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OUSD hears from students and teachers on charter school renewals

on January 14, 2010

Brandon Segundo was ready. The ten-year-old had cleaned his shoes, put some cream in his hair and practiced his speech at least ten times. He’d scrawled some notes – 1 min 20 secs, 1 min 5 secs – at the bottom of his typed speech. The last note was circled: “1 minute, exactly!”

A one-minute speech was perfect, because that was all the time Brandon had been allotted to speak in front of the Oakland school board as part of his school’s petition to renew its five-year charter. Cox Academy, an Education for Change charter elementary school in East Oakland, was one of four public charter school communities that came before the board last night with a petition to renew. The renewals were the primary event at this regularly scheduled meeting of the board in downtown Oakland, which drew an overflow crowd of more than 300 people.

Joining Cox Academy were World Academy, a K-3 Education for Change school in West Oakland; North Oakland Community Charter, a K-7 school on 42nd Street; and Lighthouse Community Charter, a K-12 school. Each school was granted 15 minutes to prove that it is financially stable, helping its students to succeed academically and adhering to the tenets of its charter.

After Brandon’s principal, Enikia Morthel, had finished her introduction, Brandon stepped up to the podium and faced the 16 adults sitting at the boardroom table. Although he later said he’d been nervous, he looked poised as he pulled the microphone down to his level and started telling the adults why they should renew the charter that governs his school.

“My favorite subject is science,” he explained, taking care to glance up at his audience at regular intervals. “I like working with Mr. Gannon, our science teacher. We do experiments and learn from the periodic table. I like learning about the periodic table and the different elements—liquid, solid and gas.”

Charter schools—there are 30 in Oakland—are a source of contention among many in the education community here. But last night, their supporters far outnumbered critics. Parents, teachers and students filled the boardroom and overflowed into an upstairs room where they watched streaming video of the proceedings. They held signs of support, cheered when their principals announced academic achievement numbers, and some even jumped up and down when asked by the board to stand and be recognized.

“This year, I got an award in English and math, along with my sister,” continued Brandon, who sported a bright yellow Cox Academy t-shirt and crew cut. “I scored advanced in both,” he said proudly.

Cox Academy showed the board that its students’ average standardized test scores, known as API scores, had improved by more than 100 points, from the mid 500s to 652 in 2009. The California State Test is measured on a 1,000-point scale. Morthel also noted that the school had increased the number of students scoring “proficient” and “advanced” on their state standardized tests.

All four charter schools presented similar improvement data, with World Academy noting its 2009 API had improved to 880, the eleventh-highest score in the district. Lighthouse Community Charter, the only high school represented last night, reported that all but one member of its last graduating class of almost 40 students went on to college. The one boy who had dropped out before reaching college is now finishing his senior year of high school, according to Stephen Sexton, the school’s lead presenter.

Back as the podium, Brandon was wrapping up the pitch for his school. “I’m pretty sure that I will continue to do well next year because my teacher and my dad both help me,” he concluded.

Many speakers echoed this sentiment. Several students and former students said they felt incredibly close ties to their school community and knew that teachers were there to help them. Alejandro Zepada, now a freshman at the University of San Francisco, told the board that he knew he could call, email or “even text” his Lighthouse teachers any time. “As a current freshman at USF,” Zepada said, “I can honestly say that without Lighthouse, I would not be where I am today.”

A few public speakers urged the board not to renew these schools’ charters. Board member Alice Spearman, who has made no secret of her dislike of charters, told the crowd that although she had enjoyed a recent visit to Cox, she wants the school to return to its previous status as Cox Elementary, a traditional school.

“You’re not going to like me. I want my building back,” Spearman said. She added that charter schools’ successes could be replicated in traditional public schools and that she was concerned charter schools were not fairly serving their neighborhood populations.

“I’m not the biggest fan of charters,” student board member Eric Adams conceded. “But you’ve got like 500 people here, and they are all telling us they love their school.”

No decision was made about the renewals at last night’s meeting, as the board has 30 days to consider the renewal applications.

In other business, the board agreed to sign the memorandum of understanding that would make Oakland schools eligible for any Race To The Top funds California receives from the federal government. California is expected to submit its Race to the Top application next week.

Superintendent Tony Smith opened his comments by urging everyone to see Oakland Tech’s production of Hamlet this weekend, calling it “extraordinary!” Tech is performing “Hamlet: Blood in the Brain” which is a reworking of the ancient tale set it in 1989 Oakland. It opens tonight, January 14, at 7 p.m. at the Oakland Tech auditorium.

Smith then said he had some bad news. The protected state budget released last week called for an approximately $2 billion cut to education, he said. In Oakland, Smith said, that will mean cutting $36 million for 2010-11, instead of the $28 million the board had anticipated.

By the time board members were grappling with this devastating new information, Brandon Segundo had left the meeting. Likely it was his bedtime, and as he went to sleep—speech successfully completed, science class with Mr. Gannon to look forward to tomorrow—the grown-ups talked into the night.

This article has been amended to correct an error of authorship.  Tech students did not write “Hamlet: Blood in the Brain,” they are just performing it. Oakland North regrets the error.

Image: Brandon Segundo, 10, tells the Oakland Board of Education why he thinks it should renew the charter for his elementary school, Cox Academy.

1 Comment

  1. […] a long session with the school board’s Teaching and Learning Committee, leaders from both schools appeared at a regular board meeting in January.  Dozens of school community members appeared at the January meeting as well, supporting the […]

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