Monday, March 3, 2008

Part One: Another View of the Oakland Situation

My response to John (part 1)

In February 2008, one of my pieces about OUSD was posted on a nationwide small schools listserve for educators and school reform activists. One of the members*, John Watkins, posted an extensive response to it. Here are my replies.

JOHN SAID: “…although to give some credit to the Superintendent at the time, Dennis Chaconas, some of that [the cause of the district's bankruptcy] was the result of factors over which he had little control, and he was in the process of trying to remake the district to better serve Oakland kids and the community when the state took over, including initiatives designed to attract and retain better teachers.”

I SAY: Thank you for including this truth; it is not mentioned enough. One longtime and excellent teacher told me that he hates “to think it [getting good teachers, or not] is all about the money” but that his school “sure got a great crop of teachers” during Chaconas’ time. I know exactly who he was talking about, and about the extraordinary caliber of teaching they brought to the school. However, bit by bit they bailed out of OUSD and by the end of 2006-2007 every single one of them was gone.

JOHN SAID: “If you ask kids who went to some of the old high schools that eventually were converted to new small schools, they will tell you how bad it was in those, and how much better it is in the newer arrangements. I still think there is a long way to go academically, but what kids described to me as scary and chaotic was replaced with enough order…”

I SAY: I agree that is probably true. The thing is – it is a subset of the students themselves who are making the schools “scary and chaotic.” The kids who make the schools “scary and chaotic” are not the majority, but they are highly visible because they have such a strong negative impact on everyone else. Because of the social dynamics, this is a largely a secondary school issue.

These kids need special help. Charter schools won’t help them because they overtly, or covertly, exclude students who are this difficult. Regular public schools are forbidden to do the same. And just because their neighborhood’s large school was converted into four small schools doesn’t necessarily mean these kids will receive the amount of targeted help they need, either.

During their years in school, kids in this subset (of all ethnicities and races, by the way) use up a huge portion of the resources, the reactive type more than the proactive type, of which there are too few. Here are some of the resources disproportionately consumed by this one small group of students:

  • a significant portion of the principals’ work day
  • nearly the entire work day of many of the assistant principals who attempt to manage the poor behavior and deal with its consequences
  • the loss of state funding because of suspensions and truancy
  • the huge amount of time required to conduct DHP’s (Disciplinary Hearing Panels, the OUSD student expulsion procedure)
  • the recruitment and retention of teachers
  • an enormous amount of wear and tear on the teachers who remain
  • the recruitment and retention of strong Oakland families
  • instructional time and safety for the students who are trying to learn

Worrying about their children’s safety is at the top of the list for most Oakland parents when it comes to their concerns about the city’s public schools. If the district would consistently focus more effective and proactive attention on this set of students, so many families in Oakland wouldn’t need to fear, and flee, the schools!

To learn more about African American students who are in this subset of children, please read the work of Elijah Anderson, an accomplished sociologist who studies the black urban community and one of the nation’s most influential and respected scholars in the field of urban inequality. He joined Yale University last summer after years as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania (

In my opinion, any discussions or strategies about improving inner-city schools that do not feature a conscious awareness of Dr. Anderson’s important body of work, as emotionally difficult as it may be, are pointless and futile.

The following is from his book "Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City" (1999) from the section in Chapter Two entitled “The School as a Staging Area” (pp. 93-98). Throughout this book Dr. Anderson hits the nail on the head again, and again, and again. He writes

“The inner-city school… is characterized by the street/decent dynamic. During their early years, most of the children accept the legitimacy of the school, and then eagerly approach the task of learning. As time passes, however, in their relentless campaign for the respect that will be meaningful in their public environment, youth increasingly embrace the street code. By the fourth grade, enough children have opted for the code of the street that it begins to compete effectively with the culture of the school…”

“In this social setting, decent kids learn to code switch, while street kids become more singularly committed to the street…This ‘street knowledge’ is esteemed, and the quest for it and the consideration for those who have it begin to predominate, ultimately competing with, if not undermining, the mission of the school.”

So it seems that parents who want to protect their kids from the “street” kids would believe that small schools and charter schools are the answer -- a rational response. But small schools and charter schools will not be an adequate strategy for improving the big picture in urban communities. This approach will not do enough to improve the behavior of students who are undermining the goals of the schools, it does not deal with the root causes of their behavior, and in the end, it does not help to improve the prognosis of their, and of Oakland’s, future.

These kids need placement in high quality alternative schools so they don’t wreak constant havoc for both the well-behaving kids (the majority) and the teachers who are trying to accomplish the daily goals of the school. This needs to be done in middle school at the latest, long before students incur their multiple suspensions, expulsions, criminal charges and trips to juvenile hall.

Lonnie Athens, a professor at Seton Hall University who was profiled in “Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist” by Richard Rhodes (1999), believes that schools are the place to prevent or interrupt “violentization,” his term for the pattern of social development common to all seriously violent people.

More small specialty schools need to be developed for the kids who make the schools “scary and chaotic” for everyone else. I am not talking about placing them in sterile, punitive environments or “gang training centers” (how one OUSD administrator referred to "continuation schools").

Instead, these would be intimate schools which provide concentrated and “intensive care” -- schools with kind, but firm, environments where high-quality resources are lavished on students to partially make up for what is lacking in their homes. Now this is something Mr. Gates and Mr. Broad should consider!

I am talking about giving this set of very needy kids a positive and supportive environment with intense mentoring, enrichment, counseling and monitoring. Even if 25% of the kids in Oakland who need it were to receive this focused support at school when young, perhaps it would make a true difference in their lives. Otherwise, we know where they will be headed.

“For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults are behind bars, according to a new report." This was in the New York Times just a few days ago (2/29/08). The report also states that one in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is currently incarcerated. Undoubtedly most of their misbehavior started when they were young. Each prisoner costs the U.S. an average of $24,000 per year, the same as a college tuition. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put that money at the front, rather than at the back end of their lives after so much damage has been done? We must do something more!

For the past 20 years, my husband (an assistant public defender for our county), has been providing legal representation to the future form of the kids who make the schools “scary and chaotic” today. Our children have attended Oakland public schools since 1993 and have experienced the "scary and chaotic" atmosphere at times. During the seven years I worked as a Parent Coordinator at my local middle school, I witnessed these issues play themselves out everyday.

For many years now, I have been distilling insights that have collected from my personal experience, from the substantial amount of reading and independent research I have done, from my husband’s experiences, from our daughters' frontline reports and experiences, and from the experiences of the other public school people we know. My views are largely based on this accumulated body of knowledge.

I am interested in these issues because I see so much daily suffering and unmet human potential in Oakland; I simply cannot accept that it has to be this way. My points may seem like a tangent to some, but I believe they are at the heart of the problem in many of Oakland's schools.

If “school reform” focused only on this group of kids, then real progress could be made. Of course, the problems and their solutions are complicated. It's just that these points should always be part of the conversation, and it seems they rarely are.

I believe people are sidestepping the true problems in the cities by fixating on the wrong changes that need to be made in urban schools. It’s much easier to blame the teachers and the schools than to deal with this huge social issue properly. This is happening at the national, state, and local level.

That same mindset has been throwing out some of the babies with the bathwater, ones that we should keep for the sake of our communities and for the notion of true public education. More about that in my response to John: Part II.

*The listserve is @ John Watkins is a coach and consultant with schools, school districts, support organizations, government agencies, and social service organizations. He worked with some of the emerging small schools in Oakland and was a school reform coach at BayCES during part of this time. He authors a blog for “coaches involved in systemic school improvement” @


The Perimeter Primate said...

Follow this link to see the what the code of the street looks like:

caroline said...

I read this just after I'd been e-mailing with an academic researcher who's a big fan of KIPP schools, explaining how KIPP's admission process, requirements and practices self-select for students and families who are motivated, high-functioning and compliant. The academic seemed to be quite taken by surprise -- this hadn't occurred to him in the slightest.

This post clarifies my point. And now I'm reading "Code of the Street," which is fascinating.