Fourteen years ago, students at Oakland's Castlemont High School were fed up. And rightfully so. Books were scarce (turned out later that pallet-loads of them were gathering dust in a downtown warehouse). Holes cut in the perimeter fence let crack dealers use the campus as a hide-out. The swimming pool was filled with broken furniture instead of water.
The principal, meanwhile, rarely was seen outside his office.
It was a particularly acute example of the failure of urban education, and to draw attention to it, students marched and demonstrated instead of going to class. Media coverage followed, and within days, the principal had been replaced. The most obvious problems quickly were corrected.
The walkouts were but a symptom of the turmoil in the school district. The school board was at war with the superintendent. Seeking a fresh start, the board paid experts from UC Berkeley $200,000 to audit the district's finances, academics, policies and politics. As if scripted, the professor who headed that study declared Oakland's schools to be the worst he had ever seen.
Political and business leaders resolutely declared their commitment to follow the recommendations. Yet within a year, the superintendent had quit.
Now, fast forward to the present. Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. is Oakland's mayor. He came into office last November decrying reading and math scores that are among the worst in the state and promising to fix the schools as part of a citywide revitalization campaign.
Brown has very publicly blamed Carole Quan, the district's current superintendent, for the problems. Observers say they expect her to quit this week. But, Brown is not about to go away. Like Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, he knows that his city will never be an attractive place to live and raise children until the schools improve.
As it stands now, though, there's little Brown and Riordan can do but jawbone and apply political pressure. Riordan is pushing for a housecleaning on the Los Angeles Board of Education by bankrolling a slate of candidates. Brown is taking a more direct route. He has teamed up with state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda) to secure for himself special powers.
Under legislation Perata is carrying, the state would pay for a sweeping study of the district's woes. (Sound familiar?) Then, a community board dominated by Brown would decide either to give the district a shot at fixing its own problems or to let the mayor, in consultation with state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, appoint an overseer.
Either way, Perata said, Brown would be in charge. It would mark the first time in California that a school district has been taken over by outsiders simply because it was failing to educate children. The state has previously only appointed trustees, as in Compton, as part of financial bailouts.
It also would mark the first time that a mayor would have power over a California school district, though that has already happened in Chicago and Cleveland and, last week in Detroit.
Perata said the Oakland schools have gotten worse, not better, during the past 15 years. A few weeks ago, in fact, Castlemont students once again staged a walkout to protest unsafe conditions, a rundown facility and the district's failure to teach them to read. Last fall, only 11 of the school's seniors were admitted to the Cal State system. And nine of those students had to take remedial classes in reading and math.
"The only way to change that," Perata said, "is to do something this bold."
Changing the leadership of a school district doesn't guarantee a change in results, though, notes Shannon Reeves, president of the NAACP in Oakland. He was a sophomore at Castlemont High during the walkouts. Since then, he said, the district has had six superintendents, and "all of them had degrees and education and years in the system." For four years, the district even had a state-appointed advisor.
They've all been stymied. Part of the problem is that two-thirds of the district's 52,000 students are poor and a third of them are not native English speakers. But it's also true that, according to former superintendents, members of the Oakland Board of Education have tried to micromanage the district and use their positions to reward political allies with jobs.
That's why Perata thinks Brown is the guy to make a difference. No doubt, any serious reforms will meet resistance. Already, Perata has been shouted down when he's talked about the bill in Oakland. And more opposition can be expected, once the elected school board is taken out of the picture.
"You cannot change a political institution unless you have someone willing . . . to endure the political pain and suffering that occurs when you're trying to make reform," Perata said. When problems arise, he said, "You have to be able to say, 'Go see the mayor.' "
Mayor Riordan, no doubt, will be watching closely.