Leader’s Perspective: Why I Left the Oakland Unified School District Board
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A version of this essay was posted on GonzalesforSchools Blog.
On May 2, I announced that I would be leaving my role on the Oakland Unified School District Board early.
In many ways, I’m proud of the progress the neighborhood has been doing for the past 7.5 years. However, our core issue has not been resolved, which hurts our prospects as a district serving students and families in Oakland.
Most schools do not meet the academic needs of students, which means that students are not sufficiently prepared for their next steps, whether it is college, high school or college and career. Students who cannot read or do math at the grade level often become frustrated and disruptive, and many end up dropping out. Even if they graduate, students who are unprepared for college-level work often drop out and have difficulty advancing in their careers.
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Our efforts to improve school quality have been inconsistent and not ambitious enough. I am proud that we have expanded access to quality programs in several schools and redesigned others to improve quality. But it has not been undertaken as the urgent city-wide strategy that it should be.
In addition to failing to prepare students adequately, school quality drives enrollment, so our refusal to really address it in a focused, consistent, and fearless way leads to budget cuts, school closures, and school closures. other negative consequences. We have lost 17,000 students over the past 20 years and have struggled with high leadership turnover for most of our history. As long as we refuse to focus on school quality with urgency, focus and consistency, enrollment will continue to decline and we will continue to face disruptive budget decisions or be supported by the state. for the second time.
For the board, I think our biggest flaw is how we use our time in meetings. Far too much time is spent on issues that (although important) have little to do with students’ academic success. When I was president, I tried to solve this problem by ensuring that every board meeting had at least one element related to academics, in order to keep student success at the forefront. Other steps the board can take include forming a committee on academics, which would have more focused (and frequent) conversations about student success. Now that the pandemic is winding down, board members can make more classroom visits to learn more about schools’ strengths and challenges. Ultimately, we need to spend more time on how students are doing because that’s our main focus.
We also have to say “no” more, which is hard to do. The district is not a jobs program, or a social justice organization, or a small business incubator, or a housing organization, although those things are important. As long as we strive to ensure students can read at grade level, it is doing our students and families a disservice to spend so much time on issues that are not core to our core mission. .
I came to the district with a background in the labor movement. However, since serving on the board, I have become increasingly concerned about the Oakland Education Association and its apparent lack of commitment to student success (as an organization, not as a individual teachers).
It is not enough to say that students are not doing well because of poverty or that the state is not providing enough funding. Other districts with similar levels of poverty and/or funding perform much better. One reason is that our teachers’ association has consistently resisted efforts to improve school quality and has also organized others against such efforts.
It is true that the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of our students, but the interests of teachers and students do not always coincide. For example, we needed to reopen for in-person learning much sooner than we did because students were hurting, especially students who needed special and intensive services. The association did everything to prevent the return to face-to-face teaching, even though it knew that we were not respecting our legal and moral obligations, especially towards our most vulnerable students.
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The association’s refusal to engage on the issue of school quality is hurting our students. And his longstanding resistance to operating fewer schools (including the April 29 strike) is a big part of why we have the lowest salaries in the county and struggle to attract and retain quality teachers and staff. We need to concentrate our resources in fewer schools to ensure stable staffing for students. A stable and quality staff is essential to the quality of the school.
For our community partners, there needs to be a deeper commitment to focus on student outcomes and school quality. Our new strategic plan is promising in that it responds to the need for all our partners to work together towards the same objective, namely literacy. This new approach (concentrated at city level) bodes well for the future. Much will depend on the new mayor and our ability to maintain stable union leadership. New people often bring new priorities, but what we need is to stay on track and not get distracted by bright new ideas. If our community organizations that serve youth and families could all support the focus on literacy in the strategic plan, rather than coming up with other initiatives, that would be a big help.
Finally, the way Oakland presents itself during times of disagreement is a huge red flag for our prospects as a district.
Disagreements are to be expected when there are differences of opinion on how to address serious issues facing the district. Elected leaders cannot always agree with voters on how to solve problems because our roles are different. Teachers need only worry about the students they now serve; the role of board members is to think about the health of our entire system, not just individual schools, and also the future health of the district.
There is vigorous dissent, which is essential to democracy, and then there is an attempt to silence debate through intimidation and harassment, which is toxic to democracy. The safety of our elected officials matters, both our physical safety but also our ability to sleep at night, not to see our jobs threatened, etc. It is impossible to advance students under these conditions. If we don’t find healthier ways to disagree, no one will be ready to serve in this district who is truly ready for the persistent and difficult challenges that undermine our ability to better serve students.
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