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!