Breaking the sorting machine: Wilson delivers annual State of Schools speech
on October 19, 2016
Superintendent Antwan Wilson delivered his annual State of the Schools speech at Oakland High School Tuesday night. In it, he highlighted the Oakland Unified School District’s recent successes as well as challenges ahead, and called on Oakland to come together to break the “sorting machine,” or the historic system Wilson said was “specifically designed to sort those who needed a real education from those who didn’t.”
“The sorting has always been done in a way … that hurts children of color, children whose families are poor or don’t speak English,” said Wilson.
Wilson said Oakland must reject the notion that only some deserve a world-class education, and work to make sure all students have the opportunity to “invent the future” downtown, in the economic and innovative heart of Oakland.
Wilson noted that 95 percent of the jobs created since the recession have gone to those who possess at least a high school degree. Since 2012, he said, the school district’s graduation rate has climbed 5 percent to 64.5 percent, and that gains among traditionally marginalized groups have accelerated even faster. Graduation rates have gone up 9 points for African American males, 16 points for students with disabilities, and 25 points for foster youth.
He also acknowledged the 16 school-based health centers that have opened across Oakland, a 15 percent pay raise for teachers, a 6 percent increase in the number of students taking University of California-required coursework, and said that since 2011, the district has seen a 50 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions. During the same time period, juvenile felony arrests in Oakland have also dropped 73 percent.
“That’s hundreds of kids we’re not losing every year,” Wilson said.
Wilson gave credit to school staff, families, and the students themselves for these gains, before moving on to speak about the challenges the district must confront.
Two thirds of the district’s elementary students are not performing at grade level in reading or math, Wilson said. These results vary greatly by race and income. For example, according to the most recent testing data, only 17 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch were proficient in math. (Being eligible for a free or reduced price lunch has long been used by education officials as an indicator of a student’s low-income background.)
Wilson said it should come as no surprise that one third of Oakland students do not graduate if two-thirds are off track when they are in elementary school.
In order to address these challenges, Wilson laid out a four-point plan: increase access to preschool, expand rigorous academics to all schools, develop students’ “soft skills” like grit and social-emotional awareness, and provide more resources to Oakland’s most stressed schools “that exist at the nexus of every challenge our cities can bring—from poverty to violence to asthma-inducing pollution,” Wilson said.
Six students from Castlemont High School and Oakland High School took the stage after Wilson’s speech. Both schools were recent recipients of new scholarships and counseling centers from Oakland Promise, an initiative between the city and the school district to triple college graduation in three years.
The six students, who were selected for leadership at their schools, took turns discussing their own education while Wilson sat between them and OUSD communications director John Sasaki moderated. The students echoed a belief shared by Wilson: Sometimes a good teacher determines whether a student falls prey to the sorting machine or not.
Wilson said that growing up, he was “the kind of kid who could easily be a victim of the sorting machine.” Because of poverty and instability, Wilson said, he attended ten different schools. “I settled a lot of conflicts with my fists,” he added.
Similarly, Lavoshia Ivy, a senior at Castlemont, told the audience that he had overcome child abuse and homelessness. “I’ve been to over 15 schools,” he said.
Ivy noted that a strong relationship with an understanding teacher can make students realize “they don’t have to go out and commit crimes to have money.” For Ivy, that understanding teacher was his debate teacher. “I’d walk into class and he’d be like, ‘King Ivy!’”
Ivy wrinkled his nose, like it perplexed him the first time to hear it, but then he smiled. “That gave me a lot of confidence,” he said.
All six students said they plan to attend college, and return to Oakland to work as lawyers or for the school district. Several said they wanted to open their own non-profits to help other Oakland students overcome obstacles they have faced, like bullying.
Wilson said that because they have the support of the Oakland Promise, he is confident that they will achieve those goals.
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