You Tell Us: Something good is happening at Westlake Middle School
on November 12, 2010
A recent experience transformed my view of Oakland schools. I participated in the Principal for a Day program at the Westlake Middle School. I met an outstanding young principal, Misha Karigaca, and shadowed him throughout the morning.
I arrived at 8:00 and “Mr. K,” as the students affectionately refer to him, greeted me at my car with a big smile. As we walked around the school, students ran up to him; some had problems, but most just wanted to connect with him. He greeted them with warm welcomes, encouragement and when appropriate, firm words: “Pull up your pants, young man.” “Handle your business, young lady.” “Get to class.”
I could sense a special relationship between these kids and Mr. K. Many of these young people live in broken homes and rank poverty. Mr. K is their father figure, the rock in their otherwise dysfunctional lives.
Westlake has two security guards. They, the principal and assistant principals strategically station themselves at key intersections throughout the school when classes change. All of the teachers greet the students at their classroom doors.
For five minutes or so when periods change, the school is in frenzied, yet controlled chaos. Then suddenly all is quiet. The students are seated in their classrooms doing their schoolwork. This transition is remarkable and achieved by a simple yet brilliant strategy.
When the transitional period begins the students have an assignment that is clearly posted on the board. Each student sits at his/her desk and quietly performs the task for the day. The assignment tells them the problem to be solved and the point they are supposed to learn from it. This transitional period quiets the class, gets the students into a learning mode, and lets the teacher get control so the students are ready to learn.
Teachers and educators who know this process may not think this is such a big deal, but to me it was amazing. I convene board meetings where it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get everyone ready to hold a productive meeting – and I am dealing with extreme achievers who know the value of time.
The day also had its incident. One student came to school with a BB gun that he “found at the bus stop.” Mr. K told me it is amazing how much stuff students find “at the bus stop.”
I now better understand the challenges that the schools and students face. Oakland students have needs that go far beyond learning to read and write. Many have traumatic lives at home, and on Oakland streets they experience violence that we only read about. To get them into a learning state of mind, Mr. K and his band of warriors have to address their physical, emotional, nutritional and spiritual needs before they can bother them with mundane issues like how to add and subtract.
Mr. K told me that some get to middle school and don’t know how to read; some don’t even know when a book is upside down. He told me about a brilliant young student who tested at the highest levels, but who had such a history of violence and crime – his mother forced him and his brothers to burglarize houses – that he had to hold special sessions to try to reach him. But how can he do that every day when he has charge of 650 kids?
At Westlake every adult that I met was genuinely committed to the children. The security guards, teachers, administrators and the career counselor who came from off-site to teach the principal and teachers how to improve their performance, all seemed to have one goal in mind – help these kids.
I don’t know what happens everyday in other schools. I am quite sure that there is much room for improvement. But yesterday, I saw something true and good happening at Westlake, and it made me hopeful that if we encourage and support the Mr. K’s of Westlake and other schools, these kids have a chance.
As Mr. K said, “A school is only as good as its community and a community is only as good as its schools.” This community is well served by Westlake and Mr. K and we need to support their efforts.
Gregory McConnell is the president and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition.
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