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Emery Unified: From Takeover to Makeover By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 24, 2005

Emery Unified School District wants to set itself up as a hub of public school excellence in the East Bay. 

It seems an audacious and ambitious plan, considering that with only 788 students in two schools, the district is dwarfed by the 8,000 student Berkeley Unified and the 45,000 student Oakland Unified. In 2003, the district’s middle school was closed down due to declining enrollment, the grades divided up between the single high school and elementary school. Four years ago, only 16 percent of the district’s students were passing the math portion of the California High School Exit Exam. In addition, the district is only one year removed from a 2001 state takeover caused by a declaration of fiscal emergency and a $1.3 million state bailout. 

But those days seem far away, now. 

83 percent of the district’s class of 2006 have passed the math portion of the high school exit exam. 

The Similar Schools state Academic Performance Index (API) ranking for Anna Yates Elementary—the city’s only elementary school—jumped two points (between three and five on a 1-10 scale where one is the lowest ranking) between 2003 and 2004. In that same period, Emery High’s Similar Schools ranking leaped five points (from two to seven). 

This is in a district that is almost entirely nonwhite: 73 percent of the district’s students are African-American, with the remainder divided between Latinos and Punjabi. 

With the state administrator’s role reduced to that of a trustee and the district running its own financial affairs again, Emery Unified is now operating in the black. 

And with narrow city boundaries and in an era when public school enrollment is dropping in most East Bay districts west of the hills, Emery Unified is trying to figure out ways to attract new students to its schools. 

One of the reasons for this turnaround is a youth development partnership between Emery Unified and the City of Emeryville. 

In nearby Oakland, city officials did virtually nothing to provide financial assistance for the Oakland Unified School District once a $100 million state line-of-credit bailout caused it to be taken over by the state in 2003. 

In May of that year, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown joked to a meeting at the Los Angeles Bar Association that the state takeover of Oakland Unified was a “win-win for everybody.” “ We spent $100 million we didn’t have,” Brown said, “and now we’re getting a fresh $100 million to start all over again and we get to throw the superintendent out and get a new one, called the state administrator. And we don’t have to have a school board." 

In Emeryville, in contrast, the city stepped in after the state takeover to help bail the school district out of its financial problems. In 2002, a $1.5 million 40-year agreement was reached in which the city leased the Emery High School sports facilities from the district, but allowed them to continue to be used by the schools. In effect, the citizens of Emeryville drew money from one of their government accounts to cover bills owed by another of their government accounts. The loan paved the way for the school district’s rapid financial turnaround and its recovery from the state takeover. 

Part of the reasons for the Emeryville recovery is Superintendent Tony Smith, the popular, burly, energetic former captain of the UC Berkeley Golden Bears football team who came to Emery Unified a year ago from his job as program director of the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES). 

While he was still at BayCES, Smith helped craft the City of Emeryville/Emery Unified School District Education and Youth Services Plan, the 2002 document that now drives the cooperative effort between the city and the district. The plan calls for a joint city/school acquisition of a central youth-oriented community center in Emeryville—possibly in the location presently occupied by AC Transit—as well as a restructuring of the city’s schools through the Math, Science Technology Initiative (MSTI) to make them centers of technology teaching. 

The district hopes to use the Math, Science Technology Initiative to build a cooperative technology teaching effort with other East Bay School districts, with Emeryville at its center. Emeryville Unified is counting on assistance from locally-based technology-oriented companies—Pixar Animation Studios, for example. Last week, Pixar held a showing for short films developed by fifth grade Yates Elementary students at the studios. 

Smith’s school coalition-building work with BayCES was a major reason why—with a Ph.D in education but no experience as a classroom teacher or a school administrator—he was recommended for the superintendent’s position by a search committee that included the city mayor, and later was unanimously selected by the school board. The school board audience reportedly stood en masse and applauded when his appointment was announced. 

“He [was] key in building the unique collaboration between the city, Emery Education Foundation (EEF), BayCES and the school district to support the students and families of our community,” Emery School Board President Forrest Gee said last year. 

For his part, Smith minimizes his own part in Emeryville’s revival. “The reason this is working is that more people are taking responsibility for leadership in the Emeryville schools,” Smith said. “Many different groups have mobilized and organized around this effort. Staff has stepped up and done an excellent job; they’re committed to our vision. And people have made a commitment to stay at the table and work on these problems. It hasn’t always been easy. It’s sometimes ugly. But it’s working.”