Kathy Cash has promised her 7-year-old daughter that—from kindergarten through college—she'll fight to keep her in the best schools. So Cash went into panic mode when she realized that Sophia's public elementary school was threatened with closure. In the spring of 2011, 16 out of 17 teachers at Learning Without Limits, a college prep school in Oakland's heavily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, received layoff notices. Most LWL teachers are young and new to teaching, and have zero job security when budget cuts hit California's seniority-based system.
Cash, a stay-at-home mom, started convening weekly parent meetings soon after Sophia entered kindergarten in the fall of 2011. Eventually, advocacy from Cash and other concerned parents helped push the Oakland Unified School District to reach a compromise: Learning Without Limits would become a partner charter school, maintaining its ties to the district but gaining more autonomy over staffing. "You don't just get to make a decision on my child's future without my consent," Cash says of the school district.
Oakland's low-performing urban schools have been whipsawed by a steady stream of crises and education-reform efforts for more than a decade. "The general theme for me is how much change has been done, how hard they've worked, and how little there is to show for it," says California State Board of Education President Michael Kirst of Oakland schools. There are high-performing public schools in Oakland, innovative programs, and committed teachers. But absolute outcomes remain abysmal. Only 32 percent of African-American and 28 percent of Latino third-graders read at grade level. Less than half of high school students pass courses they need to apply to a state university.
Now there's a sense that the district may be shifting toward a more collaborative, potentially more effective approach to improving education. It's a change that has been fueled by parent leaders like Cash, a new school board, and a politically active community organization called Great Oakland Public Schools, popularly known as GO.