Back-to-school for grown-ups: Oakland’s Principal for a Day program

Diann Castleberry walked into the sunny library at Oakland International High School on Tuesday morning looking very principal-like in a tailored gray suit. The first bell rang as she walked through the door. Students grabbed backpacks, found classmates, and, chattering in a dozen languages, swirled past her on their way to class.

A woman in a purple sweater stood behind the library desk that served as the secretary station urging them on. “Log off software!” she called. “Time for class!”

The second bell rang. Students still in the library picked up their pace. Castleberry walked up to the desk and introduced herself as the Principal for the Day—Oakland International’s volunteer in the annual citywide principal-shadowing program—and asked for her shadowee, Principal Carmelita Reyes. The woman behind the desk smiled broadly and held out her hand.

“That’s me,” she said as she shook Castleberry’s hand. “Our secretary is out this morning, and I’m covering.”

Lesson one: Part of a principal’s job, apparently, is to cover for everybody. Castleberry gamely pulled up a chair.

An Asian boy in a track jacket appeared at the desk and proffered a brand new algebra textbook he had found in the library’s stacks. “Can I borrow?” he asked.

Reyes took the textbook and looked at the inside front cover as another girl, bearing a yellow backpack as large as she was, stepped up to the desk and looked expectantly at Castleberry in her efficient-looking suit.

“Here’s your first job,” Reyes told Castleberry. She handed over a pile of passes and a sign-in sheet for tardy students.

Reyes turned back to the algebra boy. “You need to have your math teacher sign it out for you before you take it home though, okay?” She handed the book back to him, and he smiled and hurried out the door to class.

The phone rang and Reyes apologized to Castleberry, then answered it.

Another student showed up, a boy with slicked-back hair and a rosary necklace. Castleberry didn’t miss a beat—she told him to write his name on the sign-in sheet and filled out a late pass for him.

Reyes’ radio squawked: news from the security guard about students caught dawdling at the neighborhood McDonald’s.

Castleberry kept filling out late slips, one after the other, as students straggled through the front doors and Reyes kept busy talking to students about their grades, their children, and their attendance at basketball practice. Some had been procrastinating, like the trio found at McDonald’s, but others had just stepped off the AC Transit bus that brought them to school every morning from as far away as the San Leandro border.

Oakland International is part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a national non-profit based in New York City. Oakland International is not a charter school. Internationals provides a model for schools run as part of the traditional public school district, but offers an alternative education for recent immigrants and English Language Learners.

Because Oakland International is the only public school for recent immigrants in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), some students travel for as long as 45 minutes every morning just to get there. Some have only a primary education, or have never attended school before in their lives. A quarter of the 230 students are refugees and a number of these suffer from PTSD. Every student at Oakland International is classified as an English Language Learner.

When students arrive at the old Carter Middle School campus that now houses their high school, they are greeted by the bright courtyard, a wall with the word “welcome” written in a dozen languages and classmates who speak 29 languages and hail from every continent (except Antarctica). Their 16 teachers speak almost as many languages as the students and know first-hand how hard it is to learn a new language. This is significant, because every class at the school, including Art, incorporates English language acquisition.

Two neatly dressed brothers signed their names on the second sign-in sheet of the morning.

Castleberry peered at the page, trying to interpret the teenage-boy scrawl. “Is that T-h-a-p-a?” she asked.

“Yes,” the boys, who are Nepali refugees, answered politely. They pointed to their first names, spelling them slowly for Castleberry. She filled out their late slips expertly—checking her iPhone to get an accurate timestamp, and signing her own name.

As the boys walked to class across the quiet courtyard and it became apparent that no one else needed assistance just that minute, Castleberry and Reyes sat.

“It’s mellow here,” Castleberry said.

Mellow? Really?

“It may seem hectic, but it’s very organized,” said Castleberry, who has visited a number of Oakland schools through her regular job as the Director of Public Responsibility for the Port of Oakland. “The students seem to be very respectful, and they all know the drill.”

The annual Principal for a Day program, run by the Marcus Foster Education Fund, aims to produce just such an observation from community members in the private sector. The program brings Oakland professionals from the private sector into the schools and allows them see what a typical day on the job is like for a public school principal. Sixty-five Oakland schools, including Oakland International, participated in the program on Tuesday.

Castleberry complimented Reyes on the clean and safe-feeling campus, and Reyes explained the changes they’d made after taking over the north Oakland building in 2007.

“This building was built in the heyday of California education,” Reyes said, waving her hand toward an unused part of the building. “That’s all offices because the school was built with the idea that there would be lots of adults here. There’s an office for counselor one, counselor two, secretary for counselor one, like that,” said Reyes in the way one might talk about knights in shining armor—knowing the feats of heroism to be true, but not expecting them to return. “There’s a nurse’s office.”

These days, Reyes explained to her shadow-for-a-day, there is no nurse in the nurse’s office and there are no counselors in the counselors’ offices. She is lucky to be able to afford a secretary, Reyes said grimly. When it takes every available penny to pay for teachers, books, and building expenses, Reyes said, there is simply not funding for these “extras.” “The question is,” she went on, “how do you get that next level of gains when you have a shortage of resources?”

She sighed. And then there was next year to worry about. “It’s going to be bad,” she said.

“You mean worse than it is?” asked a surprised Castleberry.

“Yeah,” Reyes said. She explained that OUSD is preparing to cut $28 million from the already strapped budget for the 2010-2011 school year.

“Twenty-eight million?” Castleberry repeated. “Wow.”

Castleberry is no stranger to shrinking budgets, she said, having worked on trimming the Port’s budget last year. She also knew about last year’s cuts—Oakland International lost about $600 in funding per student, according to Reyes—but she didn’t realize more cuts were coming and that the schools’ monetary situation was “that bad.”

Reyes explained some of the creative ways she’s found to stretch the available cash. She stopped spending the Gates grant, which was what got the school up and running and is about to expire, when the markets went into free-fall last autumn and saved it to cover some expenses this year. She allocated the school’s Obama stimulus money to support staff salaries, but those funds were a one-time thing. She’s partnered with outside non-profits, like Girls Inc. and East Asian Community Health, to provide counseling services to her students. Reyes spent a year working in finance in New York City after she graduated from Princeton in 1998, and the experience, she said, has turned out to be incredibly helpful.

After her lesson on how to balance the necessaries against the even-more-necessaries in a too-tight school site budget, Castleberry was off to her next principal-ly responsibility: observing class.

She walked into Mr. Toby’s second period English class just as his dozen ninth and tenth grade students were settling into their seats and pulling out the binders they carry to every class. (Teachers at Oakland International are all called by Mr. or Ms. and their first name. Mr. Toby’s full name is Toby Rugger.) Castleberry sat at a table with two Spanish-speaking girls.

Ana, 15, is from Honduras and had painted her nails with little slivers of color topped by silver glitter. Reina, 14, is from Mexico and speaks very little English. Reina relied on Ana for translations when she didn’t understand Mr. Toby. The classes at International are deliberately set up this way, with a mix of English proficiencies in one class, so that the more recently arrived immigrants can get help from those who have been here for at least a year. Between these integrated classes and the special reading class that the newest students attend, all Oakland International students get lots of English practice. This is important, says Reyes, “because when you’re 14, you don’t have a lot of time to learn English.”

The class was about to begin studying The Odyssey, and to do that, Mr. Toby explained to his class, “there are a lot of words we need to know. We’re going to spend a lot of time translating today, so take out a dictionary and sit with someone who speaks your language.”

The students shuffled tables to find their class “language-partner,” and pulled out dictionaries. Castleberry speaks only a word or two of Spanish, but her dictionary and trouble-shooting skills helped Ana and Reina when they ran into words, like “cunning,” that were not in their Spanish-English dictionary.

“Let’s look up ‘clever’ instead,” Castleberry suggested.

When that didn’t help, she explained the word “cunning” in about three different ways until Ana said, “Ah! I understand now.”

During third period, Castleberry observed one of the special reading classes for ESL students who are learning the rudiments of the English language. Students practiced writing simple statements, “I am from Yemen,” and questions, “Are you from Yemen?”

The teacher, Ms. Julie (aka Julie Gallegos), walked around and checked their work. Castleberry, who was growing more comfortable in her newfound role, walked around and checked work as well. She leaned down to help a boy from Vietnam who looked younger than his 14 years.

“Is this supposed to be plural or singular?” she asked him.

He looked where she was pointing and erased his mistake with the large eraser he gripped in his left hand. Fixing it with his pencil, he brushed the eraser bits carefully off of his page of work. Castleberry nodded and moved on to the next student.

After watching the students practice a list of sight words (words that one should know on sight, without having to sound them out), work on pronouncing the letters of the alphabet, and read a short passage to a partner in order to improve their fluency, Castleberry headed back to the library to return formal principal duties to Reyes and head off to a luncheon being held for all of the participants in the Principal for a Day program.

As she walked through the courtyard, Castleberry said she thought that the right word to describe Reyes’ job was “challenging – challenging with sprinkles of reward.”

What’s the reward?

“When you see students excelling and interested in the work,” Castleberry said.

And what did she think of the school?

“Today has been fascinating. This is a good program,” she said. “I think integrating English levels and matching up kids with language partners in class is really smart. The environment here is safe for them to ask questions and not feel dumb.”

In addition to being impressed with Oakland International, Castleberry was also taken with the concept of a school for international kids. She knows something about being new to this country and of melding dissimilar cultures. She is the daughter of a first generation Japanese immigrant mother and an African American father who hailed from the south. As a UC Davis undergrad, Castleberry majored in international relations; she also hosts exchange students in her home through a Mills College-based, EF School. Right now, Castleberry has three college-aged students at her house: one from Japan, one from Belgium, and one from Colombia. She wonders if they might make good volunteers for Oakland International.

Castleberry thinks her son, Anthony, might make a good volunteer too. He’s 14 and attends St. Elizabeth High School, a Catholic school in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Castleberry decided almost a decade ago to send her son to private school, she said, because she “didn’t want to worry about his safety” and wanted to be assured of academic rigor. She said she is a supporter of public schools, though, and that if “you could guarantee a safe, clean environment and keep academic standards intact, a lot of parents would switch their kids to public school.”

At the luncheon, also organized by the Marcus Foster Education Fund, Lucinda Taylor, principal at James Madison Middle School in East Oakland, delivered a moving solo performance of the gospel number “What About the Children?” The song, imploring everyone to consider the importance of raising children well, was followed by an impassioned plea from Superintendent Tony Smith for participants in the Principal for a Day Program to keep giving back.

“I’m going to provoke you to think about one thing you could offer to help a vision that you heard that principal articulate become more real,” Smith said. “I’ve got to say, I think this question of, ‘How are our children?’—that’s not just the schools’ responsibility. That’s our community’s responsibility.”

Castleberry listened carefully while Smith spoke. She kept thinking about his message as she headed back to work. She thought about what she had seen and learned at Oakland International, and she thought about what she could give back.

That evening, her official duties as Tuesday’s principal at Oakland International complete, Castleberry wrote an email to Reyes. She intended to arrange a visit to the Port, she wrote, during which Reyes could meet employees and retirees who might be interested in volunteers. She also promised to contact the international exchange program she volunteers with, EF School, to see about some sort of tutoring exchange partnership.

“Thank you again for the opportunity,” Castleberry wrote. “Your leadership at Oakland International High School gives me hope for Oakland’s future.”

2 Comments

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  2. Kudos. This is a very revealing and accurate look at public education. Of course International is not a comprehensive high school like Tech or the like, but I love the way your piece allows readers to understand what it is to be inside the walls of a local public school. You see the strengths along with the challenges (funding, shortage of personnel). And this is one of the “mellow” ones! Citizens should understand these realities in order to push their legislators to make necessary changes. Thank you for this. I just wish it were published in the NY Times.

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