This collection of stories, provided by Teacher For America, ran as a special advertiser supplement in the April 20th, 2016 issue of Education Week.
Moving Oakland Toward a Culture of College
Silver has been beating the drum for the importance of college for 20 years, ever since he was a corps member teaching second graders in Compton, California. There, he organized workshops for parents on how to put their children on a path toward postsecondary education. He delivered that same message as an elementary school teacher in Oakland; as the founder of Think College Now (TCN), a highly successful Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) school; and also as the CEO of College Track, a national nonprofit that helps students in low-income communities get into and complete college.
Now he is director of education for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and one of the designers of a multifaceted initiative announced in January 2016 to triple the number of children from low-income communities who graduate from college. Called the “Oakland Promise,” the cradle-to-career effort includes college savings accounts for children in low-income communities, tutoring, internships, college advising, and scholarships. The goal is to provide $100 million in scholarships and serve 200,000 students over the next 10 years.
The Oakland Promise is a collective effort involving the school district, charter schools, advocacy organizations, local philanthropies, early childhood education programs, libraries, and colleges. Among its allies will be the 900 Teach For America alumni in Oakland, including 70 school or district leaders and 236 teachers, more than half of whom have been teaching five or more years. TFA alumni, corps members, and staff are helping make the Oakland Promise a reality by working in partnership with the community as educators, policymakers, advocates, and community organizers.
Making Schools Smaller and More Equitable
In the late 1990s, the gap between the student outcomes at schools in the Oakland hills and those in the flatlands was enormous. At the time, California ranked its schools on a scale of 1 to 10 based on test scores, with 10 being the highest. The average ranking in the hills was 10; in the flatlands it was 2.5. Moreover, schools in the hills were under-enrolled, while those in the flatlands were severely overcrowded. Activists, led by a multi-faith, multiethnic coalition called Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), demanded that OUSD replace large, poorly performing schools with smaller, more autonomous ones. The school board agreed.
Among the first five schools that opened in the fall of 2001 was ASCEND, which stands for A School Cultivating Excellence, Nurturing Diversity. The founding principal of the K-8 school was Hae-Sin Thomas (Bay Area ’93), who helped design the school’s arts-focused curriculum that balanced project-based learning with standards-based direct instruction. Her efforts were supported by her teachers, the community (the low-income, largely Latino Fruitvale neighborhood), and OCO. A 2009 Stanford University case study said the school, which from the beginning mostly served African American and Latino students, consistently outperformed nearby traditional OUSD schools.
In 2004, Thomas was asked by OUSD to lead its newly created New School Development Group to help other small schools get off the ground. She helped design and open 22 new schools, replacing 18 that had been chronically low-performing. An independent study found that Oakland’s small schools outperformed those they replaced in academic achievement, suspension rates, attendance, and student, parent, and teacher satisfaction. By 2009, OUSD was operating 45 small schools, including a number led by TFA alumni. One of those Thomas helped get started was Silver’s Think College Now.
When TCN opened its doors in 2004, only 8 percent of its students were on grade level in English language arts; within six years, 66 percent of its students were. Gains were also significant in mathematics, rising from 23 percent on grade level in the beginning to 81 percent over the same period of time. The gains were so large that Silver was asked to testify before Congress about how they were achieved.
He testified that 95 percent of the school’s children are poor, two-thirds are English language learners, and few parents had ever attended college. But he said TCN’s parents and teachers are all committed to making sure students are on a path toward college starting in kindergarten. Students regularly visit college campuses, teachers wear T-shirts from their alma maters on special days, and what Silver calls “college talk” can be heard in every classroom. TCN has twice been named a California Distinguished School.
Now, in his role in the mayor’s office, he says the goal is for Oakland to be a place “where all kids, not just rich kids, but kids from all backgrounds graduate from high school [and] have the expectation, resources, and skills not just to get into college, but to complete college and then be successful in their careers.”
In addition to small schools, Oakland has tried to ensure that every neighborhood has high-quality options for parents by authorizing charter schools. Oakland was one of the first districts in the state to embrace charters, which now enroll 10,000 students, while enrollment in OUSD’s traditional public schools is 36,000. Another tactic has been to open community schools, which offer health, counseling, and other services to children and their families. Another big push has been to provide opportunities for hands-on learning, internships, and mentoring to connect students with careers. TFA alumni have been involved in all of these efforts. Of the top 20 schools in the city serving students of color in low-income neighborhoods, 11 are led or were founded by TFA alumni.
Serving the Community’s Needs
TFA has placed corps members in Oakland since 1991. However, the Oakland region was carved out of TFA’s larger Bay Area region in 2012 to allow for a tighter focus on the community’s needs, which has resulted in adjustments to recruitment and placement strategies. For example, the proportion of corps members who are persons of color has increased from one-third to two-thirds in the past five years. Tracy Session (Metro Atlanta ’08) oversees TFA’s work in Oakland. In 2015, he negotiated a three-year contract that commits TFA to ensuring that 60 percent of its corps members continue teaching for at least one year beyond their two-year obligation. The contract also says that if corps members are judged ineffective, TFA will have to return the fee it is paid to cover the cost of training and coaching.
Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who represents some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods on the Oakland school board, had been among the critics of TFA. She says she felt insulted by the idea of young white people who didn’t understand the culture “showing up to be the saviors in communities of color and poor communities.” She also worried that the two-year teaching commitment was the “kind of drive-by education” that contributed to instability in schools.
But the new contract and the growing diversity of corps members made her a fan. “It was the most revolutionary contract that I have ever seen,” she says. “Here’s a partner who said, ‘You set the standard, you set the bar, and I will meet it.’ Here’s a business deal where you have an actual win-win.”
Session wants to do even more to increase TFA’s contribution toward improving education in Oakland. As such, the region made a strategic decision to reduce the number of schools in which it places corps members from 44 to 20 or even 15 schools, making it possible to focus resources on building stronger partnerships with fewer schools—providing them with coaching, support for their leaders, and more extensive mentoring and training for their corps members and alumni. This strategy is aligned with the city’s small school and community school efforts.
An Example of Getting More Done
The K-12 Madison Park Business and Art Academy is one of TFA’s partnership schools, located in one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the city. When Principal Lucinda Taylor arrived in 2006, Madison Park was a middle school with some of the worst test scores in the state and high rates of chronic truancy and suspensions. Taylor altered the curriculum, strengthened teaching, and raised money to add an on-site health and dental clinic, a GED program for parents, and a food bank. Over time Madison took over a nearby elementary school and added high school grades.
Proficiency rates are still low, but the school has made enough progress that OUSD cites it as an example of what it hopes to accomplish all over the city. Half of the school’s 65 teachers are either TFA alumni or corps members. Taylor says they share her belief that all children, regardless of their background, can learn. “Anytime I have an opportunity to hire a candidate from TFA, I do,” Taylor says.
One of the teachers at Madison Park is Elaina Amos (Bay Area ’13), who graduated from Oakland Technical High School before going on to the University of California, Riverside. “I had good teachers who gave me access to resources and information that set me on my path,” she says. “One of the reasons I went to college was to come back and help people like me.” Now in her third year at the school, she plans to stay.
Also planning to remain at Madison Park is corps member and math teacher Francis Cheng (Bay Area ’15). He grew up in the neighboring community of San Leandro, where his teachers included a number of TFA alumni. “I received an excellent education, and I just wanted to be back here— home,” he says. “I just want to pay it forward.”
“It’s important that our work is taking groups of people and getting them really pumped up and excited about what they can do in the individual school context as opposed to in their individual classrooms,” Session says. “What they’ll see is they can’t actually have an impact at the school level if they don’t work more closely together. I think that matches the spirit of Oakland.”
Garfield Elementary School, which serves about 630 low-income elementary students in the San Antonio neighborhood of the flatlands, received one of the foundation’s planning grants. Principal Nima Tahai (Houston ’04) says the school’s faculty is using the money to identify ways technology can help kindergartners who did not attend preschool learn basic literacy skills and also accelerate the learning of students who are already reading. Eight of the 35 teachers at the school are either corps members or TFA alumni who, by inclination and training, he says, are eager to try new approaches. “They want to find any possible way they can to give an extra edge to their students academically,” he says. “They’re in no way going to get stuck in any one pedagogy.”
He also says that today’s corps members recognize that to have the most meaningful and long-lasting impact, they have to do more than be effective in the classroom. They have to get to know the community, build relationships with parents, and “support our students so they can beat the odds and graduate from college and have successful lives,” he says. “Hopefully, some will even come back to the community and help others who along the way have had struggles that they uniquely understand.”
Pushing for Improvement From All Sides
School-based initiatives have contributed to noticeable gains. In 1999, only five Oakland schools were judged successful, based on the state’s Academic Performance Index (API). In 2012, 42 schools hit that mark. Oakland’s progress on the API made it the fastest-improving school district in the state for eight straight years leading up to 2013.
But by many measures, the city’s schools have a very long way to go. Gaps in achievement between white students, who make up about a quarter of the district’s students, and African American and Latino students, who account for two-thirds, are as large as ever. Only two out of three students who started ninth grade in 2010 graduated on time, with white and Asian American students far more likely to finish than their African American and Latino peers.
TFA alumni are also working outside of schools, the school system, and local government to press for continued improvement and community involvement. Longtime community organizer Ron Snyder, OCO’s former executive director, has said that the bonds Teach For America corps members and alumni have forged with the community have been vital to its educational improvement. “They began to work with teachers and parents,” he says of their efforts, “house to house, school to school, church to church—creating an appetite for improvement.”
Great Oakland Public Schools is one such advocacy organization, co-founded by Jonathan Klein (Los Angeles ’97). In 2009, the organization helped bring together hundreds of parents, teachers, principals, and students to block a proposal to fill a hole in the district’s budget by closing 17 of the small schools. Led by Klein, the organization worked with the Oakland Education Association to fight for better pay for teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the state, and also supported a new teacher evaluation system designed jointly by the teachers union and the district.
In 2012, GO Public Schools and other advocacy organizations successfully backed a ballot measure to raise $475 million to rebuild and replace rundown school facilities. But the group also saw opposition that year by bringing together teachers and parents to support three reform-minded candidates who were elected to the Oakland school board. Currently, Oakland loses teachers at twice the average rate statewide, so GO Public Schools is working with the school district to encourage teachers to stay in Oakland by providing them with opportunities to grow and thrive in their careers.
- Year Teach For America began placing corps members: 1991
- Corps members teaching in Oakland, 2015-16: 88
- Alumni teaching in OUSD and Oakland charter schools: 236
- Alumni in Oakland: 900
- Alumni who are principals and other administrators in OUSD and charter schools: 70
- Percent of alumni serving low-income students and families in education or other related fields: 84
- Of note: TFA alumni founded or now lead 11 of the top 20 schools serving primarily students of color in low-income neighborhoods.
Educate78, another nonprofit organization working to make education in Oakland more equitable, was founded by Ann Soto (Eastern North Carolina ’06). The organization, which takes its name from Oakland’s 78-square-mile footprint, has collaborated with OUSD to make it easier for parents to navigate the process of choosing where to enroll their children. In the highly political atmosphere in Oakland, the organization, as well as OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson, has been criticized for trying to undermine traditional public schools and “privatize” education. But the organization also operates a School Design Lab that helps educators “strengthen and expand great public schools in our city, both public charter schools and district-run public schools.”
Regardless of what they are doing—teaching, leading schools, organizing, advocating—TFA alumni and the Oakland community are working toward the same end: to ensure that the young people of Oakland will have an equal shot in life and meet their full potential. “We want to be part of local movements,” Session says. “This requires people to really dig in.”