East Oakland Families in Action

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The Oakland Unity High auditorium is packed with soon-to-be-seniors as Charles Cole, III Ed.D takes the stage. He’s wearing a bright red Energy Convertors sweatshirt and matching bright red running shoes as he starts his talk. He tells the students that just like them, he grew up in Oakland. He shares a photo of a close childhood friend who was failed by the public school system, and was illiterate as a teenager when he dropped out. He was later killed. “There are a lot of people I grew up with who are not here today,” Cole says.

Cole, the founder and executive director of Energy Convertors, is delivering the talk through a partnership with Families in Action for Quality Ed, a coalition of charter schools and CMOs in East Oakland. Organizations partnering include Amethod Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Education for Change, Great School Choices, Lighthouse Community Public Schools, Oakland Unity, Energy Convertors and Innovate Public Schools.

The organizations came together to stand up for school choice for families who have lacked access and have systematically been deprived of their right to access a free, high-quality education. The organizations had previous cordial and supportive relationships, but from a distance. Over the last year-and-a-half, as charter schools have experienced a new level of hostility in Oakland (and at the state and national level) and watched policy proposals pop up that would move access to quality schools backwards, the organizations banded together.

“We all have a shared experience that the discourse right now about public education does not reflect the voices of our families,” says Kimi Kean, a longtime Oakland educator and a Families in Action leader. “Something is happening to influence a lot of people to think about public education in ways that aren’t inclusive for the 15,000 families in Oakland who are choosing charter schools as a real lifeline to quality.”

“We started reaching out and supporting one another in ways that were different than all the other years I’ve worked in Oakland,” Kean says. “Through these conversations we came to the realization that we can lose individually or we can band together and create something that leverages a collective sense of power. What if we had a collective agenda?”

An important aspect of the Families in Action platform is lifting up student and family voice. “They voices of our families really matter, and we want nothing more than for our young people to be really informed, educated and empowered,” Kean says. “This feels like such an opportunity for young people to be aware of local issues in public education. The backstory of the school that they are attending. What it means to have a choice system.”

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Earlier in the spring, Families in Action held its first event, on the history of school choice in Oakland, and 90 parents attended. They talked about how families agitated for quality and launched a small schools movement in East Oakland. “Parents were shocked, to be honest, when we engaged them and talked about the losses being suffered,” Kean says. “Our first step was to empower folks with information on where choice came from and the current state of affairs.”

Kean says that as consumers of public education, it’s important for families and students to be in the know about what’s happening in the public realm that can affect them. That’s where Cole’s talk this day comes in. Cole grew up attending district schools in Oakland and Emeryville, and he’s agnostic about the education delivery system. He’s all about quality. He tells the students that he hopes they remember three things from his talk: you deserve an amazing education; your voice matters; we are not powerless, we are powerful. “Who can make an impact from their seat?” he says. “Every single one of you.”

Cole asks the students if Unity is the only high school that they have attended. Almost all acknowledge it is. “This is important because you don’t know what other people are having to experience right down the street from here,” he says. “So when we talk about who should have access, a lot of people don’t think Black and Brown people should have choice. When we’re talking about choice, someone made the choice to send you to this school.”

He continues: “There are a lot of people who don’t look like you that don’t want you to have these opportunities. So they’ll say things like ‘You’re taking money from public schools.’ This is a public school. And that’s your money. But there are people actively trying to take that away from you.”

Graduation is on everyone’s mind, and Cole pivots to talk about graduation and A-G completion rates (course requirements for admission into UC and CSU schools). Oakland Charter schools are preparing students for college at twice the rate of district schools. Graduating OUSD latinx students have a 39% A-G completion rate, while charter schools have a 79% completion rate. At Unity, 54 of the 57 graduating seniors met their A-G requirements.

“What that tells me is that these charter schools like this one are doing something different. … You’ve got people here that are trying to save your life,” he says. “You’ve got people here that are holding you to a higher standard. You don’t know what it’s like in those other places, and you don’t know the chance you’ve been given to go to school like this.”

Cristina Jaramillo, a parent of a charter student entering middle school, does know what public schools in East Oakland were like before charter schools. That’s because she attended them: she’s an East Oakland native and she’s lived in the same neighborhood since she was 2. “This is my community,” she says. Her family didn’t have access to charter schools so they exercised choice by using an aunt’s address in a different school district so Jaramillo could attend a quality school.

The OUSD school where Jaramillo’s son would be assigned is one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. For her son to attend a good district school, they would have to travel far from their neighborhood each day. “It’s not a good option for us,” she says. “It’s not a good feeling to send your student to a school where they aren’t going to learn anything. (The school’s) outcomes are low, and they don’t change.”

Jaramillo is working with Families in Action to organize and inform other Oakland charter school families. She attended a political rally in Sacramento with other parents this spring, and helped lead the history of school choice event. She says she tells the other parents that they’re in charge, they’re the bosses. It is their choice that their students are attending a charter school. “If they want something and they advocate for it, it has to happen,” she says.

Jaramillo said building that agency with other parents will be extremely important. She knows the voices of support for charter schools among families are there, “they just need to be louder,” she says.

“My hope is that people, and politicians, listen to these voices,” she says.