future of schools

The Oakland school board is pushing for more coordination with charter schools, but faces fierce backlash

A student arrives for classes at the Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy, an Aspire charter school, located in the Oakland Unified School District. (Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

How to balance the competing interests of district and charter schools is sparking vigorous debate.

That sentiment could apply to Newark or Indianapolis or Denver. But this month it’s Oakland, California, where school board members just told their superintendent to get to work on a plan to coordinate among all of the publicly funded schools in the city — including how they should enroll students and how many should exist.

It’s one step toward what some call the “portfolio model” of overseeing schools, which advocates are pushing in a growing number of cities.  

How that will work in Oakland is unclear, particularly since the district doesn’t directly control the city’s charter schools. A number of observers say Oakland has too many schools for too few students, leaving district finances stretched too thin — and the key question remains which kinds of schools will go through the painful process of closing. The plan alludes to this issue, but doesn’t explain in detail how it will be addressed.

It’s a victory for GO Public Schools, a local nonprofit that created a campaign called 1Oakland to push for this kind of unified system of overseeing schools and backed the policy that was adopted.

The plan has already faced sharp criticism from teachers unions and others skeptical of charter schools, who say the plan won’t do enough to strengthen traditional public schools. But not all charter advocates are on board with the initiative, either — making it an example of how national divides among charter supporters are playing out locally.

“The whole point of this policy is to unite the community,” said Jody London, one of five board members who backed the policy. “Instead this has become a lightning rod.”

An effort to create more cohesion in a disjointed system

A recent Alameda County grand jury report laid out some of the challenges facing the city’s schools in stark terms. The district has big financial deficits, has too many schools, and is operating in an environment marked by distrust toward the charter sector, according to the analysis.

In the 50,000-student district, over a quarter of students attend charters. Past efforts at greater coordination including a proposed common enrollment system and an “equity pledge” have fizzled.

The Oakland school board on June 27, 2018, the day it voted to approve the “community of schools” plan.

The “failure to support a unified effort at comprehensive reform is marching the district towards state takeover,” the report warned. (The district was taken over — and issued a $100 million loan — by the state in 2003. It still has a fiscal monitor appointed by the California Department of Education and is paying down the loan.)

The plan Oakland’s school board adopted last week nods toward some of these issues. It says the district needs to create “a fiscally sound number” of schools, and calls for more coordination around student enrollment and transportation. That includes efforts to ensure that charters serve similar students, “so that the highest needs students are not concentrated only in [district] schools.”

The policy also calls for stronger “oversight and accountability” of the charter schools the district oversees, and raised the possibility of providing district schools with charter-like autonomy.

The two-page document focused on broad ideas rather than nitty-gritty policies, instructing the district superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to create a more detailed blueprint by November, which will be voted on in January 2019 after community feedback.

“The goal of this was … to have a public conversation and to bring the board to some consensus on its position on how schools, charter and district, should be in partnership and how they should co-exist,” James Harris, the school board member who introduced the proposal, told Chalkbeat a week before the vote.

Debate about the plan stretched over several months, as the policy went through multiple iterations and even a different name. (Harris said he had gone to a conference put on by the Center on Reinventing Public Education a few years ago where his “biggest takeaway [was] don’t use the word ‘portfolio’ because it’s such a hot button.”)

In some ways, the policy echoes the portfolio model vision, particularly with its emphasis on a single, coherent system of schools. Portfolio advocates typically want schools of all kinds to be held accountable by a central body that replicates successful schools, closes unsuccessful ones, and coordinates functions like enrollment across schools; a system that allows parents to choose from all kinds of schools; and lots of freedom for schools to make decisions about how to operate. Research on this approach is limited and mixed.

Mirella Rangel of GO Public Schools, which is part of a loosely connected network of groups that have supported the portfolio model, says she hopes Oakland’s plan will play out differently than it has in some other cities and pay special attention to the district’s disadvantaged students.

“That history of portfolio management in other cities … we’ve seen it happen to people, be market-driven,” she said.

Plan faces pushback on a number of fronts

The plan has drawn fierce criticism from skeptics of charter schools, who said the plan doesn’t have enough focus on supporting district schools that have lost students and funding to charters.

“We are rejecting a ‘system of schools’ concept and a ‘1 Oakland concept’ because they are euphemisms for an endless campaign to blur in the public’s mind the difference between charter and public schools — and there is a difference,” said Trish Gorham, the head of the local teachers union, at an earlier board meeting.

But in at least one way, the plan concedes one criticism of the charter sector — that charters aren’t serving the same share of needy students as the district. The plan requires the superintendent to determine how the district can push charters to serve similar numbers of special education students, newcomer students, foster students, and English learners.

A report commissioned by GO found that Oakland charters do serve substantially fewer students with disabilities and take many fewer students in the middle of school year than the district.

“I hear a lot of people who say, ‘That’s wrong,’” said Mirella Rangel of GO. “We’re actually trying to get the practices to change.”

Not everyone believes charters are open to changing.

“There is nothing stopping charter schools today from stopping the selective recruitment practices,” board member Shanthi Gonzales, who voted against the plan, said in an interview. “They want resources that they don’t have access to now, and I don’t believe they actually want to change anything.”

A common enrollment system for district and charters is used in some cities to address this issue. Common enrollment was also part of the 1Oakland campaign. But Both Rangel and Harris downplayed this possibility, which was proposed a few years ago by Oakland’s previous superintendent, Antwan Wilson, but faced blowback and was never implemented.

Another issue dividing Oakland schools observers: potential school closures.

Fiscal mismanagement, declining enrollment, the expansion of charter schools, and the creation of intentionally small schools with money from the Gates Foundation beginning nearly two decades ago has left the district in dire financial straits.

“Each of the last five superintendents has acknowledged that the district is operating too many schools, yet each has failed to convince the school board to make the difficult decisions in the face of community backlash,” said the grand jury report.

But which schools need to close?

“Some aspects of closures or consolidation need to happen in both sectors,” Rangel said. “I want to reiterate both.”

Critics fear traditional public schools will bear the brunt of that burden, though. That’s in part because it’s hard for the district to close charters: Though the district authorizes most of the city’s charter schools, charters may appeal a closure decision to the county and the state, which can overrule district decisions.

“You can’t close charter schools, so we know this policy will only apply to public schools,” Mike Hutchinson, founder of Oakland Public Education Network and a former school board candidate, told board members at a previous hearing.

Meanwhile, some charter school supporters are skeptical of GO’s efforts, too.

An initial draft of its 1Oakland plan proposed a two-year pause on new schools, including charters. That prompted a March email to local charter leaders criticizing the plan, on this and other fronts, from a California Charter Schools Association official.

“1Oakland’s ask drastically misses the point,” Max Daigh, a CCSA regional director, wrote.

The California Charter Schools Association stayed neutral on the policy Oakland’s board passed, even though CCSA and GO have been allies, working together to influence past school board races.

The groups say they maintain a strong working relationship, but their disagreement illustrates the difficult road ahead for a plan that hinges on coordination.

As to whether the CCSA and GO will partner again on the upcoming November school board election, “It’s not clear at this point,” said Rangel. “It’s definitely much more murky [and] complicated this year.”

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”