On a crisp spring California afternoon, long after the echo of the last final bell, 40 parents, students and teachers gathered in a too-warm classroom at Paul Robeson School of Visual and Performing Arts to ask California State administrator Vincent Matthews to reconsider his decision to close the East Oakland school.
In articulate and passionate voices, students told Matthews that the school offered important second chances to kids transferring from larger schools.
"I feel Paul Robeson should stay open because it offers a nurturing environment to its students," said senior Jimonte Johnson, "It’s a smaller school, the teachers actually care and my grade point average has increased from 0.40 GPA to a 3.67."
Parents called the sudden decision unfair to Robeson students and the East Oakland community. Sheila Clark said both of her girls have thrived at Robeson and that she hopes her son, now 11, can one day attend the school.
“We just need the school to stay here, have a neighborhood visual arts school here in our community." Clark said. “I just want you to think about it.”
Matthews listened to a student-led presentation on Robeson, answered questions from teachers and promised to look at additional information. Although there was a follow up meeting in late April, no firm lifeline was given to Robeson, a school that is struggling with low test scores and declining student population. Robeson will almost certainly be phased out.
“Our number one goal is that all of our students graduate prepared to succeed in college and the workplace,” Matthews said at the meeting. “And it’s our responsibility as the adults in the system to make sure that’s happening and if it’s not happening across the board then we have to look at other options.”
Next fall, Robeson students will see their school begin a slow fade out where teachers will be reassigned or let go, course offerings will narrow and key student support won’t be available. In the process of closing, many students will transfer out of the school, leaving just a few students to graduate from a disappearing school.
This is all a part of "phase out," a school shut down process used with increasing regularity by Oakland Unified School District, which gradually winds down schools one grade at a time. Robeson will be completely shut down by 2012.
Before 2003 the district rarely closed any of its schools. Beginning in 2004 after the state took over district operations, phasing out schools that failed to meet key achievement goals became common practice with the Oakland school district. By 2009-2010 the district will have shut down or begun phasing out 28 schools since that time, the vast majority being small schools.
“The alarming thing about phasing out is that the district is closing schools that have just opened,” said Jayeesha Dutta, a co-director at Oakland-based Youth in Focus who has also worked with OUSD over the last several years. “If this is a reform tool we’re never going to make progress.”
Robeson isn’t the only Oakland school on track for phase out beginning next year. Robeson joins Business Entrepreneurial School of Technology (BEST) High School, located on the McClymonds High School campus, in becoming the two small schools scheduled for phase out starting the 2009-2010 school year. Neither school has been open more than five years.
To be sure, many small schools have seen great success and the district has opened a fair amount of new school programs in Oakland.
For example, Matthews pointed to the fact that in 2005, the district opened five small schools - Reach, Rise, Manzanita SEED, Sankofa and Kizmet but closed 6 small schools - Golden Gate, Washington, Rubicon, King Estates, Village Academy and Freemont. The net change was one less small school.
“We’ve seen a number of schools that have done extremely well,” Matthews said “and really where you’ve seen staffs that have taken on the responsibility and said ‘This is what we want to do. If we’re not doing well how can we do better?’ and other places we haven’t seen the successes we’ve wanted from the (small school) movement.”
However, parents, teachers and Oakland education experts worry that the district is providing uneven levels of financial and administrative support to many schools, causing a decline in achievement for some small schools located in the Oakland flatlands. Some educators and parents worry that the district is also putting its cookie cutter achievement standards ahead of supporting new schools that may need extra nurturing.
Robeson is a small school housed on the sprawling Fremont Federation High Schools campus that goes for a good two blocks on Foothill Blvd in East Oakland. The campus, once known as Fremont High School, was carved into four high schools as part of a district wide initiative known as the small school program. Oakland has a total of 110 public schools and about 53 are small schools.
Over the course of its young life, Robeson has struggled in key achievement areas. According to the school’s School Accountability Report Card, an annual summary of key information reported by all California public schools, for 2007-2008, the school’s math proficiency rate was at two percent. In 2006, it was zero. And although 97 percent of students attended class daily, Robeson’s graduation rate was just 48 percent in 2008.
Nevertheless, many students and teachers said they had little time to try and correct problems at the school.
"We were supposed to be engaged in a series of community meetings over the course of a year and into the next before a decision was to be made,” said Robeson Social Studies teacher Craig Gordon.
BEST have a number of trade programs that are considered a success in the community. Local organizations and politicians regularly use the culinary arts program’s catering and the school also has a well known construction trade program that has strong ties to several local businesses including Kaiser Hospitals. BEST is one of two schools at the former McClymonds High School. EXCEL is the other high school on the campus and it is expected to absorb a good portion of former BEST students during the phase out.
BEST also has serious academic challenges. The West Oakland school has a mathematics achievement rate of two percent for 2008, according to its SARC scorecard. BEST’s graduation rate was 52 percent in 2008.
Both teachers and students say the positive work being done at the school is not necessarily reflected in its test scores. Some BEST students said they are still absorbing the news.
“When I heard (OUSD was closing BEST) it was a shock, even though I knew it was coming,” said Ralston Earle, 17, a senior at BEST. “I honestly love this school. I’m going to be an alumnus, but now what am I going to come back to?”
BEST students said they were hoping that a possible phase out would happen further down the line.
“We just didn’t think it was going to happen this soon,” said Michael Huynh, 17, a senior at BEST.
Parents said they are upset about the BEST phase out.
“It’s horrible, it’s very discouraging for the kids,” said BEST parent Ernest Carroll who also attended McClymonds. “They (OUSD) had good intentions in the beginning with the small schools. But they found out that the administrative costs for two principals, double the staff, was too much for them.”
Carroll’s son, Isaiah Carroll said he loves his school.
“I’ll be devastated to see it close,” Carroll said. “I love the teachers here, they work hard for us and they’ve helped me out a lot.”
About seven years ago, the Oakland Unified School District began implementing a new program geared towards creating smaller schools as part of a broader plan to improve test scores, come into compliance with No Child Left Behind, and give students an opportunity to learn in a smaller setting.
Almost overnight new, smaller “academies” and career schools sprang up. Some of these new schools were given their own buildings and some were put in place in the existing large sprawling campuses that had originally been built for the student population boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
“These big comprehensive high schools have were really showing no signs of progress or success in the way they were delivering services to the students,” Dutta said. “Small schools was a move towards a better educational system.”
Oakland Unified School District is a complex, dense public school system that has weathered multiple upheavals over the last few decades, including the financial mismanagement five years ago that led to the state of California taking over the district.
Teachers, administrators and educational organizations said many small schools have also not been given the adequate resources to meet district achievement goals and attract and retain students.
“Right now we have no performance art teacher,” Gordon said. “We’re a performance art school and we have no performance art teacher.”
BEST teachers said they too have not had key support from the district.
“We haven’t had a school counselor since 2006 for the 500 students of EXCEL and BEST,” said John F. Smith, a BEST instructor who teacher who teaches carpentry, welding, masonry and other trade skills. “The district has not supported the programs here at BEST in a way to attract and get more students involved. “
And then there is the issue of the kitchen. BEST teacher Harold A. Le Blanc, who is the director of the Food Science Culinary Arts Academy within the school, said the lack of district support is evident in his program not receiving a promised new kitchen.
“It’s like we were the flavor of the month,” he said.
Jumoke Hinton Hodge, an Oakland Unified School District board member, called the promised kitchen another heart and soul piece that was needed in creating a successful culinary school program.
“It was a viable culinary arts program, that was talking about serving lunches on campuses and would do special events for everyone,” Hinton Hodge said. “I used them as a caterer for community groups.”
Despite this, the school never received the kitchen.
“Once again, how do we prepare our young people in high school to be economically self sufficient? This was a program that was doing it,” Hinton Hodge. “And the huge tool was a kitchen and that kitchen was never provided.”
Matthews said the district is doing everything it can to help students succeed.
“It’s always a difficult decision to either phase out or close a school,” Matthews said. “It’s not taken lightly.”
Matthews said that the number of small schools being phased out is low and he pointed to other small schools on the Fremont Federation campus with Robeson that are meeting district standards successfully.
“You have three other schools on this campus that are working with those same students yet they are able to get remarkably higher (test) rates, graduate rates, so why is it three of the schools can roll up their sleeves and make it happen?” Matthews said.
Matthews said it’s not just about money.
“Some small schools claim that we need additional or we need more and you have others that are just fine with the budgets as they are established." Matthews said. "They are able to make do or to do well with the budgets.”
He said the district funding system, called Results Based Budgeting, gives great autonomy to schools in making budgeting decisions. “Around RBB (Results Based Budgeting) the schools make the determination if they’re going to eliminate programs or eliminate positions,” he said.
Matthews also said the district provides a number of tools to help schools in trouble, called focus schools, to help bring up achievement levels.
But Hinton Hodge said actual support during the focus phase for troubled schools is unclear. Many focus school staff have told her they had little help during the process, she said.
“Every school went into this focus phase and no one can describe to you what happened during the focus phase,” she said. “One would assume, that you were getting extra support, that you were maybe getting extra resources, that you were doing consistent assessment, you were doing feedback, you were engaging with people on change that needed to happen, and (yet) no one can speak to what that process looks like.”
Dutta said the district needs to focus on long term strategies for dealing with small schools in trouble instead of phasing out the programs.
“With adequate resources, adequate planning and adequate amount of time, these schools could succeed,” Dutta said. “But they haven’t been given those conditions. And so to say that these schools have failed and to close them before they’ve really been given the opportunity to show their potential I think is a tragedy and a huge waste of resources because so much money has gone into the conversion into small schools. So to go back now and say 'Oh we’re going to close them and reconsolidate' seems to me to be a real poor strategy by the district.”
Isaiah Carroll said despite the rapidly approaching end of the school year, many students hold out hope that somehow their school will stay open.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to help,” he said. "We’re working to keep our test scores up and to do whatever it takes to keep BEST open.”