Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Haves and Have-Nots

Two years ago I took an evening class at the Piedmont Adult School. My teacher was also a longtime faculty member of Piedmont High School. He told us this story.

The year before, some kid’s father walked into the school’s main office and casually handed a $100,000 personal check to a student who was working there. He told the student, “Here, give this to the principal and tell him to buy laptops for the teachers.”

This is just a tiny peek into another world.

For readers who don’t know the Bay Area, Piedmont is a small, affluent community completely surrounded by Oakland. Many locals are under the impression that it seceded from Oakland because it wanted to protect itself from such a poor, skuzzy city, but this is not the fact.

In the late 1800’s, Oakland was not completely covered by highways, streets and buildings like it is today. Rather, much of Oakland consisted of numerous village-like community districts scattered across a rolling East Bay landscape. Between the communities were small farms, grazing lands, and orchards.

The Oakland hills were a popular summer vacation destination for residents of San Francisco. Some owned summer homes here. Some would come across the bay and stay at one of Oakland’s many resort hotels. One such hotel was the Piedmont Springs Hotel which later burned down in 1892.

After the earthquake of 1906, the population of Piedmont quadrupled as families left the devastation of San Francisco and moved to the East Bay. Residents living in the district of Piedmont voted to make their district its own city in 1907, long before Oakland was suffering from its current reputation. By the 1920’s, Piedmont had more millionaires per square mile than any city in the United States and was known as the “City of Millionaires.”

Today, the Piedmont City Unified School District has three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. It also has a small alternative high school and an adult school.

Here are Piedmont Unified’s 2007-08 demographics:

Total enrollment = 2,552 students
  • American Indian or Alaska Native = 0.3%
  • Asian = 17.4%
  • Pacific Islander = 0.2%
  • Filipino = 1.1%
  • Hispanic or Latino = 2.7%
  • African American = 1.8%
  • White (not Hispanic) = 67.3%
  • Multiple or No Response = 9.2%

►Total number of English Learners = 94 students (3.7%)

►Participants in Free or Reduced-Price Lunch = zero students (0%)

►Average Parent Education Level = 4.47 (The average of all responses where "1" represents "Not a high school graduate" and "5" represents "Graduate school.")

In addition, the 2000 Census found the following for the City of Piedmont:

  • Median family income = $149,857
  • Per capita income = $70,539

Now, here is information about those Have-Nots in Oakland next door.

Oakland Unified's 2007-08 demographics:

Total enrollment = 46,431 students
  • American Indian or Alaska Native = 0.4%
  • Asian = 13.7%
  • Pacific Islander = 1.1%
  • Filipino = 0.7%
  • Hispanic or Latino = 36.6%
  • African American = 36.2%
  • White (not Hispanic) = 6.2%
  • Multiple or No Response = 5.1%

►Total number of English Learners = 13,933 students (30%)

►Participants in Free or Reduced-Price Lunch = 29,716 students (64%).

►Average Parent Education Level = 2.34 (The average of all responses where "1" represents "Not a high school graduate" and "5" represents "Graduate school.")*

The 2000 Census found the following for Oakland:

  • Median household income = $40,055
  • Per capita income = $21,936

It may interest you to know that Piedmont Unified’s 2008 Academic Performance Index (API) is 919. Oakland Unified’s 2008 Academic Performance Index (API) is 674. The state's desirable goal for an API is 800 and over. The maximum number of points that can be obtained is 1000.

Some people might explain that the difference in achievement is due to a different quality of the teaching, one of the most common explanations for the achievement gap in some circles.

Do you think that the Piedmont teachers are really working that much harder and smarter than the Oakland teachers? What would be the result if the Piedmont teachers switched places with the Oakland teachers? Would the API scores soon be switched, too?

*Let me repeat this so you can absorb it. OUSD is responsible for educating – and feeding a government subsidized lunch to – 29,716 students, plus educating 16,715 students more. Piedmont Unified is responsible for educating zero students in this category. To put it another way, OUSD feeds free or reduced-price lunches to more than 11 times (11.6) the number of students who attend Piedmont's public schools altogether.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A letter to prospective parents

For the past month or so I’ve been helping at my daughter’s school with the recruitment of eighth graders for next school year. The families who attend information nights and school tours are the types of families that Oakland’s schools need. These are the parents who are investing time and effort in their children’s educations, and who would be producing children who have had their educational pumps primed. They are also the types of parents who might be willing to engage with the school at meetings and as volunteers. They are predominantly middle-class.

I composed the following letter for them so I wouldn’t have to explain my point of view over and over again.

By the way, here are Skyline High School’s demographics:
  • Asian = 21%
  • Latino = 24%
  • African American = 39%
  • White = 11%
  • Participants in Free or Reduce-Priced Lunch = 52%
  • English Learners = 11%
  • Average Parent Education Level =2.88 (The average of all responses where "1" represents "Not a high school graduate" and "5" represents "Graduate school. Level 2 would be high school graduate and 3 would be “some college.”)

Dear Prospective Parents,

I would like to share my family’s Skyline experience with you. Our story may help you with making your decision about high school.

My husband and I have two daughters. One graduated from Skyline in 2006, the other is currently a Skyline sophomore. They attended Redwood Heights Elementary School and Bret Harte Middle School.

Skyline has worked out very nicely for our family. The school’s administration has been somewhat unstable in the recent past, but I am hopeful that our new principal and his administrative team mark the beginning of an era of increased stability. That is something which Skyline High deserves.

You need to be aware that Skyline is currently in Program Improvement – Year 4 as determined by No Child Left Behind, the federal law that has labeled it as “failing.” Over the course of this school year, Skyline will be developing a plan to revise some of its programs so it can serve the low-achieving students more fully.

So while it is true that a number of Skyline’s students are not achieving important benchmarks, and that some of them drop out of high school, it is also equally true that Skyline has a large group of students who are doing just fine. This “silent majority” regularly attends their classes and completes their work. Some of them are doing exceptionally well. I would never describe this school as “failing” and it is hurtful to hear that said.

I appreciate how Mr. Sye sometimes tells people that Skyline has “pockets of excellence.” That’s a description which really fits.

This morning I drove my older daughter, R, to the airport. She came home for Thanksgiving but flew back to Atlanta today where she is a junior at Emory University. This morning I also completed a field trip permission slip for my younger daughter to attend a lecture at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco with her amazing AP World History teacher. Those are just two Skyline stories.

As a Skyline parent for 5 ½ years, with only 2 ½ more years to go, I have an excellent vantage point from which I view the Skyline experience of my children and their peers and I’d like to share it with you. My older daughter’s story might interest you most because she is a recent Skyline alumna who is forging her way in the world that comes after high school.

We originally chose Skyline because it is our neighborhood high school and because it is relatively close to our home. Its location just made sense. Just as important was the fact that it was the high school that many of my daughter’s middle school friends and classmates planned to attend. A number of them had older siblings who attended Skyline and those kids seemed to be doing fine. To familiarize ourselves with things, we attended several PTSA meetings the year before we arrived.

R immediately became involved with Skyline’s music program as a freshman. She had a fantastic school music experience with Mr. Worm at Bret Harte and wanted to continue. R played piano and percussion in Skyline’s jazz band for four years. She played trombone in the marching band for one year because it was a fun way to complete her PE requirement. She also played in the pit band for the annual spring musical and had the opportunity to be the conductor of that band for two musicals.

R also worked on Skyline’s student newspaper for two years (The Oracle), first as a photo editor and then as the editor. A few weeks ago she remarked how helpful her journalism experience had been. What she learned back then has come in handy recently because she now helps produce her college’s humor publication, “The Emory Spoke.”

R didn’t participate in sports while she was at Skyline, other than participating on the cross country team for a few months. Ultimately she dropped off the team because she couldn’t dedicate enough time to practicing. Academic work was R’s main focus in high school and she became a Skyline valedictorian as a result of her attitude. This happens to be the type of student she was, and remains to this day.

My husband and I, probably like many of you, have supplemented our children’s education along the way with a range of extracurricular activities. R had piano lessons and math enrichment in elementary and middle school. She also attended reasonably priced summer programs for high school students offered by the University of California (Young Entrepreneurs at Haas and the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science at UC Santa Cruz). As is typical in middle-class families, we have been able to provide an assortment of these types of activities for our younger daughter as well.

For R’s hard work and focus she was rewarded with a number of college scholarships. She chose Emory University, a school unfamiliar to many on the west coast. Emory is ranked 18th of the national universities by US News and World Report. It is currently tied with Vanderbilt University and the University of Notre Dame. R selected this school for its suburban setting, medium student-body size, and its strong academic and music program. Currently she is dual-majoring in Chemistry and Music.

Her story proves that students can become successful with an education from Skyline High School. R’s success, however, is not unique. She stays in touch with a group of friends from high school and since so many kids have pages on Facebook, it is amazingly easy to find out what former classmates are doing.

Here is what they are up to now.

K is in the Netherlands for a year on a study abroad program via Northern Arizona University where she is pursuing a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. O attends Smith College in Massachusetts and is majoring in American studies and thinking about becoming a nurse midwife. M attends Lewis & Clark in Portland and a different M is at Willamette University in Oregon. I can’t remember their majors.

Both B and M (#3) took a semester off from their colleges (Occidental in LA and Goucher in Baltimore). As novice politicos, instead of attending classes they worked for the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania and earned college credit for that once-in-a-lifetime experience (They worked incredibly hard!). J is a UC San Diego student who is living in Italy for a year through a study abroad program. H is at Brown University. B (#2) is at Stanford.

S is in his third year at UC Berkeley’s computer engineering program, one of the top programs in the nation. He works part-time on a big supercomputer and absolutely loves it. A different S. who also attends UC Berkeley will be graduating this year, and J (#2) who goes to UCLA will graduate from college in 2009, too.

A just graduated from Skyline last year and is now at UCLA studying electrical engineering. C is at UC Santa Cruz and L is at UC Davis. Both have changed their majors since they started and are doing very well.

Please keep in mind that these are real 18 to 22 year olds and their stories are completely up-to-date. All of them are recent Skyline grads and my family knows them. They have all spent time at our house.

Over the years, I’ve come to know many families. Along the way quite a few have opted to send their children to private schools. But now that the K-12 days have passed, I have yet to see that any true advantage was gained. After years of paying for private school tuitions, word-of-mouth and Facebook reveal that the private school kids and the Skyline kids we know are attending a similar range of UC’s and private colleges.

Also realize that for every child you know who may have left Skyline for a private school, I can tell you about another who came to Skyline because they were displeased with their private school (St. Mary’s, O’Dowd, Head-Royce and Lick-Wilmerding come to mind). The transferred students had successful Skyline High School careers.

I hope this information helps to reassure you about Skyline. I am very aware that some parents have a great deal of apprehension about sending their kid to a school “like Skyline.” But if you are intrigued with what I have shared with you so far, please read on.

One thing I commonly hear from parents is that they are worried about their kid “getting lost” at a school like Skyline. I will admit that this concern never entered my mind with either of my daughters, so I have a hard time understanding it completely. I will say, however, that I have noticed that some kids lack a focus, or happen to focus on the wrong thing. Sometimes this problem only lasts a short time, but sometimes it lasts longer. I always felt it had more to do with the kid rather than the school.

One thing I appreciate about Skyline is that it is a comprehensive high school with a wide variety of classes and extracurricular activities. There is something for just about everyone.

From my years of observations and from talking to kids and parents, most students seem to do well enough in school if they don’t get overly involved with drinking, drugs (chiefly marijuana), video games and the opposite sex. It helps if their parents are vigilant-types who know their kids’ peers and keep a watchful eye on what they are all doing.

Some parents are worried that their kids will get into intense partying and reckless behavior because they attend a school “like Skyline.” They need to realize that this can happen anywhere. My daughter and her friends report that they know plenty of private and affluent, suburban public high school teens who engage in that behavior. They’ve told me that it is sometimes worse at those schools, and they theorize that it might be because the kids have more money to spend. This is their observation, not mine.

Another top concern for parents is their lack of confidence in Skyline re: the safety of their children. When prospective parents visit our campus, they regularly ask our students, “Are there a lot of fights?” and “Do you feel safe?” My daughters and their friends felt safe. It was never a big issue for them.

This is not to say that troubling incidents don’t happen. Some students like to intimidate other students and force them to hand over money and iPods. Sometimes backpacks and other belongings are taken. I am of the understanding that it is very rare for a student to randomly get physically attacked (called “getting jumped”). I’ve been told that the school has security cameras to watch certain areas.

Yes, there are fights at Skyline occasionally. Here’s my perspective based on my experience as a parent at both Bret Harte and Skyline.

There is a subset of students attending these schools who tend to resolve their disputes by fighting. When they engage with one another it is a form of mutual combat. When their fight breaks out, other students find it exciting and then it becomes a dramatic looking crowd scene. It doesn’t take long for the school’s staff to figure out what is happening and then go in to break up the fight. They call for each other’s help by radio. Afterwards the assistant principals normally suspend the students who were involved. Sometimes the students are expelled.

Let me reiterate that it is a subset of students who behave with each other in this way. The vast majority of Skyline students don’t get involved at all. It’s just like our larger society! If you experienced the campus over time, you would discover that most of the student activity is routine and non-eventful.

Sometimes OPD patrol cars are parked on campus. The police are called in as a presence if trouble is flaring up between groups of students, if a serious family problem has arisen, or if someone wants to press charges because they have been struck or something expensive has been stolen. They come for various non-urgent reasons as well.

Perhaps this honesty frightens you, but I feel it’s better not to gloss over the truth for you. I have learned over the years this unfortunate fact: some children are never properly taught by their parents how to verbally resolve their problems. This is why conflict resolution programs in schools are so important. I wish that all sorts of social problems seen at public schools didn’t exist, but that is not the reality. Talking about them with my children is a way to teach them about this very big world. They have become wiser as a result of these conversations.

Another concern that parents commonly have is about the quality of the school’s staff.

When my older daughter finished high school, we decided to assign grades to every OUSD teacher she had experienced over the years (a very entertaining activity!). The average grade for both her elementary and high school teachers worked out to be a “B.” Her experience with teachers at Bret Harte in her middle school years was better, and they earned an “A-minus.”

I will admit that my kids have had a few dud teachers along the way since we started with OUSD in 1993. They, however, do not negate all of the others who were perfectly fine. And if I had the time I would tell you about all the OUSD teachers who have been excellent and why we loved them so. Quite a few of them were from Skyline.

Even though I am a Skyline booster, I am not satisfied with everything about the school. I wish the restrooms were more acceptable to my daughter, and I blame this on both the careless students and a lack of adequate restroom supervision. I wish that the students who were cutting classes were more vigorously pursued and suppressed. I wish that the district would supply us with one or two more campus security officers. I wish that certain staff members, just a few, would function at a higher level, or get booted out. I wish that our school district was more “together,” that its leadership was stronger and that its teachers felt like they wanted to stay on longer. I wish our government would allot more money for Oakland’s public schools. I wish that more parents would dedicate themselves to being involved at Skyline. To me, these items are this school’s drawbacks, but then I think to myself, “Wouldn’t all schools have their drawbacks?”

For choosing and sticking with Skyline, and for accepting its weaknesses and trying to make the school better, my family has saved thousands and thousands of dollars as well as hours and hours of transportation time. We have firmly established ourselves as part of the wider Oakland community and have given our two daughters a solid education that has been socially multi-dimensional and quite unique.

In January, I hope you choose Skyline for your child because if you are reading this then you are the type of family this school wants and needs. And if you decide to attend a different school, then at least you’ve learned some truths about Skyline and won’t judge us harshly. I wish you and your child good luck.

Very sincerely,
Parent of Skyline students, C’06 & C’11