Monday, June 9, 2008

The Parent Center years

When it came time for our older daughter to go to middle school in 1999, we decided to send her to Bret Harte, the local public school. Despite its ragged appearance, the school had an “accelerated” academic program for its motivated students, a strong instrumental music program, and was within walking distance from our home. We knew a few other neighborhood families who had decided to go there as part of an emerging movement to “reclaim” the school, and who hoped – like we did – to “turn it around.”

At this time Bret Harte had a reputation as a “ghetto” school to the people in the neighborhood and was referred to as such by at least one local realtor. Things had not always been this way. In years past, all of our older neighbors had sent their children to the school without hesitation. They would tell us, “It used to be a really good school.” Of course this was before a major demographic shift took place in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Over a short period of time, the school’s student body went from majority white (working and middle-class) to majority black (poor). Initially, white flight to the suburbs reduced the number of white middle-class kids who were attending the school, after which kids from outside the neighborhood filled those spaces. This started a snowball effect as the white (working and middle-class) families that remained in the neighborhood began to feel uncomfortable and pulled away from the school, too. They sent their kids to private schools or to Montera, the public middle school in the hills. Also during this time, Asian kids from poor immigrant families started attending Bret Harte, and as the years passed, more and more Latino kids from poor immigrant families came to the school as well. The climate at the school changed not only because of the demographics, but because of reductions in education spending caused by Proposition 13. The human and material resources that helped to make the school stronger just dwindled away.

As a stay-at-home mom, I had been an extremely active parent volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school and had also been involved with the co-op preschool my younger daughter attended. As soon as I arrived at Bret Harte, it was clear to me that this was a school that was in dire need of more adult attention. I immediately cut down on my volunteer activities at the elementary school and started showing up at Bret Harte to do things. What bothered me most was the filthy and neglected condition of the campus, so I joined with a few other parents to work on custodial and littering issues.

When my daughter was in the sixth grade, I was vaguely aware that there was a Parent Center at the school. I knew that there was someone who worked in it named Howard, but I didn’t really understand what he did. The few times I went in to talk with him he was sitting in the corner of the room alone with his leg up on a chair. The room was filled with boxes and furniture and the lights were always turned off. I would sit down and rattle to him about my frustration with the negligent custodian who mostly wandered around campus doing nothing useful. He listened to me and seemed nice enough.

The PTA had purchased an answering machine for the Parent Center hoping that Howard would record school announcements on it. Parents were frustrated and would gripe because he couldn’t often seem to get this simple task done. The following year when my daughter was in the seventh grade, he wasn't at the school anymore. The Parent Coordinator position was vacant for months until I made an offer to the principal: I would take on the job if I could work part-time and set my own hours. She accepted my proposal.

In February 2001, I started working as a part-time Parent Coordinator at the school. I did not receive any training or much guidance, but I was given free rein to do the things that needed to be done and I was highly motivated. Since the Parent Center had become a catch-all room for storage, I cleaned it up, brought in a desk from home, purchased a sofa at the White Elephant sale and started making pots of coffee in case anyone stopped by. I hunted down the person in the district who knew how to set up voice mail and then started to record regular school announcements for parents.

The following year the school hired another Parent Coordinator to help with its communication to Asian parents. In an incredible stroke of luck we found Eva, an intelligent and conscientious woman with tremendous language skills; she could speak Cantonese, Mandarin & Vietnamese and also write Chinese. She and I worked together for seven enjoyable and highly productive years. A Spanish-speaking Parent Coordinator position was added but the two different people who filled that spot did not happen to have the same longevity and devotion to the school.

In the years I worked at Bret Harte, word got around about the good things we were doing at the Parent Center and it became a model that representatives from other Oakland schools would come to see. Skyline's Family Resource Center was based on our model. Even representatives from other districts heard about us, and would stop by to find out what we had created and how it was done. The two people who had been Parent Coordinators before me had not worked out well, so the principal and the teacher who had conceived the idea of starting a Parent Center were very proud that it had finally been actualized.

As a Parent Coordinator, my main focus was to give parents consistent, high-quality communication from the school so they could know what was going on. I also constantly scanned the community so I could provide them with a wide variety of useful resources. We worked with the PTA to produce a monthly newsletter, we worked to help develop a web site, we offered our own classes and promoted others, we installed the messages on the outside marquee, we organized special events for the school, we produced multi-lingual documents, we started a listserv and sent out weekly announcements, we promoted the positive things that were going on at the school, we answered questions from members of the community, we collected resources for the school, we helped parents with their problems, and we connected people with each other. Mostly, we were a dependable and devoted presence intent on providing high-quality information and interactions to parents and other people at the school.

As the years passed, things changed at Bret Harte. No Child Left Behind altered the milieu at the school as testing, preparing for testing, and tensions about testing started to dominate. When the Oakland Unified School District was taken over by the state because of fiscal mismanagement, the new state-appointed administrative team made changes that damaged the integrity of certain positive things at the school. I watched as, one by one, a number of dedicated, skilled, and experienced staff members resigned from Bret Harte in frustration, and as the teachers who were left behind suffered from a weakened morale. I don’t think the district’s downtown management, to me a set of arrogant outsiders with agendas incompatible with the health of school sites, has any clue about just how many of this school's resources they drove away, and it is just one public school in Oakland. This is a district that simply cannot afford to lose a single resource because of this sort of carelessness.

For some reason in my seventh year at the school, the new principal, her new fiscal officer, and OUSD just couldn’t seem to process the Parent Coordinator contracts to completion. In the years I had worked there, this had not ever happened before. As a result, for month after month, we were not issued our paychecks.

As dedicated employees who were being strung along with superficial statements from the principal, the three of us continued to work without pay because we could manage financially just enough, we liked our work, and we were extremely hesitant to abandon the school. As the first semester advanced and our financial hardships grew, I became more and more insistent with the principal about finding out what was really going on. Realizing that this was being caused by some sort of incompetence and/or deception, I started to emotionally detach from the school. In addition, in my free time I had become very outspoken about the motives and direction of the district’s state-run administration. Being a public school parent and community member, I posted my opinions on the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group and on the opinion pages of the Oakland Tribune.

In December 2007 just before winter break and having still not been paid for the school year, I asked the principal to have a formal meeting with me and my co-workers. Instead of agreeing, she asked to meet with me alone. When I arrived in her office she was accompanied by the school's Network Executive Officer, her supervisor from the district. They both apologized to me for the problems with the contract, informed me that the contracts had finally just been approved (as if by magic!), and told me that our paychecks would be issued in a few weeks. But then the meeting took an uncomfortable turn.

The principal told me that she felt that I didn't like her and that I always seemed angry. I reassured her that I liked her just fine, but that it’s definitely been a problem that we haven’t been paid all school year. Then her NExO started a little inquisition of me – asking what I liked about my work at the school and asking if I was unhappy. She told me that I didn’t look happy whenever she saw me. This seemed very odd because we rarely crossed paths. It also seemed irrelevant to why I was meeting with them. Then she slipped in the piece of the conversation that made everything clear. She told me that she had read some of the things that I had written about OUSD, and reminded me that the district is where my paycheck comes from. Then she explained that she, and the principal, felt it was time for me to step down from the Parent Center. The principal sat next to her mute.

When I returned to school after winter break I delivered my resignation letter to the principal. I have concluded that my complaints about OUSD’s current state-run administration may have finally become big enough that they decided to uproot me from Bret Harte. I suspect they sent the NExO to do the deed. I know for certain that I had been providing the school with consistent and dependable high-quality service and that my elimination had nothing to do with my work. I left the school in February. In the days that followed, I started this web site (I hate the word “blog”) so I would have a place to post the things I like to write about.

I still think about Bret Harte quite a bit, and wonder how everyone is doing. The school is in the process of being “restructured” because of NCLB, so I know that many things are changing there. Of course, we are all constantly moving on to new things. At this last week of the 2007-2008 school year, I send out warm wishes from my heart for a good summer to the many Bret Harte community members I left behind. As always, go Bobcats!

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