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Oakland Unified School District state Administrator Kimberly Statham asks a girl about a lesson Tuesday while touring Lafayette Elementary School in Oakland.
OAKLAND — Last October, just weeks after Kimberly Statham took office as the Oakland school district's second state administrator, a group of teachers held a demonstration outside the central office.

Betty Olson-Jones, the new president of the Oakland teachers union, held up an oversized report card with Statham's name on the top. She had given her a 'D.'

The next day, Statham told Olson-Jones she felt the evaluation was unfair; the two talked for over an hour and have met regularly since.

At the time, the new union leader said she was impressed by Statham's cordial demeanor and openness to dialogue. It seemed a refreshing departure from the brusque manner of her outspoken predecessor, Randolph Ward, whose tense relationship with union leaders came apart in a near-strike earlier that year.

But as Statham approaches her anniversary as permanent state administrator on Saturday, some say it may yet be premature to grade her effectiveness.

"She's a very nice person. She's friendly, amiable and very polite," Olson-Jones said. "But I'm still not quite sure where she is, where the leadership is

really coming from. I don't see her imprint very clearly."

Some who have served on Statham's staff appreciate her leadership style. They quickly observed a knack for delegating responsibilities to trusted staff and a willingness to allow the difficult reform work to continue without turning it on its head — as some new superintendents might be tempted to do.

"She's not a charismatic leader.


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She's a systems leader," said Hae-Sin Thomas, the former executive officer of the district's New Schools Network. "She's not a big public speaker. I think she's actually kind of a quiet person."

Statham surprised Thomas and many others when she announced she would close East Oakland Community High School, despite overwhelming community pressure to keep it open. During an emotionally charged board meeting in February, she looked out at the hundreds of teachers and students — many of whom had marched eight miles from the East Oakland hills — and explained she couldn't, in good conscience, keep it open because of the numerous problems it had experienced.

It wasn't the only tough decision she made during the last 12 months. In May, she approved the overhaul of the student services department — a plan that reduced some managers to tears in the hallway outside the boardroom. In July, she fired her chief financial officer, Javetta Robinson, over professional differences.

Statham also has closed, or threatened to close, several public, independently run charter schools for alleged contract violations. She promises such scrutiny will continue under the new charter schools office.

Despite those turbulent moments, Michael Moore, a central office administrator who has worked in the district for 26 years, says Statham has brought "stability and consistency" to a district reeling from countless administrative changes and new initiatives.

But some say Statham is simply not present enough — in large part because she is bi-coastal. When she came to work in the Oakland school district, over two years ago, she left a husband and high school-age son behind in Maryland.

"I try not to think about it," she said, when asked what it was like to work across the country from her family.

Statham said she flies back East about once or twice a month. When she takes a 1 p.m. Friday flight, she comes in early and often works over the phone, she said.

"While I need to see my family, I also have to take into account my responsibility to the school district," she said. "I've tried to balance it."

She added, "Even with that, I'm never unplugged. I'm always available."

One example of the clash between the demands of work and a home 2,800 miles away came during a regularly scheduled Wednesday evening school board meeting in May. Before she reached the public comment item on the agenda, Statham suddenly ended the meeting with no explanation and left, causing an uproar.

She was on her way to the airport; a very close friend of the family had suffered a heart attack. 

"I really had no choice," she explained.

Weekly calendar records requested by the Tribune show long days mid-week and often a lighter appointment schedule on Mondays and Fridays. Statham declined to release her time sheets and the district's legal counsel contended those were exempt from public records laws. Legal counsel for the Tribune, however, said those records are public, and the newspaper is seeking access.

Regardless of Statham's visibility, most agree that Oakland's schools chief brings a new emphasis on the needs of children and on student achievement — not surprising, considering her background. Statham was Oakland's chief academic officer before she became state administrator. She held a similar position in Howard County, Md.

Moore calls it "a laser-like focus on student achievement."

Matthew Duffy, principal of Elmhurst Community Prep, a new, small middle school in East Oakland, agreed. He said he was glad the central office was taking such an interest in improving teaching practices.

"It's the right thing to push and the right thing to hold people accountable for," Duffy said.

On Tuesday morning, during a walk-through at Lafayette Elementary School in West Oakland, Statham took note of the bulletin boards in the hallways — especially those that were still blank by the third week of the school year.

"When I come back in a couple of months, I'd hope to see student work here," she said.

When she entered the classrooms, she looked at the "objectives" posted on the walls. She watched how quickly the teachers moved through the lessons and whether the children seemed engrossed in the material.

But for all of the talk of improving student achievement, Oakland's reading and math scores — which had risen dramatically during the previous years — flattened last year.

And a sense of fiscal stability was rocked this summer when the interim chief financial officer, Leon Glaster, told the board the school district's projected deficit for 2007-08 was actually three times greater than what was reported by the outgoing CFO in late June.

"It's troubling to me that this year it seems we've gone backwards, financially. It's also troubling to me that at least in terms of the California Standards Tests that we're relatively flat as a district," said David Kakishiba, president of the school board.

In terms of Statham's evaluation, he said, "Those are the two biggies."

But, he was careful to note, that assessment was no slight on the state administrator as a person. Statham has a good working relationship with the board, despite the fact that she wields most of the power. The school board was stripped of its authority to govern the district during the state takeover.

While Ward had his share of foes, as evidenced by his decision to hire a body guard, Statham is generally well-liked, even by some of her critics. But some say they don't know where her administration stands on the hot-button issues of reform and governance that have consumed the school system for years.

"I think there was cohesion before. There was a districtwide mandate that we were going to reform the schools and we were going to do it through small schools," Duffy said. "It was painful, it was difficult, but it was clear."

In contrast, Duffy said, the last year has been characterized by a lack of defining moments.

He wishes, for example, that the central administration would take a public stance in support of small schools. He also believes the district needs to define whether it is centralized or decentralized; schools often receive mixed signals about the level of their autonomy, he said.

The coming year might not be so quiet. Teacher contract negotiations begin anew in December. More school closures are on the horizon because of the dwindling student population. And the school board could regain more of its authority, bringing its own priorities and opinions on school reform.

"That is the real work of this year: To figure out the balance between what we can and what we'd like to do," Statham said.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.