By Barbara Grady

In 2009, when Tony Smith became its superintendent, the Oakland Unified School District was emerging from six years of state financial control to stand on its own wobbly legs.

Known for his social justice work in the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools and as assistant superintendent in San Francisco, Smith came to Oakland aiming not only to stabilize finances, but also to boost educational achievement and particularly opportunities for low income African-American and Latino students being left behind in poorly equipped schools and dropping out in droves.

He had a vision of restructuring what it means to educate kids so that poverty and race don’t become artificial barriers to academic achievement. He built a strategic plan around it based on creating Full Service Community Schools, or schools that would address the health, social and emotional needs of children as well as their academic needs.

The year 2009, however, also was when the state of California began slashing education spending, taking the first what in what would ultimately be more than $7 billion worth of cuts to K-12 education, a 13.8 percent reduction, according to the California Budget Project.

In Oakland, the state funding cuts were made worse by the district’s shrinking enrollment since the state funds districts on a per pupil basis. From 2008 to 2012, OUSD’s budget went from a pre-recession $615 million in 2008 to $445 million by this current year.

The unrelenting money problems meant that for Smith to accomplish his goals, he had to juggle competing tasks. He had to cut costs – yearly – to balance ever more austere budgets and he had to galvanize support, including financial contributions, for his idea of building up full-service community schools and launch programs to help underserved kids.

From accounts this week as the Oakland schools community grapples with the Smith’s pending departure June 30, Smith succeeded in making significant headway on these goals.

“Through his leadership and his guidance, we crafted a very clear vision of developing OUSD into a full service community schools district,” said OUSD board of education president David Kakishiba. “We have a five year strategic plan … and it’s the guiding direction of this school district.”

In conversation this week, Kakishiba said though the past four years have at times been tumultuous with protests and disagreements over some of the money saving measures, OUSD came through the years of state budget cuts without a lot of damage.

“We have not had wholesale teacher layoffs – there were notices, but they were repealed. Two, we did not shorten the school year as many districts did and three, while all that didn’t happen, we were able to reduce our structural deficit – get rid of the structural deficit,” Kakishiba said. A structural deficit of $35 million left over from the years in state receivership was pared away.

What Smith and the board of education chose to cut instead is adult education, some early childhood education and some of the expenses of operating schools by closing down some low enrollment schools.

Those were not popular moves. Large protests followed the school closing announcements and parents and teachers from one school even held a three-week sit in at the school. Advocates for the adult education program say the district dismantled the way that immigrant parents can learn English and keep up with their kids in school.

But OUSD was able to launch new programs – largely funded by outside grants – to move on its strategic plan. It launched an African American Male Achievement Initiative that has helped to increase academic success and graduation rates of African American boys. It has lowered suspension rates and it has converted some school campuses to full-service community schools where students can get health care, enrichment classes, food and guidance outside of their class day.

Meanwhile, numbers that describe a district’s performance are all improving.

The Academic Performance Index for the district rose to 728 by last spring from 676 in 2009.

And many fewer kids are dropping out.

In 2009, OUSD’s drop out rate was 47 percent including 60 percent for African-American students, according to the California Education Department.

By the spring of 2012, the district’s high school drop out rate had fallen to 25.5 percent for all students including 29 percent for African-American students.

Smith said revamping a school system takes discipline.

“You can be passionate as hell, but if you don’t actually build new systems and new tools to do this work, you end up reproducing this inequity you hate so much,” Smith said of the challenge at an education conference last summer.

But even while the overall trend was up, deep problems persist at some schools in Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods. The API for McClymonds High School last spring 2012 was only 483, according to the state education department. The high school serves West Oakland. And Castlemont High School in East Oakland had an API of 544.

Moreover, teachers in OUSD have not had a raise in a decade and their compensation has thus become lower than that paid to teachers in surrounding districts. But, on the other hand, Smith did not layoff teachers in the K-12 program either.

Parents complain that deep inequities remain between how schools are equipped and staffed. MyClymonds, for instance, does not offer many of the Advanced Placement courses offered at Skyline High School or Oakland Technical High School.

Ben Tapscott, former head basketball coach at McClymonds High School and now a frequent advocate for MyClymonds families, said Smith has not been fair to the African-American community.

“I’d like to wish you and your family well, but you have left our district a mess. You have not served the black and brown students well,” Tapscott complained to Smith at a recent board meeting. “Fourteen schools in the black and brown communities have been closed over the years. We are not teaching black students well.” He added McClymonds does not have as rich a curriculum as other high schools in the district.

“The best thing we have is our teachers and we are losing them. Many of our teachers leave after two years,” he said.

But the board of education member representing West Oakland, Jumoke Hinton Hodge, praised Smith for moving the district in the right direction, for setting in place programs and places that might eventually remove the racial and socio-economic disparities that students experience, outlined in the district’s new strategic plan

“I am truly appreciative of your work over the last few yard of putting out a direction before us, of your forward thinking approach and your boldness and courage to call and name things,” Hodge said when Smith submitted his resignation to the board.

She said it is tough to turn around a large ship where habits are entrenched and yet at OUSD there is beginning to be “a shift in culture,” around things like discipline and justice and high expectations for students.

In 2009-10, OUSD was suspending large numbers of African-American boys, fully one-fifth of those boys K-12 and as many as one third of those in middle school. But after being called on this disparity by the Urban Strategies Council and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, OUSD has worked to bring down suspension rates overall and end racial disparities in how suspensions are used. In some schools, suspensions have almost disappeared and restorative justice programs put in their place. But not all schools have eradicated the practices.

Jonathan Klein of Great Oakland Public Schools said “Tony’s leadership has stabilized the district and brought our community together around a shared vision of quality schools for each and every Oakland student. He created spaces for courageous conversations on race, class and poverty. The Thriving Students plan of full-service community schools in every neighborhood has broad community ownership.”

The GO public schools, Kakishiba and others agree that more work needs to be done on recruiting and retaining quality teachers and on cultural training of teachers.

“We still need to create conditions and support for all teachers to be successful in the classroom and to build leadership among teachers to help one another,” he said

The organization recently commissioned a study of teaching in OUSD by the National Center on Teacher Quality and found that teachers in Oakland are underpaid relative to their peers in neighboring districts but receive rich benefits including many sick days that many use as personal days. It also found that teacher turnover is high in Oakland.

In its strategic plan called Thriving Student, Oakland focuses on the need to address the “whole student” including social and emotional needs and health and focuses on strengthening curriculum for all students to make it more rigorous.

The board has unanimously stated that it wants to follow that strategic plan and that is a large reason why it has nominated one of its members, educator Dr. Gary Yee, to be an acting superintendent so that he can lead the district in proceeding with the plan.

“There are many clear implementation steps that were put together with a lot of care,” in that plan said Jody London, board of education member representing North Oakland. “That why we don’t want someone to come in and pick at it,” or choose some parts and not others.

But state funding is still a challenge, she said.

“The gap between what we were supposed to get and what we got is huge and it is not very much talked about,” London said of the state’s decision to not fund education at the statutory levels it was supposedly required to. “Proposition 30, all that means is that funding stays at 2008 levels. It doesn’t fix deferrals. It doesn’t fix what we’ve lost.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.