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Oakland Takes Back Its Schools

New America Media, Q&A, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen Posted: Jul 10, 2009

Last week, six years after the state took over the district, the Oakland School Board regained control of the district's finances and academic programs. NAM education editor Carolyn Goossen spoke with Jumoke Hinton Hodge, school board member and youth advocate, about the impact this will have on low-income students. Hodge, 45, has worked in youth development and social service fields for more than 20 years. She has been a school board member with the Oakland Unified School District for six months.

The Oakland School Board has regained control of its schools for the first time in six years. What will the changeover of power mean for the young people who attend Oakland public schools?

On a basic civics lesson level, you are looking at a citizenry that elected representatives, and for six years those representatives werent able to set policy or govern. There are a lot of aspiring politicians and activists who looked at this position and said, whats the point of being a school board member? You can advise and be influential in some ways, but you dont have real power. Now that we have local control, I feel I can really affect change. I can go in and investigate schools and examine reforms in a new way.

I got elected by faith-based organizations and people in the community who say they want better schools. Im partnering with the public health department because, when it comes to safety, ours is the worst neighborhood in the city. I believe local leadership will make the difference for poor children, and black and brown children.

How did the state takeover of the school board impact the local community in Oakland?

All these education reforms were happening, like small schools and charter schools, and yet the elected officials couldnt respond to their constituency in any way. It was a complete outsider making decisions for our community.

What kinds of reforms were happening?

JohnsonWe had been working on developing these small autonomous schools. Then the state came in and said they supported that, but they also supported charter schools. It was the state that came in and passed charter schools. Weve lost almost 20 percent of our students to charters. The district wasnt adamantly opposed to them, but in terms of the plan and implementation of the charters, this was coming from the state. More recently, we have developed a much better monitoring system inside the district. But at the initial stages of it, the charters happened without much district or community input.

What was the impact on low-income students and students of color who have been struggling to achieve academically?

Even though the rhetoric of the state takeover was, Well improve student achievement, thats not why we were taken over. We were taken over because of fiscal problems.

Oakland wasnt a fiscally irresponsible district. There are many districts in the state that have had this experience because of the state funding levels, where California is 49th in the country. We dont fund public education enough. New Jersey spends double what we spend on kids.

So the question becomes, if you have kids who arent performing well, what are the things you are going to do to ensure they do better? More resources in the classroom? Better systems to track the teachers in the system? We dont have data systems that are really in place to track any of those things.

In my district we dont have a declining enrollment problem. We have 600 students who are eligible for high school, who could go to a West Oakland high school. But they choose not to because of academic issues and safety problems. So the point for me is to have a better academic program that appeals to these kids.

Were there any benefits in having the state in charge over the last six years?

No. The finances didnt get resolved. A year before the board was going to take power back, an independent audit found out that we hadnt had a balanced budget for the past six years. So I cant find a silver lining. Maybe some reforms like small schools and charters moved at a quicker pace, but that was because there was no debate.

You are a new board member so you were not around when the board got into such a fiscal mess. What do you think is the strategy for maintaining fiscal health?

Our job is to figure out how to be efficient and use our resources in a different way while the budget crisis is going on. Right now we have an excellent CFO who understands the district, and has recently come back. He has a strong sensibility about the issues, and the question now is how do we get student achievement by spending money in the right places, versus just thinking about the bottom line.

Will the state continue to be involved?

We do have the state still present in our lives. The state is a trustee. In my mind, how we stay fiscally solvent is by using them for accountability. If Big Brother is there, and they are supposed to be helping us, then we should be tapping their resources as much as possible. As long as we have the loan, then well have the state.

Not only does the school board have control once again, but you have also just hired a new district superintendent, Tony Smith.

Yes, and Im excited. I feel like now, we have someone who has the huge job of looking at 110 schools, and the job of talking to parents about how can we achieve strong academic outcomes for these particular students.

When we had the state doing things, they were doing blanket reform without knowing what was best for particular areas. But I know the five schools in my district extremely well, and now I have absolute access to this guy, and I feel that my district will really benefit.

Im excited for him and for Oakland right now, because of who he is someone who understands and speaks to issues like racism and poverty, and the privilege he brings as a white man. In the age of Obama we can talk about these issues. He didnt come in with revolutionary talk about dismantling the system, but he said, Lets be conscious about what the system is doing. He is going to address institutionalized racism. Hes got the ability to raise some questions and start some conversations that many of us have raised but didnt have the privilege to make headway on.

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