Lessons from the Ground

By Ron Snyder

Photo courtesy of Oakland Community Organizations

“Too Important to Fail” has poignantly identified the most disturbing aspects of the education crisis that are so personally experienced by young people of color and their families across the nation. The statistics are lived every day in the flatlands of Oakland, CA, where homicide, gun violence, incarceration, recidivism, unemployment, poverty, poor health and more, are all too real.

The series also lifted pilot programs like Harlem Children’s Zone, quality analyses like PolicyLink and federal education and health initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act, Pell Grants and Innovation Grants that help provide a road map and incentives to work in communities across the country. We believe that analysis and policy only become real and sustainable when local communities make them so.

Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), the founding affiliate of the PICO National Network, is a faith-based community organization that has been at work for the past 15 years to improve education for those most at risk of being failed by our education and related systems. Oakland Unified School District’s new superintendent, Tony Smith, has named the progress of African American male students as the true benchmark for success in Oakland. This blog entry lifts some learning from the ground about the role an organized community can play in achieving this goal.

Rooted in the unshakable love that parents and communities have for their children, it was 1996 when the OCO embarked on school reform work involving thousands of people who demanded an end to overcrowding in OUSD through construction of new facilities and an end to failure for students of color by supporting charter school formation and adoption of the new small autonomous schools policy. The impact of organizing is partly told in several studies. In 1999, only five Oakland schools had API scores (the statewide measure of school-wide achievement) above 800—the goal set for all K-12 schools. Today, 42 Oakland schools have API scores above 800. What is equally true is that the work is incomplete. The achievement gap is not being closed rapidly enough. The drop-out rate at comprehensive high schools is nearly 50%. Schools still strive to improve in poor, violent neighborhoods.

Grounded in research-based approaches, OCO consistently applied a theory of change over 16 years. Using the power of community organizing, we kept demanding adequate and equitable funding (more money with a weighted student formula), the conditions for success (school site autonomy over staff, budget, calendar and program), quality leadership and effective teaching (data-driven accountability) and economically and socially stable neighborhoods, so schools can grow to excellence. Our commitment to write the next chapter is based on lessons learned.

Lesson one: Power Matters. Systemic change is a political process and the interests of communities of color and their allies will not be heard if they are not organized at every level (neighborhood, city, county, state, national). OCO has been the community political force in Oakland that has kept us on a trajectory of improvement, despite seven superintendent changes and a state takeover. Through PICO, OCO was part of the grassroots organizing efforts that won Prop 30 (4% of the winning margin came from the PICO federations throughout the state), stopped the bleeding and now gives us hope for a future where investment in our most vulnerable is in the interest of us all. Perhaps “organizing” people of color in the context of the 2012 election was a portent for reclaiming our future.

Photo courtesy of Oakland Community Organizations

Lesson two: Relationships Matter. The old adage, “It takes a village” holds true. The success of OCO’s small school movement is grounded in the experience that, when every child is known by name and surrounded by a community of caring adults, none will fail. Attending to relationships must always be the first and continuous step to sustainable change. Only then is collective community (administrators, teachers, staff, parents and allies) ownership of our institutions and the students inside them possible. Schools must be “our” schools. Ownership and power that are usually taken for granted by parents and communities of privilege must be developed in communities of color to achieve similar outcomes. Ownership is a foundation for accountability—that of our own and that of the systems.

Lesson three: Flexibility Matters. Every parent knows his or her child is unique.  Every community is different from every other. Accountability for high standards, connected with the ability for local community to make decisions, is a key ingredient to success. One size does not fit all. Owning and making decisions about money, hiring culturally competent staff, utilizing culturally appropriate curriculum, providing student supports, and connecting it to clear expectations for students at school sites increases ownership and accountability.

Lesson four: Environment Matters. Poverty and violence cannot be excuses for systems, their employees or our communities for failing our children. It is equally true that all of these conditions impact institutions, individuals and communities. But schools are not islands. Education reform is not an isolated issue. So while demanding continued improvement of schools, OCO congregations and schools are also engaging city, county, the private sector and, through PICO, state and federal decision-makers in strategies to reduce violence, increase employment, improve access to health care and provide youth and families with other vital services. The lessons that apply to education reform also apply to all other systems that intersect and impact schools.

Honesty and humility require us to state, without equivocation, that for all the success we claim, we continue to fail too many students of color—especially African American boys. The achievement gap is not being closed rapidly enough. The expulsion and drop-out rate at comprehensive high schools is excessive. OCO advocated for the hiring of OUSD’s new superintendent, Tony Smith. OCO agrees that the progress of African American male students is the true benchmark for success in Oakland. OUSD has adopted a strategic plan, “Thriving Students,” framed around the idea of full-service community schools, which incorporates many of the values, policies and practices from OCO’s reform work. OCO has committed itself to take the lessons learned and apply them in a spirit of mutual partnership and accountability to assure that all students graduate ready for college, career and citizenship.


Ron Snyder is the former executive director of Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a federation of congregations, schools and allied community organizations. He is an advocate for faith-based and/or parent voices.


Last modified: March 28, 2013 at 11:38 pm
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