OAKLAND — Schools Superintendent Tony Smith told a crowd of frustrated parents and teachers Wednesday morning that the state had identified "the wrong set of schools" to undergo a major overhaul, one of four federally prescribed interventions for the nation's lowest-performing schools.
He said he found the process facing four of the city's public middle schools — new schools that have opened since 2006 — to be "unjust" and "unacceptable," and that the timeline to make the changes was far too short.
But those who were hoping the superintendent might go a step further and reject those interventions, which include school closure, charter conversion and principal and staff replacement, likely left the meeting disappointed.
"We also have to acknowledge that this is the law," Smith said. Later, he explained, "If the district does not follow through on the legal requirements, sanctions could include a return to state administration."
Districts around the Bay Area with schools on the lowest-achieving list, including Hayward, San Lorenzo, West Contra Costa and Mt. Diablo, are now scrambling to figure out how to move forward. If they apply for a federal school improvement grant, they will be required to undergo drastic changes by Aug. 30. If they forego the money, they could buy more time.
State education officials say schools will eventually be required to make these interventions, but they have acknowledged there are currently no sanctions in place for schools or districts that choose not to. It is also unclear how much money the districts would stand to gain — or pass up — in the process.
The Mt. Diablo school district has not yet decided whether to apply for the grants for its half-dozen schools on the list, Superintendent Steven Lawrence said. It may decide not to apply in instances where it does not think the four options would benefit the schools. The San Lorenzo school district is filing an appeal with the state, arguing that Hillside Elementary School should not be included on the list. In unincorporated Bay Point, where all three of the elementary schools are on the list, residents have organized a meeting on Thursday night to figure out what can be done.
On Wednesday, Smith instructed the parents, teachers and principals of each school — Alliance Academy, Elmhurst Community Prep, ROOTS International and United for Success Academy — to develop a proposal by April 14 that examines the "pros and cons" of each of the four intervention models. (Explore Middle School, the fifth Oakland school on the list, was already slated for closure.)
Smith said he would review the proposals and give the school board his recommendations in early June; the school board will have the final say.
One by one, teachers, parents and community members pressed Smith for more details on the how the fate of their schools would be decided. All four of the schools on the list were created from scratch, with new principals and new staff — exactly some of the changes the federal government wants to see this time around.
New schools, however, were at a disadvantage under California's formula for identifying the "persistently lowest-achieving schools." To escape the intervention list, schools needed to post test score gains of at least 50 points during the past five years. Some of Oakland's new schools had to make the same leap in just two or three years. They're so new, they don't have many years of test score data.
"How do we go and where do we go to say, 'Wait! Our children are learning. Our children are prospering?' " asked Tajada Scarbrough, an Alliance Academy parent.
"How is changing the principal going to make the school better?" another parent asked, through a translator.
Smith said all but one of the intervention options — charter school conversion — requires replacing a principal who has been at a school longer than two years. He also said he learned last weekend during a trip to Washington, D.C., that the federal grant money for schools that choose the closure option will not follow the students to their next schools, a reality he called "unconscionable."
Staff writers Theresa Harrington, Kristofer Noceda and Paul Burgarino contributed to this story.
CONTRA COSTA COUNTY
The complete lists of California's persistently lowest-achieving schools are at www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/pl.