When Tony Smith took the helm of the Oakland Unified School District in 2009, he inherited one of the poorest performing school districts in California. Oakland has shown steady improvement in recent years, but last year's test scores still painted a dismal picture: 57 percent of students in grades 2-11 were one to three years below grade level in English Language Arts, while 46 percent in grades 2-8 were just as far behind in math.
And when kids fall that far behind in their studies, they rarely catch up. The school district's overall graduation rate is just 60 percent. That's right: Four out of every ten of Oakland's public school kids do not graduate from high school.
Even those that do get a diploma typically aren't ready for college. In 2010, only 33 percent of 12th graders had completed college eligibility requirements and only 11 percent of 11th graders tested college-ready on California State University's English Language Arts Program Early Placement Exam. In short, most Oakland students are woefully unprepared to compete and succeed in the global economy.
In response to these problems, Smith has launched what may be the most comprehensive and far-reaching plan to ever come out of the district. Since he took over the troubled school system, some 1,500 people have attended more than 350 meetings to create a five-year strategic plan for OUSD. The plan is big, it's bold, and it's innovative. "If we want radically different outcomes," Smith explained, "we have to create radically different programs."
Smith's plan looks at every aspect of a child's life that affects his or her ability to learn. No Child Left Behind, the federal education reform law enacted a decade ago, focuses mostly on test scores, so schools spend an inordinate amount of time "teaching to the test." But that's in stark contrast to how Smith's plan will approach "the whole child." For example, the plan not only recognizes that kids need decent nutrition to start their day, it examines whether there is a grocery store that carries fresh and healthy food in each child's neighborhood.
Last school year, 69 percent of Oakland's students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch because of their family's economic situation, while about 15 percent lived in subsidized housing. "We know from brain research that when we are at ease, we learn a lot more, and when we are hungry or emotionally distressed, the amount of our brain that is available for learning is lessened," the superintendent noted, during a recent sit-down interview at district headquarters.
Smith thinks that the school district can and must take on these types of public health problems. "An African-American child born in West Oakland is likely to live in a neighborhood with two times the concentration of liquor stores and fast food outlets than the rest of Oakland," his plan notes in its overview. "They are seven times more likely to be born in poverty and four times less likely to read at grade level by grade four."
And it doesn't stop there: "An African-American child born in West Oakland can expect to die almost fifteen years earlier than a white child born in the Oakland Hills."
To tackle some of these issues, the district intends to transform all its campuses into what are known as full-service community schools — community centers with a core emphasis on academics, but with an expanded focus on helping all kids develop a positive sense of self, while also offering family support and community development and engagement. "The connection between kids and the services they need has been fractured, and the district has to play a role in coordinating those services," Smith said. "We intend to put the call out to public health, to businesses, to community organizations, and to the families: Let's work together to lessen some of these obstacles."
Over the next several weeks, there will be an intense spotlight focused on Oakland public schools because of Smith's other major proposal: closing schools so that the district can re-allocate funds to operate higher quality schools. The district has lost nearly 30 percent of its students since 2000, and recently Smith revealed that he wants to shut down five elementary schools and consolidate several others on high school campuses. The planned closures have already sparked a backlash among parents at the affected schools, and the controversy is expected to intensify as the school board prepares to make a final decision on the proposal later this month. Smith estimates that the closures will save the district at least $2 million a year, and he intends to propose more closures over the next two years.
Although the focus on OUSD is currently on the school closure proposal, it's connected to Smith's sweeping new strategic plan. In fact, Smith plans to use savings generated from school closures to implement the plan, while also helping the district right its financial ship and address the relatively low pay of its teachers. It's a plan designed to help all of the district's kids, while giving extra attention to those children who need it the most — addressing their needs not just inside the classroom, but in their communities.
"If the district doesn't address some of these overarching issues," Smith warned, "it is doomed to repeat the failures of the past."
In dozens of states across the country, from California to Massachusetts, the full-service community school model has been shown to improve math and reading scores, and attendance and graduation rates. The model has been around for twenty years and is known by many names, including Bridges to Success and Schools that Never Close.