Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The struggle

As a veteran Oakland public school parent and public school supporter, the past several months have been tough. This summer I’ve been having a crisis of confidence in my school district, and in my daughter’s school. It was brought on by flare-ups of district and school site dysfunction that resulted in a series of disappointments and setbacks.

I am not at the point where I am thinking about bailing out for the supposed nirvana of the costly privates, but I long to feel hopeful and confident about my child’s school once again. Undoubtedly, the private school parents will probably think, “I told you so.” One public school parent once said that these schools aren't for the feint of heart, and she was absolutely right.

My youngest daughter only has three more years to go. Reminding myself to keep sight of the big picture, I know she is doing well and has enough nice, normal friends at her school who are from nice, normalish families. It’s still sad to hear them commenting on how incredibly screwed up things are at their school. They shouldn't have to struggle so much to feel a sense of school pride.

Take a look at the school’s yearbook for the Class of 2008. The teacher adviser was either sleeping on the job – or is illiterate herself – because she totally neglected to proofread or guide the written content of her students. This embarrassing book is now part of the school’s history for the public to see for decades to come. It is pitiful and is probably the most humiliating document that has ever been produced by an institution of learning. (This reminds me that I need to beg the principal to please reassign the yearbook adviser job to SOMEONE ELSE!)¹

A few weeks ago a new principal was assigned to the school and I hope he will be a good leader and do what needs to be done. I haven’t met him yet but have heard that other parents feel positive about him. The principal he is replacing did a great deal of damage to the school in the past two years of being in charge. It hasn’t been a truly sturdy school for many years and, after her tenure, the integrity of the school is more fragile than ever. Oh yeah, and the school is heading into its fourth year of NCLB Program Improvement, so more fun and games are in store.

As a longtime public school booster who has spent a lot of time and energy doing helpful things for my children’s schools over the years, it is sad to be feeling such low morale this far into it. Sometimes I envy the oblivious parents, the ones who are totally trusting or don’t have any idea about what is going on at their children's schools, and aren’t concerned a bit. If I was a member of that aloof club of parents, I’d be a lot better off – emotionally-speaking.

One of my daughters' favorite teachers (very qualified, skilled, hardworking, with high standards), who recently left the district after nine years, concluded that many of the better teachers just use OUSD as a stepping stone to somewhere else, because the working environment is so miserable here. He concluded that that the good ones get out and the mediocre, and bad ones, stay forever. I know it he isn’t 100% right, because I know good teachers who have stuck with the district, but there is enough truth in what he says that it hurts to hear. This issue is one of our district’s essential problems.

Better progress in the school district is stalled because we have so many difficult to teach students, most of whom have parents who are unable to provide strong support to the goals of the school. One solid African American teacher recently left the district after several years frustrated because he felt like he “couldn’t get any friction with his students”; their attitudes were so screwed up. I always grieve when I see good teachers and administrators leave for greener pastures. I don’t really blame them for moving on, because work here is grueling and their professional needs aren't being adequately met.

Adding to the strain at the schools is the fact that some of the district's non-teaching staff doesn’t seem to know how to provide a higher caliber of service. So, like knowing what good parenting is all about because it has been modeled, they don’t necessarily know what professional, good service looks like or how it is done (for instance, interacting in a professional manner with people who have come into the office, or who have called the school). When navigating these schools, it’s not unusual to get incompetent, or even rude and hostile responses. Likely a result of bad manners or chronic stress, too many people are short-tempered.

Sometimes interactions are charged with underlying racial tensions. I continually try to sort out my own perceptions, but it seems as if people on all sides are on guard. Homogeneity has its comfort benefits and is probably part of the unspoken reason why so many white families avoid Oakland’s public schools.

Ah, these wonderful years of accountability, educational reform, budget deficits, soaring incarceration rates, drive-by shootings, widespread illegal drug use (especially marijuana), city hall disasters, and people struggling along their merry way. Hopefully I'll catch a glimmer of hope from somewhere and snap out of it before too long.

¹Update on August 14, 2008: At the school's registration today, I learned that the teacher has been fired. Hopefully this isn't just a useless rumor. I would love to know the full extent of her incompetence, and who finally decided to do the dirty deed.

No comments: