An Oakland high school’s last AP class is cut, but teachers teach it anyway

AP ENGLISH at East Oakland School of the Arts. Photo by D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group

Their school is broke, their teaching staff is smaller than ever, and the last advanced placement course has been slashed from the master schedule.

But the two-member English department at Castlemont’s East Oakland School of the Arts decided to teach AP English anyway, before school and during an arts period.

About 20 students finished their first semester last month. Some told me they signed up with their college applications in mind, but that the course has made them far more prepared for college-level work. And that they love to read now, on their own.

Many education stories either outrage or inspire, but I’ve heard reactions of both kinds from this one.

You can read the full story here.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Steven Weinberg

    Congratulations to the students and the teachers involved in this program. I knew many of the students interviewed in the newspaper article when they were at Frick Middle School, and I am not surprised by their resilience nor their academic drive, and I expect they will meet further success in college and beyond.

  • Jaymie

    Really proud of some former Frick MS students quoted and pictured in the article. They had drive then and I am proud to still see it being nurtured.

  • The real issue

    Yet another example of teachers forced to give up personal lives for the education of our children. Why is it that teachers are the ones who have to give, give, give, bend, bend, bend, break, break, break. We wonder why no one wants to do the job.

    While I admire the teachers stepping up to the plate, I am disgusted that Flint allowed this cut. Twenty students willing to take a challenging course deserve the funding to make it happen.

  • Hot r

    This is one of the saddest, yet most touching stories you have written Katy and symptomatic of how budget cuts affect kids and teachers too resilient and dedicated to admit defeat. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help these teachers and their students. OUSD has to drop the obscene amount of consultant money it pays and fund these teachers efforts right away. Education is the civil rights issue of our time. This story summed it all up for me.

  • chocolatesebastian

    Glad you reported this story. The District is full of strong committed teachers and students such as the ones featured. How will the teacher stipend compare to the average consultant’s hourly rate? How much are we paying consultants and admin. staff to run the District’s strategic planning effort, which most teachers and students have no time to show up at.

  • On The Fence

    My reaction to this story is completely different. While I do recognize efforts by the children and heroics by the teachers, for me this story is about the stupidity of OUSD continuously trying to reinvent the wheel by using the wonky wisdom ‘du jour’. I’m sure that gobs and gobs of money have been spent to set up dozens of little high schools to cure the problems of disenfranchisement, drop out rates, achievement gaps, poverty, attrition…. And they were going to be soooo popular and the ‘choice’ would help parents and students become much better prepared for the future! Except that many of these schools have dwindled to nothing and, in my view, have failed utterly.

    But forget the small school movement, today we are going to spend our time and gobs, and gobs of money on a new school design, which I like to think of as a great big social service Mecca with a little education on the side. I think these are This new plan will solve all our problems and engage the whole dang family! Disenfranchisement, drop out rates and poverty will all be gone from OUSD forever!

    To me, this is also a fantastic reminder that all the philanthropist billionaires who are influencing our public education (some of whom are now working towards the privatization of public education) really don’t have a very good track record at success, at least in our community.

    To be clear, I don’t believe that there are easy answers to the problems that OUSD faces. Ultimately, I do not believe that we can ‘redesign’ or pay our way out of those problems. Some kids will not be reached. I’d like to see OUSD focus more on the multitude of kids who can. For one, I’d like to see OUSD focus on retaining and serving the types of students mentioned in this article, motivated learners, who have largely been ignored. For another, I’d like to see OUSD give all kids the opportunity to learn in an environment of stricter discipline. Discipline has been mentioned as a dire problem for which many on this forum have tirelessly clamored, and it’d be a lot cheaper than any of their other ‘redesigns’.

  • Alice Spearman

    I just wonder why the school administrator decided that the school needed to hire a vice principal rather than keep this AP class? Makes one wonder.

  • EO Teacher

    As far as I know, both the principal and the vice principal at EOSA are also teaching classes during the day. So I’m not sure Ms. Spearman is identifying a one for one trade off.

  • Andy

    Hot R, you can always help through donors choose, http://www.donorschoose.org/donors/search.html?zone=402&community=1751:3&school=24008 There are currently four projects East Oakland School of the Arts.

  • Alice Spearman

    To me this is a good example of why there needs to be changes on this campus. You do not sacrifice a Required Class for a staff position, regardless of who is teaching. The district requires that All High Schools Teach A-G Classes. Previous years there was not a VP, what about a counselor for the students, where are the priorities to serve students.
    There are many challenges that are now facing schools with very small enrollments. I wonder if anyone has thought about why the greater community does not send their students to the campus. I do have a grandaughter attending EOSA, so I am very familar with the campus and class offerings. I also listen to the greater Castlemont Community, they are asking for more than what is being offered on the entire campus inclusive, not just one site.

  • Gordon Danning

    MS. Spearman:

    I don’t think it is appropriate for a school board member to publicly second-guess a principal’s budget decisions – especially when said school board member appears to be operating under mistaken assumptions. There is nothing in the article that even remotely implies that EOSA is not offering a full slate of A-G classes. It is very obvious that the principal felt that he or she could not afford a separate section of AP English for only 20 students, so those students were assigned to a regular English 12 class (presumably with 32 students).

    Further, every school needs SOME administrators to deal with discipline, district, state and federal regs, etc, etc. When a school loses kids, SOMETHING has to give, be it AP English, or music, or small algebra classes, or a counselor, or an administrator. Those are HARD decisions, and should be respected as such. Is it any wonder that OUSD has a hard time recruiting principals?

  • oaklandteacher

    This article represents the incredible love, dedication and engagement of these students and teachers. Yes, the teachers had to do it on their own time as did the students but that should be commended. Quality teaching and quality learning…

    I also agree that a principal has to make MANY difficult decisions and do not think a school board member who works with EOSA should be publicly questioning him. All the facts are not in this article and I believe that if you do have questions Ms. Spearman whether as a grandparent or as a school board member that you should address it privately.

  • Jesse James

    I agree with 10, 11 and 12. I think administrators should be allowed freedom in choosing/creating staff and positions. I believe there is a procedure for doing so. It is formalized in the school’s SSC and then sent to the school board for approval. It is important to be more careful and thoughtful with policies and procedures now that the district is under local control.

    We are in charge of our school district, let’s use the information, policies and procedures we have to really make it work. Not look back and bite schools that are trying to meet their students’ needs.

    I also agree that OUSD has a hard time recruiting principals just as it does teachers. The compensation is pretty pathetic, especially compared to teacher salaries. It is especially heartbreaking when you see the salary difference between elementary and middle school principal pay scales; there is none. The middle school principal has so much more on his/her plate.

    Site administrators should have their own task force. Do they? How to balance procedures, policies, kids’ academic wellness, managing staff and budget, as well as keeping up to date on curriculum and educational leadership research would be topic number one, (if I ran the world.) Or better yet, how can we all support each other so principals don’t feel shot down by their communities, as I think one principal might feel from reading this blog.

  • Oakland Teacher

    The whole thread above is another example of the difficulties faced by small schools when their small schools monies (e.g. Gates) have dried up. They do not have the enrollment needed to offer the same services and classes as a comprehensive high school. The same (unfortunately) goes for all K-12 schools. While the teachers are certainly admirable, no one should have to be faced with this situation. Are their any other AP classes offered at the school? Every high school needs to have English, Math, Science and Social Studies AP classes offered to students who want to take them. K-8 schools face the same type of decisions, except they apply to art, music, library, etc…

  • Oakland Teacher

    I want to add that in elementary schools, the same effect also plays out with split grade classes. The administrator has to create multiple mixed grade classes in schools that are underfunded, as it is the only way to keep the schools open.

    I do not envy the principals who have to make these tough decisions. It is like asking whether they want to cut off an arm or a leg.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Board Member Spearman:

    Your willingness to speak your mind is for me one of your best qualifies.

    Clearly the Board has a responsibility to provide policy direction to its principals on use of their RBB decision making power. In these tough times of budget cuts and more cuts the Board should make its priorities clear to principals and the public.

    A seductive aspect of RBB is that the Board is able to remain silent on an issue such as the value and priority of advanced placement classes.

    If equity is a Board priority then the Board must take a stand on funding priority of advanced placement classes for schools. Whether the Board should have a policy or leave the decision of funding advanced placement up to the RBB power of a school principal is up to a vote of the majority of the School Board.

    But, Board Member Spearman one detail of your statement made on this blog is not clear in my mind: You wrote: “You do not sacrifice a Required Class for a staff position… The district requires that All High Schools Teach A-G Classes.”

    While advanced placement class might meet A-G requirement of the District, there are many A-G classes that are not advanced placement. I believe your statement conflates advanced placement and A-G Board requirement. And, I believe there is no Board requirement for all high schools to offer Advanced Placement classes. And, if there were such a requirement paying for it would be problematic.

    While cuts in education budgets hurt all the children, it is those with the least that get hurt the most. Coverage of this issue of advanced placement classes demonstrates the truth of that statement. There is a huge proposed cut in Obama budget for housing and that will impact the students of the poorest the most. If an advanced placement class remains, perhaps the students without housing will not.

    The headline was “An Oakland High School’s last AP class is cut…” Headlines are not always as accurate as the story because if reporter Katy Murphy writes the story, she does not get to write the headline. My understanding is there are still advanced placement English classes that still remain at the school.

    But, I just don’t know how many advanced placement classes are located in the particular small school reported on. And, I don’t know if small schools allow enrollment from neighboring small schools on the Castlemont campus.

    To misquote Shakespeare: Oh, what a tangled web the District weaves when it attempts to small schools conceive.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jim Mordecai

    Board Member Spearman:

    In my first sentence in posting 16 I misspelled “quality”. Without qualification, I do think your willingness to speak your mind is one of your best “qualities”.

    Jim Mordecai

  • On the Fence


    I agree wholeheartedly with your misquote, but I don’t understand why anyone is up in arms about the lack of AP or other classes in this or any other small school.

    From what I read, issues like this one were expected, known and understood tradeoffs when the district decided to enter into this small school movement. In 2009 Katy reported, “At that time, a movement to create small schools was beginning to catch fire in urban districts across the country. Small schools were touted as a tool to curb sky-high dropout rates and the growing “achievement gap” between poor, often minority students and their middle-class counterparts.

    Proponents, including philanthropist Bill Gates, were willing to trade the wide array of course offerings and other resources available at traditional high schools for a more intimate, innovative learning environment.”

    Well, the chickens have come home to roost. This latest fix for urban public schools did not pan out. The district skips merrily on to the next new fix, the full service community schools. Meanwhile, students and teachers are left holding the bag on the last failure. The kids and teachers in that sinking small school are only some of the victims of this 10 year old misdirection of district funds and attention. Other victims are the myriad other students and teachers whose schools/programs/issues were overlooked when the monies poured into the small school movement. While it is an unfortunate situation, in my opinion, this is not an issue of equity. Everyone got equally screwed by the district.

  • Katy Murphy

    Jim is right that reporters don’t write the final headlines. This one is accurate, though. East Oakland School of the Arts is the high school it refers to. It’s an autonomous high school, and it went from having four AP classes in the master schedule to zero.

    As I understand it, it is possible for a student from one small high school to enroll in a course at another, and some students do. But some of the schools have — or, at least, they had — different bell schedules, which makes it more complicated.

  • Alice Spearman

    Mr. Mordecai, you are right. I was mistaken that an AP Class was a UC Requirement, needed for students who aspire to enter the UC system. However I stand by the statement that these students should have access to High Quality Academic Classes, which this is. I also state privatley and publically that there are choices which should be made on the side of equal student access. I will always question decisions that appear to not side with student academic achievement, no matter what position a staff member has in this district, that is my role as a board member, to ensure equal and high academic access fro all students, this just happens to be a site on a campus I represent.

  • Harold

    Thank you for service Ms. Spearman.

  • del

    “Thank you for service Ms. Spearman.”

    Uh… is publicly calling out employees after the fact instead of investigating ahead of time “service?” Her job is to be on the board of directors, not the board of reactors.
    She had to personally approve their budget. Is she saying she didn’t understand that it would mean cutting an AP class, or that she didn’t care until it hit the paper? And is she really saying that it is better to to complain about this principal on a blog than it is to simply discuss this in person with the principal at one of their regular meetings? Or is she saying that she doesn’t regularly meet with the principals in her district!?!?!?
    And did she really vote to make all classes cover A-G requirements without knowing what that meant!??!
    Is anyone still curious why good administrators are hard to find?

  • J.R.

    Although I know that not everyone is cut out for it, I am still a bit suspicious about leadership(or lack of same).

  • http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/ Sharon


    “More Students Fail Advanced Placement Tests,” WSJ, 2/10/2011

    “As record numbers of high-school students are taking and passing Advanced Placement exams, a rising percentage are scoring at the lowest level possible, according to national data on 2010 graduates released Wednesday.

    “Students posted 1’s, the lowest score possible, on 23% of all AP exams. Ten years ago, that number stood at 14%, according to the College Board, the nonprofit group that administers the exams. The tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, with most colleges offering credit to students who earn a 3 or higher.

    “The sharp uptick in the basement-level scores was seen on 26 of 31 exams given over the 10 years, and was especially pronounced in math and the sciences. The latest graduating class posted the lowest possible score on 37% of biology exams, and 34% of calculus AB exams, the data show.

    “Education experts attribute the low scores to the recent national effort to push more students—no matter how ill-prepared—into AP courses, hoping to get them ready for college. They also blame school districts that have watered down the AP curriculum to accommodate lower-performing students, and students who sign up simply to pad their college application…”

    I know they’re not in vogue and are frowned upon by various people for various reasons, but my vote would be for the middle ground of more honors courses.

  • Jesse James

    Even though I don’t agree with Ms.Spearman’s post about the principal, I appreciate her voice here. She’s is the only one actively engaged in the conversation. Where are the others? She also is committed to making schools better and her intense passion is a good thing for us. She may not always get it right, but at least she’s there and communicating, unlike most of the school board and the district.

    Can we get back now to the original conversation?

  • On the Fence


    I’ll be watching Race to Nowhere for a second time this week, and I’m with you that a middle ground of honors courses might be a better fit for many students for reasons of preparation, and for reasons of stress and pressure.

    However, I wondered if you had seen the press last week that reported that California students ranked among the highest in the nation on the AP tests.

    “California schools placed among the best in the country when it comes to students passing Advanced Placement tests, one of the few education rankings in which the state doesn’t sit at the bottom of the barrel with Mississippi, according to a national report released Wednesday.

    Almost a quarter of the state’s high school Class of 2010 passed at least one Advanced Placement test before graduation, according to the nonprofit CollegeBoard, which oversees the Advanced Placement Program.

    Only five states topped California’s pass rate of 22.3 percent: Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

    The national average was 16.9 percent. Mississippi came in last at 4.4 percent.

    California’s showing was an improvement over 2009, when just over 20 percent of the state’s students passed the test, and a marked improvement over a decade ago, when 16 percent of California students passed it. Students who succeed at the test are awarded college course credit.”

    Did anyone else see this report last week?

  • On the Fence

    Sorry, still off topic, but I should have told you where I read this.

    Advanced Placement: Calif. schools rate near top
    Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writer
    San Francisco Chronicle February 10, 2011 04:00 AM.

  • Katy Murphy

    In California, more of last year’s graduating seniors had taken an AP test and more had passed at least one of the tests they took than students had in previous years, according to the report.

    The report didn’t give (or emphasize) an overall pass rate for all exams taken, though. In other words, if I took three AP tests and scored a 1, a 1 and a 3 on them, I’d be counted in the “pass” group.

    Here are some more stats in the brief I wrote last week: http://bit.ly/eV2KBy
    and here is a link to The College Board report: http://apreport.collegeboard.org/

  • Gordon Danning

    On the Fence:

    Re: honors classes, my understanding is that the district discourages them, because in the past there has been no way to ensure that classes denominated “honors” were truly deserving of the label, and many were, in fact, not very rigorous. That can still be a problem with AP, but at least AP teachers must attend AP training (not all of which is very good, alas), and must submit a syllabus to the College Board for approval.

  • On the Fence

    Katy and Gordon,

    Thanks for the clarification, the links and further discussion. Very interesting and complicated. Did I read correctly that 34% of graduating seniors in CA take at least one AP exam? I have a child entering HS and this statistic is a bit of an eye opener. I don’t think I really appreciated how prevalent these tests have become. Even with my bent toward reducing the level of ‘pressure to perform’ that my kids will face in HS, it will be hard not to join in this AP testing norm.

    It is increasingly hard to find the balance between appropriate academic challenges and rigor vs. overburden, burn out, stress or even mental decompensation. Partly it will be up to my children to determine what this balance will be for them, but given their immaturity, partly it will be up to me as the parent. Very tricky stuff.

  • Alice Spearman

    To All,
    Just to explain, board members approve the general district budget, not individual site budgets. Of course if you ask for an individual site budget you will be given the budget to look at. You will see allocations for staff and other items needed to run the site. We as a rule we do not see the master schedule which shows all classes offered, that is where you may see what classes are continued or removed, the comparison applies if you have the previous year classes to compare with. There is also a supervisor for the principals who we as board members rely on to ensure the proper academic offerings are at a site, so there are many, many questions which needs answers.
    The focus now facing all sites across the district is the proposed funding which will be allocated to sites because of the budget cuts facing all districts across the state due to the state budget shortfall. If the extension of the govenor’s taxes does not happen, the 10% cut scenerio given to the sites will be realized.
    Many needed classes will no longer be avilable, staff will need to be very creative in how the configuration of class offerings be avilable to students, especially at the sites with small enrollments. There will be some painful decisions to be made in the very near future. This school district will need all the support from the citizens of Oakland in order to ensure a fair and equitable education is offered to all students.
    I thank you all for your continued support of OUSD and pray that whatever shortfalls we face, we will continue to educate our children at the highest academic level known in this country.

  • livegreen

    Question to Ms. Spearman & District officials re. “Equitable” education: Does this include “Equitable” financing?

  • O

    It is absolutely inappropriate for Ms. Spearman to publicly criticize an OUSD Principal this way.

    Ms. Spearman, you have the power and responsibility to investigate issues like this. Why didn’t you do that before calling out Principal Abdel on a blog? You ask, rhetorically, why a VP was hired instead of AP classes, but instead of posting here you could actually be finding out what Mr. Abdel’s logic was, and then answering the question for us!

    He’s a dedicated and caring educator who has made a world of difference for his students. No one is perfect, but he certainly deserves more respect than you have shown him.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Man, it is great to see everybody weighing in on this complex issue.

    However, there needs to be some check on people just blurting out opinions when they are uninformed.

    History of small schools movement is that originally just a FEW small schools and academies, inspired/helped by the national Coalition of Essential Schools and its Bay Area branch, were organically and carefully developed — and have been generally been successful. For example, ASCEND, Urban Promise Academy, etc. Others didn’t fit with OUSD’s college prep academics-first vision and were later beaten down or closed — Oasis, for example.

    But when the state takeover happened, “small schools” was transformed from a grassroots effort to a wholesale roll-out of DOZENS of small schools all at once. Some thrived, some died, but in general many of the keys to “essential schools” success were simply not present — especially a committed, stable faculty with a clear vision. The only thing the schools really got was a small size.

    Generally, the small schools were able to offer a safer environment, but the academics were often just as weak as in the “large” school. And unable to provide as many extras, especially at the high school level, and combined with the Options open enrollment program, kids flowed away from the small schools in the flats to schools located in better neighborhoods.

    Now you have the bizarre situation where even the successful small schools, like Media Academy on the Fremont campus (scores have gone from 440 to 580 since the old academy was cut out into its own school) are about to be refolded back into a “big” school because of declining enrollment. Meanwhile, at Skyline and Tech, the campuses are overcrowded with kids, many of them failing every class, who are there for the freedom, the socializing, the sports and the performing arts.

    It seems that rather than making sweeping changes, administrators should be carefully making case-by-case decisions based on what is working and what is not. But it seems the commentators on here would be just as rash…

    And boy, Alice Spearman — you should proofread what you write or run it through spellcheck; I don’t want to be a spelling Nazi, but jeez, you are on the SCHOOL board! And that you don’t know the diff between A-G and AP is really kinda scary, when combined with your super strong opinions on everything. Actually, not that you don’t know, but that you don’t have the humility to have somebody on your “staff” or kitchen cabinet who can vet your thoughts before you come roaring out of the gate in public calling “Off with their heads!”

  • livegreen

    Regarding overcrowding on the Skyline and Tech campuses, isn’t that regulated in any way? Isn’t the ceiling on enrollment equal to what they can handle?

    Then the balance should go to the other campuses.

    I don’t get why this is a problem and why it’s so hard to manage.

  • Cranky Teacher

    They are not technically overcrowded in terms of teacher-student ratio (state max = 32 per class for GenEd) but more for what the physical plan and especially the support staff can bear. But funding flows to the site for attendance, so I suppose it evens out.

    My point wasn’t to make a fuss about overcrowding — I think school choice is good for kids and parents. But I also don’t think a small school that is successful should be closed simply because it is not pulling huge crowds.

    For a lot of these kids, homelessness and jail are very real possibilities — if a small neighborhood school is changing the game for them, then it needs to be nurtured, even if it means a bit of extra cash. Society will save loads of cash in the long run if they turn out to be productive citizens instead of a drain.

  • livegreen

    Except apparently some funding for attendance is being pulled from some schools.

    Encouraging schools to take more students, but then not compensating them
    for it, seems questionable.

  • Harold

    @Cranky – what percentage of “small school” A-g classes, have 32 students in them? Also, blogs are different. Go read the SJ Merc blogs, Sf Gate blogs and several of the blogs on the Tribune site. All kinds of error from people who are journalists! And i’m not talking about contributors, the writers are the one’s posting poorly edited entries. It is what it is.

  • oaklandteacher


    Well said! I agree fully especially about the part of Mr. Abdel being a dedicated educator. The man has served East Oakland for 10 years as assistant principal and now principal and is committed to East Oakland and those students.

    I urge a school board member to fully investigate situations with individuals involved before putting someone on blast on a blog. I hope that we can all be better than that.

  • Katy Murphy

    Except for mine, of course. Never a typo on this blog…

  • Harold

    For sure Katy. But, maybe you could talk to the guys in the sports department 😉

  • Katy Murphy

    Ha. I once marveled at the contrast between the length/tone/style of the posts and comments on this blog and those of the HUGELY popular one about the Raiders. It’s hard to put into words.