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Three schools, three visions, one neighborhood

on May 12, 2010

The three schools in the Golden Gate neighborhood are Santa Fe Elementary, a traditional K-5 public school; Civicorps Elementary, an environmentally focused K-5 charter school; and Berkley Maynard, an Aspire K-7 charter school. Each school has its own character and its own focus, according the principals of the schools and the many community members we spoke with.  Above you will find slides that take you through the raw data for each school, and below you’ll find a little information about each one.

Have more to add?  We’d love for you to join the conversation below!

Santa Fe Elementary

With 450 students, Santa Fe is a large public elementary school that serves a primarily African American and low-income population. Principal Carol Johnson began her tenure at Santa Fe in 2005 after 14 years of working for the Oakland Unified School District in one way or another.  She came to Oakland as a Teach For America teacher in 1991 and, though the program requires only a two year commitment from recent college graduates who want to teach in low-income schools, Johnson has stayed.*

Johnson said her vision for Santa Fe was that it be “a place where children and families can find the opportunity to, first, meet academic goals but also socially and emotionally look at the wholeness of the child and everything that entails.”

Of the three schools in the Golden Gate neighborhood, Santa Fe has the lowest Academic Performance Index scores as measured by student performance on standardized tests and other measures.  The numbers have been creeping up though and, according to the California Department of Education website, the school is meeting its growth targets.  A careful look at the slides above will make it appear as though the school’s 2009 scores came down from its 2008 scores, but the state re-calibrates each school’s scores when the next year’s data comes out to account for how the first year’s tests compared with the following year’s tests in terms of difficulty.  The scores show above are the raw scores from 2007, 2008 and 2009.  When recalibrated, the 2008 score became 670 out of 1,000 (instead of 690), which means the school’s growth between 2008 and 2009 has been recorded by the state as 17 points.

Johnson credits programs like Swun Math and her school’s art- and writing-infused curriculum with many of the academic gains students have made, along with the stability she and her staff try to offer their often transient students by encouraging parents to keep their children at Santa Fe even if the family moves elsewhere.  Johnson says that the needs of the community she serves are greater than those of some other school populations, but that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed.

“Every year we have students who’ve scored a perfect 600 on the CST,” Johnson said, referring to the California Standards Test students take each year.  “It tells us it’s possible.”

Civicorps Elementary

Civicorps Elementary serves the most diverse population of any of the three schools in the Golden Gate neighborhood.  Like the other schools, the majority of students at Civicorps (75 percent) are African American, but 12 percent of the school’s students are white and 9 percent are Latino.  In part at least, this diversity might be due to the school’s non-standard mission statement, which touts the importance of preparing students for “active and engaged citizenship” and to be “stewardship of the environment.”

“Part of the vision was that this wouldn’t be a neighborhood school,” said Yolanda Peeks, Civicorps’ interim principal, “but that people would come from all over for the mission.”

The school site, located in a building rented from nearby St. Columba Catholic Church, was chosen in part, Peeks said, for its proximity to the highway and the San Pablo Avenue buses.  Peeks, who was the assistant superintendent in Oakland when the school was chartered in 2001, has been on its board of directors since the beginning.  She said she thinks there is a place for charter schools in Oakland to serve as a model of what a public school can be.

At Civicorps that model is not focused on academics alone.  In addition to their regular studies, students care for their local park by picking up trash there and volunteer at a nearby elder center, according to Parent-Teacher Corps leader Dion Nelson.  It is programs like this and the focus on the arts that Civicorps’ leaders say set the school apart.

“We want it to go beyond API scores,” said Kelly Robinson, the dean of students.  “We have done well, but not fabulous.”  Robinson was quick to add that the school values academics very highly but suggested expanded metrics to consider both social and academic success.  This, she said, could account for kids like some she’s known at Civicorps “who found a way in through the art program,” for example. “We need a more profound data set,” Robinson said.

Berkley Maynard Academy

Berkley Maynard is located in the building that used to be known as Golden Gate Elementary and which served Golden Gate neighborhood school children until it’s closure in 2005.  At the time of its closure enrollment had declined to fewer than 200 students and test scores had sunk.  Now, Berkeley Maynard boasts some of the highest scores in Oakland and serves 450 students at its K-7 Golden Gate campus.

“Academics is our main push,” said Christine Landry, the school’s principal.  “[We’re] preparing kids for college — it’s not ‘If I go,’ but ‘When I go,'” Landry said.

The hallways of Berkley Maynard are lined with large flags that poke out above each classroom door proclaiming the name of the college or university the teacher inside attended.  Classes are even identified by the college name above their classroom: “CSU Sacramento,” say, instead of the old fashioned “Room 3B.”  Much of this is a standard part of being one of Aspire’s 21 California charter schools.  Berkley Maynard’s charter was renewed by the Oakland Unified School District this year despite protest from regulars at school board meetings who routinely protest the opening or renewal of any charter that comes before the board.

Landry, who began her career in education as a 1997 Teach For America teacher in Louisiana, has heard the arguments against charter schools: That they cherry pick the highest-achieving students, don’t serve kids with special needs and are an attempt to privatize education.  Not all the assertions are accurate, she said.

Like most charters, Berkley Maynard is a non-profit that receives public funding as well as support from private donations.  The school  has a special education program, something many charters do not.  The law requires the school accept any student it has room for. Admissions are lottery based, and not all of the students in the lottery come in as top performers, Landry said.  “We get a lot of kids who’ve had a really bad experience in school,” Landry said.  Though she said the results-focused school did attract students whose parents were particularly driven, “as many or more [students] have problems.”

Do you have a story to share about your experience with one of these schools?  In what ways are the data in the slideshow helpful for understanding these schools?  In what ways are they not helpful?  Join in the conversation below!

*Full disclosure: Like two of the sources in this story, reporter Lillian R. Mongeau is a Teach For America alumna.  She did not know Johnson or Landry before beginning to report on this project.  Mongeau completed her term of service in southern Texas. Slides by Jason Hirschorn.

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