School & District Management

Small-Schools Backers Wary Of Oakland Shifts

By Caroline Hendrie — June 04, 2003 7 min read
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Leaders of the nation’s small-schools movement have very big ideas about transforming American education, and many of them have looked to this city in recent years as a place where their dreams are starting to come true.

After years of planning and political pressure by proponents of small schools, the Oakland school board signed on three years ago to an ambitious initiative to create small, high-quality schools in neighborhoods where students are lucky to finish high school, let alone go to college.

By the start of this school year, seven of those schools were up and running, and plans are in place to double that number this coming fall. In the view of like-minded activists elsewhere, small-schools advocates here have seemed well on their way toward leveraging major changes in the city’s education system as a whole.

“Oakland, from our perspective, was the perfect scenario,” said Michael Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop, an organization based at the University of Illinois at Chicago that provides technical help in districts around the country.

Today, however, the scenario here looks decidedly less perfect.

With the 48,000-student Oakland district on the brink of a state takeover—and the biggest bailout of a school district in California history—unbridled optimism has been replaced by anxiety among the educators, parents, and outside reformers who brought the city’s small-schools initiative to life.

Having struggled to insert their vision into the structure of the school system, leaders of the city’s network of small public schools now fear that much of what they have worked for could unravel. Despite a desire to work within the district, some are considering pulling out to become independent charter schools if they see the system’s leadership heading in what they view as the wrong direction.

So instead of modeling a systemwide approach to forming smaller, more personalized urban schools, Oakland risks becoming an illustration of that strategy’s perils. That’s a painful thought to local advocates, starting with Stephen Jubb, the executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools.

“This has been a hard time for all of us,” Mr. Jubb, a former teacher and veteran education reformer who has helped spearhead the small-schools initiative, said recently. “There isn’t a question that small schools are here to stay. The question is whether we’re going to be able to use small schools as a driver for systemwide change that will help everybody.”

‘The Passion of Parents’

Oakland’s campaign for small schools got going six years ago, when the nonprofit Oakland Community Organizationsa federation of 30 religious congregations and 15 school-based parent organizations—began mobilizing grassroots support among parents and teachers to organize new schools.

The goal was to break the pattern of poor student achievement, severe overcrowding, and disturbing dropout rates that had fueled discontent in the “flatlands” neighborhoods in the eastern half of Oakland.

The federation encouraged parent leaders to read The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America From a Small School in Harlem, a 1995 book by the educator Deborah Meier about Central Park East Secondary School, the famous small New York City school she founded in 1974, recalled Ron Snyder, the Oakland group’s executive director. The group also sponsored a trip in 1998 to New York to see what that city’s long-established small-schools movement had accomplished.

The result was a committed core of activists who turned out in force at rallies and school board meetings to demand schools that embodied the ideals of challenging, personalized education that are espoused by Ms. Meier and other champions, Mr. Snyder said.

“I’ve been organizing for 30 years, and this issue has more energy than any issue I’ve ever worked on,” he said in an interview last month at the Urban Promise Academy, a 150-student middle school that opened here in 2001. “The passion of parents is just incredible.”

A turning point came in 1998, when Oakland Community Organizations joined forces with the Bay Area Coalition, or BayCES, an offshoot of the Coalition of Essential Schools, the national school reform network founded in 1984 by the education scholar Theodore M. Sizer.

Working closely with the community federation, BayCES developed a proposed small-schools initiative for the city. The process included extensive conversations—sometimes contentious ones—with the local affiliate of the National Education Association, education advisers to Mayor Jerry Brown, city school board members, and others.

Imprinted in Policy

In May 2000, the effort paid off, when the city school board committed the district to a three-year plan to institute “a network of 10, new small autonomous schools—schools of choice for parents, students, and teachers"—with more to come “as success is documented.”

Setting ideal size ranges of 100 to 400 students at the elementary level and 250 to 400 students for high schools, the policy laid out “core principles” for the schools. They included “lean, academically oriented programs with high expectations for students, a broadly shared vision, consistent teaching, and parent connections and involvement.” The policy also required the appointment of a small-schools director reporting directly to the superintendent.

Armed with the policy, BayCES worked to attract outside funding to supplement district resources, which included facilities money from a large bond issue approved by Oakland voters in 1999.

In November 2000, the coalition landed a $15.7 million, five-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, part of the philanthropy’s national small-schools initiative. The grant also supports BayCES’ work in San Francisco and other area districts, but the largest concentration of schools and students in its network is in Oakland.

Shortly before passage of the new policy, advocates gained a key ally when the Oakland school board hired Dennis K. Chaconas as superintendent. His arrival also helped attract additional outside funding, including grants to support a district office established in 2000 to oversee the initiative.

Now, though, with the district moving toward state control, Mr. Jubb and others say they worry that the office may wither, along with the momentum for making the bureaucratic changes needed to give the small schools the staffing and budgetary autonomy that they still largely lack.

“I am deeply concerned about that,” Mr. Jubb said last week.

Weighing Options

California legislators were finishing work last week on a measure that would provide Oakland’s school system with a $100 million line of credit to close a hole found in the district’s $550 million annual budget last fall.

If signed by the governor, as expected, the bailout bill would be followed by state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell’s appointment of an administrator to assume the powers of the local school board. Lately, Oakland’s small-schools leaders have been working to influence Mr. O’Connell’s choice.

Joining the lobbying effort has been Hae-Sin Kim, the principal of ASCEND, one of the five small schools the district opened in 2001. Ms. Kim helped organize a May 1 rally at which some 2,000 parents, students, and other activists pressed Mr. O’Connell’s chief deputy, as well as Mayor Brown and a local state senator, to support small schools if the expected state takeover occurs.

But the 32- year-old principal is also trying to hedge her bets by applying to convert her school—which plans to serve 380 students in grades K-8 by 2004—to independent charter status. Two more of the district’s small schools have similar proposals pending before the city school board.

If ASCEND receives a charter, Ms. Kim said she hopes never to use it. ASCEND stands for A School Cultivating Excellence, Nurturing Diversity.

“If you want to be a reform model that everyone embraces, you have to do it in-district,” she argued. At the same time, she said, “we’re just very afraid.”

At the nearby Urban Promise Academy, faculty members have chosen not to pursue the charter route. And David Montes de Oca, who serves as the school’s principal but prefers to be called an “educational strategist,” said last week that he was trying to keep the focus on academics despite trepidation about the takeover.

“We have committed ourselves to work within the public arena,” he said. “It’s a ‘true colors’ moment.”

For his part, Mr. Jubb prefers to see the crisis as an opportunity, and says he sees signs that “cautious optimism” is in order.

He takes heart, for example, from recent indications that plans to start two more schools and to transform an existing, 1,900-student high school into five small schools in the fall are likely to avoid the chopping block.

“It is definitely a dangerous time,” Mr. Jubb said. “But there are signs that we’ll survive and prosper.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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