A celebratory dunk

Photo of Benjamin Schmookler courtesy of Howard Ruffner

Benjamin Schmookler, principal of Media Academy — a small school on East Oakland’s Fremont Federation campus — agreed to be dunked today during a celebration of the school’s improved test scores. Media Academy’s state test scores went up by 79 points to 600 (on a scale of 200 to 1,000), the biggest gain seen in all of the district’s high schools this year.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Me

    I find this kind of sad, actually. It seems to be a not-so-thinly veiled form of disrespect. What does “dunking the principal” have to do with improved test scores? I have seen this dunking concept take place at other schools. Why? So students can release some pent-up aggression? How very, very sad.

    It would be a lot more encouraging to see administration, teachers, students and others come together to celebrate in a way that is mutually respectful. I could not remotely imagine the principal at my school agreeing to such an event.

    And we wonder why students show such lack of respect to each other, and anyone else in their environments…

  • Nextset

    The other problem with all of this is that this principal is not maintaining social and practical boundries, He probably is a product of Educrats and doesn’t know of the importance of boundries. He is not a social equal of the students or for that matter the teachers. He is not supposed to be a pal, a buddy, etc. He is an authority figure like it or not. By doing this dunking nonsense he keeps his kids from learning normal authority structure. They go into the workforce expecting things to continue as they were taught – and get run over.

    Damn I feel old sometimes.

    When I blog on this kind of stuff sometimes I feel that the (public school) educational establishment will just never get it. They are so into the romper room “Comfort Inn” thing they have no intention of preparing the students for the Brave New World. All the want to do is keep everybody smiling and happy. Kind of like Obama.

    This kind of schooling doesn’t prepare kids to take their places as self sufficient adults. It sets them up to be weak and dependent compared to other kids who’s society doesn’t buy into this comfort zone nonsense. And we know who has (schools) the black and brown kids and who doesn’t.

    It’s a shame. And it’s being done openly, right before our eyes.

    Brave New World.

  • Media Teacher

    Interesting comments so far, but they seem to miss the point. Because of the Principal, and the way in which he engages students and staff alike, the school improved its API ranking by 79 points in one year, from 521 to 600. Aside from the dunking, which was done for fun, many activities, including lunch served by teachers, filled an afternoon celebrating the students’ success. Nextset should try volunteering at an East Oakland school to see how times have changed.

  • Gordon Danning

    Me and Nextset: Hm. Suppose the students had suggested the event, and he had said, “Certainly not! After all, I am the principal!” Would the students have responded with respect, or with contempt? In my experience, the latter. And, rightfully so. You two seem to be conflating “respect” with “fear,” when in fact a better synonym is “admiration.” Respect has to be earned, and teachers and principals earn respect by doing their jobs, working hard, etc. Once you have earned the respect of students, then subjecting yourself to pie throwing, dunking, etc, won’t change that. Moreover, the dunking is consistent with many traditions of ritual role reversal, which most sociologists believe cement the social hierarchy, rather than undermine it.

  • Nextset

    GD: The products of these (OUSD) schools are not being prepared to do well in the world of work, military or higher education. One of the main reasons is respect for authority (be authority people, institutions, or precedents). Nothing in your post #3 supports dunking the principal. Secondary schooling is not a holiday camp despite the best efforts of OUSD to make it so. High School is the terminal degree for the lower & lower middle class (renters… and other measures). It is where the transition to “adulthood” can get on a firm footing.

    “Me” is right on this one.

    It’s easy and it’s fun to do these things. The kiddies like it. Well good education isn’t just in the classroom lectures or the books.

    The workforce can quickly tell what kind of school a probationer employee or applicant came from. It’s the little things that add up to “We don’t hire from those schools” (at least for the good jobs). I’m not saying this principal committed a misdemeanor – I’m saying that the sorting process is well under way when parents enroll their kids into this school.

    And that’s what the “Brave New World” is all about. Sorting and self-selection. Some people just can’t imagine what is wrong with this picture of the principal sitting in a dunking tank. Your attempt to assuage me with references to (your) sociologists mean little. I have my own.

    Maybe it’s like the OJ Simpson verdict. Two worlds, separate, unequal, all that.

    These cultural differences untimately present in different languages. Like in the UK.

    There’s nothing “wrong” with the difference, it’s just that the products of this (OUSD) system are not going to be able to pass (as well) into the other system, you know, the one with the power, money, and paid holidays. But, hey, Beta’s like being Beta’s. If you tried to make them Alpha’s they’d have nervous breakdowns.

    And the real important thing as you state is that they are happy, and having a good time. Warm and Fuzzy, all that. God forbid the proles aren’t happy.

    Brave New World.

  • Me

    Sorry, Gordon, but you’re really missing the subtext there. I don’t think not agreeing to be dunked in any way means the principal administrates with fear. And if the principal were a woman, wouldn’t the issue be more complicated? I’m sorry that you see it as some sort of bonding experience to throw pies or otherwise engage in some sort of ritualized attack. Was there really no other way to celebrate? Especially here in Oakland, where aggression is all too often very explicity acted out. I find the event sad, and the defending of it by teachers even sadder. And I’ve been in this district for about 20 years myself (as a teacher).

  • Gordon Danning

    Nextset: Neither you nor I have any idea what goes on in the classrooms at that school. I certainly agree that students are not served by doing “easy and fun” things in the classroom; why, just the other day a student asked me whether we were going to do anything “fun” in class today, and she didn’t like the answer. But my point was not about that, but about whether the dunking is a sign of disrespect. In my experience, it is not.

    Me: That’s funny; I was going to say that it is sad that people get uptight about a principal allowing himself to get dunked. I do not see it as aggression at all, and I would bet that the students who are most likely to participate therein are the ones who are least likely to engage in actual violence. Again, that has been my experience (at least re: pie throwing). And, no, I don’t see how the gender of the principal matters.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Clearly the people commenting don’t understand high school. It is not disrespect for a leader to understand that giving “control” to students is a sign of respect and therefore “LOVE.” The principal has control everyday and in every thing. This small act says, “I’m human” and life can be fun and not just serious. There is a time to . . .

    The fact that he volunteered means he is still in control, humble and lighthearted – all things we need in East Oakland.

    On Monday, there may be a few jokes and laughing at photos, but the principal will be the principal and probably with more respect than he had the weekend before.

    It’s like some of you don’t remember high school or something.

  • TheTruthHurts

    BTW, thanks Katy for these kind of stories. We need more of them.

  • Me

    I’ve taught high school-in Oakland public schools- for nearly 20 years, and I think I understand it pretty well. I hardly think that this earns him respect or demonstrates “humility” or being light-hearted. Respect is earned over time for a variety of actions and discussions. And when I think of the people whom I most respect, including my own principal, they’ve never had to engage in some type of false role reversal to have that respect from myself and others. What if the students had been dunked by the principal? Doesn’t work so well in reverse?

    Sorry, but this has little do with respect or humility and a lot to do with perpetuating the culture of aggression pervasive in Oakland schools. And I do know what I’m talking about.

  • Steven Weinberg

    This story seems to be working like a Rorschach test. What people are saying tells more about them than it does about the school or the principal.
    One aspect of this story which has not been mentioned is what it says about the ridiculous testing system that has developed for California high schools. Enthusiasm must be artifically generated for the California Standards tests (upon which the Academic Performance Index for schools is based) because these tests, which take more than 9-hours of testing time, have no consequences for the students, who do have a variety of other high-stakes tests to deal with (high school exit exams, SATs, AP exams, and midterms and finals). High schools throughout the state are faced with the problem of motivating students to try their best on a grueling series of tests that mean a great deal to the school, but nothing to the students. A similar problem exists at elementary and middle schools, but those students are not faced with so many other tests that are important to them. This overtesting is one reason why CST scores have remained stagnent in high schools, while increasing for other levels. California needs to act quickly to reduce the number of tests required in high schools.

  • Nextset

    Katy: I agree that finding these stories and putting them up is a great service to all including the people in the stories who get the feedback they would otherwise never have.

    Your readership can probably find things within a story or issue that many people would never have considered – a view from many different angles.

  • Media Teacher

    Pleeez! Give me a break! Most of you are perfect examples of how a little knowledge can be dangerous.

  • cranky teacher

    Dudes, it’s a aqueous DUNK tank on a HOT day at a school PARTY at a SMALL school where this principal exerts his authority on the regular.

    This is not a paddling tunnel, a rotten fruit-tossing humiliation or a tar-and-feathering. He is not partying with the students or being in any way a “peer” or otherwise inappropriate.

    Get a life.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: I don’t know what you call your fellow teachers, but I’m not a “dude”.

    The dunking tunnel was fun all right.

    We speak here of the importance of maintaining formality (and social barriers) and why in dealing with the schoolkids. Sometimes we can never let ourselves be as much “fun” as we’d like to. At least not with the students. At least not before some future class reunion.

    Educrats are in the business of spooning out “fun” to their often black and brown charges. I know why they do it. I just don’t agree with the concept. Their parents can take them to Disneyland for fun. If they have parents. They can have “fun” with their friends. I don’t enroll a child in school to have “fun”. Granted it was a school party. They can enjoy the party without dunking the Principal.

    School Principals are not friends, they are Principals. That status doesn’t go with what we have here. But these schools are run in a way that pleases certain people, not me. Fine. After all, exactly who are these schools in business to please?

    Brave New World.


    ANYONE WHO DOESN’T LIKE THE DUNKING IDEA ,GET OUT OF HERE AND JUST LEAVE THESE PEOPLE ALONE. Plus get a life on the way! Life can be fun and not serious all the time. So if you don’t like it THEN LEAVE IT!

  • I am 5 years old

    Me,and Next: OK! We get it that students need to be brave and prepared for the out side world,and partying isn’t the way, but as you can see no one forced that principal to get in that Dunking tank, he choose to.
    If your talking about respect he still has his respect. For example: Google or any big famous important company just accomplish something, they will make a party and have fun,its work yeah, but they treat their workers with respect and tell them that their work is thanked for. Anyways these students at this school did raise their API by 79 points, and if the API doesn’t Rise the the school will get closed. IF it closes then the principal will need to find another job, the teachers, and every other worker too. The principal is happy with his students and maybe wanted to give them this back as a reward for their hard work, we should be happy of these kind of things, not make a big deal and compaine ,and as NONEOFYOURBUSINESSSAID: just leave it if you don’t
    like it!

    == PEACE,
    I am 5 years old






  • Steven Weinberg

    Take a look at this link for a more balanced look at American schools: US School Kids Are Doing Better Than Ever – But You Never Hear It http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/nurtureshock/archive/2009/11/02/why-us-school-kids-are-doing-better-than-ever-but-you-never-hear-it.aspx

  • Katy Murphy

    To anyone new to this forum: Please keep your comments free of profanity and personal attacks at individuals.

  • cranky teacher

    “Cranky: I don’t know what you call your fellow teachers, but I’m not a “dude”.”

    The funny thing about your constant holier-than-thou attitude is that I’m at school pushing, pushing, and pushing young people through challenging academic work every day to the best of my God/nature-given ability and all you’re doing is sniping relentlessly at me and every other Oakland teacher as some stereotypical party-all-the-time white liberal “educrat” that you apparently read about in a series of conservative talking-points books which believe the Summer of Love and Woodstock were the beginning of the end of America Dream.

    Here are a few of the things that come chronologically earlier than the 1960s and the demise of American formality so bemoaned by you and the Fox set:
    Witch hunts, genocide, slavery, detention camps, lynchings, class war, civil war, segregation, rural starvation, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, two world wars and hundreds of imperialistic invasions, massive political corruption, etc. etc.

    Was the cause of all that as simple as not calling people “Dude” or not letting a superior be humorously dunked by an inferior?

    We get it, you like the military model for life: Discipline and conformity. So why don’t you put your time where your mouth is and spend your retirement as a part-time teacher? You can do JROTC, if you’re a vet.

    By the way, you know who else likes discipline and conformity? Mafias, gangs and teenage girl cliques.

  • Journalism Students

    This is an editorial written by four sophomores in Media Studies class at Media Academy in response to recent blog comments. Your comments helped give my students motivation to write a heartfelt editorial — so, thank you.

    Criticism against Media’s Dunk Tank Was Wrong
    By Kim Mejia, Jack Mejia, Jazmin Garcia, and Fernanda Lopez

    When Katy Murphy posted a photograph depicting Media Academy’s principal, Benjamin Schmookler, getting ready to be dunked into water for the school’s CST party, no one could have predicted that responses to the photo would lead to a conversation about Brave New World and OJ Simpson. There have been many misunderstandings about the friendly CST celebration held by Media Academy on Oct. 30 due to Murphy’s cutline, which didn’t explain the event thoroughly.
    From our perspective, most arguments were illogical and misinformed. Commentators were making a big deal about nothing and blowing the photo out of proportion.
    Our arguments are that students are deprived of social events at school, events like this motivate kids to do well on tests and the commentators were misinformed and were making false assumptions.

    For a school that doesn’t have any social events like dances and very few pep rallies, it’s really hard for students to feel connected to the school. The event Media Academy held brought the school together. Social events like these create a safe and comfortable environment for students; it makes them feel that the school staff really does care about them and how they perform. It’s unfair that they’re attacking us when we actually have a social event and by doing that they are discouraging the staff from holding more events like this. It’s wrong for them to assume that we do this all the time because that is simply untrue.

    The CST celebration recognized the students who scored high on their CSTs by giving them a free shot at the dunk. This year’s freshmen will be motivated to do well on their tests and keep up their grades so that they can have another event like this. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding kids for doing a good job and giving them a break. They say that this doesn’t happen in the real world, but it does. Everyone who has had something major happen in their lives will celebrate in their own way, and dunking the principal in cold water was just one of the creative activities they had at the event. Unlike the commentators would like to argue, the dunking was not the only event that Media offered. We also had soccer, double-dutch, tug-of-war, kickball and relay races.

    It doesn’t make sense for the commentators to say that we have irresponsible children that don’t care about school if we had the highest API score in Fremont Federation. A celebration including a dunk tank is not a sign of disrespect or immaturity. Only because the principal was friendly with the students and held a party for them does not mean he is not an authority figure and not strict. His participation in the dunk tank didn’t change the fact that he is the principal and that he is in charge. He’s not a drill sergeant; he’s not going to rule by fear, like someone else in the comments had said. Those who believe that the principal was not being treated as an authority figure have the idea that people in charge should be intimidating and cold. No one would like a principal like that.

    In conclusion, schools should hold more events like this because they motivate students to take school seriously and rewards them for their hard work.