Friday, May 29, 2009

The Same Old Mud Pies

It's just another one of the many, now commonly seen, urban public school messes which Jennifer Ward has described in her article posted on A Better Oakland.*

The bold highlights are mine.

Disappearing Behind Them: Phasing Out Failing Small Schools

May 28, 2009 by Jennifer Ward

On a crisp spring California afternoon, long after the echo of the last final bell, 40 parents, students and teachers gathered in a too-warm classroom at Paul Robeson School of Visual and Performing Arts to ask California State administrator Vincent Matthews to reconsider his decision to close the East Oakland school. [Matthews is the third state-assigned and Broad Center-trained superintendent for OUSD].

In articulate and passionate voices, students told Matthews that the school offered important second chances to kids transferring from larger schools.

“I feel Paul Robeson should stay open because it offers a nurturing environment to its students,” said senior Jimonte Johnson, “It’s a smaller school, the teachers actually care and my grade point average has increased from 0.40 GPA to a 3.67.”

Parents called the sudden decision unfair to Robeson students and the East Oakland community. Sheila Clark said both of her girls have thrived at Robeson and that she hopes her son, now 11, can one day attend the school.

“We just need the school to stay here, have a neighborhood visual arts school here in our community.” Clark said. “I just want you to think about it.”

Matthews listened to a student-led presentation on Robeson, answered questions from teachers and promised to look at additional information. Although there was a follow up meeting in late April, no firm lifeline was given to Robeson, a school that is struggling with low test scores and declining student population. Robeson will almost certainly be phased out.

“Our number one goal is that all of our students graduate prepared to succeed in college and the workplace,” Matthews said at the meeting. “And it’s our responsibility as the adults in the system to make sure that’s happening and if it’s not happening across the board then we have to look at other options.”

Next fall, Robeson students will see their school begin a slow fade out where teachers will be reassigned or let go, course offerings will narrow and key student support won’t be available. In the process of closing, many students will transfer out of the school, leaving just a few students to graduate from a disappearing school.

This is all a part of “phase out,” a school shut down process used with increasing regularity by Oakland Unified School District, which gradually winds down schools one grade at a time. Robeson will be completely shut down by 2012.

Before 2003 the district rarely closed any of its schools. Beginning in 2004 after the state took over district operations, phasing out schools that failed to meet key achievement goals became common practice with the Oakland school district. By 2009-2010 the district will have shut down or begun phasing out 28 schools since that time, the vast majority being small schools.

“The alarming thing about phasing out is that the district is closing schools that have just opened,” said Jayeesha Dutta, a co-director at Oakland-based Youth in Focus who has also worked with OUSD over the last several years. “If this is a reform tool we’re never going to make progress.”

Robeson isn’t the only Oakland school on track for phase out beginning next year. Robeson joins Business Entrepreneurial School of Technology (BEST) High School, located on the McClymonds High School campus, in becoming the two small schools scheduled for phase out starting the 2009-2010 school year. Neither school has been open more than five years.

To be sure, many small schools have seen great success and the district has opened a fair amount of new school programs in Oakland.

For example, Matthews pointed to the fact that in 2005, the district opened five small schools - Reach, Rise, Manzanita SEED, Sankofa and Kizmet but closed 6 small schools - Golden Gate, Washington, Rubicon, King Estates, Village Academy and Freemont. The net change was one less small school.

“We’ve seen a number of schools that have done extremely well,” Matthews said “and really where you’ve seen staffs that have taken on the responsibility and said ‘This is what we want to do. If we’re not doing well how can we do better?’ and other places we haven’t seen the successes we’ve wanted from the (small school) movement.”

However, parents, teachers and Oakland education experts worry that the district is providing uneven levels of financial and administrative support to many schools, causing a decline in achievement for some small schools located in the Oakland flatlands. Some educators and parents worry that the district is also putting its cookie cutter achievement standards ahead of supporting new schools that may need extra nurturing.

Robeson is a small school housed on the sprawling Fremont Federation High Schools campus that goes for a good two blocks on Foothill Blvd in East Oakland. The campus, once known as Fremont High School, was carved into four high schools as part of a district wide initiative known as the small school program. Oakland has a total of 110 public schools and about 53 are small schools.

Over the course of its young life, Robeson has struggled in key achievement areas. According to the school’s School Accountability Report Card, an annual summary of key information reported by all California public schools, for 2007-2008, the school’s math proficiency rate was at two percent. In 2006, it was zero. And although 97 percent of students attended class daily, Robeson’s graduation rate was just 48 percent in 2008.

Nevertheless, many students and teachers said they had little time to try and correct problems at the school.

“We were supposed to be engaged in a series of community meetings over the course of a year and into the next before a decision was to be made,” said Robeson Social Studies teacher Craig Gordon.

BEST has a number of trade programs that are considered a success in the community. Local organizations and politicians regularly use the culinary arts program’s catering and the school also has a well known construction trade program that has strong ties to several local businesses including Kaiser Hospitals. BEST is one of two schools at the former McClymonds High School. EXCEL is the other high school on the campus and it is expected to absorb a good portion of former BEST students during the phase out.

BEST also has serious academic challenges. The West Oakland school has a mathematics achievement rate of two percent for 2008, according to its SARC scorecard. BEST’s graduation rate was 52 percent in 2008.

Both teachers and students say the positive work being done at the school is not necessarily reflected in its test scores. Some BEST students said they are still absorbing the news.

“When I heard (OUSD was closing BEST) it was a shock, even though I knew it was coming,” said Ralston Earle, 17, a senior at BEST. “I honestly love this school. I’m going to be an alumnus, but now what am I going to come back to?”

BEST students said they were hoping that a possible phase out would happen further down the line.

“We just didn’t think it was going to happen this soon,” said Michael Huynh, 17, a senior at BEST.

Parents said they are upset about the BEST phase out.

“It’s horrible, it’s very discouraging for the kids,” said BEST parent Ernest Carroll who also attended McClymonds. “They (OUSD) had good intentions in the beginning with the small schools. But they found out that the administrative costs for two principals, double the staff, was too much for them.”

Carroll’s son, Isaiah Carroll said he loves his school.

“I’ll be devastated to see it close,” Carroll said. “I love the teachers here, they work hard for us and they’ve helped me out a lot.”

About seven years ago, the Oakland Unified School District began implementing a new program geared towards creating smaller schools as part of a broader plan to improve test scores, come into compliance with No Child Left Behind, and give students an opportunity to learn in a smaller setting.

Almost overnight new, smaller “academies” and career schools sprang up. Some of these new schools were given their own buildings and some were put in place in the existing large sprawling campuses that had originally been built for the student population boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

“These big comprehensive high schools have were really showing no signs of progress or success in the way they were delivering services to the students,” Dutta said. “Small schools was a move towards a better educational system.”

Oakland Unified School District is a complex, dense public school system that has weathered multiple upheavals over the last few decades, including the financial mismanagement five years ago that led to the state of California taking over the district.

Teachers, administrators and educational organizations said many small schools have also not been given the adequate resources to meet district achievement goals and attract and retain students.

“Right now we have no performance art teacher,” Gordon said. “We’re a performance art school and we have no performance art teacher.”

BEST teachers said they too have not had key support from the district.

“We haven’t had a school counselor since 2006 for the 500 students of EXCEL and BEST,” said John F. Smith, a BEST instructor who teacher who teaches carpentry, welding, masonry and other trade skills. “The district has not supported the programs here at BEST in a way to attract and get more students involved. “

And then there is the issue of the kitchen. BEST teacher Harold A. Le Blanc, who is the director of the Food Science Culinary Arts Academy within the school, said the lack of district support is evident in his program not receiving a promised new kitchen.

“It’s like we were the flavor of the month,” he said.

Jumoke Hinton Hodge, an Oakland Unified School District board member, called the promised kitchen another heart and soul piece that was needed in creating a successful culinary school program.

“It was a viable culinary arts program, that was talking about serving lunches on campuses and would do special events for everyone,” Hinton Hodge said. “I used them as a caterer for community groups.”

Despite this, the school never received the kitchen.

“Once again, how do we prepare our young people in high school to be economically self sufficient? This was a program that was doing it,” Hinton Hodge. “And the huge tool was a kitchen and that kitchen was never provided.”

Matthews said the district is doing everything it can to help students succeed.

“It’s always a difficult decision to either phase out or close a school (PPT),” Matthews said. “It’s not taken lightly.”

Matthews said that the number of small schools being phased out is low and he pointed to other small schools on the Fremont Federation campus with Robeson that are meeting district standards successfully.

“You have three other schools on this campus that are working with those same students yet they are able to get remarkably higher (test) rates, graduate rates, so why is it three of the schools can roll up their sleeves and make it happen?” Matthews said.

Matthews said it’s not just about money.

“Some small schools claim that we need additional or we need more and you have others that are just fine with the budgets as they are established.” Matthews said. “They are able to make do or to do well with the budgets.”

He said the district funding system, called Results Based Budgeting, gives great autonomy to schools in making budgeting decisions. “Around RBB (Results Based Budgeting) the schools make the determination if they’re going to eliminate programs or eliminate positions,” he said.

Matthews also said the district provides a number of tools to help schools in trouble, called focus schools, to help bring up achievement levels.

But Hinton Hodge said actual support during the focus phase for troubled schools is unclear. Many focus school staff have told her they had little help during the process, she said.

“Every school went into this focus phase and no one can describe to you what happened during the focus phase,” she said. “One would assume, that you were getting extra support, that you were maybe getting extra resources, that you were doing consistent assessment, you were doing feedback, you were engaging with people on change that needed to happen, and (yet) no one can speak to what that process looks like.”

Dutta said the district needs to focus on long term strategies for dealing with small schools in trouble instead of phasing out the programs.

“With adequate resources, adequate planning and adequate amount of time, these schools could succeed,” Dutta said. “But they haven’t been given those conditions. And so to say that these schools have failed and to close them before they’ve really been given the opportunity to show their potential I think is a tragedy and a huge waste of resources because so much money has gone into the conversion into small schools. So to go back now and say ‘Oh we’re going to close them and reconsolidate’ seems to me to be a real poor strategy by the district.”

Isaiah Carroll said despite the rapidly approaching end of the school year, many students hold out hope that somehow their school will stay open.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to help,” he said. “We’re working to keep our test scores up and to do whatever it takes to keep BEST open."

This type of rigmarole has been going on for several years now. After the millions of dollars that have been spent, and after all the blood, sweat, and tears which have been shed, would someone please tell me what things are going better for the kids, and for the community in which they live? I watch this stuff closely and reside in the midst of it all, but I just don't see anything improving. Something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark.

What is being done to urban public school districts which serve a lot of kids from poor black families is some sort of failing social experiment, and it is starting to remind me of Tuskegee.

*The piece was funded by donations through Spot.Us, a Knight Foundation backed experiment in community funded reporting. An audio report on the issue was run on KALW.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dear Mr. Finn

David Whitman’s "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism" was recently promoted by David Brooks in his widely-read piece called “The Harlem Miracle.” Brooks told readers the book will help them understand the culture in a new model of schools; he describes it as “…a superb survey of these sorts of schools…”

Knowing the degree to which demographic engineering has played a large role in the "success" of one of the six schools which Whitman profiled, I left the information for him in a comment under Pedro Noguera’s response. I also thought I'd try to reach him through Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which also happens to be the publisher of the book. Here's the email I just sent:

Dear Mr. Finn,

I would like to provide you with simple, yet important, factual information about one of the schools featured in David Whitman's book, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism." The school is the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland. It has received a great deal of acclaim for producing high test scores and was a 2006 National Blue Ribbon School.

I am hoping you will be able to forward this message to David Whitman. I've been unable to locate his email address.

Please take a look at the changing percentage of students who belong in one of the following subgroups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Hispanic or Latino, or African American. This is for the 13 school years from 1996-97 to 2008-09. All figures are from DataQuest at the California Department of Education’s website.

· 1996-97 = 100.0

· 1997-98 = 97.0

· 1998-99 = 93.8

· 1999-00 = 100.1

· 2000-01 = 97.0

· 2001-02 = 100

· 2002-03 = 98.7

· 2003-04 = 74.3

· 2004-05 = 55.4

· 2005-06 = 65.3

· 2006-07 = 51.1

· 2007-08 = 50.5

· 2008-09 = 42.3

The school’s American Indian or Alaska Native percentage in 1996-97 was 100%. This year it is 1.1%.

Now look at the changing percentage of the school’s students who are either Asian or White.

· 1996-97 = 0.0

· 1997-98 = 2.9

· 1998-99 = 6.2

· 1999-00 = 0.0

· 2000-01 = 2.9

· 2001-02 = 0.0

· 2002-03 = 1.2

· 2003-04 = 25.7

· 2004-05 = 44.6

· 2005-06 = 33.7

· 2006-07 = 22.4

· 2007-08 = 38.4

· 2008-09 = 54.4*

Ben Chavis took over the failing school in 2001-02. It only took him a short time to figure out how to maximize his school’s test scores. One of his primary methods was simply to change the demographics.

In 2006-07, the school had an unusual spike in the number of students reporting “multiple or no response.” The spike appeared about the time questions were being raised about the school being demographically engineered by Chavis. The percentage had averaged 0.29 for the previous 10 years. In 2006-07 it jumped to 26.4%. In 2007-08 it fell to 11.1%. This year, it is 2.7%. In a school which prizes itself for having an extreme sense of order, such an unusual sequence reflects an attempt to confuse the facts.

Chavis resigned as principal of AIPCS at the end of the 2006-07 school year, but he continues to be the director of the charter organization which manages three similar schools in Oakland, all with similar demographics.

By the way, when the figures of his three American Indian Model schools are combined, their average enrollment of students w/disabilities was 1.3% in 2007-08. The district average was 10%. Their combined enrollment of English Learners in was 3% in 2007-08. The district average for that subgroup was 30%.

How many other charter schools are using similar tactics? Since few people are delving into it, who would know?

Some proponents, like David Whitman, apparently aren't willing to question, or investigate, some very basic information (available to anyone w/internet access) before they perpetuate the myth of an outstanding success. Other proponents, like George Will who gushed over Chavis and the AIPCS last year, aren't willing to publicly acknowledge this information when it is presented to them. I sent this simple report to Will last year but never received a response. I've now sent this information to David Brooks, but I don’t expect to hear back from him either.

My family and I have lived 1/2 mile from this school since before it was formed. I drive by it nearly every day. Although some of its practices are admirable, such as longer instructional time for students and the stressing of school order, I also know for certain that the school engages in questionable strategies, such as large amounts of time spent on non-condoned state-test practicing and the cherry-picking of students.

I happen to have a deep understanding of the qualities found in many of the low-income Asian families in my community, and see how Chavis' grab for low-income Asian students sets him up for easy success. These children have been my daughters' classmates for many years; I also worked with these families for seven years when I was a Parent Coordinator at a traditional public middle school. If you would ever like me to explain the familial characteristics which contribute to the tremendous academic achievement of this set of children to you, I would be happy to do so.

Since charter schools will continue to declare that they are using "innovative" practices, it is essential that the practices which are legitimate are differentiated from those which are not. Until this happens regularly and is made utterly transparent, solutions for the achievement gap will be obscured.


Oakland, CA

*All of whom were Asian. White enrollment has always been low, or altogether absent.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Cliff

Charles Payne, a University of Chicago professor and author of “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools,” recently participated in a panel discussion at a national seminar sponsored by the Education Writers Association where he said some very important things.

One observer wrote:

“Payne said in schools with low academic achievement, building high levels of trust makes academic improvement three times as likely than in schools with low levels of trust among educators and students. He cited a ten percent improvement in graduation rate in schools where students say they know and trust their teachers.”

Payne’s observations are correct, meaning the current mode of attacking schools, and the people who work in them, is exactly the wrong way to go. This is an anti-motivational strategy for human beings which can only produce a tremendous amount of discomfort, tension, and shame.

Q: So how will student/teacher trust be enhanced by Duncan’s upcoming five-year plan to close 5,000 struggling schools and fire thousands and thousands of teachers?

A: It won't.

Payne also had something to say about a similar approach Arne Duncan's used on Chicago Public Schools:

“The way schools are being closed in Chicago has eroded an enormous amount of social capital by not including parents in the process. These parents care about their kids and schools, and have been marginalized by people doing things for their children, without including them in the process.”

If you keep up-to-date about education issues, then you know it is rare to read or hear about the importance of maintaining and building that important feature called social capital. This entire concept is continually ignored by our U.S. Secretary of Education and his “reformer” friends, who strike me as education-fix-technicians trying to manipulate struggling urban school systems, and the people in them, without becoming too intimate. Lacking in their approach is a fundamental awareness of what the hearts of the families in these schools actually need more long-term, healthy, and caring human connections.

The “worst” schools, often labeled as “dysfunctional,” are in very weak, fragmented communities and are attended by large numbers of kids from weak, fragmented families. No, they are not doing well in comparison to the schools in strong, cohesive communities which are attended by large numbers of kids from strong, cohesive families. But constant criticism coupled with a set of unrealistic expectations will never "turn them around."

Struggling school communities are in desperate need of a boost to their morale. If that could begin, barriers will be relaxed and the people in the schools could start to experience more positive feelings and pride, along with some hope for the future. At that point everyone will naturally feel more receptive to working together to implement new ideas.

In a chapter of his book, Payne wisely observes:

… So we continue forcing underdeveloped reforms on already over-burdened teachers and then blaming those teachers when reforms fail to produce the promised miracles. Just as teachers are too quick to conclude that nothing’s going to work with these children, reformers come to think that the reforms they advocate are right, they will work, just not here, not in this school, not with this particular group of hard-headed teachers and untalented administrators. Just as teachers are always saying they could teach if someone gave them better students, reformers are always thinking they could implement their programs if someone would just give them better people to work with. The reform community, partly because of its sheer arrogance, its ideological rigidity, its inability to enter into genuine partnerships with school people has squandered much of the moral capital, much of the strategic positioning, that it held at the beginning of the 1990s.

As a community victim of outsider-instigated “reform,” I have watched how my city’s public schools have been constantly labeled and threatened, and how this erodes away confidence and makes everyone feel on-edge and sad. Kids are both sick of being tested and then reminded of their failings. Teachers and administrators are worn out from the constant pressures and a too-often joyless experience at schools. Parents are frustrated by being stuck in an experimental reform-attacked school district which is sinking under the pressures of NCLB.

And still no gap is being closed.

From my vantage point, I can see that this current approach for educational reform is just not working, and it never will. Our society has big problems we refuse to address.

After feeling hope with Obama's presidency, it's depressing to realize that we are now going to be forced to follow a misguided plan which is intent on terminating thousands of neighborhood schools in communities which are unable to defend them. I am worried my daughters' schools will be among them.

In five years, when my kids come home to visit, will they be able to drive by, and look at, their former middle and high schools, or will those schools have been permanently shuttered? It's sad to think that, for me as well as thousands and thousands of other local families years of community history, school spirit and pride are in danger of being flushed down the toilet, all because of an unproven ed-reform strategy being pushed by Arne Duncan. Arne doesn't see it yet, but his grand plan has no chance of being the magic "fix."

We're on a path and heading toward a cliff.