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Racial Politics and the Unfulfilled Promise of Black Power in Oakland - Pedro Noguera

My Cal City Planning Grad School Classmate Ricardo Noguera's brother Pedro Noguera wrote this article in 2002, but it's worth reviewing.

With academic failure so persistent and widespread one might wonder why a community with a reputation and history for political activism would not have acted long ago to radically reform its schools. Oakland was after all the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, an organization that took on another public institution that was perceived as failing to serve community needs, namely the police department, which it accused of engaging in rampant harassment and brutality. Oakland’s history of Black leadership and political activism goes back to the 1930s when it served as the national headquarters of the powerful Sleeping Car Porters Union (Franklin and Moss 1988). In the 1920s Oakland had one of the most active chapters of UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association - the largest Black political organization in US history headed by Marcus Garvey) on the west coast (Martin). In the 1970s, Oakland voters transformed the city from a company town dominated by Kaiser Aluminum and controlled by white Republicans, into a city where all of the major public officials (Mayor, City Manager, Superintendent of Schools, Police Chief, State Assemblyman and Congressman) were African American (Bush 1984).

However, political activism and racial succession in politics have not made it possible for those served by the Oakland public schools to exert influence and control over them. Unlike unions and political organizations that have typically been comprised of individuals from middle and stable working class backgrounds, since the advent of school desegregation, public schools in Oakland have catered primarily to children from lower class families. Poor people in Oakland have not had the power or resources to effectively exercise influence over their public schools. Middle class residents have been less likely to take on this challenge because their children are less likely to be enrolled in failing schools with poor children or in the district at all. Poor parents and community activists have organized at various times to call for reform and improvement in the City’s schools. For the most part, such efforts have not resulted in significant or sustained improvements. Moreover, the fact that Black middle class administrators have held important positions throughout the district for over thirty years has done little to bring about greater accountability and responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of those who rely upon the public schools.

For the last ten years attempts there have been renewed attempts to mobilize grassroots pressure for school improvement. The Oakland Citizens Organizations (OCO), a broad multi-racial, faith-based coalition, has mounted considerable pressure upon the district for meaningful improvement and reform. At large public gatherings it has organized, OCO has pressured public officials to pledge their support for changes in the operation and management of the schools. Yet, while their efforts have led to the adoption of significant policy changes such as site-based decision making and an initiative to create several new, smaller schools (Thompson 2001), general academic improvement remains unattained.

The election of Jerry Brown as Mayor of Oakland in 1999 has also brought increased pressure and attention on the schools. Brown raised the need to reform of Oakland’s public schools prominently in his mayoral campaign and he pledged to use his office to bring about a complete overhaul of the school district. Brown’s efforts to improve Oakland’s schools have consisted primarily of attempts to obtain greater control over the leadership of the District. He has attempted to do this by getting the School Board to appoint his ally, George Musgrove, as Interim Superintendent. He was also successful in getting voters to amend the City Charter so that he could appoint three members to the Board. However, after a year in office, Musgrove was not selected to serve as the permanent superintendent by the Board. By all accounts, the Mayor’s relationship with the new superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, has not been good, and thus far, the only concrete change that can be attributed to the Mayor’s influence is the opening of a new military academy charter school (Brown 2001). (13)

Part of the problem with the approach that has been taken by OCO , Mayor Jerry Brown and the State of California, is that more than just pressure is needed for Oakland’s schools to improve. While a great deal needs to be done to increase the administrative efficiency of the district and to generally improve the quality of teaching, the simple fact is that the schools cannot serve the needs of Oakland’s poorest children without greater support. Other public agencies must provide additional resources and services to address the health, welfare and safety needs of students so that the schools can concentrate their attention on serving their educational needs.

Dennis Chaconas, the new superintendent of Oakland’s public schools, has made concerted efforts over the last two years to address the problems plaguing the school district. He has shaken up the central administration by replacing several long-term managers with younger professionals recruited from outside the district. He has also applied greater pressure on the principals of low performing schools and removed several principals from schools where there was little evidence of progress in raising achievement. It is undoubtedly too early to know whether the Superintendent’s efforts will produce meaningful improvements in Oakland’s schools. However, past experience suggests that placing greater demands upon the District Administration, the School Board, or the schools themselves is unlikely to lead change. Unless increased pressure is accompanied by systemic changes in the way schools respond to the needs of students and parents, and genuine assistance is provided to the schools serving the neediest children, it is unlikely that lasting, significant change will be made.
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