The faculty at two Oakland elementary schools have voted to break away from the district and convert their schools into independently run charters, a move that could cost Oakland Unified more than $4 million.

Teachers and principals at ASCEND and Learning Without Limits say that as charter schools, they will have far more control over who they hire, what they teach and how, and how they spend their money. They said the schools' founders were initially promised those conditions, but that they have eroded over time.

"It definitely feels like we're having the rug pulled out from under us," ASCEND Principal Larissa Adam said.

The secession of both Fruitvale-area schools would be a blow to the school district -- and not just to its collective morale. The resulting loss of 800 students would cost the district twice as much money as it plans to save by closing five elementary schools. What's more, some worry that other schools will follow suit.

"ASCEND is a canary in the coal mine, and that fact has shaken people, that's no question," said district spokesman Troy Flint.

Those interviewed from the two schools, including Mari Rose Taruc, a parent-leader from ASCEND, say families overwhelmingly support the charter proposal. The communities plan to make their intentions public Wednesday at an Oakland school board meeting -- the same night the board decides whether to close five elementary schools.


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The timing is coincidental, but the two issues are connected. As the district continues to slash its budget and close schools, displacing about 1,000 students and teachers, some predict that other schools could be hit with layoff notices and pressure to enroll children from closed schools, even if they are at capacity.

And then there's the prospect of mergers. During school closure discussions, some board members have publicly asked the superintendent to avoid some closures by merging schools that share a campus.

For Learning Without Limits and its neighboring school, Global Family, that would result in an enrollment of 700 or 800 students from two distinct language programs.

Rachel Amsterdam, a founding teacher at Learning Without Limits, said such messages have been disheartening and worrisome, especially since many of the new schools were created in response to overcrowding.

"We know that didn't work here in the flatlands," she said. "Now we're going back to that."

Changing rules

ASCEND and Learning Without Limits opened in 2001 and 2007, respectively, during an unprecedented period of school district innovation and change.

They were among dozens of new schools that opened in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods in response to pressure from parents and community leaders.

In many cases, they replaced schools that were overcrowded or low-performing and opened with mostly new teaching staffs.

"They will be like internal charter schools," former Superintendent Dennis Chaconas told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001, referring to the freedom to choose a school's teachers, themes and curriculum.

But since her school opened, Adam said, it has been required -- twice -- to apply for a curriculum waiver.

She and other small school leaders have also been concerned that the Oakland school district's unorthodox budgeting policy, which is under review, will be rewritten so that principals have less control over their schools' expenditures.

"With every new administration, we wait and see what happens," she said.

ASCEND's 430 students, many of them English learners, learn history, science and reading through arts-infused "learning expeditions" dreamed up by teams of teachers.

This semester, second-grade students aren't just reading, writing and interviewing experts about Frida Kahlo, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez and Gandhi.

They are learning how to play songs written about the icons and how to draw portraits at various phases of life.

They're discussing key childhood events outlined in their biographies and connecting their stories and messages to their own lives, said their teacher, Tessa Strauss.

"The way that they internalize these messages and concepts, as the semester goes on, is incredible," Strauss said.

That kind of an approach to teaching requires intensive training and strong relationships with students to do well, Adam said.

But in March, she said, 60 percent of her teachers received layoff notices or warnings. At Learning Without Limits, all but one of the 17 teachers did, according to its principal, Leo Fuchs.

"The educational system looks at teachers as these little machine parts that you can interchange," Adam said. "The entire spring, we had this cloud hanging over us."

Last in, first out

While the reasoning behind the charter school conversions is complex, it was the threat of mass layoffs in March that appears to have mobilized teachers and parents around the idea.

In March, the Oakland school district administration issued more than 500 layoff warnings, a number so great that it drove deep into the seniority list, affecting experienced teachers as well as rookies.

The district ultimately rescinded most of those layoffs, but the threat took its toll. Amsterdam said she and her colleagues want to remain in a labor union, but that they want to do away with the seniority-based layoff system and change the way teachers are evaluated -- in Oakland and elsewhere in California.

But such changes are controversial; if they happen, it won't likely be in time to keep ASCEND and Learning Without Limits from proceeding with their plans.

Fuchs and Adam said they hoped the move would prompt district leaders to rethink some of the system's policies and practices -- not just for small schools, but for the entire district.

"If it's necessary for some schools to leave in order for the district and the union to sit down and figure out what's necessary to offer all schools these conditions, maybe that's what has to happen," Fuchs said.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

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