Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why They Kill

It occurs to me that the phrase "crime wave" conjures up the image of a wave that has rolled in from the ocean and had crashed on the shore. The truth in Oakland is that extremely violent waters are swirling in many of our neighborhoods all the time.

In a few days, innocent babies that were born in the hospital this morning will be sent home with their mothers. For the rest of their lives they will be subjected to intensely toxic relationships in their homes and in their neighborhoods. Many will eventually be trained and groomed for violence, and thus their lives will unfold.

Highly-stressed mothers with few resources will send their kids outside to play. Those kids will learn how to fight, and how to provoke others into fighting with them. They will learn how to resolve disputes according to rules which have been created by generations of unsupervised children who have spent hours and hours “hanging out.”

Some of the time, these kids will attend school. With other social institutions in decay, we hold schools singularly responsible for developing these children into moral and educated citizens. Highly-stressed teachers try to do their best and struggle with this endeavor.

nstilling a sense of hope about the future into these children is another monumental task expected of the school. Of course, it is impossible for the schools to do this on their own, so the classrooms are filled with kids who can’t imagine a positive future. Naturally, they become classrooms overcome by apathy. This is the real reason educational progress stalls.

From the kids’ perspective, attending school has little to do with working toward a future in higher education or employment. Instead, school is the set of
an adolescent soap opera; simply a place for engaging in romance and conflict. For a smaller set of kids, school is a place where they can practice and develop their skills as opportunists and predators.

One balmy evening on a street corner, one of these emboldened young people will get upset at something, or the other. In his mind, the easiest, most powerful and most effective way to respond is to pull out a gun and shoot.

Then the memorial collections accumulate on sidewalks. T-shirts get printed and worn. R.I.P. graffiti is scribbled on the local school’s bathroom walls.
The community tip toes quietly.

“Although the community cannot guarantee a good family to every child, it can guarantee them a good school, and a good school can go a long way in making up for a bad family.”*

Sadly, we don’t pay attention to these wise words; they are our prescription for change.

Spend time at any secondary school in Oakland and you’ll encounter kids who are on their way to hurting others, killing, or being killed. The schools provide some intervention, but it isn't near enough.

The simple truth is that we aren't smart. If we were, we would do something to prevent the pain we are going to feel when the babies born today end up hurting us so much tomorrow.

*From “Why They Kill” by Richard Rhodes, a profile of the work of sociologist Lonnie Athens.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The starvation diet of one school

An extremely high rate of staff turnover at many of Oakland's public schools wipes out most of the institutional memory on a regular basis. School memorabilia, class photos, and old yearbooks can serve as useful sources of information about the "old days," but only if they haven't been thrown out somewhere along the line.

Browsing through
Bret Harte Middle School's old yearbooks, one can see that many facets of the school have changed. Here are just a few.

Eleven years ago when Bret Harte had about 1050 kids,

  • It was staffed with a full-time librarian
  • It had three guidance counselors, one for each grade.
  • It had two assistant principals and a dean.

Three years ago when Bret Harte had about 950 kids,

  • It no longer had a librarian, but did have a part-time library clerk.
  • It had one guidance counselor and two assistant principals.
  • It had two “Teachers on Special Assignment” (TSA’s). One managed the testing process, the school’s budget and taught a reading class. The other managed the school’s extensive English Language Learning program and taught a reading class as well.

This year when Bret Harte has close to 900 kids,

  • It still has a library clerk.
  • It still has one guidance counselor and two assistant principals.
  • One of the assistant principals, with an already full plate of duties, is now also responsible for managing the English Language Learning program.

There are no TSA’s at the school this year. A newly hired “fiscal officer” is managing the school’s budget. This individual has limited school budget experience, works reduced hours, and is employed as consultant. The principal is proud to “save money” for the school because consultants do not receive benefits.

And of course, most everyone at the school is getting worn down by the demands of N.C.L.B. Bret Harte is a “failing” school according to N.C.L.B. and is in Program Improvement - Year 4.

I wonder if the school would have been slightly more successful at helping students achieve grade level literacy if a really good librarian had been kept on staff. Librarians are trained to elevate and fixate on reading and research.

I wonder if things would have gone better for the school if it had continued to have three guidance counselors. Imagine the attention that students would have received if their guidance counselor was watching over 350 kids vs. 900 kids.

I can't help but think that this trend has been a bit like starving the schools to death, and then blaming them for not a doing better job.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Poetry: Lady Bobcats

Our daughter was on the girls basketball team for one season when she was in middle school. The team would play on the second floor basketball court in the school's 1950’s-era gym. There we would sit on the pull-out wooden bleachers with the other parents and watch our daughters play.

by George Higgins

O, beautiful, O, graceful.
I've never seen anything like
this huddle. They have
more swagger than their mothers.
All the wet, damp winter,
on the break, the three man weave,
my daughter, sixth grader,
plays in her urban gym,
city games, the games
they play in Oakland.
Tonya, the coach,
"Be aggressive."
"Stay down."
The moon also sets in Oakland,
and the Pleiades.
And so many city people
together there on the wooden bleachers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chinese Language Basics

Occasionally, I’ve encountered school district employees who know very little when it comes to communicating with the parents of their Asian students, even when they work with large numbers of them or are in positions of importance.

I must admit that I was clueless myself when I started working at a school which was nearly 26% Asian. Fortunately, I had a wonderful co-worker named Eva with whom I worked closely for seven years. We became good friends and she taught me a great deal about the basics of Chinese language and culture. At least now I am more knowledgeable about one subgroup within the entire Asian subgroup.

OUSD’s student body is 14% Asian. The majority of the kids are from Cantonese-speaking Chinese families. The second largest sub-subgroup is Vietnamese students, followed by Khmer (Cambodian) students, then Mien and Mandarin-speaking Chinese kids, even fewer Lao and Hmong kids, and then very small numbers of others.

Asians are a significant demographic group in Oakland (15.2% in the 2000 U.S. Census, over 60,000 residents) and they make up a larger portion at many public schools. Given this fact, school employees (and any Oakland resident) could use a basic training about the culture, history and languages of these families. This posting will provide a start.

As proof of the lack of basic knowledge at high levels, I noticed errors in an important state report about OUSD which was released last November.¹

The report reads “In the past year, the district has hired additional student engagement and parent advisory specialists and parent liaisons, including Spanish, Chinese and Cambodian speakers, in an effort to enhance community and family involvement in district schools.”

It then goes on to say, “The district has continued to provide training and support to help parents elected to site and district councils understand their role and responsibilities. The handbooks for School Site Councils, the District Advisory Council, and the district and site English Learner Advisory Committees are provided in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.”

(If you didn’t notice any errors in the sentences above, then you should continue to read this entry.)

To start with, the phrase about “Chinese…speakers” in the first paragraph is somewhat ambiguous. Therefore, it serves as a useful departure point for explaining spoken Chinese and its variations.

Chinese is unlike many other languages because it has a very large number of distinct spoken forms. The spoken forms are so different from each other that linguists refer to them as linguistic groups rather than dialects.²

Dialects are language variations that are mostly understood by everyone who speaks that language. With English for instance, people from London, Boston, New York and Texas can all understand each other, despite their many differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

However, the Chinese variations are so great that it is not possible for people from various regions to understand each other. A good analogy for the Chinese languages would be the Romance languages of Europe (Italian, French and Spanish). Although they are closely related, they are not totally mutually intelligible. For example, just because a person is French-speaking doesn’t mean they understand much Italian at all.

This is an important point for school district employees to know. When a teacher, or a principal, needs a “Chinese” interpreter for a parent meeting, they need to find a person who speaks the right kind of Chinese!

Cantonese happens to be the main Chinese language spoken by families in Oakland. It is also the language spoken by most of the Chinese Diaspora in overseas Chinese settlements around the world. This situation developed because the southern part of China, near today’s Guangdong Province where Cantonese is spoken, was very poor. People left their homeland in order to seek better opportunities around the globe.³

Mandarin is the main language spoken in the People's Republic of China (mainland China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). It is the official language of both countries, despite their huge political differences.

Incidentally, Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Taiwan have tended to settled in Bay Area suburbs. Visit Milpitas or Cupertino and you’ll be likely to hear Mandarin. It is also important to know that the majority of overseas Chinese strongly identify with the Republic of China rather than with the People’s Republic of China.

For many years, Taishanese (a variation of Cantonese) was the most common Chinese language spoken throughout North America's Chinatowns, including San Francisco’s Chinatown. These neighborhoods changed to predominantly Cantonese-speaking when a when a huge wave of immigrants arrived in the 1970’s, mostly from Hong Kong.

The ethnic Chinese from Vietnam is another group to know about. They were expelled by Vietnam’s military in the late 1970’s along with scores of other Vietnamese. Many of those refugees settled in the Bay Area. These ethnic Chinese spoke Cantonese at home when they were in Vietnam, but many of them also learned Vietnamese, French, English, and Mandarin when they were growing up.

So although many of OUSD’s Asian English Learners report that they are Cantonese-speaking, there is often a great deal of linguistic versatility in their homes. Parents may not speak English fluently, but they may speak more than one Chinese language. It is also useful to know that many Chinese parents send their children to Chinese school every week to receive formal instruction about their language and other aspects of their culture.

This brings me to the error in the second paragraph.

It makes no sense for the report to state, “The handbooks… are provided in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese.” This is because Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken languages, not written ones. It would be impossible to create a Mandarin handbook unless it was an audio version!

The written language of Chinese evolved more slowly than the spoken language. As a result, the written characters have remained nearly constant despite the variations that developed for the spoken words. It is useful to know that, although speakers of the different Chinese linguistic groups cannot understand each other verbally, they can completely communicate with each other in writing.

There are two main written forms of Chinese, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.

Traditional Chinese has been widely used for years among Chinese populations around the world and also in Taiwan. The written symbols represent objects or abstract notions. They occasionally stand alone as independent characters, but are more often combined to form complex characters.

Chinese is a very difficult written language to master. A person’s literacy is determined by the number of characters known, and the number of words known. For instance, a highly educated person may recognize as many as 4,000 to 5,000 characters, and 40,000 to 60,000 words.

Simplified Chinese was developed in mainland China in 1948 after the establishment of the People's Republic of China. It was created to make the written language more accessible to the general population. The characters are faster to write and easier to memorize. Simplified Chinese is virtually universal in the People's Republic of China and is spreading to other communities throughout the world.

Finally, I have one suggestion. One should be careful when using the terms “interpret” and “translate.” Interpret is an action relating to the verbal aspect of transforming the language. Translate refers to an action which is most often written. So if one is speaking properly, they would say that a Cantonese interpreter was used during a meeting, and that the handbooks were translated into Chinese.

Eventually I hope to provide you with a little basic information about the other non-Chinese Asian subgroups in Oakland, including our growing population of Mongolian immigrants. I believe that the residents in a city like Oakland should make every effort to learn about each other because it fosters respect and understanding.

Please add any other information you know.

¹ This was the FCMAT report. FCMAT stands for Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team. This is the body of specialists working for the California Department of Education who have been evaluating OUSD’s progress toward stability. The excerpts are on page 16 of the report at

² Just some of the other Chinese language groups are Hunanese, Pekingnese, Taiwanese, Ammoy, Folkenese, Fukienese, Shanghainese, Gansunese, Sichuanese, Hainanese, Yunnanese, and Jiangsunese. It is more information than you probably need to know, but it gives you an idea of the complexity of the Chinese language.

³ The first wave of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. arrived from Canton in the 1850’s. They were peasants who were escaping the poverty and overpopulation of their homeland by going to California to seek gold. By the late 1860’s, thousands of laborers were being recruited from Canton (the former name of Guangdong Province) to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Visit the Perimeter Primate posting on February 25, 2008 called "Oakland's history" to find out more.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

OUSD Alternative Schools

This is the promised addendum to my posting on March 11, 2008 re: alternative schools in the Oakland Unified School District. I discovered seven of them by exploring recent California Department of Education (CDE) and OUSD online data.*

When the state developed its accountability program several years ago, it created a special framework of accountability for alternative schools which serve very high-risk student populations. These are called ASAM schools (Alternative Schools Accountability Model).

On the CDE’s list for ASAM * schools in OUSD are

  • Bunche (Ralph) Academy
  • Dewey Academy Senior High
  • Merritt Middle College High (now closed)
  • Oakland Community Day High
  • Street Academy
  • Oakland Community Day Middle

Rudsdale Continuation High is an additional OUSD alternative-type school.

It appears that the only alternative school for middle school students is Oakland Community Day Middle.

The percentage of OUSD high school students attending alternative schools in 2006-2007 was 6%, or 864 of 13183 students. Here is the grade breakdown: 284 - 9th graders, 249 -10th graders, 184 - 11th graders, and 147 - 12th graders.

1. Bunch (Ralph) Academy (1240-18th St.) is for “students who have not met eighth grade promotion requirements and would otherwise not be eligible for high school admission.” Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 244 students (162-9th graders, 62 - 10th graders, 18 - 11th graders, and 2 - 12th graders).

Some of these would have been the 16 year-old boys sitting in my 13 year-old daughter's classes on the first day of her 8th grade year, making her somewhat nervous. At that point, they had been retained twice. Thankfully, the principal eventually transferred them out to Bunch.

2. Dewey Academy Senior High (1111-2nd Ave.) is for students who have had “chronic truancy and disciplinary issues.” Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 242 students (43 - 9th graders, 70 -10th graders, 48 - 11th graders, and 81 - 12th graders).

3. Merritt Middle College High (Merritt Community College campus) is for “motivated students who have found themselves lost and distracted in the larger and more traditional high school settings.” Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 104 students (30 - 9th graders, 23 -10th graders, 26 - 11th graders, and 25 - 12th graders).

4. Oakland Community Day High (4917 Mountain Blvd.) is for high school “students who have been expelled from the district,” in other words, they have done something so severe that they are forbidden to attend any other school in OUSD. Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 23 students (17 - 9th graders, 3 -10th graders, 3 - 11th graders, and 0 - 12th graders).

5. Street Academy (417-29th St.) is a “national alternative school format designed to lure high school dropouts to education.” Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 123 students (8 - 9th graders, 39 -10th graders, 51 - 11th graders, and 25 - 12th graders).

6. Rudsdale Continuation High (1180-70th Ave.) is “for students sixteen to eighteen years old who are at risk of not graduating from a comprehensive high school.” Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 128 students (24 - 9th graders, 52 -10th graders, 38 - 11th graders, and 14 - 12th graders).

7. Oakland) Community Day Middle (4917 Mountain Blvd.) is the ONLY alternative middle school. It is for middle school students “who have been expelled from the district,” in other words, they have done something so severe that they are forbidden to attend any other school in OUSD. Total 2006-2007 enrollment was 20 students (2 – 6th graders, 6 -7th graders, and 12 – 8th graders).

Does it seem that one alternative school for all OUSD middle school students is enough, especially since a large number of kids drop out of high school in their 9th grade year? For instance, 300 – 9th grade students dropped out of OUSD in 2005-2006 (the most recent figures I could find).

OUSD Total dropouts in 2005-2006:

  • 9th grade = 300 students
  • 10th grade = 198 students
  • 11th grade = 129 students
  • 12th grade = 314 students

If you have further information about these schools or others, please add what you know.

* and The OUSD website links to the School Accountability Report Cards (SARC's). Districts are required to provide the community with these "report cards." Their purpose is to annually provide information which allows the public to evaluate and compare schools for student achievement, environment, resources and demographics. When this research was performed in early March 2008, some of the SARC’s for these schools were out of date and/or incomplete.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Part Three: Another View of the Oakland Situation

My response to John (part 3)

I have lived in Oakland for over 22 years, mostly at one address in the Laurel district. In that time I have become a very community-oriented person. To me, this means I make a special effort to be in tune with my local community, for better or for worse. I am a part of my neighborhood’s fabric and I like the way it makes me feel.

With few family ties in Oakland, I wanted to give my daughters the experience of feeling connected to their local community. When I grew up, I didn't have enough of that.

Whether it is because I missed out, or because I have strong maternal instincts, I think stability and a strong sense of connection is nourishment for young souls. So with sacrifice and intent, this is what my husband and I chose to do. Along with a dose of good fortune, our children have benefited.

Neither my husband nor I were “military brats” yet, due to family moves when we were kids, we lived in a lot of places. My husband attended three different elementary schools in three different towns, three different junior highs in three different towns, and two different high schools in two different towns. I attended four different elementary schools in four separate towns. Fortunately, things settled down for me after I arrived in the town where I spent my junior high and high school years.

This type of childhood takes its toll. It consists of repeatedly developing attachments and then being forced to break those attachments. It is about entering into a school, in a new region of the country, where everyone else knows each other, and doing your best to adjust. It is about feeling alone at school and needing to make new friends, yet again. It is about being forced to say goodbye to those friends, knowing that you’ll never see them, again. It is about being a kid who becomes resilient, or not, by experiencing loss and grieving the loss, over and over and over.

The topics of community and stability, and how important they are, bring me to something that bothers me about the current Jack O’Connell-picked, Eli Broad-trained, and hell-bent-on-“reform” OUSD leadership.

Baby #2: Respect for the community

Of course, my outlook and strong opinions about what is currently going on with OUSD are partly influenced by having had the personal experiences above. I just can’t seem to understand how people can waltz into a community where they have no emotional connection and then care deeply enough about the well-being of that community to know what is right for that community, or to do what is right for that community.

Certainly Eli Broad is brilliant; he’s a billionaire, for Pete’s sake. Certainly he handpicks smart and aggressive people to participate in his programs. Certainly those dynamos know how to apply themselves to an intensely challenging project. Certainly they are personally ambitious; by the time they have become participants in his programs they've been driven for years. Certainly they want to develop their résumés and advance their careers. And since they were brought here from some other place, certainly it is likely that they view Oakland’s schools, and the people in them, as just a collection of parts just needing to be manipulated. They probably hope that, when they're done with Oakland, they can waltz to their next stop feeling that things have been "fixed"!

I was stunned (NOT) when I read something on a page of the Broad Center website where people who are interested can learn more about the programs which it offers. Mollie Mitchell, the Director of Recruitment, wrote, “I was educated in a high performing suburban school district. I am embarrassed to say I did not have a clue that the achievement gap existed. I had no idea that large urban school districts were in so much trouble.”

Undoubtedly, most of the applicants who come her way are from a similar background. To all of them I say, “Golly gosh, ya didn’t know those things? Well that just means ya need to get right here so you can make things right!” And several few months later, after they've been in OUSD for a while, I'll then ask them, “Are ya having fun yet?”

Oakland is a suffering city, in too many ways. Our public school district just reflects this fact. Sure we are "diverse" -- a cool and very politically correct term -- but our fabric has been tattered for decades, and we are weak. We need to have have more things in common with each other than our differences!

Two Oakland old-timers I know, one Black and one White, told me that the biggest change in the city actually happened when the freeways (880, 580, 13, and 24) were built. They said thousands and thousands of people were uprooted -- and many neighborhoods were destroyed -- because so many homes were bulldozed. Apparently, white-flight was one thing, but this destructive force was something else altogether.

Perhaps that was one of the causes of our tailspin. For a long time now we Oaklanders have been suffering from a lack of healthy interconnectedness that most certainly relates to our history. We have the hills vs. flatlands folks vs. those in-between, the public vs. private people, the black vs. white, the minority vs. majority, the one minority vs. the other minority, the rich vs. poor, the stay vs. go, the new vs. old, the English speaking vs. non-English speaking, the immigrant vs. non-immigrant, the us vs. them, etc. Who did I forget?

I totally believe that our public schools have an enormous potential to help bring us together if we could make them strong. Unfortunately, I fear that the current OUSD management is steering us in the opposite direction and increasing our fragmentation. Schools are getting closed, chopped up, reopen, reinvented, closed again, etc. Good teachers and strong families can't take it and flee.

When it is expected that children will be transported by their parents to and from their own neighborhoods everyday to specialty schools (I’ve heard them called “boutique”) that are dotted all over the city, community disengagement is increased.

On the block where I live, just one short block filled with little bungalows in a typical Oakland “transitional” neighborhood (the interface where the hills and the flatlands meet), the seven families with elementary school-age children send their kids to six different schools, none of which is Laurel Elementary, the neighborhood school. Their schools are a combination of secular private, parochial, and one OUSD hills public school at the north end of the city.

What if “Expect Success” had put some sincere effort into recruiting families like this to attend the neighborhood's public school?

I concluded a letter to the Tribune last summer (Perimeter Primate posting of 2/19/08 - “The billionaires’ Frankenstein monster") by writing, “They [the people currently controlling OUSD] are not experts who can solve the painful problems which plague us. We’ll need to do that ourselves.”

The more and more I think about it, I can't imagine feeling any other way.

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.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Pooch!

Today I am celebrating my dog's birthday. This story pays tribute to him and is true. It is also tells what some high school kids choose to do for fun when they have a day off from school.

One day last October while I was at work, I received a call from my 14 year-old daughter who was at home alone. “Mom,” she said in a puzzled voice, “a neighbor down the street just called and asked why there are so many police cars in front of our house.”

The ringing of the phone had awakened her. A typical teen, she had been sleeping late that Friday morning because she didn't have school; it was a district-wide Staff Development Day.

“How many police cars are there?” I asked, trying to get a feel for what might be going on. To this she replied, “A lot.”

“Okay,” I told her, starting to feel more and more worried myself. “Double-check to make sure the doors and windows are locked and I’ll be right there.” I hung up, grabbed my things and quickly left. Fortunately, I only lived about five minutes away from the school where I worked.

As I approached my normally quiet, totally residential street, I could see a police car blocking its entrance. Farther down in the middle of the block, five or six more police cars were stopped.

I told the officer who was blocking the street that my daughter was alone in the house and had called me to come home. He explained that they were looking for some burglars who had just broken into one of the houses. Savvy Oakland parent that I am, I thought to myself, “It’s probably going to end up being students because they aren’t in school today.”

He gave me permission to pass and I parked near my house. Another policeman gave me permission to go to inside, so I went in to be with my daughter. I then called my retired next-door neighbor to ask if he knew what was going on. He told me that someone had broken into the house behind mine, and that the police had been in both of our backyards and on my garage roof.

Out my back window I could see more police cars parked on the next street. All in all, about ten units responded to our neighborhood. It must have been very quiet in other parts of "Oaktown" that morning.

For the next half hour or so, the police searched my neighbors' backyards and garages with a K-9 unit. One by one, four teenage boys were caught, arrested, and placed in the backseats of separate squad cars. They were all high school age, the youngest was 14 or 15.

Several of my neighbors and I gathered outside on the sidewalk to talk. Earlier that morning someone on the next street had seen the young men lurking in the neighborhood, checking out houses. When he saw them go into the backyard of a house as one stayed in front as a lookout, he quickly called the police.

Apparently, the kids had driven to our neighborhood in a stolen car. One had remained in front as a lookout. His three friends broke the back door and went in to ransack the house. Later, we learned that one of them had called his mommy on a cell phone as he was trying to escape. She ended up coming to the neighborhood to intervene on his behalf.

The squad cars were parked on our street for a long time while the police wrapped things up. I could see an officer going from house to house, knocking on front doors. When he arrived at my other next-door neighbor’s house, I hollered to him that they were at work. The officer then asked me if they a black dog. “They don’t," I replied, "but I do.”

He approached me and told me that one of the suspects had complained that he had been bitten on the ankle by a black dog (apparently my dog, a border collie mix) as he was running through a backyard. In amazement I asked the policeman, “Did it break the skin?” He replied, “Yes it did," and added, "It also tore his shoe.” I must admit, I was absolutely delighted.

But then things took a bad turn. The policeman asked me if my dog’s rabies vaccination was up-to-date.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I shamefully had to admit that his vaccination had expired last summer and that I hadn't renewed it yet. “I’ve been going to do it,” I said, and even showed him the renewal papers attached to my clipboard where I also had it written on my list of “things to do.” I had known I would have to pay a fine because it was overdue and I was really, really going to get to it soon!

The officer seemed understanding, but kept formal. He ended up giving me a violation warning notice from OPD's Animal Control. I was ordered to quarantine my dog at home for ten days, a slightly lenient consequence because of the circumstances. Normally, a dog that has delivered a bite must be quarantined for two weeks at the animal shelter.

For the next week and a half, my dog was stuck at the house – with no walks, no car rides, no fun. Then he got his shot, I paid the fees and the fine, and he was finally free again.

It was funny how all this happened, and I definitely think it was worth it. My neighbor's stolen belongings were returned, the police caught four juvenile delinquents, and my nearly nine year-old dog ended up becoming a neighborhood celebrity. Most of all, it was wonderful to learn that my darling, limping, ASPCA pooch is so appropriately ferocious and protective. Those are outstanding traits for a family dog.

As for him, it must have given his ego a tremendous boost. Before this incident, squirrels were the biggest creatures to appear in “his” backyard. And even though he has been absolutely driven to sink his teeth into them, those naughty teases could outrun him every time.