Friday, March 7, 2008

Part Two: Another View of the Oakland Situation

My response to John (part 2)

In part 1, I responded to John Watkin’s report that the new small schools in Oakland are an improvement over the large schools because they are less “scary and chaotic.” I pointed out that it is a subset of students themselves who cause the “scary and chaotic” atmosphere in the schools. While small schools may help somewhat, they will not be able to do enough to "fix" the social problems that are causing students to behave this way.

Most of Oakland’s children are from decent, caring homes. Their ability to learn at school is being destroyed by the powerful effects of an extreme antisocial behavior exhibited by the few. Those students should be targeted and placed in well-resourced alternate school environments that can provide them with the “intensive care” they need.

If more proactive attention was given to this set of kids, schools would automatically become calmer, staff recruitment and retention would improve, more local families would embrace the public schools, and the ability for all kids to learn would increase.

Small schools are no match for the highly aggressive nature of the “code of the street.” Haphazardly operated conflict management training programs aren’t either. This is a set of values that undermines the mission of the schools. The phenomenon is thoroughly described by sociologist Elijah Anderson in his book of the same name.

Parents in poor communities often support charter schools and vouchers for private schools because they want their kids to be separated from disruptive and dangerous schoolmates, of whom they are all too aware. However, this limited solution does not address the bigger problem.

As long as the “choice” strategy continues, our urban public schools will continue to evolve into daytime holding cells for the kids from families that don’t have skills to help them – as well as the only schools which permit special education students to attend, since charters and privates often don’t accept those children. Then what?

To me, issues about safety and school climate are at the heart of OUSD's problems. Those issues chronically interfere with the healthy functioning of Oakland's secondary public schools. Rather than being willing to deal with the deeper social problems, the clueless blame the teachers and call for structural changes to be made. Current school reform movements are fixating on the wrong things.

Because their vision is limited and few of them know this city, OUSD’s current Jack O’Connell-picked, Eli Broad-trained, NCLB-pressured, and hell-bent-on-“reform” leadership hasn't been able to make much headway after nearly five years of trying, and after the millions of donated dollars they have spent. Not only that, but in their misguided attempts they have thrown out important babies with the bathwater.

  • Baby #1: Our local history
  • Baby #2: A respect for the community
  • Baby #3: Education for all
  • Baby #4: Schools that could do better if they weren’t being starved to death

Baby #1: Our local history

In 2005 the State Administrator permanently closed down Calvin Simmons Middle School on 35th Avenue in Oakland. Afterwards, the campus was reopened as two small schools, Peralta Creek Middle School and United for Success Academy.*

Just a little more than two decades before, the school had proudly been named “Calvin Simmons” for a very important reason. By discarding the school named after this special Oakland native, the conscious memory of what he accomplished was also thrown away and an important piece of Oakland's history was dishonored.

For those of you who do not know, Calvin Simmons became the musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra in 1978 at the very young age of 28. This made him the second African-American conductor of a major U.S. symphony orchestra; the first being Henry Lewis of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, just four years later in the midst of experiencing a career described as “meteoric,” Calvin Simmons died tragically in an accident.

When outsiders acquire power over a community that is not their own, they are too socially detached from that community. Because they aren’t emotionally or historically connected to it, they don’t care if they make a decision that wipes its history off the map. To them, buildings and bodies are only pieces to manipulate.

Even if schools are called “failing” by the government, it is important to respect the fact that they each have their own histories. Local families feel bonded to them because they have existed in the neighborhood for decades; closing them is a loss.

For the last several years, schools in Oakland have been at risk of being abolished by decisions that are dictated “from above.” The powerless community has had no voice and has been forced to watch these manipulations.

Of course, over time, schools will come and go; members of a community understand this. The problem, in the case of Oakland, is that some of the reckless changes that have been made have caused a tremendous amount of damage.

I’ll discuss other “babies” in part 3.

*Last November I was driving near the old Calvin Simmons Middle School, a regular route for me. As I was stopped at a light, I saw a group of boys in school uniforms (the dark green shirts and khaki pants of United for Success Academy) attempting to rob another boy.

The boys were clustered on the sidewalk next to Foothill Boulevard where the victim was being pressed, face first, against a chain link fence. About six middle school aged perpetrators were in the process of searching through the backpack he was wearing. In student lingo, this is known as a “backpack check.” It is not an uncommon student-on-student crime, and it is committed by intimidation and with the use of force.

Because the willingness and successful completion of these types of acts are so highly esteemed by those who follow the “code of the street,” perpetrators are granted a higher social status by their peers. Neither "small schools," nor school uniforms, are powerful enough to counteract that set of values. Something more needs to be done.


caroline said...

I'm reading "Code of the Streets" now.

There's a whole set of street behaviors and symbols that confers respect on individuals -- including the mugging described in this post. But one key point is that to the people involved, it doesn't necessarily confer just status; it confers survival in a dangerous environment. They're one and the same. Realizing that makes it much more understandable.

I've often wondered, for example, why smart people would flaunt mannerisms and dress that attract the attention of the police. Now, from that book, I get it.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Eventually I am going to explain "code switching" according to the book. This is a tremendously important concept.

Code switching is a learned behavior. "Decent" kids in poor neighborhoods (and poor schools) learn how to act "street" so that they can survive. They know how to act one way with one set of people, and then act a totally different way with another set of people.

This explains the utter disbelief that some parents have when their child ends up committing a crime, or getting involved others who commit crimes.

Also, according to the book, “decent” kids can switch back and forth from “street” to “decent.” “Street” kids have not been raised in “decent” homes so they don’t know how to code switch.

The Perimeter Primate said...

A variation on the "backpack check" is a "pocket check." I first heard of this happening on the crowded buses that provide the daily transportation to students from Skyline High School (located in the hills) to other neighborhoods (in the flatlands).

A group of kids will get on the bus together and move through it. They often target a limited-English speaking student who is seated. Then they surround him in an intimidating manner and rummage through his pockets, taking whatever they find.

This act is done in full view of others. The victim is overpowered and afraid to speak up. The other students who witness this act are either too intimidated (wisely so) to speak up in defense of the victim, or they just don't care.

The parents of the victims are often non-English speaking and are hesitant, or unable, to report the crime.

The Perimeter Primate said...

On 3/9/08, in a Viewpoint column in the Oakland Tribune, the author Tammerlin Drummond wrote, "As a high school principal, Abdel-Qawi [principal at Castlemont East Oakland School of the Arts] faces a Catch-22. Some of his students are so disruptive that teachers can't even teach while they're in the classroom. Yet he doesn't want to suspend the boys because he knows if they drop out, the next stop is prison."

How about a decent alternative school for that "some"? See what I mean?

Anonymous said...

Maybe Ebonics deserves another chance.