about four weeks straight.

    Sometimes in a free society you need to rise up and shout down the (uninformed) naysayers, not to mention the sad sack reporters who seek them out. It’s the American Way. Let everyone else sit there quietly.

    The bad guys in the story are the Oakland Tribune, Katy Murphy and Jim Mordecai. If they continue to rule the roost, kids like this will stay “in their place” and progress will never be made. Forget that. It’s because of people like this that our Oakland school system is where it is.

    If underdogs like this achieve success, it’s time to whip out the trumpets and hand out the awards. It’s not time to ignore the big story and try to create controversy so a failing newspaper can sell more copies.

    So, yeah, I’ll continue to protest my ass off when great accomplishments are crapped on by the establishment. The establishment, by definition, wants everything to stay the same, even if it means educational failure and structural poverty.

  • Nextset

    Steve: We have something in common in our concern that OUSD and it’s ilk are killing the futures of their students.

    You must know that intemperate commentary is less effective in pursuasion. Anything that makes you look like a UC Berkeley 20 year old telling grown people how they have to think hurts your effectiveness.

    You’re not 20 are you? In reading your writing style I can’t discern age and experience.

    As far as saving people, I learned the hard way that you cannot save everybody, only some people. And you can’t always tell which people are felixible enough to get through emergency exits. To some extent you have to let them sort themselves out. There will be winners and there will be losers and we can’t always decide who that is. Your writing style seems to emote that it’s your own responsibility the ghetto kids of OUSD are being fed to the meat grinder. You seem to be in pain that you can’t save them, from Mordecai I suppose.

    Life doesn’t work that way. Some of these people were born to lose. And the Educrats were born to destroy students to employ themselves.

    Brave New World.

  • Steve Moyer

    Nextset, I feel you. I thought about going the detached, mild-mannered route. Then I realized that what the Tribune did was indefensible. Just a paper trying to sell newspapers at the expense of inner-city kids doing great things. You want to be erudite about it, I respect you; don’t hold it against you. But my Oakland High English teacher, Miss Casey (may she rest in peace), told me that my strength in writing was that words blister off the page. “Write with that passion, always,” she told me. She was the best teacher I ever had (and, BTW, she never slotted her students based on their ethnicity, a la Jim Mordecai).

    These kids are the “some people” I choose to support. They’re not cheating; they’re doing one helluva job. They deserve the highest praise. The naysayers have never met these kids, other than the reporter who did the hatchet job.

    My age? My sons are 26, 23, 21 and 19. That’s the best I can do to answer your question. I’ve been around the OUSD block many times. Had I followed your lead and thrown out a nice little tepid response, it would have weighed on my conscience. Fact is, the Jim Mordecais and Katy Murphys of the world must be shouted down.

  • Nextset

    To each his own I suppose. You know the Oakland Tribune and papers like it will go bankrupt and liquidate. They are on the way out and they know it, and it won’t be very long either.

    But the inner city families have only themselves to blame in the end for what happens to them.

  • James Jones, Parent


    What did Katy do? I thought the article was pretty well balanced.

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