Grassroots push creates new small schools

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Principal Laura Flaxman

photo by John J. Kim

Principal Laura Flaxman

In the last five years, a grassroots push for small schools in Oakland, Calif., has produced seven new schools and a districtwide mandate to open more.

By 1997, Latino and African-American parents in the poorest communities had grown impatient with overcrowded schools and low expectations for their children. They joined forces with community organizers to demand reforms and, eventually, they won.

The group’s efforts were instrumental in securing a $15.7 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the district to open 10 new small schools and subdivide Oakland’s six large high schools into small, autonomous units.

Because Oakland’s small school initiative is parent and community driven (read: voter driven), district administrators have a solid mandate to create small schools wherever and whenever they can. Already there are small schools at each level of the system-elementary, middle and high school.

In fact, Superintendent Dennis Chaconas envisions transforming the entire Oakland Unified School District into small schools. “I’m going to have 120 or 130 [small schools] down the road.”

That mandate gives Oakland a significant advantage over Chicago and other urban districts, where enterprising teachers have led the charge without a commitment from central office or much support from the community, says Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Two years ago, Klonsky led a small-schools symposium for parents and administrators in Oakland. “Oakland is a great work in progress,” he says.

Oakland’s small schools movement was a five-year odyssey of persistence and politics.

It was sparked in 1997 when a handful of parents, many of them members of churches forming the Oakland Community Organizations coalition, began meeting to discuss overcrowding at Jefferson Elementary. At the time, the school enrolled three times its 700-student capacity. Even with a year-round, multi-track schedule, classes remained crowded.

With the help of Oakland Community Organizations, the parents applied to the district to open a charter school. Twice before, the district had rejected their plans to create a small school within Jefferson.

Pursuing the charters paid off. By the fall of 1999, School Futures, a San Diego-based non-profit, opened two charter schools to relieve overcrowding at Jefferson and other nearby elementary schools. (Charters receive district funding but operate free of most district mandates.) The organizers’ success caught the public’s attention and more parents joined their effort to open small schools.

The group’s watershed moment came in November 1999. More than 2,000 parents and community residents gathered in an Oakland church to demand that the mayor, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, and then-Superintendent George Musgrove adopt a small schools policy. (New small schools would help ease overcrowding and promote smaller class sizes—a basic tenet of small school philosophy.)

Brown agreed, and soon afterward parents began working with the non-profit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools to draft a formal policy that called for replacing year-round, multi-track schools with autonomous small schools within three years. The following spring, the 10-member Oakland school district governing board unanimously approved the policy.

Around the same time, the board hired a new superintendent who would further advance the district’s move toward small schools. Against the wishes of Mayor Brown, who wanted to reappoint Musgrove, the board had chosen Dennis Chaconas, former superintendent of the nearby Alameda Unified School District. Chaconas was hardly new to Oakland. Born and raised there, he was a former high school principal in the district. In Alameda, he promoted subject-specific learning academies, a small-schools sibling.

Months later, the Gates Foundation made a five-year, $15.7 million grant to underwrite 10 new small schools and to support efforts to divide Oakland’s six high schools into small, autonomous schools, some of which would be spun off into separate facilities throughout the city. (See story.)

The Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, which wrote the proposal that won the Gates money, is administering the grant as well, and offering school-site support in the form of teacher coaching and planning. Oakland Community Organizations continues to organize parents, and district administrators provide leadership and support.

Small schools in Oakland are not an experiment limited to a few elementary and high schools, Superintendent Chaconas stresses. The initiative is intended to transform the entire district. If enough schools are reorganized as small schools, he argues, the movement will be able to withstand the shifting politics of the school board or mayor’s office.

The flatlands

The majority of Oakland’s overcrowded schools were located in what’s known as the flatlands—the eastern portion of the city that is home to a host of factories and freeways. Residential streets are lined with aging bungalows and mismatched ranch-style homes. Commercial strips tend to have as many vacant storefronts as occupied ones.

Further west the streets and income levels rise steadily into Oakland Hills and other bedroom communities, where spacious homes boast spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay.

The hills schools have been quiet on the small schools movement. In the two years since the district embarked on its small schools mission, none has submitted small school proposals.

For now, Oakland’s small schools movement is centered on flatlands schools. All seven of the new small schools, including two elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools, are there.

An existing academy structure in flatlands high schools gave small schools a head start. The academies, designed as small learning communities that focus on a specific subject, have been in place in some schools for more than a decade, says Allie Whitehurst, director of school-to-career and high school reform in the Oakland district.

Some academies faltered when teachers ended up teaching across three or four academies, which hindered the development of cohesive learning communities, she explains. (Whitehurst is on loan to Chicago this year to coach teachers and administrators at high schools that are transitioning to a small schools structure.)

Oakland school district leaders are not asking its high schools to eliminate academies, says Whitehurst. Often that means forcing change on teachers and administrators who have worked many years to establish the academy programs, she notes. The district wants the academies to think and act more independently. For instance, teachers would teach in one academy to foster close-knit learning communities similar to small schools, she suggests.

Lessons learned

Before Oakland loaned Whitehurst to CPS, the flow of small schools ideas and resources went the other direction.

A retired Chicago high school principal was hired as a consultant to create small schools at Castlemont High School, one of Oakland’s most troubled high schools. That work laid the foundation for one Castlemont academy, the School for Social Justice, to spin off into its own facility this fall.

Another idea that Oakland borrowed from Chicago is the request for proposals (RFP) process developed by the UIC Small Schools Workshop.

The RFP process forces small school applicants to articulate the proposed school’s mission and teaching practices. An application can be 20 pages long.

Oakland has taken the RFP process a step further by establishing small school incubators, a kind of RFP boot camp. During the incubator phase, groups can hash out and clarify their small school vision before writing the official proposal.

“It’s a quality control measure,” says Jose Martinez, assistant superintendent of school reform. The rigorous process—completing the incubator and then the official proposal can take up to two years—promotes dedication, he says. “It encourages people to take ownership.”

A district of small schools

Chaconas and others hope to build on the momentum of the latest small school spin-offs. Now, the district has 99 schools, including the seven new small schools. To create an entire district of small schools, central office administrators will have to change, Chaconas says. “Somehow the movement has to really permeate the operations of the school district if it’s going to make a difference,” he explains.

If small school principals know all of their students, then the district superintendent should know all of the small schools, Chaconas reasons. To that end, Chaconas plans to personally evaluate all seven small schools this year and says he will visit each one at least four times.

At a recent school conference, Oakland parent Lillian Lopez, one of the original small school organizers, says the greatest victory for parents and community organizers is giving small schools a high profile.

“There aren’t a lot of people in Oakland now who don’t know what small schools are,” Lopez says. “Now small schools are cool.”