“Won’t Back Down” fuels education reform wars

Liz SullivanLiz Sullivan is an OUSD grandparent, a former teacher and a community organizer. The views expressed in this article are her own.

“Won’t Back Down” will be released in theaters on September 28, but the new film is already stirring up controversy. Produced by the team who brought us “Waiting for Superman,” the movie stars Maggie Gyllanhaal and Viola Davis as two moms who use a “parent trigger” law to turn around a failing school. Michelle Rhee screened the movie at the Democratic and Republican Conventions, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, attacked the film in a press release, saying: “…the movie resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes.” The film is the latest dust up in the school reform wars. One side blames teachers’ unions for blocking change, and the other side characterizes school reform as a corporate privatization scheme.

The movie’s story line should feel familiar to local folks. Oakland’s parents and teachers have created scores of new schools over the last decade. Yet school reform Oakland-style does not fit easily into the overheated narratives competing on the national stage. The rhetoric of school reform resorts to gross oversimplifications that play well to a crowd. The reality of school reform involves real people navigating a marvelously complex world.

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National immigration policy, local high school students

photo by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group

A story in the Oakland Tribune by my colleague Matt O’Brien examined how the federal “deferred action for childhood arrivals” immigration policy might provide added inspiration to some students to graduate from high school and go to college.

The program, announced in June, offers temporary deportation relief for those brought to the country illegally when they were children as long as they were under 31 on June 15 and have met certain educational (and other) requirements.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, 20 percent of young immigrants who met the other criteria won’t be able to benefit because they don’t have a high school diploma or GED and they’re not in school. I wonder if that figure is even higher in Oakland, where the four-year high school graduation rate is only 59 percent.

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2012 STAR test scores for California

The results of 2012 Testing Season are here. They show, grade-level by grade-level and exam by exam, the levels at which students tested this spring: advanced, proficient, basic, below basic, or far below basic.

You’ll find a short story here. On that same page is a database that will let you find your school’s scores and a chart with Alameda County school districts’ results in reading, math, history and science.

In a few weeks, the Academic Performance Index (API)  scores come out, largely based on the numbers reported today.

OUSD’s data department has compiled a dizzying array of spreadsheets, as well as a document from the communications office that highlights the positive notes.

The percentage of Oakland Unified students testing at “proficient” or “advanced” levels remained flat in reading and math (up 1 percentage point in reading, to 45 percent and flat in math, at 45 percent), dipped by two points in history and rose three points in science.

In the document below, OUSD highlighted the positive trends at some schools.


OUSD’s test score highlights


Calling all student video producers!

Youth Media Festival
image courtesy of KQED and Bay Area Youth Media Network

If you know of a student who is a video storyteller or uses the medium to highlight social issues, this opportunity might be of interest to them. The deadline’s been extended to Sept. 10.

For its first public festival, KQED and the Bay Area Youth Media Network (BAYMN) are seeking youth-produced videos that tell stories or highlight issues of social change.

We are now accepting submissions from youth ages 12–24 who have made video projects in school, in an after-school program, in a summer program, or independently. Projects must be published on a video-hosting site such as YouTube,SchoolTube, or Vimeo. Videos may not exceed 15 minutes and must have been produced AFTER June 1, 2011. The deadline is Sept. 10, 2012.

Prizes will be awarded in both of these categories as well as in the general competition.


Weinberg: Extra money makes a huge difference in student outcomes

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and Education Report contributor, makes a case for the Proposition 30 tax initiative on the November ballot.

Steven WeinbergDoes providing schools with more money lead to improvements in student achievement?

The experience of Oakland middle schools over the last three years shows that it does.

Several years ago four Oakland middle schools with test scores in the lowest 20 percent of state schools received multiyear grants of $900 per student to reduce class sizes and fund other improvements. The grants were not given to all schools in the lowest 20 percent because the state wanted to be able to compare differences in improvement between those schools that received the extra money and those that did not.

After three years the differences in Oakland’s middle schools are dramatic. Continue Reading


Share your back to school photos, stories

photo by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group

So much happens on the first day of school. There are so many moments — funny, sweet, poignant, awkward — that I’d like to collect some of them, straight from you.

The simplest way for me to do this, I’m told by our social media experts, is through Twitter.

If you’re game, tweet your pictures, funny stories, anecdotes, thoughts and even breaking news — and include the hashtag #oaklandschools so I can find it. If we get enough material, we might create a Storify page to highlight your collective photos and musings from the day.

I’ll be tweeting too, from @katymurphy.

Best wishes in your final back-to-school preparations!


Dozens of special education teachers get new schools — this week

Just days before reporting to work, 26 of the Oakland school district’s 76 special education resource teachers have received major assignment changes — most, if not all, involving at least one new school, according to the Oakland teachers union’s new president, Trish Gorham.

Linda Grayson, who has worked with special needs children in general education classes at Brookfield and Markham elementary schools — some of them, for three years — said she received a letter Saturday informing her she’d be moved to Global Family, Korematsu and Esperanza.

The letter came as a shock, she said, as she’d been told in June that she’d be returning to the two schools; she’d already held a meeting with the principal of Markham about plans for the year.

“Now we have our most vulnerable children coming back to this,” Grayson said. (She also noted that nearly all of the families at her new schools are Spanish speaking, and that she doesn’t speak Spanish.)

I’ve been getting emails and calls about this development from people concerned that it will undermine the relationships and trust built between families, general education teachers, resource specialists and other staff members. Some, I’m told, will turn out to tomorrow night’s school board meeting.

Here’s what OUSD spokesman Troy Flint reported last night in response to my query about the special education department, whose official name is Programs for Exceptional Children, or PEC. Continue Reading


This week, some guidance and support for new OUSD teachers

New Oakland fourth-grade teachers take a break from lesson planning under the guidance of Piedmont Avenue Elementary School teacher Dana Graham during this week’s New Hire Induction Institute. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Dunlap/Oakland Unified School District)

Each year, on the first day of school, more than 100 teachers are experiencing their first day in an Oakland classroom. The first days of school are notoriously daunting for new hires — I vividly remember the tension on Andy Kwok’s face on Day 1 of his three-year teaching career at McClymonds High in 2007.

To  smooth out those first few days in the classroom and introduce new teachers to some of their colleagues (new and veteran), OUSD’s Talent Development Office held its second New Hire Induction Institute this week. About 100 new teachers came, on average, on each day of training, said Margaret Dunlap, who coordinated the event at Madison Middle School. Substitute teachers were invited this year as well; about 20-25 came each day.

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OUSD: Changes in the principal’s office

Here it is, your long-awaited account of who’s in and who’s out of various Oakland schools this year. From this 2012-13 directory, I count 15 new principals — seven at elementary schools, three at middle schools and five at high schools. Did I miss any?

This means that about 17 percent of OUSD’s 86 schools will have new leaders. Last year, if you recall, there were 20 new principals for 98 schools.

Two schools are also trying out the co-principal model — two people who share the job. Burckhalter Elementary School, which expects to take on dozens of children displaced from the shuttered Lakeview Elementary, will take on Lakeview’s former principal as well — along with its existing leader. Claremont Middle School, which has undergone some serious turnover in recent years, was appointed co-principals as well: twin brothers whose mother attended Claremont.

I’m curious about this setup — the financial implications (Are they paid the same as if they were the sole principal? Who’s covering the additional cost?), the potential benefits, the division of labor, and the reasons those two schools were chosen to have two leaders — and will have more for you later.


Elementary: Brookfield, Burckhalter (which will add a co-principal; Carin Geathers is not leaving), Esperanza, Grass Valley, Lafayette, Sobrante Park (which will share a principal with Madison Middle School, even though the schools aren’t supposed to merge until 2013) and International Community School

Middle: Claremont, Elmhurst and Montera

High/alternative: Bunche Continuation, Castlemont High, Dewey Academy (continuation), Oakland High and Community Day School

Where did the principals of the five closing elementary schools go? Continue Reading


A new project, on childhood asthma

Every so often, reporters have the luxury of stepping back from the routine of our daily beats and consider ways of doing work that is more ambitious, wider-reaching — to learn about what we’re not covering, but should be, or, maybe, a fresh take on an issue we’ve been following closely.

For me, that’s happening this week. Photographer Alison Yin and I are teaming up on a project for the Oakland Tribune about childhood asthma and air quality. We’ll be at USC for the next few days with other  journalists whose work is being supported by a National Health Journalism Fellowship.

The project, which the Tribune is also supporting, will explore the rising asthma rates among kids in the U.S. and its strong grip on parts of the Bay Area, particularly among African-American children. We want to look at the role of air quality (indoor and outdoor) and, in general, what’s known about the causes of the disease. As we continue to brainstorm ideas, we’re open to yours. If there are angles you think we should pursue, or people we should talk to, email me! I’m at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Tomorrow, we visit the Port of Long Beach, which is especially relevant to our story. I’ll be tweeting occasionally from the sessions, which began last night, if you’re interested or want to add your thoughts. I’m at Twitter.com/katymurphy (or @katymurphy), and we’re all using the hashtag #nhjf12.

I look forward to hearing your ideas!