There were more people than chairs last night in the library of Oakland International High School, the site of a District 1 town hall meeting with Superintendent Tony Smith.
An air of agitation often accompanies well-attended meetings involving district administrators. But the mood of this event was decidedly optimistic, even warm.
Maybe it was the chocolate chip cookies that school board member Jody London baked for the occasion. That, and Smith’s earnest, reflective delivery, or the fact that the meeting wasn’t called to address a crisis or controversy.
Smith spoke only in general terms about the tough decisions — he likes to call them “trade-offs” — ahead. He has yet to come out with specifics about how the district will shave $25 million from next year’s budget. (He’s probably not eager to repeat the Fall 2008 Public Relations Flub of his predecessor.)
Schools from all over North Oakland were represented, including: International High (Temescal), Sankofa Academy, Emerson Elementary (Temescal), Chabot Elementary (Rockridge), Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Peralta Elementary (Rockridge), Hillcrest Elementary, Claremont Middle School (Rockridge) and Oakland Technical High School (Temescal).
Betty Olson-Jones, the Oakland teachers union president, also came.
In his speech, Smith said his priorities were:
- Safety and school climate, “across the board, across the City of Oakland.”
- High-quality teaching. He says he doesn’t believe the focus should be on firing less effective or veteran teachers and replacing them with better, younger ones. “What I think we have to do in Oakland is figure out how to develop who you’ve got.”
- Literacy, including writing skills, from early education through high school. He talked about students who have made it through high school but “who are getting crushed in their career, who can’t write email.”
IN HIS WORDS
On the Big Picture: “My job is to create an organization that has deep integrity, that has joy and wonder, and that gets better. … You’re either getting better, or you’re getting worse. Nothing stays the same.”
A promise on spending: “I believe deeply that public money means public transparency. Your money runs public schools. You should know where all of it is, and you will.”
On racial and socioeconomic inequity: “Most district superintendents are presiding over the status quo. … I’m not that person.”
On a second-grade class at Sobrante Park Elementary: “Some of the best teaching I’ve seen. There was an aliveness in that classroom. There was electricity in that room.”
On his long-term commitment: “This is our work over the next 10 years together. To see the city we want to see, it will take personal leadership of everyone in this room.”
After his speech, people asked Smith for his ideas on recruiting families, recruiting and keeping good teachers, fundraising and making all schools equally good — not just those in more affluent neighborhoods. They also shared their own suggestions, especially around parent involvement and enrollment.
He talked about districts, such as in Portland, Ore., that have established caps on PTA funding distribute a portion of the money raised in some schools to needier schools. “Yeah it’s radical,” he said. But, he added, “We need to start talking about it.”
What are your ideas?