An Oakland science teacher’s message to Obama

Katie Noonan, a science teacher at Oakland High School, puts national education politics into a local context.

Oakland High School students

I heard about President Obama’s Educate to Innovate science initiative yesterday while driving 13 tired students back from a four-day intensive workshop in geospatial technology in Sacramento.

My students gave up four days of their Thanksgiving vacation, slept on the floor in classrooms, ate cheap food we cooked ourselves, and put in 15-hour days in the field and computer lab to develop real science technology skills. They collected GPS waypoints and created a computerized map of River City High School. They produced seasonal climate maps of U.S. cities from data they collected on the Internet — original products that took up to eight hours to complete.

Oakland High workshop

oakland high workshop


They did not receive payment for their effort. In fact, except for the teachers involved, who also donated their time, few people will even know about the trip. They will not be formally recognized.

Geographic Information Systems are used in all of the scientific fields that President Obama described as needing innovators. I sure hope some of the president’s promised support reaches my students in Oakland High School, a public school in inner-city Oakland, Calif.

I went online to compare Oakland High with the high schools honored in President Obama’s presentation: Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, Herndon High School in Herndon, Virginia and Washington Mathematics Science and Technology Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C.

I found stark contrasts in English learner percentages, median family incomes, class sizes and funding per pupil. Oakland High has 20 percent English language learners, compared to 8 percent or less in the other schools. We have 70 percent needing reduced or free lunch to their 25 percent or less, and a median family income of $40,000 to their $85,000 and up.

Unlike the Washington D.C. charter school, we cannot select or dismiss our students for disciplinary and academic reasons. We average 22 students per teacher, compared to 11 students per teacher there! Both Virginia high schools report over $13,000 spent per pupil, compared to Oakland’s $9,300.

For the past three years, our school district’s school-to-career summer internship program has been cut. There are no funds for next summer. My students are eager to explore science careers, and local scientists are willing to mentor young people interested in science, but we have been consistently and systematically denied administrative and community support.

I can’t help but wonder how my students will fare in the “Race to the Top”, and why they might be considered less deserving than the Oakton robotics team or the WSMT Charter School students. To me, they are the tops. President Obama, Arne Duncan and Steven Chu will have to “show me the money” before I hail their science education initiative as a program for all and not another bail-out for the elite.

Oakland High workshop

Katy Murphy

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

  • David B. Cohen

    Excellent post – thanks for sharing this glimpse into some wonderful work with students, and important insights about education policy.

  • Chris Vernon

    As a graduate of Oakton High School in Virginia and a parent of two students who have gone through OUSD (Peralta, Bret Harte, Oakland Tech) – I can vouch for everything you say. Thank you, Katie, for all the wonderful work you’re doing with our kids, Oakland’s kids.

    The kids going to the 3 schools you mention in Virginia generally have many more socio-economic advantages, but OUSD has some amazing teachers and my kids have received an excellent academic education with the added benefit of a much broader social education than that of the kids at Oakton High and such schools. OUSD kids can deal effectively with such a broad spectrum of people. That has untold value in a diverse society such as ours and will serve them well as adults.

  • http://www.ecomerritt.org Robin Freeman

    Good work to all who participated in this Merritt Collge workshop with Marc Epstein. Thanks for making it part of this record!

  • walton barnaby

    Fix the headline–An** Oakland Science Teacher’s…

  • Katie Noonan

    Many thanks are due to Marc Epstein, executive director of NorCal Student Environmental Network and adjunct professor at Merritt College for offering this wonderful workshop. I agree with Chris Vernon that OUSD provides an excellent academic education. My son graduated from Oakland High in 2001. He keeps in touch with his classmates and, I think, has benefited from the multicultural experience he enjoyed there. He attended the Peralta community colleges,then transferred to UC Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in Integrated Biology. Unfortunately, community colleges are cutting enrollment and class offerings at a time when the state universities are also cutting enrollment and hiking fees. This is a sad time for educational opportunity and equity in our state. Educators and students at all levels are organizing to march to the state capitol on March 4th to protest these extreme budget cuts to education.

  • Caroline

    I was interested to learn that one of the high schools cited for praise serves Vienna, Va.

    Relatives lived there until recently and I stayed with them for a few days a couple of years ago. I know it’s not unique, but it was outside my previous experience to be in a place so utterly disconnected from reality, especially the environmental realities that our world needs to be dealing with NOW.

    If you specifically set out to design a playground of decadence that consumed as much and as wastefully as possible, it would be Vienna, Va. — giant, sprawling mega-homes, acres and acres of rolling lawns, absolutely nothing walkable or transit-accessible. I wonder what those kids are really learning about that one crucial area of science. Of course, it’s not the kids’ fault, but it would be nice if Obama had praised schools in a community that’s not so selfishly, aggressively, decadently destructive, not to mention schools that didn’t entirely serve the very, very wealthy.

    Not to be ungrateful to my hosts, who HAVE moved since…

  • Marc Epstein

    When the school to career funds for summer internships were cut I attempted to access for these students funds through the summer youth employment program and the green career training program. I also took the same action in other jurisdictions on behalf of many economically disadvantaged students involved in our training programs. The uniform response was that even though these students were qualified based on family income, they had demonstrated academic success and were motivated and therefore would have the lowest priority for job placement.

    If we are going to jump start our economy, we need to support our talented and hard working economically disadvantaged students and not leave them out in the cold in favor of the most difficult youth. Many wondor why our economically disadvantaged youth do not strive for success, and act out. The way our government has structured assistance programs for economically disadvantaged youth with priority to the most difficult kids, should we expect any different.