My Small School Journey

An Oakland teacher experiences the negative effects of small school reform in the midst of a budget crisis

By Craig Gordon

Protesters at a Labor Day rally in Oakland.
Photo: Craig Gordon

In November 2001, the principal at our school, Fremont High in Oakland, Calif., announced that we had received an “almost unbelievable offer,” a grant to break our comprehensive school of nearly 1,900 students into several small autonomous schools. My principal called this “very exciting news,” saying it would help end the cycle of failure for many of Fremont’s students.

The school is located in the heart of East Oakland, one of the lowest-income areas in California. Fremont’s student body was about 45 percent Latino, 34 percent African American, 17 percent Asian, and 1 percent white. Forty-three percent of the students were from families in the state’s “welfare-to-work program” and 48 percent were English language learners. Fewer than half of the entering ninth graders graduated, and the school’s standardized test scores earned the lowest rating — one out of 10 — on the state’s academic performance index.

These numbers exemplified the educational inequality nationwide. Yet the principal’s announcement sparked mixed emotions for me and other faculty. We weren’t disputing the gaping disparity in educational outcomes in the United States and that our students suffer the consequences. We know that there is an urgent need for fundamental educational change.

But I doubted that “small” would solve Fremont’s problems, especially since small schools don’t necessarily mean small classes. I had long been inspired by the ideas of the small schools movement and had chosen to transfer several years earlier to a small learning community within Fremont High. As a history and TV production teacher in Fremont’s Media Academy, I appreciated its focus on learning-by-doing and the opportunity to get to know a relatively small community of students and teachers. I felt the collegiality of a small learning community made me a better teacher.

On the other hand, I did not see large high schools as the root cause of my school’s many problems. I believe addressing the gap in educational achievement requires supplying the resources needed to address profound social and economic inequality. Genuine progress means multiplying education budgets several-fold to cut class sizes and upgrade facilities. The promised investment in small school reform did not appear to address any of these needs.

Despite my misgivings, I was pleased to learn that a Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) affiliate, the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), would be leading the transformation at Fremont High. BayCES had applied for and would administer the grant for the break-up, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I agreed with CES’s emphasis on teaching for in-depth understanding and mastery of skills instead of mindless coverage of subject matter.

One of our first discoveries was that the “offer” to break up our school wasn’t an offer at all, but a superintendent’s decree. Our principal revealed that the superintendent had already decided to break Fremont into small schools and had placed the principal at Fremont the previous year to lead that change. I felt this approach contradicted CES principles developed through years of experience that successful small schools “should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school” and that “change efforts fail without the support of all key stakeholders from the start,” according to the CES website,

Our union contract recognizes that school-based educators working closely with students are best positioned to implement effective school reform. The contract authorizes an elected faculty council to bring site-based reforms “before the entire faculty for thorough discussion and approval.” As a union rep, I reminded our principal of this right, and he reassured the faculty council of his commitment to respect the contract.

Later that same day, he issued a staff memo stating, “For those who don’t want to be part of the process [of forming small schools], in all candor, I recommend that you begin to consider other options for your future. I am committed to moving in this direction.” The memo also suggested that designs for new schools could extend working hours beyond contracted limits and that anyone who didn’t go to a two-day retreat (not contractually required) on small schools in January would risk a forced transfer to another school.

Instead of grassroots reform, some teachers saw administrators chasing the latest gush of green while trying to outrun increasingly harsh state and federal mandates for underperforming schools. As they ran, they shouted orders to teachers: Immediately form design teams with whomever you can, brainstorm, research and write proposals and be ready to open up brand-new, high-performing schools by next September. Oh, and don’t forget to teach your current students and boost those high-stakes test scores.

In case we didn’t feel the heat, our principal filled our mailboxes with news of Edison’s takeover of Philadelphia Public Schools and other examples of the fire just beyond our frying pan.

Despite the top-down nature of the small schools initiative at Fremont, a significant number of teachers still saw it as an opportunity and energetically jumped aboard. Fremont High had already been a hotbed of educational reform: Teachers had led the breakdown into other kinds of small learning communities — mostly career academies — about 10 years earlier. The academies had some uneven success in improving school climate and achievement at Fremont. Now the district seemed to be repeating its pattern of dumping “old” reforms in midstream to make way for the latest innovation.

Unlike academies, which functioned under the existing school administration, each of the new schools was to have its own principal and control over staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, governance, calendar, schedule, and facilities. Theoretically, the faculty at each school would make decisions in these areas democratically. Some teachers in the academies questioned the requirement to alter their current structures to satisfy BayCES’ formula for more autonomous small schools. Others welcomed it.

Our administrators trumpeted this as “educational entrepreneurship,” reflecting an assumption that public schools should become more like private businesses. Meanwhile, they seemed unable or unwilling to answer many questions staff raised at union site meetings: Will the new schools try to run without counselors? How will small schools offer music, drama, foreign languages, sports programs? How is the process structured for us to have some say in the change? Where is the time to do this mandated forming of small schools? Will small autonomous schools with small autonomous budgets turn seniority upside down, favoring cheap new teachers over expensive old ones? Is this a union-busting technique? How could small high school faculties offer full programs while respecting our contractual right to teach no more than two subjects? Is this grant-driven reform a kind of school privatization?

Students had their own questions and pressed the administration to hold meetings where they could get answers. To prepare for these meetings, student organizers came to classes and solicited written queries. Many students had complained to their teachers that they hated the idea of small schools, and some of their questions reflected apprehension: Why are you having this small school? What is going to happen to sports, yearbook, newspaper, magazine, etc? Will there be off campus lunch? Note: There will be hell if you try to keep us in the school for lunch. Why didn’t you talk to our parents first?

Photo: Craig Gordon

A Union Divided

Meanwhile, the teacher union was slow to devise an effective response. Some Oakland Education Association (OEA) leaders had participated in early discussions about small schools with BayCES and Oakland Community Organiza-tions (OCO). But as the collaborative flavor and commitment to a bottom-up process morphed into top-down implementation, OEA’s membership was divided. Teachers who had actively participated in grassroots efforts to create small elementary schools prior to Fremont’s conversion urged the union to embrace, if not lead, their efforts.

Others argued the OEA should aggressively resist the breakup of large schools, which they said could lead to union busting and the balkanization of the district. Small schools advocates claimed their efforts promoted equity one school at a time; opponents argued that small schools would exacerbate segregation and inequality throughout the district. Consensus was nowhere in sight.

As small school design teams began their pilots in the fall, a monstrous fiscal crisis was brewing. In October 2002, the bombshell hit: The district had “discovered” a $20 million budget deficit. Over the next weeks and months, the figure would jump several times until nobody could say for sure if the hole was $60, $80 or even $100 million deep. Contract talks had just begun when this happened. Instead of looking forward to improvements in compensation and working conditions that could support and encourage reform, we would be lucky to avoid massive layoffs.

An emotional school board meeting the following spring dramatized divisions among union members and the community. The board had planned a celebratory rollout of the new schools set to open at Fremont High in the fall. On the same evening, union and community activists came to protest program cuts and some 1,200 teacher layoff notices. My design team colleagues sat on one side of the meeting room, while hundreds of union and community activists denounced the layoffs. A district administrator dismissed the protesters while honoring the new small schools. “At a time when external resources are shrinking,” she said, “we must tap our internal resources.”

BayCES and district officials depicted “shrinking external resources” — state and federal funding cuts — as an inevitable fact of life, to which schools had to adapt. They argued that autonomous schools were best positioned to “set priorities” in the midst of cutbacks. But OEA’s high school caucus responded that it was not ready to accept austerity as inevitable. It said the emphasis on adapting to fewer resources fed illusions that we can achieve equity and sustainable school improvement under austerity. An illusion that “internal resources” could fill the gap left by state and federal cuts would lead to staff burnout and exacerbate student failure. And it overlooked the need to demand the necessary resources from corporate and political elites.

OEA took the position that real reform is inseparable from a campaign for full educational funding. It argued that small schools can be an important part of this reform as long as they are sustainable. OEA’s high school caucus statement said this means “schools with the resources to offer full programs and to provide educators with respect, reasonable workloads, small classes, and adequate support, materials, facilities, and time to plan lessons and to run the school. Teacher teams will be empowered only [if they have] enough time during the workday to discuss and make wise policies.”

Critics of these demands said that’s unrealistic, “There’s no money for that.” But there is money, even in a “poor” city like Oakland. OEA commissioned a study by a local nonprofit research group showing that Oakland has the 18th largest gross metropolitan product in the United States (more than $100 billion), and Forbes Magazine ranked Oakland as the eighth best city for business in the United States. In 2002, Oakland-based Clorox Corporation paid its CEO $31 million, enough to pay for about 600 new teachers or 400 highly qualified veterans (including health benefits, which the district is currently trying to cap). Instead Clorox has claimed the mantle of benevolent corporate citizen by contributing $500,000 over the course of eight years, about 1/500 of its profit in a single year (2002).

OEA launched a campaign to redistribute corporate wealth to fund schools, youth centers, and libraries, which have all suffered from cutbacks and closures. Redistribution could come via taxation or direct agreements with big businesses won through grassroots organizing. The union has worked to put these issues on the public agenda with demonstrations targeting major corporate headquarters and by widely distributing information from its corporate wealth study.

The Crisis Deepens

While the top-down creation of small schools had frustrated many teachers, the worst was yet to come. When the state eventually bailed the district out of fiscal disaster with a $100 million line of credit, the largest aid deal for a school district in California history, it exacted a high price. It stripped the school board of its power, demanded the superintendent’s resignation, and installed Randolph Ward to act as Oakland’s all-powerful state administrator. According to the Oakland Tribune, the Broad Foundation, a major corporate think tank promoting charters and other forms of school privatization, helped pick Ward, who was a graduate of Broad’s superintendent training program. Among Broad’s “leading lights” is President Bush’s first-term Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Ward’s reign over the Oakland schools has been a disaster. He pressured teachers into a 4 percent salary cut and laid off dozens of custodians. He then blamed custodians for increasingly dirty schools, telling the Oakland Tribune, “Most of this has nothing to do with the cutbacks. It has to do with work-ethic issues.”

And Ward announced that all schools in Oakland would follow the site-based budgeting rules already being piloted by new small schools. Under these rules, each school operates on a budget based on state payment for its average daily attendance and makes its own spending decisions.

This regime, dubbed Results Based Budgeting, (RBB) seems certain to increase inequity, since schools with the most low-income students historically have the lowest attendance rates. It also makes schools choose between keeping class size at reasonable levels or going without counselors or custodians. For example, another large high school in East Oakland that broke into small schools last year eliminated its library and French classes under RBB. And Ward also quelled any notions of democracy that may have lingered in the new small schools (or in old large ones) by declaring that principals under RBB were now “CEOs” with the final say in all decisions.

School Closings

In spring 2004, Ward closed five schools, despite a protest by more than 1,000 parents, students, and community members. At a special meeting on the closings, Ward said the closings were due to “declining enrollment.” Then he announced plans to replace the closed schools with new small schools. Mean-while, in contract negotiations, the district pressed OEA to exempt new small schools from class-size limits and other contractual protections for teaching and learning conditions. Eventually, the bargaining team agreed to allow newly opened schools to waive some contract language for the first year without a vote by the faculty. On April 27, OEA members rejected a concession-filled tentative agreement by a more than five-to-one margin.

Ward also announced that 13 “underperforming” schools in year four of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sanctions will also be closed and re-opened under a district-created “internal charter management organization” next year. “Internal charters” would operate outside of the union contract and be exempt from most district and some state requirements.

Teachers successfully resisted this process at all but two of the schools, but the district then opted to reconstitute six of the schools. The struggle reflects the vagaries of NCLB sanctions, which are poorly defined in the federal law and largely left up to states to implement. This can create space for both the kind of privatization schemes pursued by Ward and more community-based options for intervention.

Despite the abysmal way small school reform is playing out in Oakland, the fiasco has spawned some positive visions for more authentic reform. In March, the union adopted a draft of its vision for educational change. It includes a point supporting small schools with “sufficient autonomy to address local needs” and “which, at the secondary level, must be interconnected enough to control and provide resources such as libraries, counselors, AP classes, special education classes, and a wide range of electives and extracurricular activities.” OEA is embracing the advantages small schools offer and still trying to ensure that high school students have the range of options available to students in high quality large schools.

The union also believes several prerequisites are crucial for attaining educational excellence and equality, including small class sizes (15:1); qualified, experienced teachers and instructional aides in every classroom; sufficient material resources; clean and comfortable facilities; sufficient support and intervention personnel; and adequate time for teachers to plan individually and to collaborate. We also believe we need preschool and adult school services available at each site and collaboration among all stakeholders. Accomp-lishing this will cost billions of additional dollars, so the final point of the vision statement calls for “redistribution of the corporate wealth of the Oakland metropolitan region.”

Despite the misuse of reform in Oakland, many of us don’t think the problems we’ve seen here are inherent in small schools or in the small schools movement. But they are inherent in the wildly mistaken belief that small schools or any other reform will go very far for very long without adequate resources and in the unexamined belief that austerity in the midst of plenty is a natural event. These assumptions set up educators to make damaging trade offs, such as cutting electives, counselors or libraries, or choosing to further overcrowd classrooms or overload teachers with unsustainable courseloads.

When school reform is done on the cheap it can become a string of broken promises to teachers, students, and communities. It can also complicate and compromise the position of organizations like BayCES. Such groups may set out to make valuable contributions to district and school reform processes by providing information and strategies and some of the public pressure that bureaucratized school systems often need to open up any space at all for reform. However, they can also become instruments of policies that undermine their own expressed goals and guiding principles. For example, support for decentralization and school-based budgeting may originate with a legitimate interest in reducing central office bureaucracy. But it can also become a cover for underinvestment in and privatization of public services. BayCES now heads the district’s project to use private donations to “redesign” itself. Initiated with Broad and Gates Foundation funding, the project is part of Ward’s “multi-year fiscal recovery plan,” projecting dramatic student achievement gains in small schools under increasing austerity.

Despite the struggles and uncertainties, as my small school, Mandela High, nears the end of its second year, I can attest to amazing efforts by staff, students, and parents to create a functional and caring learning community. I feel more connected with the student body than I ever did in a large school. And despite early misgivings, most students seem to have grown attached to our school. But so far we have not seen much evidence of significant academic gains. Most of the old issues of low student achievement, behavioral problems, and teacher burnout persist.

Two conclusions stand out: Edu-cational injustices are inevitable only if we fail to resist them locally and nationally, and real reform costs real money.

Skeptics may say, “Dream on.” And they might attack the dreamers for “resisting realistic reform.” But fundamental change begins with visions and dreams and the willingness to fight for them.

As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” I think we need to dream — and demand — something better for our students than what Gates and Broad are offering. And we’ll have to achieve our dream of equality the old fashioned way: by fighting for it.

Craig Gordon ( has taught in the Oakland Public Schools for 15 years. He is currently a history teacher and union rep at Mandela High School, one of the small schools created from Fremont High.