December 7, 2012
By Lisa Hewitt
Troy Flint, the Director of Public Relations of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), is the face of an organization which serves a complex city. Now living in West Oakland, Flint made the move out to California to work with a tech startup. For the better part of a decade, Flint has worked in various communication fields including journalism and public relations. Originally from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Flint began in the district in 2007.
Arguably the largest looming issue the district faces is its persistently low graduation rate. With dropouts in Oakland reported from the San Francisco Chronicle at 27.7%, well over California’s 14.4%, Flint concedes OUSD has a lot of work to do. The drop out crisis in Oakland is not a unique situation. He explains, “It’s abysmal, our graduation rate. [But] it’s in line with districts with similar demographics, those with high poverty and high minority populations-particularly Black and Latino.” To begin to explain why these areas are struggling to keep their students in school, Flint points to a lack of investment at the national and state level and points out that the achievement gap serves to highlight the staggering underinvestment in urban areas. The dropout crisis is not confined to one school district or California alone, the issue is a systemic problem.
The problem extends beyond those who dropout entirely; even enrolled students may miss significant portions of the school year and are much less likely to graduate on time or at all. The district is working to ensure that chronic absences decrease. From following up when students miss, to offering incentive programs, the district is making a concerted effort to stress the importance of attending school. Beyond attendance, Flint points to three key strategies to ensure students stay in school: early education programs, interventions when students begin to fall behind and strong career and college readiness preparation.
The problem is more likely to be solved if students are engaged at an early age. It’s vital to have a strong early education program, beginning before kindergarten, to ensure the students are able to stay on track throughout their academic careers. Flint explains, “We set up a department which we’re calling Zero to Eight… to make a continuum of learning to get kids on track.” Without the solid foundation from a young age the problem is only exacerbated.
At the high school level, Flint expressed the need for college and career preparedness. “The idea is to introduce every student to a plausible career path, whether it’s university or it’s a vocational school or some professional activity”. In order to connect students to a career path or ensure they’re college bound, Flint points to a national initiative called Linked Learning. Linked Learning is a holistic approach to education, comprised of four areas targeted at high school students. The first element is academic rigor, requiring all students to take the necessary course load to make them eligible to attend a CSU or UC. Additionally, the program includes a technical component or vocational training, worked based learning component (internship, externship, apprenticeship) and social/emotional supports (counseling, tutoring, intervention to struggling students).
Beyond the nuts and bolts of academic life, Flint stresses there are much more serious needs in the community, such as the continued lack of resources and support for the entire family. One solution is the community school model. In order to combat issues which impact students in Oakland such as poverty, problems in the home, and violence in the community, the district envisions schools where these issues can be addressed. Community schools, Flint explains, should serves as the “center of community and act as an anchor for the neighborhood, drawing people in where they can be part of the solution. Not just academic resources, but [offer] parent engagement classes, health care, dental care, eye care, nutrition services, parks and recreation and extra curricular opportunities. We want the school to be the center of where all these services are orbiting.” At the moment, the resources aren’t fully available, but working in partnership with non-profit and community organizations, the business community, and government partners, OUSD can create a network of services which address not only the academic needs but all community needs. Investment and support from the students and parents is essential to see these community schools succeed. Young people must be active learners, while teachers, administrators and parents must view each other as partners in their children’s’ academic careers. There are many hurdles for a district with a historically underserved population to overcome such as persistent violence, poverty, and underpaid and overworked teachers, but the hope is, “In the not too distant future, every [school] will be a quality [school].”