How Four Oakland Schools are Transforming

 

Our New North Star
that Guides our Transformational Schools Work:

All families across Oakland’s 78 square miles
know their children will realize their full brilliance and potential
at every public school in any neighborhood.

Our community continually takes collective responsibility
to reimagine, create, and improve a public education system
where success is not predicted by race and class.

 

I joined the Educate78 team about two years ago, helping propel forward a deep rethinking of the organization’s mission and how to build on the assets in our community to move toward greater quality and equity for all kids. This has led us to a new North Star and a renewed focus on our core mission – giving more of our community’s children access to quality, transformational schools.

For too long, the success and failure of Oakland’s students has correlated primarily with their race, class, and the zip code where they live. Systemic oppression against Black and Brown students denies them the quality education they deserve. We see it as our responsibility to support any and all efforts to remove the predictability of success or failure, and support school leaders to reimagine and deliver an equitable, thriving community of transformational schools.

 

A Year in Review: The Progression of Our Transformational Schools Work

For schools to become high quality, transformational schools, they have to be committed to interrupting policies and practices that perpetuate oppression. All of our work at Educate78, including our work with school leaders, is designed through this equity-centered lens. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to lead our transformational school’s efforts, working with several incredible OUSD school communities across Oakland’s 78 square miles, east to west.

Now entering its third year, this evolving program partners with Oakland public schools with the goal of moving them from “good to great” through educator-led redesign processes prioritizing academic rigor and a joyful school climate, elements we believe can transform our city’s most underserved schools. The four schools I work with in this fellowship are: Bridges Academy, Hoover Elementary, Melrose Leadership Academy, and Urban Promise Academy.

The earliest version of this fellowship involved engaging with school communities to identify the most pressing issues getting in the way of better outcomes for our most vulnerable students. We helped each school develop certain basic foundational documents, including a mission, vision, values, and a graduate profile. School leaders received ongoing coaching around their design work, as well as gaining access to learning opportunities such as conferences and travel study trips, the UnboundEd Standards Institute, and bi-weekly programming developed and facilitated by members of the Educate78 schools team.

As with many of our efforts, nearly all of which involve working directly with those closest to the problem – teachers, school leaders, students, and families at school sites, we learned along the way and adjusted in response to feedback:

  • Less programming, more time implementing and iterating: Although they valued the programming, our leaders requested less time in meetings so they could spend more time applying the learning back at their sites.
  • More time reflecting, less time on documents: Similar to the extensive programming, while the foundational documents felt relevant, some of the other artifacts felt too compliance driven rather than moving the work at the sites forward. Leadership is both active and reflective – it has to alternate between participating and observing. Leaders needed a space for deep reflection.
  • Site-based decision-making matters: All of our school leaders felt they need greater autonomy to make site-based decisions to best serve their children. This is a concept that we are excited to see OUSD Superintendent Johnson-Trammell embrace as part of the district’s Community of Schools policy.

We evolved the program in response to the feedback from our leaders. Instead of meeting bi-weekly, we invited our fellows to participate in “Quarterly Step-Backs,” where we engage them in guided reflection and long-term planning, as well as provided opportunities for crucial community building and collective ownership of the work. As a result of less programming, I have spent more time at school sites coaching and engaging with school leaders to better understand the work and their specific needs. Through all these changes, one thing has remained consistent: our focus on supporting Oakland school leaders as they seek to implement transformative practices at their sites.

This program will continue to evolve as we listen deeply to our leaders and teachers who, after all, know their schools better than anyone, on how we can better support them in changing outcomes for our most vulnerable students.

Over the coming weeks, we will share the perspectives from the schools on this transformational schools work. We will dive into the recent development of our Transformational Schools Review process and take a look at some of the early results and successes this process has already helped bring about. In the meantime, for more information on the Transformational Schools Fellowship, please contact me.

 

Image Source: Hoover Elementary School Website

The Importance of Attendance…For Everyone!

As Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell included in her back-to-school welcome message, attendance is super important. Inspired by her call for building positive attendance habits early in our young learners and since September was Attendance Awareness Month, I decided to dive deeper into the topic, specifically chronic absence, to help give context on why it matters so much – for everyone!

What is Chronic Absence?

Chronic absence is another way of looking at attendance by focusing on proportion of kids who missed a significant amount of school days, those who are chronically absent. For the first time, the state has defined how it will collect and calculate chronic absenteeism (see footnote for definition). This data is one of several indicators in the California School Dashboard that attempts to reflect school culture and climate and build toward a more holistic view of school performance.

In 2016-17 (the first year data was collected), Oakland’s citywide overall chronic absenteeism rate was 15.4% of students – that’s over 1 in 7 children across district and charter schools who miss 10% or more of their school days. For comparison, the statewide average is 10.8% of students in 2016-17 and recent analysis by AttendanceWorks puts the nationwide rate at 15.5% during 2015-16 (though they define chronic absence slightly different).

Why it matters:

  • For System Leaders: Because a lot of school funding in California is based on “average daily attendance” (ADA), not enrollment, a school loses approximately $85 per day for every student absent. This can add up quickly! For a district or charter with scarce resources and tight budgets (aka almost every school in Oakland), this feels important. To get an estimate of the potential minimum dollars lost, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. (Assuming 10% of school year = 18 days, 15.4% of Oakland’s 53089 students were chronically absent during attendance tracking period, and $15,337 per pupil funding annually in CA in 2016-17). That adds up to a potential loss of at least $12.6 million citywide! (Some students were absent a lot more than 18 days a year.)

18 days x(15.4% students chronically absent x 53089 students) x $15337 per pupil/180 days per year = $12.6M

  • For Students: Students who are behind and chronically absent are missing valuable instruction time – time that is necessary for closing the proficiency gap. When there are huge differences between subgroups, it becomes equitable access issue. To estimate the impact for socioeconomically disadvantaged students (SED), I made assumptions that: the 41.6K SED students citywide receive 6.5 instructional hours per day, attend school 180 days a year, chronically absent students miss at least 18 days (10%) of year, and used the citywide rate of 17.4%. That’s 849K total instructional hours lost in 2016-17. Every 1% citywide reduction in % of SED students who are chronically absent yields 49K extra instructional hours to work on closing the gap! Imagine all the reading or math that can happen in that time!

Chronic absenteeism rates citywide in Oakland by subgroup (CDE 2016-17)

  • For School Leaders: Attendance and chronic absenteeism rates can be leading indicators for a healthy school culture. Chronic absence is an early warning sign of academic distress, including school dropout (Oakland Achieves 2016). Unusual rates are symptomatic of other underlying issues and thus should be monitored carefully, acting as bellwethers for a healthy school culture. Some schools like Frick, MLA, and Hoover have been steadily reducing their chronic absence rates, showing consistent improvement not only in the past three years but also historically. They’re also schools with targeted and sustained climate and culture efforts from the school leaders.

Areas of Caution:

  • Focus on chronic absence rates beyond just the numbers. There are so many the factors that contribute to students’ chronic absenteeism, a variety inside and out of a family’s control. Health, transportation, family trauma, reactions to the national political climate – all this and more in Oakland. It’s necessary to understand the “whys” behind high rates and know each school site is different.
  • Metric not designed to capture change for individual students: Even if a school helps a student reduce the number of missed school days from 60 days annually down to 20, the student would still be considered chronically absent in both years because they’ve crossed the 10% threshold.
  • Differing definitions: The California Department of Education definition for chronic absence differs slightly than the federal definition (10% of school days vs. 15 days per school year). Chronic absence is calculated differently at continuation and alternative schools.

Snapshot of OUSD on the interactive map from The Hamilton Project, which displays federally collected chronic absence rates from 2015-16 on national, state, district, and school levels using the federal definition of 15+ days for chronic absence.

  • Reporting errors in first year: Not surprisingly, the first year of data collection for chronic absenteeism rates had its hiccups and inaccuracies as folks acclimated. Sites with flagged inaccuracies will have a banner to note this. See OUSD’s page for chronic absenteeism rates for example. (As a point of comparison: if you look at San Francisco’s, it’s much more wildly inaccurate.) Hopefully, data for 2017-18 will be more robust and accurate now that schools and districts have had time to adjust with first round of collection under their belts.

Looking forward:

I’m super excited (not surprisingly) about the possibility of updated 2017-18 chronic absence data in CA School Dashboard refresh (update scheduled late winter/early spring). In theory, chronic absence rates could be leading indicators, a bellwether to making sure students are getting the instructional hours they need, and we would have insight into how Oakland schools are progressing compared to statewide benchmark.

For those interested in learning more about chronic absence and ways to address it, I recommend checking out AttendanceWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing chronic absence to advance student success, or OUSD’s Attendance webpage. Data geeks will appreciate the interactive map recently released by AttendanceWorks and The Hamilton Project at Brookings Institution on 2015-16 federal chronic absence data, allowing users to dig deeper into subgroup trends.

Footnotes: Definition: The California Ed Code defines a student as a chronic absentee if ”a pupil who is absent on 10 percent or more of the school days in the school year when the total number of days a pupil is absent is divided by the total number of days the pupil is enrolled and school was actually taught in the regular day schools of the district, exclusive of Saturdays and Sundays.”

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.”

Part 2: OUSD and the FCMAT Report – The “Good” News

Yesterday, as part of our #OUSDBudget series, we provided some background on the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s Fiscal Health Risk Analysis of OUSD, issued in August. Today, we delve into the seven of twenty areas where FCMAT said OUSD was not doing too bad.

According to FCMAT, OUSD earned a positive rating in three of twenty areas, based on “yes” answers to all the questions in each topic area:

  • Debt: Surprisingly, OUSD scores well on this, despite still owing the state $40 million from the last time the district was bailed out. FCMAT’s rating is based on OUSD not having lots of non-voter-approved debt, having sources of funds identified to pay off the debt it does have, and accounting for pension liabilities correctly.
  • Multiyear Projections: OUSD received a favorable response on all five questions in this category, which are focused on the process for creating multi-year projections. Unfortunately, FCMAT didn’t ask about the historical variances between OUSD’s projections and their actual expenditures.
  • Charter Schools: FCMAT reports that OUSD’s Charter Schools Office is doing its job well, monitoring the financial condition of each charter school authorized by OUSD. (In Oakland, all the charters – and their budgets – are under the oversight of OUSD but independently managed by not-for-profit 501c3 governing boards, which is why charter budgets are not affected by OUSD’s cuts.)

In four areas, OUSD passed overall even though it failed on some specific questions in that category and some of FCMAT’s answers left us scratching our heads.

  • Management Information Systems: Overall, the District passed this category based on “Yes” answers to four of seven questions – although we disagree with the “Yes” answers to the questions “Are the district’s financial data accurate and timely?” and “Are key fiscal reports accessible, timely, and understandable?” If these were actually true, we shouldn’t be in the situation we’re in.
  • Budget Development & Adoption: Similarly, OUSD scored an overall positive in this category based on “Yes” answers to 8 of 10 questions – but some of those answers were contradicted in another part of the report. For example, FCMAT notes that the biggest dollar problem in the 16-17 budget was “the result of over-projecting ADA“ but then answers “Yes” to the question “Are projections for ADA, enrollment, revenue, and unduplicated pupil count accurate and reasonable?” Similarly, the report it points out that the District does not have a functional position control system for hiring, even while answering “Yes” to the question “Does the district use position control data for budget development?”
  • Internal Controls & Annual Independent Audit Report: FCMAT gives OUSD an overall Yes on this section despite concluding that the district does not implement appropriate measures to discourage and detect fraud, has not received an audit without a material finding, and “many employees report a lack of consistency and continuity with district policy and procedures,” such as “spending beyond site/department budgets.”
  • Facilities: Overall FCMAT rates the district positively on this topic, based on 8 of 10 “Yes” answers, despite noting they weren’t provided with the legally required audits of the bond measures and that the district “may be out of compliance in this area.”

So, that’s the “good” news – the seven areas in which FCMAT gave OUSD’s fiscal health a passing grade. Yet even in these areas, however, there is clearly a lot of work still to be done. We’ll be looking for the proposed Action Plan to include strengthening financial information systems and reporting, increasing accuracy in budget development and ensuring employees stick to established policies and procedures. Tomorrow, we will review the eight sections that raised concern.

OUSD and FCMAT: Preparing for the Dec. 13 Report

Next Wednesday, on December 13, OUSD’s Board is expected to vote on extremely painful midyear budget cuts. In the midst of that pain, and in response to a recent report by the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), the staff is supposed to present an “action plan'” to strengthen the district’s fiscal management.

If we ever want to end the cycle of budget crises, this FCMAT action plan and, more importantly, its actual implementation, are critical. 

Continuing our #OUSDBudget series, we’ll be posting a few blogs this week on FCMAT’s findings on OUSD’s fiscal management to provide context, share a glimmer of good news, lay out the bad news, and consider implications for the future of Oakland public education. Each one will be a relatively 1-2 page quick read versus the 40-page report.

Our goal with this is for the educational leadership of Oakland across all sectors to share a common understanding of the problems so that we can be the generation that breaks the decades-long cycle of budget crises.

Who or what is FCMAT?

The Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT, pronounced “Fick-Matt”) is a non-profit organization created by state law (AB 1200) in 1991 to help local education agencies manage their finances.

OUSD and FCMAT have had a decades-long, on-again, off-again relationship. FCMAT first looked at OUSD’s finances in 1999. During State Receivership in 2003-2008, they were brought in regularly; this 350 page report from 2007 reveals just how deep some of OUSD’s fiscal problems go. In a subsequent 2008 report, as part of its analysis to justify returning the district fully to local control, FCMAT gave OUSD as score of on 6.23 out of 10 rating on Fiscal Management – a solid D-minus (but it was a huge increase from up from 0.73 in 2003!).

The Most Recent FCMAT Report

The OUSD Board requested FCMAT’s help again earlier this year in April 2017 (coincidentally, the same month back in 1999 – 18 years ago – when the Board first voted to request FCMAT support). At the August 23 OUSD Board meeting, FCMAT presented its “Fiscal Health Risk Analysis.”

The report analyzes 20 factors based on answers to 117 specific questions. A “No” answer to a question basically indicates a weak financial management practice. FCMAT’s rule of thumb is that an overall “No” in more than seven areas is “cause for concern,” requiring “some level of fiscal intervention.”

OUSD failed in eight areas (out of 20). It also passed seven and had mixed reviews on four. (One was not applicable.)

In response, at the Sept. 6 meeting of the newly reinstated Budget & Finance Committee, Directors Eng, Gonzales, and Torres passed a resolution calling for a plan of action in response to the FCMAT report by the second meeting in October. On October 25, staff asked for an extension, which the Board agreed to.

The Action Plan Coming December 13

The Action Plan is now scheduled to be presented at the December 13 Board meeting. Over the next few posts, we will share our thoughts on the FCMAT report and Action Plan. What are yours?

For more reading: