Theresa Harrington / EdSource
Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, left, tours the newly merged Elmhurst United Middle School with Principal Kilian Betlach and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf on the first day of school Aug. 12, 2019.

When Kyla Johnson-Trammell was selected to be superintendent of the Oakland school district two and a half years ago, one reason she got the job was because of her deep roots in California’s eighth-largest city.

Johnson-Trammell grew up in Oakland, attended its schools as a child and then spent her entire career in the district as a teacher, principal and administrator.

Her connections to Oakland have allowed her to draw on a well-spring of support from key constituencies in the city — even as she enters the most perilous phase of her tenure in this 50,200-student district, one-fourth of whom are enrolled in charter schools.

Hiring home-grown superintendents as a way to stem high turnover in the top leadership spot has become a trend of sorts in recent years. In the state’s 30 largest districts, the majority of superintendents hired over the past four years were hired from within or had some prior connection to their districts.

But it is also clear that the 43-year-old Johnson-Trammell is entering the danger zone for urban superintendents who are forced out, voluntarily leave, retire or burn out.

After years of churn in the top leadership spot, the odds of that happening in Oakland seem especially great. In fact, Oakland has had 10 school chiefs, including three interim ones and three appointed by the state, over the past 20 years. The longest any one of them has stayed is 4 years.

“I’m committed to being here.”

Since becoming superintendent, she has had to take on a fiscal crisis — much of it due to declining enrollments over several years — management decisions made before she arrived and after, the impact of charter school enrollments and poor fiscal controls.

She also had to lead the district through a teachers’ strike earlier this year, with Oakland being only one of three districts in a state with nearly a thousand of them to experience a major one.

So far, Johnson-Trammell, who had never led a school district before, gives no indication that she is giving up or is ready leave her post. “I’m committed to being here,” Johnson-Trammell said in an interview before the start of the school year. She said what gives her energy is “seeing students, teachers and principals at work really making learning happen for our students.”

But Johnson-Trammell is now in the midst of the most divisive challenge any school superintendent can face — closing schools. It’s part of a battle to cut costs as well as to redirect funds to other struggling schools in the district, as the district tries to fend off possible insolvency and a state takeover for the second time in less than 20 years.

“Everything is complicated by the fact that Oakland is having to make deep budget cuts just to stay solvent. When money is tight, everything becomes more difficult,” said Marshall Smith, former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and undersecretary of education in the Clinton Administration. “You can’t satisfy anybody. It’s very hard to meet everyone’s demands.”

The emotions stirred up by school closings also played a part in the departure of the well-regarded Tony Smith who left the district after only four years on the job — the longest tenure for any Oakland schools chief in at least two decades.

Johnson-Trammell and the board have also have had to respond to a lacerating civil grand jury report that criticized the way the district has been administered, mostly before she took the helm. The report described a pattern that began before she became superintendent of “mismanagement, favoritism, disregard for authority and poor controls” within the context of what the report called a “broken organizational culture.”

A challenging year

That is on top of what should be a school chief’s central preoccupation: improving educational outcomes in a school district where 75 percent of students are from low-income backgrounds, and where despite the success of many students, average standardized test scores in English language arts and math lag significantly below state averages.

She still has the support, to varying degrees, of many of the key constituencies in the city who are eager to avert yet another leadership change.

That includes Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf who told EdSource this fall: “She has a really hard job. My job is hard. But hers may be harder because it’s people’s children she’s responsible for.”

With two children in the Oakland public schools, Schaaf has a personal stake in Johnson-Trammell and the district as a whole, succeeding. “I appreciate that she is not making a temporary stop on her career path,” says Schaaf. “She will have to answer to her neighbors in this community for years to come.”

For now, there is no indication that the board wants to replace Johnson-Trammell.

“Obviously, it was a really challenging year,” said board president Aimee Eng, reflecting on last year’s challenges, including the teachers’ strike. “I think she handled it the best she could with poise, but clearly there’s a lot of work to do, rebuilding public trust, increasing staff morale and addressing staff retention issues.”

She too cited Johnson-Trammell’s roots in Oakland and the district as a major plus. “I think hiring somebody that knows the district so well, who has seen the district from so many vantage points and who has so many relationships — both internally and externally — has been positive.”

A plan for quality community schools

A complicating factor is that each member of the seven-person board represents a neighborhood district, rather than the whole city. That has contributed to a lack of cohesion on the board. In addition, several board members have indicated they will not run for reelection and the makeup of the board will change at the next election a year from now. That inevitably will usher in some uncertainty about Johnson-Trammell’s backing on the board. 

In person, Johnson-Trammell comes across as calm and confident. She is not known for making sweeping statements and does not fit the mold of the charismatic “superwoman” outsider who swoops in to rescue a district from its failings.

Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell chats with students at the newly expanded Coliseum College Preparatory Academy on the first day of school Aug. 12, 2019.

Unlike many superintendents, she doesn’t seek the spotlight or place herself at the center of media attention.

One of the main ways she communicates with the school community is via districtwide emails that address the slew of issues she faces. In one recent email, titled “Moving to a Brighter Future,” she pledged to “do everything we can to end the historical cycle of fiscal crisis.”

Several community leaders give her high marks for not shirking from taking on hard challenges like closing or consolidating schools.

“I’ve seen many superintendents come and go,” said Gloria Lee, executive director of Educate 78, a nonprofit organization which supports district schools and charter schools. Other superintendents, she said, have “kind of kicked the can down the road.”

That appears to be a not-so-veiled reference to Antwan Wilson, the superintendent who preceded her. He came from Denver, but after only two and-a-half years left to take the top school position in Washington D.C.

Johnson-Trammell has drawn up a work plan for the current year that the board has approved, which focuses on creating what she calls “quality community schools,” “achieving fiscal vitality,” and improving the overall management of the district.

Central to her success in carrying out her work plan — and to her longevity in the district —is whether she will be able to convince parents and others in the district that the only way to ensure quality schools in Oakland is to close some schools and merge others — and to get them to accept that.

She argues that the district cannot afford to provide the full range of services that kids need to succeed in small, under-enrolled schools. The only way to improve school outcomes is get enough children in every school so each campus is fiscally sustainable and then to ensure they get the full range of services they need, including support services like counselors, librarians and so on, she says.

Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell talks to a staff member at the newly expanded Coliseum College Preparatory Academy on the first day of school Aug. 12, 2019.

She is getting strong backing for this argument and for the district’s Blueprint for Quality Schools, as well as its related citywide plan from Lakisha Young, executive director of Oakland REACH, a parent group that includes many African-American and Latino parents whose children attend both district and charter schools.

“The superintendent says ‘we need to reduce the size of our schools so that our resources can go more to service kids,’” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Then you need to do it … If you put forward the right plan and you don’t implement it, that’s the biggest failure.”

But many parents and teachers directly affected by planned closures have a far more critical view.

Facing protests to school closing

Over the last few weeks, some school board meetings have been disrupted by protests mounted by parents and other supporters of Kaiser Elementary school, a small school in the affluent Oakland Hills that draws 282 students from throughout the city. Many parents, teachers and others oppose the planned closing of Kaiser and the merger with Sankofa Academy, with fewer than 200 students, which receives less financial support from its parents. Sankofa is located on a larger campus in the city’s flatlands, a lower-income area.

Three weeks ago, the protesters clashed with police directly in the school board meeting room, leading to a half-dozen arrests.

Steve Neat, a 5th grade teacher at the school and the school’s union representative who is also a parent of a student at the school, says Johnson-Trammell has been a “huge disappointment.” Michael Louden, a Kaiser Elementary parent who also volunteers in the school library, says he was injured by police when he was arrested at the Oct. 23 meeting.

“If we close any more schools and charters pick up the students, there will be no OUSD,” he said. “We’re fighting for OUSD and we’re getting beaten up for it, literally.”

Of Johnson-Trammell, he says “she’s a terrible superintendent. She does not have the best intentions for our students and our community.”

In an email message published on the district’s website, the superintendent acknowledged the challenge she faces in resolving the current tensions. She described the confrontation between police and protesters as “troubling and not reflective of who we are as a community … The level of disruption, intimidation and effort to shut down board business is counterproductive.”

At the same time, she said, “we want our police and security to act with as much restraint as possible at all times.”

For now, even how to get through a board meeting is not yet settled. In order to get its business done, the board held its most recent meeting in an upstairs conference room, while members of the public watched the meeting in a downstairs room and commented remotely via a video camera. The board plans to meet in its regular downstairs room open to the public on Wednesday, but may similarly move upstairs if protesters disrupt the meeting, officials said Tuesday.

The conflicts triggered by the school closure plans have evoked deeper criticism from the teachers’ union, which during the strike seemed to lay more of the blame for the impasse on the school board than on the superintendent. Now more anger is being directed at Johnson-Trammell.

Keith Brown, the teacher who heads the Oakland teachers’ union, says he and many others in the district are disappointed that what he calls a “culture of dysfunction” in its administration hasn’t changed.

As for the recent arrests at the school board meeting, he said, “I am very outraged by the district using violence to silence protesters who were exercising their rights to a peaceful protest and free speech.”

Concerns over growth of charter schools

One of the most pressing and ongoing issues Johnson-Trammell faces is the large number of students attending charter schools. Working in the superintendent’s favor is that, under legislation signed last month by Gov. Newsom, it seems likely that the district will be able to reject any petitions to open new charter schools in Oakland because of its financial difficulties. That, however, will not change the fact that the district already has 33 charter schools, some of which could still increase their enrollments, despite the restrictions imposed by the new law. That could drain more students — and resources — from the district.

Those who study school leadership say it is essential that Johnson-Trammell stay longer than the handful of years typical of urban school superintendents.

“If she only stays three to four years, it’s unlikely that she’ll get anything major done,” said Smith, co-author with Jennifer O’Day of the recently published “Opportunity for All: A Framework for Quality and Equality in Education.” “You need a coherent plan that people understand and you need to stay with it and sustain it over time.”

Echoing that view, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an independent research and policy organization, said  “We have found in our research that stable district leadership is an essential ingredient for effective school reform and plays a critical role in stable school leadership, which improves teacher retention and quality which, in turn, improves student learning.”  Darling-Hammond is also president of the State Board of Education.

As for Johnson-Trammell, she feels the urgency to accomplish the most important task at hand — improving student outcomes.

“Our students don’t have time to wait for ‘incremental improvement strategies,’” she told the school community earlier this year. To prepare students for uncertain futures, she said, “we must make difficult decisions.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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  1. Rachel Reinhard 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I thought Tony Smith left on his own accord, surprising a lot of the community that had supported his plan and leadership.