Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's really quite simple

It is pointless to hope that people like Eli Broad and Michelle Rhee would ever be able to see the light; their enormous egos block their apertures to any enlightenment. But could it be possible that billionaires Bill and Melinda have just enough of the humility needed to access a deeper understanding?

After failing at his first efforts of school reform, it looks like Bill Gates is beginning to hunt for new ways to improve public education. He needs to look no further.

Recently on the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group I posted the piece about his decision to channel his billions in a new direction. One teacher (Ms. G.) wrote the following eloquent and practical response. It’s really quite simple Bill, you see.

"As a teacher, what I would like to see would be smaller class sizes. To me, that is the best way to impact student learning, create small learning communities, be able to reach the families of those students, offer students more opportunities to be engaged in the classroom, and provide students with intensive one-on-one or small group instruction.

I have two core groups of 8th grade students, and I teach them Language Arts and History for 105 minutes for each group. I have 33 in one class and 34 in the other. (Up until two years ago I had 131 minutes to do the same curriculum and I had 5 or 6 fewer students in each class.) Ideally, a class of 20 or fewer students would allow me to have meaningful conferences with students on their writing, to devote more time to each paper they write before I speak with them, to spend less time trying to catch them up when they don't do their homework, to be able to call home regularly, and to even, perhaps, make home visits, if necessary.

Teachers, the ones who are in the trenches right now, know what would make a difference in our schools and our classrooms. We need more adults on campus, not just teachers, but aides, and people assigned to work with students in peer mediation, on school safety issues, in counseling, etc. We need significantly smaller class sizes.

We need the professional latitude and time to design curriculum or to build on curriculum that has been provided for us. We need meaningful collaboration times with our colleagues-- perhaps common prep periods. (And some teachers need a daily prep--especially in Oakland at the elementary level.) We need meaningful staff development on how to best reach our students, how to analyze what problems they might be having academically, and how to adjust our teaching to meet their needs.

We need more classroom supplies and materials. We need art, music, shop and home ec electives for all kids, but especially those who are kinesthetic learners. We need our schools to be places, not just of learning, but of community-building for the families and neighborhoods of students.

And we especially need fewer so-called educational reform experts telling us what we need."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Expulsions, student behavior, and the shortcomings of principals

Recently I've been extremely busy with assorted, big projects at my daughter's high school. They have absorbed a great deal of my time so I haven't posted for over a month. Here's something I sent out via the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group this morning. It's length qualifies it for a Perimeter Primate posting.

The community needs to be aware that when a student is suspended from their school for a serious infraction and is then recommended by the school's principal to be "DHP'ed" (submitted to an expulsion hearing), if the Disciplinary Hearing Panel decides to expel the student, most of the time they are simply assigned another equivalent OUSD school.

Students are rarely expelled from the district, only from their original school. Very few students are sent to alternative schools. For instance, a student who has committed a serious infraction, and then is DHP'ed from Bret Harte, will be directed to enroll at Frick, or Montera, or some other middle school the following week. All school year long, these DHP'ed students play musical (classroom) chairs.

Of course OUSD charter schools will never be directed by the District to accept the DHP'ed students, nor be expected to take part in providing any of their resources to them. Even though those schools declare themselves to be "public," they are allowed to be exempt from accepting ALL students. This means, too, that problematic students of the charter schools must always be accepted back into the general system when they get kicked out of the charter. For all the popular talk about equitability, this is not equitable.

After students have been DHP'ed, they arrive at the attendance office of their new school to be enrolled by their frustrated, discouraged, ashamed, and/or angry parents. For a little while, the kids are generally subdued and on their best behavior from having been submitted to the DHP process. The schools have case managers who are supposed to follow the DHP'ed arrivals. They have varying amounts of experience and training, and are trying to manage a huge and difficult load. Because of the nature of the kids' family situations, and the magnitude of the problems that they have, this is very tough work.

Principals are required to accept these students, but are usually not happy to do so because they know the students usually bring chronically difficult behavior with them. Although the District's method sometimes works because it separates enemies from each other, it is not unusual for the DHP'ed student's negative behavior to start up once again as soon as they are comfortable at their new school and get underway with developing new enemies.

Students who are inclined to live their educational years in this way might also have strong neighborhood turf, and/or ethnic subgroup, allegiances. The rivalries caused by the tribal outlook of some of Oakland's youth are the cause of a considerable amount of the fighting.

East and West Oakland groups dislike each other. Some Latino/Black/ Pacific Islander and Asian groups dislike each other. In OUSD there aren't simply enough White kids who are so inclined. Even subgroups within each of those groups dislike each other, for instance Latinos who are either Norte or Sur, or those from 98th Ave. vs. those from Seminary vs. those from the Dirty Thirties, etc. (all East Oakland neighborhoods) . Add adolescent behavior and weak family structures into the mix and you'll get the behavior problems seen in OUSD secondary schools. You may wish to research the increase in school violence in New Orleans as a result of forcing rival neighborhood kids together when their school system was re-formed.

Having attended Bret Harte and Skyline, my children and their friends have never been part of this type of social drama at their schools and they have learned how to keep far, far away from it. This is why they have always been safe at those schools and why I believe they are better off, and more socially aware and mature than their private school or suburban school peers. I value those qualities in young people.

I've learned that the majority of the school fighting is caused by a subset of kids who mess with each other constantly and don't know how live their lives any differently. Sometimes they have parents and relatives who actively coach them and encourage it. Elijah Anderson (in "Code of the Street") explains how schools are a "staging ground" for establishing Respect, the drive behind all "street-oriented" behavior.

Because my daughters and their friends are simply outside that sphere, they've expressed to me that most fights are simply annoying, or even amusing, rather than scary and threatening. Their immense entertainment value is why kids stop everything and run like crazy toward a fight that has broken out -- blocking adult access to the combatants. Of course some of the fights can get serious and cause severe bodily harm, but most don't get to that point.

In my opinion, OUSD schools lack a comprehensive, unified and effective behavior modification approach toward student behavior. This might well be the District’s most serious failing.

Some principals have adopted the techniques of Noah Salzman, a respected education consultant, to guide the overarching philosophy and approach to behavior management at their schools. I'm sure there are other effective and tested strategies, but they are not always considered or exploited by principals, or even seem to be required by the District. It is very haphazard. Any of these approaches -- well-implemented, discussed, made transparent, data-reviewed and constantly adjusted -- would be able to control and contain a fair amount of the negative behavior. This strategy would relieve the concerns and frustrations of many parents and teachers.

There are some charismatic school administrators who are gifted with the energy and strong instinct for managing student behavior, but they are a very rare breed. Joe Salamack might be one of them. He worked as a dean at Bret Harte in the late 1990’s, then as an assistant principal at Montera, with admiration and glowing reviews by most parents and his peers. To OUSD’s loss, he was snagged by Bishop O'Dowd a couple of years ago to become their principal.

Unfortunately, some principals strongly believe in, and cling onto, their own personal philosophies about student behavior management. Those philosophies are not necessarily proactive and "best practices" driven, or derived from any serious insight or research. They are likely to be either a passive and vague philosophy, or one which is reactive and consists of repeated threats, screaming and punishment.

It's too bad that there is such a lack of sophistication on the part of some principals about these matters -- considering the wealth of human behavior research that is available. I do not believe that coaching for the principals will necessarily be able to correct their deficiencies, either. The principals need to arrive at that position of authority open-minded, sufficiently learned, and with a strong internal sense about group behavior management.

Sometimes the school's teachers have a great deal of insight and would like the principal to lead the school to adopt a strategic, effective and unified approach. And sometimes the principal is hopelessly "old school" and defensive, and the teachers' more innovative opinions are considered a threat and are squashed. The best that teachers can do under these circumstances is to manage their own classrooms effectively. A few of them create pockets of sanity -- peaceful oases for their students -- within a school wide climate of chaos. The kids always know who these teachers are.

The schools also need to be staffed with more Campus Security Officers. Ask anyone who works on any secondary school campus. Sometimes student safety at one school is sacrificed for another school. For instance, last week a CSO from Skyline was sent to work at McClymonds for two days. Then there are the sick and vacation days that come up for the CSO's (and disability days caused by the injuries they get from breaking up fights). The staffing of these valuable employees is simply inadequate.

Most parents have no idea that all of this is going on but anyone who steps on a campus can feel it. This submission has been long, but I hope it helps move us toward a better OUSD.

Sharon Higgins
OUSD parent (since 1993)
Former Parent Coordinator at Bret Harte (2001-08)


If a crime is committed that involves juveniles, the name of the perpetrator or the victim is not usually revealed, but they are crimes that should be reported nonetheless. Every week we read about crimes committed by juveniles in the Oakland Tribune. Names are withheld.

Katy Murphy just posted a piece on her education blog about the student-on-student assault that injured one girl so badly she spent two nights in the hospital. Of course the names were withheld.

The community should be able to see evidence that some sort of crime data is being tracked by the school site. I would think that those numbers (type of crime and frequency in a given time period) could legally be revealed.

How many fights broke out that week? How much bodily harm was caused (simple or aggravated assault)? How many kids were the victims of a strong arm robbery on the campus, or on the bus ride home that month?

And as for property crimes that cost the school district a ton of money, how many times that year did the school bank get broken into with hundreds of dollars getting stolen? How much property was stolen or damage sustained b/c someone at the school didn't remember to set its alarm system (yet again), or b/c the alarm system is simply ineffective?

This stuff is going on all the time, but the only way we learn about it is if it leaks out by accident.


Hey folks, this is the elephant in the room that we're now just beginning to talk about in a real way. I hope the strong members of this group don't let it fade away.

I believe the scattered and closeted handling of these issues on the part of the schools and the district is a big reason, maybe the biggest, why so many Oakland parents are reluctant to use the schools, especially the secondary schools. If they use them, many parents are always slightly on edge wondering about the safety of their children. And they should be, because nothing meaningful, by policy, is dependably revealed by the school. Bad stories, true or false, just seep out.

There are few straightforward ways to find out what is really going on. Maybe things are better than parents think, or maybe they are worse.

As far as I can tell, this is also a big reason why parents feel the need to flee to the charters or the privates ("I've heard that there is a lot of fighting at THAT school."). It is why working in these schools for the long term is so difficult for so many teachers (haphazard discipline structures & lousy school climate). It is why many OUSD teachers living in Oakland won't send their kids to their neighborhood OUSD schools. It is how a fair amount of the crime problem in Oakland is constantly developing in the public schools right underneath our noses.

The problems need to be addressed in a more comprehensive way by the schools. The unadulterated numbers of incidents need to be tracked, publicly reported and thought-about, so the schools know where to begin and where they need to go. Think about that magic word "accountability."

Hey District people: If you aren't willing to step up and be strong leaders who will be innovative with these issues and attack them head on for us, can you at least create a venue that will pull people together to make a task force, or workshop, or some way to put our heads together to devise a new strategy? Then we might be able to make some progress with getting into the nitty-gritty of this in a more meaningful way. On one hand it seems hopeless, but on the other it might be possible to start heading in a direction that will make more sense.

This topic affects parents who live in the flatlands, traditional zones, and hills schools alike. Unlike so many of those who work at Second Ave., we parents live in Oakland and we are using your schools, ugly warts and all. I wish you would trust us and consider us as worthy partners, and let us help you chart a new course.