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School board considers charter petitions for two schools in East Oakland

on February 24, 2011

As part of a packed agenda, on Wednesday night the Oakland school board heard presentations from two East Oakland charter schools hoping the board will grant them charter approval: American Indian Public High School and Aspire – College Academy.

American Indian Public High School (AIPHS) in East Oakland has drawn criticism over the years for its insistence on hours of homework and concentration on test scores, but current principal Claudia Walker said the schools’ stellar performance on both state tests and Advanced Placement tests prove the school is educating low-income children better than most Oakland schools. For this, she said, AIPHS deserves to have its charter renewed. “If you step into most AP classrooms around the country you’ll find them to be as segregated as most schools were in 1951 when Oliver Brown sued the Topeka Board of Education,” Walker said. Not at AIPHS, she said. Though the high school accounts for only 1 percent of the Oakland school population, 93 percent of the African American and Latino youth who passed the AP Calculus exam attend the small charter school. There are similar statistics for other AP tests, Walker said.

Alma Hernandez, a senior at the school, spoke before the board to urge them to approve the renewal of AIPHS’s five-year charter. She hadn’t wanted to attend the school at first, Hernandez told the board, but her parents insisted. The girl complained until finally she was allowed to attend a regular public school—one she didn’t name—in Oakland. She was horrified. “I could not handle not having homework to do,” Hernandez told the Oakland school board last night. Then she burst into tears. “I could not handle the disrespect among teachers and students,” she said, voice breaking. “I could not handle the lack of respect they had for learning.” Two days later, Hernandez said, she was back at AIPHS. Now, the girl said, “I know that taking the hard road at AIPHS is better than getting easy A’s at one of those other high schools.”

Aspire-College Academy is seeking approval for a new K-5 school in East Oakland. The proposed elementary school would be part of the Aspire network of charter schools, which already has six schools in Oakland. Together the Aspire students boast some of Oakland’s highest scores on the California State Test. For example, Aspire-Monarch Academy in East Oakland has an academic performance index of 774 on a 1,000 point scale. Aspire-Lionel Wilson College Prep boasts a 792 and Aspire-Berkley Maynard Academy (CQ) lists a score of 817. All of these elementary schools serve primarily low-income, minority students.

District staff and board members have 60 days to review the two charter petitions and make a decision about whether to offer renewal to AIPHS or approval to Aspire-College Academy.

The presentations by the two charter schools came after hours of discussion about the district’s faltering secondary school achievement. The high school graduation rate for the class of 2009 was only 59 percent, according to a report presented by the secondary achievement task force for the district. Maria Santos, who leads the task force, said the group had worked hard to gather not just performance data but also anecdotes from high school students themselves.

“What you hear form students over and over again, is ‘I want to be known. I want someone to care for me and help me,” Santos said. She said African American students and Latino students in the district were particularly in need of this extra support because those students consistently perform worse than their white and Asian counterparts, even when they attend the same schools. In fact, the task force’s report noted, the schools that produce the best results for minority students are small schools that cater to their specific populations like Life Academy, a small health and sciences high school in East Oakland. Life has an 83 percent graduation rate and sends the majority of its students to college.

“The challenges here are national,” schools’ superintendent Tony Smith said after listening to the report. “ This is not just, “Oh, Oakland.’” Smith thanked the task force for their work and urged them to continue searching for solutions like collaborating with local health clinics to provide students more support at school and collaborating with industry to create internship opportunities.

Another tough issue before the board Wednesday night was the issue of getting kids to school in the first place. The law holds school districts accountable for providing transportation to certain students, including special education students, students attending alternative high schools, students who have been “redirected” because their neighborhood school has closed, and students who have been classified as having uncertain or unstable housing. (Students who do not fall these categories are responsible for finding their own transportation to school.)

Adrian Kirk, the director of the district’s Family and Community Office, said the district spends nearly $100,000 per month, primarily paying for AC Transit bus passes for students and adult escorts for young or disabled students. Student passes cost less than half the cost of adult passes, Kirk said, but the district pays the full adult pass fare for each escort. Kirk asked the board to work with AC Transit to find an acceptable lower fare for these escorts, if possible. The board took the matter under consideration, but made no decision last night.

The board next approved a tricky financial maneuver to save some of the federal early childhood education money the district risks losing if they don’t spend it. The Early Childhood Education department is eligible for $1.4 million in federal funds if the money is allocated to caring for young children, said Lynne Rondenzo, director of early childhood education. If it is not, the department loses the funding, she said.

In 2010 the district had to shut down some early childhood development centers. Students at the closed locations were moved to other centers, but about 220 children have stopped attending early childhood development centers due to these changes. New facilities are being built in some of these locations and will be able to take the 220 children back when they open, said Rondenzo. However, if the department loses the $1.4 million in federal funding, there will be no money to hire staff to watch those children, Rondenzo told the board. To avoid this situation, the board approved sending the $1.4 million to an after-school program for toddlers run by the YMCA in Fremont, California. This keeps the district eligible for more federal funds in the future.

Finally, the board approved a resolution supporting the March 2 “Day of Action to Defend Public Education,” a statewide day of protest against funding cuts to education. Board members will host a teach-in at the state building in downtown Oakland at 4:30 p.m. on March 2. The teachers’ union will lead an informational picket outside of schools that morning to inform parents of the current state financial situation and students will march around their schools in teacher-led “disaster drills” during the day.

The board was clear that March 2 is not meant to be a day off for either students or teachers. This will not quell the vehemence with which the district supports the day of action, board members said. The adopted resolution states the board “believes that the current inadequate level of funding for public education and ongoing cuts to public education funding constitute a threat to the future of Oakland’s students and their families.”

Image: Armante Washington, a senior at American Indian Public High School, tells the board he would not be prepared for his future as an aerospace engineer if it weren’t for his high school.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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