Small Is Not Enough: Daily Connections Among Children and Adults in Oakland

Oakland’s new scaled-down schools allow the people who work and learn in them to focus on creating environments where it’s likely that strong relationships among adults and children will develop and rigorous academic standards will flourish. While the Oakland Unified School District, the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools and Oakland Community Organizations identify and break through barriers to bringing small, strong schools and high standards to all of Oakland’s schoolchildren, adults in the cohort of existing new small schools are aware that even within their own schools, smallness doesn’t guarantee equity. Larissa Adam, fourth and fifth grade teacher at ascend worries, “Small schools are wonderful, but just being small is not going to make for better education for our kids. We’ve got the keep the focus on equity and working with the families as our number one goals.” To keep that focus, Oakland’s new small autonomous schools are building cultures that not only welcome but also depend on connections to family and community.

ascend’s principal Hae-Sin Kim observes, “The biggest mistake that schools make is believing that they can do it all. What they end up doing is burning out their teachers. Here, it’s been an amazing year for me in terms of the power of family partnerships. We have some powerful parent leaders who go the mile for someone else and their kids, and that kind of culture has enabled teachers to really focus on teaching.” Born of collaboration between parent Emma Paulino and teacher Larissa Adam, ascend uses its autonomy to allocate staffing funds to support the position of a Family Coordinator and two front-office Community Relations Assistants, Fahm Selee and Norma Elias. Fahm Selee speaks Mien, the language of the Fruitvale neighborhood’s Laotian community and Norma Elias, a grandmother of an ascend student, speaks Spanish. Both are the communications link between families that don’t speak English at home and ascend staff.

Linda Sierra, ascend Kindergarten teacher, says, “Second language parents are often made to feel second-class or shunted aside. It is hard for a parent who has a brain but no English. Here, they see that when they say something, it matters and that gives them more courage.” Kim agrees, noting, “If parents are treated in an unfriendly way the first time they come in here, they’re not going to come back. Someone is always here to translate. Through Fahm and Norma, I learn about all kinds of family issues and things going on. A lot of families will go to them knowing that they’ll come to me to help solve problems like unemployment, marital problems, issues involving kids that aren’t even here but are in other schools.” With information about what families are going through, Kim works with ascend’s Family Coordinator (who, in the coming school year, will be founding parent Emma Paulino) or other parents active in the community. They connect families with social services, assist with translation, and find ways to support the family and their child’s academic success.

At Urban Promise Academy middle school, family members are a steady campus presence and their work allows upa teachers to focus on their students’ learning. “We have parents, and a grandparent, too, who come in the mornings and work as safety guards,” says teacher Amy Goldberg. “They help supervise during lunch, too. During a Saturday appreciation lunch and training for parents who work on campus, we created a display, a whole wall, of things that teachers were able to do when parents were here-phone messages returned to other parents, papers graded, artifacts that captured us working with kids because of the support of parents.”

Venus Mesui, parent at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a new, small 9-12 grade school, was always involved in her three children’s education. This year, Life’s receptiveness to consistent roles for parents in the school has allowed her to expand her commitment. “Sometimes I help in the office, but most of the time I work with the kids,” Mesui describes. “We’re having a dance on Friday night. I worked with the kids to plan menus and get food donations. Also, I have a lot of contact with police officers; I handle that for Life and work with the kids and the Oakland problem-solving officer to get recommendations about what can make this school better. The kids were the force behind this. Students here are the force behind a lot of things that happen, and I help them.”

Life Academy requires its students to participate in its Beyond Our Walls program, which provides opportunities for students to connect with Oakland community organizations and individuals to work and learn beyond the classroom. In its parental support network and Beyond Our Walls ties, Life students have increased opportunity to form relationships with caring adults. Matt Spengler, founding principal of Met West, a high school scheduled to open in fall 2002, plans to incorporate a similar network of family and community supports and says of the planning process, “It’s remarkable how many people are eager to help and contribute. Our parents are fierce supporters and really believe in the values of making schools small, making education relevant and building caring networks of adults around kids.”

Anneda Rowe-Sanford, upa’s front office manager, recalls her previous position in a desperately overcrowded middle school. “There’s something that you can tell when a child is hurting. And if I can see it as a secretary, what’s going on with the administrators? It’s because they have so much, 2,000 children, all of these meetings-this little guy has fallen through the cracks. Can he read? Probably not. Can he do math? He’s just going through his day hoping no one notices him.” With Miss Anneda, as she’s called by parents, staff and students, in touch with everyone’s comings and goings, upa is filled with teachers, parents, local artists and other community partner participants. No kids are missed; there aren’t any cracks. upa sixth grader Cameron Johnson says, “The teachers, they are really nice and they treat us like we’re a big whole family. You can come to the teachers with anything and get feedback. Everyone knows each other and comes to each other with stuff. Parents, students and teachers are all involved, they’re available to you after school.” Sixth grader Anna Hartwell agrees. “You get more one-on-one interaction with teachers. You get to learn more.”