In Defense of Oakland School for the Arts By By MARIAN O’BRIEN and KEITH WHITAKER Commentary

Monday January 03, 2005

We are parents of a current Oakland School for the Arts junior. She is a member of the first class to begin the school. Not only will we sign our letter, so as not to be speaking out anonymously, we can provide you with any number of parents you choose, who would like to be interviewed regarding specific information about the benefits their child has received from being at the school, and our hopes for other children who will benefit from the school in the future. 

We are not familiar with the Daily Planet’s editorial policy. Publishing anonymously circulated information is a tricky proposition, and we would wonder if maybe the “report card” has more personal agenda connected to it that should be scrutinized. We would invite you to take us up on our offer to tell you the productive and positive side of the story. Parents who are new to the school would do well to familiarize themselves with the history and successes of the past three years with parents other than those who have taken their students out of the school. One wonders why they feel the need to issue a “report card” on a school that they no longer attend. Feelings of “betrayal and disappointment” feel immature and misguided when presented anonymously in an attack against this institution. Retaliation against their students, for the problems of their parents, which they reportedly fear, is not within the scope of how this school operates. Let us make that perfectly clear. In our three years with this school, we have been deeply moved and impressed by the willingness that the administration has shown to respond to a wide variety of issues. We have always gotten answers to our questions and attention paid to our concerns. And we are not alone. This, keeping in mind that it is a new school and, yes, maybe things didn’t happen exactly the way maybe we wished they had—if there had been more time, more money, more experience and more help from all the parents. The move to the new site was an enormous challenge that was dealt with effectively, again with flexibility of the staff, the students and many of the parents who pitched in. The portables are as good as they can be and are clean and warm, and are being personalized. The students are beginning to take ownership of the campus and it will continue to bloom, showing their footprint. The new tent will soon give them their central meeting place with cafeteria and performance space. 

The heart and intent of the school, Mayor Brown’s vision of a school where students could be challenged and rise to perform social and artistic good has happened, is happening. The students who have embraced the hard work, the long days from 8 a.m-5:30 p.m., and yes, the vagaries that can happen in a young institution, with flexibility—the parents who have offered help, solutions, cooperation, and faith—have had good results in return. Our daughter has said to us repeatedly over the past three years that she wouldn’t rather be anywhere else but at OSA. She feels that it has brought her an immeasurable wealth of experience, exposure and an amazing education this far. And she complains sometimes too, but doesn’t every teenager? We would challenge any parent of a 14- to 17-year-old to tell us their student hasn’t complained about their school. I would also challenge parents to tell us that their child feels safe, cared for, attended to when it is needed, and supported in the highest ideals for their future. Our small school can provide this. We can vouch for it as can many others. OSA is leading the way to better education, in many ways. 

The quality level of the teaching staff is impressive. Yes, some of the teachers at OSA are young. But let there be no mistake, they are not unqualified to teach our students. They will perform to meet state requirements, of course. They have come here from all over the country (and so, of course, some don’t have CA requirements met) to have the experience and honor of teaching in such a remarkable school as OSA. They are coming from the best colleges in the country. Application numbers are high when positions are advertised. Try interviewing some of these amazing people and we defy you to come away thinking or being able to say they are not qualified. The attrition rate is probably no more than would be experienced in any public school, maybe even private schools as well, when it is considered that an entire year’s worth of teachers have to be hired at a time! The first year we had over 100 students with their core academic and arts teachers. Every year again, that many more teachers have had to be newly hired! Couldn’t any sensible person see attrition probability there? Really! Our dedicated teachers show up. They know their students. They care and they teach and each one of them brings increasing value to the school. Anyone who has ever hired people knows that you don’t always realize what is presented by an employee, and would also recognize that it isn’t always a perfect fit either, on both sides. We believe the attrition rate would improve if the teachers, many of whom are working 12-14 hours a day, were supported by more parents more fully. Administrative staffing changes are always unfortunate, but again, in a young institution that is by necessity constantly evolving, it will happen until the school has matured. 

We attended the first public meeting that OSA offered before opening to meet Mr. Berry and interested students and their parents. He was entirely up front in saying that the school was an experiment driven by high ideals, and that they anticipated it to reflect some of the same kinds of issues that parents have with their first child. You would have the highest vision, give the child your most in terms of care, ask for as much help as you could and hope for the best. He also said that he anticipated that they would make mistakes, just like first-time parents do, and that they would grow from the mistakes. Any honest parent would acknowledge this process. Our experience with this school has been that they have lived up to exactly what they set out to do, in spite of having to deal with some really, truly unhelpful parents. Mistakes have been made, of course, and acknowledged, and incredible growth and improvement has come in the past three years thanks to much dedicated work by the administration with the mayor and the board’s support, staff, parents, students and the community. But, everything from economics, to politics, to terrorist attacks from some people in the community who have, frankly, questionable motives in their reasons for attacking the school, have turned up in the past three years to make the mistakes pale by comparison to the negative effects the attacks have had. 

At a time when our schools are struggling on all sides to provide a decent public education, the thought that anyone would try to slander and undermine an institution that is doing so much good is hard to believe. 

Our hopes for our daughter’s education have been exceeded at OSA, both artistically and in basic human terms. For those who need a more concrete measure, one only needs to refer to recent district-wide test results which show OSA students substantially outscoring virtually every other Oakland high school. The school also has an attendance rate consistently in the high 90th percentile. The vision of the artistic direction, the academic commitment, the ability of Mayor Brown and his supporters to help the school grow and thrive, the incredible students we have—we invite you to look further. These students are no different than others, really. They are curious and interested—they are open to learning respect for themselves and each other, being taught to collaborate, learning humility... and greatness. We, as parents, have supported them, and the school. We have questioned, offered solutions, and had faith. We feel that it is showing the rewards of our work. We have a great deal of difficulty with those parents who have chosen to leave the school, (and those that are planning to leave) that are throwing poisoned darts as they hide behind their anonymity. There is nothing but honesty and transparency behind this letter and we urge the Berkeley Daily Planet, now that it has chosen to print this article, to display another, much larger and more productive point of view of the situation at Oakland School for the Arts. 


Marian O’Brien and Keith Whitaker are the parents of an Oakland School for the Arts student.