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Parents Fume Over Oakland School for the Arts Miscues By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday December 21, 2004

A group of disillusioned parents of students at Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) charter school have issued a scathing “Report Card 2004” on the school, blasting OSA for everything from unqualified teachers to undisclosed fees to what it calls “academic labeling of students.” 

The report card, issued anonymously on a one-page sheet of paper, has been circulated for the past three weeks in coffee shops, community centers, middle schools, and other areas in Oakland and Berkeley. It cautions prospective parents and students to “make a fully informed decision to avoid dissatisfaction” and says that its findings “reflect the experiences of a growing number of current and former OSA parents and students who wish they knew then, what they know now.” 

The report card results from what some OSA parents say is a “quickly growing frustration” with the school. Several of the parents involved—who asked to remain anonymous because they said they feared that the school would retaliate against their children—say that after three months of attendance, they are actively seeking to get their students out of OSA even before the school year ends. 

In an e-mailed response to the Daily Planet, OSA Director Loni Berry said, “It is helpful to get feedback as to how we might improve. It would be preferable for the parents who are circulating this document to express their concerns to the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) administration. We are hopeful that our lines of communication with these parents will grow to parallel the many other successes at OSA. OSA has an impressive record. Certainly, there have been unforeseen challenges and setbacks; however, these start-up growing pains are not to be misconstrued as systematic institutional flaws.” 

In interviews concerning the report card, parents issuing the report said that they had repeatedly brought up their concerns to Berry and OSA Assistant Director Taura Musgrove, but said that their complaints had not been addressed by the school administration. 

“We brought these things up at parent meetings and in e-mails and letters and conferences,” one parent said. “They just didn’t respond.” 

The Oakland School for the Arts was chartered by the Oakland Unified School District in 2000 after a highly-public lobbying campaign by Mayor Brown, and Brown serves as the chairperson of its Board of Directors. The school originally opened in the fall of 2002 with only a freshman class of 102, adding a class each year to its present complement of 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. For its first two years, OSA operated out of the renovated basement and storefront space of the Alice Arts Center in downtown Oakland (since renamed the Malonga Casquelord Center). This fall, in anticipation of an eventual move into the old Fox Oakland Theater on Telegraph Avenue, the school moved into a newly-constructed portables complex behind the Fox and across from the Oakland Ice Center. 

The new school location formed part of the core of the parent complaints. “When the school was at Alice Arts,” one parent said, “we had the use of the auditorium there. Now the kids have no place to perform until the auditorium is completed.” In addition, the parents complained that students were isolated in the maze of portables dotting the new property. 

Students are admitted to OSA by auditioning in the various areas of the arts, including acting, dance, music and creative writing. On its website, the school indicates that it is a no-tuition school with a curriculum that blends art and academics, allowing students “focused training that will enable them to compete and succeed.” 

The parent report card disputes that website claim. 

Among other things, the report card criticizes the arts school for “difficulty attracting and retaining fully qualified and experienced staff,” “little opportunity [for incoming freshmen] to showcase their talents,” and an academic tracking system that it says makes “many [students] feel segregated and inadequate.” It also cautions parents to “be on guard for the carefully crafted wording of...requests for payment” for what it calls “hidden expenses.” 

Privately, the parents issuing the report card describe a school in virtual chaos, with a rapid turnover in both administrators and teachers, and many students bailing out as soon as they can find accommodation in other schools. 

“If I had known these things before my daughter signed up, we wouldn’t have chosen to let her go there,” one parent said. “Our expectations were violated. I feel swindled and betrayed.” 

The parent said that she had been attempting to transfer her daughter to Skyline High School in Oakland, which has a performing arts program. “But I was told that Skyline has too many students, and we can’t get in this year,” she said. “That’s the only reason she’s still at OSA. In any case, this is my daughter’s first and last year at the school.” 

Statistics from the California Department of Education list 93 9th grade and 83 10th grade students in the school year 2003-04, but parents say that the 2003-04 10th grade class—now in the 11th grade—has dwindled to less than 50. 

Berry acknowledged that student loss, but explained that it was normal in an arts school. “While student attrition rate is indeed significant,” he wrote, “the unique nature of the institution must be considered. Some students enroll in OSA only to discover that they prefer a more traditional high school experience, with shorter hours and a range of extra-curricular activities. OSA is holding true to high expectations in academics, arts and conduct. The challenge of this school is not for all students.” 

A 2003-04 report from the Department of Education showed that of six teachers listed at the school that year, only one had a full credential. Five were operating under emergency credentials. The Department of Education allows emergency teaching credentials to be issued for one year to individuals with a bachelor’s degree, who have passed the California Basic Educational Skills Test, and who have “taken classes that demonstrate minimum competency in the subject matter being taught.” 

One parent said that in the four months since her daughter entered OSA last August, both her science and her English teachers have left the school. She said that for a brief period of time Dean of Aacademic Affairs Peter Dragula filled in as English teacher until a replacement teacher was hired. The parent said that the second teacher later left the school, and her daughter is now on her third English teacher for the year. 

In answer, Berry wrote that “the faculty and staff turnover rate is higher than we would like.” He added, however, that “of the 13 full-time faculty members for the 2003-2004 school year, 10 chose to return this year.”  

Administrative turnover is also an issue, parents said. In a one week-period between the end of October and the beginning of November, both Dragula and OSA Dean of Students Amy Chan left the school. 

Berry said that to “address the concerns regarding the deans” OSA subsequently “restructured its administrative staff” by eliminating the positions, replacing them with assistant directors. 

Another parent complained that teachers at OSA were “too young or too inexperienced; they are coming directly out of college or out of their arts field with no idea how to deal with the problems facing 14- and 15-year-old children, how to teach them or how to discipline them. They end up sending students out of class for the smallest offense. Sometimes you go up to the school, and five to 10 students are lined up at the administration office, waiting for some sort of discipline. That’s a lot for a small school of motivated students.” 

One parent said that Dean Dragula’s resignation came in the uproar over the charging of a $25 fee for a textbook called “The Humanistic Tradition.” In a letter to parents dated Sep. 8, Director Berry called the book “a common text—to be used by each OSA student.” A month later, a second parent letter from Berry noted that “although it was announced in a recent PTA meeting that the not mandatory for students, I strongly recommend that your student have this book. Teachers will assign work related to the readings in this text...” 

But while Berry said that “The Humanistic Tradition” was not mandatory, the school’s Department of Romance Languages lists the text as one of the “required course materials” for French classes to be taken in the fall of this year. 

“The issue is not the $25,” the parent said. “But this is supposed to be a public school, and required books are supposed to be provided by the school. We’ve already paid for that book with our taxes.” 

Director Berry said, in his eimail to the Daily Planet, “OSA does not require payment for required textbooks or materials necessary for OSA students. ... This past semester was the first time the textbook was used, on a trial basis. Now that we have documented success with the text, we are committed to its use and it will be distributed to all students at no cost.” 

Berry indicated in his e-mail that “copies of the referenced material were made available for all students.” But on Oct. 29 he sent a third letter to OSA parents “highly recommending” again that they purchase the book “as copying selected passages for student use is much too expensive.” 

Berry said OSA was in compliance with California law with regards to teachers with full state teaching credentials, but declined to give details about those credentials.  

“OSA’s compliance with California education law is closely monitored by Oakland Unified School District.” he said. “The District’s support for OSA’s overall performance has been validated by the recent renewal (Dec. 15) of the charter for another five years.”