Come Together

Name this city: Listed as one of the best places to do business, this U.S. metropolis was ranked as the fifth most sustainable city in the country. It has one of the highest numbers of artists per capita in the nation.

Chances are few of you thought of Oakland, Calif. -- and city and school officials know it.

“Oakland is an incredibly wonderful, beautiful, culturally dynamic place, and the only thing that people get from the outside are portrayals that are sensationalized and inaccurate,” says Kitty Kelly Epstein, an educator and author of several books and articles exploring the dynamic of race and politics in education.

The facts behind those portrayals are sensational enough, from the rise and fall of such radical groups as the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the more recent debate over Ebonics and a controversial superintendent who left the district’s finances in tatters despite academic improvements.

Today, Oakland’s efforts to reinvent itself after decades of decline and deterioration are hamstrung by its reputation. Progress undoubtedly is being made, as the antiestablishment radicals of the 1960s and ’70s embrace revitalization policies that they would have decried four decades ago. But much work is left to be done, and the schools -- which are central to the city’s renaissance -- have their own set of problems.

The racial balance you find in the city -- the result of former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K initiative to bring 10,000 residents back to downtown Oakland -- isn’t reflected in the schools. Today, 93 percent of the students are ethnic minorities and more than 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About half of Oakland Unified School District’s freshmen don’t graduate on time, and 72 percent of third-graders could not pass reading proficiency tests in 2006.

Four years after Oakland was taken over by the state, the district is showing signs of revitalization. For the second year in a row, it has the most improved test scores of any large district in the state. Student attendance has increased by almost 3 percent over two years.

“If you are looking to revitalize schools and neighborhoods you absolutely need to look at both the city and the schools,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and director of New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. “Most people don’t.”

Would you like to continue reading?
Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.