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Looking for: Success stories, budget-coping tales

I’m scheduled to be on KALW’s Your Call program at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning — and I could use your help. We’ll be talking about examples of success in schools despite a bleak and tumultuous economy and budget, and ways that people have coped with diminishing state funding.

I don’t plan to sugarcoat the fiscal realities facing California’s public schools (and I doubt the host will, either). But I’d love to hear from you about what parents, staff, organizations and local businesses are doing to help children receive the education they deserve, regardless of the economy and the state’s politics. What steps have been taken to improve or support your school that haven’t cost extra money? How has your principal/school site council mitigated the impact of cutbacks when crafting recent budgets?

Thanks, in advance, for your help. It would be great if you’d provide your school or program’s name along with your comment. You’re welcome to call into the show, too!

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Transitional kindergarten, California confusion

TRANSITIONAL KINDERGARTEN

A transitional kindergarten class at Oakland’s Greenleaf Elementary. — Laura A. Oda/ Bay Area News Group

The parents of 4-year-olds with fall birthdays — not yet in the public school system — have already come face to face with the topsy-turvy ways of Sacramento.

Take the parents of kids born in November 2007. Since 2010, they’ve been told their children will be too young for kindergarten in 2012 under the new cutoff date, but that they will be entitled to a spot in a new grade-level, transitional kindergarten.

Now, about seven months before the first day of school, they learn that the governor is proposing to cut the program to save $223 million.

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A Friday hearing at Oakland City Hall on state takeovers

Randolph Ward, as state administrator in 2004UPDATE: Sandre Swanson’s office says they’ve just learned that West Contra Costa Unified has cut its last check to the state, which means they — like Emery Unified — would be free from state receivership.

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Only eight California school districts have undergone state financial takeovers in the last 20 years after requesting large emergency loans from the state. Half of them have been from the Bay Area.

At 1 p.m. Friday afternoon, the State Assembly’s Select Committee on State School Financial Takeovers convenes a public hearing at Oakland City Hall to learn more about how the Emery, Oakland, Vallejo City, and West Contra Costa school districts fared (or have fared) in the process. The state lawmakers will be trying to determine what could have been done to prevent the fiscal crises — or to accelerate districts’ financial recoveries afterward.

Emery Unified emerged from state control last summer after making its last loan repayment. The other three Bay Area districts are still repaying those loans and have a state-appointed trustee with veto power over their expenditures.

The select committee is chaired by Assemblymember Sandre Swanson (D-Alameda), who became involved years ago in local efforts to help the Oakland school district stabilize and exit state receivership.

From 2003 until July 2009, when Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith came on board, a series of state administrators held the governing power. During most of that time, the elected school board was merely advisory. As of July, OUSD had repaid almost $42 million in principal and interest — and still had a balance of $69 million.

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An old news recap: charter school decisions, mutual matching, blue ribbon nomination

UPDATE: The school board later approved the amended petitions of ASCEND and Learning Without Limits.

Education news kept right on happening in the last two weeks. Here are some of the developments I missed while I was visiting old temples and dodging motorbikes:

THE OAKLAND SCHOOL BOARD REJECTED the charter school conversion petitions submitted by the faculties of ASCEND and Learning Without Limits, elementary schools in the Fruitvale area. While the district’s charter schools office recommended approval, Superintendent Tony Smith took a different stance, saying that allowing schools to break away from the district would undermine the district’s strategic plan. Both schools have since appealed the decision to the Alameda County Board of Education.

This whereas seems to sum up the superintendent’s position:

“WHEREAS, the District can not succeed at its strategic plan to create a Full Service Community School District that serves the whole child, provides each child with a caring environment that accelerates academic achievement and supports student success if after millions of dollars in investment, individual schools that have achieved because of the District’s investment can separate and opt out of the District, with the consequence that the District loses its collective identity as a school system serving children in all neighborhoods in Oakland.”

The board on Jan. 11 also voted against the charter school office’s recommendation for ARISE High School — this time, by approving the charter school’s renewal with some conditions. In this case, the office deemed ARISE an unsound educational program, but the board disagreed. (More info here.)

The board also approved the petition for the 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community School to open in July. (More info here.)

IN NEWER CHARTER NEWS: This Wednesday, Education for Change — a charter management group that is working with ASCEND and Learning Without Limits — plans to submit a third charter conversion petition, this time for Lazear Elementary, which is slated for closure in June.

Parents at that Fruitvale-area school submitted a petition last fall, but the document was not up to the standards of the OUSD charter schools office, and the parents withdrew it. Now they’ll turn in another draft, prepared with the assistance of Education for Change. Hae-Sin Kim Thomas, a former OUSD administrator who is now the Education for Change CEO, said Lazear parents have had a difficult time finding another school in walking distance that has space for their children, and that some have received a cool reception at some of the schools they’ve visited.

GOOD NEWS: Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, a small elementary school in East Oakland that has made huge test score gains, has been nominated for a National Blue Ribbon award — one of 35 in California to receive a nomination for being among the state’s highest performing or most improved schools. Whether it wins the award this fall will depend on the next round of tests. (No pressure.)

THE FEELING ISN’T MUTUAL for a OUSD staff proposal that would change the way open teaching positions are filled. It’s called “mutual matching,” and teachers union leaders aren’t as keen on it as Superintendent Tony Smith, who had this opinion piece published in the Tribune the other week. A blog post on the union’s website, advertising a 4:30 p.m. Thursday forum on the topic, has this to say about the idea:

Don’t be fooled – scratch the surface and it’s an attempt to get rid of seniority in our contractual transfer rights, under the guise of “abandon(ing) our nostalgia for practices unsuited to the current challenge” (Tribune editorial). In doing so, the district is following the national education “deform” line that it’s “bad teachers” to blame for the problems in public education — not lack of funding, resources, institutional racism, or respect for our profession – and that this can be resolved through letting teachers compete in the marketplace for their assignments.

Here is a link to a letter and chart posted on the union’s website about how the process would work, according to OUSD staff. The district has devoted a section of its site to the issue, which you can find here.

I have an interview scheduled with district staffers tomorrow afternoon about this proposal and will write about it in greater depth. What questions do you have about it?

What other news should I be catching up on?

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If the Oakland school district had $1.46 billion…

Project list

This evening, after the Oakland school board picks a president and vice president for 2012 (6 p.m.), it moves onto its facilities master plan. The special study session — no vote on the plan tonight — is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at 1025 Second Ave.

The presentation posted on the agenda (links below) covers enrollment and demographic trends, facts about the number, age and size of district buildings, and a list of projects that might be undertaken if OUSD had the money.

If OUSD tackled every project on that list it would cost an estimated $1.46 billion, not including change orders and cost overruns. (The figure is listed on one slide as $1,460 million, which — though probably standard for these kinds of reports — sounds a little like someone saying they’re five-foot-twelve.)

It includes: $145 million in projects from the 2005 master plan that never materialized, such as upgrades to fire alarms; $333 million in seismic safety improvements; $457 million in modernization projects; $53 million in solar and energy efficiency; $300 million to replace portable buildings and $172.5 million for community kitchens, health care centers and other “site optimization” projects.

As most of the Measure B funds have been allocated or spent, this project prioritization appears to be in preparation for another bond measure campaign, which the board discussed last fall (election date and amount TBD).

You can find links to the relevant documents here and the projects list below. Come 6 p.m., you’ll find a link to a live video stream of the meeting here – and something called “eComment,” which I hadn’t noticed before.

What’s your take on the facilities master plan?

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Math meets art, music, and pop culture

ROBERT MACCARTHY/METROThis story about a middle school math teacher appeared in the Tribune last week, and I forgot to blog about it. In case you missed it, the piece is about Robert MacCarthy’s unconventional approach to teaching mathematics — and getting his sixth-graders to love it.

I recently observed one of his sixth-grade classes at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. It was way different than any of the math classes I had in junior high, though I did have good teachers.

His kids play games, create graph art, and make math music videos, but don’t get me wrong: MacCarthy is serious about the subject, and his room — though sometimes noisy — had that under-control feel.

Do you know people who teach in a similar way? What creative lessons have your kids responded to?

 Photo by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group