Professional Learning

Oakland’s Big Plans: Small-School Reform

A troubled urban school district turns to more intimate, connected learning environments to help students succeed.

April 29, 2003

Parent Emma Paulino refused to accept the status quo.

Credit: Michelle Longosz/Oakland Community Organizations

For years, Emma Paulino hoped and prayed for a miracle at her children's East Oakland schools. Aging facilities were bursting at the seams. To relieve the overcrowding, many students were on a year-round, multitrack system: They attended school for twenty-eight days and then were off for twenty-eight more.

Coherent instruction was next to impossible, as students and teachers moved from one available classroom to the next. Teachers were frustrated, parents were angry, and too many students -- including Paulino's son -- were falling through the cracks.

Throughout first, second, and third grade, MacEdward Paulino floundered in a chaotic and dysfunctional school system. As a third grader, he wasn't yet reading and could barely write his name.

Repeated meetings with teachers yielded nothing but platitudes -- or, worse, indifference. When one of the boy's teachers suggested Paulino was "expecting too much" for her son, the Mexico native knew it was time to stop waiting for a miracle and start creating one of her own.

Paulino's son benefits from the small classes, expeditionary learning, and personal attention at ASCEND.

Credit: Michelle Longosz/Oakland Community Organizations

A New Vision for Oakland's Youth

Paulino wasn't alone in her quest to create something better for her children. Through the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a faith-based organizing group representing 40,000 Oakland families, she connected with parents, teachers, and students who were equally determined to find a better way.

They read Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas, about an innovative small school in East Harlem Meier founded in 1974. They visited successful small schools in Chicago and New York City. They solicited the assistance of educators at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), and they lobbied hard with the Oakland Unified School District to support their vision for reform: small, autonomous schools that would relieve overcrowding and reinvigorate public education in the city's flatlands.

It took more than four years, but the community's persistence paid off. Today, Oakland is in the midst of one of the most significant small-school reform efforts in the country. Guided by a unique partnership with OCO and BayCES (which is administering a $15.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), this large urban district is undergoing what BayCES executive director Steve Jubb describes as "inside-out reform."

In September 2001, 190 children (including Paulino's two youngest) began their school year at ASCEND (A School Cultivating Excellence, Nurturing Diversity), a K-8 school in East Oakland and one of the first small, autonomous schools developed by a team of parents and educators

For the students who moved from overcrowded, underserved schools to this small neighborhood school, the changes couldn't have been more dramatic: Class size averages twenty-two students (even in the upper grades). Thanks to deep partnerships with local organizations, music and art are integral to the academic program. Teachers receive ongoing assistance from academic coaches on everything from working with parents to implementing a mode of instruction called expeditionary-learning, in which in-depth projects based on student inquiry are key. Parents, for their part, are partners in the envisioning, planning, and day-to-day running of the school.

Although each of Oakland's small schools is grounded in common themes of rigorous academics, equity for all students, and local decision making, the academic programs vary considerably. ASCEND and the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a small autonomous high school, are based on the Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound reform model. Curriculum at both schools is organized and presented as learning expeditions, where students learn by exploring, creating, questioning, and reflecting.

Meanwhile, the Urban Promise Academy, one of three new small middle schools, is a Tribes Learning Community. (This whole-school reform model focuses on the integration of students' emotional, physical, and intellectual growth.) And MET West, a new small high school, is modeled after the Metropolitan Career and Technical Center, in Providence, Rhode Island, and employs a hands-on, experience-based model of teaching and learning, where teams of students, parents, teachers, and mentors join to create a personalized curriculum for each student.

Attendance at the new small schools is higher than at other district schools.

Credit: Michelle Longosz/Oakland Community Organizations

A Matter of Choice

If you ask Oakland superintendent Dennis Chaconas where the city's various small-schools initiatives will lead, he'll answer you in one word: choice.

Fundamental to Oakland's reform effort is the notion, says Chaconas, that all parents and students deserve to have educational options. It's a fundamental shift for the district, BayCES's Steve Jubb adds, which for years was based on the premise that educators, rather than families, know what is best for students.

Although only a fraction of Oakland students attend the new small schools, the impact of these early efforts are being felt throughout the city. After hearing about the small-school initiatives under way elsewhere in the district, for example, several teachers at 750-student Edna Brewer Middle School began exploring ways to better connect with students.

"We felt like kids were "slipping, slipping, slipping," says Alanya Snyder, who, along with four colleagues opened a School Within a School (SWS) in September 2002 with 64 sixth graders and 64 eighth graders. The school's purpose: to re-create the school culture -- to establish new kinds of relationships, new norms for behavior and interaction, and redefine academics in a way that provides all students the opportunity to be successful.

Rony Prieto is one of SWS's success stories. Prieto, fifteen years old and nearly six feet tall, with a full mustache, looks like he belongs on a high school campus, rather than in a school with prepubescent eleven-year-olds. But because of successive years of failing grades, he was held back a year. And now, as part of the first group of eighth graders at SWS, the Latino youth is experiencing for the first time what it's like to succeed academically.

"This is the first time I haven't had any D's or F's on my report card," says Prieto, who attributes his much-improved grades to the attention and assistance he gets from SWS teachers. "In the big school, teachers couldn't devote a lot of time to one student, so it was hard for people who needed extra help to get it," he explains. "Now, teachers don't let you leave for the day until they know you understand the material."

Daily homework assistance (available after school and "recommended" for students who aren't getting at least a C in all classes), regular conversations between teachers and parents (the student handbook includes email addresses, as well as home and cell phone numbers for every teacher), a reinvigorated curriculum, and ongoing community building activities help ensure that all students get the assistance and support they need to not just "get through" middle school, but to flourish.

Small classes make for a cohesive learning community.

Credit: Michelle Longosz/Oakland Community Organizations

Early Successes, Ongoing Challenges

Three years into its small-schools initiative, Oakland has seen some remarkable gains. Test scores have improved throughout the district; students at small schools show even greater improvement. Attendance at the new small schools is higher than at their counterparts throughout the district.

The difference at the high school level is the most notable: Attendance at the Life Academy averages 92 percent, compared to the districtwide high school average of just 81 percent. Suspensions and expulsions are fewer at the new small schools, as are incidents of violence.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the number of students who are staying in the system, due in large part to the more personalized instruction they are receiving. In September 2002, one year after two of Oakland's largest high schools adopted small learning communities for all freshmen, nearly 1,400 fewer students left the school system than in the previous year.

But despite these early successes, Oakland is not without its challenges. Space -- or the lack of it -- is one of the primary impediments to rolling out new small schools. Already, several new schools have been approved but await a suitable site to be identified.

Without sufficient space, the new small schools will continue to serve just a tiny minority of Oakland's 54,000 public school students. Two of the district's large comprehensive high schools are breaking into several small schools but will share a single site. Although the "interconnected" schools, as they are called, are a creative answer to space constraints, none of these schools will have the same level of autonomy as the completely stand-alone schools.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is Oakland's current fiscal crisis: The district has a deficit of roughly $80 million and will need bailout funds from the state to turn things around. Along with the much-needed funds may come a state administrator who will likely be more interested in balancing the budget than small-school reform.

Still, Oakland reformers are fighting hard to maintain and grow their hard-won victories. They're lobbying with state officials, moving forward with plans for new small schools, and even investigating a plan that would take the small-school reform effort to another level in Oakland.

Steve Jubb and his colleagues at BayCES have proposed redesigning the district on a smaller, more human scale. This reconstituted district would consist of several small networks that would be more responsive and would "give people the flexibility they need to be successful," he says.

"Every part of the system needs to change," Jubb adds. "We've all been part of the problem. We all need to be part of the solution."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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