Notes from the Oakland education forum


Today was the Tribune forum on education, held in the Oakland Public Library’s beautiful new branch on 81st Avenue. I’ll admit, I was unsure about how the day would shape up, or how the discussion on charter schools would go. (I’m way more comfortable in front of a computer screen, even under the tightest deadline pressure, than behind a podium.)

But now that it’s all over, I’m looking forward to the next one — in the late afternoon/evening, when teachers and students can come.

OAKLAND SCHOOLS FORUMI moderated a discussion about charter schools, with panelists Betty Olson-Jones, Oakland teachers union president; James Willcox, Aspire Public Schools CEO; Gary Yee, OUSD school board president; Gail Greely, OUSD’s new charter schools coordinator; and Stephen Sexton, co-founder of Lighthouse Community Charter School.

Though the conversation did tread on some well-worn turf, it didn’t stop there. I learned, for instance, that OUSD is likely to use a similar evaluation system for its non-charter schools (or elements of it) that the charter schools office uses to review charters. Evaluators look at all kinds of information, not just test scores, to determine if a school is well managed and serving the needs of students and families.

I asked the panelists for examples of charter schools and traditional public schools working together or sharing innovative practices. Sexton mentioned an advisory program at Edna Brewer Middle School in which Lighthouse was involved, and Willcox said Aspire shared literacy practices with some district elementary schools (not sure which). Willcox said some districts — he didn’t mention Oakland — are helping his organization’s charter schools with cash management as they cope with the state’s delayed payments (e.g. 2010-11 funding paid in 2011-12).

But for the most part, it seems, schools operate in their own bubbles. (Why is this? Does a sense of competition come into play?)

OAKLAND SCHOOLS FORUMThe higher education panelists delved into remediation and teacher preparation, and Oakland school board member David Kakishiba made some candid remarks about private funding on the philanthropy panel. “A lot of this stuff boils down to money and power — how much money and who decides how to spend it,” he said.

Kakishiba’s advice to parents and teachers? To ask who’s making the decisions about privately-funded programs, what the outcome is supposed to be, and how progress to that goal will be measured. “We do a lot of what I call, `okie dokie,'” he said.

The things-that-are-working panel included lively presentations about the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Oakland-based Young Scholars Program. Eyana Spencer, of Manzanita Community School, gave a history of how her Fruitvale-area school came about, and how it has evolved.

George Khaldun, the chief operating officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, gave us a run-down of his program’s offerings. To name a few: the charter schools’ longer school days and school years, the after-school programs and daily tutoring for 3,000 kids enrolled in regular public schools, the twice-monthly check-ins and report card reviews of college students from the neighborhood (640 of them), and the social workers for families.

Throughout the day, panelists bemoaned the fiscal realities facing California schools and colleges, so I wondered if Khaldun would acknowledge the resources that make such a comprehensive support system possible. He didn’t. “It’s not the money,” he said. “It’s the passion.”

I’m sure there’s some truth to that statement. Lots of money, alone, won’t transform schools or change the trajectories of children from poor backgrounds. But the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, undeniably, costs money. Lots of it. Why not talk about that, too? In fairness, Khaldun is coming from New York, where schools get significantly more public funding.

Here is a story from Tribune reporter Scott Johnson about the event. George Kelly, our social networking expert, took some video. I’ll post a link when it’s ready.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Steven Weinberg

    After his presentation I asked Khaldun about the staffing at the charter school run by the Children’s Zone. He said that class size was 20 with a teacher and an assistant teacher in each class, K-12. That is half the student teacher ratio of the best Oakland classrooms, and one-third of the ratio for most classes above third grade.
    It is important to remember that the Children’s Zone begins intensive programs with parents even before the children are born and continues throughout preschool years. When the program tried to set up a middle school for students who had not had the preschool and elementary school experiences, program leader Geoffrey Canada shut the program down because he decided it could not reach the goals he had set for it. They could be successful without starting from the preschool years.
    The Harlem Children’s Zone is doing great work, but they are not helping the rest of country when they downplay the importance of financial resources to achieve their goals.

  • Ms. J.

    Unfortunately the remark made by Khaldun is not atypical. Of course money makes a difference. To suggest it does not is simply dishonest. Yes, money can be used ineffectively, but to say that money is not crucial, when your organization benefits from many millions of dollars in private funds, is cynical and insulting. I am sure Khaldun meant his comment in a positive way, as a testimony to the people who work with him in the Children’s Zone (which I do think sounds amazing–I was riveted by Whatever It Takes), but as a teacher in an underfunded school district I find the implication that the reason students in Oakland don’t do so well as students in the HCZ is that I and my colleagues are lacking passion extremely offensive.
    One of the take-home points of the HCZ is the fact that the early interventions are necessary in order to achieve academic and career success for children who come from less privileged backgrounds. Part of the OUSD master plan is to invest in Full Service Community Schools. Fantastic. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child.
    But in the meantime don’t blame the people who are already working to serve the children in the village for the fact that the rest of the village isn’t contributing enough.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Was in Harlem last year and saw all the offices, tutoring centers, activity centers of HCZ all OVER the place. Passion plus intelligence plus money — you need it all.

    Making a great school is not easy, just like making a great movie isn’t — a LOT of things have to be done right. Lot of moving parts, lot of competing agendas, a lot of things can go wrong.

    Was talking to a veteran teacher the other day — approaching two decades in district. He is a real good guy, with innovative programs and the kids love him, too. He said that EVERY SINGLE YEAR in Oakland he has faced the “starting over” pattern — a new principal, a new downtown concept, a new restructuring, a new reform movement. Admin turnover is so high, nothing ever is developed to fruition, so it doesn’t MATTER how good an idea it may or may not be.

    Change can be good, but constant change looks a lot like no change at all.

  • wdcrachel

    Ms. J Love this reminder, “But in the meantime don’t blame the people who are already working to serve the children in the village for the fact that the rest of the village isn’t contributing enough.” I also wonder if it is important that we continue to situate HCZ as a community center of which one aspect is a charter school. I love the notion that district students are offered afterschool tutoring and high school counseling is available for neighborhood youth. Similar to the Latin American Youth Center in DC, which provides a number of resources to youth in the community, one of which is a charter school.

  • Gordon Danning


    You note that “for the most part, it seems, schools operate in their own bubbles” and ask, “Why is this? Does a sense of competition come into play?”

    In my 15 years in the district, I have never had a meeting with the local middle schools, let alone elementary schools. I have sometimes met with individuals from other high schools, but it is always the same few people. Heck, I have almost never met with members of my school’s English department. For that matter, I have only the dimmest idea of what colleagues in my own department are teaching — I mostly hear things from students.

  • Katy Murphy

    Would you say it’s a question of time? Of interest? Of school culture?

  • Gordon Danning

    Probably culture; the idea that every teacher is a self-contained unit. That is an idea fostered (or perhaps internalized) to a large degree by teachers themselves

  • Nextset

    Well for one thing Oakland and OUSD are undergoing a demographic change. Blacks are on the way out to be replaced by Mexicans.

    That is going to produce a lot of change in the academic performance of the OUSD students. Better or worse is not the point – it will be a change.

    And you can bet the educrats will be there to falsely claim credit for “improvements” that are actually demographic changes. You will see these “improvements” in the earlier grades as the demographic takes hold. There will be accompanying “See, it’s working!!” nonsense that those in the know will realize as baloney.

    As far as the problematic changes – there will be the usual whining that more funding will fix everything.

    Good luck with that. CA is continuing job destruction apace and there is no reason to believe there will be more money generated in state. If the Republicians retake the national government they will not be likely to fund CA, IL or any of the Democratic strongholds, Quite the opposite, the collapse of these states will be seen as a good idea and an object lesson.

    These are the good years – for both OUSD and Los Angeles USD. Neither district has any intention of job training (survival training) for it’s minority students.

  • Jim Mordecai

    The question advertised that the charter school panel was going to address was: “The Charter School Phenomenon – Has it worked in Oakland?”

    Board President Gary Yee came prepared to answer that question and, I thought, did a brilliant job of summarizing differing perspective of supporters and opponent’s view of why it has worked or not worked. And, he took a position of charters from the viewpoint that they harm something some viewed as the “common good”.

    Unfortunately, after Board President Yee’s brief opening comments the group, with an exception being OEA President Betty Olson-Jones, the members of the panel avoided the public/charter controversy and tried to emphasize common concerns of both charter schools and public schools in living in some type of peaceful co-existence.

    Board President Yee had left so I wasn’t able to follow up on his comment regarding the common good not being served by charter schools.

    Instead, I asked Gail Greely, head of OUSD Charter Office who had taken the place of Gary Yee on the panel, a technical question about charter school students transferring back to OUSD and the charter school transfers’ ADA not being counted. Apparently there is a cut-off date on a report called P-2 whereby ADA for both public and charter schools is not reported, although it is recorded by the OUSD and the charter schools.

    In preparing to attend the Tribune organized Forum on Oakland Education, I began to pay attention to Aspire Charter School as never before. I was struck by the size and money associated with Aspire corporate board. I found on the DOE website a document that Aspire referred to itself as a school district. With over 30 charter schools it knows how to fund raise beyond the million dollars in 2010 from Oprah. $3.2 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 2000; 2001 not-for-profit issue tax exempt bonds financing new school buildings; 2002 $4.68 million Broad Foundation; 2003 Walton Family Foundation $1.75 million. This money is in addition to grants and loans Aspire has received from DOE over the years. In 2009 Aspire Oakland Eres Academy was awarded by DOE $600,000. I was unable to find in my research any other DOE grant money for the years prior to 2009. But, most recently Aspire started six charter schools to add to its district and was awarded by DOE with six revolving loans of $100,000.

    Aspire is very talented in winning funding from both the government and private sector but whether that means Aspire charter maintenance organization, or mom and pop charter schools collectively serve the common good, is another question. And, it is a larger question than whether charter schools in Oakland have worked because CMOs like Aspire do not limit themselves to Oakland.

    Oh what a complex web we weave, when first we charter with the public’s money.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Nextset

    I ran into a local public high school administrator (not OUSD) who explained what is going on at the school – a large lower class urban school. He was asking for ideas about what could be done about several problems. I said find another job elsewhere – preferably Jr. College. What was described was systemic, firing someone is not going to improve anything nor is adding staff. It seems to me that the problems complained of are that of a system that is not designed to transition children to the workplace, higher education or the military. The school only processes kids to age 18. Those who were college material will presumably make it there anyway. The rest will no be able to support themselves until the acquire those skills elsewhere, either family or vocation ed to be obtained after high school.

    This paragraph orginally described some of the problems I was told about. After re-reading this post I deleted the detail. It was a long paragraph anyway. The place was beginning to sound like a TV serial.

    It can’t possibly be that bad. Can it. Oh well…

    I said upon meeting that this school has a bad reputation and “good families” (ie professional, upper middle class or middle middle with a working wife) would not send their kids there. But hearing what the issues actually are adds so much definition as to why you keep your kids out of such a school.

    I wonder what Oakland Schools are like.

    Sometimes I really think that these schools are intended to render the students unable to function in workplace, military or higher ed. Funny how small the white population of them are. They are majority minority schools.

    They are schools in name only. Enough bright minorities, mainly the immigrants, will do well enough so it’s not obvious that the school was intended to mis-educate.

    This does sound paranoid. Why would anyone design a system to deliberately increase the odds of the minority-majority classes winding up in prison, prematurely dead or on welfare?

  • Ted Allen

    Perhaps the English teachers should check out what the music teachers do. Most of the music teachers get together every two weeks to rehearse with Big O, the Oakland Music Teachers’ Big Band. These are not only music rehearsals, they are also a convenient point for networking, planning and comparing notes.

  • Joe

    I think Nextset is right. Mexicans will replace the blacks, improvements in some areas will be noted. Wnd then….OUSD will create the next set of excuses that will detroy the next genrational progress of Mexicans.

    The problem is not the child, its the program.

    Whats wrong with having seperate schools syetems in place?

    By the way Mr. Mordecai- how much state money did OUSD recieve for their bailout? Over a 100 million! and How much do they owe?!! Oh yes a weave of public dollars-that is our money!

    How much public dollars gets funneled into the union? Teachers in the district cannot opt out therefore, in reality, its just a money transfer from my the state to your union…that money never enters my account.

  • Jim Mordecai


    OUSD technically did not receive any money from the State for its bailout. The State provided support for an original unsecured line of credit of $100 million at below market rates but didn’t actually provide any money. The District could have floated a no interest loan for itself, but was blocked from doing so by the County Superintendent.

    The difference between a loan from the State to the District and the many loans worth millions to the Aspire charter school corporate board is that Aspire is a private corporation and not a local government.

    And, all was not as it seems with the loan/line of credit. That credit was spent by the State’s appointed State Administrator without the elected School Board having anything other the right to make suggestions on how the money should be spent. The elected School Board’s suggestions could legally be ignored.

    So far the State has taken out of ADA generated by OUSD students’ attendance timely payment of principal and interest. This repayment plan is for total of 20 years. And, the principal and interest payments go to the private banks. Under the State Administrator the original $100 million loan was shifted to a secure loan security by OUSD school property.

    Irony was that the State increased the debt of the District during the time it “managed” the District so that the line of credit was exhausted and audits by the State Controller have added on to original debt of $40-60$ million fines to the District while under State management.

    Assemblyman Swanson’s AB 609 would absolve OUSD from having to pay for State Controller Audit fines assessed when under State control.

    “How much public dollars gets funneled into the union?” None.

    But, public dollars going to charter schools can be used to join charter school associations both, state and national, that use a portion of that money for lobbying to get more public dollars for charter schools. Whereas there is strict oversight on how unions spend membership dues. And, if a teacher does not want to belong to the union and have a vote on how its money is spent, that individual teacher can become an agency fee payer and only has to pay the portion of the union dues used to represent the teacher with the employer. Charter school teachers do not get to vote on how the charter school money is spent and don’t get to opt out of spending public money on association/lobbying dues.

    Joe: If you don’t like unions, the growth of charter schools–with a few exceptions, is a growth on non-union schools. If you are a teacher you have the opportunity to work at a non-union school and align your anti-union attitude with your job. However, if a majority of school’s teaching force supports unionizing an Oakland charter school, you’ll need to move on, maybe you’ll feel more comfortable in Mississipii, Texas, Florida or other anti-union state.

    Jim Mordecai

  • J.R.

    “How much public dollars gets funneled into the union?”

    Quite a bit as the dues money originates from confiscated taxes(of private sector parents like us)tax money is injected into this system with questionable checks and balances. Approx 50-70% for agency fee payers(and of course 100% for union members. The union bleeds the taxpayers either way because the unions had the terms codified in law with the bought and paid for politicians at their disposal.


    Whereas there is strict oversight on how unions spend membership dues.

    Think again, the NEA,CTA are strictly liberal leaning and only back politicians who think the same way. Kids are just a revenue stream to them.Conservatives are no better in general.




  • Jim Mordecai


    Public sector or private sector parents might feel that money for wars is government act of confiscation. Just as those opposed to the privatization of public education tax dollars may feel charter school lobby has “codified” charter school law with bought and paid for politicans at their disposal.”

    A lobby in part funded by taxpayer money suppose to be used 100% for public education of children not increasing market share of private sector.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Gordon Danning


    So, are you arguing that public employees cannot donate money to political organizations? Really?? I can’t donate to the NRA, or the ACLU? Or some anti-tax group?

    Let’s review how it works. I am required to pay to the union the portion of dues that go to bargaining and representation of unit members. In addition, I can VOLUNTARILY join the union and pay extra dues, which funds are used for political purposes. That is my right, under the freedom of speech and freedom of association clauses of the First Amendment, as well as Article I of the California Constitution.

    Now, you might not like that fact, but sometimes I don’t like how other people exercise their rights. Too bad for me; that, as they say, is the price of living in a free society.

    And, the fact that it is “public money” is irrelevant. How much public money is spent providing lawyers for criminal defendants, most of whom are guilty? Tons. Why? BECAUSE THEY HAVE A RIGHT TO A LAWYER. So, unless you think that no public money should ever be used to facilitate a person’s exercise of his or her rights, you should find another windmill to tilt at.

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

    @ J.R.: Here’s a situation that might concern you, too.

    From “U.S. charter-school network with Turkish link draws federal attention” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 2011

    Excerpt: “But federal agencies – including the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education – are investigating whether some charter school employees are kicking back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by Gulen known as Hizmet, or Service, according to knowledgeable sources.”

    The second Philadelphia Inquirer article (4/4/2011) about this situation, “WikiLeaks files detail U.S. unease over Turks and charter schools” is @ http://articles.philly.com/2011-04-04/news/29380536_1_charter-schools-fethullah-gulen-truebright-science-academy

  • J.R.

    You are arguing apples and oranges this is totally relevant, due process rights are constitutionally mandated. Your pay and benefits as a teacher are not constitutionally mandated or guaranteed(in others words this is not about your rights).

    Short answer, SHUT THEM DOWN!We need to go with what works(charters or traditional), and our education system(as a whole) is broken. There is way too much mis-direction and deception going on for example:

    Teachers complain of the low salary, and yet never discuss the benefits which add substantially to total compensation.

    They never discuss the fact that there probably are too many small schools and thus too many teachers for the budget we have.

    The whole education pyramid scheme bothers me, the longer you stay you are:

    better paid, better protected, more insulated, less accountable for doing your job right(no fear of termination), and best of all the teachers who are under accountability and have their feet to the fire are below you in seniority. All this without ever taking into consideration which teachers are top performers(by getting the most out of their kids year after year irregardless of ability level). What a good pyramid system, isn’t it?

  • J.R.

    Here is an interesting article that factcheck.org did years ago when it was claimed that Bush cut education spending.


    People will lie like a rug when it comes to spending or helping themselves to someone else’s money.

  • Gordon Danning


    Do you even read what you write? You objected to public money being used for NEA political activities, through the use of union dues. I simply pointed out that I have a right to donate my salary to any political group I choose, including a union. I OBVIOUSLY did not say that I have a right to any particular pay level. Sheesh, now I know why I don’t teach elementary school.

  • J.R.

    Dues and agency fees are not donations, but mandatory confiscation put in place by union politician and enforced by law. The union can and will terminate the employment of anyone who does not pay dues(whether full or agency fees), by whatever name they are given they are no different. You are within the system and obviously have a certain perspective(it’s your right). As a taxpayer who is actually paying those bills, I will assert my rights as well.

  • Ms. J.

    Please, Gordon, do not insult my first graders!

  • Harold

    “The union can and will terminate the employment of anyone who does not pay dues(whether full or agency fees)…”

    @JR – OEA does not hire or fire any OUSD employees. This is clear to all. OUSD hires all of its employees. OEA has no say in hiring PERIOD!

  • J.R.

    It’s in the contract language, and I’ll post some local districts when I can find them.


  • Joe

    I am leaving this district, yes, not due to being underpaid solely, but also to due to union rhetoricn and a lack of the district to stand up for a hard stance on teachers, and parents. Protesting banks with the Bolsvevik Liberation Front and BAMN is not my union! I would love to get my dollars focused on other things.

    OUSD will be looking for another bailout soon by listening to people like you. I think membrs like you have done more to help charters than all else.

    You look tired and withdrawn- the poster child for OEA- dont they see that?

  • del

    As to why teachers & schools operate in a bubble…
    First of all, between charters and public schools there is a huge competition—the more students who go to charters, the less that go to public schools, and less kids = less teachers and less money. This has a very real effect, even in less austere budget times. For example, if a school can only afford an art teacher for two periods a day, it is generally going to mean that there is no art class at that school. We see this in some of the small high schools, where electives are extremely hard to find because they just can’t be funded. The perception that charters “cherry pick” good students and arbitrarily dismiss students only fuels the unfriendly nature (as does the perception that public schools are somehow worse than charters).
    Additionally, in the era of “school choice,” in Oakland all school are pitted against each other for these precious resources, and everyone definitely feels it.
    From school to school, there are also huge differences that make working together more difficult if not impossible. At a recent meeting about intervention, two models were discussed: one involved using the afterschool program (not applicable to schools without one, or without staff in one that was knowledgeable/skilled enough to actually teach), and the other model involved changes in the master schedule that are simply impossible for many schools because of size/credentials, etc. Add in the grants and special programs—each with their own requirements—that so many schools avail themselves of, and often times working together in many ways becomes impossible.
    In terms of intra-school bubbles, I find this to be much less common. A few years ago the district adopted a PLC model where teachers work together on lesson plans and assessments and at my school that has resulted in weekly meetings between teachers who teach the same subjects. Certainly if you are the only 1st grade teacher this would not be possible, and the divided nature of departmentalized high schools is also well documented.
    These structural issues aside, I think teaching is such a personal and emotional endeavor that frequently these “bubbles” just arise. And in reality, when that lesson starts, a bubble is mandatory—what I am teaching is going to be impossible to learn if students bring gang affiliation/home issues/neglect/love interests/toys/electronics inside of the bubble.

  • Gordon Danning

    I don’t know why I bother, but:

    JR: My voluntary decision to join a union and hence pay dues, not just agency fees, is exactly the same as someone else’s decision to NOT join and give the balance to an anti-union group. Your “rights as a taxpayer” OBVIOUSLY do not include the ability to tell me what group to join, because in doing so, the taxpayers act as the state, and the state cannot tell an individual what group he can or cannot join. I can’t explain it any more clearly than that.

    As for what happens when someone doesnt pay agency fees: Duh. The district deducts the fees. After all, they are the ones who cut the paycheck. That is what the contract says (section 18.3.4) and of course State law does not include “failure to pay agency fee” as grounds for dismissal of a teacher, so good luck trying.