When Tony Smith became Oakland schools superintendent four years ago, he vaulted the struggling district into the national spotlight with his vision of creating a “community school district” that would vastly expand the role of schools in the lives of their students and the community as a whole.
Instead of just focusing on what goes on in the classroom, Smith argued, the schools should focus on serving the “whole child” by partnering with community organizations to offer a range of enrichment, health, social and other services for children and their families.
Now, Smith has stunned fellow educators by announcing that he will leave the district in June, raising questions about whether his community school initiative will be sustained after his departure.
Those concerns are not necessarily unfounded. The departure of an urban school superintendent, often after a relatively short tenure, can bring an abrupt end to one series of reforms and the introduction of another.
Smith himself says his departure is “bittersweet.”
“We’re right on the verge of some really important next level change,” said Smith, 46, who said his resignation was prompted by a need to move to Chicago to help care for his wife’s ailing parents.
So far, the district is in the “implementation stage” of the plan – the first cohort of 27 district schools have a dedicated community school coordinator working to develop a full service community school strategy at those campuses. At full roll-out, all of Oakland’s 87 schools, from the highest- to lowest-performing, are supposed to become full-service community schools.
Smith believes his departure will not derail the effort.
“This is really a movement,” he said. “It’s become about the community thinking that what we need is support and high-quality schools in every neighborhood. People are now expecting the district to behave this way, not just Tony Smith.”
In fact, several key players involved with the initiative say Smith’s departure is unlikely to halt the reform initiative, which they say has too much support and is too far along to stop now.
“If it only depended on a single person, then for sure it’s going to fade out,” said Gary Yee, who will serve as interim superintendent after Smith’s departure on June 30 while the district looks for a permanent replacement. Yee was a former teacher, principal, administrator in the nearby Peralta Community College District, and, most recently, an elected member of the district’s school board. “I’m proud to say the five-year plan was one the board worked on in partnership with Tony. We’re in the third year of the five-year plan, and I’m determined to see this through.”
When Smith came to Oakland in 2009 the district was fresh out of state receivership, and continued to struggle with entrenched problems, including low test scores and high concentrations of students living in violence-plagued neighborhoods. After meeting with community groups after his arrival, Smith initiated a plan to make every school in the district a full-service community school.
“Oakland was one of the most significant developments in the community school movement,” said Martin Blank, director of the Washington D.C.-based Coalition for Community Schools. “Not only did Tony Smith say he wanted to organize community schools, he said, ‘I want Oakland to be a full-service community school district.’
“That’s a big distinction,” Blank said. “It means he wants the district’s relationship with the community to be fundamental” to student success.
Only a few other districts in the nation, including those in Cincinnati, Evansville, Ind., and Tulsa, Okla., have committed to the full-service model across all their schools. Oakland is among the most prominent.
The community school concept, loosely modeled after the famed Harlem Children’s Zone begun by Geoffrey Canada, has gained considerable traction nationally and was not new even in Oakland, or to Smith. He enlisted business and community support to help boost schools in the tiny Emery school district in nearby Emeryville, where he was superintendent from 2004 to 2007. And several Oakland schools had already implemented or were working toward the model – often seen as key to transforming low-performing schools in high-poverty areas – before Smith’s arrival.
But the energetic superintendent focused and greatly expanded the effort in Oakland, created a critical mass of support and helped craft a five-year “Community Schools, Thriving Students” plan for the district.
Smith framed the issue as one of equity and necessity: The holistic approach would ensure that all students get the support and programs they need to graduate, while also making the larger community a partner sharing responsibility for the achievement of Oakland’s students. One key focus is around improving the academic achievement and opportunities for African-American boys in Oakland.
“In any high-poverty district, educating the child or the young person means much more than teaching them within the hours of the school day,” said Katherine Schultz, dean of the School of Education at Mills College and a member of the Oakland Education Cabinet, an advocacy group that strongly backed Smith’s community school plan. “Current research and experience suggest it is very important to have families and communities deeply engaged in schools for children to be truly educated.”
A community school called Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland’s Fruitvale District is one model of the type of school Smith envisions. Open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Life Academy offers core academic programs during the day and a host of after-school programs offering everything from recreation to academic enrichment. The extended day programs offer a range of services for students; juniors and seniors also participate in after-school internship programs in the health and sciences field. The 330-student campus opened in 2001 as a high school sharing a campus with another small school, United for Success Academy; Life Academy is expanding this year to include grades six through nine.
On a recent afternoon, the campus was bustling hours after classes ended at 3:30, with groups playing basketball on the playground, studying in small groups or receiving one-on-one tutoring, and others attending formal classes. In one room, a group of ninth and tenth graders led sixth graders in a class on recognizing the cycles of violence and promoting healthy relationships. Across campus, another group of students participated in a program called “Futbolistas 4 Life,” which uses soccer as a way to engage students in solving social problems, while yet another group attended a session on visual art.
The school holds a weekly breakfast for parents as well as classes and seminars for families, which could vary from offerings on parenting to applying for financial aid for college.
The after-school programs are run through a partnership with Alternatives in Action, an Alameda-based community organization that offers similar programming at McClymonds High School in Oakland. Such partnerships are a key part of the community schools model.
“It’s a very good school,” said Christian Coxdiaz, 16, a Life Academy junior who said his mother pushed to get him into the school after he initially enrolled at a different Oakland high school for the beginning of his freshman year. If he had stayed at the other school, Christian said, “I would have dropped out, based on the path I was on.”
At Life Academy, he found courses and teachers who engaged him. He helped start an anti-violence program at school called Season of Peace Building and is working in an after-school internship program in the health field and hopes to become a pediatrician or an emergency medical technician.
“The one thing I really want to do is to keep going to school,” Christian said.
The campus has seen results: Life Academy, where 88 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, has an 84 percent graduation rate, according to information provided by the school, compared to the district’s average high school graduation rate of 63 percent. The school’s 2012 Academic Performance Index, the state’s main measure of a school’s academic success based on test scores of its students, is 719, a big jump from its score of 635 in 2008. But it is still far short of the API goal of 800, the proficiency target the state has set for all its schools.
Districtwide, progress on the community schools effort been steady, school officials said, yet significant challenges remain. Those include finding a dependable funding stream to help sustain the programs, which now are funded through a tapestry of district, state and federal money and grants. In addition to support from community-based organizations, large foundations, such as the Kaiser Permanente Foundation and the Bechtel Foundation, among others, help fund specific efforts.
Smith’s resignation was not among the anticipated challenges.
“Any time you lose a leader of Tony’s caliber, it has impact, not only because of the leadership (he showed) within the school district, but also the leadership he represented in the community in terms of the need for radical reform to improve conditions,” said Junious Williams, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council, which worked closely with Smith and the district to develop the community schools plan.
“All of us really appreciate the many contributions of Tony,” Williams said, “but one of the lessons out of this is that we all need to really own it.”
This report is one of a series of reports on expanded learning time supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.as part of of a multi-city reporting project by EdSource and EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.