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"Please support our education and limit class size," said Pharroh Mosley-Katakanga, with his mother Maya at Wednesday's School Board meeting.

Superintendent reveals five-year plan to improve Oakland’s schools

on November 20, 2014

In a packed room during a school board meeting that lasted more than five hours, Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Antwan Wilson laid out his “Pathway to Excellence,” a plan that creates a five-year strategy to improve Oakland’s education system, and which drew a largely positive and hopeful response from the audience of teachers, parents, students, and community members.

Wilson, who has headed the school district since July 1, has spent previous school board meetings listening and observing, and has held over 80 meetings with students, teachers, leaders and community members to do get a sense of how to best move Oakland’s schools forward. On Wednesday night, Wilson spoke and heard comments for an hour and a half about the plan, which calls for the district to provide students access to high-quality schools and ensure all students are prepared for the future they choose, whether it’s going to college or working.

“I believe in committing ourselves to doing what has never been done, because we can,” said Wilson about his ambitious vision for the city.

The plan outlines three priorities: establishing effective talent programs through recruiting skilled teaching staff and retaining them with better support and higher compensation, creating an accountable school district with clear core values and better performance management, and providing quality neighborhood schools for students. For each priority, Wilson outlined specific strategies to make these happen, and included targets to be accomplished by the year 2020. For example, specific targets outlined in Wilson’s plan under the “quality community schools” priority include increasing graduation rates and the number of students in professional learning programs called Linked Learning. The plan calls for current graduation rates to increase from 67 to 85 percent, and to engage 80 percent of students in Linked Learning, up from 37 percent presently.

In order to engage Oakland community members, the superintendent created three committees aligned with these priorities and is currently looking for members.

After Wilson’s presentation, people lined up to comment, although by the end of his presentation at 10 pm, a crowd that had numbered in the hundreds had dwindled to a committed group of 30.

“You looked at us, you see us,” said longtime community activist Liz Sullivan. “That is such a gift. You’re coming in here and seeing the strengths and weaknesses.” Sullivan said she was “tremendously hopeful” about the plan and Wilson’s work, and her sentiments were repeated by several other speakers in the line.

Trish Gorham, the president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), Oakland’s teacher’s union, said 100 teachers came to the meeting at its start. The union is in contract negotiations with the district. She seemed pleased with the strategic plan and jokingly asked if Wilson had been looking at OEA’s bargaining proposal when he was creating the plan. The union and the district “have goals in common,” she said.

But members of the Education Coalition for Hispanics in Oakland (ECHO) and the Latino Education Network (LEN) responded to the strategic plan with concerns that it did not highlight the needs of the Latino and Hispanic members of the community, although it did call attention to the needs of African-American males, foster youth, and English language learners. Victor Martinez of LEN said that while the plan is excellent and he appreciated its targets and priorities, Latinos make up 43 percent of students in public and charter schools in Oakland. “It is unacceptable that Latinos are invisible in this plan,” he said.

When presentation and discussion of the strategic plan concluded, the board voted unanimously to approve it.

During an open comment session unrelated to the plan, many teachers, parents, and students spoke about class sizes and their desire for smaller classes, especially for students in special education programs. Parent Pouneh Trockle said she tried several times to meet with a teacher at Oakland Technical High School, where her child, who is autistic, is a sophomore. Trockle said her child had two teachers and four aides in the classroom last year, and this year has just one teacher and one aide for the same class size. When she finally did meet the teacher, Trockle said, she walked away from the conversation and “asked what I can do to help her. She said she was overwhelmed with her 11 students.”

Several parents spoke in Spanish about their hopes for reduced class sizes for special education students. The board listened to the parents and their translator through a headset system.

The meeting moved on to the discussion of an audit report for the 2011-2012 year, which found that the district’s financial statements “are fairly stated, in all material respects.” This is good news for the district, as the state controller was unable to issue an opinion based on the 2010-2011 finances, and there was no audit for the previous five years. The district hired outside auditor Vavrinek, Trine, Day & Co. to conduct the more recent audit along with the State Controller’s Office. These audits are required due to a loan OUSD has from the state.

One member of the auditor team told the board that the financial “books were in much better order” than last year’s. Board director Jumoke Hinton Hodge (District 3) said these audit results were “reflective of our growth and maturity.” She then asked the financial staff to stand up and receive applause for their hard work.

Also at the meeting, the superintendent resolved a longstanding controversy about the website Urban Dreams. The website contains optional social studies curriculum that can be used for high school students. It includes a lesson in which Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a police officer, is compared to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The curriculum came to national attention in April when Fox News covered the story and raised criticisms that using it is “akin to advocating violence to young students.” The site was taken down in April.

“I decided before I walked into the district that I was going to put it back up,” Wilson said. “You have to be willing to teach controversial topics, to analyze both sides of the issue. … Our job is to present students with perspectives.” Wilson said the curriculum was analyzed by the district and held up to the Common Core, a set of academic standards being used in the majority of states, and the material is “fair to strong” in how it holds up to the standards of Common Core.

Craig Gordon, a retired teacher who used the curriculum, responded to the news that the website had been restored by saying during the public comments: “It’s about time, it should never have come down.”

In other school board business, representatives from Aspire Public Charter Schools petitioned for the renewal of the charter for the Berkley Maynard Academy in North Oakland, which offers kindergarten through 8th grade classes. The school celebrates its 10th year anniversary this year and Area Superintendent Kimi Kean said 100 percent of graduating seniors among those who graduate from the charter organization’s high schools have been accepted into four-year colleges.

Board member Jody London, who represents district 1 where Berkley Maynard is located, expressed concern about the school not being easy enough to get into for families along the surrounding San Pablo Avenue corridor. Kean acknowledged that Berkley Maynard has over 200 students on their waitlist and that most of those students are Oakland residents. She also said 50 percent of students are from West Contra Costa County.

As the hour grew late and the crowd thinned, custodians folded chairs and district staffers gave updates on the district’s asset management plan. Their report stated that 65 percent of classrooms are underutilized, meaning that those classrooms are not “loaded with the maximum number of students” possible, and of the 60,000 school-aged children in Oakland, 37,000 attend the district’s public schools.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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