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School board considers new Waldorf charter, confronts big numbers

on November 19, 2009

The Oakland school board heard a proposal last night for what would be the 33rd charter school in the district.  The school, Community School for Creative Education, would be based on the Waldorf model and would be located in the San Antonio neighborhood, school director Ida Oberman told the board.

The proposed new school had lined up an impressive number of supporters.  Parents testified that the Community School would provide an option for kids to be taught as the “whole child.”  The Waldorf model, Oberman said, is aimed at  just that.   Students are matched with a teacher who follows them for the entire nine years of their K-8 education, and are encouraged to learn through art, movement, and hands on experiences. For example, Oberman said, kids learn botany by gardening.

Several detractors spoke against the approval of the charter, including Betty Olson-Jones of the Oakland teacher’s union and two members of People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, who challenged the Waldorf science curriculum and asserted that Waldorf schools teach the religious views of founder Rudolf Steiner.

“It’s contentious because of the resource needs,” Oberman said when the public hearing was over, “but we’re cautiously hopeful.”

The second big presentation of the night came when MKThink, the asset management company hired to review and assess the district’s holdings, presented its recently-completed report.

The report stated that 56 percent of Oakland’s school-age population attends Oakland public (non-charter) schools.  11 percent attend charter schools and 33 percent attend religious or private schools or are home-schooled.  In North Oakland’s District One, a much higher percentage—69 percent—of the school-age population attends public school.

“Is that low?  Is Oakland an anomaly to have that few kids attending public school?” Chris Dobbins, the District Six board member, asked after the presentation.

San Francisco and L.A. have similar numbers, replied the MKThink presenters.

Oakland superintendent Tony Smith, who has also worked in San Francisco, has said the percentage attending private school there has been around 30 percent for years.

Even if Oakland’s enrollment was increased from its current level of 38,445 to 55,000, its 1999 high, the district would still have 371 spare classrooms, the presenters said–so  one challenge is figuring out how to leverage those assets.  Two plans were presented.  One—the “High Efficiency” model—would consolidate the student population from their current 88 campuses to just the 48 largest campuses.  The remaining campuses would be sold or leased to long-term (up to 66 years) renters.  Given the strength of the small schools and neighborhood schools movement in Oakland, this proposal seems unlikely to gain traction, as was indicated by board members’ comments after the proposal.

The second possible model, MKThink presenters said, was the “School as Community Center” model.  Under this plan, each school site would have to work to make its site profitable by finding renters for its extra classrooms or uses for its extra land.  Examples of successful public-private partnerships, in which middle-income apartments were built on a school site in Los Angeles, were displayed in the presentation.  Suggestions for creating public libraries, for developing fitness and recreation centers and for renting a few classrooms to small businesses in need of low-cost office space were also put forth.

“This option would require the school district to be a proactive landlord,” Marijke Smit, one of the MKThink presenters acknowledged.  But it would also create much-needed revenue, she said.

In other business, the board voted against taking the advice of the district’s legal counsel in the matter of Board Director of District 3  David Kakishiba.  Kakishiba announced his resignation last month when a review by the same legal counsel found his board position conflicted with his position as head of a non-profit, East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), that holds contracts with the district.  Both the legal counsel’s report and the board members themselves stressed that no “back door dealing” had occurred.  Over the course of his tenure on the board Kakishiba has excused himself from voting and from negotiations whenever the discussion of whether to award a contract to EBAYC has arisen.

Early in the evening, after listening to another very long round of public comments, board member Jody London echoed the frustration voiced by Tony Smith at the last meeting with speakers who merely complained about the board’s actions or policies without suggesting a solution.

At any given meeting, a number of speakers will offer heartfelt pleas for the board to consider a particular side of an issue before them.  For example, a number of teachers and parents from Martin Luther King Elementary School in West Oakland have come before the board at recent meetings to ask that their school, which is currently under consideration for closure or restructuring, remain open next year.

Other speakers, however, use their allotted three minutes to point out the board’s failings.  Though this is their right as participating citizens, London asked that they turn some of that energy to the common enemy: the state budget crises.

“For next year, we need to trim $27 million from our unrestricted fund,” because of state cuts London said.  “That’s 10%.  And it’s going to get worse.  The governor is already talking about mid-year budget adjustments for this year.”

Later, London added, “The superintendent said that we are looking at cuts in the neighborhood of $100M over the next three years.  This is happening across the state.  We’re not unique.”

Public meetings might be a practical time to look productively for ways to do this, she implied, saying, “it’s time for us to stop arguing with each other and yelling at each other about this,” London said, “and come together to change the state’s priorities.”


  1. G on November 19, 2009 at 11:23 am

    A revolution in school is long overdue.

    So many problems have to do with unions, who block change.

    Down with unions, in with innovation, even if it fails at first. The bottom line is we need real change, which will take real risks.

  2. […] of a new charter school, the Waldorf-inspired Community School for Creative Education, whose supporters submitted a charter petition last October to open the school in the San Antonio […]

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