Life Academy and Fremont High Schol: Lessons for Large School Conversions

In the summer of 2000, I moved to Oakland to get involved in the city’s small schools initiative. For two years, I led Life Academy, the city’s first new small autonomous high school, born in 2001 from an academy program within Oakland’s 2,000-plus student Fremont High School. Having spent many years working with new school start-ups across the country, I have had the opportunity to reflect on different components that lead to their success.

The year after Life Academy became its own small school, the rest of Fremont High School began the process of converting into small schools. The conversion of Fremont High and the development of the five new small schools is still very much a work in progress. But at this early point, it is clear that Life has been able to improve school culture and academic outcomes in ways that so far have eluded the other new Fremont schools. What might be causing this divergence, and what is there about Life’s experience that might be useful for other new schools and school conversions? What factors in the creation of small schools seem most likely to improve the educational experience and outcomes for students?

Successful conversions, indeed successful schools, require that the quality of teaching and learning be extremely high. Significant changes in student learning cannot be effected without a dramatic shift in teaching; therefore excellent teaching is always at the heart of an excellent school. Yet creating and recreating schools necessarily focuses on school design and structures, and this may lead to some neglect of what Harvard’s Richard Elmore calls the “instructional core.” In my view, it is more difficult to change instructional practices and teacher expectations for student learning than it is to enact even the most complex structural changes.

In most attempts at reconfiguring large high schools, nearly all of the potential variables that have a powerful effect on the instructional core remain constant: the students, teachers and staff, facility, and community are fundamentally the same as they were before. But without altering these variables in some way, it is close to impossible to transform the educational program. I believe that within its constraints, it is crucial for a school to introduce as much change as possible in order to avoid replicating old patterns and old outcomes. Whether the change is in the staff, the students, the facility, or the professional development, the more the balance is shifted from the old to the new, the better. Life Academy was able to enact enough changes in these key variables to achieve better student outcomes than the larger school that birthed it, even though it is still struggling to provide an excellent, equitable education for all its students.

In “Management vs. Leadership,” Paul McGowan and John Miller write, “School change is not a simple addition, subtraction or multiplication problem.” As they analyze how leaders take action to improve schools, McGowan and Miller suggest a list of key variables that affect school quality:

  • higher expectations
  • common standards
  • parent involvement
  • technology
  • integrated curricula
  • assessment
  • professional development
  • funding
  • teaching methodologies
  • facilities

Other variables that affect a school’s focus on its instructional core include:

  • students
  • community involvement
  • partnerships
  • inclusion of structures for personalization such as advisories

As educators and design teams plan to transform a large school into smaller schools, they need to consider the variables at work in their own environment, consciously choosing what is being imported from the original large school and deciding what to alter for maximum positive effects for teaching and learning.

Moving new small schools to new buildings, as Life Academy did, may not be an option for many converting schools. But planners can identify other factors that affect school culture and the conditions for achievement and success for all students.

During the conversion planning process, naming, prioritizing, and acting on the variables that can change??”and being aware of the factors that need to remain constant??”allows schools to support personalized, intellectually challenging, and equitable teaching and learning.

Paul McGowan and John Miller’s “Management vs. Leadership” appeared in the November 2001 The School Administrator Web Edition, available at /sa/2001_11/mcgowan.htm

The History of Life

Through a tremendous confluence of leadership from then-Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a faith-based community organizing group, the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), parents, students, and educators, Oakland instituted a policy in 2000 that encouraged the development of new small autonomous schools and the conversion of the city’s large high schools to small autonomous interconnected schools.

Fremont High School seemed to have the right conditions to take advantage of that policy to segment into small high schools. In the same overcrowded area in Oakland that inspired the move towards small elementary and middle schools, Fremont featured “wall-to-wall” academies. All general education students in grades 10-12 had the opportunity to choose from six different theme-based career academies (English Language Learners were together in an “International House” and students with special needs had core classes within the Special Education department.) Students had four classes within their academy, including one “lab” class in the academy’s career theme. Physical Education, world languages, AP courses, and many science and math classes included a variety of students across academies. Each academy had at least one teacher-leader or director and most of the academies received supplemental state funding. The more established academies featured student internships, partnerships with professionals in the field, and interdisciplinary projects.

At the start of the 2000-2001 school year, bolstered by the district-wide move toward small school creation, a group of teachers, students, parents and an administrator from Fremont High School began working on a proposal to change the Health and Bioscience Academy from a small learning community into an autonomous small school. Thanks to tremendous community, parent, and student organizing, the Health and Bioscience Academy was given a facility and approval in May of 2001 to open in September 2001 as Life Academy. One ninth grade teacher, five academy teachers (including the two Health and Bioscience Academy co-directors), one assistant principal (me), two clerical staff members, and one custodian left Fremont to create the new school.

Leadership in many different quarters enabled us successfully to transform ourselves from an “academy” within the larger school to an autonomous small school. BayCES, OCO, and the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) partnered to create the small schools policy and were ultimately given financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. OCO helped to organize the parents on the design team to take on leadership roles and become advocates for their children and the school. The teachers in the Health Academy had worked hard to create a relatively successful program at Fremont and were eager to demonstrate their capacity to do more with the opportunity that the new school presented. Our professional partners in the academy, such as Oakland Children’s Hospital and Berkeley Biotechnology, Incorporated, continued to support the students and provide internships and programs as we made the transition, in spite of the uncertainty that the move engendered. My experience opening and working in small schools in New York and Boston enabled me to provide a vision from those regions, with histories of small high schools ??”a history that Oakland lacked.

Life’s 250 founding students were a tremendously diverse group. We added significant numbers of English Language Learners, students with special needs, and students who had not been successful in (including many who had been kicked out of) their previous schools. Our ninth graders were recruited directly from Fremont’s feeder middle schools and posed a challenge to the teachers who had been used to teaching in the upper grades of the academy. Many of the students we enrolled in ninth grade would never have made it to tenth grade at Fremont High School??”they would have dropped out??”and therefore would never have been in any of the academies. Everyone??”staff and students??”had to work with everyone else in all their heterogeneity of backgrounds, experience, ethnicity, talents and struggles.

Life Academy began with all four grades in place, filled with the same students who had previously attended (or were expected to attend) Fremont High School. About half of the staff was from Fremont High School as well. Although for a while it looked as if we were going to be housed on Fremont’s campus, ultimately we opened in a former Red Cross building about a mile away. Because of this relocation, some people might not consider this a conversion, but Life continues to live on in the shadow of its parent. From its inception, Life faced the challenge of converting an existing student culture, existing adult culture, existing pedagogical approaches, existing instructional program, existing resources, existing belief systems about what students can and can’t accomplish, and existing abysmal student achievement data while overcoming the same existing obstacles inherent in the school district’s bureaucracy and East Oakland’s struggling, violence-plagued community.


Cultural Improvements at Life

Squeezed into what had previously been a custodian’s office off a dimly lit basement corridor, a circle of fifteen tenth graders, my advisory, sat together on their first day at our brand new school. The group was nervous and skeptical, waiting to see what this was all going to be about. Many of the students knew each other and some??”those who had spent a large portion of their Fremont freshman year getting into trouble??”knew me. As if the switch to a new high school weren’t traumatic enough, they were now trying to figure out what this advisory thing was and what their principal was doing teaching a class (and how did they end up with the principal as their advisor anyway?). After an hour or so of introductions and explanations, we walked four blocks to the closest park (and closest thing to a gym or auditorium that we had) for some teambuilding initiatives and a gathering of all of the students and the staff. Within the course of a few hours, the students knew that this school would be very different from what they were used to as they began to grasp the staff’s commitment to establish a strong and positive school culture. They saw that time would be devoted to building relationships, that there would be room for their voices and input, and that they would certainly no longer be anonymous.

Our parents and students took a significant risk by taking a chance on the new school. Many lived within a two-block radius of Fremont and their commitment to Life added a substantial commute to their educational experience. Many of our parents and students gave generously of their time and energy to open the school and make it successful. They attended conferences, workshops, retreats, and numerous meetings to plan everything from the student and parent agreements to designing and implementing a process to select the teaching staff. Students played a key role in convincing their peers to come with them and then worked hard to create a student government and a whole host of student activities. They organized town hall meetings, dances, fundraisers, sports teams, student clubs, the prom, and graduation. Individual advisories and entire grades sponsored and planned events, celebrations and service projects.

New and old staff alike took on many additional roles in shaping the school, creating structures, systems and protocols as well as trying to create a model for our instructional process and philosophy. Dramatic and immediate improvements in the school’s culture led to some early successes. For example, attendance was up and incidents of violence were down, students were happy enough in the school environment to stay for long hours after school, and parent participation in school events was high. The bathrooms were clean and shared by adults and youth alike, a significant improvement that mattered a lot to the students.


Transforming the Instructional Core

Academic gains have been slower in coming than many of the meaningful cultural and environmental developments at Life. While the graduation, attendance and college matriculation rates have surpassed those at Fremont, they are still not as high as they could and should be. It appears that the graduation rate for this year’s seniors who entered Life as tenth graders will be somewhere in the sixtieth percentile??”unacceptably low, though certainly better than the recently published district graduation rate of thirty percent.

The staff was not in concert about what it would take for all of our students to achieve academic success and we spent much less time than would be optimal discussing and developing consensus around important matters of teaching and learning. We had the opportunity to meet together as a staff for three and a half hours each week. During these meetings, we faced trade-offs and tensions between attending to structural issues??”for example, disciplinary procedures, the structure of faculty meetings, etc.??”and working on instructional practices.

I held the view, as one case in point, that if we focused on working together on high level, engaging instruction, many classroom management issues would be allayed. For this reason and others, an instructional focus was an extremely high priority for me. A majority of faculty members, however, felt that their instructional work required the support of a detailed school-wide discipline plan listing potential misbehaviors and consequences. To honor this need, we spent five consecutive weeks crafting and coming to agreement on a disciplinary system. In the end, the disciplinary system certainly proved useful, but our focus on that meant that for five straight weeks we did not have any all-staff conversations about the “instructional core.”

Thus, while we received structural support from BayCES and instructional support from Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, we spent very little of the first year focused on instructional practice and curriculum planning. The many needs of redesigning and creating a school always felt most urgent; as a result, student learning and achievement were neglected. Increasingly, we learned to focus more on classroom practice, prioritizing professional development, instituting peer observations and teacher portfolios, and beginning to look at student achievement data to inform our practice.

However, the instructional core remained and continues to remain somewhat elusive. Improving teacher practice above all else never emerged as the clear priority for the school and the staff was never able to coalesce around high achievement goals for all students. Tellingly, we were unable to add a proposed amendment to our staff agreements about taking responsibility, as adults, for the success and failure of our students. The staff was also not on the same page about whether or not our job was to prepare every student for college. Some teachers felt that many of our students were not “college material.” To me, it’s the profoundest of equity issues if adults make decisions about young people’s potential and future for them. Because of this, along with my shortcomings as an instructional leader, the veteran staff from Fremont teach much the way that they have always taught. Entrenched pedagogical approaches, cultivated over many years in a large, traditional, low-achieving high school, are hard to change. The big school still lives in the small school.

The Fremont Federation Schools 2003-2004

  • College Preparatory and Architecture Academy
  • Fremont in Transition High School
  • Mandela High School
  • Media College Preparatory School
  • Paul Robeson College Preparatory School of Visual and Performing Arts
  • Youth Empowerment School (YES)

Teachers who came in fresh to Life Academy, unburdened by the Fremont legacy to the same degree, were quicker to adopt innovative instructional practices. As the school leader, I struggled to find ways to unify the staff around a progressive vision of teaching and learning. I believe that indicators of academic achievement and student performance are still demonstrating low results because of this lack of cohesion and inconsistent beliefs about whether all students should be expected to go to college. Although I’m not a proponent of relying solely on test scores to determine progress, it is significant that the school continues to rank a one out of ten on the state’s Academic Performance Index.


The Full Conversion of Fremont High School

When Life Academy was being birthed, there was tremendous anxiety that the new school would take the best students and staff. Although in 2000 less than half of the students who began at Fremont four years earlier actually graduated, and the school was consistently on the state’s under-performing schools list, faculty members would frequently talk about the “haves” and the “have-nots” and fight amongst themselves??”as if there were any real “haves” at all in the school. Distrust abounded. And as with other large, struggling high schools across the country, years of working in an environment that was constantly failing its students led to a culture of pervasive low expectations.

Once Life Academy established itself as an autonomous school, Fremont High School began the process of converting from the academy model to a campus of new, small, autonomous, interconnected schools. In Life’s first year, 2001-2, a couple of the Fremont academies worked with BayCES and the school district to develop plans for their schools and create pilots for the 2002-3 school year. Board approval was granted for a Fall 2003 opening with campus-wide small schools. What is left of the former Fremont High School is a small group of 11th and 12th graders in a small learning community called “Fremont in Transition” which will cease to exist once the current students graduate. Of the original academies, the Media Academy, Architecture Academy and Arts Academy have all transitioned into new small schools. A fourth school, Youth Empowerment School (YES), started with only ninth graders, and a fifth school, Mandela, will grow from the ninth and tenth graders it currently serves.


Fewer Variables, More Constants

The new schools at Fremont have had even fewer of the conditions that I believe are necessary for success than Life Academy had. As if the challenge of opening small schools weren’t enough, they did so in the immediate aftermath of a state-takeover of the Oakland schools and an exorbitant district-wide debt in a state that seriously underfunds its schools. Under those constraints, they are also struggling with transforming and recreating schools with a group of constants. Life Academy had a new location and a partial infusion of new staff; at the Fremont schools, almost all of the adults in the building have remained the same, as has the physical location. And similar to Life, the new schools at Fremont (known now as the Fremont Federation) have the same students, community, neighborhood, financial and district resources, and obstacles.

Having kept most of the core elements that make up the school community constant, it has been that much harder to transform instructional practices, school culture, adult belief systems, and even elements of school design. For example, at Life Academy, we immediately created advisories, a three-week intensive course between semesters called “Intersession,” town hall meetings, and numerous other alternative protocols and practices with the intention of proactively building a distinct and positive school culture. At the Fremont Federation schools, fewer of these kinds of structures have been put into place. Both the instructional practices remain largely consistent with what occurred at Fremont before and the more general culture remains largely unchanged. As a result, the schools’ staff members still struggle with discipline issues and violence on their campus, and in some cases they’ve defaulted to the roles and responses that were in place before the new schools started. Poor student attendance, strained school-family relationships, long-term teaching vacancies, and of course, low student achievement continue to plague many of the schools.

Venus Mesui, a parent leader both at Life??”her son graduated last year??”and at the Media School, where her daughter is a junior, says, “For us [at Life] it was easier because we left the campus and we had expectations for students and for staff. A lot of the teachers [at the Fremont Federation schools] don’t know what the expectations are…and a lot of the expectations aren’t high enough.” For Venus, the variable of Life’s move to a new building was an invaluable boon, and she recognizes the urgency of creating schools that set consistent, clear and high expectations for students.

Just like at Life, educators at the Fremont small schools are working hard, late, and wearing multiple hats. The school leaders are learning the nuts and bolts of the principalship while managing their fledgling schools with scant resources and without the time they need to do all of the work that starting and running a school requires. They convene regularly to hash out details of their “interconnectedness.” The majority of the principals were former administrators, department heads and academy leaders at Fremont, and much of the old climate of distrust remains. It’s hard to turn that climate into one of mutual support and innovative collaboration, and as one might expect, much time and energy continues to be spent on politics and logistics. Adequate support in terms of time, resources, professional development, and assistance for the school leaders to create and refine innovative visions for their schools is lacking.

The final constant is in the nature of the assistance and professional development that the schools receive: there is, nationally, a limited amount of experience about how to do this work. While dedicated professionals from both the school district and BayCES are working hard to help the schools get off the ground, it’s in the nature of the newness of this work that few of them have experience with successful small schools. Together as a profession, we must work fast to collect our growing expertise to create a significant “knowledge base” about school conversions.


Examples of Positive Changes at Fremont

At the Youth Empowerment School (known as YES), principal Maureen Benson has implemented many innovative structures and worked hard to create a positive culture and sense of community. Attendance is up and disciplinary incidents are lower than the district average. Parents are very involved in the daily life of the school; more than thirty signed up to be on the hiring committee for next year. While the cultural changes are taking hold, shifts toward academic excellence aren’t happening as quickly, and some students complain that the school is too easy and their teachers’ expectations of them are too low. Hopes are high though that as the school grows, doubling the number of students and staff and moving to another campus, they will be better able to implement their vision of community-based, project-based learning and see gains in student achievement.

As for changing the pedagogy in the new schools, Ben Schmookler, principal of the Media College Preparatory School, puts it, “In my experience, it’s been more difficult to get experienced teachers to teach new pedagogies, while new teachers, because of their lack of experience, are reaching out to get new ideas and support for their classroom practices.” Although Life struggled with issues related to hiring a large number of inexperienced teachers, the autonomy to hire staff from outside the building is critical. When teachers have learned their craft in environments of entrenched low student achievement, it is quite challenging to support them in transforming their expectations of students??”and their practice. BayCES’s Director for Oakland’s High School Redesign Initiative, LaShawn Rout?©-Chatmon, explains, “The biggest obstacle to this high school conversion work is not technical??”it’s human.”

Everyone involved with the Fremont Federation is working tremendously hard to accomplish an incredibly difficult task under particularly stressful conditions. The school leaders in particular have not been given the resources and support that they desperately need and nonetheless, they have still been able to make some progress. To open the schools at all has been a significant accomplishment and everyone who has worked hard to make this happen deserves tremendous credit. As first-year schools operating within set parameters and without opportunities to change most of the variables that can influence their success, they are probably farther along than one could expect. It also helps to remember that this is a developmental process and it takes time to build these schools; their success should not be judged until they have had a few years to establish themselves.


Lessons Learned

Much about the experiences of Life Academy and the rest of the Fremont schools is tremendously instructive for people interested in converting large schools into small ones. Allowing these schools time to mature and develop and closely watching their evolution will be informative, and may, in the end, change opinions (including my own) as to how best to take on this difficult and important work. By converting a large school to smaller schools they have created conditions in which it is at least possible to start changing culture and improving the academic core.

Opening Life Academy and, from that vantage point, observing the birth of the five Fremont Federation schools has demonstrated to me that the key elements of successful conversions include the ability to completely transform some of the components of the new schools (at least a couple of variables in the equation) and the vision and experience brought by people with outside, small school experience and a different paradigm for rethinking schools. The adults in the school need to be unified around a clear vision of instruction and most importantly, a common belief about their students’ abilities to learn and achieve at high levels.

Life Academy had just enough of these elements to make for an easier journey while the Fremont Federation schools can still gain what they need in these areas. All of the schools still have a long way to go before they have transformed the educational experience of their students and institutionally believe in and support all of their students in fulfilling their tremendous, and largely still untapped, potential.

In the end, I believe that in order to transform schools and create equitable and transformative results for students, schools must change as many of their components, or variables, as possible. Small schools that operate under the same conditions and with the same practices as large schools will have largely the same results. It is my view that to change these conditions and practices, large school break-downs should be organized to emulate free-standing new school start-ups to whatever extent possible. Most importantly, in spite of all of the overwhelming pressures of details, logistics, crises, and the endless pressures inherent in the life of a school, we must find ways to remind each other to keep our focus on the teaching and learning. This, in the end, is the only way to make a difference and transform the educational outcomes for our children.

Related Resources

Available online from the Albert Shanker Institute, Richard F. Elmore’s “Building a New Structure for School Leadership” delves into his theories of how leadership can shelter a school’s instructional core from meaningful change and how schools can change leadership practices to improve teaching and learning. Full text available at

“Working for Equity through Community Collaboration,” Horace 18.4, looks at Oaklands’s new small autonomous effort and the productive relationship of three involved organizations: the Bay Area Coaliton of Equitable Schools, Oakland Community Organizations, and the Oakland Unified School District.

Based on interviews with staff at BayCES and others who have been pioneers in this work, staff at CES National are currently compiling a volume of what we know so far about school conversions. Look for this resource from CES National in the coming months.

Laura Flaxman joined CES in 2003 as Co-Director of the mentor and new schools project. Laura came to Oakland four years ago to start Life Academy, a new small autonomous public high school, where she served as principal. Prior to a year at Harvard and an internship at the Boston Arts Academy, Laura worked for Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound in New York City helping to create and support several new middle schools and a couple of existing high schools. Laura taught English, art and social studies at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, a residential treatment center in Manhattan, and South Bronx High School where she coordinated a program with the New York City Outward Bound Center.