OAKLAND -- Lazear Elementary School was an unhappy place to be last year, by all accounts -- for staff members, for students and for their families. Its problems became public April 15 when parents held a strike, demanding the school district remove a teacher and the principal.
A year later, under new leadership, parents and teachers say the East Oakland elementary school has been transformed.
"It's like we have a real school now," said Laura Crowell, a Lazear teacher.
If the parent strike had taken place five or 10 years ago, the solution might have shaped up differently. The Oakland school district closed more than a dozen struggling schools during that time, replacing them with new ones designed from scratch, often with young, new teaching staffs.
But Oakland Unified has moved away from the wholesale-change approach to school reform. Lazear's new principal, Kareem Weaver, inherited a mostly veteran faculty -- which, he said, was fine by him.
"Good veteran teachers are worth their weight in gold," he said.
Lazear did undergo some staffing changes after the parent strike. The teacher who became the focal point of the protest voluntarily transferred to a position at another school, though he is now on leave, according to district records. Another teacher who had been placed on administrative leave last year was reassigned to a nonteaching position elsewhere in the district, Weaver said.
And, of course, there was the change at the top. Weaver, 38, taught in Oakland public schools for 13 years before training to become a principal through New Leaders for New Schools, a national nonprofit that places many administrators in Oakland.
Parents say the hardworking rookie has been restoring families' faith in Lazear, a predominately Latino school with a full view of Interstate 880. Maria Martinez, a Lazear teacher, said Weaver's warm, empathetic personality makes parents and students feel welcome and teachers feel heard.
"There's just a different feeling at this school," said Martinez, who has taught at Lazear, off and on, since 1984.
The faculty at Lazear, once fractured by grudges and loyalties, has begun to come together around a common sense of purpose, Weaver said. Crowell said she used to carry the stress of school politics home with her; now that the division is gone and she feels her principal trusts her, she loves coming to work.
Tom Slivinski, who is temporarily serving as the school's teachers union representative, said last year's toxic environment made him physically ill. He disagrees with some things Weaver has done, he said, but overall, the new principal has been "a breath of fresh air."
Rocio Gonzalez, one of the mothers who led last year's strike, describes 2009-10 as "a sad year" in which parents were at odds with some teachers and children didn't seem to be interested in their studies. The difference between then and now, she said, is "100 percent."
"Everybody's working hard now," Gonzalez said. The children, she said, "are reading like crazy."
Square roots for lunch
If you're looking for Weaver during the school day, chances are you won't find him in the principal's office. He might be walking briskly from classroom to classroom with a clipboard. He might be playing soccer in the yard at recess, or perched onstage above the cafeteria tables, a microphone to his lips.
"Take five," he said to a group of older kids. "Triple it." (pause) "Add one." (pause) "Divide by two." (pause) "Subtract 10."
After a few more of those, he threw them a curve ball: the square root of 18.
Weaver schedules two hours of classroom observations each day. Teachers say he gives pointers and asks questions, but he doesn't micromanage. "He sort of inspires us all," Crowell said. "I didn't realize the kind of difference an administrator can make until he came."
In the past eight months, Weaver has raised money for field trips and academic competitions. He made sure the children -- most of them, English learners -- had access to a computer lab (previously padlocked), regular science instruction and a program that lets them read books at their own level (previously purchased, but unused). Midyear, when his yard supervisor retired, he took over as the lunchtime overlord, a task he clearly relishes.
"He's a cool principal. He's done a lot for the school," said Nicolas Franco, a fifth-grader at Lazear. "We have pizza parties when it rains and games in the cafeteria."
Those who want the school to continue have no choice but to make it a healthier, happier place for kids, Weaver said. Lazear's enrollment, now about 270, has been declining steadily.
In August, Weaver showed his staff the names of 30 children who had transferred out of the school over the summer, and what their parents told him when he called to find out why they left.
"I told them, 'They're not going to charter schools. They're walking right past us to go to the next public schools.' These are kids whose parents have voted with their feet."
Weaver's first test
The school's transformation had an inauspicious start.
The first time Weaver met the Lazear staff, he also had to contend with an uninvited guest: a former teacher who had been reassigned to another position over the summer. The man walked into the meeting and began to distribute photocopies of statements that his former colleagues had made about him to the administration.
Weaver eventually persuaded the man -- whom, he said, he hadn't met before that day -- to gather his belongings and head to his new assignment. When the principal returned to the room, the teachers resumed the business at hand.
"They kept on rolling, to their credit," Weaver said. "We never talked about it again."
It's that focus, Weaver said, that has allowed the school to stabilize and flourish, even in the face of unexpected challenges. In February, according to school district records, a third Lazear teacher in 10 months was placed on administrative leave for reasons the district's spokesman would not release, citing confidentiality.
Some teachers said they braced for another parent revolt, but it never happened. Weaver taught the class himself until he found a credentialed teacher to take over through the end of the school year. Some believe the situation didn't escalate because people were feeling so much better about Lazear and its new programs.
In the same way, Weaver said he believes that signs of student success gave teachers a reason to come together as a staff. "That's why the teachers are willing to try; they see it working," he said. "They may not like me, but they like kids."
Hamid Zambrano, a second-grade teacher, said he has been amazed by the results he has seen with the school's literacy emphasis. "I've watched kids essentially going from nonreaders to being able to read," he said.
On April 1, Weaver held an outdoor award ceremony to recognize students who were shining academically. For 90 minutes under the hot sun, he handed awards to kids who had hit their reading and math benchmark test goals and who had read the most during that trimester. He set the reading goal twice as high as he had for the last contest, yet more kids reached it.
Parents lined up to take photos of their children holding their certificates, their medals and their trophies inscribed in Latin.
"This semester he was reading and reading and reading so he could pass the goal and get a trophy," Arlete Franco said about her son, Nicolas, as she watched the ceremony. "When they called his name, he came up here running!"
Franco, who went to Lazear as a child, was involved in last year's strike. But now, she said, she likes what she sees. Some of the families who left the school, she said, have already come back.
"Last year, it felt like it was falling apart," she said. "This year, everybody's working together."