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Oakland school board votes to expand Life Academy, ends district use of Styrofoam

on November 17, 2011

A month after the Oakland Unified School District board voted to close five elementary schools, members voted Wednesday night to allow Life Academy, a small health and sciences high school in East Oakland, to expand to offer middle school classes as well. At a packed meeting that mostly focused on the district’s financial issues, board members also discussed the most recent state audit as well as a report on teacher and staff retention.

Life Academy is designed to prepare minority and low-income students for careers in medicine. Its principal, Preston Thomas, asked the board for a “grade configuration change” so that the school can eventually offer classes for 6th through 12th graders. It currently offers classes only for 9th through 12th grades. The school plans to begin offering 6th grade classes next year, and add a new grade each subsequent year.

The school currently enrolls 260 students, and would add 64 more to the 6th grade class next year. The expansion would also include adding a new science building, with an entrance facing 35th Avenue, replacing the school’s current parking lot.

“There are approximately 1,700 middle school age kids in our neighborhood,” Thomas said. “Kaiser is the largest employer in the East Bay area, [and] our mission is to educate kids for jobs locally. We see there is an opportunity to have high school students work and mentor other [younger] students.”

Life Academy’s expansion, though, may create a problem for United for Success, a public middle school that shares the same campus. (Before the two were established, the building previously housed Calvin Simmons Middle School). United for Success teaches 6th through 8th grade and has just over 400 students enrolled this year.

During the meeting, board member Alice Spearman (District 7), expressed concern about United for Success losing enrollment if Life Academy expands. “Once we create this 6th grade class, the other school is going to die,” said Spearman, who was in New Orleans and participated via conference call.And that’s a pattern that we have. And if so, why don’t we just do it?”

“Why can’t United for Success be the incoming class for Life Academy?” she added.

“This was one of the big concerns that I had,” said Thomas, of the possible effect on United For Success. “I’m committed that both schools are viable for the community.”

During the meeting other board members objected to further discussion of United for Success without having representatives from the school present.  “We’ve been battered the last few months about community process,” said board member Jumoke Hodge (District 3), referring to the district’s controversial decision to close five schools in an effort to save $2 million. “I don’t want to be on record that were having a conversation about merging United for Success. You don’t have this conversation without them here for this dialogue.”

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to approve the Life Academy expansion. “I will support it,” said board member Gary Yee (District 4). “I wish Life Academy and all the middle schools well.”

“I’m really excited about this, when looking at the social justice issues involved, communities of color in Oakland, their academic and social life,” said Hodge.

According the OUSD’s associate superintendent, Brigitte Marshall, and findings from their “operational expectation” report, the district has a hard time retaining special education teachers.

Also at the meeting, Brigitte Marshall, the OUSD’s newly hired associate superintendent, presented a 2011-12 compliance review of the district’s “operational expectations” in retaining teachers and school staff.

According to the report, this year the OUSD hired 212 new teachers; most of them were not hired through a recruitment program. According to the report, 47 percent of new hires leave after 2 years and 75 percent have left the classroom after 5 years. “[Employee] retention data is very poor right now,” Marshall said. “We have achieved full staffing on the first day of school, but the philosophy that drove recruitment focused on getting that, as opposed to keeping teachers long-term.”

In particular, she said, special education was not fully staffed. “We have an inability to recruit and retain staff in those areas,” Marshall said. Marshall suggested the board work with teachers “to make this a place they want to continue working.”

David Supan, the state’s audit manager, gave a presentation on the state’s most recent audit of the district’s finances, and said that the last time audit data had been compiled for the district was for the 2007-08 school year. “I recognize that it’s old,” Supan said, reading through the report, which included data on charter schools that have since been closed.

Meeting attendee Joel Velasquez, a father with one son attending Lakeview Elementary, near Lake Merritt, turned to people near his seat, “Are you all hearing this?” he said.

People in the audience shook their heads. “Were going down the tube again,” replied a woman who identified herself as Ms. Cox.

The district pays $400,000 a year for its audit services. “What does this say about our finances?” asked board member Noel Gallo (District 5). “Under the California state ed code every district should have an annual audit and we are still dealing with ‘07-‘08. Why is there that big gap?”

According to Supan, the audit report is 430 pages long and takes 12 to 16 months to complete, so there have been delays between the end of one audit and the start of another. Supan said that going forward he would skip the intervening years since 2007-08 and begin a new audit for 2010-11. He expects that to be done by the end of July, 2012.

In other board business, members agreed to pay $32,550 a year to Sysco—one of the largest institutional food service providers in the country—to keep Styrofoam out of Oakland lunchrooms. The district will pay to replace Styrofoam trays with more expensive compostable ones.

According to district’s director of nutrition services, Jennifer LeBarre, a pilot program—already in place at schools that separate waste and use compostable trays—could be expanded to other schools. Although getting rid of Styrofoam costs money, “We are measuring school savings in reduction of waste,” she said.

“People may slam us for spending more money,” said Hodge, supporting the plan to cut Styrofoam use. “But some young people may be proud of us.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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