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Oakland parents share questions, concerns with new superintendent

on October 1, 2009

There were homemade brownies and ginger cookies at the town hall meeting Wednesday, where people had gathered to meet and ask questions of Tony Smith, the new superintendent of Oakland schools.  School Board Director Jody London, who baked the goodies, had set up the event and welcomed the overflowing room of parents, administrators and district employees.

When Smith took the floor he said he saw his job as “the most wonderful, incredible opportunity,” and though he was honest about the immense issues facing Oakland’s school system, he was enthusiastic about the possibilities for change that exist here.

Smith gave an abbreviated autobiography at the start of his talk.  He said that he had been born to “high school juniors” in Stockton, CA, and had moved around throughout his childhood.  He said he attended close to ten public schools and had realized early on that his ticket out of that cycle would be to get to college on a football scholarship.  That he did, attending Cal in the late 1980s and playing offensive lineman for the Bears.  Upon graduation he said, “I had a brief stint in Wisconsin where I played for the Packers for a minute.”

The overall theme of Smith’s talk was that we all have a “linked fate.”  To ignore one segment of Oakland’s children would be to hurt all of Oakland’s children, he said.

His three-point plan for addressing this problem is to improve school safety and school culture, to work towards increasing high-quality instruction and to improve literacy for all students.  After he spoke, Smith opened up to the room for questions.

Hands shot into the air.

A father worried about declining enrollment.

A young woman, perched on a table in the back of the crowded room, asked for clarity on the differences between charter schools and traditional public schools.

A black woman in the second row wanted to know, “How will the district work harder at obtaining and retaining teachers of color?”

A mother and member of PLAN (Parent Leadership Action Network) stood up and echoed Smith’s statement that all of Oakland’s kids are “our kids,” but she wanted to talk about a difficult issue related to that assertion: the tension in the “hills” over whether “flatlands” schools were getting more attention because some of them were failing.  Some parents, she said, worried that if the failing students got all of the attention, their higher-achieving students would be left out.  It’s great that you’re here, she said, “But what kinds of conversations are you having in ‘flatlands’ communities?”

Smith addressed each question even though he admitted that he didn’t always have an easy answer.   He said that his first ninety days had been focused on listening and when he didn’t have an answer, he was at least ready with knowledge of the complicating factors brought up by each question.

Some topics, though Smith worked hard to be clear, were too complicated to be fully teased out in such a limited forum.  For example, Smith attempted to lay out the funding differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, but he kept having to back up to explain things like “ADA funding” (money that flows from the district to the individual schools based on average daily attendance) and “AYP” (average yearly progress as demonstrated by improvement in standardized test scores). **

Smith thanked those who asked the questions regarding class and race for bringing up such important topics.  He said that the district was working with Teach Tomorrow to help recruit more teachers of color and that he was doing outreach to and holding roundtables with parents across all of Oakland’s neighborhoods.  He talked about his own experience, as a football player, with realizing what a large part race played in the availability of an equitable education for students of color.

“We have to have a real conversation about race in schools,” Smith said.  “This is the work we need to do together over the next ten years.”

Hands were still in the air when London thanked Smith and began an open brainstorming session.  Participants were asked for their ideas on how to help the district achieve “fiscal and educational solvency.”  Marketing plans were suggested, fund-raising ideas floated, parent-to-parent mentoring across schools championed.  No idea was too small or far-fetched for this evening.  London wrote down everything on a large whiteboard.  The room buzzed with a sense of purpose.

Though the crowd did not walk away from the event with all of their questions about the rocky state of their local school district answered, most seemed pleased with their new superintendent.  Some spoke in glowing terms, like the gray-haired man towards the front who said, “It is an incredible breath of fresh air to hear our educational leader say that our democracy depends on the education of our children.”

As a line formed of people waiting to speak individually with Smith, Richard Foxall and Deb Levine, parents to a 1st and a 3rd grader at Peralta listed a number of things they liked, at least initially, about Smith (“How can you not like a football player that reads R. Buckminster Fuller?”), but perhaps most to the point was this summation by Foxall: “He’s the first superintendent in years who’s accountable to us.”

**To avoid the risk of over-simplification of this complicated issue, Oakland North will return to this topic at a later date when an entire article can be devoted to it.


  1. A on October 2, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for this post! Meant to go to the meeting but I forgot to write it down, and missed it.

  2. […] table by the door. “It is!” he said, holding up a flyer advertising the school district’s town hall meeting that took place on Wednesday. Gilmore pondered this a moment, and then thought out loud: “Huh. […]

  3. Lisa on October 6, 2009 at 5:51 am

    Informative article. I am curious why the race of only one speaker is mentioned.

  4. lrmongeau on October 7, 2009 at 8:18 am

    It’s a good question. It’s because she asked a question about race. It’s interesting that you picked up on that because it is a detail I asked my editor about. We decided it was a relevant detail in that instance, but I am aware of the possible implications of only mentioning a person’s race when they are other than white. This is the sort of thing we examine often in the newsroom, so I will bring up your comment with my colleagues. I will probably also post my response to you online so that others may chime in as well.
    Thanks for reading,

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

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