Oakland teachers push for changes beyond charter school conversion

Staff Photojournalist
photo by Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group

Teachers from two East Oakland elementary schools are on a mission to shake up the status quo in the Oakland school district.

This fall, they voted to turn their schools — ASCEND and Learning Without Limits — into independently run charters so that they could have more control over staffing, curriculum, budgeting and other things, such as the school calendar. Hearings on those charter conversion petitions and others begin at 6 p.m. Monday evening in the district office at 1025 Second Avenue.

But the teachers at these two schools have goals beyond charter conversion. They want to organize like-minded educators around some of their ideas, such as changing the way teachers are evaluated. They also want to do away with a layoff system driven almost entirely by credential and years of service in a district (though they’re not against including seniority as a factor). They, like the union’s current leaders, think teachers should have more say in what materials they use to teach children.

At the Oakland Education Association’s membership meeting last week the teachers circulated a flier that said:

We believe in the power of unions and collective bargaining. We hope to organize our faculties, and work towards creating a union model that preserves and respects educators as professionals.

“We really need people to start mobilizing and organizing so these changes can happen,” Rachel Amsterdam, a teacher at Learning Without Limits, told me today.

There’s been talk at the school board and administration level about some of the changes she means. At the Oct. 26 school board meeting, when the schools submitted their charter petitions, Superintendent Tony Smith made an unequivocal statement about the seniority-based layoff system.

`Last in, first out’ has to end. I firmly believe that,” he said.

Still, Amsterdam said, “I personally believe it’s going to have to come from the teachers.” If it comes from the top down, she doesn’t think teachers won’t buy into it.

Do you agree with some or all of these ideas? If so, what would it take to make them a reality in Oakland?

Statement from ASCEND, Learning Without Limits teachers

Katy Murphy

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

  • Nextset

    This is interesting. The teachers in this instance may have a point but the may not have much time.

    Fundamentally they want to have power and control in a school district where they are mere employees and the Board has the power and control. Good Luck with that.

    As an option they want to quit their employment and start their own school so they in effect become their own employers and can re-write the working conditions to their pleasure. Good luck with that. Sounds like a plan.

    However at the rate the state is hemorrhaging money and shedding taxpayers and revenue it remains to be seen who is anybody has time to feather their nests to get out of the way of whatever it is that’s coming.

    The teachers should do as much as possible as fast as possible to create the work environment they want. Workers of the world unite – employees need to look ahead and take whatever measures they need to take care of #1. That often will include voting with their feet.

    I’m just afraid fleeing California is the solution.

  • LK

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought Ascend and Learning Without Limits submitted their charters under the auspices of Education for Change. If that’s the case, then these will not be independent charters and these young, idealistic, naive teachers will be in for a rude awakening. I don’t think Education for Change will tolerate any sort of union organizing at their sites.

    I vehemently disagree with them on seniority. Teaching is a craft that only gets better with experience. Yes, there are some great new teachers and some lousy veterans. However, on the whole, experienced teachers are better teachers. In my experience, principals come and go. Superintendents come and go. A stable teaching force is the bedrock of sound education in a chaotic district such as OUSD. It’s the teachers who keep things going regardless of what madness is going on in the office or downtown. (A principal was removed this year for declaring extra long weekends, for example.) Taking away seniority and due process will shift the balance of power in the district and school sites away from a democratic, collaborative model toward one that is more authoritarian. Of course, Tony Smith wants to do away with seniority. All administrators, no matter how well intentioned, really want pliant employees.

    All sides in this claim to want what is best for the students. As a teacher, I always have them in my heart and mind. However, I will defend my profession to the best of my ability from these pressures. Personally, I think the teachers at Ascend and Learning Without Limits are crazy and other teachers I’ve spoken to think the same. They have autonomy. Their staffing is pretty much untouched. They can sign waivers to work extra hours. All the district minders are gone, so this is a really good time to be a teacher in Oakland. I have more curricular freedom this year than I’ve enjoyed in a long time. If you want to change education from within, now is the time to do it. Messing with seniority isn’t going to change things for the better, though. That’s just pitting teacher against teacher, which was the point of the mass layoffs last year.

  • Katy Murphy

    Yes, they’d be part of Education for Change under the charter conversion petition.

  • Sharon

    As I understand, one of the reasons teachers at these schools decided to go charter was because so many pink slips were delivered to them last year and they think being a charter will give them more protection. If that is the case, then it means that the faculty makeup of these schools leans heavily toward novice teachers. And if that is the case, it also means that the turnover at these schools tends to be higher than either ideal or the OUSD average. And if that is the case, how many of these teachers who are lobbying for a charter school conversion will even still be around in a year or two or three?

    The concerning issue of permanent changes being wrought by transient stakeholders has turned up with Parent Trigger efforts, too. For instance, last year parents at Compton’s McKinley Elementary were somewhat tricked into signing a petition to convert their school to charter. Because of complications this effort did not go through, and the charter operator ended up starting its school down the street. The surprising thing though was that only about a third of the parents who initially signed the petition ended up enrolling their children in the new charter school just those few months later.

    People are beginning to question if it is ethical for one group of highly transient stakeholders to make a change which is irreversible by future generations of stakeholders. Once a public holding is privatized — and charter schools are just that (w/education being steered the same way that large numbers of prisons and military services have been, i.e. grabbed up by private entities during this Reagan-initiated, neo-liberal reign) — there will be no turning back.

    By the way, it may interest you to know that the previous CEO of EFC (EIN 202204424) started out earning $160K + benefits (in 2005), but by year five he was earning $186K + benefits — for only 1187 students. His workload responsibilities were supported by a Chief Academic Officer (135K + benefits), a Chief Operating Officer ($130K + benefits), a site director ($125K + benefits), plus the principals.

    Those salaries will be justified by saying it’s the going rate for charter operators. Readers here can weigh in if they think those salaries are extremely high and outlandish, or not, for the educational management of fewer than 1200 students. I personally think they are. But since the members of charter school boards are not elected and aren’t subjected to much oversight, they can operate more like little private clubs and do exactly whatever they want.

  • Sharon

    One more thing to add to my post at #4 above. Say EFC is responsible and actually holds monthly board meetings to which its stakeholders are invited. In such a tight inbred network, what are the chances that the charter schools’ teachers and/or parents will confront the board with their negative opinions about the amount of the administrations’ salaries or any other issue? How happy will the board and its administrators be with that? Just because it’s a charter school doesn’t mean it’s a co-op.

  • Katy Murphy

    I don’t believe the schools have very high turnover rates. I think what happened is that the district issued SO many pink slips in March that it affected teachers with four and five years of service in OUSD. In the case of LWL, which started in 2007 with a bunch of new teachers, even the founding teachers (finishing their fourth year of service, now in their fifth) were threatened with a layoff as a result. At ASCEND, which was in its tenth year, it was 60 percent of the staff.

  • Harold

    “…Superintendent Tony Smith made an unequivocal statement about the seniority-based layoff system.

    `Last in, first out’ has to end. I firmly believe that,” he said.”

    Instead of paying “associate” Superintendents and having a cadre of former Principals “on assignment” at the Harper Building … how about getting rid of the administrative fat Mr. Smith?

    What will all the administrators from the small schools do now? Will they keep sucking at the trough?

    Katy, can you report on what all the administrators from the small schools will be doing now that “big” is in again?

    The public deserves answers.

  • jesse james

    Well said Harold. I second the motion, Katy!

    It’s interesting to note who gets jobs downtown or transferred. Especially when you see what happens to the school after the transfer. So many people are downtown now. One administrator on special assignment has come for hours to our site to sit and chat with the secretary about personal topics. What a waste of money and time!

    Tony Smith has got to go! I am tired of his underhanded ways. Community schools, hah! At my school, the principal knew that there’d be a change in February after meeting with Smith but the school community didn’t find out until the last day of school. There was no community meeting or selection committee for the new site administrator at my site or at my old principal’s new site. The lack of transparency and sneaking around is truly aggravating. Frankly, I felt I knew more of the OUSD vision and plan when we were under Dr. Ward.

  • Harold

    Our School Board is useless.

  • Stakeholder

    Changing teacher evaluations, the layoff system, and curriculum is one thing, but at what cost? Teachers attacking teachers’ rights are not putting students first. This statement does not make clear what changes exactly Amsterdam wants to mobilize and organize towards.

    What conditions are actually being “revoked” at these schools? On whose authority are conditions being “revoked,” if at all? What evidence exists of such conditions being “revoked”? If there is no such evidence then it simply is fear based on conjecture. A conclusion jumped to on a faulty premise, which adversely affects every stakeholder and community member, not just the 15-17 teachers at a given site coerced into signing charter petitions with EFC.

    Certainly leaving OUSD and OEA is not mobilizing and organizing through the existing Waiver process, School Site Council and Faculty Council, all bargained mechanisms in place to preserve the autonomy with which the statement refers. These are conditions that all teachers should want and all schools deserve- not just those that conform to EFC. So the true mobilization and organization here is to take away teacher rights in the guise of advocating for teacher autonomy. Why else will teachers have to “buy into it?” It is “top down” ideology to keep people in their place and in turn segregate school communities. I don’t believe it is coming from the teachers, but rather a small group of ideologists conspiring in secret to conceal their numbers and create a false illusion of critical mass.

  • Intrepid

    The observation about associate supes is interesting. There are two new ones this year; what are they earning? One of them, the new Associate Superintendent of HR, Brigitte Marshall, was, until the June, the Director of the Oakland Adult & Career Education program. How does this qualify her for HR exactly? And why was this position bumped up from the previous holder of the job, who had the title of “Director of HR?” There also a brand new Associate Superintendent of the Family, School, Community Partnership Office, Curtiss Sarikey. Why are these high-level and highly paid (please find out how much for us, Katy)positions being created when schools are being closed…?!

  • J.R.

    Very Good question, and now we wait for the freeze-over of Hades for the answers.


  • jesse james

    Yes, please, Katy, check out if the perception that there has been an increase in downtown staff is true. And please check out if that increase is proportional to the losses suffered at school sites, in terms of both actual employees (people) and salaries (money). I really hope you do.

    Why has Smith taken experienced site administrators and moved them to office jobs downtown? Why is he replacing these site administrators with brand new principals with little experience, tiny budgets, disgruntled families and employees, fewer site support staff, and higher class sizes? Is there some sort of reward system? Is there a plan to tear OUSD down?

    There appear to be a high number of task force and “administrator support” personnel. Besides the complicated plans they’ve presented, what is the purpose of these “administrators” and “leaders”? What are their tangible products? When will they make it to the school sites?

    The district elementary level ELA leaders are a team of 2, and they, too, are inexperienced, and making a lot of rookie mistakes. Can’t the administrator on special assignment who likes to chitchat for hours in my school office help them? They are swamped! I just don’t get it.

    As a resident, taxpayer, subscriber, community member and a longtime OUSD employee, please investigate the budgeting for Smith’s hired hands. They sure aren’t directly helping kids, so do they really need to be there?

  • Socrates

    I too am frustrated with principals who have barely had five years (or even less) of teaching experience. Many of them are not only inexperienced but are also very young and feel uncomfortable with teachers who are significantly more experienced and considerably older than they are.

    OUSD should make a move towards recruiting principals with no less than 10 years of teaching experience. It’s hard for someone with 15 or 20 years (or more) of teaching experience to really get useful feedback during evaluations from someone who did only three or four years in the classroom. I have yet to hear anything useful from my inexperienced administrator. I’m sure a bunch of folks will chime in and say how wonderful their “vibrant voices” and “fresh perspectives” are, but for the most part, I have not received much insight yet.

  • another interested parent

    I am sure that OUSD would like to recruit principals with 10 years or more of teaching experience, but who is interested in coming here to be one? Very very few. The pay is lousy (particularly compared to other districts), the bureaucracy tiresome and often unsupportive and a hindrance, the budget in terrible shape, and great uncertainty over school closures and staffing at existing schools. Until OUSD gets its house in better order, I doubt that it will be able to attract qualified, experienced candidates for principal with 10 plus years of experience.

  • Trish Gorham

    OUSD had little trouble hiring principals with 10 years experience when it was hiring from within its own teaching ranks. Teachers who were committed to Oakland and Oakland students and who worked toward their administrative credential while serving Oakland students.

    Under State Appointee Randy Ward, that mostly came to an end as administrative positions at schools and downtown were handed to the Broad-brainwashed outsiders who had NO concern for our city or our children.

  • jesse james

    All the “new” principals (since 2004) that I’ve worked with or know have come from OUSD teacher ranks and have come not from Broad but from UC Berkeley or other local programs. I know of one principal who went to Broad. He’d been at Cox before it became a charter school. He lives in Oakland and his kids go to Oakland public schools. With every conversation I had with him, I became a better teacher. Thank you Mr. Taylor!

    I haven’t experienced the too young principal. I think one can gain insight from any age, good advice is good advice, and bad advice is bad advice. The worst advice I ever got was from an older (60+) homegrown longtime OUSD teacher/principal from a UC Berkeley program who quickly drove 100% of her veteran staff away! That school is now dying a slow and painful death.

    When I meant little experience I meant little experience as an administrator. Principal and teacher are very different roles, especially these days when principals are asked to be financially savvy, curriculum and community leaders and follow the increasingly confusing district “vision.” They also seem to be increasingly put in the role of counselor to their coworkers. Watching one homegrown principal’s enthusiasm and potential be completely derailed by my current school staff’s resistance and archaic ways was heartbreaking. I wish him luck at his new school. I pray he doesn’t give up. Now we have yet another homegrown and locally trained principal who again is trying to bring progress to my current school’s staff. I hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That’s all I can do.

  • Socrates

    @Jesse James: I really have to disagree with you; there may be exceptions, but it is very rare that someone who is 27 years old with three years of teaching experience is going to actually know more about teaching than the very experienced teachers s/he is supposed to be supervising. “New” ideas are sometimes better ideas, but sometimes they aren’t, plus those of us who have been around for a while have seen many ideas come, go, and come back again with the revolving door of administrators. I have dealt with a lot of young and new administrators, and I have to say, I’m not terribly impressed. And many of them are from New Leaders for New Schools, have a Broad-like perspective, and tend to prefer to have a continual cycling-through of TFAs who stay for 2 years and disappear, so they have an ongoing cadre of newbies, who don’t know their rights, don’t ask the hard questions, and are usually overhwhelmed by the job.

    The hiring of the 20-or early 30-something administrator is part of the ongoing push on the part of OUSD to get rid of anyone with any experience. Young principals also virtually never consider anyone older than they are, so experienced teachers have a hard time getting hired by them as they feel more comfortable with those who know less than they do, which is only the absolutely brand-new college grad. I can guarantee this, based on personal experience.

  • jesse james

    I am sorry that’s what it’s been like for you–it hasn’t been for me. It sounds awful and I am happy that I haven’t dealt with it. My experience has been the direct opposite–old staff stuck in their ways to the detriment of student learning. Strange that we work in the same district and have had such different situations. Is it true that the young principals you worked with did not effect any positive change?

  • Katy Murphy

    On a side note: Are there really that many 20-something principals out there? I know a few young principals in OUSD, but I can’t think of any in their 20s, at least off the top of my head.

  • J.R.

    Experience has been underestimated, but I think its fair to say that it is more frequently overestimated. First a study showing that teaching experience after a certain point is negligible(once you have learned you job, you are good to go).


    Much like Jesse I have witnessed many entrenched teachers stubbornly not even loosely following state and curriculum standards. There are other teachers who don’t use a gradebook/planner, and still others who don’t/won’t use assessment tools to track student progress or struggles. Some are so experienced they think know whats best for students even if it is detrimental(this is arrogance borne of longevity).

  • J.R.
  • Jesse James

    So Katy will this be something the Tribune will look at or not? It’s an important topic. You seem to have direct access to my employer, something I do not have. You give us some voice/power/clarity. To me, this is an important issue and directly relates to OUSD’s future. So will you look into into it or not?

  • Katy Murphy

    Definitely. Thanks, Jesse James.

  • Marcia

    I think this exchange about young vs. more experienced principals, especially the discussion in entries 17-19, is fascinating. It highlights one of the lessons I took from my years as a parent involved in OUSD at every level–that is that there are many pieces of the truth, and while some possess more pieces than others, no one holds them all. I encourage everyone to bear that in mind.

    For example, on this blog I disagree with probably 95% of Nextset’s comments. And yet, I find a kernel in his posts that rings true often enough that I’m forced to rethink my views.

    I have no doubt that both Jesse James and Socrates in 17 and 18 accurately describe their experiences. The fact that they’re contradictory doesn’t make either untrue.

  • Jesse James

    Thanks Katy! To be clear, my hope is that you investigate the issues posed in post #13. Thanks again!

  • jesse james

    Thanks Katy! To be clear, the issues I hope you’ll look into are the ones I wrote about in #13. Thanks again for all your hard work–I truly appreciate it! Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  • Hmakesyouthink

    What are these new positions? What is the concern around them?
    Weren’t these in the strategic plan?