Guest Post: Want to design a school? Go to jail!

This is a guest post from Dr. César A. Cruz, a School Design Lab fellow with Educate78. Dr. Cruz is co-designing the HomiesEmpowerment School based out of East Oakland. The school’s mission is simply to “welcome home resilient youth, with revolutionary love, holistic resources, nurturing the scholar, warrior, healer and hustler within, in the process of emancipation.” Learn more at

Dear Educators,

As part of our Homies Empowerment school design journey, I sat in jail today. I sat inside of San Bruno jail near San Francisco, and heard from 12 brothers — 12 men, all adults —speak what they know is true. They spoke through tears about their schooling experiences. We were there as invited guests of 5 Keys School and here’s part of what was birthed: this poem. After the poem, I humbly urge you to read the 10 pieces of advice they gave us all.

The words below in bold are titles to their pieces. The words in quotes come directly from their soul. All I did was try to listen, really hear, begin to understand, and tranSCRIBE.

(Photos courtesy of Dr. César A. Cruz)


What We Know Is True

Do you hear the screams and the anger?

We’ve been held back and left behind.

In the public eye,

they say I’m a product of my environment,

but there’s a corrupt bond where war, is somehow the answer.

What I’ve seen, has created an early loss of innocence,

where I’ve been “looking for answers,

without even knowing (some of) the questions.”

As early as age 10, I knew that black and white don’t make gray,

but still got cuffed, beaten and locked up,

with a police officer’s boot on my neck telling me, to somehow “stop resisting.

But we can’t stop, resisting!

I now see, it’s been us, versus them, all along.

Have we been set up to fail (to jail)?

When you see us (men in orange suits),

do you see criminal or human being?”

Can you hear the “PTSD” that can no longer remain muffled in silence?

And yet, even in a cage, isolated from the outs(ide),

our spirit and point of view, will still be free.

Sharing our dreams 2 (our) reality are “what (we) know is true.”

You might lock us up, “and first place might already be decided,”

but, can you ever fully enslave us?

No, (and if you must know) that means NEVER.”

Typed by Dr. César A. Cruz, but really written by Fotu P, Kelvin J, Marcus W, Johnnie R, Eric J, Valentino V, Jordan A, Christopher S, Travis J, Dale T and Lafayette R.


These brothers then shared this;

  1. Encourage kids, stop (de)grading them!
  2. Have a recording studio, because self expression is key, but they don’t always want to do it your way through English class.
  3. Be more interactive, field trips can be anywhere, so help us get out, literally and otherwise.
  4. Understand where we are coming from, and why we might bring a gun to school, not to hurt anyone, but because we have to walk home afterwards. Can you actually understand that reality or do you just judge it?
  5. Teach things that can be productive for us in society.
  6. Have role models there that look like us, but not just look like us, but have some of our lived experiences.
  7. It takes the hood to save the hood, so have the hood at your school.
  8. Don’t scold (it stays with us forever).
  9. Have incentive programs based on what we like to do.
  10. Stay away from blanket statements and labels. I am not a minority or free and reduced lunchDon’t write that about us, ever.

Bless you all,

Dr. César A. Cruz, on behalf of Homies Empowerment

Note from Dr. Cruz: I am deeply thankful to teacher Ellen Dahlke, from 5 Keys, for allowing us an opportunity to come inside, and learn from the wisdom of men, who are currently caged, but whose wisdom is for free(dom).

Teacher Retention Grants: Greenleaf Elementary

Educate78 is continuing to focus on – and provide funding for – teacher retention strategies because we know great teachers are essential to student success. Our Teacher Retention grants empower teachers to change the conditions at their school that are preventing teachers like themselves from staying. Oakland teachers know best what is needed in their schools to improve teacher success and retention, and we want you to hear straight from them: How did they identify the need at their school site? How are they using the funding, and what are some of the successes so far?

Other entries in this series:

In this blog, we hear from Romy Trigg-Smith, the Greenleaf Elementary principal. Greenleaf received a grant to increase teacher sustainability while implementing an ambitious dual language school redesign. Greenleaf partnered with The Teaching Well to provide 1:1 coaching and whole staff PD sessions around research-based strategies to support teacher wellness and sustainability and dramatically increased teacher retention into this school year.

What is the focus issue your site is seeking to address with the support of a Teacher Retention Grant?

The focus issue our site is seeking to address is both individual and systemic supports for Educator Well-Being. As a school, we believe if we create an environment that promotes the well-being and agency of our staff at all levels, they will be more effective with students and willing to be foundational partners for the work we plan to do for years to come.

How did you identify this as a need at your site?

Since 2014, Greenleaf had an average annual retention rate of 66%. As the former assistant principal, I noticed how each year, as we lost roughly ⅓ of our staff, our team would spend too much of our time rebuilding relationships and trust rather than refining effective pedagogy for students and events for families. I knew that in order for us to transform and be the best community school possible, we must find a systemic ways to retain our talent and build a educator environment that allowed the work to develop over years rather than restart each August.

How are you using the retention grant money?

We are using the retention grant money to partner with The Teaching Well, a local non-profit organization committed to supporting the well being of educators and schools. Through the support of the ED78 grant, we are able to provide our staff a three fold support structure for their well-being.

  1. Whole site PD on Stress Resilience, Healthy Communication and Managing Transferred Trauma,
  2. 1-1 Mentoring for 60% of our teachers during the work day to turn these new skills into actionable habits
  3. Research reports where teachers were able to share gaps in support and as a leader I could course correct in simple ways to ensure that their voices were heard.

What are some of the key successes or areas of progress so far?

In our first year of the ED78 grant we increased our retention to 85%. Because of this, we were able to start the year with trust and go quickly into building off last year’s results. This year, as a leader I have seen an increase in collaboration, depth of ideas and our community’s ability to flow together.

Why advice do you have for other schools looking to increase teacher engagement and retention?

Outside Partnership with The Teaching Well has made a difference in our ability to support our teachers. Through this partnership, I am able to fully support my staff and keep my focus on accountability and student success. My teachers find it incredibly valuable to have a “third party” invested in their personal and professional growth while that outside resource is removed enough from the day to day community to allow for freedom of expression and comfort in addressing high needs.

Why is this work important?

This work is important because our students in East Oakland deserve a consistent, quality education and stable, reliable relationships. By prioritizing adult well-being, we ensure that we value and care for the individuals who create and develop these stable, reliable relationships. In order to be our best for kids, we need to be our best selves and that requires devoted time for and prioritization of self-care. When teachers stay connected to why they are in the work AND to their well-being, they are more reliable with kids and colleagues.

Teacher Retention Grants: Madison Park Academy

Educate78 is continuing to focus on – and provide funding for – teacher retention strategies because we know great teachers are essential to student success. Our Teacher Retention grants empower teachers to change the conditions at their school that are preventing teachers like themselves from staying. Oakland teachers know best what is needed in their schools to improve teacher success and retention, and we want you to hear straight from them: How did they identify the need at their school site? How are they using the funding, and what are some of the successes so far?

Other entries in this series:

In this blog, we hear from Annie Hatch, a Pathway Coach at Madison Park Academy. MPA received funding to provide teachers with materials and supply budgets to cover “the little things” – markers, paper, binder clips, as well as books, equipment for science experiments, and journals – in order to design quality daily lessons for students, while valuing teachers as professionals by providing needed classroom supplies and materials.

What is the focus issue your site is seeking to address with the support of a Keep Our Teachers grants?

Our focus is teacher retention. We lost about half our teachers last year and understand how traumatic that is to a school community. We want to keep our teachers and our teachers identified that a huge need for them is having the basic supplies and materials they need to do the job.

How did you identify this as a need at your site?

I had suggested maybe applying for the Educate78 grant as a way to partner with Mills Teacher Scholars. The teachers I met with pushed back and said, our needs are more basic — we need books, supplies, equipment, and we’re tired of fighting for everything or paying for it out of our own pockets.

The MPA team.

How are you using the retention grant money?

Teachers are allowed to spend their $500 in any way that supports them and increases student learning, teacher efficacy, satisfaction, and retention. They are using this money in a wide variety of ways — on manipulative, a vocab website, tools for digestive system modeling, posters, subscriptions to a coding website, glue and paper and pens, the list goes on.

What are some of the key successes or areas of progress so far?

Teachers feel respected as professionals and empowered to spend this money in a way that makes the most sense for them and their students.

Why advice do you have for other schools looking to increase teacher engagement and retention?

Ask teachers what they want and what they need! They will usually have some very good answers for you.

Why is this work important?

Because we need teachers to stay teaching in Oakland!

Part 4: OUSD & FCMAT – Mixed Grades, Mixed Feelings

This is the last of our mini blog series on the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s (FCMAT) Fiscal Health Risk Analysis of OUSD, issued in August. So far, we have provided context, summarized seven areas in OUSD “passed” and 8 areas that OUSD “failed.” This blog is about the 4 areas in which FCMAT gave OUSD a “Mixed” grade.

Before we wrap up this series about OUSD’s FCMAT report, we want to acknowledge the pain, frustration, anger and worry that so many people feel in the current situation – and expressed at last night’s board meeting.  All of us who live, work, and raise our families here in Oakland, want our children – all children, no matters their zip code, race, income, immigration status, or country of origin – to have a great public education. And that takes adequate, stable, and wisely-used resources.

Using resources well requires robust and reliable financial systems. Below are four areas in which OUSD has some work to do but that OUSD also has some strengths:

  • Enrollment and Attendance: This area covers how the district forecasts and manages student enrollment, whether it staffs appropriately for the number of students, and how it tracks and boosts student attendance. Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is the basis by which California distributes per pupil revenue, so this is critical. Of the 10 questions, OUSD received a “Yes” (positive) on 6 questions and “No” (negative) on 4 questions, although we saw two important inconsistencies between these answers and the text. The first inconsistency is related to the enrollment trend. FCMAT reports “the district has lost 55 students from 2013-14 to 2016-17” and shows a chart that shows minor enrollment fluctuations around 37,000 students over the past 4 years.[1] But the report also answers “No” to the question “Has the district’s enrollment been increasing or stable?” This fuels the misperception that OUSD enrollment has declined over the past several years, which then could divert attention from the poor decision-making and weak financial systems that produced the current situation. The second inconsistency in the report is related to enrollment tracking. The report describes “cell formula irregularities” in Excel spreadsheets used to project enrollment that “once realized, did not cause management to reduce staffing accordingly.” This seems like a series of serious missteps, but FCMAT didn’t seem to take data quality into account in its answers to questions about enrollment projections and analysis.
  • Cash Monitoring: This section covers how the district manages its cash flow. It’s not enough to have a fund balance on paper; the district also needs cash in the bank to pay bills on time. During the recession, this was hard because the state provided IOUs instead of cash, but the state is now paying districts on time – and yet OUSD “is experiencing cash flow shortages requiring temporary borrowing.” Some of the borrowing is internal, between funds. OUSD has also “borrowed from the county treasurer to meet cash flow needs for general fund operations.” But at least, the district repays inter-fund borrowing as required, and balances its checkbook every month.
  • General Fund: This section looks at whether the district matches the duration of revenue sources with the duration of expenses. Unfortunately, OUSD regularly uses one-time or time-limited funds for ongoing salaries and doesn’t reduce expenses even when revenues might not be available to cover them. The overall rating is mixed because, on the plus side, the percentage of the district’s unrestricted general fund spending on salaries is at or below the statewide average, and no material changes in litigation are anticipated.
  • General Ledger: This section covers some standard accounting practices, like recording financial activity accurately and in a timely manner. Fortunately, FCMAT says the district is heeding these (i.e. “Yes” answers to 4 of 6 questions). OUSD receives a mixed overall rating because the district recorded its beginning balances incorrectly and failed to make some accounting adjustments to reflect actuals inflows and outflows.

Phew. That’s it on the specifics of this important FCMAT report: the good, the bad and the mixed up. To summarize: budget cuts alone will NOT keep us from ending up back here again. To restore fiscal vitality, OUSD must make significant changes to its fiscal management, governance practices, managerial practices, and culture.

So Now What

For those of you who are wondering: “What can I do?” here are a few ideas:

Keep paying attention. Our public school system needs taxpayers and voters to get informed, stay engaged and become active. Don’t blindly concur with simple slogans. The situation is complex and the solutions require real tradeoffs and more critical thinking than a catchy chant can capture. Read more, visit OUSD’s fiscal transparency website, and track OUSD Board discussions and decisions.

Contribute to the Oakland Public Education Fund’s A-Z Fund. Some schools have PTAs that can raise enough money to make up for the cuts; others don’t. This Fund will steer donations towards schools that are serving students with the greatest needs.

Volunteer your time. Many schools still need tutors and classroom assistants. Mid-year budget cuts also mean fewer enrichment programs and fewer field trips. Make up for that gap by finding ways to share your passion – whether its watercolor painting or Afro-Cuban drumming or culinary science – with students. And if you have professional experience working in finance, personnel, or technology, your expertise would be valuable to OUSD’s Board and leaders. (Does OUSD need a Finance Advisory Council?)

A few final thoughts:

We need to get back to focusing on improving educational outcomes for student in our classrooms.  Righting the ship financially is important, but it is the means not the end. Too many Oakland schools are not adequately educating our children, and numerous improvements can still be made on a shoestring budget.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell is a leader we all need to support. She inherited this mess, and is taking on the challenge with courage, poise, intelligence, and care – exactly what we would expect from an alumna of Oakland public education.

Oaklanders are tough fighters, creative entrepreneurs, and compassionate citizens. We can use these assets to be part of the solution – and we will all need to work together to support our students through this adversity.

[1] OUSD’s 20 Day Count report showed that enrollment is 302 students higher than the 20 Day Count last school year.

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Part 3: OUSD and the FCMAT Report – The 8 Areas of Concern

Welcome to the third in our mini blog series on the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s (FCMAT) Fiscal Health Risk Analysis of OUSD, issued in August. We provided historical background, and then yesterday looked at the seven areas in which FCMAT gave OUSD a passing grade.

Today, we cover the 8 areas that FCMAT identified as areas of concern. This should shed some light on the underlying causes of yesterday’s payroll blunder as well as why we are facing a budget crisis again:

1. Deficit Spending: Although it should be obvious, this is the core of OUSD’s financial problem: OUSD spends more than it brings in, has done so for years, and does not seem to have a plan to stop deficit spending. It’s time to break this bad habit. The proposed $15 million mid-year cut, while painful, would demonstrate the start of some needed fiscal discipline.

2. Fund Balance: The District’s fund balance is the accumulation of extra funds that don’t get spent each year. The most scrutinized fund balance is in the unrestricted General Fund, which is the main operating fund, is the most flexible, and is the one with a state-required minimum. Well-managed districts have healthy fund balance – when revenues are up, they save for a rainy day. OUSD’s fund balance is now less than the state-required minimum. Also, OUSD doesn’t seem able to accurately forecast whether it can restore that fund balance. The FCMAT report narrates the events during the 2016-2017 school year, during which the projected fund balance steadily dropped as new financial information came in.

3. Reserve for Economic Uncertainty: By the end of 2016-2017, OUSD’s fund balance was less than the legally-required 2% (i.e. $11.3M). And to make matters worse, OUSD lacks a plan to restore the reserve in subsequent years. No wonder the state is concerned.

4. Bargaining Agreements: Over 90% of the District’s employees are represented by one of 7 different bargaining units. The collective bargaining agreements are negotiated every few years between the district and each unit, and dictate employee wages, hours, duties, and working conditions. FCMAT answered Yes to 5 of 7 questions in this section, indicating district compliance with the required bargaining process. However, FCMAT gave the district an overall “No,” indicating this is an area of concern, because all had received wage increases greater than the Cost-of-Living-Adjustment (10-15% over the last two years) and the district didn’t have a financial plan to sustain these compensation increases. Five of seven bargaining agreements have expired.

5. Encroachment: This is the term used when some programs are not able to cover their expenditures with their designated revenue sources and thus “encroach” on the General Fund. (The gentler term is a “contribution.”) OUSD’s programs for students with special needs has required the biggest subsidy, which is typical for most urban districts, although OUSD’s encroachment on special education is 18% higher than other districts. In addition, the Cafeteria and Child Development programs both required roughly $2 million contributions from the General Fund in 2016-2017.

6. Position Control & Human Resources: The vast majority of any school district’s expenditures are employee salaries and benefits. Therefore, good financial management includes “checks and balances” on all staffing decisions. Unfortunately, FCMAT answered “No” to 6 of 7 questions in this section. Based on FCMAT’s analysis, the district does not control unauthorized hiring, is not able to control over-staffing, and lacks the internal controls to prevent fraudulent activity. Given these findings, it’s a relief that we don’t see massive payroll errors more often.

7. Budget Monitoring & Updates: This section covers the activities that a district should do to monitor and stick to its budget. OUSD does 8 of 13 of these things but still receives an overall “No” from FCMAT. This section of the report helpfully describes each breakdown in OUSD’s financial “system” and concludes with the by-now-obvious statement “The district should address issues identified throughout this report that have a major impact on its budget.”

8. Leadership/Stability: This section receives “No” answers to all four questions. OUSD had high superintendent turnover for decades: 24 superintendents in the last 50 years. This report makes clear the financial impact of that leadership instability, scolds district and site administrators for not adhering to policies, regulations, and chides the Board for not following standards established by the California School Board Association (CSBA) for good governance.

In FCMAT’s own words:

“Based on the information in this report, the district has lost control of its spending, allowing school sites and departments to ignore and override board policies by spending beyond their budgets. In many cases, board policies are knowingly ignored and/or circumvented without consequences.”

Tomorrow we will close out this part of our #OUSDBudget series with a look at the four areas that FCMAT characterized as “mixed.”