By Barbara Grady
A tiny K-8 charter school that serves kids in East Oakland’s most dangerous and desperate neighborhood lost its charter Wednesday night after an emotional session before the Oakland Board of Education.
In a long meeting Wednesday evening, the board of the Oakland Unified School District also voted to prepare a ballot measure asking Oakland residents to consider a new parcel tax of $120 per parcel to fund improving its high schools. The measure would be on the November ballot.
Additionally, the board voted to limit police contact with students during school hours and to give students the right to have a parent present before answering any police questions.
The Oakland school board approved a plan to draft a ballot measure for November asking voters for a $120 per-parcel tax to help improve high school instruction in Oakland.
Specifically, the district wants to bring Linked Learning pedagogy to all of its high schools, as well as hire more counselors, teachers and advisors so that students receive personal advising through their high school years and have access to academically rigorous courses. OUSD aims to raise about $12 million through the parcel tax and distribute it to all high schools in Oakland, including charter schools, on an equal amount per student basis, with 10 percent saved for administering the program. Schools would develop Linked Learning — or learning through internship — curricula and apply for the funding set aside for each school. Watch the video below to learn about Linked Learning.
The high schools are, by the district’s own assessment, the weakest part of the school district, in that scores from the high schools as a group suggest lower proficiency among students compared with their peers elsewhere, and nearly 22 percent of high school students drop out.
While several high schools are academic success stories where many families try to enroll their kids, some others are fraught with problems, including high dropout rates, declining enrollment, teacher turnover and low academic achievement. Three schools in particular, located in Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods, Castlemont, Fremont and McClymonds high schools, have significant troubles. Castlemont, which is two blocks up the street from E.C. Reems in the same violence-plagued neighborhood, lost its principal mid-year, while McClymonds has yet another new principal this year.
Linked Learning programs developed at some district high schools, including MetWest and Life Academy with partial programs at other schools, have been successful in raising student achievement and keeping students in school to graduation. Data the district extracted from its student achievement records found that students in Linked Learning programs generally scored higher on California standardized tests and were more likely to enroll in college preparatory classes than peers not in the programs.
Acting Superintendent Gary Yee proposed “The Oakland College and Career Readiness for All Fund” ballot measure would have the following five goals and four uses.
- Decrease the high school dropout rate
- Increase high school students’ readiness to succeed in college and career
- Increase middle school students’ successful transition to high school
- Reduce disparities in student achievement and student access to Linked Learning based on race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and residency
- To increase supports for students in college preparatory courses in every high school to ensure all students are eligible to attend and are prepared to succeed in college
- To provide work-based learning in every high school, including career exploration, career technical education courses, job shadowing, internships and job certifications
- To provide counseling, tutoring, mentoring and other intensive support services to students in danger of not graduating high school
- To provide programs to students transitioning from eighth grade to ninth grade to prepare them to succeed in high school, including early career exploration, summer school and parent outreach.
Money raised through the tax would be apportioned to all publicly funded high schools in Oakland (including charter high schools) on a per-pupil basis, such that schools get the same amount per student. Last night, the board added a stipulation to include the county-approved charter high school in Oakland, Envision Academy, in receiving funding.
Community groups have been pushing for help for the high schools. The Oakland Community Organizations and East Bay Asian Youth Center took it upon themselves to survey 552 households to gauge willingness to pay a special tax to improve the city’s high schools and help teenagers. Its survey, used by the school board in making its decisions, found that 73 percent of voters polled would approve a parcel tax of $120 to improve Oakland’s high schools. Of course, attitudes shown in a poll might differ from votes actually cast. A tax measure needs two-thirds or 67 percent of votes to win passage.
Katy Nunez-Adler, an organizer with OCO, said, “We are a group working in support of Linked Learning and high school improvement. Our research showed that Linked Learning approaches can make a real difference in a child’s life if we have enough support. So out of our own funding, we conducted a community survey of households,” on what they think of a parcel tax. Her colleague from EBAYC, Andy Nelson, said, “We don’t take this lightly, we know it is a huge task, especially for flatlands families. We also know from the polls across the city that Oaklanders do take seriously the need to provide opportunities for high school students.”
E.C. Reems Charter School
E.C. Reems Academy of Technology and Arts, on MacArthur Boulevard at 84th Street, sought a five-year renewal of its charter from OUSD. Charter schools get funding and general approval from local school districts but operate independently.
Tucked along a corridor where gunshots ring out daily and where unemployment shapes day-to-day life, E.C. Reems schools 243 children, almost all of them local and almost all of them African-Americans from very low-income families. It is one of Oakland’s oldest charter schools, founded 14 years ago by Bishop Ernestine C. Reems of nearby Center of Hope Community Church.
But citing sharply declining enrollment, financial difficulties with rising debt and mediocre academic performance — although that last point was contested — OUSD staff recommended the board not renew E.C. Reems’ charter. After an anguished discussion, the board voted 4-2 along those lines, despite pleas from parents, students, administrators, local clergy and community members. Only board members James Harris, who represents East Oakland, and Chris Dobbins voted to let the school continue.
“E.C. Reems is really the community. The school has done so much for the community, for families who are homeless, for families living in hotels,’’ said parent Nikka Bell with one of her three children who attend Reems at her side. “If you take it away, you’re taking away the hope of our children.”
Recent graduate LaVonte Thompson said the school is “my home, our home,” and another recent graduate credited her E.C. Reems education for her success getting into several colleges and state universities.
Principal Lisa Blair said the school has a particular mission. “We are in East Oakland to save lives. We are in East Oakland to give children who have been transferred out of other schools an opportunity to excel, an opportunity to become adults.” She acknowledged that enrollment is down and finances tough, but added that OUSD is also losing enrollment. She said families are moving out of Oakland.
E.C. Reems’ enrollment has plunged 33 percent in two years. Since schools are reimbursed based on how many kids are enrolled and attend school, its revenues have also plunged. It has borrowed money from OUSD as well as from its own future revenues — a risky move — to pay for ongoing expenses. Its debt is about $280,000.
The OUSD staff who review charter applications by analyzing the school’s practices, data on student outcomes and school finances also cited poor academic performance based on the state’s Academic Performance Index, lack of professional development opportunities for teachers and no plan in place to implement curriculum aligned with the Common Core standards although schools are required to do so.
However, the school’s API rose to 711 last year from 699 the year before. Most notably, scores achieved by E.C. Reems’ African-American students for the past three years are higher than the average scores for African-American students attending district-operated schools, according to data on the E.C. Reems application.
The Rev. Raymond Lankford of Voices of Hope Community Church asked the board perhaps the most searching question: If you close the school, he asked, what is your plan for these children?
In an anguished discussion, board members wondered why Reems officials filed their petition late — too late for them to provide much help to Reems administrators to shore up finances and strengthen the academic program.
Blair, in an interview, said she will appeal to the county and the state if necessary.