Thursday, March 13, 2008

Part Three: Another View of the Oakland Situation

My response to John (part 3)

I have lived in Oakland for over 22 years, mostly at one address in the Laurel district. In that time I have become a very community-oriented person. To me, this means I make a special effort to be in tune with my local community, for better or for worse. I am a part of my neighborhood’s fabric and I like the way it makes me feel.

With few family ties in Oakland, I wanted to give my daughters the experience of feeling connected to their local community. When I grew up, I didn't have enough of that.

Whether it is because I missed out, or because I have strong maternal instincts, I think stability and a strong sense of connection is nourishment for young souls. So with sacrifice and intent, this is what my husband and I chose to do. Along with a dose of good fortune, our children have benefited.

Neither my husband nor I were “military brats” yet, due to family moves when we were kids, we lived in a lot of places. My husband attended three different elementary schools in three different towns, three different junior highs in three different towns, and two different high schools in two different towns. I attended four different elementary schools in four separate towns. Fortunately, things settled down for me after I arrived in the town where I spent my junior high and high school years.

This type of childhood takes its toll. It consists of repeatedly developing attachments and then being forced to break those attachments. It is about entering into a school, in a new region of the country, where everyone else knows each other, and doing your best to adjust. It is about feeling alone at school and needing to make new friends, yet again. It is about being forced to say goodbye to those friends, knowing that you’ll never see them, again. It is about being a kid who becomes resilient, or not, by experiencing loss and grieving the loss, over and over and over.

The topics of community and stability, and how important they are, bring me to something that bothers me about the current Jack O’Connell-picked, Eli Broad-trained, and hell-bent-on-“reform” OUSD leadership.

Baby #2: Respect for the community

Of course, my outlook and strong opinions about what is currently going on with OUSD are partly influenced by having had the personal experiences above. I just can’t seem to understand how people can waltz into a community where they have no emotional connection and then care deeply enough about the well-being of that community to know what is right for that community, or to do what is right for that community.

Certainly Eli Broad is brilliant; he’s a billionaire, for Pete’s sake. Certainly he handpicks smart and aggressive people to participate in his programs. Certainly those dynamos know how to apply themselves to an intensely challenging project. Certainly they are personally ambitious; by the time they have become participants in his programs they've been driven for years. Certainly they want to develop their résumés and advance their careers. And since they were brought here from some other place, certainly it is likely that they view Oakland’s schools, and the people in them, as just a collection of parts just needing to be manipulated. They probably hope that, when they're done with Oakland, they can waltz to their next stop feeling that things have been "fixed"!

I was stunned (NOT) when I read something on a page of the Broad Center website where people who are interested can learn more about the programs which it offers. Mollie Mitchell, the Director of Recruitment, wrote, “I was educated in a high performing suburban school district. I am embarrassed to say I did not have a clue that the achievement gap existed. I had no idea that large urban school districts were in so much trouble.”

Undoubtedly, most of the applicants who come her way are from a similar background. To all of them I say, “Golly gosh, ya didn’t know those things? Well that just means ya need to get right here so you can make things right!” And several few months later, after they've been in OUSD for a while, I'll then ask them, “Are ya having fun yet?”

Oakland is a suffering city, in too many ways. Our public school district just reflects this fact. Sure we are "diverse" -- a cool and very politically correct term -- but our fabric has been tattered for decades, and we are weak. We need to have have more things in common with each other than our differences!

Two Oakland old-timers I know, one Black and one White, told me that the biggest change in the city actually happened when the freeways (880, 580, 13, and 24) were built. They said thousands and thousands of people were uprooted -- and many neighborhoods were destroyed -- because so many homes were bulldozed. Apparently, white-flight was one thing, but this destructive force was something else altogether.

Perhaps that was one of the causes of our tailspin. For a long time now we Oaklanders have been suffering from a lack of healthy interconnectedness that most certainly relates to our history. We have the hills vs. flatlands folks vs. those in-between, the public vs. private people, the black vs. white, the minority vs. majority, the one minority vs. the other minority, the rich vs. poor, the stay vs. go, the new vs. old, the English speaking vs. non-English speaking, the immigrant vs. non-immigrant, the us vs. them, etc. Who did I forget?

I totally believe that our public schools have an enormous potential to help bring us together if we could make them strong. Unfortunately, I fear that the current OUSD management is steering us in the opposite direction and increasing our fragmentation. Schools are getting closed, chopped up, reopen, reinvented, closed again, etc. Good teachers and strong families can't take it and flee.

When it is expected that children will be transported by their parents to and from their own neighborhoods everyday to specialty schools (I’ve heard them called “boutique”) that are dotted all over the city, community disengagement is increased.

On the block where I live, just one short block filled with little bungalows in a typical Oakland “transitional” neighborhood (the interface where the hills and the flatlands meet), the seven families with elementary school-age children send their kids to six different schools, none of which is Laurel Elementary, the neighborhood school. Their schools are a combination of secular private, parochial, and one OUSD hills public school at the north end of the city.

What if “Expect Success” had put some sincere effort into recruiting families like this to attend the neighborhood's public school?

I concluded a letter to the Tribune last summer (Perimeter Primate posting of 2/19/08 - “The billionaires’ Frankenstein monster") by writing, “They [the people currently controlling OUSD] are not experts who can solve the painful problems which plague us. We’ll need to do that ourselves.”

The more and more I think about it, I can't imagine feeling any other way.

No comments: