As maligned as the Oakland Unified School District has been over the years, there remains a ray of hope that can galvanize all concerned.
Unlike the plight of city government, where there are myriad perspectives on what should be the city's priorities, few would disagree that the primary goal of public education is the quality it provides the students and how it influences their growth and development into adulthood.
Assuming such unanimity exists, this affords the key players the luxury to engage in open and honest discussions. What are the best practices? What's working? Which districts with similar demographics to Oakland have experienced an increase in student achievement?
Tension arises when the discussion turns toward which group is best qualified to answer those questions. Is it school administrators, teachers, parents, students or other concerned stakeholders?
What too often happens is well-intentioned individuals become caught in the weeds of minutia and, without warning, the debate is reduced to something that fails to put students first.
The result, a community that should be working together to improve student achievement is morphed into warring factions where very little is accomplished.
It is in this predictable thicket that ensnarls the student achievement conversation that Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools has placed its stake in the ground. GO is set up as a binary organization.
One side performs as a nonprofit membership organization that connects and activates an informed community network to advance policies that ensure all Oakland students have the opportunity to attend quality public schools.
According to its website, it is a "coalition of parents, teachers, principals and community leaders from the hills and flatlands, East, West, and North Oakland, charter and district public schools who share a vision of an Oakland where all children receive the schooling and support they need to live successful, fulfilling lives."
Based on the simple premise that no stakeholder in the student achievement conversation is endowed with "the" truth, GO Public Schools embraces six key strategies that can improve student learning in Oakland:
If these goals are to be achieved on the community side, there is the unavoidable reality that requires a more vigorous political arm. The other side of GO is an advocacy organization, which allows for the participation in political campaigns and elections.
This duality allows GO to play a role in bringing all stakeholders together to improve student achievement, but also to support candidates who share their vision.
While I firmly believe GO's two-prong approach is the most effective for realizing progress in Oakland schools, it does come with a cautionary proviso.
Because California cannot provide a cogent explanation of how a dollar leaves Sacramento and makes its way to the local school district, I understand the need for political advocacy.
But the danger of an entity that operates as a community-based organization that also has a political arm is the ease in which it too can get entangled in the very same weeds from which it is attempting to free others.
Should that occur, GO would in effect be an extension of the current problem. The fine line that GO must walk should serve as a reminder that it is much easier to identify the problem than it is to improve the situation.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.