Gregory McConnell: Something Good is Happening at Westlake Middle School

With all the bad news in Oakland, sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder of all the good things that go on here as well. In that spirit, today I am pleased to share this guest post from Gregory McConnell, President and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition about his experience of the Principal for a Day program, a joint project of the Oakland Unified School District and the Marcus Foster Education Fund.

A recent experience transformed my view of Oakland schools. I participated in the Principal for a Day program at the Westlake Middle School. I met an outstanding young principal, Misha Karigaca, and shadowed him throughout the morning.

I arrived at 8:00 and Mr. K, as the students affectionately refer to him, greeted me at my car with a big smile. As we walked around the school, students ran up to him, some had problems, but most just wanted to connect with him. He greeted them with warm welcomes, encouragement and when appropriate, firm words: “pull up your pants young man, handle your business young lady, get to class.”

I could sense a special relationship between these kids and Mr. K. Many of these young people live in broken homes and rank poverty. Mr. K is their father figure, the rock in their otherwise dysfunctional lives.

Westlake has two security guards. They, the principal, and the assistant principals strategically station themselves at key intersections throughout the school when classes change. All of the teachers greet the students at their classroom doors.

For five minutes or so when periods change, the school is in frenzied, yet controlled chaos. Then suddenly all is quiet. The students are seated in their classrooms doing their schoolwork. This transition is remarkable and achieved by a simple yet brilliant strategy.

When the period begins the students have an assignment that is clearly posted on the board. Each student sits at his/her desk and quietly performs the task for the day. The assignment tells them the problem to be solved and the point they are supposed to learn from it. This transitional period quiets the class, gets the students into a learning mode, and lets the teacher get control so the students are ready to learn.

Teachers and educators who know this process may not think this is such a big deal, but to me it was amazing. I convene board meetings where it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get everyone ready to hold a productive meeting and I am dealing with extreme achievers who know the value of time.

The day also had its incident. One student came to school with a BB gun that he “found at the bus stop.” Mr. K told me it is amazing how much stuff students find at the bus stop.

I now better understand the challenges that the schools and students face. Oakland students have needs that go far beyond learning to read and write. Many have traumatic lives at home, and on Oakland streets they experience violence that we only read about. To get them into a learning state of mind, Mr. K and his band of warriors have to address their physical, emotional, nutritional and spiritual needs before they can bother them with mundane issues like how to add and subtract.

Mr. K told me that some get to middle school and don’t know how to read, some don’t even know when a book is upside down. He told me about a brilliant young student who tested at the highest levels, but who had such a history of violence and crime — his mother forced him and his brothers to burglarize houses — that he had to hold special sessions to try to reach him. But how can he do that every day when he has charge of 650 kids?

At Westlake, every adult that I met was genuinely committed to the children. The security guards, teachers, administrators, and the career counselor who came from off-site to teach the principal and teachers how to improve their performance all seemed to have one goal in mind — help these kids.

I don’t know what happens everyday in other schools. I am quite sure that there is much room for improvement. But on that day, I saw something true and good happening at Westlake, and it made me hopeful that if we encourage and support the Mr. K’s of Westlake and other schools, these kids have a chance.

As Mr. K said, “a school is only as good as its community and a community is only as good as its schools.” This community is well served by Westlake and Mr. K and we need to support their efforts.

11 thoughts on “Gregory McConnell: Something Good is Happening at Westlake Middle School

  1. The Boss

    Oakland’s middle schools are improving. What the district needs is a parents-based campaign to encourage parents not to abandon OUSD after elementary school.

  2. len raphael

    TB, I’ve heard different views on how well West Lake is doing, but everyone i’ve talked to about Claremont MS from students to parents to teachers have only negatives to say about Claremont’s principal.

    Words like incompentent, racist, come up unsolicited.

    When I asked why the principal was still in charge the response was that the central office has a very high opinion of the principal.

    -len raphael, temescal

  3. Dax

    Oakland schools since Marcus Foster was in charge.

    That was November 6, 1973.

    How has the OUSD done over 37 years?

    Grade, A thru F.

    What say ye?

  4. Peter

    V, thanks for posting this. So nice to read the opinions of people who’ve actually spent time in our schools, getting some of the big picture.

  5. livegreen

    Thanks V and Gregory. OUSD & many schools ask for a commitment from the teachers, from the school and from the parent.

    What consequences are there when the teachers and school are trying to hold up their end of the bargain, but the parent(s) is or cannot? Does OUSD have any means to “encourage” (gently or more pursuasively) parents who aren’t holding up their commitment?

    To have true “wrap-around” services OUSD needs a way to pursuade difficult parents. Otherwise schools and, more importantly, the kids of “challenged” or “hi needs” parents will continue to suffer.

    & when they suffer we all suffer.
    the consequences.

  6. ralph

    A timely post. This was part of the discussion at the AC Leadership meeting last night.

    I do not believe there is much that OUSD can do to compel a parent to be a parent. And I am not sure punishing the parent is hte right answer. Sometimes, it may be as simple as providing the right resources where the parent is not where the resource is.

    Imagine you and wifey work 2jobs, have 2 kids, and there is no grocery store in the neighborhood. Plenty of corner stores so kids buy a bag of chips, candy, and ice cream for dinner. Kids got rotted teeth, no nutrition, are obese and asthmatic.

    To address the above situation, I believe OUSD, the city, and AC are looking at the community school movement as an attempt to engage the parent.

    A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between school and community. It has an integrated focus on academics, youth development, family support, health and social services, and community development.

    Now imagine a school that has on-site fresh fruits and healthcare facilities. So now instead of rotted fruits and candy from the packy, parents and students have access to healthful food. Imagine kids and parents obtaining needed primary healthcare in the community school or firehouse.

    These are just some of the ways we can support our parents and schools. Some of this may require tax dollars. Fortunately, we have Measure BB.

  7. Livegreen

    I agree that providing services, and the community school model is an excellent one. And I agree that resources are important to help busy, working parents. I believe many families will benefit from this model.

    At the same time there r also many parents who will still not step up to the plate (a minority in #, but still significant). ie. fulfill the commitment OUSD requires of them, notably to read to them 20-30 minutes a day and provide a quiet place for them to do homework. I also agree that “punishing” parents is not the answer. What options r in between to help encourage, tug and prod, such parents to step up to the plate and do what’s required?

    As an example, the other day at school a student dropped their folder and out fell all their reading books from the beginning of the year. The ones kids are supposed to take home,read and keep. I helped the child pick them up and put them away, and asked if she reads them at home? She smiled and replied her mom rips them up & throws them away.

  8. ralph

    Does the parent know how to read? I;ve worked with some students whose parents don’t speak English? We first need to ask the question why isn’t the parent doing X?

  9. livegreen

    Ralph, Good point. Mine is that OUSD doesn’t seem to have a system in place to refer students based on academic need, call the parents and bring them in for a conversation. If the parent is uncooperative that’s often the end of the story.

  10. livegreen

    By the way, how is M-BB slated to support OUSD’s Community School plan? I know OFCY is, just curious how M-BB will be?

  11. Naomi Schiff

    People in the community other than parents can help in their neighborhood schools! That’s one way to help kids whose families don’t have the resources, for whatever reason.