Small Autonomous Schools as a District Policy: The Oakland Plan

About three years ago, several parents met in an Oak-land, California church to share their concerns about their children in one of that city’s overcrowded, year-round multi-track elementary schools. Aided by Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a faith-based, nonprofit community organizing group, their concerns and actions spread to other members of their parish. OCO widened the discussion to include many other schools in Oakland’s low-income communities, and began to organize politically to move the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the City of Oakland to end overcrowding and find sites for new schools.

BayCES, the Coalition’s regional Center in the San Francisco Bay Area, recognized the opportunity to create new schools in a way that reflected the knowledge gained through a decade of its school restructuring work. The three-way partnership that emerged between OUSD, OCO, and BayCES resulted in a new policy committing the Oakland district to opening ten new small, autonomous schools within three years. A request for proposals went out in late 2000, targeting neighborhoods with overcrowded or year-round, multi-track schools and giving high marks to school design teams with active parental and community-group participation and support. Four design teams that applied will open their new schools in fall 2001, chosen by a review team that included members of OCO, OUSD, the Oakland teachers union, and BayCES.

“We feel fortunate that the community was actually out ahead of us in supporting and demanding small schools, because that meant our expertise and experience could really help them achieve their goals,” said BayCES research director Herb Childress. “We’re working now to help OCO broaden their organizing around the high schools. Given the community demand for change, the district now wants to break its six large, underperforming high schools into many smaller learning communities.”

Some core areas of Oakland’s New Small Autono-mous (NSA) policy include:

Diversity and Consistency

Each NSA school must create its own vision and philosophy. Some may emphasize traditional approaches to education, while others are more progressive, emphasizing community issues such as multiculturalism and social justice. Elementary schools may add preschool programs to provide early school experiences for children.

All schools will be small, ranging from 100—400 students at the elementary level to 250—400 at the high school level.

All will have lean, academically oriented programs with high expectations for students, a broadly shared vision, consistent teaching and parent connections and involvement.

Each NSA school will offer an intimate, caring and safe learning environment where every student and family is known well.

Each school will help students achieve to high standards and guarantee achievement of higher-order literacy in language and mathematics.


Each NSA school will be a school of choice for students, parents and teachers. Choices will be based on interest in the unique program and philosophy of each school.

Each NSA school will create and schedule extensive parent, community, and student outreach and orientation sessions during a spring enrollment period to ensure that all community members are aware of their options and able to choose the best school for their child.

Children will be able to enter schools when 1) a parent, advocate, or organization sponsors the student, or 2) a public agency, counselor, or community organization refers the student, or 3) they demonstrate their own commitment to the program.

Each NSA school will be responsible for selecting its own teachers. To work at an NSA school, a teacher must 1) be appropriately credentialed, 2) choose to work there,

3) demonstrate alignment with the school’s philosophy, theme and approach to teaching and learning, 4) be offered a position by the leadership structure of the school.

All NSA school staff members must be committed to the philosophy of NSA schools and meet the required qualifications as set forth in the district position descriptions.


No school can refuse any student who wishes to attend and whose parents or primary caregiver can show that they know and understand the unique aspects, tradeoffs and responsibilities of attending that school, except in cases where the demand for admission exceeds the number of spaces available. In such cases, schools will use an equitable selection process, such as a lottery.