Oakland’s middle school “brain drain”

Students at an Oakland middle school. File photo by Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group

The Chronicle had an interesting story in yesterday’s paper (print-only until tomorrow) about the brain drain in the Oakland school district after the fifth grade.

According to this analysis by the Oakland school district, 28 percent of all fifth-graders — and 40 percent of those who scored “advanced” on this year’s reading test — dispersed to non-OUSD middle schools this year.

At Lincoln Elementary School in Chinatown, the city’s first public, non-charter school to win a National Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education, a staggering 77 percent of last year’s fifth-graders left the district, up from 57 percent a few years ago.

Superintendent Tony Smith told Chronicle reporter Jill Tucker, whose son goes to Peralta Elementary in Rockridge (a school with the fifth-highest “leaving rate” in OUSD – 44 percent), that the loss of top students was one explanation for the drop-off in district test scores at the middle and high school level.

I’m sure that’s true at some middle schools, such as Westlake, Claremont and Montera, which are located near strong feeder schools with high OUSD defection rates. But it’s not just high-achievers who leave. If you look at districtwide numbers, the student make-up — categorized by STAR test score tier — changes only slightly after the so-called brain drain.

On this year’s STAR test, for instance, about 54 percent of fifth-graders tested proficient or advanced. Factor in the brain drain, and it goes down to about 50 percent — not exactly a seismic shift. Same with the bottom two tiers: The percentage of students in those levels goes from 17 percent to 19 percent after the class shrinks.

(Data note: The district says there were 3,004 fifth-graders in 2009-10, but there were only 2,748 valid STAR scores, so that’s the denominator I used in my calculations.)

That said, there is a much larger percentage of “advanced” students who leave than students who test at “far below basic,” the lowest of five levels on the STAR. There is also a racial disparity; white and Asian children are more likely than black and Latino children to go out of the district for middle school.

And then there’s the minor issue of OUSD losing 28 percent of its fifth-graders each year. What can — and should — the district do to attract more students to its middle schools? What is it doing already?

Katy Murphy

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

  • Oakland Teacher

    One thing that can probably be said is that some schools with high scorers do a better job of encouraging their fifth grade families to continue in OUSD. I would guess that those five schools are repeats year after year in terms of their ranking. Thornhill in particular has always had a large group who goes on to private schools. I have seen some schools publish private school open house dates in school notices, which is practically an endorsement of leaving OUSD. Joaquin Miller has always had most of their kids go to Montera. The previous (JM) principal made sure the students had connections to the middle school. I wish that those principals on that list would make a real effort to make sure their families aren’t just basing their decisions on what they think the other families are doing. Fifth grade teachers should be taking kids to visit middle schools and having their students do research on the different schools. They should also be reaching out to parents to fill out options forms.

    Side bar – It would be interesting to see how many of those leaving are going to charter schools.

  • Hills Parent

    OUSD needs a competitive, academic, magnet middle school. That would go a LONG way to retaining the high performing middle school children. I’ve heard about too many problems that my friends and neighbors have had at OUSD middle schools – distractions in the classroom, poor behavior among students, drug problems, bullying, violence, robberies, feeling unsafe and so on – and there is simply no way I would ever send my children to one of those schools. The teaching environment is too compromised at most OUSD middle schools (even though I believe than many of the teachers themselves are probably great).

    I have African American friends who say that most of the middle schools in OUSD are “too ghetto” and that they wouldn’t consider sending their children to those schools.

    Aside from the lack of focus on rigorous education, as an upper middle class Caucasian family, also I don’t like that my children would have few peers in their racial and socio-economic groups. I’m all for diversity, but it’s just as important for my children to feel like they fit in and part of this is having some peers that are similar to themselves.

    I’m going to have to find alternatives!

  • Tim

    Can you blame parents for wanting a better school and education for their children? What does color have to do with a terrible school system? I visted Claremont Middle School and decided not to send my daughter there simply because of the focus on the “at risk” students ( a term used by the principal. I hjonestly felt that my daughter would be at risk by attending this school.

    I have read over and over on this and other blogs about the middle school problem in the district. I simply encourage parents to visit the different middle schools.

    My daughter now goes to a private middle school in Alameda and though money is tight- her sefty matters more. As for the charter school questions- it was not for me- I do not like the focus on dicipline for my kid.

    I read a report on this blog once – time ago that over 22,000 students go to other schools or districts and that charters recieve about 7,000 students. These numbers quite obviously demnstrate that the hill students leave as mine did.

    We have not even taked abiout high schools! After reading highlights of the strategic plan, its obvious to me at least, they will not get better.

  • Arismom

    It is during the middle school years when children begin to develop their sense of being and authority.Most importantly, their peers become very important at this age, as does questioning of authority.

    So, tie this in with inner city gangs, drugs, and all of the rest of the Oakland problems. Also, this city will make excuse after excuse about why OUSD is bad.

    I will not send my kids to schools where normal human development is hijacked by thugs who are supported and excused. If me, a white mother were to bring up the truth- I would be a racist.

    Many OUSD middle schools are dangerous places , regardless of how they spin it. Having a choice is a great thing right?

  • Celia

    I have 2 sons, one currently at Bret Harte and the other now at Tech. Both have gotten a solid education at Bret Harte and and have made a wide range of friends. We are white, middle class and came through a hills elementary school. Yes, if there were more proficient and advanced students in their classes, they would have been challenged more. Yes some of their teachers didn’t have classroom management down perfectly. Yes there are students who have already checked out of school in some of the classes. But both my kids are thriving and very happy. If we as a community don’t go to school together as kids, it’s a lot harder to bridge the big differences as adults and learn how to work together to solve Oakland’s problems.

  • Steven Weinberg

    I was teaching at Claremont Middle School in the early 1980s when a program did succeed in bringing far more students from Chabot to Claremont. (In those days, most Peralta students came to Claremont even before the new program.) The Claremont changes were part of an area-wide program, called SOAR, which also brought Dennis Chaconas to Tech and marked the beginning of the Paideia program there.

    The program at Claremont had a number of elements. A district team held meetings at each feeder school and asked parents to describe the kind of middle school they would like to send their children to. A new administrative staff was selected, including a Feeder School Coordinator. The new principal did not remove teachers who had been on the staff, but she was given a free hand to select all new staff members, and quite a few strong teachers were added. The SOAR program included a considerable amount of extra money, and high level academic classes were added to the master program even though there were not enough students enrolled in them to support them as part of the regular budget. The Feeder School Coordinator worked tireless to bring families to school for tours. The new administration enforced a strong disciplinary policy.

    As part of this program the grade levels for the North Oakland schools were changed. Tech added a ninth grade and Claremont became a 6-8 middle school, instead of a 7-9 junior high. Some elementary schools in the area remained K-6, while those that were over-crowded sent their sixth graders to Claremont.

    The district supported the school’s effort by enacting a policy that made it impossible for students living in the Claremont boundary area to attend any other middle school, so parents had to either select Claremont or leave the district. This helped bring a critical mass of students from Chabot to Claremont. With this core of students in place, Claremont found it possible to recruit students who attended private K-5 schools and OUSD elementary schools outside Claremont’s boundaries.

    The SOAR program was highly successful, but it did not achieve all its goals. Claremont was never able to attract students from Hillcrest, half of whom lived in the Claremont area and half in the Montera area. I’m not fully versed in all the changes that took place at Tech, but that part of the program also met its main goal. Before the program began, Tech had only about 700 students, having been displaced from its campus during a 5-year rebuilding program, during which it was housed on the old Laney campus on Grove Street (now MLK). The combination of the restored building and the SOAR program brought the school back to its current size (2,000 students).

    Based on the Claremont experience I would consider several elements key to successfully breaking patterns that encourage parents to leave OUSD after fifth grade. First, it requires patience. It required a year of community discussions and a year of supporting a new program based on those discussions before the students began to come in large numbers. Second, it required a strong administrative team. Third, it needed significant extra funds. Finally, it depended upon removing other options for the parents in the area.

    Obviously some elements from the SOAR program would be difficult to duplicate today, but district planners would be wise to review the lessons of the 1980s when making future plans.

  • Oakland Parent

    I want to follow up on something Oakland Teacher said. My son is in sixth grade at Montera after going to Joaquin Miller. There is a real coordinated effort by parents and both schools to expose the 5th graders to Montera and to help parents get informed. As was said the vast majority of the 5th graders at Joaquin Miller went to Montera and we are very happy with the education that he has gotten so far and have no safety concerns. Obviously this level of coordination is facilitated by the fact that the schools are next door to one another but I think that a similar effort could be made at other hills schools if their 5th graders are choosing not to got to Montera.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Not to piss off anybody, but I watched a story on illegal immigration that brought up the same issue. The story mentioned a district that had to shift resources away from honors and GATE classes to remedial classes to address an influx of English learners – who they presumed were illegal immigrants.

    That isn’t Oakland’s primary problem, but if underperforming students are the majority, it makes sense that resources would shift to serve them. With the overall lack of resources, schools simply can’t do everything. Savvy parents now have options and Options to make these decisions, even without additional cost (e.g. charters).

    OUSD better figure this out or it will continue to get the same money to educate kids that need more and more resources to help. Nextset might say that’s already happening and charters have just allowed it to accelerate beyond the wealthy.

    Magnet schools might help, but I would not want to see the equivalent of a white/asian school and then everybody else. We’ve already got that at Berkeley and it just reinforces the inequity we’re used to.

  • Pro-Tracking

    Last year (or was it two years ago?) there were a series of meetings at Claremont MS for the purpose of trying to get parents attending local elementary schools to consider Claremont. I asked the NEXO if there were honors courses at Claremont and she said, “no, but there is differentiated instruction.” And that right there is the number one reason why I would never consider an Oakland public middle school. Why on earth would I send my high performing child to a school where a teacher has to meet her needs as well as the needs of students who never reached proficiency during their K-5 years?

    OUSD will NEVER attract the high performers to its middle schools until it offers plenty of honors courses for grades 6-8.

    Sup Smith – help the district get OVER its guilt about tracking. Get the discussion going. We do the right thing by NOT tracking in elementary school but we DO track in high school (AP courses, Padeia program, etc.). Why not extend it to middle school?

  • Katy Murphy

    I checked with the Pew Hispanic Center after reading about the presumption, cited (though not necessarily endorsed) by TheTruthHurts, that English learners are largely illegal immigrants. Here are a couple of statistics that might surprise you:

    – 84 percent of the Latino public schoolchildren in the United States — and 93 percent of kindergartners — were born in the U.S.
    – Even among the Latino public school kids who don’t speak English “very well,” 77 percent were born in the United States, according to Pew’s Richard Fry.

    Here’s a link to the report with the above stats: http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=92

  • On the Fence

    It’s always so interesting to learn about this issue and hear the unique stories of families like those interviewed in the article. Our family values education, safety, normal and healthy development, and we’ve been able to find that at our OUSD middle school. Each year about 50% of our high performing school attends the local middle school. My child and many other children at the school have gotten a good education. The kids who are high performing seem to maintain their ability to test well, learn well, develop normally, and socialize normally. I’m very pleased with the choice we made, but would also like to see Sup. Smith really pay attention to the needs of all families so that he can better serve all students.

  • Katy Murphy

    On the Fence: How so?

  • Pro-Tracking

    Katy, I figured TheTruthHurts was referring to middle and high school students because of his reference to honors and remedial classes. Given how fast young children learn English, it seems very likely to me that teenage English learners are immigrant students. Unfortunately, that report you reference does not have it broken down by age and/or level of school.

  • livegreen

    1st, re generalizations about how bad Middle Schools are, there are 2 good Middle Schools in Oakland, and there are others that have the capacity to become that. So carrying over the reputation of all middle schools and the genuinely bad MS’s and applying that to either all the MS’s or the good MS’s is both unfair and untrue. (As I asked Nextset to do when talking about a race, at least put the word “most” in).

    BTW, I do agree even the good MS’s still need to make a lot of progress.

    2nd, I think the Feeder schools should be broadly aligned with the Neighborhood School boundaries. For example, Kaiser being a feeder to Edna Brewer instead of Claremont is just plain weird, and probably more political than logical. In addition it contradicts the new neighborhood centric Strategic Plan.

    3rd, The new OUSD Region Map cuts in between both school boundaries and neighborhoods. It also contradicts the new neighborhood centric Strategic Plan it’s a part of. & if it gets implemented this way, even MORE families are going to leave.

    4th I agree with Pro-Tracking, Hills Parents, and probably even Nextset that OUSD concentrates on “equity” and helping those who are doing poorly rather than on educating all children based on their level & needs. I’m not saying OUSD shouldn’t help the poorer performing students, they should. But OUSD is almost entirely focused on “equity”, which makes it much more of a challenge for higher performing parents to get assistance. Instead it needs to retain & do both!

    & yet attending public OUSD meetings those who speak up say the opposite, that all money goes to schools that already have money. ?? There’s a discrepancy somewhere here, that needs to be clarified by real examples.

    5th-OFCY allocates funding the same way. & it’s not the Hills or Flatland schools that suffer. It’s the schools in between which have poor & middle class students but are not even recognized in City Govt., OUSD or even the Press. In Oakland & OUSD, you’re either rich or your poor, you live in & attend either Flatlands or Hills neighborhoods and schools.

    This factually leaves out the entire Middle Class, the economic level most important for the success of the United States, and yet one gets the impression Oakland does not even recognize it exists. These families cannot afford to stay & go private unless they have access to a good public middle schools. So if they don’t they just leave, taking their #’s, tax $, and PTA money with them.

    6th The Strategic Plan meetings are dominated by Equity and are taking place at higher needs schools which guarantees Equity will be it’s focus. & I understand Tony Smith is all about Equity anyway, so it’s built to get what he wants. If you think Sup Smith wants anything else, he must prove it.

    Remember these points as the Strategic Plan happens. If they don’t get input from middle class or wealthy schools, these students will continue to flee, & OUSD’s challenges will remain the same.

    OUSD needs both Equity AND attention to Proficient & Advanced students. It will take hard work to get that. The challenge will be balancing those two vs. just taking the easy route and doing one or the other.

  • Katy Murphy

    You’re right, it doesn’t break the figures down by age. I’ll see what I can find out. But I wouldn’t assume that middle and high school English learners are immigrants. Check out this L.A. Times story on “long-term English language learners.”


    Nearly 60% of English-language learners in California’s high schools have failed to become proficient in English despite more than six years of a U.S. education, according to a study released Thursday.

    In a survey of 40 school districts, the study found that the majority of long-term English-language learners are U.S. natives who prefer English and are orally bilingual. But they develop major deficits in reading and writing, fail to achieve the academic English needed for educational success and disproportionately drop out of high school, according to the study by Californians Together, a coalition of 22 parent, professional and civil rights organizations.

  • Ramona

    Tony Smith said that part of the cause that OUSD middle and high school scores have dropped were because of the brain drain?

    C’mon! What about the rates of failure, dropouts etc before school alternatives exisited? It isnt like OUSD middle and high school students got ripped off in recent times! This is hostorical in districts like OUSD!

    OUSD does a fine enough job of taking good little kids, and dumbing them down throughout their trajectory in OUSD.

  • Nextset

    Steve Sailer has an interesting article on VDARE.Com comparing education scores from the USA sorted by race with foreign scores.

    The point of which is that the USA education system is not doing badly after all as long as you exclude the black numbers. An interesting concept. My view of the Brave New World we are creating in the USA is that the blacks are being allowed to hang themselves – both in the schools and in the Black Run Cities – as the USA splits into separate societies sorted by birth with different language and mores. For all the hand wringing about how tough things are, those in the know can see that’s not true when you eliminate the “other” part of the country. Sort of like South Africa during aparthied.

    Here’s the link,


    In the future we might start looking for more stats that are broken out by race to see the trends.