As the school year begins to wind down, planning is underway for next year. But many of Oakland’s schools – especially flatland schools – are in turmoil and are anxiously worrying whether the district administration will allow them to maintain the progress and stability they have worked so hard to build.
Seventeen principals have received warning letters that they may be removed or reassigned. A number of schools have learned that they may have to move for charter schools to “co-locate” onto their campuses and a large number of new teachers have just learned they will be fired at the end of June.
Staff at Place@Prescott in West Oakland are fearful about what will happen to their elementary school if they lose their principal, Enomwoyi Booker, who is one of the principals who received a March 15 warning letter, according to a teacher at the school who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The teacher said the principal, who has been at Prescott for over a decade, “is building rapport with the community. She is popular with the staff and the community. We have spent years building a (community) core that comes together and helps out.”
“We’re fragile,” a poor school in a poor community, the teacher said. “We are partial to our leadership from the years of being deprived of materials. We (finally) get some money and some inkling of materials, and then they take the leadership away.”
“The district administration says one thing, but the next thing you know, they shut you down or throw schools together. We don’t know what’s really going on.”
The teacher said she did not want Prescott to have to share its campus with a charter school.
“If we have to share it with another school, that will kill it,” she said. “With all the gentrification that is going on (in West Oakland), we feel kind of threatened.”
This is also the time of the year the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) sends out “probationary release” letters to teachers who are in their first or second year in the district – a state-approved procedure that allows the district to fire teachers and rule them ineligible ever to work again in an OUSD school, without right to appeal or a hearing.
According to Trish Gorham, president of the teachers’ union, 60 teachers have received probationary releases this year.
“Many have lacked proper support, have never been properly evaluated or coached,” she said. “Many have been thrown in difficult classroom management situations (such as coming in after a succession of substitute teachers), and they receive no help.”
“Some of them have asked for help over and over and have not received it,” said Gorham. The district generally never tells teachers why they are being released, she said.
“Of course, there needs to be a process of evaluation to earn tenure, but you’d think it would be beneficial to support a first-year teacher into a second year, rather than to have an endless cycle of brand new teachers who come into a school without any training,” said Gorham.
She said that the numbers of teachers of color who are receiving probationary releases are disproportionately higher than the numbers of white teachers who are being released.
As a result of constantly removing principals and teachers, many schools are unstable, she said.
One of the schools where parents and teachers are fighting to keep their principal is Westlake Middle School, which is next to Whole Foods by Lake Merritt.
The Westlake community is fearful that their school will be destabilized like other OUSD schools if they lose their principal, Misha Karigaca, who has been at the school for 15 years and leads staff and a group of parents who are enthusiastic about what they have built in the face of years of low funding and lack of district support.
At a meeting with parents and staff last week, district administrators cited persistent low test scores as the reason for removing Karigaca, who they said would be given another position in the district.
Speakers after speaker at the meeting in the school library warned that this was an especially bad time to remove their principal because the school may have to “co-locate” a charter school on its campus next year, a serious disruption when they feel they need a veteran, respected leader and a united faculty to see them through the transition.
Network Superintendent Ron Smith speaks last week at a parent and teacher meeting at Westlake Middle School. Photo by Ken Epstein.
Replied Ron Smith, OUSD Network Superintendent, “It’s a challenging, challenging time – it’s probably not a good time. But two years, three years, five years, there’s probably not going to be a good time.”
A parent said she was not swayed by the test score rationale.
“Eighty-eight percent (of our students) are low income. We have two or three jobs, many parents don’t have both partners at home. I don’t care about these numbers,” the parent said.
“My daughter is receiving music lessons and learning to write down music. She’s in the after school engineering program. I am proud my kid is here – she feels like this is her home,” the parent said.
Network Supt. Smith responded to parents who were fearful that programs at the school will be lost or wrecked as demoralized parents and veteran, beloved teachers flee the school next year.
“If someone says, ‘I’m not going to be here because Misha (Karigaca) is not going to be here,’ that’s their choice to make,” said Smith, who assured the meeting that the school would not be closed in the fall.
“My sole goal is to ensure that to the best of my ability, the doors (will) open next school year,” he said.