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School board, meeting at Chabot, honors volunteers

on October 29, 2009

“I choose tiny ways to help,” said Shelly Fierston, the mother of twin girls at Chabot Elementary, after accepting a plaque in recognition of her volunteer efforts at the Oakland Unified School District school board meeting last night. “I am constantly surprised how tiny things can create giant ripples.”

Every OUSD school board meeting starts with a short series of recognitions of parents and other community members who have performed exceptional feats of volunteerism, and now it was North Oakland’s turn. The meeting was held in the spacious new multipurpose building at Chabot.  The small crowd sat in folding chairs facing the board members, who sat at long tables at the front of the room.  The honorees were chosen by Jody London, the board member who represents District 1, or North Oakland, and who called each of them in turn to the front of the room to receive a plaque.

Not all the honorees were previously aware of the board’s new effort, led by board president, Noel Gallo, to recognize local volunteers at every board meeting. “I didn’t know that OUSD had a program that recognized volunteers,” said Fierston, a bright smile on her freckled face. “That you watch what we’re volunteering for and recognize us—how awesome!”

Fierston was recognized by the board for working to rebuild the Claremont Middle School library, improving the play equipment at Chabot, and being the construction liaison for the Chabot rebuilding project. “She probably should have a gold-plated hard hat for what she’s been through,” said London.

London added that Fierston was known for packing the “best lunches on campus,” including “chocolate chip cookies that are in a class of their own.” London—a great fan of cookie-baking herself—should know.

Donna Somerville and David Ichikawa, both parents at Hillcrest, a K-8 school, were honored for their coordination of the Hillcrest Service Program, which supports volunteer efforts at other Oakland schools. The program regularly draws crowds of 40 to 80 volunteers from among Hillcrest parents and students and has completed projects as varied as painting the stairwells at Madison Middle School to redesigning the outdoor space at Santa Fe Elementary.

Donna Somerville and David Ichikawa are recognized for coordinating the Hillcrest service program.

Donna Somerville and David Ichikawa are recognized for coordinating the Hillcrest service program.

“Basically, the idea of teaching our children by modeling to them that it’s our duty to be part of our community—to reach out and not wait for someone to say they need help, but to find ways to help—that would all just be a big idea if we didn’t actually do it,” said Somerville.

Parents Voncile and James Harris, and Phyllis and Tony Hall, were recognized for being founding members of the Oakland Tech African American Student Action Planners, a group dedicated to supporting the academic needs of African American students at Tech. Among other efforts, the group organizes tutoring sessions, pushes for increased parental involvement, and works to increase student attendance. The Harrises are Tech grads whose own children go to Tech now. They said they moved back to Oakland from Pittsburg in order to send their children to school here.

“As I thought of all the volunteer services that I did,” Voncile Harris told the crowd, “I got a little panicked, I got hot and sweaty—then I started to think, how did I find the time to do all this?” Voncile’s husband, James, shook his head and grinned at her as she went on. “The real lesson to that was: don’t think, just do it,” she said. “I feel with a passion in my heart that I want to give what I didn’t receive.”

Phyllis and Tony Hall listen as Jody London thanks them for their decade of service.

Phyllis and Tony Hall listen as Jody London thanks them for their decade of service.

The Halls said they committed to staying in Oakland when their daughter Kenya started at Hoover Elementary ten years ago. They have been involved ever since, explained the now 15-year-old Kenya. “My parents have always been at the schools I go to,” she said. “By being there they’ve helped me and a lot of other students that have been to those schools.”

“We just decided this is where our help is needed,” explained Tony Hall simply.

Also recognized were Dr. Tomas Magana, the founder of FACES, the Children’s Hospital Oakland program that trains high school students from Tech’s Health Academy about working in a hospital setting, and Keiko Chew, a kindergarten teacher from Chabot who earned this year’s OUSD’s 2009 Teacher of the Year award along with Peter Mates of Bret Harte.

After the awards were handed out, a number of community members addressed the board concerning the possible shutdown of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in West Oakland. The school is on a “focus list” of schools that the district is considering closing or restructuring due to either low academic performance or low enrollment. Two MLK parents, two members of the non-profit group Moving Forward Education, and a teacher who said she has taught second grade for twenty-nine years, came out to ask the board to keep their school open. All argued that the new principal, Roma Groves, was breathing new life and energy into the school.

“Please don’t take that school away from us,” said Will Delaney, whose granddaughter attends MLK, and who is the coach of the new chess team there. “Let us in that community bring that school where it needs to be. I believe we can do it.”

Superintendent Tony Smith thanked the speakers for coming to the meeting and encouraged people with concerns about the schools under consideration for closing or restructuring to communicate them to the school district.

“This is a quality education conversation, not a school closure conversation,” Smith said. “What’s the right strategy for us in West Oakland at MLK? That’s for us to decide in the next six weeks. I don’t have a decision made already.”

As the more than five hour meeting wore on, the discussion became focused on the agenda items relating to the budget cuts and the district’s academic goals. A number of speakers got up several times to urge the board to re-prioritize its spending and give teachers a raise. Board members discussed the difference between the phrases “effective teaching” and “quality teaching.”  Smith listened intently, but was critical of complaints offered without suggestions for solutions or clear action like the efforts celebrated at the meeting’s opening.

No one should be afraid to share suggestions about how to fix problems in the district, Smith said.  “I am already tiring a little bit,” he said, “of all of the challenges without recommendations.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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