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The Oakland school district’s think tank

By Katy Murphy
Thursday, January 13th, 2011 at 9:47 pm in community, families, initiatives.

Along one wall at the Oakland Educational Center at Tilden is a series of questions that begin with: “How do you know if a school is _?” (Choose your adjective: effective, supportive, healthy, safe)

Sticky notes underneath contain the answers, at least of those who took part in the exercise.

The last time I visited Tilden, located in the East Oakland foothills near Mills College, it was a school for general education and special education students. Before that, it was the site of John Swett Elementary. Now it houses grown-ups — school district employees and trainees who are trying to improve Oakland’s public schools. I don’t know exactly how many people work out of there now, but the leadership, curriculum, instruction, charter school and new teacher support offices moved in, along with the new division called Quality Schools Development.

Denise Saddler, a longtime district administrator, describes it as a think tank.

Tonight, about six months after its reincarnation as such, the center held an open house to showcase the work of its various divisions, including one for math, science and technology. In a brief address, Superintendent Tony Smith described the campus as “a learning place where we can be open and connect as adults.” He added, “People need to believe this organization is headed in the right direction.”

New Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf, a Skyline grad, said she constantly reminds people about the school district’s status as the most-improved urban district in California. (Mayor Jean Quan was supposed to stop by after another event, but she hadn’t come by the time I left, 15 minutes before it ended.)

Maybe, with miles of highway between this little oasis and the decaying, institutional space these employees once occupied, new and better ideas will emerge. The setting might feel more welcoming to families, too. I’m told that some of the community events that have been held there have drawn lots of people.

But tonight’s open house sort of looked like a staff event. I saw a couple of parents and nonprofit people, but it was mostly administrators, from what I could tell.

Claudia Ward was one of non-employees I spotted. Her three children attend district, charter and private schools. She said she forwarded the invitation to a bazillion other parents so that they, too, could learn more about the district’s direction and help to shape it. “If they’re really open to change (at OUSD), I want to see them really change,” she said.

Ward said she wished more families had turned out, but that she’s going to keep spreading the word. “You cannot sit down and complain if you’re not willing to get involved,” she said.

Here is a link to the calendar of upcoming events and task force meetings.

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  • Cranky Teacher

    Nice spin on a re-use of Tilden after its controversial closure.

    These are all the folks that were bumped out of the trailers to make way for the educational complex being built opposite 1025 2nd Ave.

    They fit easily in the Tilden portables after all the cutbacks…

  • livegreen

    If they need more portables, our Elementary School has 7 or 8 of them they’re welcome to. (If they replace them with new classrooms like they’ve done for Chabot and Monclair.)

  • Teacher

    Our portables have rotting floors (district carpenter said worst termite damage he’d ever seen in his career when he came to fix a large dip in my floor after six months of requests). The portables have ants and mice. Today, I picked two pieces of feces off the top Kleenex in the box. Work orders go ignored. Oh, and the Internet has been out for 10 days in a school that is meant to be teaching digital media to students.

    Windows are plywood shut with no sunshine or fresh air for students.

    Our 45-year old temporary portables were meant to be replaced with the same money that has gone for Chabot and Oak High, but we were told the money ran out.

    And they wonder why our enrollment keeps dropping.

  • Catherine

    I showed up last night. Expressed opinions and listened. Libby: while we are the most improved district many years in a row it should be noted that only one middle school in our district is not under program improvement or has been reconstituted (not counting Hillcrest – our only K-8, non-charter school).

    One step to accountability in our schools would be to require teachers to create a syllabus that includes what students are expected to learn, what books and materials would be required and what state standards are covered in the class. While many on this blog feel like the state standards are too broad and do not cover enough depth. At least the state standards give the district an opportunity to cover what teachers do not teach or students do not learn.

    For example, the rock cycle in 4th grade (many schools do not teach elementary science) is covered again in middle school with volcanoes. Instead of having students algebra ready in 7th grade (for the vast majority of Oakland students) sixth and seventh grade cover decimals, fractions and exponents. The same is true with writing, when we do not cover sentence and paragraph writing in elementary school, it is covered again in middle school and covered yet again in high school.

    When looking at middle schools for my own sons I asked the schools for the texts, novels, kits and other materials the schools would use. I asked this to make an informed decision on the options form. Bret Harte, Edna Brewer, Montera, Westlake and Claremont. Not a single school would provide the list of novels and textbooks used by their staff. Some referred me to the district website for a list of approved textbooks, but none provided with a list of books used (which may differ or be in addition to those used). I reviewed the handouts and notes of students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades to find out what would be covered and how it would be covered.

    Perhaps it is because I am a relatively new teacher on the block, but I am required to have the lesson plans three months out with weekly modifications based on student achievement. I have a syllabus for each semester and it is sent home for parents / guardians and students to sign. The textbooks, projects, test dates (quizzes are pop and may happen at any time) and a list of where students may find free or nearly free resources.

    When the question is asked what I would expect of a good school – whether it is elementary, middle or high school, I would expect us to be very, very clear with student, parents/guardians, administrators and other teachers at our school as to what we will teach and when, and what texts we will use and when (this allows for only one or two sets of novels that may be rotated, thus saving money). This is what teachers do in many other districts – everyone knows what will be taught and when. This way, when the benchmark tests come and students do not perform well, we can reflect on our own practice; did we teach to our schedule, did our students perform the tasks needed to learn the material, are all students practicing what they have learned at home and so on.

    Many Oakland teachers and community members ask why we cannot treat Oakland teachers like they do with teachers in Finland. We do not act like teachers in Finland. We do not put ourselves out there to be judged against criteria that we agree to teach. I would like to believe that the answer to what a high quality school looks like lies in the planning and implementation of every teacher, every day. Then, we must demand the support of administration to support a strong plan every day with all of their resources behind the classroom teachers.

  • livegreen

    I agree entirely with Catherine. Especially when parents compare with neighboring districts and private schools, where all these course materials and curriculum clearly presented, and mapped out in grade progression?

    The district wants to attract and retain students, but it doesn’t even present or spell out these basic materials, and show a realistic progression of learning. Some teachers give this, others don’t. Those that don’t hand a multi-page copy of State standards that doesn’t clearly spell out how the teacher will implement it in their class. And it doesn’t show a clear progression.

    This is not hard to do. The teacher probably has something they use for their own purposes and to share (even if they have complete control, and Principals have none). Just putting a synopsis out would be an improvement.

    Showing a clear progression between grades would be even better…

  • J.R.

    Livegreen,
    This relates (in a broad way)to a systemic problem in many districts regarding learning progression. Too many ineffective teachers are being given too much latitude(the good teachers are great but the lousy teachers are digging the kids into a hole) in regards to following curriculum and there are many kids not being scaffolded properly if at all. A system has to be created where the teachers gradebooks are scrutinized to assure that the kids are covering the proper material in the proper progression.