At Sankofa Academy, fathers know best
on October 2, 2009
It’s 8:00 am in North Oakland. Parents hit the streets with their kids, headed for the big white building waiting for them at 61st and Shattuck. Some come by car, leaving their kids on the curb with a hug before zooming off to work. Some come on foot, SpongeBob and Spiderman lunchboxes in tow, leading their children beneath the old, faded sign that hangs high on the wall facing Shattuck. It says: Washington School.
Technically, Washington School no longer exists; it was one of the more than 25 Oakland schools that have been shut down or phased out since 2003. In its place is Sankofa Academy, which opened in 2005 and now teaches kindergarten through fifth grade. Sankofa is the result of a community organizing effort that has led to the creation of 48 small schools across the Oakland Unified School District since 2000.
Walk inside and see: 100 kids gather for morning circle in the school gym, hurriedly saying goodbye to their parents and joining their teachers, who are busy herding their classes into place. They take seats in a semi-circle at the center of the gym as the staff prepares to begin the day. Some parents linger on the outside of the circle, watching their kids catch up with their friends. And here, working his way through the ranks of parents, comes the handshake man. “Good mornin’, how you doin’? he says, flashing a wide grin. A gold incisor shines through an electric smile, its owner bubbling over with energy. His name is Wendell Gilmore.
Gilmore is one of a group of dedicated Sankofa dads who make it a daily ritual to not just drop their kids off at school, but spend anywhere from an hour to the entire morning volunteering on campus in an effort to help build the school’s sense of community.
“We’re growing as a family–not only our kids, but as parents and adults in the neighborhood too,” Gilmore said. The dads do a number of jobs during their mornings at the school–everything from talking with troubled students outside of class to providing security at the door. They go on field trips, attend sports games and help out with events at the school. Teachers say that parental involvement has played a key role in boosting student achievement at the new school.
“Because we’re a small school we have a closer community, and more buy-in from parents,” said Andrea Grubb, a 2nd grade teacher at Sankofa who has been with the school since the beginning. “If we can get more families on board to trust us and what we’re doing, if kids are learning at school and at home, their chances of success are better.”
Homework help? That comes tonight. Right now, Gilmore is on parent patrol.
“I think it’s really important that we all get to know each other,” Gilmore said. “I’m quick with the ‘Who Are You?’- If you come through that door, you’re going to get talked to.”
Having already dropped his fourth grade son off at the circle, he’s free to work the room. He shakes one hand and moves to the next—people he knows, people he doesn’t, doesn’t much matter—he just keeps smiling, keeps greeting until the morning announcements begin.
Monique Brinson, the new principal of Sankofa Academy this year, takes the microphone and welcomes the students to school. She’s dressed smartly in a suit and dark, stylish glasses, but her long dreadlocks and unabashed enthusiasm make her seem distinctly approachable. She’s the kind of person who would fit in at a boardroom or at a barbecue—and that’s just what Sankofa parents like about her.
“She communicates well with the parents, which is what we want,” said Larry Bailey, a Sankofa dad who was on the committee that helped bring Brinson to the school this year. Bailey works the graveyard shift at a parking lot in San Francisco and comes straight home to bring his fourth grade daughter to school in the morning. Then he usually volunteers for an hour or two before going home to sleep.
Bailey says that while he has a deep appreciation for the work of Sankofa’s previous principal, Brinson has been able to make a better connection with the community this year. “Respect is the main thing. Parents felt like they weren’t being heard before–but now it’s different,” he said.
This morning, Brinson recognizes two girls who went outside to pick up trash after school the day before, asking them to come and stand in the center. The entire circle applauds the girls, who smile bashfully as they return to sit with their classes.
Then a row of kids moves to the front of the circle for the daily practice of student appreciations. One Sankofa scholar, a shy boy no taller than Brinson’s waist, may not yet know his multiplication tables, but he is already learning to recognize the people who are invested in his future. He edges tentatively up to the microphone and begins to speak: “My name is Leonard, and I appreciate my grandma for taking me to school.”
* * * * *
Sankofa Academy faced turbulent times when it opened its doors in 2005.
“We struggled at the beginning, getting set up and creating the climate,” said Grubb, who was busy rolling up coils of paper that her 2nd graders had been using for a counting activity. In its first two years the school offered kindergarten through 3rd grade, as well as 6th and 7th grade. Many of the older students were brought in from Carter Middle School, which closed down in 2006. Grubb said that some of them had bad experiences there and had already become disillusioned with school, making it difficult to foster a strong school culture at Sankofa.
Sankofa’s early academic struggles nearly meant an early end for the school. California schools are evaluated by their API (Academic Performance Index), which ranks schools from 200-1,000 points based on their students’ performances on the annual California Standardized Test. Due to low scores in its first few years– Sankofa scored a 583 in the 2005-06 school year, and a 535 the following one–Sankofa was given “Program Improvement” status, a probationary label given to schools that don’t meet the annual requirements of No Child Left Behind.
As a result, Sankofa had to fight each year to stay open in a district that has seen more than 25 schools phased out or closed since the state took control of the Oakland Unified School District in 2003. In a tough economic climate–the district is looking at a $25 million budget cut this year–small schools are particularly vulnerable for closure. They simply serve fewer students, despite incurring many of the same costs it takes to keep a school of any size open.
This year, Sankofa’s total budget is $906,081, translating to $8,548 per pupil, one of the highest averages in the district. Compare that with a large school like Chabot Elementary in Rockridge, a school of 486 students where the cost per-pupil is only $5,034. Critics of small schools argue that an equal amount of resources should be provided to students across the district, and that small schools like Sankofa are an inefficient use of district money–especially if students at those schools are not showing improvement on the CST.
Yet while Chabot boasts a lower cost per-pupil average and higher API scores (hovering around 900 points) it is located in a much more affluent, predominantly white neighborhood where parents more often contribute to the school and take an active role in their children’s education. Proponents of small schools argue that more resources should be invested in the areas that are struggling in order to create more equitable achievement outcomes.
In the 2009-2010 API results released earlier this month, Oakland schools on average increased their score by an average of 19 points, outpacing a 15 point growth average across the state. But the achievement gap between African-American or Latino students and their white or Asian peers remains unacceptably large to district officials. “The performance levels of our white students is in the neighborhood of 900,” said Tony Smith, superintendent of the OUSD, in an interview this week with Oakland North. “Our African-American students are at 630. That’s an unconscionable gap.”
The staff at Sankofa believes that small schools like theirs, where the majority of students are African-American and come from low-income families, may be better equipped to address the needs of economically disadvantaged and diverse communities. “This is the kind of school we should support and invest in, because of the community we serve,” said Jill Guerra, who teaches fourth and fifth grade at Sankofa. “We’re serving a population that has not historically done well. … This is where the struggle is, and this is where we should be investing.”
The API results this year back up the small school supporters: eight out of the ten Oakland schools with the biggest API increases this year have fewer than 300 students.
“A lot of the schools that have been showing the greatest increases are these small schools,” said Sabrina Zirkel, Professor of Educational Leadership at Mills College. “Just making a school small won’t do it on its own, but having a small school allows an administrator to know the teachers and students in a way that just isn’t possible at other schools. … In areas where kids are struggling, kids need that extra attention from adults at the school site to help them navigate.”
In 2007, in addition to having teachers begin to incorporate more test prep into their curriculum, Sankofa made several changes that would help give students this extra adult attention: it switched to a K-5 model that allowed the creation of a more unified school culture, and reduced the number of students in each classroom. The school began ramping up small group instruction and after-school programs, and began making more use of the school staff and other adults at the school–like the volunteer dads–to focus on students who needed more help.
Principal Monique Brinson said it was important for the school to develop a community of adults who would encourage student achievement and learning. “This community is vibrant,” said Brinson. “All of its members—faculty, staff, students and parents—are actively engaged in the teaching of students.”
Sankofa’s test score turnaround since 2006 has been extraordinary. The school’s API score grew by an astounding 156 points in 2007-08. (To put that number into context, school officials had only hoped to boost their score by 13 points that year.) This past year, the school once again surpassed its goal, improving by 20 points. As a result, this year Sankofa was able to shed its Program Improvement status— it was one of only two schools in the district and 54 in the state that were able to accomplish the feat this year.
* * * * *
The morning announcements are over, and students have filed out of the gym and into their classrooms to begin a day of learning. It gets quiet. Then: a faint panting from outside the door, the jingle-jangle of a backpack as a student canters up the front stairs. A young boy hurries through the door and is on his way to class, but there’s something in his way. Five somethings, in fact: the dads of Sankofa Academy.
There’s Hines, a linebacker-sized man in dark sunglasses and a denim vest, with a cool voice like gravel. Though he’s retired, he looks tough enough at age 62 to work as a bouncer downtown. Instead, he stands every morning at the door of his 5th grade daughter’s school.
Then there’s Pedro Ortega, a 40 year-old construction worker who stops by the school before his job starts at 9 o’clock. A man of few words, Ortega has an 8-year-old son who’s been at Sankofa since kindergarten. “He loves it here,” Ortega said before leaving for work. While not all parents can stay for long, any face time at the school makes a difference for the dads.
“Everyone can give an hour a day,” is the mantra that Larry Bailey offers, drawing nods from the others. Bailey rivals Hines in height and seniority; he’s 61. But unlike Hines’ gruff voice, Bailey’s is fast-flowing and excitable. He has a disarming air about him, like a sit-com father who always has the right advice and will gladly give it to you, if you have time to talk.
That leaves Gilmore, the human handshake machine, and Jose Daniels. At 38, Daniels is the youngest of the bunch. “He’s still learning,” jokes Gilmore, who just turned 52. Daniels finds time away from his moving job to drop his two daughters–one in 5th grade, one in 3rd–at the school each morning and stick around for a few hours to help out.
You’d think that a lineup of men at the entrance of a school might have turned the backpacked boy around and sent him running, but without hesitation, he made a beeline for the group, burying his head into Bailey’s belly and wrapping his arms as far as they’d reach around his waist. Then he hurried off down the hall. “Get to class, now,” Hines called after him.
These guardians who stand at the front doors each morning believe that students need to know that they have the support of adults—especially men—in their neighborhood. “Kids in the community need father figures,” Hines says.
“Boys especially—sometimes with the environment they come from, they don’t want to listen to a woman,” adds Bailey, his eyes wandering to the stairs where a girl looked upset. “Sometimes they just need to know someone cares, just hear the words. A lot of kids these days don’t hear positive words, and they need that encouragement,”
While the dads aren’t qualified to provide classroom instruction, sometimes just being on campus is enough. “Kids just need that male figure. Sometimes all we have to do is stand there,” Bailey said. “At first my daughter was upset, because when I came into class all the kids said ‘That’s my dad, too!’”
He excused himself to go talk to the girl on the stairs.
“It’s always helpful having a male involved, no matter what,” said teacher Jill Guerra, a founding teacher who has been with Sankofa since its opening. “It’s important for our kids, seeing men involved in their education. Parent involvement doesn’t have to be in the classroom, people can get involved in a variety of ways.”
The Sankofa dads have been vocal advocates for keeping Sankofa open–not just for the kids, but because they believe the school benefits the entire neighborhood. “We’re concerned about Sankofa and we’re doing our best to keep this school open, because we really need it in the community,” said Gilmore, pointing out that the improvements at the school over the past couple of years have also led to decreased gang activity and crime in the area.
“The park here used to be gang-related,” added Hines. “Kids used to be scared. Now we got tennis, we got everything going on there. The school has really set the sights for the community to change.”
It’s no coincidence that the school enjoys another benefit from having a group of dedicated dads hanging around: security. “We the bodyguards,” Daniels said with a laugh. “If I don’t know you, you ain’t getting in here.”
* * * * *
A few minutes later, a car rolled up to the front of the school and a well dressed, unfamiliar man stepped out, striding purposefully to the stairs where the bodyguards waited. The dads glanced at each other. Friend? Or foe?
“Tony Smith,” he said, extending his hand to shake each of the dads’ hands. “I’m the superintendent.”
Gilmore turned to Daniels. “Is that the guy from the flyer?” he asked, excitedly walking inside and to a 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. Nice guy!”
Smith had come to the school for a surprise visit to a training session that morning. After a brief tour of the school, he had nothing but praise for Sankofa Academy and Brinson, its new administrator.
“It’s been phenomenal, with a former leader passing the baton to the person who’s going to take it to the next level,” Smith said, nodding to Brinson. “The kids are cared for and loved, and there was intellectual excitement in every classroom I just visited. I’ve got high expectations for the school.”
The Sankofa dads have high expectations of their own; they want their hours on campus to set an example for young ones to follow. “When you see what’s going on here, when you see a kid come in to school with no shoes, you help them,” Bailey said. “They know who you are, and they know you’re helping them for a reason–and you just hope they’re going to pass that kind of thing on later in life.”
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There are ways to volunteer even if you aren’t an actual Sankofa father. My husband helped set up the school library for this year. He worked at the school for most of two weeks. And we donated a lot of books our adult children no longer need. We don’t have any connection to Sankofa at all, but helping Oakland schools is a worthy cause.
One of the reasons that some white children do better in the testing is that many of them have more books and get read to more often. All children deserve to have access to books and to be read to and with.