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Performance, charter school renewal are priorities at school board meeting

on February 25, 2016

Wednesday night’s Oakland school board meeting started off sparsely populated; board president James Harris joked that it would be a short meeting. But within two and a half hours, it was standing room only, as parents filed in to attend a special meeting on charter schools’ performance measures and two charter renewals.

The meeting began with a joint presentation made by representatives from the groups Latino Men and Boys (LMB) and African-American Female and African-American Male Achievement (AAMA). As part of the Superintendent’s Report, which is presented at every school board meeting, representatives from the two groups, which work closely with Latino and African-American students to increase graduation rates by providing more culturally-relevant curriculum and providing academic support, went over their initiatives, data and future goals.

Paul Flores, the LMB representative, reported data they had collected between September, 2011 and June, 2015. They noted a 400 percent increase in participants’ usage of school-based health centers, a 500 percent increase in parent attendance in school-based activities, an increase in participant average GPA from 1.8 to 2.2, a 66 percent decrease in participants’ recorded disciplinary incidents, and that 75 percent of eligible students had been placed in summer jobs and that participants had an average school attendance rate of 97 percent. Chris Chatmon, who leads the AAMA work, did not present as much quantitative data, but said that “we’re going to ensure that our kids have access to the most academically rigorous career pathways,” to loud applause.

This report sparked discussion among board members about the importance of collaboration between communities that have been historically underserved in schools. Harris said he has no patience for divisiveness. “The same blood that’s spilled in Latino streets is spilled in African American streets,” he said. “And we don’t have time for the foolishness.”

Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6) and Director Jody London (District 1) brought up Asian and Pacific Islander students, asking how the district was tracking the performance of these students and ensuring that they are on track for graduation and college.

“I know that that is a really neglected population in Oakland,” said Gonzales.

Superintendent Antwan Wilson answered that his department would look into it in the same way they did in forming LMB and AAMA. These organizations were founded by the superintendent’s office as a way to address declining graduation rates among these two groups. But, he said, “We are not going to be able to segment every population across the district.”

Families began to trickle in at 7 p.m., and, by 7:30, the previously-nearly-empty auditorium was filled to the bursting point, with audience members sitting on the floor, sharing chairs and standing against the walls. At this time, the regular meeting was paused for a special meeting regarding charter schools.

Silke Bradford, the director of quality diverse providers for the OUSD office of charter schools, spoke about agreements that Oakland’s charter administrators have made with the district for measurement indexes, which are ways to measure student achievement and overall school performance. As part of a collaborative effort with the district, 79 percent of charter schools had agreed to standardize ways to assess schools, in order to better compare charter schools to other district campuses. These assessments, called Measurable Pupil Outcomes (MPOs), include statewide testing and reading benchmarks, English Learner progress, tracking chronic student absences, measuring graduation rate and making sure that student and family opinions and suggestions are heard by administrators and faculty family survey usage.

The MPO plan is new, so Bradford did not have data to present on how the schools were preforming.

Board members had questions, especially regarding why 21 percent of schools had not adopted the MPOs. Bradford responded that they already had their own student performance metrics in place, and did not want to change.

London asked if, once these metrics were put in place, the school district would be able to see an “apples-to-apples” comparison between charter schools and district schools. Bradford said that at the moment they were transitioning to the new system, but once the new MPOs were in place, for the charters that had agreed to use them, it would be a “near-apples-to-apples comparison.”

In the second part of the special meeting, administrators from Vincent Academy, American Indian Public Charter School and American Indian Public High School petitioned for charter renewals. Both of these were routine renewals, that take place for charter schools every five years.

When Kate Nicol, principal of Vincent Academy, took the stand, a crowd of children and families in red shirts reading “VICTORS have West Oakland PRIDE!” let loose with a cheer. Students, teachers and parents spoke in support of the school.

Vincent Academy was established in 2011 as a charter school option for the community in West Oakland. This school year, the school moved to a new facility on the corner of Chestnut and 26th Street in West Oakland, thanks to a partnership with BRIDGE Housing, a non-profit housing developer.

Parent Brandon Dawkins said that when he moved to West Oakland, he was looking for a place to send his children where they could feel safe. “One of Vincent Academy’s mottos is ‘College is our dream, and college is our goal.’ And that’s where I want my kids to go,” he said.

Most board members were favorable towards the charter school’s renewal petition, but also asked for Vincent Academy to work more with district public schools to improve the community schools as well. “My hope is that you all will pull together with West Middle School and McClymond’s High School,” said London, “to make sure that those are the schools that will meet your students’ needs and your families’ expectations going forward.”

Student board director Darius Aikens echoed this sentiment. “I want to see this energy that you all have,” he said, gesturing at the Vincent Academy community members, “put forth towards West Middle School and McClymond’s High School.”

Gonzalez compared the statistics shown in the Vincent Academy renewal application to those she’s seen in other applications in the past. “What you typically will see is a declining rate of free and reduced lunch, and a declining rate of IEPs,” she said, referring to Individualized Education Plans, which set specific goals for students in special education programs. “And I really see a commitment to serving that community, because here I see an increasing rate,” she concluded.

The testimonies from parents and students drew some sharp comments from frequent board meeting attendees. Mike Hutchinson said, “It breaks my heart to hear that parents feel they have to look outside the public school system to get a quality education.”

The vote for this charter’s renewal will most likely occur at the school board meeting on March 23.

The other charter school petition for renewal took longer. The school community that came out in support of American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) and American Indian Public High School (AIPHS)—collectively known as American Indian Model Schools (AIMS), along with American Indian Public Charter School II (AIPCS II), the other part to their triad—was even larger than that of Vincent Academy, and they also had donned red shirts as a sort of uniform. Their school superintendent, Maya Woods-Cadiz, along with Head of School David Chiu, presented a report on the school’s commitment to serving underserved communities and small-school, family-style approach to teaching, in which teachers moving between classes instead of students rotating.

The last five years have been somewhat tumultuous for AIMS. AIPCS was founded in 2000, followed by AIPHS and AIPCS II, and soon became known for students’ high test scores. But in September, 2012, OUSD board members gave AIMS administrators a 1,080 page notice of violations stemming from allegations of fiscal misconduct. The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) conducted an audit at the behest of the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools, and concluded that Ben Chavis, founder and former director of all three schools that make up AIMS, and his wife Marsha Amador, had made at least $3.8 million from contracts between AIMS schools and businesses owned by Chavis. The audit additionally discovered $25,700 worth of unauthorized credit card purchases billed to the school that included restaurant bills, airfare, DirecTV purchases and Giants tickets.

In this report, OUSD officials also recounted previous notices of concern they had given to the AIMS board regarding allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of students. In March, 2013, OUSD voted to revoke the AIMS charter. But the school filed an appeal against the Alameda County Board of Education, which allowed it to remain open during the 2013-2014 school year, although it lost hundreds of students. In July, 2014, an Alameda County superior court judge ruled that local officials had violated a California law requiring academic achievement to be the primary factor in determining whether a charter school should close or not: The AIMS schools’ test scores, then, should ensure that the school remained open. That October, the school district signed a settlement agreement with AIMS that they would no longer seek to close the three schools.

Superintendent Maya Woods-Cadiz said that she came to AIMS in May of 2015 to establish strong leadership at the schools. The school moved from its 35th Avenue location to 12th Street, in Oakland’s Chinatown.

The school faced some difficulties after moving, Chiu said. When Director London questioned how the school could continue to “keep the lights on,” considering its small size, Chiu said that the move had cost them students who could no longer easily commute to school, and that the school was reliant upon sharing space.

The AIMS charter renewal will also most likely occur at the school board meeting on March 23.

In other news, the board discussed the use of education funds and congratulated each other for last Friday’s event at the Peralta Hacienda honoring the 70th anniversary of Mendez vs. Westminster, a landmark case that resulted in the desegregation of schools in California, even before Brown vs. Board of Education. “The highlight of this is always the students,” said Director Roseann Torres (District 5). “The students on the panel with the two superintendents were really instrumental in helping people understand that desegregation isn’t over. Unfortunately it’s really strongly persisting today, and these students, who were primarily from Fremont, feel it, and hope that we can address it as the adults in the room.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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