Literacy, Liberation, and Love

I attended a town hall meeting yesterday, sponsored by the Oakland Branch of the NAACP at Williams Chapel Baptist Church. The primary focus was on the need to address OUSD’s failure to unlock the liberating power of literacy for students, especially black students, in the city’s schools. (Only 18% of Oakland’s black students are reading at grade level.) Speakers at the event included representatives of 100 Black Men, Oakland Reach, the NAACP, Our Kids, and others who have a deep love for the children of this city. In attendance were many folks representing organizations like Educate78, State of Black Education in Oakland, GO Public Schools, OEA, and elected leaders. (Both the District 3 city council member, Lynette Gibson McElhaney and District 3 school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge were there).

Literacy is the key that unlocks the door to an excellent education, and, many argue, a structured literacy curriculum is the way to cut that key. The New York Times posted an article this week that shines a light on the only two places in the country to see improvement in literacy scores, and in both cases the schools are focusing on a structured curriculum in reading that includes explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, rather than a “balanced literacy” curriculum like the one OUSD provides.

When looking at the school to prison pipeline, it’s easy to draw a connection to literacy: by some estimates, 85% of the prison population in the U.S. is illiterate. If we hope to break our country’s addiction to extreme incarceration, teaching reading is a critical and urgent priority. No child should leave third grade without basic reading skills. But that is not the current reality in Oakland — especially for black and brown children. Literacy is the pathway to success in almost every career, and a primary requirement for access to higher education. If black and brown children are to be liberated from the systemic inequality that is rampant in this country, literacy is a key liberator.

A fair and equitable society is based on mutual love and respect. To put it in grammatical terms, love is a verb. We must love all the children in this city (and love one another) if we hope to create a fair and equitable society. (Can someone please diagram that sentence for me?) “Of all weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating, and few there be who dare trust their fate in its hands,” said the theologian, Howard Thurman. To those who dare, trusting our fate in the hands of love is the pathway to equity. Let’s dare to love!

Social Justice

I read an interesting article this morning that articulates two definitions of Social Justice, one a modern progressive definition, the other an older, traditional definition. It clarified something that I’ve been grappling with for a while. Despite the appearance of divisions within our community around education policy, I believe all of us want the same thing. I defy you to find anyone in Oakland who would argue that we should preserve the systemic inequity that robs many of the children in our community of an excellent education. We’re not divided about the goal, though we may disagree about the path forward.

The article’s authors, Andy Smarick and Bruno K. Manno are conservatives who favor the traditional view of social justice. But they acknowledge that our goals around education are similar and they recognize an overlap in the foundational beliefs of social justice advocates of both stripes.

Because both approaches to social justice aim at fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is a great deal of overlap. But the understanding we’re advocating explicitly encourages the formation of a variety of groups aspiring to protect the common good and recognizes the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies. It respects the right of social groups to take different forms and pursue different activities while holding such groups responsible for living up to their obligations. And it expects from all of us a high degree of civic participation, restraint, and collaboration.

Rethinking Social Justice

My quibble with Smarick and Manno is the characterization of the older, traditional flavor of social justice as being inherently conservative and rooted in Catholic tradition. I grew up in a family that was committed to social justice, and we were neither Catholic nor conservative. My father attended the a Augustana Seminary in the 1950s where he studied under A.D. Mattson, professor of ethics. Mattson taught and practiced the kind of social justice described by Smarick and Manno, but as a protestant (Lutheran) and liberal. The Augustana Lutheran Church (into which my father was ordained) had a strong social justice ethic, and was definitely on the liberal spectrum of religious denominations of the day. In 1915, an Augustana student, Conrad Bergendoff (who would serve as president of Augustana College and Seminary in the 1930s and 1940s) wrote (somewhat provocatively at the time) about the commonality of Christianity and Socialism. “Christianity strives to better the condition of man’s nature, Socialism to better man’s conditions,” he said. While it may be true that conservatives practice this kind of traditional social justice, we liberals have a long history of the tradition as well.

I am personally more aligned with the progressive view of social justice, and like my brothers and sisters in the Oakland Education Association, I see the challenges facing OUSD as urgent and pervasive, requiring immediate action. But I also see the need for a multifaceted approach to solutions that may require intermediate steps towards our shared ultimate goal. And I see the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree and finding ways to work effectively towards our common goal. The students of our city deserve adult advocates who work collaboratively to bring about the systemic change that will lead to achieving the goal of truly equitable educational opportunity in Oakland.

OUSD 2.0

A friend and I were talking about the challenges facing OUSD and we observed that the central administration of the district is clinging to an outmoded culture and to old-fashioned business practices. Rather than a lean, focused, and nimble operation, the district administration is bogged down in bureaucracy. “The way we’ve always done it” is not a best practice for how to correct course when an institution is foundering.

It’s time for OUSD 2.o, a rethinking of how to manage a school district in the 21st century. We live in a region where creative innovation is a business model. We should be leveraging creativity and innovation spend smarter In Oakland. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has described the need to prepare students for the creative economy:

“Creativity and appreciation for the arts is important for all students to have a well-rounded education, exposing them to new ideas and perspectives. Arts education boosts school attendance, academic achievement, and college attendance rates; improves school climate; and promotes higher self-esteem and social-emotional development.” Thurmond said. “In addition, proficiency in the technology related to creative work is becoming an important skill for students as they progress into college and career.”

According to a 2018 report by the Otis College of Art and Design, California’s creative economy generated $407.1 billion in economic output and 1.6 billion jobs, resulting in $141.5 billion in wages earned statewide.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Commends New K-12 California Arts Standards

Before OUSD can deliver on this kind of instruction, the district needs to apply creativity to, and critical thinking about, its administrative operations. “We can’t deliver a 21st century education with a 19th century institution,” my friend said. In the same way that the state updated its vision for public instruction in 2015, releasing the Blueprint for Great Schools, Version 2.0, OUSD needs an upgrade to OUSD 2.0. The key part of such an upgrade starts in the central office. This is where the board of education must apply creativity to effect change, working with Superintendent Johnson-Trammell, to design and apply modern business practices. There are creative minds and critical thinkers in this district and the board needs to set policies that empower them to unleash their creativity and align their efforts towards delivering the kind of education that our students deserve.


California is a hotbed of creativity, and a foundation of our state’s economy are the companies that depend on workers who are creative, critical thinkers. Our educational system needs to foster the next generation of creators, but for too long our schools have been pushing arts and creativity to the side in favor of focusing instruction on only those subjects measured by standardized tests. Despite evidence that engagement with the arts can lead to better academic outcomes on those same standardized tests, students in many neighborhood schools in Oakland receive little or no arts integrated instruction.

Create CA, advocates for the fulfillment of meaningful integration of the arts in public schools. The California Alliance for Arts Education further outlines how this is a central issue of educational equity. In the report, At the Crossroads of Arts and Equity the Alliance lays out the case for adopting broad and engaging arts integration in schools as a pathway to educational equity.

As a board member I will advocate for policies that ensure every student in the city has access to the kind of “creative, inclusive, whole-child education” that will help to prepare them to be participants in our creative economy.

See also: The Advantages of Arts Learning Continues Over Time.

MLK, Jr. Elementary

The STEAM driven program is helping produce positive gains in literacy at MLK Jr. Elementary

I visited Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary school this morning. Principal Roma Groves-Waters showed me around the campus and shared some of the challenges she’s faced during her 11 years at the school. As we walked And talked she greeted students by name, and cheered them on to their classrooms. There are about 400 students on the campus, which has successfully completed a merge with the former Lafayette Elementary. Classrooms are full. Among the classrooms we visited was a PreK/kindergarten class led by a woman who has been an educator for 54 years. The community relations administrator George Henderson told me that some students in the school are children of students who attended the school in years past. You can’t miss the good vibrations. There’s a large garden in the northwest corner of the campus, and the walls of the buildings are decorated with cheerful images and art.

OUSD could use this school as a model for other neighborhood schools. When I’m on the school board we will be looking here for inspiration.

Why I’m Running.

The first question most people have asked me when I tell them I am running for a seat on the Oakland School Board is, “Why?” Those familiar with the challenges facing the school district give me a look that could be described as part sympathy, part puzzlement, and maybe a little dollop of admiration. The school district that fostered me as a student, where my mother taught, where my children attended, and the district where I taught, has not fared well over the years. A mix of short-term superintendents, of financial problems that caused the district to fall into state receivership, and a culture of waste and mismanagement are signs of a district in deep distress. That one word, “why,” brings up a lot of issues. Some thoughts…

The 21st Century Education to which Every Student In Oakland is Entitled is not possible without a 21st Century school system.

Oakland’s broken administrative culture is rooted in mismanagement and outdated business practices. In my work in the education technology domain I have worked on teams of 21st Century thinkers to help solve big problems. Those challenges have been solved through a combination of government policy change, powerful product design, and a relentless focus on data. I will bring my perspective, experience, and passion to bear on the problems that face OUSD. Having the opportunity to do this work in the context of a district and community I love is the kind of challenge that gets me jumping out of bed in the morning.

We Are Not Serving the Needs of Every Student in Oakland.

When I was a special education teacher at Edna Brewer middle school I saw first hand the challenges that students in Oakland bring with them to school. School should be a place of learning, of refuge, of safety, and of nourishment. On its best days, Edna Brewer was that to our students. But there are many schools in Oakland that do not have the resources that we had at Edna Brewer. This is primarily due to administrative failure and misallocation of resources. The Alameda County Grand Jury Report lays out some of the key problems in its conclusion:

The culture in OUSD’s administrative offices must change in order to provide its students with the quality of education they deserve. OUSD is wasting millions of dollars well in excess of its projected annual deficits. Drastic action is required to “right the ship” and this must begin at the top. OUSD needs to bring comprehensive and modern best business practices into district offices and leadership. Staff need regular training inculcating these throughout the organization. If staff refuses to buy into these plans, they must be held accountable. OUSD can no longer afford to be philosophical. Restoring financial stability requires sacrifices throughout the organization. Stringent controls, adherence to contracting procedures, updated policies, and school consolidations are immediate priorities.

Yet staff cannot be expected to buy into these changes if the elected Board continues to lead by reaction. Failure to put into place a strategic plan and have the courage to carry it out will ensure that the district continues to sputter with under-enrolled schools and shoestring budgets. Over one thousand school districts in the state operate competently with the state’s current funding structure. Oakland is not one of them even though it receives significantly more funding than the median district in the region. The Board has “kicked every can down the line” and rarely acted with a sense of urgency on many vital issues. The state of the district today is the inevitable result.

This report has detailed repeated examples of mismanagement, favoritism, disregard for authority and poor controls. Policy and procedures are ignored causing one poor decision after another. Moreover, lack of accountability is rampant. Those who have attempted to instill better methods are ignored or quickly pushed aside. Well-intentioned policies such as individual school autonomy or hiring local businesses cannot continue at a premium in the face of dismal finances. OUSD cannot afford them.

The Board and OUSD’s senior management have a monumental task in front of them. Full support from the Board, OUSD’s leadership, management, and employees, as well as recently added support from the Alameda County Board of Education is needed to make progress possible.

2018-2019 Alameda County Grand Jury Report

I recommend reading the entire report. While it is heartbreaking, it’s also illuminating.

OUSD’s Broken Administration is Robbing Students of Needed Resources

According to the Grand Jury Report, OUSD receives more dollars per student than most districts in the county, but ranks last on the share of spending for teacher salaries, and nearly last on spending for other pupil services and for books and supplies. On the other hand, the district is spending six times the state average on supervisors and administrators. Until OUSD corrects this imbalance, insufficient funding for school sites will persist. OUSD needs a bold masterplan to reorganize its central administration to trim excessive bureaucracy, modernize its data systems, and cultivate leadership empowered to create a 21st Century organization that the taxpayers and students of Oakland deserve. More resources directed to school sites and teacher salaries will foster the equity that is missing in the distribution of resources today.

Leadership Requires Discipline, Creativity, and Passion

This sentence in the Grand Jury Report caught my eye: “Yet staff cannot be expected to buy into these changes if the elected Board continues to lead by reaction.” Leading by reaction is the opposite of leadership. Citizens should expect the directors of the Oakland School Board to get out in front of issues and make plans that will change the spiraling trajectory of the district. Sound leadership is rooted in discipline — an ability to stay focused on a goal even in the face of great chaos. We need leaders who have the creativity to see opportunity where others see problems, and leaders with the passion to eagerly confront and solve big, gnarly problems. I am committed to exercising all three of these aspects of leadership, and that is why I am running for a seat on the Oakland School Board.