Friday, February 29, 2008

Not For the Squeamish

For a time, when I was working at the school, I would occasionally check on the conditions in the girls’ bathroom. A number of the young ladies I knew would avoid using the bathrooms all day long because they thought they were just too disgusting. They would manage this feat by not drinking very much at school and would “hold it” until they got home at the end of the day.

Sometimes the girls’ bathroom was fine. Other times, a little too frequently, it was a realm of un-flushed toilets, perhaps a used sanitary napkin dropped in a stall, wads of dried toilet paper sticking to the ceiling (thrown up there while wet), and massive heaps of saturated brown paper towels left in the sinks and tossed all over the floor. It wouldn't be unusual to see every possible surface covered with graffiti – the walls, the broken hand dryers, the paper towel dispensers, the scratched metal mirrors, and the insides and outsides of the bathroom stalls.

The graffiti was applied in flurries. One day there would be hardly any, and a few days later everything would be covered. Permanent markers were the medium of choice, but pen, pencil and “white-out” would work, too.

Periodically, a team of school district painters would arrive to paint the entire bathroom. Afterwards the principals would lock the bathrooms for a day or two while the paint dried. The surfaces stayed clean for a short time and then graffiti would start to appear again. Once, a student scrawled this in a freshly painted bathroom: “You stupid to paint this cuz we just gonna do it again!”

There was so much accumulated paint on the walls that I started to wonder if a thick sheet of it could ever peel away from the drywall and fall on the floor. After years of repeated paintings, I wondered what a cross section of the paint layer might look like under the microscope – like tree rings perhaps.

One time, the PTA sponsored a mural contest, hoping that student artwork in the bathrooms would deter graffiti. It did, on that wall, for a short time until Randy Ward (the first OUSD State Administrator) dictated that all school bathrooms had to be freshly painted in colors determined by the district. That was the end of our student designed and painted bathroom murals.

From what I observed, girls and boys did different types of graffiti, and in different amounts. The girls’ bathroom always had much more graffiti and it could be very mean and gossipy. Their graffiti could lead to some of those ever-so-exciting girl fights that would happen periodically on campus.

The boys’ graffiti was mostly tagging, the scribbling of neighborhood locations and gang names (3800, E.S.O., Dog Town, Norte, etc.) which seems to be the young male marking of territory and the announcing of allegiances. The boys were also more likely to destroy fixtures in the bathrooms, like the time three of them spent a period in the bathroom dislodging a toilet completely out of its bolted fitting on the floor.

I was fascinated with the adolescent mindset behind the graffiti and what these kids were saying to each other, and to their world. For girls it was mostly the professing of love, and of hate.

This is some of the graffiti in the girls’ bathroom that I recorded a few years ago.* I want to warn you that it is disgusting, and not for the squeamish or politically correct. Remember, this is only one episode of graffiti. It was written by 11 to 14 year old girls who wanted it to be seen by other 11 to 14 year old girls.

T-Baye waz here, but now she’s gone. She left her name to carry on. Those who knew her, knew her well. Those who didn’t can go to hell!! Whaaa! Dashell waz here, but now she’s gone. She left her name to carry on Those who knew her, knew her well. Those who didn’t can go to hell!! Nigga T-Baye [scratched through paint] Dashell [scratched through paint] Hopkinson is a Hoe pimple bitch Vanessa Shakela Smith is a Bicth with hair looking as she look like a man Jessica humped dis pole ### is a ##### lick her #### Bitch you Go to Hell Her name aint Even T-Baye Bitch. Bitch Pryde HBG we stay smashing Mexican Puerto-Rican Latin Bitch Fuck U! Puerto Rican Pride Bitch Asn B2K Omarion & Tanya Mexican [crossed out] Asn [crossed out] Fuck [crossed out] Fuck Lil Bow Wow>>Fuck whoever wrote this Hoe Like what it is Bitch T-Baye Bitch Get it Right Hoe you heard me you ugly hoe suck you momma pussy How the FUCK YO PUSSY Smell ass gone tell me WHAT MY name is Mayra doesn’t love Malik SDF Fuck this school Stupid 30’s Lil zane is a fine ass Fuck John M [drawing of a heart] Latanya 4-ever Latanya still loves Daniel Morris 4-Ever R.I.P. Lil’ Dewayne you BEATENEM BOY!!! A WELL RESPECTED S.T.I. BOY!!! S.T.G.’z BITCH LOWER BOTTOM W.S.O. WHAT IZ IT ##### ## ### ASS Dick Sucking Bitch RiP LiL SHAN ALL WELL Respect 77th GREENSIDE ST Boy FUCK MRT [Crossed out] Dina & Travis Knight for Life=forever R.I.P. lil will Vanessa waz here but now she’s gone Angie Saephan A BITCH she left her name because she suck dick ASS Crack!!! N She Better WATCH HER HOE Shes a 1c Hoe Maria is a Fucking DICK SUCKING BACK! Miss Handleton suck dick HB Bitch FUCK STI SDF MARIA A HOE ### Mary suck dick John Mallon [crossed out] Ms. Handleton is a Bitch Maria eate Pussy [with arrow pointing to a drawing] Pauline is a BITCH fuck ##T Pauling Hong is a DICK SUCKeR Jessica Hong suck DICKS Jessica Hong is a little fatass Bitch Jessica Hong is a bitch Jessica Hong said that she was sucking her brothers Dicks! Jessica Hong is a bitch Maria is a slut SIGN PAULINE HONG Lidia is a beach Maria is a dick sucking slut!!! Fuck yall bitches Aliana Martinez sucke John Mitchells + Akeem+ her big brothers NUTS Hoe not! J. Anders is a bitch Nelly is fine cuties ### better watch her mouth BOOG OMARION LIC FIZZ Raz B Mayra + Malik is some dick sucking Bitches! 6500 VG’s ### Fuck who ever wrote this must be black [with arrow pointing to above] you jealous bitch #### is a ### who ever wrote that stank ## shit eat not bitch 6th & 7th ## VGS VGS d better watch your back Lil Bowwow is hella fine S.T.G.’z BITCH LOWER BOTTOM Mexican Pride 4ever Mexican Bitches can suck they daddys dicks Like they always do W.S.O. WHAT IZ IT!!! From a black bitch Laquisha and Tyrina is some stank ass hoes and Shamila need to stop wasting her time with then and Nina need to too They some stupid bitches Jalana ia a bitch Prosty Nelly is fine [crossed out] Fuck. took the Pic-away Bitch Sing Bitch asshole Nelly Ciera & Ernest HBG Condom use them S.T.I. [crossed out] Bitch you’z A HOE! Kristen WhiTe suck dick Arianna Martinez dose this Fuck [arrow] This person who wrote this is a bitch Keiu Pham 4 Life!!! Fuck you samerit you lick yo moma pussy Bicth Maria is a HOE she even suck moma’s dick And her mama is a man!!! HOE

# = crossed out to become illegible

*Names have been changed

Don't these words have an odd, poetic charm?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lessons Learned

One great thing about a blog, I have discovered, is that not only can it be a destination for new work, but it can be a place to post the few things I’ve written in the past.

In March 2005, I wrote this piece for the Oakland Tribune's "My Word." Not being a writer at all until these school issues started to absorb me, I was astounded when they printed it! I was learning that writing about these topics was a great was to get them “out.”

The essay was soon picked up by my local community newspaper, the MacArthur Metro, and appeared on the front page of their April 2005 issue (along with a photo of my family sitting on the floor with our dog). It has led a quiet life of its own and has appeared in a handful of local postings throughout the past few years.

It still seems pretty accurate to me.

Lessons Learned at Public Schools in Oakland

Six years ago when our older daughter finished elementary school, my husband and I made a decision which deviated from our peers. Rather than leaving Oakland, using a false address, or finding a private school, we joined others who were “reclaiming our local middle school.”

The demographics and culture of the middle school were quite different from the ‘hills’ elementary school we knew. The transition was an adjustment.

Today, our younger daughter is attending the middle school and our older daughter attends high school. We have stayed with the public schools and have learned a great deal. For instance:

-Kids who have resources will do well at almost any school they attend. Children from stable families with educated parents have an enormous advantage. Parents who “go private” could be saving their money, because most of their kids would do fine in the public schools.

-Many parents may praise diversity, but they also avoid it. By convincing themselves that myths and rumors are true, they have a set of ready made excuses they can use to avoid public schools.

-Experiencing diversity has pros and cons. When we are stretched to learn about people outside our normal group, we develop a deeper understanding of humanity. However, the stretching can feel uncomfortable.

-It is unfair to call a school “good” or “bad” depending on average test scores. Within every school, some students are more to difficult to educate than others. Too many students at “bad” schools have language, economic, social, emotional, and other barriers to learning. If schools are going to help students overcome their barriers, they will need more resources than they currently receive.

-It has been heartbreaking to absorb the magnitude of social neglect in Oakland. We are witnessing a massive loss of human potential. Most people are oblivious or insensitive to the deep suffering of these children. Unless we make a greater effort to understand, we will remain ignorant forever.

-The same ignorance causes people to concoct unrealistic and simplistic solutions that they believe will fix the problems. The “solutions” that have become current educational policies are ineffective, inadequate and destructive.

-Many people claim to care about the education of children. Very few will turn their words into actions. This includes too many parents.

-Oakland’s teachers are especially worthy of support and understanding, rather than suspicion and criticism. Their practice is extremely challenging and complicated. The majority are highly skilled, dedicated and hardworking.

-Strong families that shun Oakland’s public schools are contributing to the problems in those same schools today. The schools would immediately improve with an increased enrollment of stable children who have skilled parents with high standards.

-The school district needs to work harder on acknowledging and broadcasting the positive accomplishments of its students. Many students are succeeding, but the community is kept unaware.

As our family continues on this learning curve, our daughters are doing well. They are hard working, successful, and savvy students. This community needs to stop condemning our public schools. If parents joined in an effort together, they could begin to improve the schools, one classroom at a time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Different Childrearing Styles

When I was working in the Parent Center at my local middle school, we did our best to notify parents about upcoming school meetings. Attractive, multilingual notices were sent home, notices were given multiple times, advance notice was given, even multilingual calls were made for the most important meetings. Time after time, year after year, the parent turnout at the meetings was pitiful.

People would tell me it was because so many parents were working, but then I would look around at the handful of parents at a PTA meeting and realize that almost all of those parents were working, too, so that didn't seem to be the complete answer.

People would tell me it was because parents didn't speak English, but then I would think about the demographics* and realize that at least 50% of the parents were native English speaking, 450+ families that is, and so that didn't seem to provide the answer, either.

I tried not to take it personally (because I was White while the majority of the parent body was not), but I just couldn't figure it out. I felt frustrated because I wanted things to get better and I didn't know how to make it happen. The usual techniques were falling flat!

Because I needed it to make sense, I began a personal quest several years ago so I could understand this phenomenon. I discovered a book that has provided me with some of the answers, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life” by Annette Lareau (2003).

If you are a middle class person interested in understanding poor and working class families, you should read this book. Then you should reflect on how you personally approach childrearing, in actuality or in your mind's eye. Your middle class assumptions about how it is "supposed to be done" will become apparent to you.

Here are a few of my notes from Chapter 1 to give you an idea of what Lareau has identified.

Point #1: Lareau has determined that there is a “cultural logic of childrearing” that differs between the social classes.

Middle class parents:

  • For middle class parents, less effort is needed to provide basic support (food, housing, transportation, and other necessities).
  • The parenting style of middle class parents results in concerted cultivation of the child.
  • Middle class parents create and provide a steady diet of organized activities for their children. These activities stimulate the child’s development and foster cognitive and social skills.
  • Middle class children miss out on leisure time and kin relationships.
  • Middle class parents make sure their children have experiences that cultivate their talents and give them any opportunity that might contribute to their advancement.
  • Middle class parents talk more with their children. This develops greater verbal agility, produces larger vocabularies and creates more familiarity with abstract concepts. They learn to question adults and address them as relative equals. Children become more comfortable with authority figures. The emphasis is on reasoning.

Working class and poor parents

  • For working class and poor parents, more effort is needed to provide basic support (food, housing, transportation, and other necessities).
  • The parenting style of working class and poor parents results in natural growth of the child.
  • Children experience long stretches of leisure time and child initiated play.
  • Working class and poor parents do not create and provide a steady diet of organized activities for their children.
  • Extended family typically lives nearby. Children are likely to have daily interactions with kin.
  • Working class and poor parents do not consider the concerted development of children an essential aspect of good parenting.
  • Working class and poor parents create clear boundaries between themselves and their children. They tell their children what to do rather than persuade them with reason. The crucial responsibilities of parenthood do not include eliciting children’s feelings, opinions and thoughts. The emphasis is on directives.

Point #2: Because of the differences in parenting styles, children from different social classes develop different types of social competencies.

Middle class children

  • learn the “rules of the game” that govern interactions with institutional representatives (eye contact, shaking hands, etc.)
  • learn by imitation and training how to make rules work in their favor.
  • learn to share information and ask for attention.
Children whose parents adopt strategies of concerted cultivation appear to gain a sense of entitlement.

Working class and poor children

  • learn to have less eye contact than middle class children when conversing.
  • learn to be unobtrusive and subordinate when they are around adults.
  • learn to organize their leisure time because it is in their control. They spend long periods of time away from adults.
Children whose parents adopt strategies of natural growth appear to gain a sense of constraint.

I will periodically refer to Lareau's findings because they reveal so much. In the meantime, I have questions about the future of public education.

As Lareau discovered, middle class parents talk more with their children. Their children develop greater verbal agility, larger vocabularies and more familiarity with abstract concepts. These children learn to question adults and address them as relative equals. They become more comfortable with authority figures. The emphasis is on reasoning.

On the other hand, working class and poor parents create clear boundaries between themselves and their children. They tell their children what to do rather than persuade them with reason. The crucial responsibilities of parenthood do not include eliciting children’s feelings, opinions and thoughts. The emphasis is on directives.

The two approaches to childrearing, and the two outcomes manifested in the children, are very different.

Question #1: Can middle class kids and working class/poor kids have their educational needs met at one school, or do they need to be placed in two different schools where their two different educational needs can be best addressed?

Question #2: If kids are kept together and if the school wants to be effective for both sets of students, how should they do it -- blend the two approaches, dovetail them, or place them side-by-side?

Question #3: If children from different social classes are separated from each other to maximize the attainment of their educations, what does that do to the concept of "public education" and what effect will it have on the ability of Americans to relate to different groups within our society over the long run?

*The school's demographics during this time were: Asian=26%, Latino=24%, African American=38%, White=8%, Free/Reduced Price Lunch=63%, student enrollment=906+ (2004 figures)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Actual Learning Time

Have you ever thought about how much time children actually spend in class with a teacher over the course of a year? Based on the fairly typical bell schedule of my local middle school where children attend 180 days per year, I made a few calculations. Please be patient if numbers don’t excite you.

Regular days (138 per year)

-Total time spent at school = 6 hours 25 minutes

-Time spent traveling between classes = 25 minutes

-Time spent at lunch = 45 minutes

-Actual daily time spent in classes = 5 hours 15 minutes

-Actual annual time spent in regular day classes = 724 hours 30 minutes

Short days (42 per year)

-Total time spent at school = 4 hours 15 minutes

-Time spent traveling between classes = 25 minutes

-Time spent at lunch = 40 minutes

-Actual daily time spent in classes = 3 hours 30 minutes

-Actual annual time spent in minimum day classes = 147 hours

Other factors

-The amount of time that a child is awake everyday (~9 hours of sleep) = 15 hours

-Total number of hours that a child is awake for the year = 5475 hours


-The total number of waking hours that a child is not in classes = 4603 hours 30 minutes. Therefore, they spend more than 84% of their time in other places than classes.

-The total number of hours that a child spends in classes during an entire year = 871 hours 30 minutes. Even if their attendance is perfect, students spend less than 16% of their waking time in classes!

Of course, it is even less time because deductions must be made for student tardiness and absences, getting the class settled down, and dealing with disruptive students. Also, don’t forget that the teachers are spreading their attention among 25-35 students!

Now that every poorly performing student in California is expected to score at Proficient and Advanced, much too much is being asked of teachers alone. The outrageous demands being placed on teachers are absurd, especially when so many of their students have not had their "educational pumps" primed at home.

After explaining these numbers to parents, here is some simple advice them to let them know why:

-Attending school is so important (every single day).

-Being on time is so important (those lost minutes add up quickly).

-Cooperating with the teachers is so important (they have a great deal to accomplish, in so little time).

-Doing homework is so important (those lessons extend the classroom time).

-Enrolling in tutoring, or after school classes, is so important (it’s more learning time).

-Focusing your energy on your child’s schoolwork is the most important gift that you can give them.

Oakland's history

This short history of Oakland and its primary subgroups will help you understand the city a bit more.

A Very Short History of the City of Oakland

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, the region was flooded with newcomers. Oakland quickly became the mainland staging point for passengers and cargo traveling between the Bay and the Sierra foothills (remember, there was no Bay Bridge at the time). Also, since Oakland was located near a large, old-growth redwood forest, it became the center of major logging operations which provided the lumber for the Gold Rush construction boom (wharves, buildings, etc.). A few years later in 1852, the city of Oakland was officially founded.

In the 1860’s, Oakland was designated as the western terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad which was built to link railways of the Eastern United States with California. The wagon trains of previous decades were made obsolete. Oakland’s status as a national destination point and center of commerce was secured when this railroad was completed in 1869.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, people and businesses relocated across the Bay and Oakland’s population more than doubled. With a growing population that needed housing, a streetcar system (the “Key System”) was developed to increase access to outlying areas in conjunction with new housing tracts that mostly featured “California bungalows.”

During these years most Oakland residents were European American. However, there were also some Asian, Hispanic and African American residents who had arrived before and during the Gold Rush, after the Civil War, during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and in the decades that followed. Oakland experienced a significant demographic shift during World War II when the region became the nation’s leader of shipbuilding.

Laborers were needed to work in Henry J. Kaiser’s shipyards and steelmaking plants. Large numbers of African Americans from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas were recruited to the Bay Area. Oakland’s African American population soared from 8,462 (1940) to 47,562 (1950). The shipyards also employed a number of Chinese workers. To his credit, Kaiser developed a health care system for his employees. It eventually became the Kaiser Permanente system that continues to provide health care to the community today.

In the postwar years, thousands of jobs evaporated as many major local industries closed down. Meanwhile, many of Oakland’s more affluent residents moved into the newly developing suburbs east of Oakland.* Many blue-collar whites moved to adjacent cities such as San Leandro and Alameda. To accommodate the expansion, massive highway construction projects were started throughout the area, uprooting many thousands of Oakland residents. The combination of postwar joblessness, “white-flight,” and the demolition of hundreds of homes in order to clear the path for the freeway led to rising poverty, segregation, and the break-up of communities in Oakland.

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of upheaval and social change. In the 1960’s Oakland’s local government was still dominated by conservative, white leadership. Faced with rising crime and a police shortage, they recruited white officers from the Deep South. With a population that was increasingly poor and increasingly African-American, community tensions escalated and became severe. In this era of political activism and the civil rights movement, a group of young citizens formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966.

In 1973, Oakland’s highly respected first black school superintendent, Marcus Foster, was assassinated and his deputy superintendent, Bob Blackburn, was critically wounded by the Symbionese Liberation Army (S.L.A.), a self-styled urban guerilla warfare group. Following the Vietnam War, considerations for political refugees and liberalized immigration laws led to an influx of Asian immigrants to Oakland.

In 1982, the Oakland’s Symphony’s stellar conductor Calvin Simmons, the first black conductor of a major symphony orchestra, died tragically in a drowning accident. Also in the 1980’s, many of Oakland’s families were devastated by the effects of the Crack Epidemic.

During the 1990’s, Oakland’s Latino population started to grow. The increase was primarily due to immigrants from Mexico, with some from other Latin American countries. According to 2004 figures, Oakland was 19.4% Asian, 31.4% Black/African American, 22.5% Hispanic/Latino and 31.7% White.

*You can see this by looking at Walnut Creek’s population change: 1960=9,903, 1970=39,844, 1980=53,643, 2000=64,296

The City of Oakland History timeline is at

Find out more by reading “What Divides Oakland's Current Debates” by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor @

Also, visit the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond and see and

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Avoidable Losses, and More

Lately I've been wondering about the impact that the past 4 ½ plus years may have had on us as a community.

Powerlessness was forced upon us in June 2003. Babies who weren’t born when it happened have learned how to crawl, talk, use the potty and will soon be starting kindergarten! It’s been a long time since the state-run regime has been shutting us out, preventing us from engaging in a meaningful way with our own school district.

I wonder how much have we gone into hibernation-mode, and how easily will we be able to come out? I suspect that important networks have dissolved during this time.

When Oaklanders are given the opportunity to interact with OUSD once again, what will it look like? If local control is given back within the next year or so, how will the community tolerate the new school board’s missteps as it finds its way?

The timing is such that the members will be immediately thrown into the lion’s den to deal with the damage caused by the upcoming, probable drastic cuts to the state’s education budget. How much will empathy and cooperation suffer? It’s probably hard to be benevolent to others when one's own constituents are feeling chronically deprived.

And since the end of the current No Child Left Behind law is nowhere in sight, how much more damage will it do to our district, and to our schools?

In case you don’t know, it was supposed to be reauthorized, revised, or abolished last year. Unfortunately, the Senate and House education committees couldn’t agree about what to do, so no decision was made. This destructive law will remain in effect until they can come to an agreement. Then, their new proposal will still have to make it through the Congressional approval hoops.

The problem is that during an election year and in a new president’s first year, not much progress is ever made in Congress. I read one article speculating that it wouldn’t be out of the question for NCLB, as it currently stands, to be in operation until 2010!

Now, here’s an interesting article:

Avoidable Losses

Published in Education Policy Analysis Archives, January 2008

“A new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin, finds that the Texas public school accountability system contributes directly to low graduation rates. Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation. A disproportionate number of these are African American, Latino, and English Language Learners. This study has serious implications for the nation’s schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was modeled on the Texas accountability system.”

And more…

“The study finds that high-stakes test-based accountability leads not to equitable educational possibilities for youth, but to avoidable losses of thousands of youth from the schools. These losses occur not as administrators cheat or fail to comply, but as they comply with the system as it was designed: that is, in the production of rising test scores for their schools. The study shows that as schools came under the accountability system, which uses test scores to rate schools and reward or discipline principals, large numbers of students left the school system. The exit of low-achieving students created the appearance of rising test scores and of narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students, thus increasing schools’ ratings.”

Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis by L. M. McNeil, E. Coppola, J. Radigan, J. Vasquez Heilig is available at

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Farewell

This piece was published in the March 2008 issue of “From the Harte,” the community newsletter for my beloved Bret Harte Middle School.

"Dear Parents, Guardians and Community Members,

I am saying goodbye to you because, after seven years, it has become necessary for me to step down from my position as Parent Coordinator. Tasked with the challenge to “increase parent involvement” because of its benefits on academic achievement, I have pursued this goal by trying to give you consistent, high quality school-to-home communication. Hopefully this has enhanced the connection you have had with Bret Harte.

This newsletter is one of those communication forms and, in partnership with the PTA, has been sent to the homes of Bret Harte students nearly every month since October 2001. I know that many of you look forward to its arrival. Just last month, I was contacted by two mothers who asked me when the next issue would be arriving. These types of inquiries have been most gratifying to me.

In addition to the work I’ve done here, I have a strong connection to Bret Harte in other ways. Both of my daughters attended this school (’02 and ’07), my uncle attended in the 1950’s, and my husband and I have lived in the neighborhood since 1988. Many of my older neighbors sent their children here, and some even attended it themselves.

Over the past 8½ years, I have become fascinated with current issues in urban public education and how they play out in a school like Bret Harte, and in a district like OUSD. I have been writing about these topics in my personal time and will continue to do so at my new web site, “The Perimeter Primate” at Please check it out and let me know what you think.

While being on the campus during the school day for so many years, and learning what I have learned while here, I have become deeply concerned about many of Oakland’s kids -- your kids. I know how critical their educations will be to their futures and I worry about them. Far too many of them do not take this one-time school opportunity seriously enough, for enough of the time.

So, my final word of advice is to remind you to be more vigilant for the sake of your children. Monitor them more closely -- their homework, their attendance, their grades, their habits, their friends, their food choices, their backpacks, their pockets, and their bedrooms. Be the adult and don’t back down. If they angrily ask, “Don’t you trust me?” it’s really okay to tell them, “No!” They are just kids with urges and they are driven to explore. They need your steady guidance so they won’t get lost.

I wish you and your children well."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Recent History of OUSD

Ever since the citizens of Oakland lost control over their own public schools in June 2003, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell has assigned management of the Oakland Unified School District to a set of individuals selected and trained by Eli Broad, a billionaire from Southern California who was also a contributor to the State Superintendent’s 2002 campaign.

The first OUSD State Administrator assigned by O’Connell was Randolph Ward, a graduate of Broad’s Superintendents Academy. He held the position for three years. Since he left, the two successive State Administrators, Kimberly Statham and Vincent Matthews, have been Broad Superintendents Academy graduates as well.

All three of the State Administrators have filled a number of their top management positions with individuals trained by Broad’s Residency in Urban Education. In fact, of the total of 49 trainees who have participated in the Broad Residency program, 9 have held top management positions in OUSD since the state has been in control.*

Both the Broad Superintendents Academy and the Broad Residency in Urban Education are programs offered by the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. This center provides Broad with an opportunity to play a major role in training a selected set of “…executives to run the business of urban education.” The program’s web site states that participation in the program guarantees placement into top level positions in urban school districts across the country. The first “graduating” class was in 2002, conveniently coinciding with OUSD’s downfall.

Although poor fiscal practices on the part of OUSD led to the takeover, the new Broad team did not limit themselves to adjusting only those practices. Rather, it has changed the entire school district (the “Expect Success” project) with the community having been permitted very little say. The central office has been redesigned, as well as a number of schools. Of the 98 traditional schools that existed in 2002, 42 have been closed, reconstituted, incubated into new small schools, or turned into charter schools.

The “Expect Success” project has been funded by the Broad and Gates Foundations with extensive local and other support including the Rogers Family Foundation and others. Incidentally, Brian Rogers, son of T. Gary Rogers (the former CEO of Dreyer’s Ice Cream) and the executive director of the Rogers Family Foundation (established after Dreyer’s was sold for $2.8 billion in June 2003), announced this month that he will be running for a school board seat in the city’s upcoming June election. He introduced himself to the community as an “Oakland educational philanthropist that has been working with the district and the Board of Education for the past three years.”

Perhaps other players in the current state-run administration will be looking to establish themselves in new and upcoming positions of power now that a return to local control of OUSD might be on the horizon. Of course no one knows for sure when that will actually happen. Just last summer, a bill which outlined a transparent process for returning control (AB45) was supported and approved by the California State Legislature. However, Mr. O’Connell opposed the bill and recommended for Governor Schwarzenegger to veto it. So like the governor that he is, he did.

OUSD has now had over 4½ years of state leadership. With the rapid implementation of so many changes and with the accompanying massive turnover in staff – while also struggling to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind – many local observers believe that the district is in disarray. The district has made progress in its API (Academic Performance Index, the state measurement of accountability) but has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (the federal measurement of accountability) for the past five years. It is now in Program Improvement-Year 3.

I'm not sure where the other 15,000 U.S. school districts find their superintendents, but there must be other places than just one convenient source. Perhaps I'm an Oakland bumpkin, but I can smell that something's not right, of course.


►Eli's Experiment: Meet Eli Broad, a SoCal billionaire who uses his cash and connections to groom Oakland school administrators and keep the district under state control, by Robert Gammon, October 10, 2007 (

►Broad’s Education Foundation -

►The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems -

►The Broad Superintendents Academy -

►The Broad Residency in Urban Education -

►Expect Success page of OUSD’s web site. By the way, if you look at this site, try to sort out the fluff from the truth -

*As of November 2007

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Billionaires' Frankenstein Monster

Re “Officials get earful at school hearing” (June 2): As a longtime Oakland public school parent, I have concluded that the state school administration has failed to create a change for the better. The previous leadership had weaknesses, but the state has produced its very own Frankenstein monster.

The California Department of Education must have been thrilled to acquire OUSD. Now it could offer its friends, Eli Broad, Bill Gates, et al., the opportunity to try out their “we’re-billionaires-and-we-know-it-all” notions of public school reform.

If you needed a laboratory to test your theories, Oakland would be ideal. Disadvantaged by significant class, ethnic and race divisions—with an abundance of uninvolved parents—no one would organize effective resistance against your efforts. Besides, with average academic performance already low, what would be lost if your experiments didn’t succeed?

As it turns out, something has been lost. The students and their families are now continuously subjected to instability. The state’s manipulations have produced a constant turnover of people, positions and programs at the schools, with no end in sight. Dedicated educators and engaged parents, our most valuable resources, are mostly disregarded. With such rapid change, the body of collective memory is growing very, very thin.

OUSD is being controlled by outsiders with no sincere allegiance to the well-being of our city. They are not experts who can solve the painful problems which plague us. We’ll need to do that ourselves.

So maybe it’s time to say, “Enough is enough.”

This letter of mine was printed in the Oakland Tribune in June 2007. Because of it, I ended up meeting a new friend, Bob Blackburn, an important former OUSD superintendent with a wonderful sense of humor.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Provoking a Fed

This opinion piece was published as a “My Word” in the Oakland Tribune on February 5, 2007. Five days later, Christopher Wright, the Secretary's Regional Representative, Region IX at the U.S. Department of Education, responded to me in a letter to the editor of his own.* This piece was also picked up by the California School Board Association and was posted on their web site for a time.

‘No Child Left Behind’ backs Oakland schools against wall

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is having an enormous impact on Oakland. Our public schools have been struggling to meet its demands since 2002. NCLB is scheduled for reauthorization this year, so it is essential to understand how it works.

Public school students have taken achievement tests for years. But in 1999, when California’s Public Schools Accountability Act was passed, the state acquired authority to determine goals for student achievement and to administer consequences for failure. The federal government joined the movement for accountability by passing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

NCLB is an ultimatum. It demands that by 2014, all public school students — regardless of economic status, race, ethnicity, language spoken at home, or disability — must be proficient in reading and math. NCLB defines its own set of goals and consequences.

Sorting out two sets of goals and consequences, each with their own data and terminology (API, AYP, AMO, NSS, PI, SAIT, etc.), is not easy. Poorly educated and non-English speaking parents must encounter great difficulty.

Although every school is evaluated, only schools that receive federal assistance for poor students (Title 1 funding) are penalized when test scores fall short. Last year, OUSD had 31,860 students (66.2%) who qualified as poor.

By threatening schools with penalties, NCLB expects they will try harder. The law presumes that schools, primarily teachers, are omnipotent to produce high student academic achievement. Student factors like having poorly educated parents, being subjected to a chaotic upbringing, or never speaking English at home are not considered. NCLB permits no exceptions and has no gray areas.

Schools are evaluated as a whole, and official subgroups are evaluated if enough students are enrolled. Because of this, schools which have diverse student populations (like those in Oakland) must meet more criteria than schools which do not.

Both English-language arts and mathematics tests are evaluated separately, each for required levels of student participation and proficiency. Schools must meet a single additional indicator requirement. High schools have a graduation rate requirement.

NCLB is an annual pass/fail test which requires a perfect score to pass, and is made more difficult every year. The curve is very steep. Each year, NCLB expects an increasing percentage of students to reach proficiency so that, by 2014, 100% will arrive.

Interestingly, states determine their own meaning of proficiency. Reaching "proficiency" for NCLB in California is different than in Texas, for example. Thus, students in some states reach proficiency targets more easily than students in other states.

Every August, test results from the preceding school year are revealed. The portion that pertains to the federal requirements is called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Reports are on the California Department of Education’s Web site.

Generally speaking, when enough progress is not made for two consecutive years, a school is declared “in program improvement” and specific corrective actions are taken. Of 132 schools in OUSD, over 60 were in various levels of this designation in 2006. Ultimately, a major revision of the school (restructuring) occurs if it is unable to sufficiently improve its scores over time.

After five years of No Child Left Behind, the fantasized amount of progress has not been made. What has been revealed, however, is the immensity of the American educational achievement gap. If we truly want it closed, more will need to be done.

Sharon Higgins is an Oakland public school parent and a Parent Coordinator at Bret Harte Middle School.

*So, there I was at World Ground with George, reading the paper and sipping coffee on a Sunday morning. Suddenly, I saw a letter to the editor challenging my most recent “My Word.” It announced that fantasies and ultimatums at schools are a good thing. [A very smart response] Then it declared that, “Test results demonstrate that NCLB is working.”

When I reached the bottom of the letter, I learned that it had been written by Margaret Spellings’ local henchman. I felt my face flush -- lil’ ol’ me had provoked the Feds! Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until 2014 to find out which one of us was right.

By the way, I did a little research on Mr. Wright and learned that he is a member of Lead21, “a policy and advocacy organization devoted to strengthening American prosperity through free-market entrepreneurship and innovation” according to But why would I be surprised?