Mellow Strikers At The Schools

This morning, the teachers and their strike supporters began their day-long vigils in front of the local schools.  We stopped by Montclair and Thornhill Elementary schools to ask how things were going.

For all intents and purposes, the hills schools were closed today.  While the strikers couldn’t confirm precise counts, they estimated between 20-40 kids at each school.  We heard similar statistics from Joaquin Miller Elementary as well as Montera Middle School.

Here’s a group of strikers standing in front of Montclair School, around 11am or so.  Perhaps half of the drivers honked as they passed by, on busy and highly-visible Mountain Blvd.

Over at Thornhill School, there were at least a dozen strikers and supporters actively chanting during commuter hours.  By late morning, drivers continued slowing down and shouting to the sign-holders.

As you know, there are very tight relationships among parents, teachers and principals at our local schools.  Quite recently, Montclair and Thornhill were awarded 2010 California Distinguished School Awards.  Given to fewer than ten percent of all California school,  these awards are based on top parental satisfaction and academic performance index (API) scores.

No one is really winning here. Interestingly, no one standing outside the mostly-shuttered schools today was chanting about raises.  When we spoke with the picketers, they brought up issues related to crowded classrooms – plus the associated stresses on kids and teachers.

Here in the hills, everyone is taking the strike day in stride.  Local parents are accommodating the one-day strike, and seem to be out and about with their kids.  We know the discussions will continue with Oakland Unified and there are tough decisions ahead.

Testing Prism For Student Achievement

At least in the Oakland Hills, you need a many-faceted prism to measure student performance.  Success isn’t exactly defined by public school tests and rankings alone.

When you track the performance of our elementary schools in the hills, there are no surprises and they rank highly year after year.  By high school, these numbers decline precipitously and top performing students seem to vanish as well.  Let’s examine this a bit more.

Test Takers Soon Appear

Hills Kids Swimming Together

The State of California just released their Academic Performance Index (APIs), and our three schools scored well as usual:  Montclair at 957, up 35 points from last year; Thornhill at 944, up 20 points; and Joaquin Miller at 886, up 18 points.

Oakland’s average score is 695, which includes all elementary, middle and high schools city-wide.  That number gets driven down by economically disadvantaged students who scored 668 on average.  As a proxy, racial breakouts also show APIs of 902 for Whites and 630 for African-Americans overall.

For the Oakland Hills schools, the paler and richer kids living here perform better as a group – and are more highly represented in the elementary schools.  Thus we expect our local schools to score well on standardized tests, and are satisfied when they achieve mid-900 APIs.

Kids Swim In Different Pools

Among Oakland’s middle schools or high schools, things change quickly.  There are no standout API score performers except for a few charter schools, and none around here.  We believe that reflects shifts in school populations, as kids are sent beyond their neighborhood enclaves to public or even private schools.

By middle school, you see the average scores reflect these changes and begin to drop.  For example, Montera registers an 814 API that includes 928 for White and 912 for Asian students.  Likewise, Claremont reports a 701 API, including 915 for White kids there.

Kids Jump Into Biggest Pool

Skyline High doesn’t do well period, with a 667 API that’s below the overall Oakland average score!  Again there’s a mixed bag with White and Asian kids delivering around 790, while African Americans and Hispanics hover near the 600 mark.  Disadvantaged students of all races deliver a 641 API.

Since Skyline is a very large high school, with well over 2,000 students, it’s difficult to raise the API averages with smaller high-achiever contributions.  Yet the drop is so substantial that you have to wonder what is happening with students, as they hit the high school years.  Are things really that bad, or do the number hide success stories?

One way to find out is through standard college-admissions tests like ACTs or SATs.   The 2010 news isn’t pretty, as there are ZERO National Merit Semifinalists from either Skyline or any Oakland public high school.  This award recognizes the top PSAT test-takers from junior year.

Where have all the smartest kids gone, all to private schools, every one?  We know there must be successful students around, but it’s so hard to isolate them as a group.  The testing prism is all about ensuring the minimums, and not really peering into what’s happening with our children as they grow up in the public schools.

More info:   Check out the State of California API reports, including Oakland’s school details and Oakland’s race segmentations.  Also see the California’s National Merit Semifinalists. The Tribune’s Katy Murphy has written all about API inequities and Merit awardees in Oakland too.

Fewer Kindergartners Than Expected

We like to think of our Montclair elementary schools as top performers that are in demand.  So it’s puzzling to see a drop between admitted and registered kindergartners in some schools next fall:

  • Thornhill:   80 admitted – 68 registered
  • Montclair:   96 admitted – 89 registered
  • Joaquin Miller:   61 admitted – 63 registered

Sure, the hills schools are coveted.  Six of ten wait-listed students have taken up some Thornhill slack.  Nearby Oakland parents are bound to pursue spots at Thornhill or Montclair, if they are permitted to make their cases outside the normal assignments process.

Thornhill Kindergartners

Katy Murphy, who covers the Tribune’s education beat, attributed the gaps to people who “may have just been hedging by applying to their local public school.”  But there are all kinds of reasons for tucking tails.

Yes, it’s possible that some Montclarions registered their kids in case and later decided on private schools.  Maybe they felt less pinched generally.  Or became more skeptical about Oakland schools and city finances.  Or even moved away, who knows?

Well the schools will be operational for the 2009-2010 school year.  Oakland Unified School District settled on a $602 million budget today, along with Uncle Sam’s help in closing an $18 million gap.  So we can push problems out for another year, sigh.

Yes, Montclair Schools Earn Top Scores Again

The most recent California academic test scores were released two days ago, and the Montclair elementary schools did just fine.  Take a look at the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs), where we show all the Oakland elementary schools which ranked at least “7” or more statewide, on a 1-10 scale.

Top Oakland Elementary Schools

Top Ten Scores

Based on these APIs, Thornhill and Montclair ranked in the top ten percent statewide, while Joaquin Miller fell into the second decile or top twenty percent of schools.

That kind of strong showing doesn’t surprise us at all.  After all, there are plenty of devoted parents who spend time working at the schools, organizing fundraisers for student activities, and helping their kids study and finish their homework.

Things get more interesting when you look at our schools versus “similar schools,” which is a politically correct ranking against statewide peers with matching racial and economic profiles.  Now you see that Thornhill, Montclair and Joaquin Miller have a little catching up to do.

New Super Looks At Inequities

Meanwhile Oakland has just appointed a new school superintendent, Dr. Anthony Smith.  He already lives in Oakland and has a kindergartner entering Crocker Highlands next year too.  Smith seems focused on helping the whole school system, especially the underachieving schools.

Smith has strong opinions about providing a good education rather than teaching for tests.  According to the Tribune, he is rather dismissive of No Child Left Behind which has been “soul-stripping for students and for teachers.”  He does want to ensure there are the right resources available to motivate learning.

Funding Sources

The newcomer wants to examine the current fundraising model, which effectively contributes to have and have-not schools.  In the hills, we work hard to raise funds all year long and deliver educational resources that aren’t available in the flats – like librarians and after-school activities.  Many Oakland schools don’t have the luxury of fundraisers, of course.

With the budget crunch, we believe that Superintendent Smith will consider how to fairly redistribute wealth from all the available pools.  Not to be greedy, but we wonder when it’s appropriate to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”  Should one school’s efforts directly or indirectly benefit another?

More info:   Take a quick look at the Oakland Tribune’s school blog, which covers all the latest district happenings from the beat reporter.  Also check out the school scores released Thursday by California’s Department of Education.  While this data took almost a year to collect and crunch, it still holds up to close scrutiny.

Montclair Fifth Graders Pass Their Gym Tests

On this Thanksgiving Day, it seems like we are evolving into those gluttonous Wall-E humans who can no longer walk or propel themselves.  Yet we aren’t quite that bad, when you look at the physical fitness of our local kids.

Based on gym test results released this week, fifth graders from Montclair, Thornhill and Joaquin Miller elementary schools are performing relatively well when compared to their nearby peers.  However that’s not a very high bar, looking at the passing percentages below.

Healthy Fitness Percentages

How did we do overall?  Some 74% of Montclair and 67% of Thornhill kids passed at least five of six fitness criteria, beating county and state results.  However only 51% of Joaquin Miller kids passed five or more tests, which falls slightly below the Oakland results.

Interestingly, there’s tremendous variability by individual fitness test.  In aerobic capacity, the kids are asked to run a mile – and Montclair/Miller kids far exceeded the average results while Thornhill kids performed at average levels.  Yet Thornhill kids showed the best trunk strength and flexibility.  It’s hard to say why.

Years ago, I remember suffering through fitness tests that included long rope climbs and many pull-ups.  They seemed really hard, but I could run and bike around for hours.  While I’m sure our fifth graders are more sedentary than we all were growing up, it’s good to see they are still hanging in there.