On Thursday, a row of people carrying umbrellas gathered in downtown Oakland, standing in a long line going down the entire block, despite the spurts of rain. Although the people in line were smiling, they were here to conduct a serious conversation.
The panel discussion, hosted by Lincoln, an organization that helps children and families through social programs, was titled “Equity in Education.” The free event invited members of the community to come together and discuss important topics affecting the education system in both California and the country.
“I work with organizations that work with the formerly incarcerated,” said community participant Faith Fuller. “There is a lot of interest in getting people into higher education. So, I came because I need to know more about what’s wrong with the system and what could work better to try to promote that.”
When the doors opened at 6 p.m., the crowd congregated in the lobby of the Impact Hub and was greeted with a light reception. Following the reception, the event began with panelists answering prewritten questions read aloud by moderator Christine Stoner-Mertz, who also serves as Lincoln’s president and CEO. The panel consisted of Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an Associate Professor in Raza Studies and Education at San Francisco State University; Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell; Alameda County Superintendent of Schools L. Karen Monroe; Dr. Macheo Payne, Lincoln’s senior director of equity and educational initiatives; and California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who represents the East Bay.
During the panel discussion, Stoner-Mertz asked questions about issues like what plans the Oakland school board has to provide better equity for students, how the current budget crisis in the district is affecting the implementation of new programs, and what support the most venerable students are given.
“I chose to not see it as a crisis, but as an opportunity for us to continue to get our house in order and to really think about where we should be making strategic investments and where we are going to need the community to support our efforts,” said Johnson-Trammell when responding to the question about the budget cuts.
“What is it we want as a nation?” asked panelist Duncan-Andrade, when answering a question about the current conditions of public schools nationwide. “How is it that this 13-year investment, eight hours a day, is actually putting us on that path? Are we actually measuring what’s important? We don’t measure love in school. We don’t measure hope, or self-esteem or cultural identity. We don’t measure relationships. We’re talking about all this, but at the end of the day all we care about it your literacy score.”
When asked about how to effectively address what is often called the “schools to prison pipeline” for children of color, Payne responded, “You’ve got to be bold. You’ve got to really think outside of the box and go into a screwed-up scenario or situation and turn it into a beacon of light for those kids.”
“If you can about any child learning, you care about them learning about who they are and learning in relation to their identity. That is the most critical piece,” Payne continued. “It’s about acknowledging the culture in which they learn and the culture in which they express, and providing that for them so as a community they can feel acknowledged well as educated.”
Because of time constraints, the community members were given very little time to ask questions of the panel, and to discuss concerns people raised on topics like disparities among the school districts and the shift to charter schools in California. From the crowd’s reactions, it was apparent that attendees had mixed feelings about the topics being discussed. While some audience members clapped in support one topic, others shook their head in disapproval.
“I think it is really important that people get into a room where they hear people that challenge them and offer a completely different perspective on issues they are totally immersed in,” said Jake Puzyckia, a teacher at MetWest High School in Oakland. “I would have actually love to hear more dialogue. I felt like in this event we saw a lot of people sharing their stories, but there wasn’t a lot of back and forth that I think might have actually been more productive.”
Puzyckia suggested topic ideas for the next community engagement event with his peers.
“They talked a lot about getting money into the school system, but not very much about how that money is used effectively. A lot of the reason why we have a budget crisis in our schools is because of the way money is handled,” he said.
Although some guests felt the discussion hadn’t resolved many issues, many agreed it had been a nice introduction to a much larger topic. “All students need help,” said Aminta Mickles, a professor at Contra Costa College, “whether it’s elementary on up until college.”
Following the event, most panelists lingered to speak with attendees one-on-one. In an interview, Oakland schools Superintendent Johnson-Trammell shared what she hoped was the one thing that would resonate with attendees. “This is teamwork, this is village work,” she said. “Everyone has their role to play. To really push legislation—that’s not a month’s worth of work, that’s not one person. It’s really a community of people saying ‘No, we support public education. What is it I need to do?’”