Eight of them are expected to become semi-independent public charter schools run by an organization to be created by the district, although plans could change in coming days, officials say.
The 13 schools have repeatedly failed to meet test-score goals, sometimes by slim margins. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act says such schools must be handed over to outside management, undergo major staff changes or be dramatically restructured.
"I think people have seen a lot of attempts at change, and clearly we have not gotten success," said Katrina Scott-George, special assistant to Ward. But "the consequences of inaction are so high, it compels us to act."
The plan to convert the schools to charters was characterized as bizarre by some at a public meeting Wednesday at district headquarters. Some teachers suggested the district has no real plan and is making up the rules for reconstitution as it goes along.
Others say the district, knowingly or not, is trying to bust unions and undermine public education.
"We don't need to be doing the dirty work for George Bush here in Oakland," teachers union President Ben Visnick told Ward during the meeting. "Don't pick on the poor kids. Shame on you. Shame on you."
At Jefferson Elementary, where a majority of students speak Spanish, most parents arriving at school to pick up their children had not heard of the district's plan to convert it to a charter.
Great-grandmother Mary Degraffenreed said she does not mind if the school does become a charter, "as long as my grandchild learns."
Teachers at some of the targeted schools asked the district to let them restructure their own schools without bringing in outside management. The district accepted such requests for five schools.
One was Stonehurst Elementary, where teachers proposed splitting their East Oakland school so half would become a dual-language program and the other half a small school specializing in science, math and technology.
"I'm relieved, but I feel really bad for the other schools," said teacher Chaz Garcia, a 10-year veteran at Stonehurst Elementary.
Allendale, Melrose, Prescott and Sobrante Park elementary schools also will restructure themselves in one way or another, district officials said.
Cox, Hawthorne, Highland, Jefferson, Lockwood, Horace Mann and Whittier elementary schools, plus the Webster Academy, face takeovers by charter organizations.
Many of the targeted schools have a majority of students who speak Spanish. Students are judged by their performance on state tests given in English. No Child Left Behind makes no exceptions for such schools.
But some majority Spanish-speaking schools do meet their goals on the exams.
Education for Change, a charter organization created by the district in recent months, could end up taking over all eight schools, although two of them may go to different charter operators.
Education for Change is headed by Kevin Woolridge, a high-level district administrator who now oversees elementary schools.
Woolridge reportedly has been organizing Education for Change on his own time. He is expected to represent the group in an interview with the district today.
Outside of the district's inner circles, the group "is a real mystery," school board President Gary Yee said. "None of us have ever heard of it."
There is no evidence that the group, led by district personnel, could do a better job of running the schools than the district, Yee said.
Charter schools are public institutions and have to follow state education laws. They have more control over their own budgets and curricula, and are meant to encourage innovation and healthy competition with school districts.
Oakland has been fertile ground for the charter school movement in recent years. About 20 charters now exist in the city, most of them started on the grass-roots level by parents, teachers or community organizations. Some have good reputations, some do not.
The teachers union has fought the rise of charters, which often have non-union staffs. Oakland officials say they want schools converting to charters to honor union contracts.
Oakland is not the only city struggling with the mandates of No Child Left Behind.
San Diego, for example, is preparing to convert four schools into charters to meet the law's requirements, an official in that district said. Another four San Diego schools will be restructured in some way.