Parents and students rally for education at Redwood Heights.
Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith is just days away from seeing his vision to fundamentally change the city's public schools become reality.
On Saturday, the district's board of directors is expected to formally adopt a new seven-year strategic plan - a comprehensive project to transform the city's schools into full-service community centers that also provide health and social services for all residents.
This story is part 2 of our Living in Debt series.
Smith and other district officials say that in order for Oakland to have a full economic recovery it also must have a successful education program for all of its residents.
"I honestly, fundamentally believe that education transformation is a key, if not the primary key to sustainable economic development," Smith said. "If we haven't paid attention to the education needs of the entire community, kids aren't well prepared to actually seek employment, aren't graduating at high rates, aren't employable in growth industries ... then the whole workforce development piece is absent."
Smith said that the district has no choice but to come up with new, creative solutions for providing public education. While the district has seen significant improvement, it still has woefully low student test scores, particularly for students in underserved communities. In addition, its overall graduate rate is only 52 percent and for African-America males, it's only 30 percent.
"Without a plan, I don't think we're going to see the kind of changes we have to see," Smith said. "Unless we change our systems, I mean fundamentally reorganize and have a different purpose, we're not going to see different outcomes."
The strategic plan
In a nutshell, the plan calls for a collaborative effort from the district, the city, community groups, parents, teachers and other to turn Oakland's public schools into central community hubs. The goal is to provide a holistic approach to education that also includes health wellness, housing, employment and other services.
Smith didn't just put together the plan in a vacuum. About 14 community task forces examined a number of key areas, including effective teaching, literacy and African-American male achievement. According to Smith, there have been 350 community meetings around the strategic plan with more than 5,500 people participating.
Unlike other district makeovers, this plan requires significant buy-in from both the community and other government agencies.
"It's got to be a partnership between the schools, the municipality, community health and others," he said. "We've got to get all of these folks talking to each others about what all of our kids and families need in order to have a real collective impact."
Christopher Dobbins, an OUSD school board director agrees.
"It's in everyone's best interest to see our schools succeed," Dobbins said. "But that success is not going to happen unless everyone - businesses, people without kids, teachers, city leaders ... everyone - comes to the table ready to work together. Otherwise, it's not going to work."
Earlier this month, the OUSD board of directors unanimously approved a four-year contract extension for Smith, giving him the time to continue to build community support and implement the new strategic plan.
Equity vs. equality
Smith speaks passionately about education equality and says that a person's zip code should not dictate how they will do financially and academically. The superintendent said that belief guides the strategic plan.
"People talk about the diversity and progressives extol the virtues of Oakland, and yet there needs to be a discussion about the need to distribute resources in some different ways," he said. "We need to talk about how equity is different than equality, to really say, different folks in our community have had infrastructure and opportunity stripped away systematically.
"And so we should invest, we should do some differential investment to get parts of Oakland that are currently unhealthy - unemployed, underemployed - some infrastructure so that we all are healthier and so that our children are all doing well."
In Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Smith has a strong partner. Quan, a former school board member, made it part of her platform to work closely with the district.
“One of my goals as mayor was to make youth the center of city policy and to strengthen collaboration with the Oakland Unified School District," she said. "Within the first month of taking office, we established monthly joint meetings with city and school district department heads to help improve communication and find ways we
can work together."
The city/district partnership has produced tangible results since Quan was voted mayor. In January, there was the opening of the first joint city/school library - the 81st Avenue East Oakland Community Library. Earlier this month, the partnership also produced a new late night weekend program for city youth. The "Late Night Live" program includes a variety of free sports and art activities around the city for younger residents.
The district's money woes
It is clear that even with partnership with the city, Alameda County and local organizations, the plan will still need to have some base level of funding. Where that money will come from at this stage is far from clear.
The district says that this year, it stands to lose $12.6 million from its unrestricted general fund and could lose as much as $32.5 million, under certain conditions. The district has a total budget of $407 million. Also troubling for the district is the fact that its funding from the state continues to be at 2005-06 levels, while costs have continued to rise.
Even if the tax extension proposed by Brown is put on the ballot (which is looking less likely) and is passed by voters, the school district will still face a $7 million shortfall. Without the tax extension, the district is looking at a $19 million deficit for the next fiscal year. In any case, OUSD said its very likely that its debt will continue to grow over the next few years.
Smith said that for the next few years, OUSD will be guided extensively by its strategic plan. He said that while he's excited about the possibilities of the plan, he remains grounded by the uphill battle the district faces.
"We're not where we need to be and staying where we are is not okay," he said.
Special thanks to David Cohn and the Spot.us community for helping to make this project possible.