A closer look at Oakland’s small schools reform

photo by Laura A. Oda/Oakland Tribune

It took two years of reporting (and a healthy amount of procrastination) to polish off a retrospective piece on Oakland’s small schools movement. Well, here you have it.

There are three related stories in Wednesday’s Tribune: An analysis of the ins and outs, ups and downs of the effort; a short profile on Elmhurst Community Prep and its principal, a small schools convert; and another short(ish) piece about the schools and the people who haven’t fared so well in this whole experiment.

This issue is so important, so complex, and so emotionally and politically charged that I grappled with how to frame it and what to include. I’m sure it’s not the last piece I’ll write on the subject — in fact, I’m told that Stanford researchers are coming out with a second report soon. All I can say is that it sure feels good to have completed this thing.

Katy Murphy

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

  • http://www.elmhurstcommunityprep.org Jessica Eastman

    Great article, Katy! Anyone who wants more info on Elmhurst Community Prep should visit http://www.elmhurstcommunityprep.org.

  • Jim Mordecai


    Sharp webpage. My understanding is that your title is Operations & Development Manager at Elmhurst Community Prep. Is that an administrative job like a Vice Principal? Or, are you a teacher?

    Did you create the webpage for the school as part of you job description or did someone else have that skill?

    And, will Alliance, the other school sharing the campus, get access to the skills that created such a product? I looked at their page and it is not up to the merits of the Elmhurst Community webpage.

    This webpage gap might represent a downside for the small schools movement. A negative of breaking up a campus to create small schools might be that something that was done for the entire student body on a campus will now only be done for one group and half of the former student body is left behind.

    Surely sharing a campus must create problems besides inequity in webpages that has not be touched on in coverage of the small schools movement.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jessica Eastman

    Hi Jim,

    I taught full time for three years at Elmhurst/ECP. Now, I teach part time and help with other operational things (family events, the website, etc.) during the other part of my day. I created the content for the site, and we raised money from community members, friends of teachers, and others to pay for the design of the site.

    Any school that wants to have a website can get in touch with me – the design for ours was done for only $250 and I’m happy to put anyone in touch with the designer.

    Thanks for the compliment! I’m sure I’ll be seeing you at board meetings. :)

  • Jim Mordecai


    Your Blog indicates that you teach in the afternoon program at another school. Is that other school the Alliance Academy? And, when you write that you teach part time are you referring to teaching part time at Elmhurst or are you referring to the afternoon responsibility at another school?

    Seems like I am asking you about a lot of detail but how a school site is able to finance a talented person to work on “operational things” may not be unimportant to other Oakland principals trying to find ways to upgrade their operations with ever decreasing resources.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jessica Eastman

    Hi Jim,

    I teach part-time at ECP and also part-time in the After School program at Think College Now Elementary School in Fruitvale.

  • cranky teacher

    Wow, Jim. Are you an Inquisitor in your free time?

  • Amy Carozza

    I don’t know for sure, but I think Jessica is “financed” in ways beyond money alone…like so many great educators and all the fabulous people at ECP!

    Way to make $250 look like a million bucks!

    Great article!

  • harlemmoon

    Nah, he only plays one in the movies.
    But seriously, folks, this is exactly the type of tangential crap that we’re so often pulled into rather than focusing big picture, which in this case is the merits of the issues raised in the story.

    Jessica you have the patience of a saint.

  • Jim Mordecai

    According to the School Accountability report card for 07-08 for both Elmhurst and Alliance the enrollment has dropped from 795 in 05-06 to 353 at Elmhurst and 342 at Alliance exactly 100 students less enrolled on the campus with the two small schools. Since Oakland overall has been dropping in enrollment it is hard to understand if small schools was associated with the enrollment drop.

    A striking difference between Elmhurst and Alliance is the vacancy rates. Alliance had one vacancy 06-07 but none in the other two years. However, Elmhurst had a vacancy rate of 0 in 06-07, but 12 in 07-08 and lists 4 in 08-09. Small schools, large schools, lacking permanent teachers has to be a problem.

    The number division of special education students is unequal with all of the special education students enrolled at Elmhurst. Perhaps it is easier to have the special education students serviced in one school on campus.

    I would be interested in learning how under the small schools concept it is decided as to which of the campus schools a student attends. Perhaps every student family in the area has a choice except for those in special education.

    The next Stanford study might be able to make statements about the viability of small schools at the macro level but there are a great many details that may not be captured by such a study.

    Jim Mordecai

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-356-SF-Education-Examiner Caroline

    Excellent story, Katy! Gosh, it’s like old times, when a newspaper could actually allow a reporter to do an in-depth story — plus you are so much more savvy than naive newbie education reporters (despite probably being young enough to be my daughter).

    Here’s word that I’ve heard. Linda Darling-Hammond, whom I overall respect and admire, did a study of schools statewide a couple years ago that singled out five schools that were supposedly providing models for closing the achievement gap. Two of them were in my district, SFUSD. One is June Jordan Small School for Equity, which is currently our district’s only official Small School by Design. JJ is consistently the lowest-achieving general-ed high school in the district, with its API dropping year by year. Undoubtedly it has other assets (though as the parent of two high-schoolers in a fairly compact community I can tell you its rep with the kids is not great), but it’s eye-opening to take the lowest-achieving school in the district and cite it as a model among schools STATEwide.

    The other is Leadership, a once-sought-after charter that has struggled for some years. A couple of years ago, Leadership went to SFUSD and asked to become a district school again, but it wanted to retain some of the “freedoms from burdensome bureaucratic regulations” of a charter school (mainly a nonunion staff), and that never was successfully worked out. That demonstrates how un-smoothly things are going for Leadership, though it continues to limp along.

    Anyway, recently I heard word that Darling-Hammond has started to rethink her admiration for those two schools. Now she’s looking to the high schools in SFUSD that truly have made gains, two primary examples being Balboa and Galileo (once both disdained as ghetto schools, now rapidly improving in performance and prestige). Both those schools are organized around Small Learning Communities. Darling-Hammond visited Balboa to find out more about how that’s working. Stay tuned…

  • Stephanie Butler

    Great article Katy! And, I’d have to agree with Greg Holtz – if the school hadn’t split I don’t think I would have made it thus far. I also arrived in 2005. Six months into my first year, I clearly remember thinking, “Oh, my goodness…what have I done!” Today, ECP has morphed into a campus that even I didn’t believe was possible during my first year. If you visited this campus in 2005, you’d know that it took leadership and a dedicated team to inspire this type of transformation. Yes, there’s still work to be done. But, it’s okay to celebrate successes along the way. ECP – take your bow!

  • Jim Mordecai


    “ECP has morphed into a campus that even I didn’t believe possible…”

    But, ECP did not morph. Instead there was originally one campus Elmhurst Middle School, grades 6-8 that was broken into two schools.

    Do you feel that the other school Alliance is the equal to ECP with the change?

    Jim Mordecai

  • Katy Murphy

    Jim: I think I understand where you’re going with this… But are you saying that it’s important for schools that share the same campus to be equal in some way? Or that the school system, as a whole, would benefit if resources and know-how were more freely shared?

  • Jim Mordecai


    I don’t have a position of support or opposition on small schools configuration. But, the evaluation of small schools, I believe, must look at advantages and the disadvantages of the concept.

    And, then there must be a calculation as to whether the advantage the small school may provide is worth the cost.

    If a campus with one head administrator now becomes a campus with two administrators you have increased your fixed cost. In hard financial times that is a reality that is hard to not consider.

    As for should the split of a campus into parts be equal? Maybe not. But, the example at McClymonds with one school being dropped may be an argument for equal resources.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Filly

    How I love to read your blog! It’s one of the only places I get news about the district I’ve been working at for 18 years. Direct communication is almost nonexistent from downtown to teachers. I so appreciate knowing what’s going on! It’s worth the price of my subscription! Keep it up!!!

  • http://www.elmhurstcommunityprep.org Jessica Eastman

    In case everyone didn’t see the amazing slideshow (I didn’t until someone else pointed it out), check it out here: http://www.bayareanewsgroup.com/multimedia/iba/2009/flash/elmhurst0202/. Thanks, Trib staff!