Education in Oakland

Tony Smith’s Impressive Background

Posted by novometro on October 15, 2009

I interviewed Tony Smith yesterday and learned some interesting things about his background. His parents were high school juniors in Stockton when he was born. They were too young to care for him and he spent most of his childhood bouncing between relatives and family friends. He was on a path to juvie when an uncle sat him down in the 7th grade and told him he better start making some decisions about his life. The 12 year-old Smith wrote a six year plan stating that he wanted to get a football scholarship to Notre Dame. He spent part of high school in a group home in Placerville, but he earned a spot at Cal.

Smith said he has a plan to reduce to almost zero the number of students performing at the below proficient level on standardized tests within three years. That sounds about as likely as getting to Berkeley from a group home in Placerville.

Once the video from my interview with Smith is edited, I’ll put it on OakBook.

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What do you want to ask Tony Smith?

Posted by novometro on October 12, 2009


This is Tony Smith’s honeymoon. The full scale of the state’s budget crisis is not yet in the headlines, but the new superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District will have to make some brutal decisions his first year on the job. OUSD will be forced to cut at least another $25 million from its budget before the school year is over. Following two years of serious blows to the district’s budget, these further reductions will be painful, controversial, and will not be eased by Federal stimulus money.

So we thought now would be a good time to speak to Smith about his new job. We’ll be interviewing Smith in his office on Wednesday and we want to know what you want to know. Do you have a question about his stance on charter schools, or the decision process the district uses to close schools? Are you curious about class size, and school overcrowding? Send your questions to

This is Tony Smith’s honeymoon. The full scale of the state’s budget crisis is not yet in the headlines, but the new superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District will have to make some brutal decisions his first year on the job. OUSD will be forced to cut at least another $25 million from its budget before the school year is over. Following two years of serious blows to the district’s budget, these further reductions will be painful, controversial, and will not be eased by Federal stimulus money.

So we thought now would be a good time to speak to Smith about his new job. We’ll be interviewing Smith in his office on Wednesday and we want to know what you want to know. Do you have a question about his stance on charter schools, or the decision process the district uses to close schools? Are you curious about class size, and school overcrowding? Send your questions to and we’ll pose them to the supe.


Posted in Education, Oakland | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

New Reqs for the Class of 2014

Posted by novometro on June 11, 2009

Oakland Unified’s Governing Board approved a resolution Wednesday night that would align the district’s high school graduation requirements with the more demanding A-G requirements for admission to UC and CSU schools. The idea is to have the new rules in place for the graduating class of 2014.

At the moment only 32 percent of OUSD’s high school seniors meet the A-G requirement while the graduation rate for Oakland Unified is just over 50 percent.  Some Oakland schools are better than others at readying students for enrollment in the state’s public universities. Below are the A-G passing rates for a few Oakland high schools.

Oakland High School: 47 percent

Oakland Technical High School: 47 percent

Skyline High School: 42 percent

Excel: 71 percent

Robeson: 20 percent

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What do you think about punishing parents for truant children?

Posted by novometro on June 10, 2009

The Chron reported on Tuesday that recent efforts to combat chronic truancy in the San Francisco Unified School District yielded modest returns especially at the K-5 level, where the number of students with 20 or more unexcused absences dropped by 23 percent over last year. The results were less impressive in the upper grades. Truancy dropped by 4 percent in middle school, but rose 2 percent in high school. To be fair, it sounds like the school district focused on the lower grades. Last year, around 100 families were directed to intervention programs where the consequences of truancy were spelled out in clear terms. And seven families were sent to court. After all, it’s against the law to let your kids skip school.

San Francisco’s anti-truancy results come as Oakland Unified prepares to close a truancy center in West Oakland because it’s not working and costs the district around $1.2 million a year. School districts lose money every time a student is truant, so a truancy center should at least pay for itself. A source says that one of the chief reasons it failed was because Oakland Police Department officers who picked up truant kids resented the time it took to deliver them to the West Oakland Truancy Center. Plans to open an East Oakland Truancy Center never materialized. In 2007-08, OPD picked up 592 truants, which is only a fraction of the 4,000 truants in Oakland skipping school on any given day in that year.

Today, the number should be less. While the Truancy Center was not a success, OUSD reports it has made strides in reducing the number of truants. Last school year, elementary truants dropped by 27 percent,  middle schools reported an impressive 18 percent decline, and high school truancy came down by 1.5 percent.

Taking a tougher stance with parents in the San Francisco model is not something that’s likely to happen in Oakland. According to sources in OUSD, Gail Brewster Bereola, the presiding judge of Juvenile Court at the Alameda County Superior Court, is opposed to measures that would punish parents for truant children.

Posted in Education, Oakland | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

What They Really Think

Posted by novometro on March 13, 2009

When opponents of charter schools claim that education reform is a stalking horse for corporate interests with an eye on public money, there’s often a crude paternalism buried under the paranoia. The ugliness is usually unspoken, but a recent comment by a parent on the Oakland Tribune’s education report offers a rare sighting of the racism and classism that distorts the education conversation in Oakland.

In a comment on the Tribune’s website, and in an email to Oakland Unified’s Governing Board, the parent of a student at Skyline follows the money from the Rogers Foundation to non-profit organizations like the California Charter School Association and New Leaders for New Schools. (The editors of OakBook invited Rogers to write a letter in support of charter schools, and the Rogers Family Foundation has given money to support education coverage on the OakBook website.) But rather than see the donations for what they are – money going to Oakland’s students, the idea is to outline a conspiracy of cash that aims to hijack public schools and the money that comes with them. It’s tired stuff.

Here’s what’s shocking. She goes on to say that charter schools are “shiny baubles..  dangled before parents eyes, which makes the schools very tempting to them.” She makes it clear in the her next paragraph that “low income communities of color” are the primary dupes in this corporate scam. She believes she can see the big picture, but poor black and brown parents are not capable of making education decisions that make the best sense for their families. Opting to put one’s child in a charter school comes from ignorance only. The phrase “shiny baubles” shows precisely the level of intellectual sophistication she imagines can be found in “low income communities of color.”

The corporate takeover scare tactic doesn’t have much sting anymore, it will disappear on its own. But racism and classism must be confronted and exiled from rational discussion about charter schools in Oakland.

Posted in Oakland | 3 Comments »

The Union Answers O’Connell

Posted by novometro on February 27, 2009

The following letter is from Betty Olson-Jones, the boss of the Oakland Education Association.

February 27, 2009

Superintendent O’Connell,

Allow me to congratulate and thank you, on behalf of the nearly 3,000 teachers of the Oakland Education Association, for finally removing the last vestige of doubt about who you really are: a lobbyist for charter schools and an open apologist and beneficiary of so-called education philanthropists like Eli Broad. Your February 3 directive to State Administrator Vincent Matthews to transfer nearly $500,000 from the Oakland Unified School District’s general fund directly to the coffers of 32 charter schools is nothing but a naked money and power grab, the latest in a series of outrages perpetrated on our community on behalf of your benefactors. But by doing so, you have made our job of educating and organizing the community that much easier because now it’s abundantly clear that the Emperor has no clothes!

Your claim that this is a question of equity is particularly Orwellian and disturbing. In fact, your performance over the past 5 ½ years as de facto dictator of the Oakland Unified School District makes a mockery of the concept of equity. From the time of the original takeover in 2003, you and your three Broad-trained minions have presided over a series of actions and so-called “reforms” that have left our community torn and destabilized, with schools in primarily poor, African-American and Latino neighborhoods especially hard-hit by school closures, reconstitutions, and charter expansion. You tried to sell District property to pay off a debt that was forced on OUSD by you and Don Perata. You have left our children saddled with a debt nearly twice the size of the alleged deficit that led to the original takeover. Under your reign:

•       Charter schools have proliferated, draining students from traditional schools. Charters are publicly funded yet privately run entities that choose to opt out of the traditional school network, are de facto free to pick and choose their students, and have caused much of the declining enrollment in OUSD. A demographic report by Urban Strategies (June 2007) states, “…between 2000 and 2004, 37 percent of the District’s enrollment loss was due to the growth of charter enrollments, and between 2004 and 2006, the percentage grew to 58.” Oakland’s 32 charter schools enroll 16% of OUSD’s students (7,845 kids), one of the highest percentages in the country. What is equitable about turning our District over to charter school operators while draining our most needy schools of resources?
•       Approximately 40 OUSD schools have been closed, and most have been reopened as new, different schools. This has been tremendously destabilizing to the mostly poor, African-American and Latino communities impacted by the closures, reopenings, and further closures.
•       Students in traditional District schools bear the brunt of debt repayment, because charter schools are exempt from repayment of the state loan! And yet charters are the beneficiaries of a host of funds, from the ADA they receive for each student to large donations – both in cash and in services – from foundations. A few examples: in 2007 the Wal-Mart Foundation donated $230,000 EACH to four charter schools in Oakland. That translates to an additional $2300/pupil at American Indian Public High School, and $7667/pupil at Oakland Charter High! Jerry Brown’s Oakland Military Institute received $500,000 from the Port of Oakland, and his Oakland School of the Arts is housed in the renovated Fox Theater.
And yet you propose to transfer $60/pupil to all charter school students! Your talk of equity is a smokescreen for your real intention, which is to further destabilize the financial situation in the OUSD, continue to punish traditional schools by accusing them of failing and yet making it even more difficult for them to secure the resources they desperately need, and reward quasi-private charters who are exempt from democratic control.

As our democratically-elected School Board prepares to resume control of OUSD, this is a slap in the face. Like your failed attempt to sell off District land in 2007, and your equally ill-fated Measure N parcel tax last November, this is yet another example of your arrogant disregard for the teachers, parents, students, and the elected School Board of Oakland. You didn’t win a 15% handout to charters through the ballot box, so you think you can stage a stealth transfer of funds? Do you really think you can once again dictate to this community while you attempt to placate your charter school friends? Not on our watch! We will not submit to taxation without representation!

Of course, none of this was an accident. A September 2007 report produced by the Center for Education Reform (“National Model or Temporary Opportunity: The Oakland Education Reform Story”) states that “A group of Oakland small school creators, activists, technocrats, and philanthropists decided that the conditions were indeed ripe to try something big.” They had been waiting for access to a “politics free zone.” Once the state, under your leadership, obtained control of the district, you saw your opportunity to attempt to remake OUSD according to the wishes of your benefactors, chief among them Eli Broad. (An Oakland Tribune article of August, 2003 states, “O’Connell is a major recipient of Broad campaign contributions.”) Billionaire Eli Broad happens to think schools should be run like businesses, that teachers unions stand in the way, and that charters are the solution, as publicly funded but privately-run entities.
But you are sorely mistaken. You have greatly underestimated the power of our community and you stand exposed. Should you have any further political aspirations, you needn’t look to Oakland. We will work hard to expose your real intentions to others, including the other District employee unions, the Alameda Labor Council, and CTA.

It is time to return full local control immediately, including finances, to our democratically-elected School Board!

It is time to cancel the state debt as repayment for all the damage that has been done to our School District under your watch!

Betty Olson-Jones
President, Oakland Education Association

Posted in Oakland | 1 Comment »

O’Connell Wants $500,000 from OUSD for Charter Schools

Posted by novometro on February 24, 2009

At the beginning of February, Jack O’Connell sent Vince Matthews a letter telling him to “apportion to each charter school $60 per enrolled student” as a means of addressing the inequity stemming from the fact that Oakland charter schools “have not been formal beneficiaries of revenues from the district’s parcel tax or other local discretionary funds.” The State Superintendent of Public Instruction adds that this puts “[charter schools] at a disadvantage vis a vis their peer schools.”

Given that there are 8,000 charter school students in Oakland, and the final bill for this “one-time only adjustment” will come to nearly $500,000, the school board is pissed, and voted last week to hire a lawyer to fight the request.

O’Connell says that he will pursue a longer term plan to address the inequity.

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It’s Off

Posted by novometro on February 23, 2009

It seems that no one in Oakland education circles thought that pitting two hotheaded firebrands against each other in a charter school debate was going to do much good for either side. Chris Dobbins says that he got calls from every ideological corner of the city asking him to cancel the debate between charter school founder Ben Chavis, and Shanta Driver, who was slated to argue that charter schools are nothing more than a latter day Jim Crow system. Dobbins decided to heed their advice, and has said he will assemble a new panel.

Posted in Oakland | 1 Comment »

It’s On

Posted by novometro on February 17, 2009

The mistrust with which the extreme poles of the charter school debate regard one another has little do with reality. Corporations are not starting charter schools to enslave a population of poor black and brown youth while simultaneously opening a new revenue stream. Tenured teachers in traditional public schools aren’t defending business as usual just so they can keep showing movies in English class.

Broadcasting these extreme positions does nothing to improve the quality of teaching in Oakland, so don’t expect an upcoming smackdown between two local education ideologues to be particularly illuminating. It will, however, be entertaining as hell.

Next week, mild-mannered and always-amiable school board member Chris Dobbins is moderating a “debate” titled “Charter Schools: A Step Forward or Backward for Public Education.” Below is the press release with all the details.

A debate between opponents and advocates of charter schools is scheduled to take place Thursday, February 26th, at 5:00 PM in the OUSD Administration Building, Hunter Hall. In Oakland, and nationally, the growth of charter schools has been one of the most hotly contested changes in the educational system over the past ten years.

Arguing that charter schools are part of a new Jim Crow system of education that forces an increasing number of black and Latino students into separate, inferior schools will be Shanta Driver and Yvette Felarca, representatives of the civil rights group Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

Arguing that charter schools provide students with an education to enhance their academic skills  in order to compete and be productive members of society will be Ben Chavis, founder of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, and Janet Roberts, current Principal of the American Indian Charter School.

Oakland Unified School Board Director Chris Dobbins will be moderating the event. Hunter Hall is located at 1025 2nd Avenue, near Laney College. The public is invited to attend and will have ample opportunities to pose questions to the speakers in what is sure to be a hotly contested debate.

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Measure Y Bureaucrats Thrive

Posted by novometro on November 19, 2007

There’s more bad news on the Measure Y beat. It’s well known that the Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act approved by Oakland voters in 2004 has failed to deliver the promised increase in sworn officers. But a rather thin report from the City Administrator shows that there has been no corresponding difficulty finding bureaucrats to gorge at the Measure Y trough.

Of the $20 million spent on Measure Y annually, around 5 percent goes to the equivalent of around 10 full-time employees “charged to Measure Y funds.” The roughly $1.2 million in salaries includes six positions dedicated 100 percent to the administration of the failing measure. Still, this might not be enough City Hall employees to get the job done.

Jeff Baker, the person in the city administrator’s office whose full-time job is making sure the Measure Y Oversight Committee operates smoothly, did not find the time to post the agenda to Monday’s committee meeting as the law requires. The assistant to the City Administrator may want to consider hiring an assistant himself. The cops can’t seem to find anyone willing to take the money.

But bureaucratic bloat is to be expected at Oakland City Hall. The real sad news at Monday’s meeting comes from a 229-page report from Berkeley Policy Associates and the RAND Corporation. The researchers made a detailed evaluation of Measure Y’s various programs and found that “the effectiveness of Measure Y implementation is not altogether positive.”

There is one piece of good news for Oakland City Hall news junkies. Monday night’s meeting of the oversight committee will be the first to be broadcast live on KTOP. If you don’t have cable television, you can watch streaming video here.

What: Measure Y Oversight Committee Regular Meeting

When: Monday, November 19 6:30 pm

Where: Hearing Room One, First Floor of City Hall

Posted in Oakland | 7 Comments »