Sunday, May 18, 2008

(School) climate change

Last week I posted the following message about neighbors, neighborhoods and local public schools to the Oakland Public School Parents and my local Laurel Village Yahoo groups:

On my short one-and-one- half-block stretch of street in the Laurel district where we have lived for 20 years, there are currently seven families with school aged children. None of them send their kids to the local public elementary school. Some attend private schools and some attend OUSD schools in the hills. This has been the predominant pattern for many families in this neighborhood for years, street after street after street. I know this goes on in many places throughout Oakland.

Last summer, one neighbor told me that he didn’t want to send his kindergartener to Laurel Elementary because it was a “failing school.” I later checked the California Department of Education website and learned that Laurel Elementary was not in Program Improvement, and it never had been. My neighbor had been completely wrong.

Last year, the school’s API was a very respectable 778. At that time it was 35% African American, 40% Asian, 17% Latino and 4% White. It was also 78% Socioeconomically Disadvantaged. These demographics do not reflect our neighborhood; we are much more White and much more economically advantaged.

White parents who are concerned about test scores can take a look at Asian student test scores to get an idea of how their children would perform. The achievement gap is a national phenomenon with White and Asian kids scoring higher, on average, than African American and Latino kids. OUSD schools are no exception.

According to last year’s figures, the percent proficient for Asian students at Laurel Elementary was 65.2% for English Language Arts (not bad considering the fact that many are from non-English speaking homes) and 80.4% for Math. These are also very respectable scores.

Shifts in the reputations of a number of non-hills OUSD elementary schools have been occurring over the past few years. Peralta Elementary and Glenview Elementary are the ones that come to mind. I recently learned from a good source that Sequoia is definitely on its way “up.” The schools that are shifting have primarily been in transitional neighborhood zones (areas on the interface between higher and lower poverty neighborhoods) such as our own. These neighborhoods have many young families because this is where they are more likely to be able to afford a home.

A Yahoo group would be an excellent way for young families in the Laurel to connect with one another, hopefully by the time their kids are about three. Knowing your child’s future classmates and their parents would be a very reassuring thing. I wish that a network such as this would have existed when our older daughter was in pre-school and we were trying to navigate these difficult issues on our own. I’ve heard that there was an effort to develop something like this in the Laurel district, but I don’t know how much progress was made.

I would also urge young families to join the Oakland Public School Parents listserv so they can listen in on the conversations about our public schools. Just go to

Over the years, I have acquired a very solid understanding of how to access school data and how to interpret the information. I would be more than happy to share my knowledge with a group of young Laurel neighborhood parents. Knowing the facts may help you unravel the truth from the fiction as you are trying to make your decisions.

The posting stimulated a response from a young mother who lives in the Laurel district. She said:

“Hello, I'm a mother of two (4 and 1) living in the Laurel school district. I am new to this list and am thrilled to find all of this very useful information. While I'm obviously concerned about the quality of education that our neighborhood schools provide, I must admit that I am more concerned about the environment and safety of our children. Is there anywhere to find out how many violent incidents or reports of weapons each school has? Is this public information? Thanks again for all the great information, it is very encouraging to hear so many parents are happy with their neighborhood schools.”

This mother’s specific concerns about the “environment and safety of our children” in Oakland's public schools – over those of the quality of education children might receive in those schools – echo those of other parents in Oakland. Parents continually express this lack of confidence in the public schools by moving out of town, or by sending their kids to schools somewhere else. I am convinced that OUSD’s passivity with confronting this singular issue is the biggest problem our district has. To answer this mother’s question, I posted the following message:

The nature of the environment and issues about safety at a school are called "school climate." The concern of prospective parents about the "school climate" at OUSD schools is probably the biggest barrier to voluntary enrollment. I wish this fact was talked about more and that the district would be more proactive about addressing these totally justified concerns. If they did, more families would probably use the public schools.

Here's how to get information about suspensions, truancies, etc. as they are tracked for official records.

1. Go to
2. In the navy blue bars above Jack O'Connell's head, click on "Data & Statistics"
4. Underneath Highlights, click on DataQuest under Highlights
5. Under Select Level, click on "School"
6. Under Select Subjects, click on Expulsion, Suspension, and Truancy
7. Click on Submit
8. Follow the instructions for entering a portion of the school's name
9. Select the correct school in the correct district
10. View data of your choice

Keep in mind that a fair number of the cases at any school are caused by individuals who are repeat offenders. Also, keep in mind that the "players" in fights often know each other and are engaging in mutual combat. Fighting does not always mean that an innocent bystander is attacked by an aggressor.

Many of the kids who use mutual fighting to solve their problems have not been taught alternative verbal methods in their homes. From my experience, kids from homes where physical fighting is taboo -- and unnecessary -- often avoid getting involved with these situations entirely. On the playground they're busy playing with their friends who are also more oriented not-to-fight. This set of kids is more capable of using their words to solve problems and are less likely to feel the need to provoke and challenge each other by fighting.

I encourage prospective parents to have the school climate data on hand when they meet with a principal. Ask the principal to discuss your safety concerns with you. Ask to see their discipline policy. Hopefully the response they give will be reasonable and reassuring.

Many principals are working hard to make their schools better and would love to have the children of strong families enroll at their schools.

Here is something else I would like to belatedly add:

It is a benefit to any school when it has plenty of kids enrolled in it who aren’t inclined to physically fight. The kids who do tend to fight will have fewer other “fighters” to engage with. They will also be exposed to other modes of behavior (like NOT needing to fight) and the school climate will improve for all.

Some children are coached about fighting at home by family members and friends. Rather than being taught that fighting is taboo, they are taught that it is a preferred method for handling interpersonal conflicts. They are taught that it is an acceptable method for earning respect and establishing one’s status. This instruction may even be done by decent parents who view fighting skills as essential for their children to have. They believe, perhaps quite justifiably within the context of their community, that having those skills helps their children cope with peripheral peers who are prone to violence.

Part of the picture must be connected to the fact that some families have more limited vocabularies than others. A refrain often used by middle-class adults at playgrounds and preschools when they need to intervene in an escalating conflict between battling three-year-olds is, “Use your words.” I doubt that this phrase, and the persistence with enforcing its message, is as present in poor and working-class settings. The possession of a larger vocabulary must certainly increase the capacity for anyone to express their feelings more accurately, and to negotiate their conflicts more skillfully.

Richard Rothstein in “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap” (2004) cites many studies which describe the nature of the vocabulary gap in children. One of them shockingly reported:

“... two researchers from the University of Kansas visited the homes of families from different social classes to monitor conversations between parents and toddlers. The researchers found that, on average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children. Indeed, by three years of age, the children of professionals had larger vocabularies themselves than the vocabularies used by adults from welfare families in speaking to their children. Cumulatively, the Kansas researchers estimated that by the time children were four years old, ready to enter preschool, a typical child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with 45 million words, compared to only 13 million for a typical child in a welfare family.”

These days most, if not all, of the schools have conflict management programs and they definitely help somewhat. A middle school principal once told me that “The kids here who have been through conflict management training are able to handle things much better than their parents can and sometimes step in to help their parents through a conflict.”

Part of the problem is that the rules for managing conflict by mediation are at complete odds with those that the children are being taught, and then practice, during the many, many non-school hours.

To learn more about how children are socialized towards violence read “Why They Kill” (discusses the phenomenon of coaching) and “Code of the Street” (discusses how the willingness to use violence can earn a child respect). Both books are listed in my suggested reading list on the right hand column of this webpage.

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