Oakland Tech students and staff plea to keep teachers

Oakland Unified School District Board

OUSD District 6 representative Christopher Dobbins (right) talks with Superintendent Tony Smith after Wednesday's School Board Meeting, which addressed topics including teacher turnover, increased enrollment, and the newly passed state budget's impact on the district. Photo by Whitney Pennington.

Students and staff from Oakland Technical High School presented the school board with more than 700 signatures Wednesday night, asking the district to support tenured statistics teacher Evelyn Francisco, who faces deportation back to the Philippines if her visa is not renewed before December.

High teacher turnover and increased student enrollment were the big topics of the night at yesterday’s session of the regular board meeting, which highlighted a mix of challenges and triumphs for the district.

In the wake of a just-released district report that found that almost three-quarters of the teachers hired by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) were no longer teaching for the district after five years, Francisco was one of two district teachers the community came out to defend during last night’s school board meeting. The other, second grade teacher Cynthia “Cindy” Lee, is a 30-year teaching veteran who had been at Redwood Heights Elementary School for over two decades before she was recently asked by the district to leave. The circumstances around Lee’s leaving the school were not specifically addressed during the school board meeting.

The teacher turnover report found that over 30% of the teachers who have left OUSD in recent years cited release by the district as their reason for leaving. In other words, many teachers, like Francisco and Lee, are not leaving OUSD because they want to, but because they have to.

Parents, teachers, and staff from Redwood Heights urged the school board to reinstate Lee, citing her dedication, effective teaching, and ease with her students, whom she would greet by name every day. “Our district can’t afford to lose a master teacher,” said fellow Redwood Heights teacher Catherine Mahoney.

Like Lee, Francisco is a veteran teacher, having taught at Oakland Tech for nearly 10 years. She is currently the only Advanced Placement statistics teacher at the school, and some Oakland Tech parents and students expressed concerns during and after Wednesday’s meeting that Francisco’s absence would mean the class would no longer be offered at Tech. “It seems like a lot of our teachers are getting switched with unexperienced ones, who are just going to fail us” said Oakland Tech 11th grader Tiphereth Harris-Banks, addressing the school board. Harris-Banks said that she does not have Francisco as a teacher, but knows several other students who are in her class.

On the Oakland Tech Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA) message boards, however, the reaction to Francisco’s situation has been mixed. “My son had Ms. Francisco. It was a year from hell,” one mother wrote in a September board post. “I am not commenting on how this came about. I am PRO teacher. This lady gives teaching, teachers, unions a very bad name.”

Other parents, however, voiced support for Francisco on the message boards. “My son thinks she is a good teacher,” another parent wrote.  “With the scheduling problems that Tech has had this year, I think we’ve had enough schedule and teacher changes.”

Francisco, who does not have permanent residence status, has been working in OUSD on a renewable work visa for nearly a decade, according to OUSD director of public relations Troy Flint. “It was harder 10 years ago to find qualified staff in the US,” he said, adding that federal law requires employers to offer hiring preference to equally qualified domestic candidates before extending an H1-B visa, the visa under which Francisco is working. With this in mind, OUSD officials made the decision not to renew Francisco’s work visa last spring. Flint said OUSD reached an accommodation in September that will allow Francisco to stay in the US legally and will delay a final decision until December.

“We felt it was no longer the case that there were no longer significantly qualified domestic candidates,” Flint said. “That was communicated to Ms. Francisco. She resisted that and she wanted to work in OUSD. A lot of her fellow staff and students supported her. It became a contested situation that created some discourse in the community.”

Between now and December, Flint says district staff will conduct research on the laws surrounding the renewable visa under which Francisco is working to see if there are any other options. “We have to comply with federal law,” Flint said. “It’s federal law which is driving this situation.”

Personnel issues for OUSD are addressed in closed session, and no decisions regarding either Lee or Francisco had been released as of Thursday morning.

The district’s 20-day enrollment report was also released during Wednesday’s school board meeting, showing that OUSD enrollment is increasing.  “This is monumental, given the history of this district,” said Superintendent Tony Smith, referring to slumping enrollment numbers in Oakland public schools in the past.

The report compared projected student enrollment with actual student enrollment based on a count 20 days into the new school year – presumably enough time for students to finalize the school that they will attend for the year. This time last year, the actual enrollment at the 20-day mark was 201 students fewer than the projected totals. By contrast, this year, 217 more students are enrolled than were projected in late August.

While the district showed a net increase of 245 students across schools, compared to last year’s enrollment numbers, the gains were among younger kids.  The city’s high schools enrolled 275 fewer students than last year, and middle school enrollment stayed even.   But elementary school enrollment increased by 525 students.

School Board representative Gary Yee said he believed student numbers would continue to increase, and that he wanted more information about student demographics. “I think we need a more sophisticated analysis,” he said. “We need to know where these students are coming from. We want to know whether these are flatlands students populating hills schools.”

The enrollment report does not include data on special education enrollment for the district or the dozens of charter schools in Oakland. School Board directors Jumoke Hinton-Hodge and Noel Gallo called for more information, specifically on charter schools, which some critics say compete with OUSD for student enrollment numbers.

District one director Jody London also called for more data, saying she knew there were enrollment disparities in North Oakland. “I have an elementary school with 50 fewer students, while Tech has 250 more,” she said. London urged better family follow-up when students leave Oakland’s public schools. “It needs to be like when you switch cell phone providers, where you get a phone call asking why,” she said.

District Chief Financial Officer Vernon Hal said higher enrollment could mean more money for OUSD, based on the fact that schools receive state money based on the number of students attending school on a given school day. “If the increase in enrollment plays out to an increase in attendance, we will get higher revenues,” he said.

Hal also presented a brief overview of what California’s budget, passed last Friday after a record-breaking 100-day delay, could mean for the district. The new budget restored funding to programs such as early childhood education, which were all but cut in Governor Schwarzenegger’s May revision. “That was huge,” Hal said.

Superintendant Smith emphasized that although the district would be receiving more money than it expected, OUSD was still running a big deficit, and that some of the budget resolution money coming to schools Oakland schools is one-time funding, not ongoing financial help.  “This budget does some things to help us, but even with one-time monies, we’re in trouble,” he said.

OUSD, which has made $122 million in cuts this school year, continues to face deficit spending, although the gap has grown smaller with the state budget’s new provisions. Now, instead of $17 million dollars in deficit spending, the district has $7.5 million in deficit spending.

“We’re happy that it’s better,” Smith said, of the new state budget.  “But I’m still concerned.”

Whitney Pennington contributed reporting for this article.

This article has been amended to reflect additional comments by OUSD spokesman Troy Flint.

One Comment

  1. This tradition of parents and students protesting teacher reassignments and dismissals has to end. i can well believe that over the past thirty years or more at OUSD there were plenty of bad decisions re staffing that reflecting internal politics instead of educational objectives.

    but at this point when it appears to outsiders that the top management at OUSD is much more focused on education and does not have the intangling alliances with the various tribes within OUSD, that students and parents should stay out and let management do its job.

    if parents and students don’t like the way its being done, complain to your elected school board member.

    If you don’t like the member’s response, recall them or work for their opponent next time.

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