Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Right, Again.

I thought I would be finishing my series on “Another view of the Oakland situation” this week, but it will just have to wait. Other topics are on my mind now, mainly about the need for more OUSD alternative schools, including alternative schools for middle school students.

OUSD has such a needy population of kids. Too many of them are disruptive in the standard school setting and are ruining the chance for other kids to learn. (Please read my previous “Another view of the Oakland situation” posts.)

This poorly addressed chronic problem drives strong families away from Oakland’s public schools and causes many other negative consequences as well. Providing for this specific group’s needs would be a very useful purpose for the millions of dollars that the philanthropists want to give. Since those students are a constant source of stress and difficulty for the schools, targeting and caring for them more effectively would help everyone else.

A story about Castlemont

This past Sunday (3/9/08), the Oakland Tribune published a Viewpoint column entitled “Educate to break cradle-to-prison pipeline.” Author Tammerlin Drummond added her voice to those who plead the wider society to pay attention to the plight of young black men. She cites the results of a recent study which looked at current U.S. incarceration rates. I mentioned some of those disturbing results in my posting of 3/3/08.

Her column reports an effort undertaken recently by Matin Abdel-Qawi, the principal at Castlemont East Oakland School of the Arts, one of the small high schools in Oakland. He has been compelled to help “devise a strategy for saving black boys.”

Ms. Drummond writes "As a high school principal, Abdel-Qawi 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."

This simple statement confirms my view that too many school reformists have been focusing on the wrong issues!

First, simply by splitting a large school into small schools doesn’t fix the problems that are causing low academic achievement. E.O.S.A. is a small school (316 students in 2006-07), but its classes are suffering from the same serious problems that are plaguing the larger schools -- lost instructional time for the students who want to learn because they are stuck with classmates who are “so disruptive that teachers can't even teach.” Because the principal feels compelled to keep the difficult students at school, their negative impact on everyone else persists.

Would the State Administrator and the “Expect Success” staff be willing to send their children to schools where they would have frequent classroom experiences like this? How can they expect Oakland families to tolerate the same?

Second, reformers who push charter schools as the answer to OUSD’s problems are missing the boat. These schools don’t enroll the difficult kids so they shouldn’t even be acknowledged; it's the old comparing apples-to-oranges thing. For instance, since the American Indian Public Charter School has been so wonderful, why haven’t they recruited these types of kids so they could work their Blue Ribbon miracles on them?

Third, the options for Oakland’s secondary school principals, and their difficult students, range from limited to non-existent. Mr. Abdel-Qawi is on top of the situation at his school, but it is obvious that he needs alternatives at his disposal for managing the grossly misbehaving students. He needs to preserve the opportunity for his other students to learn AND he needs to have a good place where he can send his troubled students.


Since suspensions are a punishment for bad behavior (fighting, vandalism, etc.), they do serve as a deterrent for some students. They also relieve the school from additional misbehavior for a few days. There are problems with suspensions, however.

Students prone to the types of misbehavior that earn them a suspension are also likely to have inadequate adult supervision when they are home. During the time they are suspended from school, they can freely roam the city and get into worse trouble.

Also, there are strong financial and legal disincentives for the school to suspend students.

Each school’s suspensions are closely monitored by the district, for their total numbers and for their demographics. Schools lose money when they suspend students because they receive their funding according to student attendance (ADA, i.e. Average Daily Attendance). In addition, when too many students from a particular subgroup are suspended, it raises a concern that the school is targeting that subgroup. Principals back away from suspensions for these financial and legal reasons.

Principals are very reluctant to talk about the severe behavioral infractions that occur at their schools. This is partly because of student confidentiality. It is also because no principal wants to reveal the things that are really going on at their school – like weapon possession, serious assaults, drug dealing, etc. Parents often suspect that there are problems, but the schools intentionally keep them in the dark.


For the most serious offenses (bringing a gun to school, assaulting a teacher, etc.) students are “DHP’ed.” This is the commonly used term for the OUSD student expulsion procedure. If the Disciplinary Hearing Panel decides to expel a student from a school, the parent just enrolls him/her in another OUSD school.

It goes like this. A student who gets expelled from School A for committing a serious act will then become a student at School B. A different student who gets expelled from School B will go to School C. And a student who gets expelled from School C will end up going to School D. On, and on, it goes. In other words, there is a rotating set of students who commit serious offenses and who are coming and going from one school to another, all year long.

Some of the Measure Y money helps the schools manage this set of kids. It pays for caseworkers who keep track of them. Their workload is excessive, however. I spoke with one who felt that three caseworkers would be a better number for the load that he was carrying.

This is sad, but true.

There are so many disruptive students in OUSD that the ability for the schools to function on behalf of the non-disruptive students is greatly reduced. Of course, this has been an uncontrolled problem for years. Most of these kids desperately need specialized attention that they will never receive, unless things are changed.

In the seven years I worked at one of these schools, I learned that there are a lot of really serious things that happen during the school day that parents ever don’t know about. As an Oakland public school supporter, I have mixed feelings about revealing this to you. I suspect that it will dissuade some parents from using OUSD secondary schools, and for that I am sad. On the other hand, I am compelled to share what I know and to assert my opinion that things need to change.

OUSD needs to begin to handle these situations differently so that the needs of ALL of its students are met. That way, more Oakland families will feel comfortable about their public schools. Mostly, the district desperately needs to develop more alternative schools!

I will share what I am learning about OUSD’s current alternative schools in an upcoming post.


caroline said...

The elephant in the room is race.

The book "Code of the Street" makes clear WHY it would be that African-American students, particularly boys, if they are from the very-low-income, inner-city underclass, are exceptionally likely to be oppositional and disruptive in school. It's not for its own sake and it's not just acting out. The behavior itself confers respect from peers -- a survival mechanism in their very dangerous world outside of school.
The worse the oppositional "crazy" behavior, the more respect in the violent world outside the school.

But it's not possible to get everyone to read the book! Without that, what people see is the question: "Why do African-Americans make up X% of the students suspended, when they only make up Y% (a considerably lower figure) of the school population?" Teachers and administrators are blasted as racists. One SFUSD school board member in particular is particularly hard-hitting on that issue.

I myself could be said to be guilty of that when I crunched some numbers and spotted the fact that Oakland's KIPP Bridge Academy, which has astronomical attrition, gets rid of African-American boys at a far higher rate than any other demographic. However, my point is that KIPP Bridge touts itself as the miracle solution -- but only manages to function by getting rid of the problem kids at a rate that traditional public schools would be attacked for, probably by the KIPP supporters themselves.

Without the open discussion of the "code of the streets," there's no way to justify the racial disparity. So where does this start?

mrs. id said...

Thank you for talking about this un-pc issue! My husband teaches 4th grade at a "School C", and has a particularly difficult group this year. He seems to have averaged one or two suspensions per week (of various races) since October. I am alarmed to learn that ADA is withheld for suspensions! In other words, schools are punished for punishing bad behavior. So they are forced to accept it, and it becomes normal, and this hurts other children who are trying to learn.

Disruptive behavior really is a problem that needs to be taken seriously, for all the reasons you mentioned above! What I have noticed is that these kids are emotionally unprepared for learning in a school environment. Their parents either don't know what to do about them, are absent, or are ineffective at connecting with them. Teachers become state-funded babysitters, since teaching is impossible. They are urged to learn better classroom management, but kids continue to flow into the classes who resist every form of motivation.

My husband has been threatened with lawsuits, and has complaints registered on his "permanent record" for physically removing a kid who stabbed a teacher with a pencil from a classroom.) There seems to be no accountability nor responsibility on the part of these families and children. In domestic abuse cases, judges order anger management classes. I think parents whose children get suspended should attend mandatory parenting classes. The kids with the bad behavior cannot be held responsible for being born into unskilled families.

No Child Left Behind and Expect Success express the noble belief that all children can improve, and all schools should be top-performing. However, this ignores the law of averages. There is a bell curve of humanity that must be accepted and embraced. Schools are not able to retain students more than once, but when you have kids passed on to the next grade without the skills they need, it creates increasing tensions and decreases self-esteem worse than being the oldest child in a class. This issue must be more carefully examined, and new ways of thinking and serving the needs of all students must be embraced.

Anonymous said...

I am currently a middle school counselor at a public school. I handle the vast majority of disciplinary issues at my school of about 200 students. On any given day as many as 60 students may be kicked out of classes for talking, not following instructions, shouting, throwing things across the room, chasing another student across the room, etc. The teachers cannot teach other students because of this behavior; similarly the teachers want to have the time to work with the student who has caused the disruptive behavior.

In my experience, many of these families are very responsive. They answer their phone, the tell me they will talk to their children, etc. As wonderful as this is and how hard they are trying, it has clearly been ineffective. How do we educate families so we can educate their kids?