Smith: “This is our work over the next 10 years…”

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:

  1. Safety and school climate, “across the board, across the City of Oakland.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”


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?

Katy Murphy

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

  • Scott Law

    Not promising. Here is a way to destroy the remaining decent elementary schools in Oakland..

    “He talked about districts, such as in Portland, Ore., that have established caps on PTA funding and distribute the rest of the money to needier schools. “Yeah it’s radical,” he said. But, he added, “We need to start talking about it.”

    Success of schools is based on the behavior and dedication of the *students*, reinforced by parents. Bad students produce bad schools.

    Focusing on the bad students, the teacher unions, the status quo in the name of “equity” is perpetuating the status quo.

    Might be interesting to see how the pitch works with the MIT prep program at Oakland Tech, the arts/performance program at Skyline and the Asian cultural program in Chinatown.

    For once, I would like to see somebody in Oakland schools leadership react to the gifted and promising students to keep them and their parents in the system.

    (and.. they are not all white ….)

  • Pollyanna

    I came away with a MUCH more positive take. I think Katy is pushing the one and only controversial thing he said just to get us stired up. I think Tony Smith is an inspiring leader, celebrating and thriving in all that is good about our district. I think he knows how to identify all the treasures that are there if you scratch the surface. I think he wants to see more of it in every school. Sure he is deeply concerned about the kids that don’t learn to read and the achievement gap. We should all be, they are all our kids. But, he will foster the successful programs all across town and inspire all of us to do more to do the same. He talked about walking around the outside of a campus (two blocks away) and talking to kids that were hanging around. Can you imagine cutting class and having the superintendent peeking into the bushes and asking why you aren’t in school!? That’s going to make an impact and he’s done it.

    Katy – you could have picked up a lot more positive from this talk. How about how we are building our future voters. How about his interest in tracking the number of 18 year olds voting in Oakland? Please don’t bring us in to this mud of taking from the hills for the flats. Its so much better than that old fear that plagues us in every walk of Oakland life.

  • Katy Murphy

    I’m not trying to get anyone stirred up. I quoted Smith on a number of issues, including fundraising, and I described the mood of the meeting as “decidedly optimistic, even warm.” I’m not Smith’s public relations manager, so it’s not my job to cast him in a purely “positive” light, but how much more positive can you get than that?

    I am writing about the fundraising equity issue, though — especially in light of the state budget situation — and I’d like to know what people think about the Portland system, as well as other alternatives you might have.

  • Pollyanna

    Sorry Katy- I didn’t mean to offend and I agree that you presented many of his positive ideas. I just know there are certain key buttons that are easy to push. Its kinda your job though – to get us talking. If you didn’t say anything that stirred me up – I wouldn’t have posted.
    All those alternatives need to be explored… it is true. We are in need of new ideas to help the schools as a whole.
    I am in favor of campaigning for the schools as a city-wide project. Better OUSD schools are good for all Oakland citizens, not just parents of the kids in one school. It makes for better employees and citizens.

  • Katy Murphy

    Thanks for your thoughts, Pollyanna.

    I was about to run out the door when I posted that comment. In my haste, I neglected to thank you for sharing your observations from the meeting — such as Smith’s point about encouraging kids to vote and become good citizens.

    By the way, I’m saving up the Superintendent Patrol tidbit you mentioned for a future story. I’m actually hoping to catch one of those moments, first-hand…

  • Donna

    He talked about districts, such as in Portland, Ore., that have established caps on PTA funding and distribute the rest of the money to needier schools. “Yeah it’s radical,” he said. But, he added, “We need to start talking about it.”

    NO, NO, NO!!!! Improvement is not about taking a smallish pie and cutting it into ever smaller pieces to distribute into more mouths! Nobody really gets fed that way. It is about teaching others to bake, and then baking MORE pies. You don’t want anyone to leave that kitchen; you want to attract more bakers.

    The story around town for the last few years is that Edna Brewer is the up and coming middle school with a growing and vital PTSA. The bakers have arrived, and some have moved on to Oakland Tech.

  • Gordon Danning

    A cap seems completely counter-productive, since it destroys any incentive to contribute once the cap is reached. A better idea would be to institute a rule whereby 75% of each contribution goes to the local school and 25% goes into a pool.

    PS to Scott Law re: “For once, I would like to see somebody in Oakland schools leadership react to the gifted and promising students to keep them and their parents in the system. (and.. they are not all white ….).” Good point. Almost no one in Oakland seems to care about the vast majority of students who are not failing, not disruptive, etc. I almost fell off my chair when Oakland High’s new principal actually acknowledged being concerned about “our Asian students, who also are not doing as well as we’d like.”

  • teacher

    According to Scott Law, “bad students produce bad schools.” So, we throw to the curb all the kids who are unlucky enough to be born into families without good parenting? That goes against everything that public education stands for.

    We are all in this together. There are gated communities and exclusive private schools for people who share Mr. Law’s view. But beware- the “bad” students who you want out of the system will grow up to be the adults who your gifted children will work and live alongside. They will determine the future climate of Oakland just as much as the “promising” students will.

  • Katie

    I don’t know that parents would want their money going to another school, even if it is 25%. I can see them getting around it somehow by pooling their money and buying something for the school or an item and donating it to the school instead of doing it through the PTA. I like Donna’s comment about the pie. What about teaching other schools how to raise money and how to start a PTO or PTA. A lot of schools don’t even have PTAs because the parents come from cultures where parents aren’t involved in schools. My children went to elementary school in another country where parents were only allowed to show up for the show at the end of the year and the back to school night. America is probably the only country where parents raise money and have PTAs.

  • Cranky Teacher

    We can disagree with him all we want, but he certainly seems like a fresh voice after the Jack O’Donnell and Gang years. He sounds like his own person, rather than the bland corporate constructions that have been running things.

    And if he did stay ten years, you’d know he was a hero, since supes almost always quit or are fired long before then.

  • Cranky Teacher

    O’Connell, oops.

  • Teri

    I’m going to reiterate what I just said in your article about parent involvement. If we want high quality schools across the board, we must demand better funding from our elected officials. Parents shouldn’t have to do all the fundraising that we do to begin with. And we put our children in the position of fundraising, too, which I think should not be their job. (And I’m as guilty as any parent.) Fundraising should be situational–for that special trip to Washington, DC or for 5th grade promotion, 8th grade graduation, or high school graduation parties, etc. It should not be part of the school funding equation, and yet it is, sadly. No school should have to raise $100,000 to pay for art and music teachers, librarians, counselors, and noon supervisors, school supplies, etc. California relies too heavily on parent funding of our schools. The money should come from the state adnd we should demand it of our elected officials. Parents need to get more organized.

  • Teri

    But I forgot to mention that I’m hopeful about Tony Smith. He’s a parent of an Oakland child, a resident of Oakland, and he sounds very committed to OUSD. His ideas are envelope-pushing; he seems to think outside the box, and I like that. I hope he can work well with all the unions in the district.

  • Teacher

    What if schools with tougher socio-economic situations would get some sort of match from that pool instead of a straight hand-out? If parents at some of those schools raised $1 on their own, they would get $1 from the pool. Maybe it is even $3 for every $1 earned on their own. You just aren’t going to have parents in poorer communities capable of raising the same amount as parents who earn triple digit salaries with the same amount of effort. The work involved in raising $10,000 by Fruitvale parents who earn $30,000 or less a year is likely to be AT LEAST three times harder than $10,000 raised by Rockridge parents who earn in the triple digits per year. Actually, it will be even harder as many of the Fruitvale parents don’t speak English very well and certainly don’t have connections to people with even more money like Rockridge parents do.

    And I like the idea proposed earlier about 75% of the donation goes to the school of choice, 25% goes to a pool for all schools.

  • Teacher

    I meant to write “Rockridge parents who earn six-figure salaries” (or three times what Fruitvale parents earn, not who earn triple digits!).

  • Nextset

    As long as Public Schools disidentify with Middle Class values there will be no financial or any other kind of support from the voters.

    Los Angeles Unified being the best case in point. It is a school district that is similar to a County Hospital. If the working population belong to Kaiser and other systems they aren’t going to fully fund a County Hospital. That hospital only exists to keep the welfare crowd away from Kaiser, it doesn’t merit significant funding. LA voters would no more vote (bond) funding for MLK/Compton Hospital than they would LAUSD. The voters can’t imagine ever going there.

    If the urban schools continue their leftist policies and politics they can forget widespread voter support and funding. In order to win that support it is required to make the voters identify with the schools. Piedmont voters greatly identify with it’s schools and it’s Police Dept and will fully fund both. San Francisco maintains Lowell High School and by doing so keeps it’s monied class involved with SFUSD even if Lowell is the only high school they’d consider hiring from or sending relatives to.

    It doesn’t take much to keep the interest and affection of the public. They don’t have to like all the schools as long as they like one of them. In a city the size of Oakland you would think OUSD would have something for everyone. Instead they (OUSD) allow the Charters to peel off what would have been pockets of support and increasingly allow themselves to get left with the ghetto. It doesn’t bode well for the future.

    OUSD needs a Lowell High.

  • Debora

    Teri: good points about general funding without having PTA funds for roughly 10% of the funding for schools.

    Nextset: I agree that that we must have a set of values and principles for which we hold each and every family accountable.

    On one blog threads, Lincoln elementary school’s contribution is to get their students to school on time with their homework done. Not money, not even volunteer time, just get your kids to school on time with their homework done. We have plenty of parents from every walk of life, socioeconomic background, parenting (use this loosely) situation who will not do those two things. In some cases its parents who don’t like being in the queue or rushing their kids, for others its a broken car or no car.

    You could even argue that the parents don’t know the work, don’t speak the language, etc. Then their job as parents is to go to the school and ask for the help, go to the library and ask for the help. Comparing socioeconomic backgrounds, Lincoln elementary school has some of the highest scores overall of any school in the district with the vast majority of the parents having some of the lowest education levels. The difference with this school is everyone has their jobs, the teachers teach, the parents parent and the students learn and perform. Everyone has a role and everyone takes their role and responsibility seriously.

    Tony is behaving as though this is about money. And some of it is. And much of it is not. In addressing the issue of learning, Tony has not addressed the issue that there are a group of students who learn the “9 month curriculum” in 3 months and those who take 12 months to learn a standard 9 month curriculum. He wants to throw all types of learners in the same classrooms and call is a mean of 9 months, but students are not learning on the curve of the mean.

    There should be an opportunity for those students who take nearly 12 months to work through a standard year curriculum to do so with a group of students who take nearly 12 months to learn the material. There should be an opportunity for students who take 3 months to work through the standard year curriculum to do so with a group of students who take 3 months. In our district I hear that we are thinking Same is Equal. But Same is NOT Equal.

    I wonder what would happen if we would hold our students and their parents accountable for the behaviors at school? If students graffiti the walls, students and parents must come and paint the school, if students throw trash on the ground both parents and students must come to school and pick up trash, if students do not arrive on time, they must come and work the drop off queue, if students do not have homework done, students and parents must come to the school to work together to do homework. It seems fair that everyone would behave in a way that would help the school teach and help the students learn.

    What I see, is that except for Broad, we do not ask for much foundation in Oakland to set up a “Expect Parental Success” movement. The vast majority of students who have difficulties come from families in which the first child of the family was born before the parents were 21 years old. How does a 14 year old know how to parent? How does that same parent who is now 19 years old know how to get the best education for her or his kindergartner? I challenge those schools, and people on this blog who have said about misbehaving children, “What do you do, kick them to the curb?” to look at the age of the parents when they had their first child. Study after study has shown that parenting a first child after age 30 is one of the best predictors of educational success for children, its not reading to the child (no, I am not opposed to reading to children), its not taking them to libraries or museums (I’m not opposed to that either), its delaying the age of parenting (yes, I am all for delaying the age of parenting). Tony is looking for some parents to fund other parents, this is what progressive taxation does.

    If Tony wants to help Oakland students with money to fund solid projects, he can apply for grants that would give the kind of support that the students of Pico Rivera CA get through grants from the Toyota Foundation, the Valley Foundation, the Koret Foundation, the Wallace Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The key is you have to have a valid proposition with data driven results. What I see is that we want “feel good results” and we want our results not tied to test scores, delayed parenting, improved nutrition, schools that teach by ability or any other data driven result for which our entire district will be held accountable. We want the money to try new things, to build “equity” and to help our students “feel better about their environment.” Foundations do not fund based on how everyone feels about the environment, they fund based on student achievement.

  • AC Mom

    Could anyone on this thread speak to the legal ramifications of a school district requiring that any private, non-profit organization allocate a portion of their revenue to a fund to be set up by that district? I understand what he is trying to achieve, but why focus on the PTAs/PTSAs? There are several lower performing schools that have received a large donations from foundations for various initiatives. Should we ask them to set aside a portion of their contribution for this fund?

    I agree with Debora’s comments about Lincoln…It’s not just about money. Schools with active PTAs do not just contribute money, but also a great deal of time.

  • Cranky Teacher

    AC Mom, I think you are pointing out how this idea of Smith’s, perhaps an off-the-cuff suggestion, is actually totally unworkable and illegal.

    Wouldn’t waste any time arguing about it, since it can’t happen.

  • anon

    I like what Debora has to say. Also…If we’re going to do one big pot of $$ as our new superintendent seems to be suggesting, and want to be “equitable” about it, why don’t we include the Title I money with the PTA money in that pot? As of now, schools like Montclair have to make up their budget with PTA $$, since they are the one of the least funded (if not the least!) schools in the district. I find it interesting that a school that gets the least money from the district (and much less from the PTA than neighboring schools) got the best test scores this year. It’s not all about the money. Something to think about…

  • Pollyanna

    Good, so its not all about the money. I totally agree. How can we support Tony Smith and his efforts without spending all our time worrying about him taking from one pocket to put in another? How can we be the community that supports all its schools and children that he wants us to be. Lets help him so that he sees progress and really does stay 10 years! I believe he would if he sees the progress he dreams of.

  • Heatman

    Dear Katy, Why is part of the interpretive text struck through? Wouldn’t it have been good to provide some context for the statement like the fact that Tony Smith is an active parent in one of the schools that does raise more money than others. Isn’t he really talking about himself here? That’s a different thing than purely talking about other peoples money. Don’t you think? I think Pollyanna’s criticism might have been a little bit justified. I’m glad you both made up so nicely though. Let that be a model for all of us.

  • Katy Murphy

    I think you’re referring to the part about the Portland program? What he said originally about the model was factually inaccurate.

  • Katy Murphy

    Oh, and I completely agree with Heatman that Smith’s background is important. I’m writing a story about this topic at the moment, and his status as a “hills parent” will not go unmentioned.

    I try to report as completely as I can in my blog posts, but because the reporting/writing/editing process is so compressed, the end result will usually not be as comprehensive as the stories I write for the paper.

    That’s why I encourage people to fill in the gaps — though such information and insight could probably be delivered just as effectively without the snark… I guess it wouldn’t be as fun to write, though!