The Oakland Unified School District is in a unique position to “engage some different kind of thinking” and “be the hub for all education in the city,” Superintendent Tony Smith told a group of educators, parents and community members on Tuesday night.
Smith was speaking about “hot topics in Oakland education” at an event hosted by Great Oakland Public Schools, a nonprofit education advocacy group, in the gymnasium of Edna Brewer Middle School on 13th Avenue.
Smith addressed controversial topics like the “Acceleration Teacher on Special Assignment” position that was created at three schools, which extends the school year there by a month. He also spoke about ”partnership schools”—charter schools that retain a close relationship with the district, the district’s budget and role in the city, as well as about how those who work for the district can do a better job of educating kids, especially young African American male students.
Smith said that while the school district has made great strides in his three years as superintendant, it still needs to make “different choices” and “break some bad habits” in order to improve the system, particularly OUSD’s 55 percent graduation rate.
“They way we’ve all been behaving has produced the outcomes we’ve got,” Smith said, and then slowly repeated himself. “So unless we’re going to make some different choices, and make some hard choices and stand together and break some bad habits, we’ll see a reproduction of the pattern we have right now.”
Though he pointed out that the district is “still recovering” from having to pay off a $6 million annual payment to the state related to its 2003 bailout loan, Smith said because the district is under “local control” now, district leaders can make decisions together on how to improve the state of schools in the city.
One way of to do that, Smith said, are the new “partnership” schools at two district elementary schools, which will become charter schools but will stay close to the district and continue to pay it for things like custodial service. Applications from ASCEND and Learning Without Limits were recently approved by the OUSD board. Smith said that leaders from other charter and district schools have asked about creating a similar program at their schools. “It’s basically saying, we need to create high quality public schools in every neighborhood, for every child regardless of public, private charter,” Smith said. “We need a vision of healthy kids, and we need that across the city.”
Smith also said the district leaders need to “re-think” high school to improve the graduation rate and send more kids to college. He said extending the year bya month at three high schools—Fremont, Castlemont and McClymonds—is needed to “support kids and staff” at those schools, which are among the lowest performing schools in the district, and make sure more are graduating from high school. “We are setting our kids up for failure,” Smith said in response to a question from a teacher. “And we have a limited amount of time.”
To extend the school year, though, and stay in compliance with the teachers’ union contract, Smith had to create new teaching positions, called “acceleration teacher on special assignment.” Smith maintained the “acceleration TSA” is in the district’s contract with the Oakland Education Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers, and is needed because small schools on those campuses are being reduced to one school.
“We need longer [years], teachers paid for that time and a structure that’s common and expected across these three high schools,” he said.
The union is staunchly against the “acceleration TSA” position, according to president Betty Olson-Jones, who was present at Smith’s talk on Tuesday night. The Oakland Education Association has filed a lawsuit against the district over the new position because it is “not within the confines of [union’s] contract” by requiring teachers at those schools to now apply for the TSA position in order to keep teaching there. Olson-Jones said the contract allows for teachers at closing schools to “follow their students” based on seniority and other qualifications. “They effectively wiped that out,” Olson-Jones said. “Well, they think they have.”
Smith also fielded questions from teachers on how the district can do a better job of retaining them. Smith said that more all around support is needed so teachers don’t feel like “they have to do everything” and that balancing the budget will help the district get a solid economic foundation in order to be able to pay teachers and principals more when conditions improve. “Across the board, compensation for teachers and principals has to improve, and I recognize that,” Smith said. “So part of being balanced is that when new revenue comes, we can put it directly to compensation and have a career ladder that’s much more meaningful.”
That would be welcome news for teachers like Emily Sachs, a resource specialist at Redwood High School. Sachs said while she understands that Smith said the district “can’t make excuses about what we don’t have,” she also pointed out that “teaching at the same time is a very difficult job. I question everyday if I can keep going.”
Still, Sachs said, “there is a lot to be celebrated” and praised Smith for his handling of the district’s finances. There were no mid-year budget cuts this year, such as teacher layoffs.
“That’s something new for Oakland,” she said. “To have someone who’s careful about how we’re spending our money.”