OAKLAND -- If you take a walk down the 1000 block of Second Avenue, on one side of the street you see the crumbling and closed Oakland schools administration building with a "Do Not Enter" sign on the front door. On the other side you see a modern new elementary school, La Esquelita, with its medical and mental health centers, nutrition services, an affiliated television station and free weekly food giveaways for needy families.
Gary Yee, the incoming schools superintendent who starts a one-year appointment on July 1, sees the two buildings as a metaphor.
"That administration building is decrepit. The windows are falling out. It's closed," Yee said. "That represents the old Oakland school district. And this brand-new school across the street is the new district."
Yee, 67, stepped down from his position as a school board member and was appointed by the board in April to take over the $250,000-a-year position from Tony Smith, who is moving to Chicago. Yee was named to the post just two months after his wife, a retired Oakland elementary school principal, died in February of complications from an autoimmune disease.
When he was asked to consider the job, he figured it was his duty and something his wife would like.
"It's something she would want me to do," he said. "My first message to the community is that I've been around a long time. I was a teacher and principal in Oakland for 25 years and I retired from the Peralta Community College District as assistant chancellor. I'm very fiscally prudent, but I'm fundamentally an educator."
Yee said the school board will begin an open superintendent search in the fall to fill the position after July 1 of next year. He he has not decided whether he plans to apply.
Although he officially starts July 1, Yee has been working in a transitional mode for the past two months. He takes over with two positive developments: In early June the administration came to an agreement with its 2,400 teachers on a one-year retroactive contract that gives them a small raise, the first time the teachers and the administration have agreed on a contract since the 2005-08 contract was signed. He has also named a new director for the troubled special-education department that is responsible for 5,400 students.
But he faces many major challenges, including building a credible special-education program that has had five directors in seven years; getting administrators at the school level to implement changes he wants; rebuilding leadership at Castlemont and Fremont high schools, which both have new principals coming in this year; rebuilding trust of parents whose children went to the 18 schools that were closed or consolidated over the past four years; lowering the expulsion and suspension rate for Latino and African-American students; and dealing with a general feeling that the district suffers from perpetual crisis and mismanagement.
School board President David Kakishiba said one of the keys to continuing reforms in the district will be to get school leaders to implement goals set by the administration.
"We need a school-centered approach rather than an administration-centered approach to deal with these challenges," Kakishiba said. "The unique thing about Gary in terms of leadership is that he should be able to strike a good balance between the downtown infrastructure and school leadership because he was a teacher and a principal."
Teachers union President Trish Gorham said two of the biggest challenges that Yee faces are directing the district's middle management, which she said was left to its own devices under Smith, and making sure he doesn't try to do too much too quickly.
"I think there is a possibility he might overextend himself because he's so anxious to make things work," Gorham said. "All of us who have worked in Oakland have always had high hopes, and we want to see things get done."
Yee acknowledged the special-education department is troubled. He said that is partly a result of budget cuts, partly because school closures disrupted student services without a follow-up plan and partly because it has been hard to retain good teachers in the area.
"The other problem is that special education is very litigious and compliance-driven," Yee said. "So you can create a system that reduces the need for litigation or one that responds to it. Once you get in the litigation loop, it costs a lot to get out."
Over the next year, Yee sees himself "staying the course" that Smith laid out while he was superintendent. That means converting schools to the community school model like the one at La Esquelita, where students get health and social services as well as education.
Yee estimates about half the 87 schools in the district could now be considered community schools.
It also means shifting the focus from trying to prepare all students for a four-year college education to preparing students for a variety of opportunities that include college, community college and vocational careers.
"Another of my priorities will be to lower the rate of expulsions and suspensions among Latino and African-American students," Yee said. "I want to make sure we have a solid plan and we have courageous conversations on what the systemic obstacles are and the community causes. Not expelling them is not a solution. It has to be more systemic, and one solution is better instruction."
His last big priority is how to spend $475 million in taxpayer money approved last fall for school construction, which will give the district about $45 million a year over 10 years.
"The challenge is to have a real plan on which schools should be modernized and to what end," Yee said. "Modernization will be a real shot in the arm for the community."
All his priorities, he said, come back around to educating the students.
"School doesn't have to be a place of confinement, it can be a place of exploration of self and a place for preparation for an adult life that includes a college career and community engagement," Yee said. "We want students to be fully functional."
Contact Doug Oakley at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.
Position: Oakland Unified School District superintendent
Professional background: Oakland school board member, 2003-13; vice chancellor Peralta Community College District, 2007-08; dean of instruction at Merritt College, 2005-06; chairman of education department at Holy Names University, 2000-05; professor at Saint Mary's College, 1998-2000; assistant professor at Boston College 1996-98; teacher and principal in Oakland schools, 1974-89
Educational background: Doctorate from Stanford University in 1995; master's degree in public administration from Cal State Hayward in 1977; bachelor's degree in philosophy from UC Berkeley in 1968
Family: Widowed with three children and four grandchildren