Public Elementary School in Oakland

December 11, 2013

school newsletter in 5 languages

By Gabrielle.

I’ve written about the high school our kids attend here in Oakland, but I haven’t shared anything about our elementary school yet. (There’s no good reason for the delay in writing, I’ve just been busy.) While our high school gets a 2 out of 10 on Great Schools, our elementary school gets a 6! Doesn’t that sound super high when you compare it to a 2? Hah!

You know how I feel about Great School ratings — I’m not impressed. But I am impressed with our school! The amount of programs offered, especially considering the resources available, is remarkable — California public schools have had budgets slashed like crazy. The community of people that supports the school is also remarkable. If you’re looking for diversity, our school wins. 18% Hispanic, 30% Black, 20% White, 17% Asian, 14% “Other”, and 1% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The school newsletter (see photo at top) comes in not one, not two, not three, not four, but 5 languages! Which is a small thing that makes me hugely happy.

The more I learn about the school, the more I’ve come to understand that the big improvements to the school came about because of a few strong advocates. This is how I’ve heard it from word-of-mouth stories: Apparently, 5 or 6 years ago, our school was experiencing a big shift — families were fleeing the neighborhood to go to more affluent parts of Oakland, or leaving Oakland altogether. School ratings dropped big time. But there was a local mother, who had a child just starting kindergarten, and she was determined to stay in the area and to use the public schools. So she got really involved. Her focus was on a strong parent support group and fundraising. And the differences her efforts made, and the efforts of the fellow parents she involved, is amazing.

Our school offers a weekly very-informative newsletter (in 5 languages!), a choir with weekly practices and seasonal performances, a tribal drumming teacher, a robust art program with an artist in resident, and apparently there’s a school band too (though I haven’t seen it yet). There’s an annual Bike Day and a big Art Event during the fall. There’s also a Fall Carnival — held during parent teacher conferences so parents can attend while their kids are at the carnival — making babysitters unnecessary, and boosting parent attendance (so smart!). There’s even a charming campus garden, growing food right before the students’ eyes. All of these programs are funded 100% by family donations to the school, and administered 100% by volunteers. That’s huge!

Of course, along with those programs are community building organizations attached to the school — like a Dad’s group that hosts a welcome picnic for all school families at the start of the school year, and a Friends of the School group that handles ongoing fundraising. And we’ve only been in school for 3 1/2 months. I don’t even know what’s coming down the line.

Obviously, the positive impact is so vast because many, many families ultimately donate or volunteer or get involved in some way. But when it comes down to it, there are truly just a handful of people that are making it happen behind the scenes.

My main takeaway from our experience at the elementary school so far: one person really can make a difference. A huge difference.

But it’s not just the parents, teachers in the school are incredibly resourceful. Oscar’s teacher takes the kids on a field trip every month, but she is allotted zero budget for this, so each child brings in $5 to fund the outing. If you can pay more, you do — and that funds the kids that can’t afford the $5. I’m so impressed with what she provides the kids on such a small amount of money! Another thing teachers at our school do is keep an open door policy for parents. Parents can come in to the classroom to observe, volunteer or help out at any time — a wonderful way to increase parent involvement.

Our school website describes the school as “A fine model of an urban learning community, our school reflects a richly diverse community in all ways: cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic. This is our strength and our joy. Classes are balanced in terms of gender, ethnicity, and academic achievement. We present a curriculum that addresses different levels of linguistic and cultural orientations, complexity, pace, and material to all students, and a variety of enrichment programs.”

This is our strength and our joy.

I love that!

Are there any downsides? Sure. Our school has many of the same issues any public school in America has. Prospective families wonder: Are the teachers being pressured to teach to state test standards? Are class sizes too big? But overall, we couldn’t be happier with our elementary school. Honestly, I can’t imagine what a 10 school would bring to the table that could improve on our 6 school.

Tell me, friends, you’re well into the school year now, are you happy with your school? Or will you be seeking another option for next fall? Would you send your kids to a 6-rated school, or do you consider 10-rated schools only? And how involved are parents at your school?

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Just Moms » Blog Archive » Public Elementary School in Oakland
December 11, 2013 at 5:41 pm
Public Elementary School in Oakland
December 12, 2013 at 12:24 am

{ 75 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marlena December 11, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I love our public school. My daughter started kindergarten in the fall, and the community is great. About 10 years ago the school was on the rough side, with parents open-enrolling their kids to a more affluent neighborhood school, but a new principal came in and changed things, parents banded together, and now the families that had their kids at the other school are sending their kids BACK to this school in their neighborhood.

What helps is that for any and all events, free transportation is provided, no questions asked. Every morning the kids start with community breakfast – a change made years ago because only the kids on the free/reduced meals would come in and eat while other kids played outside. Some kids felt stigmatized, or wanted to play, so now everyone starts their day in the cafeteria – eating breakfast at school, breakfast from home, or just chatting with their friends. The principal then does morning affirmations, and they are on their way. What a positive shift! Having a school blocks from our house means so much!

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2 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I think I’m in love with the community breakfast idea. Such a great equalizer for the kids!!

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3 susannah December 12, 2013 at 12:37 am

my oldest daughter is in kindergarten at your same school. AND you’ll be happy to know that the transitional kindergarten is doing this community breakfast as a pilot this year to see how it goes. the entire class begins the day with breakfast in their room! i loved your high school post and i love this one. i think it’s easy to get sucked in to highest scores (a la great schools) defining what a good school is. even as someone who didn’t want to put stock in those numbers, i found myself wondering, “am i stupid that i’m not trying to get into a better (higher scoring) school?” outside of the regular classroom there are so many things i’ve loved so far this year- the art event, the bike day (so so cool), the fall festival, motor skills for the kindergarten and tk classes, all of the programs that kids can experience thanks to parent involvement and fundraising. i love the diversity (my daughter is deaf, so i love that she is a part of a full inclusion school!) and that so many kinds of kids are running around the playground every day when i pick up my daughter. i often wonder how amazing ousd schools could be if even more families chose to commit to their local school. i’m grateful for the richness, culture and spunk our school has! our family is committed as much as we can be to staying in oakland public schools, and as much as i expect some bumps and bruises along the way, i hope the rewards outweigh the deficiencies.

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4 Colleen December 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I’m a first grade teacher, my last school had breakfast in the classroom and it was terrible! Basically a class of 6 year olds spilling milk and cereal everywhere.

I’m not trying to be negative, but think of it from the teacher’s point of view and it is a lot of work!

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5 Marlena December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am

Yes, having breakfast in a classroom would be messy – fortunately they do breakfast in the cafeteria.

6 mandi@herbanhomestead December 17, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Ha! I was thinking the same thing- when I taught school and had to orchestrate everyone’s breakfast on top of everything else. It was a lot to take on. However, I was pregnant and never regretted the chance to get to eat sausage on a stick wrapped in a pancake. Haha!

7 Amy T December 11, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Oh, Gabrielle, how I love your outlook! And what a thrilling example of a public school making huge efforts to provide a rich, joy-filled experience for the kids and their families. Sadly, our foray into the public system has ended with us pulling our daughter out and going with a (fortunately quite affordable) private Waldorf K-9. What it came down to was a mismatch between our daughter’s temperament and needs, and what the school could provide. We watched the light go out of her eyes in two short months, followed by nightly bad dreams, test anxiety (in first grade), weight loss, an unseen injury due to two teachers supervising over 110 kids in gym class, and her writing notes to me that said, “I do not like math.” The focus on testing, repetitive drills, playground rules that wouldn’t let her pick up pine cones or grass, and the classroom disciplinary methods were extinguishing her spark. As a person who LOVED her own public school (and loved tests, tracking points, etc!) I had to do some soul searching — and come to terms with the fact that our particular school was simply a bad match for our family. I never thought we’d go the private route, but when she started coming home with fresh color in her cheeks, a smile on her face, and great affection for her teachers in just two days, we knew we’d made the right decision. It’s such a tough thing, and so very personal! I love hearing stories like yours.

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8 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I’m so glad you found a good fit for your daughter, Amy!

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9 Amy T December 17, 2013 at 5:24 pm

I wanted to come back and follow up after a month at our private school. I’ve realized that ere is worry over these decisions no matter what — and parents make the difference at *any* school, even those with tuition! I can’t begin to describe how beautifully transformative the change has been for our whole family — in large part because there is a sense of community, commitment, and involvement at our new school that was sorely lacking at our public option. We have been embraced and made to feel needed. There are endless opportunities to make a difference. It’s so wonderful to feel that my ideas (and I have many!) are welcomed. A phrase that is used a lot by the community is “feeling called.” By and large, we all seem to feel called to this school and the work that it’s doing to hold our children and educate their whole person. Our decision wasn’t without worry and a TON of research — like a low-rated public school, this school had a spotty reputation in our town. And the pedagogical approach was all new to us. But the way the parents and administrators work together is inspiring and motivating. I think the answer is that private or public, building community is key to a strong school! I would love to see that post on worrying less, Gabrielle. We all need that one!

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10 Robin December 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Sounds wonderful, Gabby.

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11 rachael December 11, 2013 at 1:14 pm

We live in Canada and do not have this rating of schools. All of our public schools are fantastic, and all of them have their problems. We are planning on sending our 3.5 year old daughter to a private Christian school in Sept ’14 not because we think the teaching is better but because its different and the curriculum will circle around Jesus. The class sizes are smaller. It costs money to go but we are convinced it will be worth it.

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12 susana December 12, 2013 at 10:33 am

Same here. We live in Montreal and the public schools are basically all the same. Some have more resources depending on where they are located but teachers have the same training and the curriculum is basically the same too. No school ratings for elementary schools as far as I’m concerned and they are no longer rating high schools in Quebec since 2010. No emphasis on tests or drills either and no pressure to meet government standards. I now parents with kids in different schools throughout the city and it seems to be the norm. Additionally, my daughter is in grade one and her school has a no homework policy. I like it. It means more time for us as a family. It also seems to make sense in light of various studies that show no correlation between academic achievement in elementary school and doing homework. Your kids’ school sounds absolutely wonderful.

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13 Mrs. A December 11, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Parent involvement makes SUCH a big difference. We also love our public school just for that reason.

Our school district had closed 10 schools in 2007-2008 despite overwhelming birth rates (hello, did they not see all the pregnant ladies??) and a sharp spike in enrollment. So, they had to start up brand new schools. Our school opened during the 2012-2013 school year as an “option” school – meaning anyone could attend. It was opened in a district surplus building in a low-income minority neighborhood that no one wanted to occupy. It had no playground (because the building was originally a middle school), no institutionalized PTA, and zero funds for extras like field trips, after-school programs or even library books (yes, our school district does not purchase books for the library).

People enrolled their kids on the promise that the district would allow the school to focus on project-based learning and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). And, the parents, teachers, staff and students worked hard to make it a vibrant, supportive multi-cultural school. We are 50/50 minority and 35% free and reduced lunch. The goal of the school is that parents should donate their time, energy and money (if they can afford it) to make sure every kid has the same opportunities.

I can say that all this commitment came from a small group of moms who insisted that all kids deserve a first-class education and who banded together to form the first PTA and get things rolling before the school even opened. We now have a host of parent volunteers and room parents, and cool school events (like a dance/DIY arcade hosted by the 5th graders based on to raise money for a wilderness trip). Our field trip cost is also $5 per kid, many parents pay for more than one child so all can attend. Our first annual fundraiser raised over $30,000 to give our teachers proper curriculum materials, add to the library, and fund long-term teaching projects. Pretty amazing.

Now, our school has a long, long waiting list. All because of a group of dedicated parents paved the way to opening an amazing successful school on little funding! :)

Gabby – I LOVE so many of these ideas! The Fall Festival during conferences is genius! We have a fairly new school and new PTA, with a similar student/parent diversity, so I’m going to bring these ideas to our PTA pres.

@Amy T – I LOVE the idea of breakfast at school for everyone!

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14 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I love your comment so much I could hug it, Mrs. A.

“Now, our school has a long, long waiting list. All because of a group of dedicated parents paved the way to opening an amazing successful school on little funding!”

That’s it right there!

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15 Amy3 December 11, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I love these school updates! Will we see a middle school update (I’m guessing Olive is in middle school)?

I’m a big believer in local public schools. My daughter went to the local elementary for K-5 and is now in her second year at the middle/high school. Starting when she was in second grade I’ve been increasingly involved in the parents’ association at both schools (this year I’m actually one of the co-presidents!).

Parental involvement makes such a big difference. Our PA raises money to put back into the classrooms in the form of mini-grants to teachers, gifts to departments (e.g., music or athletics), and gifts to the school itself so the principal can fill gaps not addressed through her regular funding. We, too, rely on donations from the wider school community, but it’s a small group that heads up the efforts.

My daughter’s current school ranks a 4, but I think it’s a wonderful place. Like your kids’ schools, it’s diverse and vibrant with committed faculty and staff. While she may not end up there for high school, I’ll be thrilled if it turns out to the right place for her to finish up. It’s a caring, open community and I’m honored to be part of it.

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16 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Before we moved here, I think I would have said, “Well of course, parental involvement is great for schools,” without really considering what that meant. But now, it’s so clear that parents can make vast improvements. If your school doesn’t have an art program, you can create one. If your school doesn’t offer music, you can fund a music program. And it doesn’t just benefit your child, it helps the entire community!

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17 Sharon Johnson December 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I love living in a city with such diversity!

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18 Lauren December 11, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I believe that when parents and teachers are passionate about their school, amazing things can happen. And the benefit reaches not only students, but families and the greater community. Although I’m a product of public school, my young boys (4, 6, and 8) attend a christian school that I love. Our public school system happens to be enormous and we chose to have them be in a smaller environment (for now) and their school is actually more diverse than the public school. I love my kids’ school and have a great respect for the people (parents and teachers) who make it their mission to see the school thrive so that our kids can have the best learning experience possible, even on less resources when compared to other institutions. More money doesn’t necessarily mean a better education and great schools/teachers provide an education that goes way beyond just academics.

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19 Joan December 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Gabby,
I live in New Haven CT, a school district that has recently been praised for its school reform efforts but that has many of the same challenges faced by other urban school districts around the country and has a ways to go.

Last year, three New haven working-moms (one being myself and the other two being born and raised in New Haven), feeling frustrated with the Magnet School lottery system and not nearly satisfied with choices of schools we had for our children, decided to establish a local charter, public Montessori school. We applied for and received approval for a Connecticut Local Charter Grant. And our Elm City Montessori School will open in Fall 2014. It will be a free, public, certified Montessori School. We will enroll 3-5 year-olds the first year and then expand to house PreK-3 through Grade 8. A local charter school is run in partnership with the school district but has a Board of Trustees and is able to maintain control of the curriculum.

One of the core beliefs for our school is parent and community involvement. We truly seek to run our school as a partner to students, parents, and the community at large. We see this as an amazingly exciting opportunity to model a new type of school for New Haven in both curriculum and community engagement. The examples you gave and those in the other comments will be very useful.

I had a pivotal moment when, in front of my children, I caught myself bemoaning the educational opportunities I had “given up” by moving to the city from an affluent suburb. At that very moment I sort of shook my head and said, “Why did we move here in the first place? Because we value diversity and culture. What do I want to teach my children about the big challenges in life?…Certainly not to just complain about them. Nope I want to teach my children that they can effect change in their world. So, lead by my brilliant friends I embarked on this adventure.

Check us out at http://www.elmcitymontessori.org/

j

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20 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Wow, Joan! Kudos to you for taking on the challenge. Wonderful! I hope your schools thrives and grows beyond anything you were imagining.

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21 Suzanne December 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I love our school, where parental involvement is huge, but I do have to say that sometimes I worry that those in charge of the purse strings feel comfortable making cuts to education because they know (or hope) that parents and volunteers will pick up the slack. While I most definitely think having parents involved is important for schools and for the kids there, I bristle at the idea that our teachers are being asked to do more and do it for less, thus creating the need for parents (many of whom have to work) to pick up the slack.

As a working parent, I find it hard to get into school to volunteer and I’m endlessly grateful to the other parents who can. I would think, though don’t know, that schools in lower SES districts may have a harder time building a strong parent network – not because the parents don’t care, but because of work obligations and the stress that comes with making ends meet.

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22 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 5:18 pm

I hear you, Suzanne. My health has prevented me from doing much of anything volunteer-wise this year. But there are other years where I can be really helpful with my time or resources. On the years I can’t, like you, I’m so grateful to those who pick up the slack.

But honestly, it’s been my experience that even in schools that have plenty of funding, parental involvement is still super key to having a quality educational experience. And I don’t think it has to mean every parent spending a significant time in the school. Even having parents read the notes sent home and respond accordingly, or supervise homework, is a big help in keeping a school running smoothly.

That said, I also agree with you about bristling “at the idea that our teachers are being asked to do more and do it for less”. As the daughter of a public school teacher, I would be delighted to see teachers’ pay reflect the hugely important work they do.

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23 KelliO December 12, 2013 at 12:33 pm

I’m young and not a parent yet, but if I could do one thing in the world, it would be to see teachers receive the compensation they deserve. It seems to me that the way society spends money says we value other things so much more than education and educators. Here’s to those who teach because they love it. Here’s to those who foster creativity instead of just teaching to a test. Here’s to those who make such a difference in so many lives.

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24 Suzanne December 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm

And to clarify my post above, I don’t meant to suggest that you or anyone else here is suggesting we cut funding for schools and let parents pick up the slack. Rather, I feel that’s the attitude of those making funding decisions for our public schools. Even in the “best” schools, I would hope parents care and are involved. I just don’t like that it’s starting to become a necessity, if that makes any sense!!

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25 leslie December 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm

After 18 years of going through elementary school with my kids (sniff, my last one just entered middle school), I’ve seen how parents and dedicated staff can make a school into a living, breathing, petri dish of life experience for grade schoolers. My friend and I were two artsy fartsy people, both of us art history/music majors. Our school didn’t have an art program or a choir. She taught a weekly choir and I taught an art docent-pull-out class 2 times a week. After 3 years of doing this as volunteers, the school and PTA allowed funds to hire ‘real’ teachers to do these jobs, because the parents in the school demanded it. (Even though we could have done it and were very professional, we opted to find new areas to volunteer).

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26 Jessica P December 11, 2013 at 3:39 pm

I don’t base anything on Great Schools. So I guess a 10 or 6 would not make a difference for me. I spent time in my children’s school, talked to parents there, read the school newsletters (online) before making the choice to send my children there. Much for information was given to me from this than from Great Schools. I am a teacher turned SAHM so education is a big deal to me (isn’t to every parent though?). Love my kids school. Will be there forever.

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27 Jessica P December 11, 2013 at 3:41 pm

P.S…loved reading about this school your children attend. Sounds awesome!

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28 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Spending time at the school is such a smart way to get to know if it’s a good fit or not!

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29 Jenny Stockton December 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm
30 Erin December 11, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Thank you for writing this today because I needed to be reminded why I involve myself so much at my children’s schools. Sometimes I wish I was someone who could sit quietly on the sidelines, but I just can’t.

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31 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I’m so grateful for people like you, Erin! Especially this year as I have not been able to be my normal likes-to-be-involved self.

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32 Erin December 12, 2013 at 9:24 am

We moved in the summer of 2012…I took the next school year off, getting your bearings and the family settled is very important too!

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33 Leone December 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Perhaps it would be interesting for people to read Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on immigrants speaking (or not speaking) English. Some may call it diversity, but he viewed it as division. A huge and important distinction, but missed by many.

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34 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Leone, having the newsletter in 5 languages doesn’t mean that school takes place in 5 languages (it takes place in English), and it doesn’t mean the parents don’t speak English either (though certainly some do not), but getting information in your native language helps tremendously with understanding.

Though Ben Blair speaks French, (and I do my best), when we lived in France, we for sure missed all sorts of information (and school events we would have loved to contribute to) because we misunderstood notes sent home.

Providing information in multiple languages is a huge aid in involving all families in the community, even those new to the country.

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35 Ellen December 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm

We are homeschooling and loving it – it is a great fit for our family.

Reading this, I was reminded once again that no matter the learning environment, there is tremendous power in parental involvement in education. What a difference it makes!

I am in Ontario, Canada, and our neighbouring province is trending toward barring parents from schools (obstensibly to protect kids). I can’t fathom the damage in store for communities that limit the powerful resource of parents pouring energy into their kids’ education!

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36 Nora December 11, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Hi, I’m not sure what my child’s school rating is. Like you, I’m a skeptic of rating system. They don’t necessarily reflect YOUR personal preferences. For example, shortly after enrolling my son in his elementary school, news broke of a new big, shiny school opening up the next year. So many people were ready to and did jump to the new building. However, we stayed in the small, 120 year old charming little school house. It was calm and friendly and full of traditions and pride. That seemed more important to me than new cafeteria trays and audio equipment. Just me I guess. PS Nothing teaches you more about your country than leaving it and coming back.

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37 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm

I have such a thing for old school buildings!

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38 Callie December 11, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I got surprisingly emotional reading this particular post. We moved to a small country village on the island of Oahu 7 months ago. When making our decision to move or stay where we were, the local schools was one of the biggest set backs. Living so far from town (Honolulu), even if private school was monetary investment we wanted to make, having our children gone from 7:00 till 5:00 wasn’t an option. And we don’t qualify for an exemption to transfer to a higher rated school in the area. Despite all of our reservations we’ve been overjoyed with each child’s experience. The teachers are superb and the principal (who has been there for four years) is the biggest x-factor. Together, they have set performance, behavior and attendance goals school wide. There are monthly assemblies to recognize students reaching these goals. And each month there are more and more children to honor. But most of all, and unexpectedly so, we have been grateful for the situations that our children are learning to navigate. Life lessons of conflict resolution and empathy are on the top of that list for me. I’ve come to love and appreciate what I thought would be the biggest downfall of making this move. We still supplement at home with workbooks and Khan Academy, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Loved this post so much! Thanks again…

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39 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I love your comment so much, Callie! What a blessing when something we thought would be awful turns out to be wonderful.

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40 jessica brown December 11, 2013 at 6:39 pm

My kids go to a public school that requires 4 hours of volunteering a month from each family. There are parents at the school all the time helping out and it makes an amazing difference.

I’ve cleaned and dusted and vaccuumed in classrooms, helped out with classroom activities and field trips, help keep an eye on kids during testing, trimmed bushes and planted flowers during landscaping day, watered plants, helped with a big carnival fundraiser, sat in the lunch room during lunch to visit with kids…..

that makes a school great!

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41 Lisa December 11, 2013 at 7:16 pm

As a teacher I have taught at three different Bay Area schools. Started at a school with a 2 rank, then on to a 6 rank, and presently one with a 10 rank with an almost perfect API. The greatest advantage I see for students at a school with a high ranking is the children in the class are always pushing the curriculum beyond grade level standards. The students are continually exposed to high level vocabulary and critical thinking through their classmates.

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42 Jen December 11, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Thank you for posting this! We recently moved from a well rated and supported school to one that is much less so and my kids are suddenly left with 1/2 of the education they were receiving before. It is very frustrating to hear things like “We are only writing paragraphs in 5th grade because it would take too long to correct 30 full essays.” when your child has been writing, editing, and orally presenting full essays and other written presentations for the past three years. They are capable of so much more, it’s so disappointing. I’m not saying all lower rated schools are like this, just agreeing that higher rated schools are more often offering a more rounded higher level education. Critical thinking is huge. Problem solving is huge. Confidence is huge. . Language (both written and spoken) is huge. And once you’ve had those things for your children it is quite startling and upsetting to suddenly be left without them.

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43 cathy December 11, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I helped start an elementary, a middle and a high school in our district. They were designed to include students of all socio economic, physical handicaps (or not) and different races. While each school is still having success after 20+ years, the elementary school model has worked the best. We called it the “school of overachieving moms” affect. Many of the higher income parents brought programs to the school that we could not afford. All the parents had buy in to the program and wanted success. It was incredible. So glad that parents are still making a difference in public schools.

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44 Carla December 11, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Hi Gabrielle,
Thanks so much for making these Oakland Public School posts–I love them and your outlook!! I taught in Bay Area public schools for years. I couldn’t agree with you more that just a handful of people can make all the difference to a community and I’m so happy to know that you’ve made the choice as parents to invest in the public system–I know your schools will be better for it. I wish all your kids the very best as they’re transitioning back to life in the States.

Cheers!

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45 Heather December 11, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Do you find that knowing that parental involvement improves schools (and I totally believe it does!) adds extra guilt to the parents if they can’t be involved or don’t want to be? My mom never was a “room mom” or volunteered in our classrooms so it never crossed my mind that I would need to. But I have a friend with a kindergartener and preschooler and she keeps talking about all the school and PTA things going on- it’s like they’re asking for money on a weekly basis! And the PTA and other parents are her social circles now. I live in Oakland, too, and I think that I’d feel pressure to be the amazing person who is so involved because it would improve the school, but I really don’t want to. It’s not the sort of thing I imagine enjoying (I’m sure some parents really love being a room parent and being involved in schools, but it’s not me). But on the other hand, is it selfish of me to expect other parents to pick up my slack?

Is it like that? Is there pressure for the volunteering and involvement?

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46 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm

It’s a good question, Heather. An earlier commenter brought up something similar and I mentioned that I haven’t been very involved this year, but feel fine about it.

The thing is, an elementary school might only have 18 classes total (3 per grade, K-5). So that’s 18 room parents. But clearly, a school needs way more than 18 involved parents. There are so many others ways to get involved! And thank goodness, because I would make a crummy room mother. : )

One mother at our school, who works full-time, handles some of the graphic design needs for the school (think posters for the Fall Carnival and newsletter masthead). She can do that from her work desk. She doesn’t have to spend time in the school or make dozens of cupcakes. And the Dad’s club is also run by men with full-time jobs.

Maybe you’re good with quicken and can help keep the financial records for the parents association — without having to attend any meetings. Maybe you like yardwork and can organize a volunteer Saturday for planting shrubs and trimming trees. Maybe you have extra funds and can donate $1000 to a teacher to cover class field trips for the year. Maybe you’re good at Instagram and can run the school feed — again, without ever actually having to spend volunteer hours at the school. Maybe you’re simply a really supportive person and you show up for the school activities and engage enthusiastically.

PTA meetings aren’t the right fit for everybody, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive.

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47 J December 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

I don’t think anyone should feel bad if they can’t be in the classroom. I really enjoy working/volunteering in the classroom with remedial kids. I do not want to be in charge of the class holiday parties and I have no interest in PTA stuff where they will put expectations on me to be part of the club. There is probably something for everyone and nothing if you don’t have the time. Public education is a really great blessing that not all people on the planet have.

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48 Kristen December 11, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Honestly, I LOVED going to a multicultural elementary school. I truly learned so many things through just that aspect of the experience alone that have already given me so many advantages, even though I’m just looking at graduating college now. The degree of cultural understanding that comes from simple things like having a Muslim best friend around 9/11, and asking my Hindu classmate about the holiday she was celebrating just gives you a totally different perspective than encountering them later in life or not at all!

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49 Kristy December 11, 2013 at 9:33 pm

I am loving these posts, too. This one has me inspired. I’ve had a hard time getting motivated to volunteer or get involved, because I didn’t think I could make a difference in such a big system. But this has helped me see what parents can do–what I can do.

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50 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Go for it, Kristy!

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51 Lauren December 11, 2013 at 9:45 pm

We have moved around a bit, to four different elementary schools–rated 4, 6, and two 10s. I can honestly say I have loved every school, and probably the “6″ the most. The ratings are just test scores, and a school community is about so much more. I do feel that schools with lower ratings can be more work, require more parent participation, and can have fewer resources, especially for remedial and gifted students. That being said, we had an amazing year at the “4″ school and a couple of challenging years at a “10″ school. It’s a delicate combination of child, teacher, administration, and parents.

I do love your comment: “one person really can make a difference. A huge difference.” My youngest is only two, so I have a lot of years to make a difference, and I am going to keep that in mind.

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52 Hillary December 11, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Thanks for your honesty. Making the decision regarding schools for our kids seems like such a monumenta, life determining choice (at least for me). Having grown up all over the US however and gone to both very low income and more wealthy public schools as a child I have come to realize that it WAS th people who supported the schools and the individual TEACHERS who made such a difference for me, a completely public educated physician. :)

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53 Design Mom December 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm

You’re certainly not alone in feeling like it’s a monumental decision. Our older 3 started school when we lived in New York, and worrying about schools is practically a religion there. Hah! Maybe I need to write a post about how we figured out how to worry less about schools — perhaps it could help another family.

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54 Kristen McCann December 13, 2013 at 7:48 am

This post speaks to me so deeply. I was a teacher for 12 years in both a lower-income neighborhood and then a very affluent community. Both schools had their own special marks…culture, family, respect at one…faith, services for all, excellence at the other. Both schools had their pros and cons, for sure. We chose not to send our own children to the private school innthe affluent community, though we could have applied for financial aid, because we did not think our family and lifestyle would “fit” and wondered if that would negatively effect our children. They are now in our local public school, in a dual-immersion Spanish program. The school is good…but the services, parental involvement and resources are so few, compared to the more affluent school. It can be a bitter pill to swallow as an educator and parent, but we feel the community better reflects who we are. I am just doing my best to get involved to help riase the school to the best place it can be for all of the children attending. We have certainly had to let some of our worries go.

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55 Maddy December 13, 2013 at 9:37 am

I would love a post about how to worry less! We are just looking into Kindergarten. I had no idea there was so much to think about and so many choices! I feel worried and anxious, about what’s the right choice and how the different schools will affect her WHOLE life!

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56 Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 4:49 am

I teach 6,7 and 8 grade at an upper middle class school that has had an A rating for years. We have great parent involvement. The problem? Our district pushes getting high marks on tests, and the focus on creativity and community is existing only in the classses of teachers who value those things, but not by the leadership. There is a tangle of politics that motivates every decision that is made, and it isn’t always what is best for the growing and developing child. Middle school has traditionally been about exploration. There is an obsession with 6th graders getting ‘a leg up’ for college (!) With classes that haven’t typically been offered till high school. Its sad for me to watch, and I worry all these efforts will make nervous although intelligent 16 year old college enrolled people who have no sense of creative expression or community.

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57 Jessica @ Little Nesting Doll December 12, 2013 at 6:43 am

I had never heard of Great Schools until you mentioned it. I checked it out and my kids schools score a 5 and a 7…but the comments in the reviews are completely weird and not at all in sync with my impressions of either of the schools. I feel like the concept is good–a resource for parents to see how their schools measure up–but it’s impossible to accurately rank the GAZILLION schools in this country across the board. It’s too personal and close-to-home to nationalize. Every school has good and bad points, but it’s up to parents (and kids) to make the most of each opportunity. And what I might consider to be a great aspect of one school, another parent may consider to be a detriment.

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58 Emily December 12, 2013 at 7:30 am

As a child who attended a horribly rated urban elementary school for the entire duration of my childhood, I can absolutely say without a doubt that test scores DO matter. I only wish I had teachers that actually taught and helped (pushed) students achieve well on tests! … And learn material and content in all subjects. Every day was mostly a struggle for them to discipline and keep order in the classroom of mostly unruly kids. Because of this, I struggled all through middle and high school and didn’t go the college route I had deep-down hoped for: An out-of-state 4 year college. I had to attend a local community college, then transfer later, always a few steps behind. I truly believe environment affects learning. Now, for my children, my husband and I will only live in an area where test scores are high. My husband also grew up in a third world country and has overcome poverty and a terrible school environment where the teachers actually beat the children. Not to shock – but he’s been on the other end of the spectrum, and will do all it takes to give our kids the best!

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59 Chrissy December 14, 2013 at 2:20 pm

I share that same perspective. Education was a terrible experience for my father, due to severe dyslexia, which my son also has, just as severely. I have known he is dyslexic since he was very small and that has determined our school choices for him. Our large, diverse local school is not a reasonable choice for him. He needs a special reading protocol that no one there knows and a tremendous amount of one on one time, plus all subjects presented in a multi sensory way all the time. We ended up at a wonderful private Montessori that could meet his needs and now that he has aged out of that, I homeschool him. Those years watching them educate him well taught me a lot about what will work and what will not. School choices get complicated when your child is complicated. Thinking public schools are a great thing is irrelevant for us. Now we love homeschooling and the freedom it provides our family and as each of our sons ages out of that same Montessori school I will add them to our homeschool. I can’t wait until they are all home and we can start our long treasured dream of packing up the family a couple of times a year for a VERY long road trip around America and then around the world when they are older. My husbands’s job makes taking those trips during school breaks impossible so homeschooling is the only hope. We can’t wait!

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60 Christine December 12, 2013 at 8:03 am

I taught for 11 years in a Bay Area “10″ school and it molded and shaped ME. It was a true community for teachers, for kids and parents. I wasn’t a parent yet myself, but I learned so much about parenthood from the folks I worked with there. We have since moved two times now that I have my own kids. Both found us attending 6/7 schools. Once it was my own kids I started dreaming out a bit about it. I would be pulled in my mind, remembering the vibe of the school I has taught in. Wanting that for my son. Especially in the Silicon Valley, where we were last, the pressure to have your child in a ten school was immense. I had friends move across town to ensure that. But….it was so much about teacher and involvement. I absolutely LOVED our kindergarten teacher. Out of school she helped start a school in Africa and goes 2x a year, spending all summer there. The class was so diverse and I adored the kids in that room. My son didn’t even get how diverse it was. It was just normal. There was a new, awesome principal and he became an idol to my son. Loved that in a school of 850, he knew my son’s name. After our move this summer, we are in one of the “middle” schools, rating wise, but again, the teacher and parent involvement blows me away, day after day. I wish I could be more involved—but like you said, some years are easier than others to do so. Often, it’s childcare for my youngest that makes it tough. Anyhow, thank you for broaching these topics. As a former teacher and a recreation major, I believe SO much of life is enriched by playgrounds, eating around the table together and….showing up. So many of the comments above prove that. Woohoo.

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61 Bonnie @ The Pin Junkie December 12, 2013 at 8:39 am

I agree with you about Great School ratings. Those numbers are a good place to start when finding information about a school, but don’t necessarily define a school. It sounds like this elementary school has many extra-curricular activities with strong parent and community support which is so important. If you’re happy with the school and your children are safe, happy and are learning, that’s really all that matters.

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62 nicole December 12, 2013 at 8:46 am

Thank you SO much for this post, Gabby. We are looking at making some big changes for our family and pulling our kids out of their school and putting them somewhere new and unknown has been the biggest concern for me. I really, really needed this today!

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63 Sarah December 12, 2013 at 10:40 am

I don’t have kids, and I am not that aware of schools right now. But I wanted to thank you for writing this. For some reason it just really touched me to know that there are good institutions out there, that people care about giving kids rich experiences even on tight budgets, that wherever there are children there will always be hope. Your positivity is refreshing and a balm to a world- weary soul. Thanks.

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64 Kate December 12, 2013 at 10:43 am

YES to the post about how to worry less about schools!!!

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65 Sarah R. December 12, 2013 at 11:45 am

Love these posts! Parents should in no way feel they are failing their children if they happen to go to a school with lower test scores. There are ways to make up for this, as is evidenced by involved parents everywhere. Being happily involved in education, in whatever capacity works for you, is such a great gift to give your kids. It models for them how to behave in similar situations.

I too, get sucked into the ratings game. Great Schools has validated me, and scared me, more than once! My husband’s field is education and he goes nuts when I get on sites like that. Instead, he steers me to two forms that every parent can seek out: the School Report Card, and the Ratings Detail Sheet. This is available through your State’s Department of Education website, and sometimes through your own school’s website.

If you are interested in the ratings game, might as well go straight to the source. They will break down testing by demographic and subject, and also tell you how your group compares to others in the State. Still, not a perfect indicator of school quality, but interesting if you are into that sort of thing. But as always, school visits, and talking to other parents mean more than all those scores combined.

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66 juliagblair December 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Really loved this post. My experiences both as a public school teacher and a PTA president ( YEARS ago) were both great treks into reality. They are such different worlds and it seems the all mighty $$$ rules in both. Volunteer service, given freely with love (even passion) and accepted with appreciation and no concern for reimbursement or displacement must be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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67 Bek December 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

We love in a great, strong and diverse public school system. But. Our special Ed was distressing. About 6 years ago, parents started advocating and we currently have a spe Ed PTA, amazing teachers and one if the best magnet programs in the state. Perhaps even the country. Parents make a difference. It requires time, fundraising and often, tears. But our schools deserve it! Yay oaklamd.

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68 Cassandra December 12, 2013 at 1:16 pm

This is an interesting subject for me. We moved to a semi-rural, post-industrial area from Cambridge, MA a few years ago. Our local public school is a 3 on the Great Schools website. The local private options are very limited.

I can see that you and Ben Blair are invested in providing a dynamic and valuable education for your children. Though I can imagine that parental involvement, diversity, etc. can make a #4 or 5 school a great option, I don’t see that we have a lot of those advantages here. We have a fairly homogeneous student body and an apathetic parent population. Were I to enroll my children in the public school I would worry most about the quality of the teaching. Parents can make big inroads in areas that are open to influence but it’s pretty hard to remove burnt-out, mediocre teachers.

As it is we’ve decided to homeschool. It’s gone very well and we’re thrilled to be able to offer our children challenging, exciting curriculum and provide time for deep learning in the arts and elsewhere.

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69 Linda K December 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm

A very interesting post, as always, Gaby. I have no doubt that every single school, in every single country would benefit greatly from the passion, love and time of involved parents. Hats off to all the parent/commenters above for their dedication.

But I found the post equal parts inspiring and depressing.

It is so incongrous that the richest country in the world relies on volunteerism to offer first-class (or even a middling) education to its children. The recent global educational rankings should give everyone pause (PISA).

Would the time and passion of those caring, involved parents be better spent on advocating with all levels of governments to adequately fund your system? If any country in the world should be able to offer a kick-a** education to kids, surely the United States is it, no?

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70 Grace @ sense and simplicity December 12, 2013 at 6:11 pm

So interesting what the power one person can have. She would be such an interesting person to interview. I love knowing what makes these heros of our world tick.

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71 PARIS BEE kids blog December 12, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I’m very nervous about Little Miss starting school in 2015! I feel like for her to get into good schools down the road so much depends on these choices. In fact I’m obsessively investigating everything!!! Very interesting to hear what other people’s experiences are…

xoxo PARIS BEE

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72 cath December 13, 2013 at 1:52 am

So informative! I read the post about high school which I had missed for some reason, and found it really interesting.
I’m amazed at all the extra curricular activities offered, but of course, as a French teacher, I would be.
School rating sounds rough!

I re-read your posts about French schools, and I was wondering, at the time, you were thinking of ways for your kids to maintain their fluency in French. Have you kept up with it,?

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73 Emily C December 14, 2013 at 7:47 am

We live in Oakland and have small kids. Next year we will be making choices about Kindergarten. Some local friends have sent their kids to their zoned school while others have opted to join the lottery and drive to nicer schools close by. Ours is one that has not met API standards, has not had great parent involvement, and although previously was rated a 4 on great schools is now in 5-6 range (it seems to change regularly which I don’t understand). It’s one of those things though, we could be one of the few families that join and really make a difference. I guess if we weren’t renters it would seem more permanent but right now we are weighing our options, including moving to Alameda or Berkeley before our kids start school. Thank you for your post, it’s inspiring, and I need to hear more from families like yours that have stayed and enjoyed it.

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74 J December 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm

It is important to “bloom where you are planted.” Your school does not define your abilities, but the family environment you go home to generally does. Schools with lower “grades” probably are in lower income areas. Since your children will benefit from a healthy home environment with much outside stimulation; travel, technology… I don’t think “low scores” will impact your own family. However, a kid who goes home to an empty house/fridge or absent minded parents will bring down the scores. In the high school my children will attend, we have some of the brightest kids you can find from families in tech that win national science competitions every year and then you’ve got a kid who just came across the border. The government no matter how hard it tries can not equalize these realities.

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75 Shannaspring December 18, 2013 at 9:01 am

I have been pondering this post and comments for weeks. I admire your optimism! I tend to think big picture, so I worry that since the U.S. lags in education (PISA), and if my child is in a low performing school, in a low performing state, then Eek! Parents, family and community then feel immense pressure to pick up the slack by enrichinment at home, volunteering, and donations. As a committed parent, who values education, the struggle to ensure my kids are getting a good education in public schools can feel immense! I own a business so I have a finite amount of time (as all of us do!) so the “make a difference” chant wearies me. Individual contribution is an irregular way to ensure every child is getting the education they deserve, since resources of time, money, family and community vary widely. I appreciate your bold confidence that your kids will thrive anywhere and I can see I need some of that, but I struggle to have that spirit myself…but thank you for your positive outlook.

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