School administrators take a tour of West Oakland
There’s a lot to buy at the start of the school year: "back to school" clothes, composition notebooks, backpacks, number-two pencils. It can be a headache if you are a parent who’s short on cash, but at least you are not $122 million short.
That’s the case for the Oakland Unified School District. That budget cut means the district will be starting this school year with well over 600 fewer staff and limited adult and early education programs.
Even though the district will clearly be doing less for their students in some ways, it aims to do more in others. Superintendent Tony Smith launched an ambitious five-year plan to improve the quality of life of Oakland’s students. His goal is for staff and community groups to share in caring for the physical and mental well-being of students and their families.
To start, school administrators recently went on tours of Oakland neighborhoods to get up-close and personal with where their students live. KALW’s Maureen Nandini Mitra went along and brought back this report.
* * *
BUS DRIVER: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is James and I’m gonna be your driver during this tour. And I just wanted to make you familiar with me and with the bus.
MAUREEN NANDINI MITRA: I’m on a big, white, overly air-conditioned, tour bus. It’s packed with Oakland's top educators. We’re about to set off on a tour of West Oakland – one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s an eye-opening experience. For many on the bus, this is the first time they’ll be venturing out from behind their desks to head into neighborhoods where their students live.
MAN: Can you speak up please?
WOMAN: We can’t hear you in the back.
PAUL COBB: You can’t hear me in the back?
WOMAN: Thank you.
Our tour guide is Paul Cobb, veteran journalist and publisher of the Oakland-based Post Newspaper Group. Cobb grew up in West Oakland and is familiar with every street corner and its unique history.
COBB: This is Mount Zion Baptist Church. It is important to know the churches in the community if you are principal, assistant principal or teacher because the churches play a major role. There are 600 black churches in Oakland and there are probably 400 liquor stores. There's plenty of spirits (laughter)… in the community.
We come up on the corner of 16th and Wood streets. West Oakland first started to thrive after the transcontinental train station was set up here in the late 1800s.
COBB: This is the oldest part of West Oakland, where the black families and where Oakland started. In fact, water meter number one is down this street. So this is Oakland's genesis.
The massive brown station now stands in grand, fenced-off isolation. Behind it, traffic whizzes past on the elevated Nimitz Freeway. As cars made trains obsolete, so went the vibrancy of this neighborhood.
A little later, we slow down to take a look at one of the relics of West Oakland’s heyday – Esther’s Orbit Room.
COBB: This used to be the famous jazz and blues club of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. This is the famous Seventh Street.
The run-down two-story building is the lone survivor of Seventh Street’s illustrious musical past. Jazz and blues greats such as Jimmie Witherspoon, Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, and a host of other world famous blues artists performed in the clubs that once lined Seventh Street. Now the street is defined by boarded up buildings, empty lots and drug pushers loitering around corners.
On the last leg of the tour, we arrive at Dogtown, an industrial part of West Oakland. The bus stops so the group can get out and walk around.
TOM KWIATKOWSKI: This is the first time that they've gotten us out and actually into a neighborhood.
Assistant Principal Tom Kwiatowski has been with the school district for 20 years.
KWIATKOWSKI: In years past, it's been we've sat down, we've been talked at and… but this is nice to get out and see, see where the kids are coming from. See where they live, you know.
SELE NADEL-HAYES: Um, I'm really excited about today in general.
Sele Nadel-Hayes works with the school district and is a West Oakland native. She’s proud to walk her colleagues around the neighborhood she knows so well.
NADEL-HAYES: I hope that people leave with some understanding of what life is like for kids here, even if they don't see it outside the school walls on a regular basis.
Oakland’s history – its decades of struggle with high unemployment, drug activity and violent crime – make it easier to understand why its schools are among the most challenged in California. The graduation rate in Oakland is 67% and only 4 in 10 African American students make it through high school. At board meetings, it’s not unusual to have discussions about “why kids are killing each other.”
TONY SMITH: I mean, the patterns are unacceptable. We have power.
Superintendent Tony Smith speaks to the group after the tour in the McClymonds High School auditorium.
SMITH: We are going to be an organization that does things that have not been done.
Even though it seems like most administrators are pleased with Smith’s new approach, Principal Sam Pasarow says the tour could have taken them further inside their students’ everyday experience.
SAM PASAROW: I know what students at my school… I'm pretty clear on what kind of poverty they're facing. But I think when you step into their apartment living room and you see that the student is sleeping on the couch and you understand the squalor that so many of our kids and our families and our community members are living in. Only then does the impact really hit you over your head.
Students and teachers will both experience a kind of squalor as the school year gets underway next week. This year's budget cuts mean less money for crucial intervention programs, fewer faculty, and even fewer security guards in the school hallways. At least this year, school administrators will have a better understanding of where their students are coming from.
In West Oakland, I’m Maureen Nandini Mitra for Crosscurrents.