Candidates — and endorsements — in Oakland school board races

Great Oakland Public Schools, a school reform-minded coalition of families and school employees supported by the Rogers Family Foundation and other groups, has become increasingly involved in Oakland school district policy since its founding a few years ago. Now, for the first time, its board of directors has endorsed school board candidates in the November election, through this process.

GO Public Schools announced today that it had endorsed two of the four candidates for District 3 (West Oakland): incumbent Jumoke Hinton Hodge and challenger Sheilagh Polk. The organization is also backing one of its founding members, James Harris, who is challenging incumbent Alice Spearman for the District 7 seat (East Oakland-Elmhurst).

Under the ranked-choice voting system, voters will rank up to three candidates in November.

As you can see, the District 3 and 7 races have no shortage of candidates so far. It appears to be a different story for District 1 (North Oakland) and District 5 (East Oakland-Fruitvale). Continue Reading


Sustainable Urban Design at Castlemont High

Sustainable Urban Design Academy
photo by Ray Chavez/ Bay Area News Group

This spring, photographer Ray Chavez and I tagged along with a group of students in an urban ecology class at Castlemont High School for a story and video that came out today. It’s part of the school’s new Sustainable Urban Design program, a California Partnership Academy started by teacher Timothy Bremner (He brought from Youth Empowerment School after it closed.)

The Sustainable Urban Design Academy is slated to expand this fall as part of Castlemont’s controversial merger and redesign — which was the subject of an early morning protest on the campus last week; another is planned for tomorrow morning.

The students have undertaken a number of projects on the campus, including a community mapping initiative featured in the below video. They have been documenting the strengths and challenges of their neighborhood from various perspectives: public health, economic opportunity and the natural vs. “built” environment, among others.

In addition to learning about various `green’ career paths, the students hope to weigh in on city and school district projects. The MacArthur Boulevard strip outside the high school campus could sure use a little TLC.


OUSD’s bumpy road to fiscal solvency hits an unexpected dip

In March, Superintendent Tony Smith and Deputy Superintendent Vernon Hal announced that the Oakland schools would be structural deficit-free for the first time in at least a decade, a major milestone for a district that’s often defined by its fiscal failings.

Then (and I don’t know exactly when), they discovered it: A coding error in the special education budget. As I understand it, a stream of one-time funds expired, but money kept flowing to the program afterward, from the district’s general fund. It took awhile for OUSD’s financial services team to catch on, apparently, because someone from special ed had erroneously indicated that the source of those continued funds was state revenue growth — which didn’t exist — rather than the OUSD general fund.

The upshot: OUSD is discovering, in late May, that it has $8 million less than it thought. The coding error was about $5.7 million. Add to that $2.2 million in increased transportation costs projected since the last interim financial report and a few smaller ticket items.

You can find the news story about it here. I should note that I still probably have a lot of the same questions you do.

This doesn’t look to be a short-term emergency, as it stands right now — at least, in the practical, paying-the-bills sense. Continue Reading


OUSD’s black male students: school-by-school data

This morning, Urban Strategies Council released a series of reports about the experience of black boys in the Oakland school district: one on out-of-school suspensions, one on chronic absenteeism, and lastly, an analysis of numerous factors to estimate how many children are on track to graduate high school — beginning in elementary.

There is so much data here that the short story in today’s Tribune (which is long by today’s standards) and blog post can’t do it justice. Each school will receive a data profile to further the district’s African American Male Achievement initiative. These reports were produced in partnership with OUSD as part of the initiative.

Some of the stats that I pulled for the paper on African-American boys in OUSD. The suspension rates are the percentage of individual students that received an out-of-school suspension at least once during a single school year.

  • Twenty percent missed 18 or more days of school in 2010-11, making them chronically absent.
  • Eleven elementary schools gave no out-of-school suspensions to black boys in 2010-11, and 20 schools suspended 3 percent or less; by contrast, some elementary schools suspended 22 to 35 percent of their black male students that year.
  • Middle schools had the highest suspension rates for black boys. Out-of-school suspensions jumped from 12 percent in fifth grade to 31 percent in sixth grade. At West Oakland Middle School, 60 percent of the students received at least one suspension in 2010-11.
  • About 38 percent of the suspensions were for defying authority or causing a disruption; 28 percent were for causing, attempting or threatening injury.

Continue Reading


Child care cuts and kindergarten readiness

photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

Readers, how I’ve neglected you this week… I blame the impossibly complex nature of California’s child care system, which faces a 20 percent cut for the upcoming fiscal year.

I’ve spent the last 48 hours trying to figure out what the governor’s May budget revision would mean for working families (mostly single parents and their kids) and the system as a whole, how it differs from the original budget proposal in January, and how the different programs work now. In addition to tracking down facts and figures, I’ve been interviewing people from around the Bay Area who receive child care subsidies — and, finally, trying to put it all together into a somewhat readable format. (I don’t normally include acknowledgements, but Carlise King, the research director for the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, must have devoted almost as time as I did in this endeavor, helping me find those numbers and very, very patiently explaining what they meant.)

You can read the story here.

As I talked to parents, including a single dad from San Ramon whose quote didn’t make it into the story, I was struck by the reality of single parenthood. All of the people I interviewed had white collar jobs — an administrative assistant, a facilities manager, an insurance salesman/customer service rep. If the proposal is enacted, all of them will lose their child care subsidies.

If that happens, the dad from San Ramon and his daughter will probably move in with Grandma in Discovery Bay; the administrative assistant will rely on relatives to watch her 3-year-old, rather than an educational setting; and the other mother still hasn’t figured out a Plan B.

Child care is often framed in terms of accessibility — the number of slots available to kids, and eligibility levels for families. But the other side of the equation is the quality of the program. Experts say the proposed cuts are so deep they fear that poor children — even those whose parents retain their benefit — will have access only to the relatives-and-neighbors variety of care, rather than the kind that will get them academically and socially ready for school.

A couple of months ago, I cited a long-term study that shined light on the potential benefits of excellent pre-k programs:

For decades, researchers with the Perry Preschool Study followed a group of 123 low-income African Americans from Ypsilanti, Mich., who were 3 or 4 years old in the 1960s. Some children were randomly assigned to the same high-quality preschool program, and the others weren’t.

When tested at age 5, those in the preschool group were more than twice as likely to have IQs of 90 or higher (67 percent vs. 28 percent) than those who didn’t. By age 14, they were more than three times as likely to have reached a basic achievement level. They were less likely to be placed in special education programs, more likely to graduate from high school and, as adults, to be employed. They were also less likely to be arrested for violent crimes.

The study’s cost-benefit analysis found that for every dollar invested in the preschool program, $16 was returned — $12.90 of it to the public, mostly from crime saving and increased taxes as result of higher earnings.

It seems that the budget crisis has forced California to move in the opposite direction. K-12 teachers: Are you ready for what may lie ahead?


A sudden school closure in Oakland

photo by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group

All year long, people have been complaining about the Oakland school board’s decision to close five elementary schools — and how they did it.

Almost everyone who goes through a school closure must suffer to some degree, regardless of the process or the timing. But as I reported the story I wrote today about the closure of Civicorps Elementary School, a publicly funded, independently-run charter school in North Oakland, I couldn’t help but think back to OUSD’s much-derided process.

First: There was a process. I’ve lost track of how many meetings I’ve covered in OUSD this year on the subject of school closure and student placement. I would have run through my newsroom’s entire paper stash had I printed every document the district produced to make its case to the public about the need to close schools, and to justify which ones it chose.

I’m not saying OUSD did the right thing or not by closing schools, or that there weren’t major problems along the way (See: Lazear Elementary). But the board made its decision on Oct. 27, about 10 months before the start of the next school year. Displaced families received priority when choosing their Plan B. Because the OUSD school board members are elected, members of the public are free to vote them out of office if they feel misrepresented.

Now, take Civicorps Elementary. Continue Reading


California’s budget, “day of reckoning”

Want to see the governor’s latest proposal for balancing the state’s budget, despite ballooning deficit projections?

You’ll find the May Revise summary here. The education proposal begins on page 33.

If you’d rather read a long and incredibly comprehensive first-day news article about the details of the proposal, check out  Josh Richman’s piece (to which a number of reporters, including me, contributed) here.

Gov. Jerry Brown says that if the November tax initiative doesn’t pass, funding for schools and community colleges will be automatically cut by $5.5 billion — equivalent to three weeks of instruction. The May budget revision assumes those tax hikes will go through, though.

The plan includes a whopping $453 million cut to state-funded child care services.

Brown also proposes a simpler funding formula for schools, as I noted recently. Schools with higher-needs students would receive more money, and the state would no longer require certain funding streams to be spent on particular programs.

What jumps out at you from reading the proposal and the news coverage?


Competing for attention: Moldy portables, broken heaters and a 90-yard football field

Improving Oakland’s school facilities will be a major focus for the district in the coming months. The long-awaited Facilities Master Plan is up for a vote on May 23. Then, on June 13, the board reviews the proposed language for a $475 million bond measure that might go on the November ballot.

Gene Bregman, a market researcher hired by OUSD, reported at tonight’s school board meeting that he was “very encouraged” by the results of his firm’s telephone poll about a possible bond election.

Tim White, who heads the district’s facilities department (which has created this website for the master plan), said that, over the years, the district has received many millions of dollars for upgrades in addition to local taxpayer-funded bond money — mostly in the form of matching grants.

Maybe White can do that again if the bond is approved this fall, at least to some degree. But the fact remains that, despite the money Oakland taxpayers have already raised for capital improvements, the district’s list of needs totals $1.536 billion. That’s three times the amount of the as-yet hypothetical bond revenues.

Will Fremont High School in East Oakland get a football field with a full 100 yards, and building to replace some of its rotting portable classrooms? Will West Oakland schools — slated to be a hub for science, technology, engineering and math activity — be outfitted accordingly? Will the district create a new central kitchen and renovate smaller ones so kids can eat more nutritious food? Make its buildings better able to withstand a massive earthquake?

Continue Reading


Twin sisters from Oakland heading to Yale — together

Staff PhotojournalistI recently had the chance to sit down with Kim and Jack Mejia-Cuellar, twin sisters from Media Academy (Fremont campus) in East Oakland who have both been awarded full scholarships to Yale University. It was inspiring to hear their story — and how, as one of their teachers put it, they shaped their education into something rigorous and meaningful.

I was struck by something Kim said about feeling like outsiders, at times, for working so hard:

“No one said it outright, but our behavior was strange,” Kim said. “By setting goals for ourselves while other people were setting limits, we were always sort of the odd ones out. We felt pressured, but we didn’t let the pressure get to us.”

Both said that they doubted they’d be where they are if they didn’t have the other as a support system. What about the other bright minds who will show up to school tomorrow, but without an identical twin or best friend with the same drive, discipline and self-assurance? What can their families, friends and the school system do (or avoid doing) to help them set goals instead of limits?

Photo of Kim and Jack (left to right) by Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group


I asked Jack and Kim if they’d write some advice for younger students, and they managed to squeeze it into their hectic schedules. Here it is, just as it came in: Continue Reading


Your new Oakland teachers union leaders

The results are in, and Trish Gorham, a teacher at Kaiser Elementary, will be the new president of the Oakland Education Association. She defeated Mark Airgood 639 to 201.

Steve Neat won first vice-president, beating out Tania Kappner 627 to 206. Other contested seats went to Chaz Garcia, Vincent Tolliver, Janan Apaydin, Manny Lopez, Vivian Romero, and Andy Young. All of the winners had been endorsed by out-going president Betty Olson-Jones.

Mark Hurty, the candidate I quoted about OEA needing to be in a better relationship with the district administration, received 314 votes to Apaydin’s 440. None of the three candidates he supported — Angela Badami, Marva McInnis and Cary Kaufman — won.

The turnout? 1,027 valid votes — about 40 percent of the membership.