A conversation with Bridges at Melrose principal Anita Comelo

This is the second installment in a series of interviews with Educate78 School Design Lab leaders and partners. In our first installment of #OakSDL interviews, we heard from Oakland’s longest serving principal. Now here from a leader she influenced, Anita Comelo, Principal of OUSD’s Bridges at Melrose.

The new mega blockbuster Black Panther supposedly depicts Oakland in 1992, the same year you started nearly three decades ago with OUSD (though actually not Oakland in the movie, by the way). How did you begin your career in OUSD? What was it like back then?

My connections to OUSD began as a student actually. My family immigrated from Bombay, India in 1983. I attended O High, graduating in 1985.

As immigrants, it was not easy. Some of our family came with us, some stayed back. I felt and saw other immigrants dealing with the challenges of coming into a new school system, and this, in part, was what inspired me to eventually join OUSD professionally. Also, my mom actually was a Classified Employee there for 25 years, so she definitely played a role as well.

Before starting work though, I lived abroad a bit, spending a year and a half in Venezuela. I returned and went to SF State to study teaching, and they assumed I wanted to pursue a bilingual credential since I was returning from a Spanish-speaking country. Around the same time, my mom encouraged me to become a sub.

“Sure, why not?” I thought, just for now, and began day-to-day subbing in 1991. And so I was subbing and putting my language skills to use here at Bridges at Melrose.

As it turns out, Moyra was the first-grade teacher, pregnant with her first son Jacinto; so I subbed for her. Delia Ruiz was principal. Later Moyra became a TSA and hired me and became my coach. I learned a lot from Moyra, then I became a TSA when Moyra became principal.

 

Tell me about your journey to where are you today?

When Moyra left to found MLA, Clara Tharango became principal. I had done my teacher training in her classroom!  Clara was our principal for 10 years.

During that time, I left for a bit in 2005 after 13 years teaching. I took a break to focus on personal interests. I never fully stopped teaching, actually; I took up teaching ESL and citizenship classes. I did parent education for Yemeni families at Fruitvale Elementary.

Eventually I wanted to come back, but the only position available here was in kindergarten. I did not want to teach kinder. So I joined Central as an ELA specialist for 2 years, then PAR for 3 years, then MLA as a TSA.

When Clara was leaving here as our Bridges principal in 2015, she and others invited me to apply. I’m now in my third year as principal.

 

You’ve seen a lot over the years. You were a student when the district first started hitting financial challenges in the late 80s, a teacher leading into State Administration in the late 90s/early 2000s, and now you’ve bene principal through a chaotic period of unexpected budget crises and more leadership turnover. What’s kept you here?

Community kept me here. Two of my siblings went through OUSD, starting in middle school when we moved here. And then I’ve had these amazing, strong Latina mentors and leaders: Delia, Clara, Moyra.

I went through the very hard but transformational five-week teacher strike in 1996. It’s always been teacher educators and peers who have kept me. Super smart and dedicated people working in really hard conditions.

Also, the families and the kids. A lot of my students are now sending their kids to school here. It’s intergenerational.

I hope to continue this legacy of community and mentorship.

 

Beautiful. We hope you do too! So let’s look at today: is the District moving in the right direction?

Over time it’s actually moving better. There was chaos at times. We had kids leaving 5th grade without learning to read. And we still have a lot of work to do. But there’s definitely been improvement.

And I have a lot of hope in our leaders in the district right now. Sara Stone, LaResha Martin, Monica Thomas, Sondra, Kyla…they come from within our system and understand it.

We need to change. Lots of things are still not working for our students and schools. There are departments that could definitely be in greater service of students. There are good people in these offices I know, but maybe it’s the structure, systems, management – I’m not sure.

 

Can you speak to specifics? As you note, these are things that need to be fixed to better serve our children.  

There are central offices that could better serve our schools. HR and PEC are ones that come to mind right now.

We have had a teacher out on medical leave for almost the whole year and we have had a classroom of first graders with many different subs. The children have lost a year already of their education. HR’s response has been weak. PEC is getting better, but still has some ways to go in supporting children with disabilities and responding to site issues.

Good people are leaving because of situations that have not been aligned to OUSD’s value of Students First. Also, we really have to get better about differentiating for school sites. We need to look at each site to figure out how to support and lift up certain communities that are really struggling.

What’s your proudest accomplishment so far with Bridges?

Building a good strong team. We had stability for 10 years. No teacher left. We were an anomaly for an East Oakland school. But the year before I came five teachers left and the principal retired; then the following year 4 teachers retired.

Now it’s like Bridges 2.0. We’re laying the foundation, hopefully for another period of stability and improvement. We’re working on lots of shift in school climate, for example, away from a more punitive practices to PBIS and RJ and SEL. We’re rethinking our bilingual program (TK-5; early exit Spanish program; 3rd grade transition to English). We’re implementing Balanced Literacy.

We have an ELD 3-year plan. We’re in our first year of it, working closely with the ELLMA office – shout out to ELLMA – they’re awesome and one of the many central teams doing great work.

We’re also trying to strengthen systems and structures. We now have a Coordination of Services Team, Attendance Team, Instructional Leadership Team (ILT), K2College Team, PBIS School Climate team, Redesign Team, and Faculty Council, in addition to the parent involvement bodies and grade level teacher teams.

 

What are the aspirational student and school community outcomes for Bridges over the next five years?

I hope to see real academic growth along different measures: Our own standards-based aligned assessments; student work; writing samples; math assessment; diagnostic assessment – ELD assessment; ELPAC and SBAC for state and SRI for district. It’s a lot, but that’s the work. We’re trying to develop more teacher-created assessments aligned to standards.

I also hope we create a place that elevates the strengths and responds to the needs of the community. Where families want to send their kids because they’ll get a real good education. Where kids’ families and culture are honored. Where families new to the country are supported as part of our full-service community school approach, with necessities like food, clothing, etc. And families and learning and growing as well – ESL, technology, reading and literacy. I would like to see us teach and create systems that honors and supports our students’ intellect and have high expectations for them.

 

How can OUSD and others help you get there?

The funding we have right now is not enough to do what we need to do. We need new grants and political advocacy for more funding.

Also, we need greater differentiation and communication to school sites responding to the unique needs of the school.

 

How is Educate78 helping?

Being part of the SDL has been helpful and supportive. With our single plan for student achievement, we are just looking year-to-year. With Educate78, we are being led through a process of rethinking everything for our school so we can be better years down the line.

The coaching’s been really good. Bela’s awesome. I love working with her.

And the processes we’ve been led through have been great. We did very authentic community engagement to come up with our school vision. When I got here, no parent or staff member could tell me what our vision or mission was. We developed that together.

We now have a graduate profile. We’re looking at all different aspects of school – curriculum, adult learning, etc. – all it in a very systematic way.

And the funds for a sub-principal are a huge help. It’s impossible to run a school day-to-day and redesign.

 

What about the city as a whole – district and charter schools – how might they need to work together or work in different ways to ensure that all kids (and especially our most vulnerable kids and communities) in Oakland have access to a great public education?

I have my personal views on charters but that does not matter here. What makes sense for our reality now is that there to be a thoughtful entity or group of people that are looking at all the schools in Oakland and all of Oakland. Right now the atmosphere is of people fighting – tension, suspicion, mistrust. I understand why, but I think moving forward to do right by our students, we need to figure out how to come together.

I don’t know what the answer is, but we need leadership in this area. We need leadership from OUSD and the charters and/or maybe city elders to come together and consider how to best serve the city’s children. Everyone may need to compromise so that there is thoughtfulness on how schools are created, closed, merged, etc.

We also need to really do an analysis of what’s working. Someone – I don’t recall who, GO Principal group and/or Principal Advisory Committee maybe? – put out a survey to principals. We need to look at those results and take real strong action.

It’s never going to be easy because there will be jobs lost and transitioned, but we don’t exist to create jobs, but to serve students. But if we don’t make those tough decisions we will all suffer.

 

What’s your hope for Kyla and the current leadership team?

She has a super tough job. I’m glad she’s in that role. I think she understands us, the systems all the way through from student to teacher to principal. She’s a good listener. She must continue to listen. Do the work with integrity and fairness, and the results will come through.

 

This will go out to the public education leadership of Oakland and others across the region, state and nation. Anything you’d like to add or I missed?

We cannot, schools cannot – we’re going to fail given existing resources. We need political advocacy to change funding at the state level, at the national level. Teachers need to get paid more or we are not going to succeed. We can’t have a revolving door of teachers, can’t attract and keep the best teachers. We also have to make the principal job more manageable or will continue to have turnover there.

Also I want to highlight our Crocker Highlands-Bridges partnership. Crocker Highlands is helping us with fundraising; they judged the science fair; volunteered to distribute food from the food bank; did some neighborhood clean-up and many donated to a family going through a crisis. It started this year. I have to thank Pamela Erickson who heads the Equity Committee at Crocker and principal Jocelyn Kelleher.

The Masons give us a grant for books for kids – Raising a Reader. The East Bay Chapter of the California Masons.

RTI – a science company based in Berkeley – they gave boxes of supplies and gift cards to staff around the holidays. They’re a friendly local corporation. It all helps!

 

What’s your favorite spot on campus so we can take a picture there?

Let’s go to the library.

 

If you are interested in supporting Bridges, you can donate here through the Oakland Public Education Fund or click on the OUSD Facebook post screenshot above (or here) to support the three Bridges students who recently tragically lost their mother. 

Thank you for reading! Next up we’ll be interviewing the principals of a West Oakland elementary school working through its school redesign and then the principal of one of the Fruitvale’s strongest middle school programs. Stay tuned!

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A conversation with OUSD’s longest-serving principal, Moyra Contreras

An interview with OUSD’s longest-serving principal, Moyra Contreras, the founding principal of Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA) and a Educate78 School Design Lab Fellow.

Moyra in front of her favorite mural on campus, featuring what she described as the cycle of life of a woman. She thinks it may be the only mural around featuring a nursing mother. (Painted by Pancho Peskador and MLA students.)

How did MLA begin?

In 2001, I was Principal at Melrose Elementary. We were doing significant work to redesign the school. The nearby middle schools were really not high quality academically; but worse, they were just not safe. Kids were dropping out after elementary school. And parents were coming to me begging for us to keep their kids. It was really hard to let them go, knowing where they were going.

The Small Autonomous Schools movement was happening. We had been working with BayCES. I was on a retreat, at a reception, and someone asked me, if you could have anything right now, what would it be. I said, “I’d keep my kids.”

But we had 520 kids at the time, located at the Melrose site at 53rd and International. We didn’t actually qualify as a small school – their definition was 350 or less. So in 2001 we opened a standalone middle school with 6th grade. We had two schools for a while, and I was principal of both.

 

How was starting a new school in OUSD at the time?

There was a lot of change. Melrose was a pilot school for the new results-based budgeting that the State Administrator brought in. While the Melrose Leadership Academy middle school was budgeted through the Small Autonomous Schools process.

We had no building for the first two weeks of school! Central office assumed we were going to be on the Melrose campus, but we had no space. We became good friends with the Rainbow Recreation Center at International and Seminary – that became our home base. And the kids learned about the city, traveling around to different locations on public transportation for “class” while waiting for the two portables.

Eventually they build us a new two-story structure on that campus, but that only worked for a couple of years. There was not enough space.

 

So where did you go?

Sherman, on Brand Street, was closed under State Administration, so MLA Middle School moved there. That’s when we really started to work with parents and teachers to design the school we’d envisioned: a diverse-by-design, integrated K-8 dual immersion school.

We were on the Sherman campus for five years while Melrose Elementary went through a No Child Let Behind-inspired transition and became Bridges at Melrose. But again, as we grew, we needed more space.

Under Supt. Tony Smith, Maxwell Park was closed. That’s how we ended up here today. That was six years ago. Our first kinder class is now in 8th grade.

 

Where did the vision for MLA come from for you?

It’s really tied to how I came to Oakland and my experiences before that. I was teaching in Seattle. It was the early 80s. It was the first year of busing in Seattle. I was the only teacher of color at an all-white school that was receiving primarily African American and new immigrant children…only to be resegregated once at school. I had a bilingual credential but there were no bilingual schools in Seattle. We had two daughters and wanted to raise them in a diverse community.

A friend called who was living in Oakland. I interviewed by phone with OUSD and they offered me a job on the call. Next thing I flew in to take the CBEST test in July, then went back home to pack the family up in a U-Haul, and that fall began teaching at Stonehurst. I was there for one year.

I moved to Jefferson, where we lived in the neighborhood and were super committed to the community. But then our Mexican AP who I was close to became principal of Melrose. Without the support of administration, we could not keep the change going that we had been working on. I was the only bilingual mentor in the district at the time. My AP recruited me to Melrose, but I cried when I left.

On the surface, the Jefferson and Melrose communities looked racially similar. But socioeconomically, there was way more trauma in the Melrose community. It was predominantly new immigrant communities surrounded by factories and pollution.

 

Every school you’ve mentioned so far has either closed or been reconfigured. School closures are hot on people’s minds right now. What thoughts do you have on the subject?

When we came here to Maxwell Park, it was hard. Change is painful for a community. But we are a public school. We have many more families from the community coming here. We’re offering a program within the public school system meeting the needs of this community. The previous program ended, but the school didn’t close; we’re serving the community. School closures are really complicated by class and race. They impact black and brown kids disproportionately.

But we have too many buildings for the number of kids we have. If we’re going to stabilize this district and provide quality facilities, we’re going to have to make tough decisions about how many schools we can maintain. This school was built in 1929, it has a boiler from 1929. The classrooms upstairs get to 110 degrees, but we can’t put air conditioning in because the electrical system won’t support it.

 

A related topic is the Blueprint – what do you think about it?

I am hopeful for the Blueprint process. It’s so important. It will be a 2-3 year process, and I’m hopeful we’ll be in the first cohort. Ultimately it may involve us splitting into two campuses to expand. Maybe one K-3 and one 4-8. We have 80 families on our kindergarten waitlist and more in other grades.

 

You’re the longest serving OUSD principal in the district right now, and your tenure as an educator began even before that. How has OUSD changed over the years?

I’ve seen about 20 superintendents in the last 34 years. That’s the biggest problem. New people bring new ideas, and we never build on what’s already here. Some of the things being “discovered” now as new things; we tried them 20 years ago, but they did not stick.

The vision must be held by the community, and then we need someone to come join and support the vision of the community. I’m happy for Kyla in that way. She’s been here in multiple positions. I hope she’ll stay and stick it out so we can really build something sustainable.

In the absence of that, I’ve tried to build here; given the constraints.

 

How could OUSD support more?

When we opened, we had autonomies – budget, for example – we helped pilot RBB. We had calendar autonomy: we started a week early and gave families a longer winter break to visit families – we have families that drive to other countries for the break and they need more time. We started with a “Discovery Week” where kids could choose a week-long elective while classroom teachers got the whole week for planning. We had camping, cooking classes in conjunction with the Catholic Worker at 54th and International. We had an extended day – all of our kids stayed until five and we gave kids extra time to eat breakfast in the morning. We even had our own report card – a more narrative one, that was standards based but had character development in addition to academics. But we lost them after a few years, and I wish I had them all back. It’s also hard to know what OUSD could do more or differently, because that’s all I’ve known.

 

And OUSD people seem to love your school – a lot of them have their kids here, right?

Many. I’ve always believed you should send your kids where you’re asking others to attend. My daughter and son were at Melrose when I was there, and long before we became MLA. My oldest daughter attended Jefferson while I was there.

 

What do you think of charter schools?

I recognize how hard it is in OUSD. And I recognize how many schools have not met the needs of the community. But I feel that charters have been destabilizing.

If we’d continued in the vein of the new Small Schools Movement, that could have created the pressure to transform the school district sooner. Charters may have released some of that pressure by taking those kids and families out of the system.

I love and respect many of the people doing the charter work as individuals. But I wish we could be creating opportunities within OUSD to innovate. How do we invite them back into OUSD? What would that look like?

 

What’s your proudest or happiest moment over the years?

One day I was standing at the corner of 53rd and International. Armed robberies had happened on three of the four corners. I thought, “What if we could get these kids just a little bit out of this neighborhood?” Just a reprieve – close enough that they could come, but not where they were still immersed directly in such violence and poverty. And what if we could mix with other, more affluent families. There are no liquor stores in this neighborhood. And here, people who are not the same are able to come together and understand each other deeply. I feel like we have achieved that, and are still trying to advance that dream, care for it, and make sure we don’t lose it.

 

What’s your leadership style?

My job is to provide everybody opportunities to lead – engage intellectually and professionally. Everybody wins that way. I can’t know what’s happening with the noon supervisor, but if they’re thinking about it and feel empowered, they can ask, “Wouldn’t it be better if we did it this way?” You can improve everything if everyone’s participating in that way.

My transition from Seattle to deep East Oakland was an incredible shock; Seattle was trying to integrate schools; Oakland wasn’t even talking about it. Stonehurst was like 1,000 kids with 90% free and reduced lunch. But what was most striking was how teachers were treated. In Seattle there was a supply room open to everybody. The principal gave me the keys to the school so I could go in early as a new teacher to. When I got here, the principal was asking me for weekly lesson plans, assuming I was incompetent, and treating me like I was going to steal.

The first thing I did when I became principal in Oakland was unlock the supply room. I told the teachers, this is how much we have; this is what our budget is. We’re all in this together. Before that teachers would hoard!

 

What motivates you most to keep keeping on?

In 34 years; it’s always been challenging, but there’s always been an opportunity, if you look for it really hard – to innovate. I’ve found them or helped make them. And learn. I did a two-year training when I started in Oakland to learn about coaching teachers. I did a program with the Bay Area Writing Project and became a BAWP consultant. We were a BASRC school, then a demonstration school in partnership with Cal State Hayward to train new teachers of color funded by Pacific Telesis. We were redesigning Melrose Elementary before creating MLA.

 

Sounds like that’s maybe part of why you joined the School Design Lab?

Exactly. We’d been trying to redesign – the middle school was not dual language when we opened it; we had been focused on expeditionary learning, but not appropriate. We are designing and redesigning every year, and thought it would be great to have additional resources, because it’s hard to do school full time and redesign.

 

What have you most liked about the School Design Lab?

I really appreciate the resources – to have a sub-principal once a week. It allows me to work with the AP with fewer distractions.

Also, the work around personalized learning is valuable for us. And rethinking how we’re organizing the school. It gives me time to think.

 

What feedback do you have for Educate78 about how to better move forward the cause of increasing access to quality school seats across Oakland’s 78 square miles?

Support schools like ours that can expand and improve, which I guess you are doing. If we were on two campuses, we could probably expand to 800. Also, I’d love to see more differentiated support. Each school in the lab is so different. Also, it would be good to figure out how to define quality schools more broadly. SBAC scores feel too prominent. I strongly believe in academic achievement and standards – but that does not define quality. There are schools with good test scores but not places I’d like to send my kids. What’s the quality of instruction in some of the hills schools? Or are the kids just doing well because they come to school with tons of privilege. We noted that many OUSD and other educators send their kids here. What do people see – it’s not the SBAC scores? They’re not great and they’ll never be great – we don’t teach English until 4th grade. Students learn to read and write in Spanish and the SBAC is in English and we have newcomers in all grades. How could we define what we have here?

And your hope for Kyla?

When I first became principal, I went through a hell that I thought would never be possible.

There’s so much dysfunction; you have to stand in it long enough and stand for something, to come out the other side with something better

I could not have imagined what some people were going to put me through; maybe if it were horrible enough I would leave. It was spearheaded by two teachers who did not want to change their practices.

But I’m a really stubborn person. You’re not going to try to push me out that way. I’m going to leave when I’m good and ready.

 

If you could have anything today? What would it be?

We’ve grown out of this space. I’d like to have a guaranteed solution for facilities for how we can continue to grow and thrive

 

What else do you want to share?

I love the murals here. Art is so essential. Here you have kids doing capoeira, art, dance. It’s organic – people take responsibility for what they’re passionate about.

 

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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 www.homiesempowerment.co.

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).

School Design Lab: Oakland Learnings

Part 1 of an interview with Carolyn Gramstorff, Founder & Director of the Educate78 School Design Lab. Carolyn is a former teacher and Oakland public school principal.

In 2015, Educate78 launched its School Design Lab (SDL) to address an unmet need to help school leadership teams reimagining Oakland public schools. Carolyn and her team have since supported 25 Leadership Fellows, working with schools like Roosevelt Middle School, Oakland School of Language, Roses in Concrete, Unity Middle School, and Thrival Academies. This school year, the School Design Lab has grown to add inspiring new Fellows and amazing new team members, and is looking forward to another year of accelerating school transformation for students across Oakland. You can follow, share, and engage with the work on social media via #OakSDL on Twitter and Facebook. In this first part, we ask one “simple” question:

What are your top three lessons learned from leading the School Design Lab?
Our first 18 months of SDL have reinforced my commitment to equity-centered design thinking. This process surfaces creative solutions and is based on the expertise of the community. It begins with engaging people who are affected, and using empathy and understanding to craft the school design.

Equity-centered design thinking creates a bias for action, through one-day hacks, two-day pop-ups, and eventually, longer pilots. This “start small” prototyping allows for deep learning and innovation – and ideally, elegantly simple solutions. Sometimes, we don’t need an elaborate plan. A lot of times we just need simple tweaks, better execution, and improved buy-in. Thinking smaller helps us focus on reflecting, learning, and iterating until we are seeing the outcomes we hoped for…and, maybe, some great byproducts that we never anticipated

We want this process to become a habit. Communities are never static, and transformational schools must be able to respond to the shifting needs of a community with grace, flexibility, and fluency.

Love the idea of equity-centered design thinking. How is it different from the typical approach?
The classic planning steps are: 1. Hold focus groups; 2. Lock yourself and colleagues into a room for days; 3. Cook up a 54-point strategic plan; 4. Develop spiffy slide deck; 5. Explain your magic solution and how it will work.

There are obvious problems with this approach. First, folks are exhausted before they even start implementing; and, second, they often encounter resistance from the people closest to the problem (understandably so!). So things stop moving, which creates a cycle where folks say “we tried that before and it didn’t work…”

What are some examples of equity-centered design thinking in SDL?
OUSD’s Hoover Elementary in West Oakland is a great example. Principal Ashley Martin and her team are starting small, learning hard, and working tirelessly to creatively solve the problems that impact their kids. They engaged their families in the redesign process and visited lots of schools. They tried tweaks like modifying team teaching configurations, using flexible seating, and tinkering with how to best implement learning stations. With each pilot, they learned, made adjustments, and sometimes threw out ideas that didn’t work. When an approach resulted in gains, they went deeper. The result? An improving Kindergarten program with a personalized approach. Hoover took the time – and frankly the risk – with smaller hacks and are now launching an exciting prototype of their education model from which they will continue to learn.

Awesome! We’ll keep our eye on Hoover in West Oakland. How about your other top two learnings?
Another important lesson from our pilot came from our SDL Fellows. They told us they needed more than technical support; they needed to develop as equity-centered leaders to manage the complexity of the work. So now we work on leadership development too. We like leadership guru Margaret Wheatley’s Six Circle Model, which includes both technical work (operations, structures, and strategies) and adaptive leadership skills like building relationships and practicing effective communication. We believe that both the technical and adaptive leadership skills are critical and learnable.

And your 3rd learning?
School transformation demands systemic change. Schools exist within specific contexts – districts or charter organizations, in communities, and within a regulatory structure. Change cannot happen exclusively at the site; other parts of the system must also adapt.

OUSD’s Roosevelt Middle School is an example. Roosevelt is a school that has been incredibly innovative within the walls of what used to be a typical “factory model” school. With the help of a grant from Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC), Roosevelt implemented a promising, personalized approach to mathematics instruction called Teach to One. It’s now seeing strong gains versus peer OUSD middle schools on the Scholastic Math Inventory (SMI) test. But the District central office still shipped the school boxes of math curriculum, even though they were not using it! A waste of money – something in very short supply in OUSD these days.

Could OUSD move from a factory-model approach to one that is more user-centered? Instead of ordering the same thing for all schools, could funds be given to leaders and their site councils – those closest to the students and community – to determine the best use? I’m sure this is more easily said than done. Nevertheless, we hope that our SDL fellows can help system-level iteration and improvement.

Future installments of our extended interview with Carolyn will tackle the tough question of how one advocates for more schools in a system with arguably too many already, how to improve existing schools while also supporting new programs, and what all this means for the future of the School Design Lab as it iterates and evolves with the changing landscape of Oakland. Remember to follow along via #OakSDL on Twitter and Facebook.

Introducing the School Design Lab Fellows

We’re thrilled to introduce our first ever cohort of Educate78 School Design Fellows!

Over the next several years, this group will work through the complex process of envisioning, designing, prototyping, launching, and continuously improving a transformational set of Oakland public schools. Together, this cohort will have the collective capacity to serve 4,000 Oakland public school students.

Any way you cut the numbers, this is a powerful and impressive group of designers.  Let’s meet them!

School Design Fellows by the Numbers

  • 92% People of Color and Women
  • 10 Schools
  • 3 Next Generation Learning Challenge Oakland Participants
  • 100% Dedicated to equitable, high quality schools for Oakland students and families

By Design Team Leaders

Oral Lee Brown

Vidrale Franklin

Emma Hiza

Ashley Martin

Yanira Canizales

Shelley Gordon

Cliff Hong

Rodney Pierre-Antoine

Katherine Carter

Damon Grant

Jared Karol

Jeff Duncan-Andrade

David Hardin

Jerl Laws

Learn more about our SDL Fellows and meet our Coaches!

Ideating and Prototyping the School Design Lab

The School Design Lab @ Educate78- Blog Series

Blog Post #3: Ideating and Prototyping the School Design Lab

In the third post in a multi-part blog mini-series, Carolyn Gramstorff, Director of Educate78’s emerging School Design Lab, continues to share her journey to launch the Lab through the lens of the design thinking process. If you haven’t already, check out Carolyn’s earlier insights from the Empathy and Define phases of her design work.

Please join us in an interactive design process shaped by your insights and ideas!  After all, this School Design Lab belongs to Oakland’s public schools across all 78 square miles of our city. Who better to inform and shape it than you?

In my last blog post I attempted to make sense of the many engagements I had conducted in my initial empathy/inquiry phase of designing a school design lab for Oakland. In that post I proposed ten key principles for our work to equitably transform public education in our city through redesign.

These simply complex notions include a deep understanding and operationalizing of:

Applying the contractor’s rule of thumb-  Pick Two: time-money-quality

Understanding that school design requires thoughtful systems redesign

Keeping the “end-user” front and center

Cultivating strong leadership, because it matters…a lot

Engaging the community for this will make or understandably break this work

Being clear about what we mean when we say “design”

Keying on personalization to support the multiple pathways to quality and innovation

Using cohorts flexibly and when this configuration makes sense

Understanding that design and planning is important, but execution and implementation is critical

Building schools and systems where a high quality design process becomes a part of the organization’s DNA

So that’s the seemingly simple part – defining the principles.

But as we all know, it is always easier to be a Monday Morning Quarterback than to actually play the game. It’s true in the simple game of football (just ask Cam Newton). And it is especially true in the complexity of education, equitable systems change, movement building, school design, and teaching and learning…all of which are related to the work we are doing here in Oakland and beyond.

While it is fantastic that we have laid out these principles above, what really matters is seeing if we can actually use these to actually build a school design lab that actually supports school designer who can actually create and then actually implement high quality schools here in Oakland.

How do we do this?  We prepare to build something and test it.

Ideating: Pivoting Towards Prototyping

So how do we move from a set of principles to actuality?  This is indeed huge and complex challenge.

Design thinking’s challenge is to find the simplicity in complexity, creating solutions that are both beautiful and functional, improving the quality of experience for the “end user”, and creating solutions that serve the needs of people.

In our design process, after synthesizing inquiry into our Oakland School Design Principles, we further distilled this thinking into three key questions that drive our prototype:

How can we apply these principles to build a school design lab prototype that will:

Maximize Resources

Enables us to maximize our resources while learning about the support needs of schools/designers working at varying stages of a school design process and in different sectors of the public school community?

Develop and Provide Supports

Develops and provides thoughtful, nimble, flexible, responsive, results-oriented, implementation-focused supports to a diverse range of school designers?

Iterate on Success

Iterates on successful past practices and lessons learned from Oakland’s successful small schools and high performing locally grown charters?

To help us to take the next steps towards an actual program, we considered lots of options: a resource center, an interactive technology solution, weekly seminars, paid full time design fellowships, partnership development with community organizers, city-wide design challenges, maximizing coaches, partnering with leadership development programs, building playlists, and more.

Moving Towards a Model:  The Prototype

After months of inquiry, distillation, and ideation we have landed on a prototype that we’ll be testing and improving on over the next six months.

The Educate78 School Design Lab has three important components – the school design fellowship, the design line, and a series of jam sessions.

Each of these components is crafted to support school designers and guide the work of high quality school design here in Oakland.

The Fellowship

One of the most unique feature of our fellowship is its level of personalization.

Most school design incubators and accelerators use a cohort-based model that starts the designers at point A and moves them through a time-bound fellowship to point B at the same time. In these cohort-based models, school designers are recruited from a certain education sector (charter or district). These designers are then required to attend seminars at regular intervals (usually weekly to bi-monthly), where they receive the same content based on some form of a leadership development and school design scope and sequence along with smaller proportions of coaching to focus on the specific needs of the individual leaders.

Our Educate78 School Design Lab, however, is aligned to a new personalized learning format. As a personalized learning model, our fellowship:

  • Intentionally recruits and seeks to learn from a diversity of designers in varying contexts – including re-designs of existing schools, replication of high quality schools, and innovative new schools from both the district and charter sectors
  • Allows varying entry and exit points of the design process. For example, some designers have entered the fellowship in their first year of operation, others are starting with us at the very beginning of their design process, and all points in between
  • Uses personalized action planning, resource allocation, and coaching/consultation – based on a rigorous set of outcomes for each design phase – as the mainstay of its programmatic model
  • Requires demonstrated competency to move from one phase of design to the next
  • Provides different levels of coaching and investment based on the design phase and requires fellows to demonstrate successfully execute of key benchmarks and competencies in order to move from one phase to the next

In order for a personalized format to work, however, in additional to excellent coaching and human support, our designers need a number of important resources, such as clear outcomes, formative assessments process, tools to support their project management, and exemplars of high quality school design. These needs drive the second component of our prototype – the Design Line.

Design Line

Every great designer needs more than inspiration, motivation, and great human supports. Invariably, all designers need a good set of tools to support them in their creative process. The Design Line is our solution to create and provide our school design community with the resources and tools that they need to master an understanding of high quality public school design, apply and develop that understanding and ultimately implement and operate a high quality public school design.

Over the next six months, a team of school design coaches, consultants, and partners will be hard at work prototyping a variety of tools and playlists that we will test and use in our fellowship.

So far we have drafted some foundational framework.

School Design Lab Foundational Framework
  • Our eight domains of high quality school design that frame important through lines in all five phases of our design process. These include mission and vision; educational program; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; climate and culture; talent and human capital; systems and operations; governance and decision making; and strategy.
  • A set of key design outcomes for each phase and domain of design.
  • A self assessment that is aligned to each phase and domain of design that tracks a designer’s current knowledge/understanding/experience with a given outcome as well as his/her completion of a key product or process associated with this outcome.
  • An outcomes based action planning tool.
  • A playlist template

As our coaches work with our fellows to identify key focus areas for their school design work, they will support the creation of action plans and custom-built playlists which will, over time, populate the content within the design line. In addition, we’ll work with specific partners to develop other resources to be used by our fellows and within the open source resources we intend to provide over time.

Stay tuned to future blog posts where we’ll share some examples of these resources for your review, input, testing, and iteration.

Jam Sessions

While personalized learning is a key component of our program, we also recognize that building and supporting a deep and wide community of designers is critical to our success in helping to transform public education in Oakland. We know that meaningful and authentic community engagement in this field is not just nice – it is absolutely necessary.

As a result, the third key component of the School Design Lab prototype is what we call Jam Sessions.

Our Jam Sessions will play a key role in many aspects of our work. They will:

  • Support our fellows and other key stakeholder in their learning, shared understanding, and skill building in key topics related to high quality school design
  • Provide a mechanism to support community voice and participation in the school design process
  • Build a community of practice to support effective school design

Jam Sessions will take many forms – from school visits to learning about quality and innovative practices and design challenges around shared areas of learning/interest to seminars and intensive boot camps to bolster skills development in a design team.

We intend to make our Jam Sessions available not only to our Fellows, but to educators, families, youth, and community members from across the city. Stay tuned to our Jam Sessions home page for upcoming events that you can participate in.

On to Testing

With the prototype in place – we’re ready to mobilize testing. Over the next six months, we’ll be intensely testing the viability of this model. We hope you will continue to join us on this journey – through our blog posts, jam sessions, and more, as we rapidly learn, fail forward, collect data, tweak, twist, and move forward on this journey. We can’t wait for the adventures that lay ahead.

Hang on…because here we go!