Education in Oakland

Archive for February, 2007

The Education Complex

Posted by novometro on February 28, 2007

Now that a deal to sell 10 acres of school district property for $60 million has collapsed, some members of Oakland’s school board want to lock up the land for good by building what they call “a state of the art educational complex” on the site.

A flier announcing a Thursday rally in support of the “educational complex,” bears a drawing of an old-fashioned public schoolhouse being squeezed by a menacing skyline of lofts, condos, convention centers, and hotels.

It’s an odd time to be talking about building new state-of-the-art schools while simultaneously decrying new residents to the city. At a school board meeting tomorrow, the state administrator is expected to approve the closing of four schools. This isn’t a surprise. For the past several years, Oakland Unified School District has been shrinking at a rate of 2,000 students a year.

OUSD owes the state $100 million. Its barely balanced budget came at a steep price for every student and employee in the district. There’s scarcely enough cash to keep the schools it has open now in a clean and orderly condition. Where the money for this new educational complex will come from is not clear.

There’s $21 million in bond money to build a new building for La Escuelita Elementary, one of the schools that’s supposed to be part of the complex. While the 239 (and shrinking) students at La Escuelita deserve the school they have been promised, a state-of-the-art educational complex will cost more than that. Dewey, another of the five schools slated for inclusion in the new complex, was rebuilt four years ago across the street from OUSD HQ at a cost of a $6.2 million.

This educational complex will never be built. However, something close to it might have been erected had the developer that wanted to buy the property moved forward. When the deal was hitting local opposition last summer, the developer agreed to build a new multi-story building housing two schools on the property. The forces lined up against the deal never took that idea seriously. They might wish they had — as their dreams for an “educational complex” encounter the reality of OUSD’s shrinking enrollment.


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Swanson’s New Bills

Posted by novometro on February 16, 2007

Sandre Swanson must have felt that he was falling behind his colleagues in terms of bills introduced. On Thursday, he proposed two pieces of legislation, bringing his total to three. The first would stiffen the penalties for child abduction. The second would establish the “Probation Youth Success Act, a 3-year pilot program to be conducted by the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Alameda County Office of Education. The act would require those county offices of education, if they chose to participate, to provide comprehensive, integrated educational, vocational, and mental health services to selected wards in selected juvenile ranches, camps, and forestry camps. The bill would require participating counties to provide matching funds to any state funds received for the program.”

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The USS Oakland Unified

Posted by novometro on February 14, 2007

While Ben Chavis doesn’t tolerate daydreaming in his students, he has the imagination of a child. He likes to think of himself as the pirate captain of the American Indian Public Charter School. In this particular reverie he is the terror of the USS Oakland Unified, a leaky and listing tub charting a doomed course to a mothballing in the backwaters of education.

Perhaps it’s not just in his mind. Wednesday night, the boss of the Oakland Unified School District will likely follow a recommendation from her underlings to deny Mr. Chavis’ petition to open a second charter school. That’s not so unusual. The school district denies charter petitions all the time. On Wednesday night’s school board agenda are recommendations to close two charter schools, which opened in September, as well as recommendations to reject the petitions of two more would-be charter schools.

The weird thing is that the American Indian Public Charter School posts some of the best test scores in the city. While other middle schools struggle to succeed, Mr. Chavis’ 200-student school collects accolades from the California Department of Education. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger drops by for photo-ops. The decision to deny the charter is even odder because the paperwork is not that different from a petition OUSD approved 11 months ago.

The decision to deny the petition cites nine inadequate elements in Mr. Chavis’ application. It’s possible that the school district is simply adhering to stricter standards than those followed last year, when a different state administrator managed the district. But Mr. Chavis thinks that OUSD is just toying with him. Although that’s not exactly how he put it.

Saltier language than one normally expects from a middle school principal speaking in front of students is just one of the ways Mr. Chavis differs from his counterparts in regular schools. He loves to praise No Child Left Behind, which in education circles is sort of like speaking loudly in favor of Abu Ghraib over dinner at Chez Panisse. He obviously delights in sticking his finger in the school district’s eye at every opportunity.

To continue with the pirate ship theme, he runs his school on a primitive, but effective, principle of reward and punishment. Perfect attendance and high test scores earn both teachers and students pocket money. Infractions bring students public humiliation. If he had faculty meetings they would probably include shame sessions for under-performing teachers. But Mr. Chavis doesn’t believe in faculty meetings. (For more on Mr. Chavis and the school, the Chronicle wrote a nice piece last year.)

Mr. Chavis is the first to admit his school is not for everybody. But he is also the first to crow that the principals of two Oakland public schools (one is the principal of Edna Brewer Middle School) send their kids to American Indian Public Charter.

Housed on the second-floor of a small building in the Laurel District, the school is clean, spare, and calm. On Monday afternoon, a handful of students served detention in his office. They worked on their algebra while he talked about the advantages he held over his colleagues toiling under direct control of OUSD. They are burdened by decades of laws and regulation, not to mention a troubled relationship with the teacher’s union. They are slow. He is fast.

Much of this is self-serving schtick. It’s true that Oakland Unified has done a miserable job educating students. But it’s not true that the people inside the system are content with the status-quo.

An instinctive Libertarian, Mr. Chavis is the sort of entrepreneur who never stops to think that everyone is not like him. He forgets that rules are not always bad. His school is the stunning success it is because he is only half crazy. If he were completely crazy, a school propelled on cash rewards and public humiliation could be a nightmare for students and teachers. And then the state officials knocking at the door would be of a different sort altogether than politicians looking to take pictures with high-achieving, poor minority kids. The demographics of the school are here.

Happily, Mr. Chavis is not mad, and his school has fulfilled two of the promises of recent education reform. His spectacular test scores put pressure on other schools to do better while also demonstrating methods that could be replicated elsewhere. The relentless focus on accountability gives him a solid answer to his critics. It’s hard to argue with a 920 API.

As for his new charter school, he doesn’t think OUSD will argue very long. “I’m going to humiliate them,” he says. His green eyes gleaming as if he can already see the look on his foes faces’ when they wake up and realize that Old Captain Chavis has struck again.

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You Call That a Favor?

Posted by novometro on February 12, 2007

I was glad to see Monday that the police chief answered a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle asking if OPD bent the rules to help the City Administrator’s daughter.

Unlike most scandals involving cop shop favors to politicians and City Hall nabobs, this one didn’t involve a get-out-of-jail-free card or an overlooked DUI. Apparently, the City Administrator’s daughter wants very much to be an Oakland police officer. So much so, in fact, that after washing out of the police academy three times, she’s returning for a fourth try.

The Chronicle column said that police chief Wayne Tucker recently axed a two-hour physical test that has long served as a “rite of passage” to the ranks of the OPD. The column quoted police officers who believed that the test had been dumped to make things easier for the City Administrator’s daughter.

Mr. Tucker writes that the changes followed recommendations from outside consultants brought into review OPD’s police academy. It’s probably not that simple. Perhaps the struggles of a well-connected recruit brought attention to a relic of a hazing ritual long-since discarded in other police departments. This line from the chief’s letter sounds like he’s addressing his fellow Oakland cops: “In order to meet the rising tide of violence in our community we must modernize the Oakland Police Department and bring it into conformance with accepted policing standards.”

When people complain about OPD, the grousing never has anything to do with their ability, or inability, to scale walls. The complaint is almost always the same: Why does it take the police so long to respond to a call? The answer is almost always the same, too: There are not enough officers.

There are entire websites devoted to shaming City Hall into hiring more cops. Do we want to shame someone who actually wants to be an Oakland police officer? The evidence suggests that those people are rare.

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The Last Worst Hamburger Stand

Posted by novometro on February 9, 2007

The Chronicle has a roundup of the Fat Burger versus Condo debate underway in Grand Lake. The owners of the Kwik-Way want to lease the spot to an ex-Oakland Raider who opened NorCal’s first Fat Burger in Contra Costa County, and would like to replace Kwik-Way with a second franchise. Some residents would rather suffer a few more years with Kwik-Way until some sort of commercial/residential project wins the go-ahead.

City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan wrote a nice summary of the issues, and put the matter up for a vote on It shouldn’t be a surprise given how horrible the food is, but I am still amazed that Kwik-Way elicits no support from any quarter. The place is universally reviled. It’s like the Manuel Noriega of drive-thrus. The people who want it to stay think it will die faster than a FatBurger, making way for something better.

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The Lies That Matter

Posted by novometro on February 9, 2007

Guest Blogger: Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar

Why is it that some lies are so much bigger than others? I’ve been watching the amount of media attention Gavin Newsom’s affair has been getting, and frankly, I’d much rather the same amount of attention was showered on something that actually affected the lives of more than 10 people. I understand why more people would care about this affair than just Newsom, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, and Alex Tourk. He is the mayor of one of this country’s loveliest cities, he is good looking and wealthy, and yes, he did have sex with his friend’s wife who also happened to work for him (that makes for a good story). That might be a lousy thing to do. But things happen.

If it is “an asshole thing to do,” as a friend put it, there are a lot of other things that qualify as “asshole things to do”.. and everybody’s doing asshole things. Besides, I’m a strong believer in seperating people’s personal and professional lives — and so long he didn’t fail at his job, it still isn’t affecting more than 10 people.

What, however is a big deal, in my opinion, is….. fake handicapped parking permits. Yes, I’m sure you’re saying ,”What?” But please, why does someone’s sex life matter more than the dozens of lies that I see hanging from the rear view mirrors of cars and SUVs that no handicapped person is driving. These cars block the best parking spaces in downtown Oakland for hours. So, if someone’s really handicapped, or if someone wants to park legally in the area– by actually feeding the meter coins every hour — they’re going to be very frustrated.

And towards the end of the day, I often see someone very healthy (they may have other health issues, but obviously none that impair their walk) walk to their car, get in without much effort, and zip away. And we’re talking about Mercs, BMWs, and other gorgeous auto creations. Surely, they can afford to park in the garages across from their office buildings? Or maybe that eats into the car payments?

And these fake placards, I promise you, affect more people than some politician’s sex life. Some cities have set up teams of volunteers who cite parking permit offenders. We need to do so. A walk down Broadway and/or Franklin will convince you.

When I was growing up, I often heard people say a white lie is better than a thousand truths. Now if you want to know what a white lie is — it’s one that does no one any harm, that preserves peace, and perhaps even helps someone. Maybe the doctor that issues these fake health certificates thinks he’s helping someone. But he’s hurting a lot more people than he’s helping.

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Space Academy Update

Posted by novometro on February 7, 2007

Last week, I wrote a couple of stories about a new Oakland charter school that OUSD was eager to shut down. The school district claimed that the Space Exploration Academy and the Junior Space Exploration Academy weren’t living up to their promises after four months of operation and they needed to close. The school district slowed down its hasty move to close the schools, but many questions about these schools are still unanswered.

It’s not every charter school that can boast NASA and UC Berkeley as partners. It was only last fall that the schools started with $1.3 million in grants and ads on the sides of busses. What went wrong?

An OUSD spokesman said that the matter of the charter schools will be heard at an upcoming school board meeting with a staff report that will offer more information about why, how and when OUSD will revoke the charters.

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Hidden Food Treasure

Posted by novometro on February 7, 2007

In a rather bland review of Breads of India in Old Oakland, a Chronicle food writer dinged the restaurant for serving too many bland dishes. By way of introducing Breads of India, the reviewer noted that downtown Oakland has a surprising shortage of Indian restaurants. There probably is room for one or two more Indian buffets catering to the lunchtime crowd in Oakland. My favorite Indian buffet, not just in Oakland, but in the entire Bay Area, seats only 8 people and has a steam tray the size of a small desk. The place looks like it could be cleaned out by a single party of hungry Kaiser employees.

Khana Kazana is a tiny storefront on 19th Street between Franklin and Webster Streets. The business model is ingenious. The owner has another, larger restaurant on San Pablo in Emeryville. The food is cooked there, and he brings it to the Oakland restaurant by van. He’s usually there by noon, setting up the trays of pakora, naan, curry, and tandoori chicken. The final touch is a thermos of chai that he places next to the cash register, right under the hand-painted poster depicting some obscure scene from Punjabi folklore.

The plates are plastic, so are the cups and the utensils. But the food is delicious. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, the owner was a bit late setting up shop. He had been catering a lunch of Chiron bigwigs. The vegetable korma, rich with coconut milk and cashews certainly tasted worthy of the executive dining hall. I have no idea how much the biotech guys paid for their meal, but I paid only $6 for all I could eat. And I ate too much.

But no one should take my word for anything regarding food. For the last 14 years, I have never lived more than two miles from a Barney’s, and that’s not by accident. My business partner, however, is from New Delhi, and she knows good Indian food. She claims Khana Kazana serves some of the best buffet-style Indian she’s had in the Bay Area. Last week, she even took a plastic cup of sag, a creamed spinach dish, home for her husband to try.

Khana Kazana means food treasure in Hindi. This one is hidden.

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Articulate Americans

Posted by novometro on February 1, 2007

When used as an adjective by a white person, the word articulate is almost always applied to a minority- usually someone black – who sounds white.

Senator Joe Biden used it Wednesday in his spectacularly stupid assessment of Barack Obama. The senator from Delaware said this to the New York Observer on his first day as an official contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008: “[Barack Obama is] the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

As Mr. Obama noted in his second response to his colleagues statement, no one would call Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson inarticulate.

I noticed the word again in an interesting article in the Oakland Tribune about a white family’s decision to enroll their child in the neighborhood school, which is 42 percent black. After months of agonizing, the mother decided the local elementary would be just fine following a meeting with other parents. “These people were really articulate and smart,” the mother said.

The article touched on the fact that race and class figured prominently in the talk about schools in Oakland. But the task of expressing fears about ghettofication (ghetto as an adjective is itself a paper-thin euphemism for black employed by all races) was left to a black parent. “There’s no way in the world my son is going to go to middle school or high school in Oakland,” said Taneshia Roosevelt, who attended a private school fair last fall with her son Omarriyah. “I just see how these kids are out here, and I don’t want my son to be that way.

Articulately said.

(check out NovoMetro)

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