Futures Elementary in East Oakland has raised test scores by more than 100 points since 2007. But according to state law, it does not matter: Every single teacher and administrator at Futures is facing the possibility that he or she will be laid off in May.
Futures, previously known as Lockwood Elementary, was redesigned in 2007 and a particularly young staff was hired to change the school’s old reputation as a place that held low expectations for its low-income and minority students.
The state education code holds no provisions for performance, though. Instead, it dictates that layoffs must be made in order of seniority. Most Futures teachers have been in the classroom for fewer than five years.
“What did we do the redesign for?” asked the school’s principal, Steven Daubenspeck. He recognizes there need to be cuts, Daubenspeck said, but he would like the district to consider alternatives to the seniority policy so cuts could be more evenly amongst schools. No one school should have to deal with cuts as drastic as Futures is facing, he said. “In my opinion, Oakland has to distribute this problem fairly,” Daubenspeck said.
That’s easier said than done if the district wants to stay on the right side of the law and the unions. Even if a particular school could be sheltered from layoffs, it would simply shift the problem to other schools. And since many of the highest performing schools in Oakland are those with more experienced staff in the wealthier areas of town, extra layoffs at those schools aren’t likely to be popular either.
Meanwhile, students at Futures are defying the racial and economic predictors of performance by scoring, on average, 711 out of 1,000 on California’s standardized tests. This is only 90 points short of the score of 800 considered proficient by the state, a score Futures students could well be achieving in the next two years if they continue to improve at the same pace. Over half of Futures students scored proficient or advanced in math last year, and 37 percent met that bar in English. For schools with a similar population, these performance numbers are some of the highest in the district.
“It’s not an easy population to work with, but families do the best they can to support their students and be here and do what they can to help them,” Meredith Iserson, a second grade teacher at Futures, said. “But absolutely these children can learn and have such amazing capacities to learn.”
Iserson has been teaching for five years, but this is her first in Oakland. With only one year of seniority here she is almost certain that she will lose her job come May 15, when the final layoff notices go out. “I think there’s some amazing teachers who have been teaching 30 years and they bring a lot to the table,” Iserson said. “On the other hand, there’s teachers who are newer to the profession who are just as highly qualified and have this gusto for teaching that some of the older teachers don’t have.”
Like her colleagues at Futures and her principal there, Iserson wanted to be clear that her primary concern was for her students, who face the prospect of not seeing a single familiar face in the classroom when they return next fall. It is for this reason, teachers there said, that the school has been so vocal in protesting the layoff policy that holds seniority above every other qualification.
The president of the Oakland teachers’ union, Betty Olson-Jones, said she feels for the teachers of Futures Elementary and that she plans to visit the school. However, she said, small school leaders — like those at Futures — that hired young teachers over older ones when they were redesigned are causing part of the problem. “When [the division into small schools] happened, many of the teachers who were there and who wanted to be there and were veteran teachers were not invited back,” she said. “And so, from 2001 through 2008, you saw a lot of veteran teachers moved into other schools.”
Olson-Jones said some of this movement may have had to do with monetary concerns. Principals are responsible for balancing their school’s budget, Olson-Jones said, and younger teachers are less expensive to employ. “You ended up with a number of situations where principals for reasons of budget, decided they wanted all new teachers on staff,” she said.
School board member Noel Gallo is not convinced budget has anything to do with it. He has watched the turnaround of a number of schools in his district and was the only board member to vote against sending notices warning of potential layoffs to 538 Oakland teachers this week. “I see a lot of seniority walking around with a lot of experience and I see a lot of failing students,” he said last week when explaining his no vote to his board colleagues.
Principal Daubenspeck says that Futures is not the only school with such a young staff in such a low-income neighborhood. In fact, 22 of the 28 schools facing the possibility that more than half their staff will be laid off are in the lower-income flatlands of Oakland.
Some of these schools have long been low-performing and are still places where student failure is more common than student success as judged by standardized test scores. But many of the schools, like Sankofa Academy in North Oakland and Learning Without Limits in East Oakland have made better than 100-point gains since 2007. And other schools, like Greenleaf Elementary and Think College Now boast scores that rival or surpass the performance of long-desirable hills schools like Kaiser and Joaquin Miller.
“Those schools that are going to be impacted directly are those where the students need more attention,” Gallo said in an interview about the layoff policies this week. “For me, it’s really easy to understand where the priority lies. The classroom is the most important. You can do away with [schools’ superintendent] Tony Smith, you can do away with Noel Gallo, you can do away with all the administrative costs: the bottom line is the teacher.”
Last year, the district did do away with a significant number of administrative costs. Layoffs affected everyone from janitors to human resource administrators. Overall, schools’ spokesman Troy Flint said, “We’ve exhausted all our other measures to keep the cuts away from the classroom. Those involved massive [non-teacher] layoffs last year as well as central office reductions of about 20 percent.”
Flint said the district had borrowed from itself, used one-time funds, drawn down its debt and dug into its reserves, all in the hope that “our legislators would come to their senses and not keep implementing these deep cuts.”
But legislators are going forward with the cuts Flint is concerned about. To further complicate matters, there is a plan before the state Legislature to put a tax extension measure to voters in June. If the measure is put to voters and if they approve it, OUSD will be able to avoid nearly half of the layoffs it is predicting now.
Whether the tax extension passes or not though, Gallo says Oakland has to change and adopt with the times. “The environment is different, the economy is different and most of all you have competition,” Gallo said.
Back in her brightly decorated classroom in Portable B on the asphalt play-space behind Futures Elementary, Meredith Iserson is getting ready for her students to show up. They will walk in expecting their morning routine of discussing the weather, making a fraction out of the number of tardy students over the number of on-time students and a brief yoga-like stretching session. Iserson is all business and a bright smile as students start trickling in. You have to judge each teacher individually, Iserson said, “but younger teachers have something really amazing to offer students, especially in schools like these.”