In Oakland schools, the bumping is about to begin

Jan Seagren, secretary at Grass Valley Elementary

When it comes to school employees, most education coverage focuses on teachers, principals and superintendents. (Guilty!) In the last week, though, I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for the role of other school employees in making schools run smoothly.

Last month, 313 Oakland school secretaries, security officers, library clerks and other employees were told they’ll soon be laid off, demoted or reassigned to someone else’s job. It’s happening through a seniority-based “bumping” process that — because of its ripple effect — will affect most of the schools in the district in one way or another. No one I interviewed could remember this happening on such a large scale in Oakland.

I wrote a story about the people affected by the bumping process. It will be in tomorrow’s paper. You can find the online version here.

Continue Reading


School board meeting this week: at Lincoln

The Oakland school board holds this week’s 5 p.m. meeting at Lincoln Elementary School in Chinatown, 225 11th St. They’ll be discussing the district’s budget cut proposal, again (pages 3-4 of full agenda), and talking about the plan to support teachers — especially new ones — with far fewer funds, and considering a resolution to oppose Arizona’s immigration law.

You can find the agenda here.

Continue Reading


Hearing tonight on Oakland’s “persistently lowest-achieving schools”

Should Oakland Unified apply for a federal grant — money with strings attached — for its schools that made the state’s lowest-performing list? At 6 p.m. tonight, the school board is holding the first of two hearings on the subject. It’ll be held at United For Success Academy on the Calvin Simmons campus, 2101 35th Ave.

Explore Middle School, United for Success, ROOTS International, Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep are the five Oakland schools eligible for the money (an amount still undetermined). To get it, they have to do one of four things: shut down and send their students to other schools; close and reopen as a charter school; fire the principal and half the teaching staff; or fire the principal, extend the school day and make other changes. Principals who have been in place for less than two years are allowed to stay.

Continue Reading


Oakland honors high-achieving black students

African-American Honor Roll (courtesy photo)
photos courtesy of the Oakland Unified School District

Each year, African American students drop out of Oakland’s public schools with disturbing predictability, a phenomenon that Superintendent Tony Smith has decried in his speeches and vowed to “interrupt.”

An annual event held at an East Oakland church calls our attention to those who are thriving despite a dropout crisis in which more than one-third of the city’s black high school students quit early.  

Continue Reading


Oakland and the status quo option

Protest at the Elmhurst Community Prep/Alliance campus on March 24

It’s not on the school reform menu, but the Oakland school district might order it anyway: the status quo.  

This is a new development in OUSD, a shift in thinking that followed a conference call with state education officials late last week, said Oakland school district’s spokesman, Troy Flint. 

Oakland school administrators had assumed the district would be eventually required to make one of four drastic interventions at schools on the state’s “persistently lowest-achieving” list,  including closure, charter school conversion or the replacement of the school principal or staff. That, despite the fact that all of the Oakland schools on the list are new, products of similar reforms. At a town hall meeting on March 24, Superintendent Tony Smith called the process “unfair” and “unacceptable” — and then suggested that there was no good way around it.

That changed, Flint said, when the state department of education official in charge of the grant program confirmed that “there’s no mechanism for enforcement.” In other words, if schools don’t apply for the federal School Improvement Grant money — the carrot — there is no stick.

Flint said this information has opened the door for an alternative improvement plan, such as directing school staff to continue and/or refocus their efforts without starting over again from scratch. “That definitely changed the perspective of the people at the central office,” he said.

Continue Reading


DIY mentoring at an Oakland middle school

Ryan Hansen and his mentor, Alex Thibeault

Word on the street is that it’s hard to repeat the eighth grade in OUSD, even if your report card is loaded with Ds and Fs. (Remember the retention memo? I’m checking on the exact numbers.)

But teachers at Edna Brewer Middle School have long worried about kids who — because of their bad grades — don’t participate in the eighth-grade promotion ceremony at the end of the year. Not only do they miss out on a rite of passage, but they leave middle school on a trajectory of failure.

This year, history teacher Julie Greenfield and some of her colleagues decided to do something about it. They identified 75 kids with GPAs below a 2.0 and recruited 34 mentors to work with them, one-on-one, for at least an hour a week. All of the mentors are on Edna Brewer’s staff. More than 60 percent of the teachers signed up. Continue Reading


Federal dollars, struggling schools and Oakland Unified’s dilemma

Oakland has the chance to infuse five of its schools with an unspecified amount of federal money.

The thing is, the grant in question has some serious strings attached. It would require these five schools (well, four of them, since Explore Middle School is closing anyway) to make major changes — and to make them in a hurry, before the start of the upcoming school year.

At 8 a.m. tomorrow, Superintendent Tony Smith will make an announcement about the district’s plan and take questions at a town hall meeting in the Elmhurst auditorium (1800 98th Avenue). Continue Reading


Oakland’s MLK Oratorical Fest: an old contest with a new challenge

Some writers can stand on stage, all alone and before rows and rows of people, and recite original poetry. Others prefer to keep a lower profile.

Sophia Denison-JohnstonAt this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fest, a new competition gave stage-shy students a chance to shine. About 50 students in Oakland’s public and private middle schools entered an essay contest. They submitted short persuasive pieces on people, living or dead, who have benefitted humanity.

I was one of the judges for the final competition, and I’ve posted links to their essays so you can read them too. (Note: We determined the winners before learning the writers’ names or where they went to school.)

The first-place winner was Sophia Denison-Johnston (right), an eighth-grader at the private Redwood Day School. She wrote a piece titled “Martin Delaney – AIDS Activist and Lifesaver.”

Continue Reading


Can OUSD ditch its old rep and galvanize the support it needs?

The Bellevue Club on Lake Merritt has an old school, old Oakland sort of feel. But tonight, the future of the city’s schools — the city’s young residents, really — was discussed in its ornate rooms.

The event opened with a reception fundraiser for the Oakland Schools Foundation and remarks about the organization’s changes: its new name, its planned expansion, and its new director, Dan Quigley, former PG&E director of charitable giving.

Holly Babe Faust, the outgoing director of OSF, said the organization was optimistic about its relationship with the school district, which she predicted would become “broader, deeper, more interesting.”  She might be right; OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith made the keynote speech, after all.

Continue Reading


More perspectives on grading and Easy A’s

I visited an Oakland high school today and interviewed two veteran teachers — teachers with reputations as hard graders — about their grading practices for a follow-up story on this issue. I talked with some students, too.

One of the teachers said it is “painful” to give half of the students in a particular class Ds and Fs, as he has done. But, he said, holding the kids to a certain standard (coming to class and completing their assignments, at a minimum) is the best leverage he knows of when it comes to motivating students to work hard and learn the material. Not that it always works…

Both teachers, however, said it’s much more difficult for newer hires — without tenure or an established reputation at a school — to adhere to high standards if that means giving out many Ds and Fs. Those teachers are more vulnerable to pressure from the school administration and parents alike, they said.

After all, an F isn’t a passing grade and Ds aren’t accepted by the state university systems. Continue Reading