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Posted on May 2, 2011
By James Harris
In a recent interview, Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith shared with me one of the most mind-numbing statistics I have ever heard: According to the Alameda County Health Department, a black child born in West Oakland will, on average, die 15 years before a white child born in the hills of Oakland.
“Surely this must be enhanced or inflated for shock value,” I said to Smith. “This can’t be real.”
“That is a real statistic that exposes serious inequity along racial lines in Oakland,” said Smith. We sat for a minute talking about our hopes for our children and our hopes for Oakland schools, but the statistic stung me with a viscous dose of reality, which quickly transformed into deep concern and doubt about Oakland’s education system.
I imagined being a young, black student in 2011 and hearing that statistic—not only hearing it, but feeling the piercing reality of it every day I go to school. The dilapidated flatlands classrooms, the out-of-date texts and lack of technology—the message would be clear: They (whoever “they” are) don’t care about me or anyone who looks like me.
The question is will I live
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Don’t get me wrong. Oakland education is not all bad. It is only bad where families do not have time, money and resources to dedicate to their schools. I have seen public schools in the worst neighborhoods thrive. Think College Now has managed to build a haven for children to learn their curriculum and about themselves. Before I visited that school, at 29th and International—one of Oakland’s high-crime and high-poverty areas—I doubted it was possible. But when I went there I saw principal David Silver and his teachers breathing life and love into children and beating the odds. I saw parents attending the morning assembly to send their kids off to class. I saw magic. Through community, all things are possible. This was my proof.
At Crocker, Montclair, Redwood Heights and the handful of other schools in Oakland that have continued to succeed despite the economic downturn or lack of funding to public schools, the story is the same: Involved parents and solid communication between the teachers and students make for a combination that gets the job done. Success is indeed possible in both the richest and poorest communities.
However, of the 14 predominantly black public elementary schools in Oakland—most of them in poor communities where the black student population is 60 percent or more—only two are performing with API scores above 800 (a state proficiency requirement), the Carl Munck and Burkhalter schools.
If we see examples of success in all types of communities around Oakland, then why isn’t it happening across the board? Why are the predominantly black schools underperforming? My family has lived in Oakland since 1950. All of my family went to public schools and—let them tell it—received an excellent education. My father says his Oakland Technical High School education prepared him for life.
But it’s clear to me after talking to graduates of today’s Oakland high schools that the quality of education in the system has dramatically declined. I spoke to one graduate of Oakland High’s Class of 2003 recently at Luka’s Taproom who said of her education: “It was all right—it was the best Oakland could do.” Have we come to settle for mediocrity? The trends show that people are giving up on Oakland public education. Over the last decade Oakland public schools have lost nearly 30 percent of their students, with enrollment declining from 54,024 in 2000 to 38,446 in 2010, and an increasing number of families are choosing either charter, private, or parochial schools.
The population loss and divergence make sense when you consider how much money has been cut from the Oakland Unified School District budget in the last 20 years. Budget cut after budget cut has left the school district today funded at the level of the 2005-06 school year, according to OUSD statistics. And such cuts always have a more devastating effect on poor and under-resourced students and families.
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