OAKLAND — It is often said that there are "two Oaklands," and the city's public education system is no exception to this divide. Some schools are largely attended by the middle class and affluent, and others by the poor and working class. The Interstate 580 freeway, which traces the city's rolling foothills, provides a crude boundary.
About 10 years ago, a group of mothers from the flatlands of East Oakland saw their children languishing in overcrowded, chaotic schools while their peers in the hills received a far different kind of education. Through Oakland Community Organizations, an alliance of community and religious leaders, those concerned mothers and thousands of others pushed for the creation of new, small schools — excellent schools, with innovative practices and high expectations — in their own neighborhoods.
At that time, a movement to create small schools was beginning to catch fire in urban districts across the country. Small schools were touted as a tool to curb sky-high dropout rates and the growing "achievement gap" between poor, often minority students and their middle-class counterparts.
Proponents, including philanthropist Bill Gates, were willing to trade the wide array of course offerings and other resources available at traditional high schools for a more intimate, innovative learning environment. They believed this would give students from impoverished, violent neighborhoods the extra attention, security and sense of community they needed to succeed, academically.
The Oakland school district signed on. In 2000, the board approved a small schools policy that led to the creation of nine new schools in the first three years. From 2003 to 2007, the district closed seven large, middle and high schools and at least seven elementary schools — those in the city's poorest neighborhoods — and reopened smaller, themed ones in their place. Teachers and principals had to reapply for their jobs.
More than 40 new schools later, the Oakland school district is transformed, at least on the surface. But many of its problems — low test scores, high dropout rates, staff turnover — remain.
Recent studies from Stanford University and Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform have highlighted the successes of the decade-long effort, including its staying power; the movement has survived a state takeover, four superintendents and three state administrators.
"We are poised for a huge breakthrough in the flatlands schools," Lillian Lopez, a prominent parent organizer for Oakland Community Organizations, said at a celebration in April when the Annenberg report was released.
Still, the school district's enrollment has plunged from 55,000 in 2000 to fewer than 40,000 today, a decline most acute in some of the very neighborhoods in which the reform was focused. Since school funding in Oakland is largely driven by enrollment — and since families can choose schools outside their attendance boundaries or one of the city's 32 tuition-free, independently run charters — some of the new schools have struggled financially, eliminating counselors, librarians and key teaching positions.
Such problems, paired with a state budget crisis and an institutional tendency to jettison yesterday's big education reform in favor of the latest trend, have some supporters worried. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funneled millions of dollars into the effort, has shifted its national focus from small schools to high school reform. The $25 million that fueled the Oakland school district's bold reinvention has run out.
Praise, mixed results
Oakland's new schools are safer, calmer and more welcoming to families than the institutions they replaced, according to surveys conducted by the Annenberg Institute and the dozens of teachers and students interviewed for this story.
Matthew Duffy, principal of Elmhurst Community Prep Middle School in East Oakland, said the transition from a large to a small school has turned him from a "glorified cop" into "an instructional leader." Now, he said, "The conversations I have with teachers are really about teaching."
Some of the new schools in the flatlands, such as Elmhurst Community Prep and ACORN Woodland Elementary in East Oakland and ASCEND in Oakland's predominately Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, have seen their state test scores rise markedly, as have many of the district's traditional elementary schools.
Last spring, the small, Fruitvale-area elementary school Think College Now was named a California Distinguished School at the same time as Hillcrest, an elementary school in one of Oakland's wealthiest neighborhoods. At LIFE Academy, a bioscience-themed high school in East Oakland that opened in 2001, about 40 percent of last year's graduates were admitted into the University of California system, one of the highest acceptance rates in the district.
Other schools have embraced the innovative spirit of the reform. MetWest, a 130-student high school near Laney College that opened in 2002, tossed the traditional high school model aside and instituted student internships and research projects.
Evidence of the movement's effectiveness isn't just anecdotal. In the fall, Linda Darling-Hammond, a researcher from Stanford University, found that students at Oakland's new schools made greater test score gains during the previous three years, on average, than children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds who attended larger schools.
For all the success stories, however, a troubling fact remains: The reading and math scores, particularly those of the district's older students, remain low.
Last year, at all but three of Oakland's new high schools, more than 80 percent of the student body scored either "below basic" or "far below basic" on state math tests, according to an analysis of data provided by the school district's research division.
Dropout rates have improved by most accounts, but they remain high. In fall 2002, for example, the senior class at the old Fremont Federation High School in East Oakland was 62 percent smaller than it had been in the ninth grade. Last fall, the combined 12th-grade enrollment of Fremont's four new, small schools had shrunk by 47 percent over three years — a smaller attrition rate, but still nearly half.
The small schools movement has few vocal critics, but some are disheartened by how their schools have fared in the shuffle. Two of Oakland's new schools, Kizmet Middle School in West Oakland and East Oakland Community High School, were shuttered in 2007 because of low enrollment and other problems. The district recently announced it would phase out three more — BEST High School (McClymonds campus), Paul Robeson School of the Visual & Performing Arts (Fremont campus) and Peralta Creek Middle School (Calvin Simmons campus) — and has signaled that more mergers could follow.
Critics, as well as some supporters, say much of the initial reform effort was consumed by structural and organizational changes, rather than more deeply rooted educational challenges. They note many of Oakland's new schools are grappling with the same old problems: high teacher and principal turnover and limited resources for students — and teachers — who need extra support.
Jack Gerson, a teacher at Castlemont's Leadership Preparatory Academy and a teacher union leader, said the small schools movement has brought a welcome sense of calm and community to his East Oakland campus. But that's not enough, he said. Students at his school need smaller class sizes, well-supported, well-trained teachers, and interesting lessons that aren't narrowly focused on standardized testing preparation.
"You can't just ride on the good feeling," Gerson said. "Eventually you need to provide more, educationally."
One of the central tenets of the movement, for example, is to make it easier for students to form bonds with their teachers, and for teachers to develop closer ties with one another and with the students' families, said LaShawn Route Chatmon, director of the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, a nonprofit that has played a major role in the effort.
While that has certainly happened to a degree, Route Chatmon said, "It becomes difficult to argue a level of personalization when kids are learning new adults year after year after year." She added, "We cannot underestimate the impact of teacher retention on small schools."
The movement's future
Steve Jubb, Route Chatmon's predecessor who described himself, half-jokingly, as "a grandfather to this movement," said he felt as though the school district has been "adrift" during the past 2½ years and he was disappointed with the progress made at some of the small high schools.
"We're still far from the dream that I was holding then and still hold today," he said.
Jubb and other small schools proponents say the healthier, saner environment they have seen in these new startups is a far cry from the legendary chaos that once afflicted some of Oakland's toughest schools. They say with the right focus and imagination, and enough attention to recruiting and supporting teachers, the reform will flourish.
But faced with an increasingly tight and uncertain budget, some Oakland school district officials have publicly contemplated the possibility of closing or merging more schools. "We may need to look at whether we are able to maintain the tiny schools that we are maintaining," interim superintendent Roberta Mayor said at an April 22 school board meeting.
It's not a new proposition. In the fall, Mayor and her staff went around the city, PowerPoint slides in tow, to tell the public how urgently the school system needed to cut expenses. She raised the possibility of closing more than 15 "tiny" schools to save overhead and administrative costs, and was rebuffed. Hundreds of parents, teachers and students, many of them organized by the same group that began the grass-roots movement years ago, made their point. The district backed off.
But Oakland's financial challenges have since deepened, and the district is preparing to hire a new superintendent this spring, whose inclinations are unknown. Troy Flint, the district's spokesman, said a major rollback is unlikely, considering the time, effort and money that has been invested in the reform effort.
"It would be a monumental stupidity, I think, to go backward at this point," Jubb said. He added, "We can't go backward, and we can't stay here."
Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.