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Monique Brinson, a candidate for principle a Joachim Miller elementary school, answers questions by a panel of teachers and parents in Oakland Calif. on August 9, 2007. (Antonio Franco/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND — She began with an apology. Then, with a dry-erase marker in hand, she asked for the parents at each school to voice their concerns and some common ground.

The elementary school parents in the room were livid about the harassment and litter apparently caused by some of the middle school kids who hang around waiting for rides at the end of the day. They were also sure nothing would change under new leadership.

"I don't want to hear any more about how you're assessing the problem," one mother remarked.

The interaction was staged as part of an extensive audition for the real-life role of principal at Montera Middle School or its adjacent elementary school, Joaquin Miller. It was supposedly a make-believe scenario, down to the school's name. But some said the role-play closely mirrored real tensions and challenges, particularly at Montera.

"Ripped from the headlines," said Jackie Treese, a member of the interview team and a kindergarten teacher at Joaquin Miller.

With the unexpected retirement of Montera's longtime principal, Cheryl Rodby, many are watching closely to see if the district can find just the right leader to move the school forward.

It's a tall order. The winning candidate will be charged with pulling together its teachers and its ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of nearly 900 students — and their parents — to create what one dad called "an example of urban education succeeding."

"It's a really interesting and important year for Montera," said David Schweizer, chairman of the school's oversight council, who took part in the interview process. "The school is teetering, and I think there's an opportunity to re-establish confidence and really make it into a great school."

In Oakland, where poverty and wealth often are correlated to feet above sea level, some might be tempted to classify Montera as a typical "hills school," an enclave for the city's privileged children. In fact, last year about one-quarter of its students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, and about 62 percent came from other neighborhoods throughout the city.

But unlike the other middle schools in Oakland, Montera does not receive the extra federal funding that pays for intervention programs, counseling and other activities. Not enough of its students qualify for low-income school subsidies.

Parents and teachers say the school is grappling with questions familiar to many urban middle schools: how to create a safe, equitable and orderly environment with a large number of adolescents, how to meet all of the children's academic and social needs with an ever-tightening budget, and how to forge a sense of place, an identity, in a school community with great differences.

Because of those differences, and the reality that the middle-class "neighborhood" parents tend to be more vocal than others, the school district decided the principal interview team would roughly reflect the demographic makeup of each school.

Each of the 20-some members were urged to consider not just their personal priorities but the needs of the entire school, including those voiced at a parent meeting over the summer.

"Discipline at Montera is a huge, huge, huge, gargantuan issue," said Mary Condeff, a special education teacher. "I would like to see an administrator — any administrator — decide what the discipline policy is, and that's the policy."

Last spring, after a group of parent leaders complained that a sense of order seemed to be slipping, the school called in a consultant, Esteban Barnaby, to see what could be done to create a safer environment — and how to make sure all students are treated even-handedly.

Harriet MacLean, the central office administrator who oversees Montera, attended the parent meeting at which the issue was discussed. To provide some context, she cited a disconcerting statistic that is mirrored in schools across the country: African-American students made up 41 percent of Montera's population, but they accounted for 82 percent of the school's referrals that year. 

MacLean said Thursday that Montera had hired a full-time case manager to work with troubled students, and that the school had planned to hold a training on school-wide discipline and classroom management strategies, as Barnaby also had recommended.

Soora Wi, a parent who spends a lot of time at the school, said he hoped the teachers would receive the support they needed from the new principal.

"When you see what some of the teachers go through, first-hand, it can be an eye-opener," he said.

Montera is also grappling with another challenge all too common in many schools: the vast difference in academic achievement between the haves and the have-nots and between white and African-American students.

In 2006, most of the eighth-graders who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch took general math, rather than algebra or geometry. Just 35 percent of the low-income eighth-graders and 37 percent of African-American students were proficient in reading and writing, compared to 78 percent of their white peers.

Nancy Midlin, a seventh-grade medieval world history teacher, said teachers looked forward to making changes in the school — particularly in its environment — as long as those changes are collaborative and not "top-down."

She said she hopes the new leader, who should be selected this week, tries to build on what is already working in the school — namely, its experienced staff, talented students and core group of parent volunteers.

She recalled one Saturday when she stopped by the school and saw students and parents painting and sprucing up the campus. It gave her the goosebumps, she said.

"Change is good, yes, and change is hard," Midlin said. "I'm nervously optimistic."

E-mail Katy Murphy at kmurphy@oaklandtribune.com. Read her Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.