Depending on who’s talking, the Oakland Unified School Distinct (OUSD) is either on the brink of success or failure—it’s making strides or it’s missing the mark. Parents, teachers, and community activists have fought for the last 10 months to have the school board’s decision to close five elementary schools overturned. That decision has spawned contentious debates, thunderous marches and a tent city built at Lakeview Elementary School with the help of Occupy protesters.
This round of school closures—which is supposed to save the district money—comes in the wake of a popular movement during the early 2000s that set up more than 45 new smaller institutions in Oakland, and was supported by concerned parents who wanted schools in the “flatlands” transformed. Large schools in the district were closed, or began housing more than one school within a single building or campus. (You can read more about the small schools movement here.)
But the district is now struggling to fill those schools. OUSD superintendent Tony Smith plans to reduce the number of schools in the district over the next three years. In October, 2011, the OUSD board voted 5-2 to close Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe Elementary schools and transform or merge several other schools.
The district is also still recovering from a state takeover due to the OUSD’s deep financial problems. The takeover lasted from June, 2003, to July, 2009.
Now, with the new school year approaching, Oakland North sits down with the newly hired Oakland Education Association (OEA) president, Trish Gorham. The union works as a bargaining agent for teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians working for the OUSD. They negotiate salaries, benefits, and working conditions. At least 2,600 teachers—including substitutes—are members of the union. They are famous for wearing highlighter-green OEA shirts to school board meetings and protests.
The previous OEA president was Betty Olson-Jones, who served for 6 years. Gorham became president this July. Gorham, an Oakland native, has taught in the city’s public school system for 30 years. As a child, she went to Bushrod Washington Elementary (now Sankofa Academy) in North Oakland. A graduate of Cal State Hayward, she began teaching in 1982. She taught at Kaiser Elementary for seven years, and worked for 23 years as a teacher at Bushrod Washington Elementary before the state administrator closed the school—on its centennial year—in June, 2005, due to low enrollment. (Sankofa Academy, which opened in the fall of 2005, was founded on the same spot under the New Small Autonomous Schools policy).
Gorham visited the encampment at Lakeview; when it was raided, she was in Washington, DC, advocating for public education and protesting with Olsen-Jones over polices implemented by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Here she reflects on where the district finds itself today.
Oakland North: Oakland residents have watched their public school district grapple with big changes, including a state takeover, a return to local control, and the shift to multiple smaller schools, for more than a decade. What are your thoughts about the years that have led up to where the district is today?
Trish Gorham: That’s quite a huge question. For one thing, we are not out from under state control. Yes, we have a superintendent. Yes, we have a school board that can vote on various items, whereas only the state administrator could approve [them] before. But we still have a trustee and it’s still the trustee that finally approves our budget, because we still owe money to the state.
We said—ten years ago when they started the new small schools movement with Bill Gates [Foundation] money—that this was all really good, but when that soft money dried up, where are we going to be? And here we are ten years later, not being able to sustain what they ran after earlier in the decade. So, we need to think. We need to have more long-range planning. We need to think about sustainability before we move on and get soft grant money and money from millionaires who have very little ideas about how schools are run.
Oakland North: What was your first reaction to Superintendent Tony Smith’s proposal for both an immediate and long-term drop in the city’s number of public schools?
Trish Gorham: The immediacy was the problem. We understand that we have had a drop in enrollment over the last 15 years. I understand that there are some schools that are not at full capacity. But the process by which they even had this discussion was totally flawed. It had no community representation. It wasn’t thought out on a long-term basis. It was rather haphazard.
When you don’t have a process like this that is so heartfelt to the community, there are flaws and inequities, where some whole parts of the city were exempt from consideration of closure where others seemed to be targeted for rather random reasons. So, when you begin with a process like that you lose all trust that the decisions are being done for the best interest of the students.
The idea that they have saved $2 million in this process, I think, is not correct. I don’t see how they’ve done that, especially with the cost of moving a thousand students and materials. It wasn’t worth it.
Oakland North: Didn’t that savings estimate change over time?
Trish Gorham: Yes. It went up to $6 million because that’s what those schools cost to operate. But all the savings of operation are not going to be wiped out because you closed the school. There’s still personnel cost. It’s just shifted to another site.
Oakland North: How should the union be involved in this debate over school closures?
Trish Gorham: Well, it’s not just the union. It’s the community. It’s the community schools. The schools are the center of the community. And that’s where the debate and the decisions should be made.
When the district put forth the figures of student populations, they only counted the students that were enrolled in Oakland public schools. They did not count for the number of actual children in a particular district. So, when you are making these kinds of considerations, everybody needs to have all the correct information and the discussion has to be long term.
The decision—even if the discussion begins with, “I think we have to close some schools”—then that’s where you begin the discussion. You don’t say, and you don’t dictate, “We’re going to close schools and these are the ones we’re going to close.” Have the conversation. We have been a voice. We have been a force. We were there at every school board meeting saying that the process was broken, saying that they should not close these schools. We were always there. We were leading—the green shirts. If anybody was around, they saw the OEA out in force defending these schools from an ill-thought process.
Oakland North: Do you think the small schools movement—which grew across the United States in early 2000—is why Oakland was left with 101 schools? Does the district have a legitimate argument saying there a more schools than it can afford?
Trish Gorham: One thing you have to understand is in terms of schools, you’re talking about sometimes three schools that were on one campus. So, ten years ago you had Lockwood Elementary. And then it was broken up into three separate schools but it was still the same building. It was just called three different things at three different grade levels. So, it isn’t exactly that we grew. We did not grow facilities over that amount of time, we just split up student populations. The idea that we had this explosion of facilities that need to now be reigned in is just false.
As far as a legitimate argument, they haven’t proven that to me. Should we have a conversation about maximizing resources? Sure. Maximizing facilities and concentrating resources. That’s a conversation that yes, we should have. It’s a realistic conversation to have. And when everybody has all of the facts we can have that conversation, instead of dictate. Then the community, along with the district, can make thoughtful decisions about how we move forward in the future.
Oakland North: What stance does the OEA take on the increased popularity of publicly-funded but privately-run charter schools?
Trish Gorham: The charter school movement, when it began, was a bottom-up movement to seek innovation. What the charter school movement has become now is just a way to privatize education. It is a way to split off certain populations—not have a unified, guaranteed, quality public education for all.
As we see charters now, definitely in Oakland, we want a moratorium on all charters. We want all charters to come under the same accountability as the regular public schools. If they’re called a public school, then they should have the same standards and be judged by the same standards. But in state after state, including California, they have a different standard of measurement.
What the people who want to abandon public education as a right want is what they couldn’t get through vouchers. Vouchers didn’t play. OK. The public did not accept public money for private schools. So, they’ve taken the back door into charters. Charters is just vouchers by different name.
Oakland North: How much does collective bargaining or teacher seniority play into your view of charters? Don’t these issues limit protections for charter school teachers?
Trish Gorham: There are many teachers in charter schools that are doing a wonderful job. They believe in what they are doing. They believe in the students. But some of them don’t even know they don’t have to work on Saturday. It’s OK to say you’re not available after 6 o’clock in the evening, in terms of rights. Yes, [charter schools] do want a workforce that will work more for less because in the end that increases the profits. Right now, it’s about profits in many many charter schools. Charter schools—because they have individualism—it is hard to say “This is everything about charters,” because they have individual ethos. But what I do know about the charter school movement is that it is a way to break up the public school system. I have no doubt about that.
Oakland North: I’d like to move into a hotly debated issue in Oakland’s school system: affluent neighborhoods versus the flatlands. Parents and community activists have argued that a number of schools in affluent neighborhoods in Oakland, usually in the hills area, have a diverse student population. But a larger number of parents in the “flatlands”—the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods of East and West Oakland—don’t have the means to drive their children to those locations, even if their children are enrolled in those schools through the OUSD’s options process. Do you agree?
Trish Gorham: I think it’s an unfortunate and a distracting kind of fight. Yeah there are different levels of economics in Oakland. Now, I taught at Kaiser, which was technically a “hills school,” and yet we had students from all over Oakland. We only had about nine families from the neighborhood attend Kaiser because it was a magnet school.
The driving to the school is—yes, 100 percent of people can’t drive to school, but most could. I think most have the ability to get students to and from a school.
Everybody should have the kind of school that Kaiser is—and, unfortunately, the reason Kaiser has a lot of [resources] is because parents raise money. So, inequity and funding I think is a real issue. Poverty is a real issue. How we overcome the effects of poverty?
I want to look more at early childhood education as a way to fight—mitigate—the effects of poverty. I think that is the one proven reform that does show in kids’ progress. So, given that, why in the flatlands are we seeing a decrease in early childhood education programs? That’s something that I’m asking. I’m trying to figure out why we can’t provide that service to the most needy of the population.
And going back to the hills verses flats—what we do need to do in all of Oakland is unite behind every child getting a quality education. Those who want to pick those fights, I think we have to resist them because it is to distract us from what’s really important—“Let’s fight about the location of these schools, rather than what’s good for all the schools.”
Oakland North: In Oakland, elementary schools like Peralta, Sankofa Academy, Emerson, Kaiser (which was saved from permanent closure last year) and Chabot are all considered “above Shattuck,” or closer to the affluent areas of the Oakland Hills. Parents say those schools lie within a geographic area in the city unscathed by school closures. Is Oakland’s school system heavily segregated in this way?
Trish Gorham: Well, Kaiser was on the list and it has been historically in the past on the list of school closures many years prior to the state takeover. Sankofa was named, that was the school I came from.
I would lay that marker not at Shattuck, but at Telegraph. Sankofa is below Telegraph. That’s why I just wouldn’t put Shattuck and there’s nothing below Shattuck anymore. Golden Gate was below it, which is now Aspire [a charter school]. Santa Fe Elementary was below it.
Just as a native of Oakland who grew up in North Oakland, Telegraph was a boundary line in terms of the prosperity and different neighborhoods. It was just different neighborhoods. When I taught at Washington—and I’m going to be real honest—there were two junior highs that our students could go to. They could go to Claremont or Carter Middle School. Twenty years ago, our kids were discouraged from going to Claremont. They were encouraged to go to Carter. Not from our school. We encouraged them to go to wherever they wanted to, quite frankly, but we were in the feeder district for Claremont, so most of them went to Claremont and there were real issues there.
I think that there is a problem with the lines being drawn and protections of certain schools. I don’t know why Sankofa is a K-8 when Claremont is a middle school. Where are those middle schools coming from, if there are no kids in North Oakland because they just closed Santa Fe? I’m concerned that there is some sort of demarcation taking place in North Oakland.
When you say, ‘This is where the good schools are. This is where the not-so-good schools are,” number one, you’re discounting a lot of great schools that are scattered throughout Oakland. I kind of reject that there’s only a certain area of schools that are great. There are great schools throughout Oakland. And where they’re not great, where they don’t have the resources to have everything every school has, then that’s what we should be talking about. Not moving to where they are [good], but everybody having the same thing. Having equity throughout the district.
Oakland North: Board members cannot discontinue the options process entirely, as the No Child Left Behind federal legislation includes requirements allowing parents to move their children out of failing schools. However, the district can aspire to more neighborhood focus on schools. Is this what the city needs?
Trish Gorham: I’ve always thought that schools should be the center of the community, yeah. That’s why I don’t understand in the closing of schools—you’re eliminating the center of the community. So, it’s a little confusing there. But that has always been something I’ve thought of—having services around the schools, having the schools open at night for adults. I’ve always thought that was a way to build a community.
Oakland North: What about the district’s choice not to close any schools in West Oakland?
Trish Gorham: That’s because they’re going to do STEM [a national Science, Technology, Engineering and Math initiative] in that area. Again, have the conversation. Say “We’re not going to do anything here, but we are going to do it here.” So if you really want to concentrate the STEM resources in West Oakland, maybe concentrating resources in certain schools would be more of a benefit then over all the schools? I do not know. We never had that conversation—where instead of four adequate science labs you have three fantastic ones.
Oakland North: This year there are at least 13 candidates running to become school board members. In past years, few people were pulling for these positions. Why has there been a surge in candidates? What are your thoughts about the upcoming election?
Trish Gorham: We went through an interview process last week of most—I think all—of the school board candidates. And what the interview team came out with was how wonderful it is to have a contested election with so many high quality, energetic people really caring about the city and caring to make change in the schools. It was really uplifting. Even though we were here until 9 o’clock four nights last week interviewing people, it was really uplifting.
So, what happens? You know, crisis often does bring out people. And bad decisions. The district and the school board have made some bad decisions over the past couple of years without proper input of teachers. The accelerated TSA [Teacher on Special Assignment program, where tenured teachers have to reapply and are not guaranteed positions at a school] is another example of things that activate people. You know, when people see real injustice and real unfair process they get activated. And actually the district, historically, has always been the union’s best organizer because they do something that gets people angry enough that they get up and they act on it. So, I’m thrilled that we have so may people that are interested and getting involved. Just getting involved.
Oakland North: Do you think the district needs to save money?
Trish Gorham: Funding is such a crazy thing to begin with. Yeah, we need to save money, but often when you have money from the state and federal government, if you don’t spend it you can’t save it. You can’t roll over money into the next year. That’s one of the catch-22’s of non-profit funding, is that if you don’t spend it, you’re not funded at the same level in the future. That’s what’s happening with the early childhood education, actually, in terms of decreased funding. So, where could we save money—or where could we use expenditures more creatively—is probably more like it.
I think historically there have been too many administrators downtown. The 55 percent [funding expenditure] rule that the state mandates goes to the classroom has not been followed by the district over several years. That needs to be more in line with 55 percent of the budget needs to be directly on classroom costs. Consultant fees are a tricky thing, but I think we could look at savings in the consultant fees, even though that’s from a different pot of money. … Often if you can save it in state and federal or Title I or monies for specific purposes, if you can save it there, then it will have an impact on the general fund.
Oakland North: What’s your reaction to the decimated Adult and Career Education program in the district?
Trish Gorham: I fear for the immigrant population of the city. That service, language-learning skills, job skills, our language learners are really dependent on the adult ed program. And I wouldn’t fear so much, thinking well maybe our community college system can absorb that, but they’re being attacked too. They’re being closed down, too. They’re shutting down services, too. So where do the young adults, and [people who are] career changing, and trying to learn different skills—I don’t know where they go. I mean, it’s just another example of us not meeting the needs of citizens in Oakland. It’s sad.
Oakland North: How can the district improve student enrollment?
Trish Gorham: You know where we start? We start with the babies. We start with early childhood. We give them what they need, we get them into the system and then they flow on to the schools that they’re attached to. So, you do begin with early childhood in order to increase enrollment.
You must address safety, because the one area where I think charter schools do guarantee—often better then the public school because they can eject students at will—is safety. The district has to, in reality, convince people that the schools are safe.
And there are things that are going very well across the district, the most improved district in California over several years. We have wonderful teachers. We have wonderful programs. We have wonderful students. If that word went out and people worked in their communities to really tell the story that’s happening within the school—because we get in there and we do the work and we do the work so hard and teachers are not the ones to toot their own horns. Those stories have to be told. The district could help themselves and give teachers a much-needed pat on the back if they really did advertise the wonderful things going on in the schools.
Oakland North: What are the biggest challenges facing teachers?
Trish Gorham: You have to understand that I’m new to this position, but in my experience the main challenges teachers have, the main reason they get burned out, the main reason they get frustrated, the main reason they leave, is administration. It is never the kids. It is the support they get by their administration and by their site administration and the respect they’re given by district administration.
On the district level there’s a lot of words spouting [about] how wonderful teachers are, but when you have not had more than a 1.25 [percent salary] raise in ten years and you are told that you have to reapply for your job because we’ve changed the title of teacher to accelerated TSA, when you impose the conditions of a contract that doesn’t give teachers much dignity, and it doesn’t uplift them to do the job that they need to do. So, what do they do? A lot of them kind of just hunker down into their own individual classroom. That’s a mentality a lot of teachers do just to protect themselves, and their own kids, and their own community. That’s one protective device. Getting active is another protective device to fight against the system when we all should just be working together to make the system better.
They don’t get paid enough. It’s expensive to live in Oakland, and unlike other urban districts over 65 percent of our teachers live in Oakland. They’re committed to the city. They’re committed to the kids of this city. And that’s not true in a lot of urban districts. There’s huge commitment to Oakland from the teachers of Oakland.
Oakland North: What do you want to accomplish as OEA president? Will you do things much differently than Betty-Olson did or do you consider yourself a similar leader?
Trish Gorham: I consider myself similar in many ways. Betty Olson-Jones’ legacy in this community and to OEA was to really create the relations throughout Oakland that really identified OEA as being a member of this community. It always has been, but she really put that forward every single day. We all have the same philosophy—the basic philosophy and goals.
… My personal role in the organization has always been to be an organizer. I’ve been a behind the scenes person making sure we’ve got the people to do an action, membership meeting or an event. So, I approach the role with an organizing emphasis, which means really getting the membership to participate, to understand what solidarity, not just union solidarity, but just solidarity at the school site, with each other, what it means and why it’s important. And why we need, in this day and age especially, to stand together as union members. So I hope that that’s what I bring.
Academically, I’m going to do everything I can to build early childhood education in this city because that’s where I think a lot of the real change is going to happen.
Oakland North: Do you have a protest history?
Trish Gorham: Oh yeah. I have a protest history. [She pulls out a picture of people holding a large protest sign] This is at the NEA, National Education Association’s, yearly meeting. That’s where Betty and I were when [the] Lakeview [raid] happened. It’s when we take care of our business—9,000 delegates—the largest democratically elected body in the world. We meet in Washington every election year because we always have the Democratic candidate for president come to speak with us. Always. But it didn’t happen this time. Joe Biden came and talked to us. And President Obama, two days later, spoke to us by phone when we were in D.C.. So, there had been talk about staging a protest because we are not happy with president Obama’s education polices, certainly not as implemented by Arne Duncan, who is the Secretary of Education and never has taught. So, when Joe Biden was just about to speak we stood up with our “Dump Duncan” signs.
Oakland North: What are your thoughts about the Lakview sit-in?
Trish Gorham: I think it was extremely important that the parents, the teachers, the community, how they came together to give a voice. Actions don’t always lead to the desired results, but the idea that they gave a voice to the frustration, to the problem, they spoke about why school closures were not the answer in short or long-term. They spoke to why this is just another encroachment and another way that we can privatize and balkanize the school distinct. … To elevate that voice and wake up a lot of the members of the community who had not paid attention to this issue before, I think, is tremendous. I hope Joel [Velasquez] stays a leader in this community and the education community because his voice is really needed. How I see the purpose of Occupy Lakeview is to get attention to the real problems that are facing public education and I think it did a marvelous job at doing that.