Improving Schools from the Bottom Up

Two years ago, when Oakland ACORN was considering a new citywide initiative, members voiced one concern loud and clear: the poor conditions of the public schools. Some parents discussed the broken down bathrooms, torn up pavement and broken windows. Other families focused on overcrowding and a need for year-round schools. Still others brought up the issue of the severe shortage of trained and qualified teachers. One thing was clear. Drastic changes were needed.

Many residents had already begun to take action in their neighborhood chapters. These local actions formed the foundation for a citywide initiative.

Reopening a Local School

One of the most dramatic local actions took place around Woodland, an abandoned school in the middle of East Oakland’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Over thirteen years ago, the school was closed due to underpopulation – a term rarely heard in the now extremely overcrowded schools of the Oakland flatlands. Campaign leader and ACORN member Fannie Brown explains, “Three of my children attend Webster where 1000 children attend a school built for 600. There’s another school in our neighborhood, but instead of opening it for our children, the district has left the site to be nothing but a dumping ground.”

In 1997 ACORN members began organizing to push the school district to reopen the Woodland site. Hundreds of community residents joined the fight. They rallied in the neighborhood and at School District headquarters. Leaders met with school and city officials and used the media to increase support for the campaign.

ACORN members were not the only ones interested in the school. Edison Project, a for-profit charter school company, was working to gain access to the school site as well, but residents surrounding Woodland would not have it. They mobilized and organized a seventy-five person rally on site where they proclaimed “Public Only, Corporations Keep Out!”

This kind of concrete, tangible action got local parents involved. Brown notes, “People really wanted to get involved because they saw action taking place in their neighborhood. They knew a real change was coming.”

System-wide change

As ACORN members involved in local actions like these talked with each other, they realized that addressing some of their concerns about the schools would take more than neighborhood changes. So ACORN members from across the city formed a committee to focus on teacher turnover and the teacher shortage.

Members surveyed their communities. They found that ACORN member Omaga McGlothin’s granddaughter only had a permanent kindergarten teacher for one month, after which she was taught by a string of more than 20 substitutes. Nestor and Esperanza Tovar’s children reported frequent teacher absences and no substitutes available. They were often sent to other classrooms, usually of different grade levels. The survey not only produced useful information, but allowed parents to feel they were being heard.

Data on schools in the low-income areas of Oakland backed up the tragic situations the survey results described. In several schools nearly 50 percent of the teaching force was without full credentials. Teachers were often teaching classes outside of the fields they were trained for. Many brand new teachers were receiving no training or support from the district. All of these factors contributed to the extremely high turnover rate at neighborhood schools. These findings were compiled to create No Substitute: An Urgent Call for Trained Permanent Teachers in Oakland Schools.

No Substitute called for a series of reforms to address the Oakland teaching crisis, including new research-tested reading programs, additional training and support for teachers and higher salaries to keep experienced teachers in the flatlands schools. Combining stories from the survey with the data helped make No Substitute accessible to a wide range of people, keeping it from becoming only an intellectual exercise.

In conjunction with the study release, more than 250 people marched to the School District headquarters, demanding immediate change. Although school board members – many of whom ACORN chapters knew from their local work – were generally supportive, ACORN met with opposition from the superintendent. Nonetheless, ACORN members vowed to continue.

Both local and district-wide education reform efforts ultimately proved fruitful. In late 1999 ACORN won a commitment to reopen Woodland School. Since that time, residents of the Woodland community developed a proposal for the school, recently accepted by Oakland’s new superintendent, Dennis Chaconas. The ACORN Woodland Elementary School will focus on themes of social justice and community action. This Spring, the school board also adopted a policy to use a research-based reading program throughout the district, a recommendation first highlighted by No Substitute.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

ACORN’s bottom up structure allows it to focus on immediate grievances like school overcrowding and win concrete victories like the opening of Woodland School. At the same time, the citywide education committee was able to connect the problems of individual neighborhoods with a broader analysis of the challenges faced by the entire system. Linking neighborhood campaigns with broader systemic reform efforts brought about victories on both fronts.

 

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