Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
To our Supporters: Classroom Struggle has been very busy since the new year challenging and fighting the billionaire privatization agenda of Superintendent Antwan Wilson and the servile school board. We want to bring you all the actions and events we have organized and took part in thus far in 2016. To start, below is an account of a recent “community engagement meeting” around the decision to remove the leadership team at Westlake Middle School. Its a bit long but highlights a perfect example of how the district goes about “engaging” the community and the glaring lack of democracy in OUSD.
On Wednesday night March 16th, 2016, a community engagement meeting was held in the Westlake Middle School library. In attendance were well over fifty parents, students, teachers and staff. The meeting was called by OUSD central administration to address the concerns of the Westlake community — all visibly and vocally upset about the decision to displace the principal and assistant principal of the school. The district was represented by Ron Smith, Charles Wilson, Alan Smith, Mark Triplett etc. These men were assigned to engage and pacify the outrage they knew Superintendent Wilson’s undemocratic decision would create. Also present was Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, the school board director who “represents” Westlake families.
The principal, Mr. K, has been involved in leadership of Westlake for well over a decade, which is almost unheard of in a middle school. Unfortunately, the district started the meeting with non-engagement. Citing labor laws, both Ron Smith and Charles Wilson refused to answer the one question on the minds of everyone concerned about the direction of their middle school. That is, why are the principal and assistant principal being displaced? The question was repeatedly asked in many different forms, and all were met with stonewalling by the district officials. Even when a current Westlake teacher identified everything the principal was told and shared to the staff around the decision, their answer was still the same. “We will not talk about personnel decisions.”
Eventually, after rudely interrupting a Westlake teacher and then refusing to identify himself (and when a parent politely asked him to do so he instead rudely replied, “You Know Who I Am”), Alan Smith – OUSD chief of schools, hinted that the decision was made based on the school not meeting the needs of the African American students. The Westlake community was not fooled, and it should be said that many African American students and parents in attendance were just as upset with some shedding tears over this decision. One parent asked the obvious question, “If the district is worried about the African American students, how could displacing the leadership with over a decade at the school possibly help them?” Another parent asked, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to work with the current leadership and staff to address these shortcomings? There was a black mother of a special needs student who told the everyone that Mr. K personally sat down with her and developed a program for her daughter so that her behavior challenges wouldn’t interfere with her learning and the learning of other students. Her question of, “now what will happen to my daughter now that he is no longer principal? Ron Smith did his best to assure her that the new leadership would treat her with the same respect. Yet.
The problem with this reassurance is that he and every other district official is disconnected from the day-to-day operations of Westlake Middle School. Thus, every time they reassured the parents over concerns they did so without guarantees. And this gets at one of the main problems with how Antwan Wilson and his minions are running/ruining the district. They are disconnected from the sites yet feel they can make top-down decisions without first engaging. Then, when these decisions are met outrage, hostility, derision, etc etc. Wilson can send out said minions in the attempt to appease and pacify the reactions created by these decisions. This engagement meeting exposed the undemocratic nature of Wilson and Co. By the end of the meeting the district officials looked deflated, depressed and defeated. They were staring at the ground and for the most part just had to nod their heads every time a student or parent or teacher made a strong point on how and why this is a bad decision for the Westlake Community. Alan Smith, after originally creating a rude and caustic atmosphere, was seen frequently nodding his head in agreement with the points being made. If this were a debate, it would go down in history as one of most lopsided victories ever. The Westlake Community completely delegitimized every district official in the room. To make matters worse, Jumoke Hinton-Hodge at one point stood up and tried to save the meeting for the district, but after talking for several minutes but saying nothing of substance, ended her point by saying, “I’m not that smart and I’m not an expert, these are the experts,” referring to the district officials who were just thoroughly discredited the entire meeting.
She had the audacity to label these men experts in a room full of parents and teachers who had just proved without a doubt they’re not experts; and who will decide whether or not to reelect her to the school board in November. The truth is, Ms. Hinton-Hodge has no business being on the school board. She has consistently supported the pro-corporate privatization agenda of the current Superintendent Antwan Wilson and the former in Tony Smith. She took ten of thousands of dollars from Great Oakland “Public” Schools for her last school board election victory, and is now a fellow of 50Can, which is another astroturf non-profit (much like Go Public Schools) claiming as its mission to help every student achieve, but in reality doing nothing more than pushing reform efforts of the 1%. Much like Antwan Wilson and the minions he sends around Oakland to “engage” with the community, Jumoke Hinton-Hodge is a tool of the privatizers. Unfortunately, she is not the only school board director that sheepishly goes along with all of Antwan Wilson’s policies. The entire board, with the exception of Shanti Gonzales, has shown they are either supportive of his policies or too scared to even question him much less vote against him. Not to mention, all of them (including Gonzales) vote in favor of every charter school application and renewal.
I attended this meeting as both a teacher in the district and resident of the neighborhood. I left the meeting feeling demoralized because of the shameful behavior from my employer. With the most shameful behavior coming from “The Chief of Schools” Alan Smith responding to a Westlake parent, “you know who I am”. And the second most shameful behavior coming from Charles Wilson — when attempting to dance around all questions and concerns, for some reason decided to point out he was once principal at an elementary school in East Oakland that had the lowest test scores in the city. Which prompted a Westlake supporter to wisely ask, “were you removed?” he embarrassingly replied “No”, and more importantly was made to look foolish and inept by admitting to a room full of parents and students and teachers and staff concerned about the direction of their neighborhood middle school — which did not have the lowest test scores in Oakland.
Again, this is Antwan Wilson’s style of community engagement. He makes a top-down decision without first engaging with the community. He then sends his top-level bureaucrats to engage with the community, and in the case of Westlake Middle School, the only engagement they were given was around the choice for leadership moving forward. The truth is everyone in that room knew why the Principal and Asst. Principal were removed. They backed the teachers/staff that refused to allow the notoriously corrupt American Indian Charter School to co-locate at their site. Wilson has shown time and again that he will not put up with anyone challenging his decisions. He can’t just fire an entire teaching staff, thus he lashed out against the leaders of the school who have less due process rights. What his vindictive actions also did was to put all site leaders on notice that any support they show for teachers pushing back against his billionaire-backed agenda will be met with retribution. Westlake teachers were right to push back against sharing a campus with a corrupt charter, Fremont students were right to push back against Wilson’s call for quality schools. Yet these examples are not enough. The diverse community of Oakland must challenge his corporate and privatization agenda backed by billionaires like Eli Broad. If he is allowed to continue with his agenda — public education in Oakland will be turned over to unaccountable anti-union charters and privatization efforts will win out. In four years (2011-2015), charter enrollment in Oakland has increased from 22% to 37%, if this continues charter enrollment will be over 50% by 2020. Wilson is a careerist and if his undemocratic policies are challenged he will look to move on to protect his career goals. The school board, which is little more than a rubber stamp for whatever he wants to do, must also be completely overhauled. It starts this year with four seats up for re-election. Lets defend and transform public education in Oakland.