Oakland will have a new charter school in the fall, but two schools that wanted to leave the Oakland Unified School District to become charters will have to stay. Meanwhile, two charter schools that already exist within the district will be around for at least five more years after the school board renewed their charters Wednesday night.
The Oakland Unified School District school board members spent more than seven hours in a contentious meeting Wednesday night discussing the fate of five charter school applications. The meeting was standing room only, with a large number of people watching on video in a room next to the meeting. Parents, teachers, students and community members from each school packed the room and applauded loudly, and then filtered out when their school’s application was approved.
The board voted to approve the application of 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community, a charter school aimed at African American young men that is slated to open in the fall. The board also approved charter renewals from Lionel Wilson College Preparatory and Arise, two five-year old schools that received five-year renewals. Each of those decisions was made unanimously.
The board also voted 5-1 to deny an application from ASCEND, and 4-2 to deny an application from Learning Without Limits, to leave the district to become charter schools.
Mari Rose Taruc, a parent of an ASCEND second grader, told the board that the reason the school is applying to become a charter is because teachers and parents want more control over the curriculum. “This is why we want to take advantage of the education that we have, that we’ve been succeeding with but have been constrained at our school,” she said. “This is why we have some problems between our school and the district.”
Director Noel Gallo (District 5) voted for both schools becoming charters, and director Jumoke Hinton Hodge voted for Learning Without Limits’ application.
But the rest of the board followed the recommendation of Superintendant Tony Smith in denying the applications to become charter schools from Learning Without Limits and Ascend, two of the highest-performing schools in the district.
Smith said that ASCEND represents “the best in the district” and said the district needs more schools like it. Leaving the district at this time, though, he said, would “diminish both our fiscal and academic capacity to serve all children well.” Smith’s recommendation noted that the school is in a building that was completed in 2006, and if the school left the district to become a charter it would cost the district $3 million. “Having quality schools in Oakland is what we’re shooting for,” he said.
Gallo said the cost to the district, or of the new building, shouldn’t be reasons to deny the charter application because “that building is for that neighborhood to serve those kids in that neighborhood, bottom line,” he said. “It belongs to those children.” He also said that if the board does turn down ASCEND’s application, the school could turn and apply to the county and state for charter approval. “And then (we) have lost all control,” he said. He encouraged the school to “not quit” and not give up its application to become a charter.
Gallo also was on the short side on the debate over the application from Learning Without Limits, an elementary school on 40th Avenue, to convert to a charter school. Smith, who encouraged the board to deny the school’s application, said the school moved into the newest building in the district this year, and that the school leaving the district “would not be in the best interests of OUSD or Oakland’s children” and called it “one of the most needed schools in the district.” The district would also lose $2.6 million in federal funding if Learning Without Limits became a charter.
Board member Jumoki Hinton Hodge delivered an impassioned speech in support of Learning Without Limits, saying the school deserved its independence to design its own curriculum. “I think one of the biggest problems we have in this district is that teachers aren’t allowed to be their most creative selves with our young people,” she said.
While those applications were denied, the board did move to approve 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, which Smith recommended the board approve with a five-year term beginning in July. Smith said the reason this application should be approved because the school is “investing in a population that is not being served, invest in children whose needs haven’t been met.” He called the district’s performance in serving African-American boys “unacceptable” and said “everybody must do something different.”
The application from 100 Black Men of the Bay Area was opposed by the Oakland Education Association, because, OEA president Betty Olson-Jones said, the teacher’s union was being “asked to consider some very critical waivers to our existing collective bargaining agreement, specifically around granting autonomies in staffing and scheduling.” She asked that there be further dialogue among whom the board, the OEA and the school about the details of the school.
However, the board moved quickly to adopt the charter. “This is different from the two charters we heard earlier, which have demonstrated success within the context of the district,” said director Gary Yee (District 4). “This is a charter designed to address some of the systemic failures that we have operated over the years.”
The board also quickly moved to quickly to renew the application of Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy, a high school on 105th Avenue. Yee said the school is doing “the kind of work we need to be doing” and praised the small school, which has about 450 students, for “setting a benchmark” for charter schools in the city.
A far more contentious application for renewal came from Arise High School, on East 12th Street, which Gail Greely, the coordinator for the district’s Office of Charter Schools, recommended be denied. Greely said the school is one of the district’s lowest performing charter schools, and schools in general, and has trouble retaining students. “Based on this analysis, we’ve concluded the school is not an academic success story,” Greely told the board, “and provides an unsound educational program.”
The Arise petition was the last of the night to be heard, around 11 pm, but the room was still packed with its vocal supporters. More than two dozen people signed up to speak on the issue and defend the school, mostly students, parents and teachers.
Arise principal Romeo Garcia said the school’s test scores improved over the last year, and the school deserved the chance to continue to serve kids that other schools in the district reject. School founder Laura Flaxman said that 27 percent of the students at the school have been expelled elsewhere, and 1 in 10 are involved in the juvenile justice system. “Our theory of action is that if we aim for college and really prepare kids for college, which we have done for some of the neediest kids in the city,” Flaxman said.
City councilmember Libby Schaaf (District 4) also spoke in favor of the school’s renewal petition, breaking down for a moment as she talked about the need for a school that serves at-risk youth in Oakland, especially following a year in which the homicide rate increased and three children were killed. “I think there’s one thing tonight we can do to try and avoid that,” Schaaf said. “And that is why I have sat here for four hours even though I have my own late night meetings to go to.”
After the motion to approve the charter’s renewal was approved, the crowd applauded loudly, hugged and filtered out of the auditorium, with some of many of the school’s supporters showing tears on their faces.