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!

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.