After years of reform, some things are improving at Oakland Unified School District. More kids are graduating and fewer are dropping out, with the graduation rate rising to 66.8 percent for June 2013, according to data released last week. Suspensions are down by a third since 2012 and enrollment held steady this year from last year, at 36,921 students.

But some other things are not improving, according to the data from the district’s Balanced Scorecard for 2014. Only 38 percent of OUSD third graders can read at grade level, which means the rest are not ready for higher learning. While more are graduating, only 43 percent of high school students finish with the courses needed to be considered for admission to a California state university.

Absenteeism remains high, especially among kindergarteners and high school students. Junior year is arguably the most important year of high school, but 19.6 percent of OUSD juniors are chronically absent.

But as early signs of improvement in high school outcomes show, efforts at reform can pay off. When OUSD expanded curriculum and linked learning programs to engage teenagers, more stayed in school.

“There are places where we need to do better,” said new OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson as he reviewed the data. The Balanced Scorecard is a set of assessments that many school districts across the country now use.

Wilson said he has been meeting with school principals to help them identify key issues. “Many schools will be focusing on literacy,” he said, expressing concern that less than half of OUSD students read at grade level, based on the assessments.

Improving attendance is another current focus, and something a host of nonprofit organizations have taken on to assist schools in boosting achievement. Eleven percent of OUSD students are chronically absent, including 15 percent of kindergarteners. Rebecca Brown, a researcher with the Urban Strategies Council, said missing school in the early years hurts. “Chronic absence has been shown to have a really strong (negative) impact on later academic achievement.”

Maybe the most distressing data point to surface this past week about OUSD is how dissatisfied its teachers seem. Nothing is as influential to a child’s education as his or her teacher, experts say.

In the midst of contract talks, some 200 teachers stormed the Board of Education meeting last week and shut the meeting down by chanting, “Contract now!” With his pleas for quiet ignored, Board president David Kakishiba recessed the board for 10 minutes.

Teachers complained of low pay and big class sizes. Teacher Benjamin Achtenberg said he recently married another OUSD teacher. “It was a good decision, but not a good financial decision,” he said. Living on two teachers’ salaries won’t allow for buying a house locally or starting a family. “We need a raise,” he said, “or we can’t stay.”

photo-11While Oakland teachers’ starting salary of $40,048 a year is on par with other nearby districts, Oakland’s average teachers’ salary of $55,143 a year is well below the average in Alameda County and $5,000 to $7,000 a year lower than its neighboring districts, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, which studied Oakland last year. At the top of the teaching pay scale here, the most experienced teachers can earn $11,000 a year more in Berkeley, Alameda and San Francisco than they can in Oakland.

“We want to be in the median, to match the average, of surrounding districts. That would look like about a 7 percent raise this year and a 9 percent raise next year,” said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, when asked what the union sought.

Jennifer Formosa, who teaches first grade at Thornhill Elementary School, said she had 27 students in her class last year. “We are losing teachers. Do what you need to do to keep them: raise salaries and reduce class sizes,” she pleaded to the board. Formosa is a member of the union’s bargaining committee.

This year, 456 of Oakland’s 1911 teachers are newly hired, according to the OEA. Superintendent Wilson, who just began his post in July, said that teacher turnover is a challenge and particularly relevant to “the importance of maintaining stability” for students. He did not comment on salaries or contract negotiations.

Meanwhile, several nonprofit organizations, including the Urban Strategies Council, Great Oakland Public Schools Leadership Center, and the Oakland Public Education Fund, are collaborating to help boost attendance at Oakland schools. They released a report on Friday about the patterns of chronic absenteeism, which shows, among other things, that transportation barriers and health problems often lead to absenteeism, and that parents sometimes need help to figure out how to get their kids to school daily.

Garfield Elementary School is one of six schools in Oakland that have cut chronic absences by half or more. Nima Tahai, Principal, said doing so requires commitment by staff and families.

“First, it’s data driven. You have to have the numbers in front of you, student names and down to the reasons for each absence,” he said. Then, school staff must engage in “one-on-one work with families,” reaching out to them to find out what is going on and talking to them about the importance of getting their kids to school. He said Garfield administrators even pick up kids to drive them to school if a family is stuck without transportation or a parent is ill. The bottom line is getting students in school to learn.

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at barbara@oaklandlocal.com

One Response

  1. Oakie

    Well, I guess the statistics the public and taxpayer are allowed to see are more of the same, usual dismal performance everyone here seems to tolerate.

    It seems a graduation rate of 67% is an improvement. Go ahead, OUSD, congratulate yourselves on a job well done. Suspensions are down by 33%. Of course, that’s because they’ve redefined suspensions so that defiance of the responsible adults no longer results in a suspension. I’d suggest go asking a few randomly selected OUSD teachers and ask how that’s working for them.

    Oh, and that’s the good news. The bad news? Only 38% of 3rd graders read at grade level. Only 43% of graduating seniors have (in theory, at least) the classes needed to go to college. Given how many are given passing grades without mastering the material, I would suggest probably 70-80% would not be successful at college level classes without remedial classes teaching them what they are supposed to learn in high school (and for which the taxpayer has paid the cost of providing).

    One of the “achievements” is that student enrollment has not fallen further. Wow. 36,921. In 2000 the enrollment was about 54,000. And that’s with zero enrollment in the district’s charter schools. At this point, 25% of the district’s students are enrolled in its charters (highest in California).

    And since these charters are running at capacity, it’s clear that the only reason the district school enrollment has not gone down is because the “Full” sign is posted on all of our charters. And for that you have School Board members like Jody London to thank, who has made it no secret that she is willing to clamp down on new charters, even if it is necessary to break the law in order to accomplish this goal. Imagine how much OUSD district school enrollment would have gone down (given their “success” as measured by the stats provided) if adequate seats were made available in the charters?

    What is most important, and totally missing, is a comparison of those same stats for our charters? Wonder why that’s not included……

    Then there’s the teachers: “Teachers complained of low pay and big class sizes.”

    I’ll note that these are issues for the teachers self-interest, not what’s in the best interest of the students. It’s exactly what you would expect from a Teamsters Union (and their interruption of public meetings akin to Hod Carriers misbehavior to boot), not a professional organization focused on serving the children of the district. You know, the ones they only pay lip service to that “the children are the highest priority.” Yeah, right.

    And what did they NOT chant while disrupting our public meetings like hooligans?

    How about ending the way their contractual lock on tenure and seniority privilege has resulted in great harm to our most disadvantaged minority and poor kids that would “shock the conscience” (as the Vergera case judge described OUSD’s gaming of teacher assignments). Apparently it’s doesn’t shock the conscience of OEA. They’re perfectly happy with it.

    As to teachers wages, I would wholeheartedly agree they are abysmal. But I have examined the district’s expenditures, and analyzed the costs and found that OUSD spends over $100,000 per year for gardeners (including salary, benefits and direct overhead). Given that the market cost for gardeners is less than $50,000, all costs included, the reason OUSD doesn’t allocate sufficient funds to compensate teachers is largely not because there is insufficient taxpayer supplied money, but because the district more highly values pretty flowers for the superintendent than they value the services of its teachers.

    Get real, Oakland. Stop tolerating failure and dysfunction. Demand something better. Or do nothing, carry on, and watch these lives be wasted.

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