Turmoil In Oakland School for the Arts, Parents Say By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday September 02, 2005

An Oakland parent who transferred her ninth-grade daughter from the Oakland School for the Arts to Skyline High School after only one semester says that OSA’s academic program and some of its art programs are in “turmoil,” adding several other parents have pulled their children from the school during the past year. 

“While I had some reservations about OSA’s academic program going in, I never thought my daughter would be getting anything but a top notch arts education,” Andrea Kosmos said in an interview with the Daily Planet. “So I was shocked that she didn’t get the theater training I expected.” 

Kosmos cited teacher turnover, broken promises, and a lack of adequate freshman theater curriculum as her reasons for removing her daughter, Lydia, from the school. Kosmos said she knows of six or seven other OSA students who have transferred to Skyline in the past year for similar reasons, and “at least 15, that we know of” who have transferred to Berkeley High School in the same period. 

Oakland School for the Arts, a nonprofit public charter school founded by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, has operated in downtown Oakland under an Oakland Unified School District charter since September 2002. 

The school had a 9- to 11-grade attendance of 300 for the 2004-05 school year, with attendance expected to rise to 550 this fall as OSA adds 6th through eight-grades. OSA is ranked in the top 10 percentile in the Academic Performance Index, California’s official scorecard for rating its grade schools. 

But Kosmos said that teacher turnover this school year, particularly in OSA’s academic department, was “unacceptable,” and was one of the reasons that drove her to remove her daughter from the school. 

“Lydia’s English teacher [Vani Ari] quit in the first month of school,” Kosmos said, adding that her daughter’s science teacher, Asher Davison, left the school soon after. Kosmos said that in all, her daughter had three separate English and three separate science teachers during her one semester at OSA, with “much of the time filled in by substitutes.” 

Kosmos said that comparing a list of OSA teachers from the end of the last school year to the end of this, she has estimated that there was more than 50 percent teacher turnover, with only one of seven English teachers and one of six science teachers lasting in their positions the whole year. 

Kosmos’ claims of an exodus from OSA could not be verified by the school. OSA Director Loni Berry did not return telephone calls in connection with this article. 

A spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District said that while individual student records at Skyline High School would indicate the school from which a student transferred, neither the school nor the district compile a report detailing student transfers. 

Berkeley Unified School District Public Information Officer Mark Coplan said he could not determine if that number of students had transferred from OSA to Berkeley High this year, but said the number was “possible.” Coplan said that Berkeley residents who attended OSA would be automatically eligible to transfer to Berkeley High School. 

Coplan said that in addition, BUSD examines inter-district student transfers “on a case-by-case basis,” and said it was possible that some non-Berkeley resident OSA students could have transferred to Berkeley High on that basis. 

But a pair of Oakland parents whose child remains at OSA confirmed much of Kosmos’ complaint, saying that their child also had three different English teachers in the course of last year, and that the humanities classes were “so disorganized” that different classes were taught during the year by a French teacher, a Spanish teacher, an English teacher, and a Visual Arts teacher. 

The parents, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation against their child by school administrators if their names were published, said that while they were “incredibly pleased with OSA’s music department,” they did not feel OSA administrators exercised “a lot of oversight” over the academic department, and that they often learned of a teacher’s leaving from their child, but not from the school administration itself. 

“If we don’t get satisfaction from the administration about these problems, [our child] will leave the school as well by the end of the next school year,” one of the parents said. “Art is very important. But we feel [our child’s] academic future is at stake.” 

It was Lydia Kosmos’s theater courses, however, that were the most disappointing to both Andrea and Lydia Kosmos. 

“I sent her to OSA specifically to get pre-professional training in drama,” Kosmos said. 

Instead, Lydia said she spent most of her semester doing physical exercises led by a teacher she had for three of her four afternoon theater-oriented periods. 

“He kept saying that if we did these correctly, he’d move us into something that was fun, like improv,” Lydia said. “But we never got to do anything like improv, not for the whole semester, because we could never get the exercises right.” 

She said the teacher left OSA shortly after she transferred out. 

In contrast, even before being accepted into Skyline’s Performing Arts Academy for this fall, Lydia said that she was able to enroll mid-year in a Beginning Drama course, which is open to all students. She ticked off a list of things she learned in her semester, including “projection work, articulation, breathing, moving on stage, character development, memorization of monologues, writing a monologue, and theater history.” 

Another difference between OSA and Skyline, the mother and daughter said, was in performances and field trips, both of which they said had been promised in OSA literature. 

“They said in the handbook that performances would be frequent and intense,” Kosmos said. “They were neither.” 

“I didn’t take a single field trip while I was at OSA,” Lydia said. “They told us that they didn’t have enough money.” She also said that she had “no opportunity to perform” while she was at OSA. 

She said a planned February production of the musical Chicago—for which she got a callback after auditioning—was canceled, and that another play was not performed until after she had left. 

During her semester at Skyline, she said that she took four theater-related field trips, and that within two weeks at Skyline, she won a singing and speaking role in the school’s spring musical. 

“There are problems at Skyline, like there are everywhere,” Kosmos said. “But I’m satisfied with what my daughter is getting now. I’m just sorry that the children who are left at OSA are getting gypped.”