The Kindergarten Question

I don’t know how I missed this, but in case you did, too: Annelisa Hedgecock wrote this Op-Ed piece in Oakland North a couple of weeks ago about her family’s school search — and the reactions she gets from other parents when the name of her kid’s Oakland public elementary school comes up.

Here’s how it starts:

As sure as it’s the New Year, it’s also school selection season in Oakland. Obsessing about kindergarten is one of those things almost every middle-class parent here does, as normal as buying a family membership at the zoo. So, parents are touring private school after private school.

“It’s a nightmare,” sighed one mom to me in the library, lamenting her packed schedule. A well-meaning dad in the grocery store explained, “Well, we only have one, so we can do it. What are you going to do? You have two! That’s going to cost twice as much!” Some are taking on additional jobs in order to afford it all. Many are planning moves to different districts, or scheming to fake their addresses. But I love my child so much, they say. She’s sensitive, smart, gets bored easily, loves art, is so good at numbers, can’t sit still, is young for her age, is old for her grade, needs small classes, will be a GATE student, has to play sports…I just want what’s best for her, the best. And, despite all of this expense and angst, many are freely dismissing Oakland public schools without ever stepping inside of one.

Why is this? I’ve participated in (and, I’ll confess, eavesdropped on) many conversations about local schools, and this talk almost always has a certain Oakland flavor––sheer panic. But is it justified?

Can you relate to Hedgecock — or, maybe, to the other parents in the piece?

Katy Murphy

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

  • Ms. J.

    I read the whole piece and I think it was great. I completely agree with Hedgecock and I congratulate her for her combination of common sense and idealism. Excellent. We need more families like that.

  • livegreen

    Great comments. Sequoia is an example of one of the middle class “slope” or “ridge” or “midlands” schools that represent the broad diversity, successes, and challenges of OUSD and Oakland, as is Glenview that another parent mentions.

    OUSD and the City’s OFCY budget (Kids First) has a habit of ignoring some of these schools, or treating them like they’re wealthy hills schools, especially after they fall below 50% Free & Reduced Lunch (FRL). The second they’re at 49% they risk cut-off.

    Yet Sequoia, Glenview, Peralta, Kaiser and others r steadily improving and very very diverse. They r a model for Oakland and OUSD willfully ignores them at its own peril.

  • former hills parent

    All I can say about this is that my K daughter learned material that was taught in first grade in my previous Oakland hills school. However, she was taught this in another school district. We moved from Oakland so that my children could experience rigor, which was sorely lacking in the Oakland hills school.

  • Sue


    I sincerely wish you the best with your child. Oakland Public Schools often recieve a tarnished reputation for all of the non hills schools and sadly, much of it is with good reason. I will say however, that Sequoia has been spoken of much better of late, however, OUSD schools deal with problems in grades beyond the K level.

    As a parent , the whole incident at Markham arises in one’s mind as they decide for their child. However that was reported, what about all unreported incidents? They do occur. Also it sounds that at least you have a choice, many of those that attend that and other OUSD Non hills schools do not, and that group has multitude of persepctives and issues that influence the school via the student body.

    I had my struggles with OUSD (Especially Brett Harte Middle) and gave up. You have to do what is right by you and your family and not the pressures of any neighbor or blogger.

    Good Luck.

  • livegreen

    Sue mentions Brett Harte, which has shown signs of improvement recently. That would continue if the strong students at Sequoia continue on to Brett Harte (both schools are in the same neighborhood). So check out the new OUSD Regional Map:


    Why does it split the schools apart?

  • Starshaped

    The words rigor and Kindergarten shouldn’t even be in the same sentence. Whenever I hear some talk about how their kids is sensitive, or easily bored (the French say I bore myself which is often the case with these kids), or exceptionally intelligent, I look them over very carefully. Everybodies kid is special to them. Parents today coddle their children too much. They don’t allow them to be children and have experiences and get dirty. They DO everything for them and don’t allow them to DO. I’ve heard of parents calling college professors to challenges the grade junior got in the class. Let your child have real experiences, make mistakes, skin their knee. Standardized tests and rigor (ie, drill and kill) is not education or illuminating or interesting.

  • Ms. McLaughlin

    I wonder how many parents realize that California law does not require that children attend kindergarten at all.

    When I was in kindergarten, we did a few worksheets matching words with pictures (this was fun because we got to use scissors and paste), learned some counting rhymes, and sang some songs. The teacher would read us a story or do a little puppet show every day while we had cookies and juice. The rest of the day was about running around outside, climbing on the jungle gym, swinging on the swings, playing duck duck goose, and generally burning off energy. When it was raining we stayed inside and painted pictures or made stuff with clay. There was also an amazing toy corner with an impressive play kitchen and a lot of puzzles. There was a huge rocking chair where the teacher used to comfort the occasional student who was having a bad day.

    There was no such thing as working too slowly, or getting in trouble if the worksheets weren’t perfect, or rushing to move to the next content standard, or risking the teacher’s disapproval for anything besides kicking, biting, or otherwise being a meanie. (It wasn’t until first grade that I learned to dislike school and fear public humiliation. Who knew there was a wrong way to fingerpaint? But that scandal paled in comparison to the day one of our newly hatched baby chicks was accidentally stomped flat by a classmate who was always being hollered at for not keeping quiet and still all day long. That poor little boy is probably still scarred for life.)

    These days, if I had children, I’d probably be inclined to keep them home until first grade, and just skip kindergarten altogether. When kids are five years old, and all their parts are still fairly new, they’re naturally curious about pretty much everything going on around them. I can easily see how a lot of rigorous academic pressure, rigid deadlines, behavior charts, and so forth might squish the love of learning right out of such little tiny kids.

  • livegreen

    Except children who don’t attend K are often from families who aren’t doing much at all with their children, so they enter 1st grade already behind, often with no habit of attention, or experience interacting with other children.

    Just because some had challenges with finger painting as a Kinder when they were young doesn’t mean this is predominant in OUSD, and more than my saying I never heard of such a thing means it never happened.

    My child had a very pleasant first year as an OUSD Kinder. In fact it went much better than we expected.

  • gary

    I have had the privilege of watching, and participating in, the decisionmaking process described by Ms. Hedgecock. My granddaughter lives in a two parent family, where both college educated parents work, she’s had a very strong preschool, and their friends often send their children to private or elite charter schools. Their local school is Title 1, the lowest performing in their school district. They visited at least ten schools, this one was the lowest performing, by nearly every standard. None of her preschool friends were choosing this school, few were ethnically the same, so they would have to start making friends all over again.

    But they also knew how important attending the neighborhood public school was to us. So they made a decision to go this September. The first steps were to: meet the principal(young, welcoming, and visionary for the school), sit in on the class (wonderful teacher, spanish freely used and learned), and careful assessment of the performance data (steady growth in API, AYP fine for non SES, non SPED kids). The school also had several mixers so that kids (but mostly parents) could see who’s going to the school, and feel comfortable.

    So they started this September; every day, one of the parents walk her to school, say goodbye, and watch her line up with the others. They volunteer on a very small PTO, they fundraise, they campaigned for a parcel tax that failed, and a sales tax that passed, they appreciate the teacher.

    Still, there are challenges; the afterschool program is sketchy; because they both work, they can’t volunteer in the classroom; the teacher is becoming a mom in February. It’s not perfect, but because they are giving it a chance, our granddaughter is getting a perfectly good public education (although they are still going over letters, and she reads words), she’s meeting new neighbor friends she wouldn’t have in other schools, and they are supporting their public school system.

    We can’t make decisions for others, and I would still have loved them for whatever decision they made, and there may be some disgusting event that happens at their school that brings scandal and fear to parents, but I know that our steady and enacted commitment to Oakland’s public schools made a difference in their decision to choose their daughter’s public school. Really, what we as a community express as our commitment to our schools (like our own parcel taxes and bond measures), helps parents like Ms. Hedgecock’s, make the decision for their family.

  • Jenna

    I agree with Starshaped AND I agree with Former Hills Parent. While rigor should not be used in kindergarten, my children learned more in their play-based preschool than in their kindergarten class – more about school procedures (how to line up, how to wait and take turns listening and speaking, etc.) and in scholarship (looking at colors and numbers and being able to identify and make sense of them, looking at letters and recognizing that letters have sound, stringing together letters and sounds makes words and words make sentences).Through play, teachers “reading to children on demand” meaning when children are interested in a book teachers stop and read the book and 8 – 10 books are read to children each day; through careful speech, please use the red watering can to water the green plants today; and through allowing students choice, “bring your coat and hat outside even if you are not cold now and do not want to wear them, we will be outside for an hour and you may change your mind and you will need to have them with you” rather than “we are going outside, put on your coat” helps children learn to be critical thinkers. I fear this is what is missing in some of our kindergarten classrooms. Also, the sloppy use of language “gist” for “just”, “git” for “get” and so on. While some may argue the pickiness, kindergarten is designed, not as a required grade for academics, but to begin access to how people behave in classrooms and in school. It is the beginning of code-switching. When we have sloppiness in our kindergarten code-switching, we will have difficulty teaching code switching in first and second grade.

    I also generally agree with neighborhood schools. What I am finding in Oakland schools in not the kindergarten question – but the third, fourth and fifth grade and beyond question. The questions that come when you do put rigor in the sentence with grade levels. These grade is where we see the scholarship or lack thereof that was set in kindergarten, first and second grade. If there was not a set of high expectations, for example in math where children learned addition and subtraction facts with automaticity by second grade, how can we expect third graders to learn their multiplication facts. Taking that further, without a strong foundation of math facts, abstract thinking becomes difficult. When students have to stop and count on their fingers for multiplication they lose the flow of learning the mathematics in the same way that if third graders stop to use phonics to sound out words they lose the meaning of a sentence.

    This is what I see with many of our Oakland students in classrooms. I believe Sequoia is a good school, I believe Glenview is a good school. Just as I believe that the hills elementary schools are good schools. Until about second grade, they are all good schools. What sets apart the vast majority of Oakland public, non-charter schools is the requirement that students KNOW the material, not just get test scores in the proficient and advanced categories, but KNOW THE MATERIAL in a way that makes the material become background knowledge for future learning.

    In my opinion, that is what is missing – the automaticity of learning to reading, learning addition, subtraction, multiplication and division math facts, learning prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin root words and word roots. So, while my sons completed what is a “10” rated “Blue” school education. Neither son was held accountable for the automaticity of this knowledge. This is what I wish I had known as a mom of elementary students – that I have come to know as the mom of a middle and high schooler – that my sons are behind other students because we did not REQUIRE this knowledge of every Oakland student.

  • Harold

    @9&10 – Thank you for your thoughtful posts and commitment to neighborhood schools!

  • livegreen

    Some of that has to come from home. The challenge for public schools & teachers is that the population is so academically diversified. It’s very difficult to teach to all levels with this disparity and with lack of OUSD support regarding discipline if a class has even 1 disruptive student (as we’ve heard here).

    Once again, looking at the in-between schools will come closest to the lessons and answers. Beyond Sequoia and Glenview, this means Peralta, Kaiser, Carl Munck, and a few others.

    But my bet is OUSD will continue to ignore them. (Do they even know they exist?) Why should OUSD learn when the status quo and big statements about equity sound so good and are so easy to make? Parents in Elementary School can keep their kids up to par and improve their schools (like Sequoia has). But with lack of support from OUSD, once they get to Middle School, more and more middle class parents bail. By the time they get to High School, it’s mostly gone.

    Just another Strategic Plan that says it will make progress but not change a thing. This time by putting in health services, a noble goal to be sure, but not an Academic one.

    The improvements that have happened have been mostly because of the parents and teachers. Mostly not because of OUSD. Will Tony Smith listen? Only he knows. But my impression so far is he’s also only concerned about equity, and he is indifferent to the Middle Class.

    Will they actually do anything about the #’s of Proficient and Advanced students who leave the district at Middle School? They haven’t demonstrated any effort so far. Where’s the Task Force?

  • Kristen

    There is a tone in Annelisa’s article that I hear sometimes, too and it absolutely shocks me.

    One liberal, educated woman I know was telling me about her daughter moving to Piedmont because she didn’t want her child to be around “you know, the language.” A meaningful nod. Yeah, there are communities in Oakland that speak differently. The difference between those who choose public schools and those who fear public schools lies deep within the issue of difference and diversity. I feel so angry and sad when I hear this tone. Angry because it’s so righteously prejudiced; sad because that’s one more person whose children will never experience the rewards of real diversity (and I’m talking material and ability as well as ethnic)—or learn how to deal with its challenge.

    Doubly sad, because we need those parents on our team to make the system work. The comment above this points out what a difference middle-class, educated parents can make.

  • Nextset

    Kristen: If you think diversity pays, you do it.

    The rest of us do not want the crime, the disease, the violence, the pants sagging, the promiscuity, and the lack of upward mobility. that’s what “diversity” as practiced by liberals brings.

    This is especially important for black and brown children. Professional blacks would rather send their kids to Moraga and Piedmont than OUSD because their chances for university level education and the professions are wrecked by the “education” handed out in OUSD.

    And there is a big issue of safety. As I’ve blogged before when another black child is shot dead, the OUSD students are taught incaution in the name of “tolerance”. Ghetto blacks live a life of exaggerated risk which becomes so normal they no longer can perceive such behaviors as risky at all. Black parents who intend for their children to have a professional career are risk avoidant – they intend to do things that increase not decrease the odds of doing well.

    One of the first things I mention when I did career day in the public schools – and it’s been awhile – is to tell the lawyer wanna-bees to lose their loser friends.

    In this case we are talking about kindergarten. The point is the same. You really need to control associations. You do not want your kids exposed to trash or associating with trash. There is just no reason for it. The fleas can jump.

  • livegreen

    Nextet, I agree with you, but only in part. As you allude to there are black kids who are gangsta wanna-bees, but there are also those who are future professionals. There are those who are also between, who won’t go to college but who will be solid citizens and have blue collar jobs. Then there are those on the fence who face pressure & could go either way.

    This is similar to Asians, Latinos, and Caucasians, just skewing the numbers based on economic challenges, city population #s and density, and migration patterns.

    The point is within each community there is economic and social diversity. And most blacks in Oakland are upstanding citizens, we just never hear about it in the press, to whom it is not dramatic and a non-story (except for Katy, who has posted some positive stories. I hope to hear more of them).

    The diversity at our school is tremendous and, while there r disruptive kids (who we hear more about), the vast majority of ALL races including black are simply NOT disruptive. There are blacks who are professionals:doctors, realtors, school employees, psychologists, etc. Then there are blue collar: those who are plumbers, mechanics, construction, carpenters, etc. Same as the Latinos, whites and Asians. Many earn more than we do, many less.

    This is diversity. Diversity that’s not just idealistic, but that really works.

    OUSD and Oakland are so often focussed on helping only those that are the least or worst off or most riled up among us, that they don’t support those on the fence (before they fall ) or those that are between and can show a positive example. Instead they spend money on the hardest cases, appeasing protestors, and waiting for those on the fence to fall and then pick up the pieces. Everyone else, black white Asian Latino, go unnoticed until that happens.

    Then, as you mention, professional blacks leave the city, just like their white, Latino and Asian counterparts. Remember blacks have been one of the biggest populations to leave Oakland (as you allude to). They are just as sick of the violence and chaos at schools as anybody else.

    Then the population that remains is much poorer, and has less resources. And ironically OUSD and the City call for more “equity” and more tax $. Well how’s that working out for you? When your middleclass can’t afford to live here any more, or have to pick a violent prone area, and even the most liberal home owners finally got fed up and vote down new prop taxes (even though homeowners make up just 40% of the City), most families of proficient and advanced students (of all races) leave OUSD after K-5 (if they even bothered with that).

    Those who stayed in Oakland only about 50% go to OUSD, and of those who do many option to better schools. (Now if they socially engineer Options and make it more restrictive, what affect do you think that will have?)

    So while I agree with you that the most liberal, idealistic form of diversity is just a slogan that doesn’t work, I think there is a more practical, more real, more recent form that does.

    I wish the City and OUSD would wake up and promote this kind of diversity, then schools could afford greater equity, and the rest would be easier and more affordable. But there’s a lag between what’s on the ground and our leaders, elected and non elected alike.

    Meanwhile citizens are waking up. Will OUSD?

    Again, I ask, prove it: where’s the Task Force?

  • Jenna

    Kristen we all know the subtle nods to the term “the language” and we know that it usually has to do with a particular ethic group, but it also has to do with socioeconomics and the students inability to code switch. Code switching is what we all do when we speak to Aunt Mabel and not our friends, it is the language we use in when asking the DMV clerk to help us rather than talking to our spouses.

    What we have not done a good job of is requiring code switching at school beginning in kindergarten. I know that it is not too early to do so for many families because the same families that cry foul about code switching (read, Academic English) teach their very, very young children to code-switch for church.

    Our problem is that we do not require students to speak Academic English at school. Many children in communities often do not know how much money or how little money a child has. For example, in Moraga, a child and her family may be renting a one-bedroom apartment to get into the schools. The family earns the same amount of money as another family in Oakland. From the first day of school in Moraga students are taught how to speak at school, nothing less is tolerated. All students sound similar. All students have a similar range of behavior. You do not know the child from a family who lives in an owed five bedroom house from the child in the one bedroom rented apartment because the expected behavior is the same. in Oakland we do not expect the same behavior. Teachers, volunteers, tutors, library workers, after school care givers are told not to correct children’s lack of Academic English because it will make them feel bad about themselves.

    Teachers, volunteers, tutors, library workers, after school care givers are told to model the correct grammar and students will begin to imitate over time. But it is simply not true. Students do not hear the difference until they are told there is a difference, but alas, the notes I read from my son’s teacher’s recent workshop (January 28) explicitly said not to correct the students.

    True self-esteem comes from working hard and doing a job well. It does not come from mediocre work and mediocre speech that we constantly shout hooray about and then speak differently. Students are not that naive or stupid.

    Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn away from it. In Oakland, we have chosen not to do this. Families who move to other school districts choose a different educational path because it is childhood training the creates a path for life.