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In Oakland, community groups won small schools policy

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Oakland,California is at the forefront of the small schools movement, with parents and community activists leading the way.

Since May 2000, fifteen new small schools have opened in Oakland, and plans are underway for a dozen more in the next two years. The success of Oakland's small school movement is the result of a multi-year, parent- and community-led campaign organized by the group Oakland Community Organizations (OCO).

Over thirty years old, OCO is made up of 40 congregations and community organizations committed to gaining power and improving the prospects for low- to moderate-income families living in the flatlands neighborhoods of Oakland.

Parents and community members in the flatlands have long been angry about school overcrowding and low reading scores in their neighborhoods. In the mid-1990s, parents, teachers, and community members began researching and exploring different approaches to school improvement in Oakland.

Following a visit to New York's small schools organized by OCO in 1998, parents, teachers, and community leaders sharpened their focus on organizing a small schools campaign in Oakland.

"Our vision for schools is simple," states an OCO brochure. "Every child needs to be known by name. They need to be safe. They need to be challenged to do their best. They need dedicated, well-prepared teachers. They need to be surrounded by a supportive community of caring adults. Parents, teachers, and students are all essential partners."

After the community's first effort, the creation of a small school at Jefferson Elementary, was rejected, OCO leaders made a strategic shift and decided to launch small charter schools.

In the spring of 1999, the small schools campaign had a major victory with the approval of six new public charter schools, two of them started by parents who were part of the campaign.

Maintaining their focus on districtwide policy change, OCO formalized their partnership with the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES) a well-established school reform group, to build a long-term school reform campaign focused on small schools.

When school opened in the fall of 1999, OCO continued to organize parents, teachers, and community members to push for changes in districtwide policy that would ensure high quality public education for all children in Oakland. OCO brought parents and community members together who developed a strategy and turned out in large numbers to gain public commitments from city and school officials to build small, autonomous schools.

"Our ability to turn out high numbers is the way we counterbalance the power of those who hold positions of authority," explained one OCO organizer.

At the same time, BayCES helped to bring together a core of Oakland teachers committed to developing small schools, who helped to counter initial resistance from the teachers' union.

In the spring of 2000, Oakland voters approved a bond measure to build facilities for new small schools, and the Oakland Unified School District Board approved a small schools policy, which called for the creation of autonomous small schools that would be accountable for student achievement and governed by school-site decision-making.

In October 2003, OCO and BayCES, along with the Oakland Unified School District, released the executive summary of a report about the first nine new small autonomous (NSA) schools created in Oakland. This summary, part of a study providing baseline data on the early period of implementation, describes many positive findings, including:

  • On the whole, NSA schools outperformed comparison schools in their ability to attract credentialed teachers. Teachers express satisfaction with the professional and academic environment in their schools.
  • The degree and form of parent involvement varies but is generally very high in NSA schools, including middle and high schools, where parent involvement typically drops off.
  • NSA schools generally outperformed comparison schools in test scores, attendance, and high school graduation rates.
  • NSA schools reported a lower level of suspensions and a low incidence of graffiti and vandalism.

The report also identifies challenges facing NSA schools, including uncertainties about location and operational resources, and problems related to the scope and limits of school autonomy, high demands on school leadership, and uneven capacity for data collection and program evaluation.

The report's executive summary is available on the BayCES website.

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