“With such amazing educators and leaders working together on behalf of Oakland’s children, what could stop us from having the best urban public education system in the country?”

‘Tis the season.  Back to School season, that is.  It’s a time of fresh beginnings, energy and optimism.  Students are excited to meet their teachers and catch up with classmates.  Teachers are trying out new ideas.  School leaders are setting a positive tone for the year.  (And parents are relieved!)

Those of us who work in and around schools in Oakland are buzzing with the possibility that this year we will take big steps toward the goal of ensuring every student in Oakland has access to a world-class public education.

Here are the top 10 reasons I am hopeful:

1. Leaders, plural!

Superintendent Antwan Wilson is a man on a mission, and has spent more time in schools, classrooms and community forums than any other Superintendent in recent memory. Mayor Libby Schaaf has declared education a priority.  County Superintendent Karen Monroe is bringing fresh thinking to ACOE.  OUSD’s School Board, led by President James Harris, is using new approaches to hear community input and enable more civil discourse.  And thanks to Governor (and die-hard Oakland cheerleader) Jerry Brown, our public schools actually have more money to work with.  And the list doesn’t stop there.  Given the amount of work that needs to be done, I’m glad to see a strong, aligned cabinet at OUSD, including both district veterans and new executives.  Our Mayor hired a Policy Director on Youth & Education for the first time.  And our principals and teachers have incredible experience as community and instructional leaders, with the potential to do even more.

2. Strong community-based organizations. 

Oakland has a long history of being an incubator – and crucible – for social justice entrepreneurs.  So it’s no surprise that some of the most impactful and nationally well-regarded not-for-profit organizations are headquartered here: National Equity Project, Beyond12, GreatSchools, Seneca Family of Agencies, Aspire Public Schools…to name just a few.  These groups are an incredible resource for Oakland education, nimble enough to identify and fill new gaps as they arise.  And more are being created: I am inspired by working at the Impact Hub, where I am surrounded by social entrepreneurs of every kind.

3. We have a teacher contract! 

[Another round of applause]  This was the first year in many that OUSD teachers started the school year with a contract.  And it’s a ground-breaking one, with well-deserved raises, smaller class sizes, lower counselor to student ratios and the flexibility to give principals, teachers and parents a stronger voice in hiring.  But it’s only the beginning.  There is more work ahead to make Oakland a place where the best teachers want to work and live, and teachers need to be part of crafting those ideas.  We are excited to support a city-wide survey to hear from our teachers how we’re doing and what else we need to do as a city to keep and support our teachers.

4. Restorative justice work… works.

Over the past several years, OUSD has been hard at work instituting new practices for student behavior management and school discipline. With more national attention to the school-to-prison pipeline, Oakland can be a national model.

5. Coming soon: a better way to enroll in schools.

Enrolling students in schools that are good matches for their needs is a basic function of the public school system.  Unfortunately, any parent who has gone through the enrollment process knows that Oakland’s current approach is outdated, unnecessarily complicated and inequitable.  Those parents will be glad to hear that an improved process is in the works, thanks to a diverse group of leaders and families.  (If you’re interested in helping to make this happen, please let us know!)

6. More rigorous and relevant learning.  

Last year’s voter approval of Measure N, combined with implementation of Common Core State Standards, means our high school students are starting to get what they need: mastery of content and skills to be successful in college and career, and the opportunity to use what they know in ways that matter. It’s also a great opportunity for local businesses to be more connected to our schools – a hallmark of a united community.

7. Innovation. 

With our proximity to Silicon Valley, it’s natural for our teachers and schools to try new ideas.  Nearly every school has teachers who are using technology in new ways (kudos to the IT team at OUSD for making that possible by getting all the schools wired!).  Many schools, both charter and district-operated are attempting even more dramatic innovation – using models in which students have personalized learning experiences, rather than just being part of a “grade level batch.” 

8. New and newly revitalized schools.

Some of Oakland’s most successful public schools were started or redesigned within the last fifteen years.  We know that unleashing the creative and collaborative energy of our best school leaders, teachers and families can dramatically transform previously under-performing schools.  This tactic from the Oakland playbook is our best shot at turning around our most challenged schools, and as a city, we need to do everything we can to support efforts at Castlemont, Fremont, McClymonds, Frick, Brookfield, and other schools that are not serving our students as well as they deserve.  To provide more support for those working on re-imagining their schools, expanding successful schools and creating new high quality schools, we are developing a resource center to provide best practices and collaboration opportunities. 

9. Community organizing to amplify voices of diverse families.

Our citizens have for decades joined hands for the cause of equity and justice.

Oakland also has a deep history of community organizing.  From Black Panthers to #BlackLivesMatter, our citizens have for decades joined hands for the cause of equity and justice.  So the ground here is fertile for us to raise up more parent voices.  Our diverse families have a lot to say about the kind of public education they want for their children, and they are understandably a little too busy to come to school board meetings regularly.  We are proud to be working with Oakland Community Organization and others to help parents and guardians exercise their voice to get what their students need.

10. Many people committed to equity.

At every school, I meet hard-working brilliant individuals who are passionate about providing a great education to every child. Many of them have a huge fan base among their students, in their school, or among their colleagues – but are unknown by the rest of us.  I loved the Key & Peele ESPN spoof imagining what it would be like if teachers got the media coverage of sports stars.  In my ideal world, it wouldn’t be a spoof – it would be reality.  It’s the reason I’ll showcase some of these individuals on this blog: the HEROES series will launch soon.   With such amazing educators and leaders working together on behalf of Oakland’s children, what could stop us from having the best urban public education system in the country?