EMERYVILLE -- For years, Oakland teachers say, they have been told what to teach and how. They have been trained more often by consultants than by their expert colleagues, and they have watched major policy decisions go down from the sidelines.
Now, the head of the 39,000-student school system says he wants to hear from them -- really.
So, it was with a mixture of hope and skepticism that many teachers took part in a first-of-its-kind convention over the weekend in Emeryville.
About 200 elected delegates from 90 schools participated in the three-day event. It marked the official start of an effort to use the collective wisdom of Oakland's teaching force to improve the school district.
It is a difficult time to try something like this. The teachers union and the district have yet to reach a contract agreement after more than three years and a one-day strike. A quarter of the district's teachers -- including dozens of the convention delegates -- received pink slips last month.
Sure enough, the new partnership was quickly put to the test. During an impromptu debriefing session Friday afternoon, at the end of the first full day, a number of teachers stood up and expressed their disillusionment with the convention.
"I feel totally misled," one teacher said, explaining that teachers had little time that day to discuss the serious issues in the district. "This is a ridiculous waste of energy."
Betty Olson-Jones, president of the teachers union and one of the convention's lead organizers, did not try to dispute those criticisms. She thanked the delegates for their candor and said they had sent a powerful message. "I want to encourage everybody to still keep your hearts open," she said before they left for the day.
For the next three hours, a group of organizers and other delegates met to regroup and overhaul the next day's program. They simplified the agenda; instead of attending a series of sessions on different topics, teachers would ask themselves and each other what works at their classrooms, in their schools and in the school district, what does not, and why.
On Saturday, teachers divided into six groups, spending the day with colleagues from different grade levels and neighborhoods. By the afternoon, the walls in each meeting room were covered with white sheets of paper containing their ideas. Recommendations ranged from more equitable student discipline policies to better support for new teachers, continued funding for family literacy programs and more meaningful evaluations of teachers and principals.
Delegates and organizers marveled at how dramatically the spirit of the convention changed from one day to the next.
"What a turn," said Mercedes Ugarte, a middle school teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy. "It's turned into something that's teacher-owned."
The challenge, which was not lost on the delegates, is how to incorporate those recommendations at a time when everything, it seems, is subject to the budget ax.
Oakland schools have cut 137 K-12 teaching positions, though that number is far lower than the number of pink slips issued. Nonteaching staff members -- those who clean the bathrooms, answer the phones and provide campus security -- are expected to take an even bigger hit.
Last week, the school board discussed ways to cope with a potential 16 percent cut in state general-purpose funding, a loss of $30.5 million. If that scenario plays out, the district plans to slash most of what's left of adult education funds and to use other one-time funding sources to make ends meet, causing the district's deficit to balloon to $22 million.
Some delegates said that while it's important to mobilize around state funding for public education, the school system can make some changes that cost little to no money.
"Everybody in this room wants to fight for more money and resources," said Bart Alexander, a teacher at Garfield Elementary School. "At the same time, we know we can't just keep complaining about money and resources, because we have to do something without money and resources. We have to do both."
Maria Santos, the school district's deputy superintendent of instruction, leadership and equity-in-action, told the delegates Saturday that the district would immediately start turning around its professional development program so that it's primarily led by master teachers.
Superintendent Tony Smith promised to create more opportunities for teachers to share their practices and said he was committed to making ethnic studies part of the core curriculum.
While he didn't give specifics, he agreed that changes needed to be made to the district's school-based budgeting system. In Oakland, each school's budget must take into account the actual salaries and benefits of its teachers, rather than district averages.
"We want to build on the momentum. We want to capture it," said Young Whan Choi, a Metwest High School teacher and a member of the Effective Teaching Task Force, which organized the convention. "It will be very important for the district to make some immediate, concrete changes."
Information about the Effective Teaching Task Force can be found at thrivingstudents.org.