New Oakland Super Attempts to Improve Troubled Schools

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Antwan Wilson, Oakland’s new school superintendent, was hired because of his reputation for improving struggling schools, but his plan to contract outside sources in order to reform efforts at five troubled schools across the East Bay city has become controversial.

On duty since July, Wilson has asked for proposals for innovative methods to create schools that can raise student achievement, graduation rates, and enrollment at three high schools, one middle school, and one elementary school. SFGate‘s Jill Tucker reports that Wilson is requesting plans from school communities, teachers, principals, and community groups. He also has asked for proposals from charter school operators – and there’s the rub.

Many parents, teachers, school alumni, and labor officials think that Wilson wants to turn the five schools over to charters, an accusation which Wilson has repeatedly denied.

“Words are one thing, but you’re opening it up to charter schools,” Tania Kappner, a high school teacher at Oakland Tech and a West Oakland resident, said in a public meeting at McClymonds this month. “You don’t need a (request-for-proposals) process to know we need more resources, more counselors.”

Because Wilson was out of town and was not at the meeting, Allen Smith, district chief of schools, fielded the emotional questions from the crowd.

“We are not closing McClymonds,” said Smith. “It is not going to become a charter school. That is not what this is about.”

McClymonds is a 90-year-old school that in 2005 was split into three small schools only to become one school again in 2010. In 2004, it had 800 students, and in 2010, it had 300 students. In that same year, a new principal was hired and resources were poured into the school – a health clinic, a family and student center – making it a “full-service” school. It seemed it would be able to flourish. The other schools in question have undergone similar reform strategies. Yet, the schools still need help.

“I recognize that many of our schools and the communities they are in have seen numerous other attempts to improve schools come and fail,” Wilson said in an open letter to the city. “That failure fuels anger, suspicion and distrust.

“What I also understand is that we are not satisfied with the results we are currently getting for our students.”

The plan that Wilson is attempting is set for an 18-month period of time. This month involves the community engagement, says Doug Oakley of the San Jose Mercury News. Next, in April, charter organizations and other academic organizations can submit proposals, followed by a district review and proposal approvals in May and June. The new schools will open in 2016.

However, the Oakland teachers union is opposed to charter schools because the creation of charters causes loss of members, power and influence. Oakland Education Association President Trish Gorham says the academic redesign of the schools has been rushed. She added that the district does not approve of inviting charter schools to fill out plans for the school district.

Da Lin of KPIX-TV, San Francisco says that critics have said the simple solution is to invest more money in these schools. They add that there are no signs that the 40% funding allotment increase has made any difference. There is not even a library at Fremont School, one of the five. Teachers say more computers and a working auditorium are needed, as well.

Another education issue currently unfolding in Oakland, writes Doug Oakley of the San Jose Mercury News, is a 10-year restorative justice experiment that has been used at 27 schools and will, according to officials, be expanded to all 86 schools within five years.  The alternatives to traditional discipline responses have resulted in a drop in suspensions and chronic absenteeism, and an increase in graduation rates.

“These positive impacts speak to the need to accelerate the programs in the next five years,” said Oakland schools Superintendent Antwan Wilson. “Restorative justice gives students a voice to be seen as individuals who can problem-solve and understand the circumstances that impacted another person’s feelings.”

When there has been harm, the person who is responsible is brought together with the person who has been harmed. The event is discussed, while who has been impacted and how is established, and then there is conversation about what is going to happen next, explains David Yusem, program manager for the school district’s restorative justice programs. This type of self-management increases student engagement, helps create a positive social environment, and teaches students problem-solving skills.