Superintendent takes tough questions at teacher meeting
on October 20, 2010
Superintendent Tony Smith got personal while talking reform and student performance expectations Tuesday at the Oakland Unified School District’s Region 1 Teacher’s Dialogue.
Tuesday’s meeting, which was the third in a series of teacher outreach meetings being held this month, brought roughly 25 teachers to North Oakland’s Sankofa Academy. The dialogues are supposed to give teachers a chance to understand the administration’s vision and talk directly to the superintendent.
“For me, this is the most important work—to build relationships and be connected to teachers and practitioners,” Smith said. “The only way you’re going to build connections is to be out, around, and with.”
Smith began the informal 90-minute conversation, which he said had no set agenda, by talking about himself. “I realize that not everybody here knows who I am,” he said before telling the teachers that he lived just blocks from Sankofa for over ten years, and was once superintendent in Emeryville. ”This is home,” Smith said. “I really want to be the superintendent in Oakland.”
Smith explained the district’s strategic plan, a five-year framework that was presented in June and is aimed at creating what administrators are calling a “full-service” community district. Then he opened the floor for teacher questions. “We’re going to be a community schools district about coordinating, aligning, leveraging all of the assets in Oakland in service of kids and families,” Smith said of the plan, which has short-term goal markers and will be accomplished through more than a dozen task forces. “We have to figure out how, locally, to work ourselves back to quality.”
During the question-and-answer period, which comprised the bulk of the meeting, teachers wanted to know about initiatives to retain and hire teachers, how the district plans to translate urban education into a successful model, and the plan for better preparing students for college and the workforce.
One teacher wanted to know what the district was going to do to address high teacher turnover and bring in instructors who are committed to Oakland? “There’s not a good answer. It’s going to take time,” Smith said. “But, unfortunately, that is my answer. I am committed to a more sustainable culture for teachers. Yes, there has to be a salary increase. And, believe it or not, I’m busting my butt to get there.”
Another teacher asked how district administration planned to take the culture of urban education and make it successful. “We have this idea that our own story about ourselves is that we’re in a hole,” Smith responded. “We’re the most improved large urban district in the state of California. That’s extraordinary. That’s your work.”
In response to a question about how to better prepare students for life after graduation, Smith said, “The radical thing that we did in terms of the mission and the vision was put a period after all students will graduate.” He went on to explain that, next year all high school students in the district must be assigned college prep coursework. “You have to graduate from high school first. All the data that we’re looking at now says, if you don’t graduate from high school, it’s all bad.”
Smith acknowledged the district’s shortcomings as he answered. “I don’t think we’ve done what we can do to create the best conditions in Oakland,” he said. “I think we have to get out of the talk about school reform and talk about what’s good for our kids and how do we get out of it. Historically, that has not been part of the dialogue. I think we’re doing a better job now.”
Smith promised teachers he was there to stay after an era of high superintendent turnover in the district. Since 2004, Oakland has had five superintendents. “I’m not a career guy looking for different things,” he said. “This is about who I am and what I believe in, about creating the condition for kids to be well known and well cared for.”
Many teachers left the dialogue more optimistic about Smith and his plans for the district. “To hear that there is someone invested and someone looking for solutions to some of the problems that have existed for so long is refreshing,“ said Antoinette Bumekpor, a Sankofa third grade teacher who decided to attend the dialogue at the last minute. “One of the things I liked about him was that he was so transparent and he spoke of his humanism in a very authentic way.”
Isaiah Alvarado, a history teacher at Ralph J. Bunche High School in West Oakland agreed. “I think this was a good way for the superintendent to talk to teachers in a small group setting,” he said, adding that the district should conduct more teacher dialogues throughout the city. “I feel very optimistic that things are going to change and get better in our school district knowing that he’s here to stay.”
Ultimately, assuring teachers that he’s on their side was Smith’s goal in hosting the teacher dialogue sessions. “Every single week, I have to tell folks I’m not leaving,” Smith said. “This is home. I have a commitment. Whatever the question is, I’m going to take it on and engage in dialogue. That’s the only way we can get where we need to go.”
For more information about future Teacher’s Dialogue, please visit the district’s website at www.OUSD.K12.CA.us
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