Is an 80% failure rate acceptable?

I was raised by exceptional parents. They were feminists, peace activists, and public education advocates who raised me, my brother, and two sisters with a healthy progressive view of the world. My father’s pragmatic intellectualism was balanced by my mother’s idealism and creativity. Our dinner table was home to discussions of politics, philosophy, religion, social justice, and peace. We moved to Oakland in 1968, as the civil rights movement peaked, and as the anti-war movement was revving up. From my parents I learned that justice and peace are the fruits of intentional, progressive action. They raised us to be social justice warriors.

This election is just one front on which the social justice battle is being fought. People have taken to the streets to raise voices for justice, for equity, and to call for an end to the systemic racism that has prevented America from becoming the ideal democracy that many of us believe it can be. I am here for this fight.

And what are we fighting for? What my parents taught us is that it is our duty to exercise our privilege in service of those who have been denied equitable access to the rights and privileges of our nation. I am fighting for the children of Oakland, especially those black and brown children who have been failed by our school district — in some schools 80% of students do not read at grade level. In what other context would we consider an 80% failure rate acceptable? Over the past months the other candidates and I have met and had conversations in multiple forums with the community. I have pushed to keep those conversations focused on what is important: confronting the literacy crisis; permanently bridging the digital divide; and making changes to the OUSD budgeting process to assure equitable funding for students across the city. Win or lose, I know that my campaign has helped to center the most important challenges facing our school district.

I aim to win, and to be in a position to push the agenda for a high quality education for every student in Oakland. If I am not elected, I am hoping that Maiya Edgerly wins the seat. Maiya is a powerful advocate for students in Oakland, and we are fully aligned on the issues. She will be the kind of social justice warrior that our children need. I am so glad to have met her during this campaign, and I am proud to call her a friend. If she wins, I will continue to support her as she confronts the challenges of sitting on the board. And if I win, I will lean on Maiya for her insight, her deep understanding of the community, and her wisdom. In Oakland’s ranked choice voting system, it’s important to win both first and second choice votes, and Maiya and I are encouraging voters to choose us both when making choices for the top two slots.

I know that many of you reading this are friends and family, and not necessarily voters in Oakland. I am extremely grateful for all of your support over the past few months. We are just days away from an election that will have major consequences for our nation. I know that we may be focused on those races that are at the top of the ballot, but I want you to know that your interest in this school board election (which is the last item on the back side of the last of several pages of the Oakland ballot) is just as important to the children of Oakland as the choice of a new president.

If you haven’t voted yet, please vote! And if you are an Oakland voter in District 3, please cast your first and second choices for me and Maiya. And if you have already voted, thank you.

PS – As I was writing this I heard that George Holland, Sr. (president of the NAACP Oakland Branch) endorsed me and Maiya. Several of my endorsements are dual endorsements with Maiya, further underlining the collaborative nature of our campaigns.

Love, Literacy, and Liberation

I had the opportunity to join my friend Dirk Tillotson on his CitizenEd podcast, and we talked about the digital divide and the great work that The Oakland Reach is doing in Oakland to show positive ways to support home learning. The Literacy Liberation Center that The Oakland Reach developed this summer has gained national attention because it is such a powerful model for how to address the dual issues of literacy and digital access.

Citizen Ed: Access Denied Podcast

Pastor Guy Robinson, a familiar face to many of you in West Oakland, was also a guest on the show, and he spoke about the powerful outcomes for his grandsons in the Literacy Liberation Center, and how the power of love that permeated the program was central to that success.

If you have some time, please watch the podcast — it was inspiring to hear from a parent and a grandparent about what is possible when we focus on what children and families need to succeed in this challenging time.

Check your mailbox

As I write this, there are just 38 days until Nov. 3. But in Oakland, and all throughout California, voting really begins in less than 2 weeks when voters begin receiving their mail in ballots. In many parts of the state you’ll be able to turn in a ballot at a voting location on Election Day, but my advice is that you mark your ballot as soon as you receive it, and mail it back right away.

For Oakland voters the stakes are extremely high. Children in this district deserve a high quality education, and our new school board is going to be facing significant challenges in delivering on that promise. As a new board member I will make it my priority to address the three most pressing issues that the district faces:

  • A literacy crisis that is at the root of the academic achievement challenges in the district.
  • The digital divide that positions many of our most vulnerable children on the far side of a chasm that restricts their access to quality distance learning.
  • A district budget that may not reflect the most important priorities we need to address in our schools.

If you live in District 3 you may have received a postcard from me in your mailbox. Please keep it handy when you mark your ballot — I hope it will remind you about my priorities and guide you as you cast your vote.

For those of you who are not District 3 voters, I’m attaching a copy of that postcard here so you can see how we are reaching out to voters. I was able to send this card because of the financial support many of you provided. I am grateful!

PS – Late Breaking: I just learned that I was endorsed by the Asian Pacific American Democratic Caucus.

PPS – I have extra printed postcards that can be handed out in your neighborhood (if you live in District 3). If you have someplace to share them, let me know and I will arrange to get them to you.

It’s Official!

Last week I turned in my nomination signatures and was officially placed on the ballot for the November 3 election. I want to thank all of you who have helped me get to this milestone, either through your generous donations or by giving your time and talents to helping me shape my campaign’s goals. We are now just 77 days away from the election and the opportunity to make choices that will determine the future of the children of Oakland.*

A vote for me is a vote that will put a director on the school board who:

  • will advocate fiercely for the right of each child learn to read by the 3rd grade and receive literacy support at every grade level, assuring that our children are prepared and able to choose a future path that leads to college or a meaningful career.
  • will lead in the development of policies that bridge the digital divide, acknowledging that access to technology is a fundamental right — that no child should be denied the tools that will help them become full participants in the 21st century society.
  • has the experience and passion to address the challenges of a district budget that has for far too long denied many children in this city access to a high quality public school.

The challenges we face as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic call for an innovative response. In confronting this crisis, I see an opportunity to break down the old inequities that disenfranchised so many of our children. As we move forward with plans to implement distance and hybrid learning models, we can begin to support our teachers across the city with opportunity for meaningful collaboration. Teachers from every school at every grade level will be empowered to share strategies and support each other and their students, coupling great teaching with the added power of technology. No longer bound by the limitations of physical space, we can provide teachers with the tools and professional development to support students in new and innovative ways. And with the resources that we receive to confront the pandemic we can support families, and free them from the difficult choice between earning a living and supporting their children with home learning.

Please, help me share this message. Tell your friends, share on your social media! And please reach out with your hopes and dreams for what we can do in service of the children of Oakland.


* There are, of course, other important reasons to vote on November 3. As you may know, the opportunity to choose a school board member is near the bottom of the ballot. While I believe that choosing a school board member is extremely important, I also recognize that there are important choices at the top of the ballot, choices that are critical to the preservation of our democracy. Please exercise your voice!

Every Oakland voter will receive a ballot in the mail this fall. Be sure to keep an eye out for your ballot and vote early to assure your vote is counted.

Priorities.

In my day job I work as a software product manager. My role is to receive input from various stakeholders, then create a prioritized plan for systematically addressing all those concerns. Our team uses the Agile Method to manage our work to achieve goals and move our product forward to serve the needs of our various constituencies. One of my roles in this process is to set the priorities for each sprint, a two-week development cycle that produces a set of new features that advances the effectiveness of our product. While my longterm plan must include a roadmap of our grand vision and all the goals we need to achieve in the long term, prioritizing specific achievable goals that can be reached in the course of our two week-sprint are the key to making meaningful change happen. The Agile process works because it helps organizations break down big, gnarly problems into smaller, prioritized steps that make it possible to solve problems that may otherwise seem unattainable.

OUSD is facing some daunting problems. The challenges of a global pandemic and the need to transition to digital classrooms and online learning has thrown district on its heels. The issue of impending budget cuts that are certain to be even more drastic in the face of the current health crisis. Literacy is a persistent challenge for the district. While we have a new Chief Financial Officer, we still face formidable obstacles to having a transparent budgeting process. The district overspends the state average on administration and underspends on teacher salaries. To overcome these challenges and achieve the goal of providing an equitable, high quality education for every student, OUSD needs to become more agile, more focused, more nimble.

There are three main mission focused parts of OUSD. The Administration is the business side of the district, charged with managing the resources and business operations that support the the district’s primary program and mission. Teachers are charged with carrying out the mission and educating the city’s youth. The Board of Education sets policies to guide the administration and hold the superintendent and her team accountable to the mission. A mission driven organization cannot function if operations, programs, and policies are not aligned, and it understates the problem to say that the present administration, teachers, and the board are not fully aligned around a unified vision of our mission.

There may be many solutions to unifying the district around its mission, but there is only one truth: if the district fails to find a path to unifying operations, program, and policy towards a shared mission, we will continue to see outcomes like we see today: 2 out of every 3 students do not meet the state standards for literacy. Effective movement towards unifying every member of the OUSD community around the mission will require listening and leadership. It will require significant change in the administration. It will require commitment of teachers and students (and their families) to working together in the face of an extremely challenging reality exacerbated by a global pandemic. It will require a board that understands the need for prioritizing goals, and focusing on policies that guide the administration and superintendent to confront challenges in a systematic and productive way.

Being agile does not require adopting the Agile Methodology, but there are lessons to be learned from the Agile mindset. The key for OUSD administration is setting and focusing on near term priorities — priorities that can be accomplished in short sprints of activity — that are aligned with the big, overarching policies established by the Board of Education. Oakland needs a board of education that can establish a long term vision, driven by community input, and a board that can set short term priorities that will help the administration focus on near term outcomes. As a board member I will commit to actions that support the goal of aligning our organization around the primary mission of serving the educational needs of every student in Oakland. And I will push policies to make the administration more nimble and more transparent, starting with:

  1. Adopt a district wide literacy plan and curriculum and empower experienced teachers to develop and provide professional development that assures the curriculum is taught with fidelity across the district, so that every student in Oakland reads at grade level by the end of the school year.
  2. Adopt a digital bridge plan that assures every student and every teacher in the district has a broadband connection sufficient for distance learning and that the district has a unified approach to delivering educational content so that students and teachers can focus on learning.
  3. Adopt a budgeting policy that makes OUSD’s finances transparent and clear to all stakeholders — the board, the community (parents and students), teachers, and the administration — so that future decisions about district financial policy are based on a clear and common understanding of the equitable allocation of resources that lead to a high quality education for every student in the city.

There are other goals that are critical in the long term, but it’s necessary to prioritize and focus on the goals that will unify us in the near term in order to have hope about the big challenges that lie ahead.

Let me know what you think. mark@markforoakland.com or @markforoakland.

New New Deal

Back in 2008, when he was leading the Ella Baker Center here in Oakland, Van Jones articulated a bold and modern reworking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The key feature of FDR’s new deal was that it put the unemployed to work while improving the functional and cultural infrastructure of the nation. The Green New Deal that Jones envisioned did the same, proposing to train and employ a large workforce to improve the green infrastructure of the nation for the purpose of saving our environment. Jones’ visionary Green New Deal has been adopted by many politicians and activists, but it’s helpful to remember that his vision has its roots here in Oakland. Jones’ idea was that we could address the dual issues of underemployment and climate change with a single bold initiative that trained workers in a green collar economy.

We need a similar new deal today. As we grapple with the lack of broadband internet access for our most vulnerable youth in urban communities like Oakland, we could address two problems in a single stroke. Unemployment has exploded in the past few weeks and students and teachers have been forced find ways to connect virtually. A coordinated program that trains unemployed workers to connect homes to lifeline services offered by internet service providers would address both problems.

Broadband access to the internet is table stakes for a comprehensive remote learning program. But that access is increasingly out of reach of many families in the country. As a nation we could have chosen to make access to the internet a basic service available to every American as a benefit of citizenship. The nation could have chosen to build the infrastructure for delivering network access to every address as an investment, supported by taxes. We chose a different option, though, offloading that infrastructure investment to profit-focused corporations (so that we could cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans). Included in our deal with those corporations was a provision for providing discounted services to families that couldn’t afford the luxury pricing that ISPs offered. Those discounted services are typically difficult to access due to complex applications and qualification processes. Making access universally and easily available to every citizen requires that we unravel the complexities that were created as a result of the choices we made as a nation decades ago. That’s a long process and will not be easy. But in the face of this current crisis, we could step up and create and train teams of Oakland youth within our community to assist in the process of applying for and installing the services that are necessary for providing access for our students. And with sufficient pressure, (like Dirk Tillotson applied when he pressured Comcast to relax its draconian rules that limited access to their offering) we can begin the process of moving towards equitable access for all.

Our founding documents guarantee the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as fundamental. To guarantee those rights, we also need access to basic services: healthcare; housing; nutrition; education; and an opportunity to work. Within each of those broad services are the implied access to services like access to information. Without equitable access to the internet we are denying citizens the enjoyment of their inalienable rights.

A joint effort of Oakland’s Mayor, our OUSD leadership, and concerned citizens could step up and make this happen.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Confronting the global coronavirus pandemic by closing schools, businesses, and public spaces has disrupted family life and knocked our community on its heels. The disruption has magnified inequity in Oakland, and families with the fewest resources are being disproportionately impacted. If ever there was a time for a community to rally in service to one another and to those with the greatest need, this is it.

In my day job at EducationSuperHighway, we have launched an initiative to leverage our relationships with governors and state education leaders, with the FCC, and with internet service providers to bridge the digital divide, especially as it impacts students at home. Our DigitalBridge K-12 program team is gathering resources and collaborating with school districts to develop a playbook for connecting the families that are currently being denied access to an education because they cannot connect online. (One of my tasks was to build a search tool so that families can enter a zip code to find the available programs that are being offered during the pandemic.)

For students in Oakland to thrive, learn, and grow they need to engage with one another and their teachers even as they are sheltering at home. This requires a combination of hardware, software, and a robust network. To deliver those resources to those who currently lack them is going to require quick, thoughtful, and decisive action. Later this week I am joining with other Oakland leaders in the education community to draft policies that will encourage the Board of Education to take meaningful steps to bridge Oakland’s digital divide. The task before us will extend beyond the short term need to connect students for the balance of this school year. This digital divide has been a persistent issue for disconnected families, even when school is in session. Students without broadband at home don’t have access to the resources that help them keep pace with their privileged peers, so policies set by the board should take into account the need to make internet access persistent and accessible for families even as we return to school and work after this crisis passes. (And the emerging common view is that even when students and teachers return to school there will continue to be impact from this pandemic for many months until a vaccine is broadly available.)

This work is only one piece of the inequity puzzle and as we confront this crisis, there are many organizations that are responding with urgency. Access to food, to shelter, and to safety are even more urgent — and the pandemic has brought into stark relief the deep and abiding inequity that is and has been pervasive in Oakland for decades, and these inequities cry out to be addressed by our service to one another. Organizations like The Oakland Reach are leading in this kind of service. This is a time for our community to heed the words of Mahtma Gandhi and confront this pandemic by joyfully taking up the opportunity to serve.

Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.

Mahatma Gandhi