Radical new school funding formula attempts to 'equalize' opportunities for low-income students
By Susan Ferriss
Instead, a brief dose of hip-hop eased 10th-graders into their seats at Oakland High, a campus locked behind metal doors in this city by San Francisco Bay. Teacher Earnest Jenkins III, a towering man in a baseball cap, turned off the music. And he asked his class to reflect on a vocabulary word — mendicant, or beggar — and a quote: “Use missteps as stepping stones to deeper understanding and greater achievement.”
“You’ve got to do it yourself,” a student offered, “because it’s got to be genuine.” Jenkins smiled. “Way to sum that up,” he said.
Next, Jenkins guided students in writing questions about college admissions — questions for an upcoming guest, a black University of California at Berkeley vice chancellor who had also attended Cal. The campus enrolled about 5,500 freshmen in the fall of 2015, only 157 of them black. “Think about what she may have thought about when she was in there,” said Jenkins, who is 35 and also black. “Maybe she was the only African-American in a classroom. Maybe the only one in the dorm room. Maybe the only one on that floor.”
With that, he hit a key on a computer and treated the all-male, all-black class to a soundtrack of Bob Marley singing: “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.”
Unorthodox? Perhaps. Jenkins’ reading, writing and reggae style clearly suits Oakland, a city that embraces its multiculturalism with pride. But the popular Manhood Development class that Jenkins teaches is more than a cool elective. It exemplifies the range of experimentation that’s becoming possible as a massive new school-financing formula takes root in California.
The new initiative suffers from a numbing moniker — the Local Control Funding Formula — but it represents nothing short of a revolution in how education is financed for more than 6.2 million students in the country’s biggest state.
As in many states, California’s school districts are funded with a mix of local property taxes and state money. This has tended to mean that spending on kids from affluent communities has been higher — a dilemma that’s led to unequal-funding lawsuits nationwide, starting with a landmark 1971 California case, Serrano v. Priest, and continuing even now in Connecticut, where the latest battle is raging. Despite reforms to create more equity in the wake of that 1971 suit, California’s convoluted distribution system continued to shortchange some of the state’s poorest kids. And strict funding rules foiled educators' attempts to try local approaches tailored to their specific school population.
But over the past four years, circumstances in the Golden State have come together to change the game — radically. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30, a temporary state sales tax and income tax hike on the wealthy aimed at filling in deep recession-era cuts to state school funding. The measure has raised about $8 billion a year. A white-hot, tech-driven economic recovery has raised many billions more in revenue for education. And although tax collections have dipped recently, the state’s basic budget for K-12 schools and two-year community colleges has rocketed from $47.3 billion in 2011 to a projected $71.4 billion this year.
The bid to fundamentally change how education funds were distributed met skepticism at first because of its aggressive “equity” push. But eventually it found bipartisan support in California's ethnically diverse, mostly Democratic legislature. Lawmakers approved the new formula in 2013, and an eight-year phase-in plan began that fall.
The new system affords far greater local control and guarantees that districts with substantial populations of disadvantaged kids receive more state money — lots more.
This is how it works: All districts get higher per-pupil basic grants that vary by grade level. On top of that, districts also receive 20 percent more in “supplemental” per-pupil dollars based on the number of students identified as disadvantaged. If more than 55 percent of a district’s students are disadvantaged, the district also receives “concentration” funding — tied to the percentage of disadvantaged kids above the 55 percent threshold. Concentration funding is equal to a hefty 50 percent of basic per-student base grants.
The bottom-line increases can be stunning. In 2020, for example, when the formula is expected to be fully phased in, districts could receive a projected basic rate of about $9,115 for every high school student. But a supplemental grant would bump that up to $10,978. A concentration grant would bump it up to more than $14,128 for every disadvantaged high school student above the 55 percent threshold.
Disadvantaged students are those who qualify for a free or reduced school lunch because their families are low-income (about half the state’s students are low-income, as students nationally are), or who are English-as-a-second language learners or high-risk foster kids. Kids in more than one target group are only counted once.
The statute creating the LCFF requires that supplemental and concentration money be invested in ways that “increase or improve” education for these disadvantaged students.
As the LCFF unfolds, complaints are surfacing about dubious expenditures — on school policing or across-the-board staff pay raises that state officials warn should be “targeted” to benefit disadvantaged kids. Not enough time has passed to conduct comprehensive evaluations. Critics are also assailing confusing “local control and accountability plans,” or LCAPs, that districts must create using a state template. The state isn’t collecting data on spending of earmarked money either.
Still, if students start showing academic gains, California’s experiment could provide a blueprint as other states struggle to close their own gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students. If achievement remains stagnant, though, that will no doubt threaten the formula’s future — and embolden those who argue that additional spending has little to do with educational quality.
In the meantime, some educators are seizing the moment — and the extra money — to institute homegrown experiments aimed at transforming school culture in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Oakland.
“School should be fun,” said Cliff Hong, principal of Oakland’s Roosevelt Middle School, which serves mostly low-income Latino, black and Asian kids, some of whom will later attend Oakland High. Hong said he wants “high will, high skill” staff who don’t write off kids as failures when they’re in seventh and eighth grade.
“When I started working here six years ago,” Hong said, “we had adults who referred to students as ‘repeat offenders’ and asked: ‘When are we going to get better kids?’”
A fall to bottom sparks call for change
Like many states, California has struggled with a disturbing academic “achievement gap” that’s developed along socio-economic and ethnic lines — which is what the new funding formula is supposed to address.
In 2013, as schools reeled from recession-era cuts, 68 percent of African-American and less than 76 percent of Latino students graduated high school in four years, compared to 92 percent of Asian-American and just under 88 percent of white students. That same year, only 39 percent of all California graduates took and passed sequences of courses that made them eligible to apply to four-year state colleges.
The problems were a long time coming. In the early 1970s, local property taxes covered most Golden State school districts’ budgets. The state was starting to supplement poorer districts. But when voters dramatically capped property tax increases in 1978 with Proposition 13, an anti-tax revolt, the state was forced to take over most school financing.
To manage the task, legislators set limits on a mix of local and state revenues districts could receive to fund basic school costs. A minority of wealthy districts rich enough in property taxes to cover basic costs without state aid were exempted from the local limit. Over time, legislators added a laundry list of reasons — a small district’s rural setting is one — for why certain districts merited state aid beyond the state limit. Urban districts with large numbers of low-income kids often ended up the losers. In 2005-2006, about 60 percent of all California students were concentrated in large urban districts whose per-pupil base state grant was $85 less than the average grant statewide. That meant millions of dollars less a year in basic support.
The 2008 recession made things worse. Nearly one-fifth of state K-12 funding was chopped as legislators faced plunging state revenues from shrinking income and sales taxes. California hit 46th among states in per-pupil spending, and at or near bottom in librarians and counselors.
“A lot of my students didn’t have books. A lot of my students didn’t have after-school programs,” said Geordee Mae Corpuz, who provided college-prep support at Sacramento and Bay Area schools. “Students of color didn’t feel that there was much expected out of them.”
Corpuz quit and joined Californians for Justice, a civil-rights group that teamed up with others to sue the state in 2010, arguing that unfair school funding was depriving children of constitutional rights to a “meaningful education.”
The suit ultimately failed, but it did change the atmosphere.
Enter Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, who was also on the board back when Gov. Jerry Brown was governor in the late 1970s. Brown re-appointed Kirst in 2011 after being re-elected. A Stanford University professor emeritus of education and business, Kirst was an expert in Title I federal school aid for low-income students, and a former director of K-12 planning at the U.S. Department of Education. He urged reforming California’s basic funding criteria, as well as a parallel system that sent districts extra dollars that could only be spent on specific “categorical” programs.
“The local districts ended up with maybe a good school garden but no money to clean the bathroom,” Kirst said. It wasn’t hard to get superintendents statewide to support throwing out most categorical restrictions, and Brown embraced the “local control” idea.
Civil-rights groups championed Kirst’s push for “concentration” funding: Poorer kids who attend schools with affluent peers benefit from high expectations and greater opportunities available, he said. If disadvantaged kids are essentially segregated in schools, Kirst wrote in a policy paper, staff tend to expect less of kids, and kids “tend to have lower aspirations [and] more negative attitudes toward achievement.”
By 2020, Kirst believes, California’s LCFF will create “one of the most radically equalized” education financing systems in the country. Overall, the state still lags behind a few others with higher per-pupil spending, and school officials say they’d still like more to serve kids. But the surge in revenue has already helped get more money to the poorest districts. Some are currently receiving the equivalent of 90 percent of their projected full entitlements.
The new challenge is making sure the funding is efficiently targeted locally. From right to left, legislators remain concerned about accountability. They approved a bill this year imposing a litany of tests and other measurements to hold schools accountable. But Brown vetoed the bill, arguing that it was too soon to start imposing more mandates.
Kirst has urged patience, comparing the new formula in a mammoth state like California to “an oil tanker” passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge: “You’ve got to nudge it, and you’ve got to keep it moving over time.”
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is developing an "evaluation rubric" to be released next year to judge how districts are doing. And a new public California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is tasked with collecting and distributing “best practices” for improving education for the neediest kids.
County offices of education are responsible for approving accountability plans. In theory, if student progress isn’t clear over a period of several years, the state can withhold money. For now, though, there’s an existing group of annual tests and yardsticks schools can use to check their pace.
A list of eight priorities set by the state are mostly conventional — like student achievement. But two stand out: more parent involvement and improved “school climate.” Districts are now required to form parent committees and seek parent and student input on their spending decisions.
Surveys suggest parents remain largely unaware of the grander role that the state imagined for them — although some places, such as Oakland, have created active parent committees. The goal of a healthy “school climate” reflects growing consensus that students can't do well academically if they don't feel “connected” to school.
Districts are investing most extra funding now to replenish teaching ranks cut during recent hard times and add strategic staff, without controversy. But dissent over some investments is growing.
Bilingual K-9 officer and dog?
Last April, Public Advocates, one of the civil-rights groups that sued the state in 2010, said that multiple school districts’ plans showed a “near universal failure” to identify and justify expenditures of dollars whose purpose was to benefit disadvantaged students. There’s no prohibition on combining that money with other funds as long as disadvantaged students benefit proportionately. But John Affeldt, Public Advocates’ managing attorney, said districts are required to explain that benefit and why using these funds to hire a cop or to increase salaries, for instance, actually helps those kids.
Public Advocates joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a complaint last year against the Los Angeles Unified School District, accusing the giant district of “undermining” the LCFF by diverting $450 million in money for disadvantaged students in 2014 to cover special-education costs for students with disabilities. The L.A. district, 84 percent disadvantaged, argued that the diversion was legal because the majority served were disadvantaged. The California Department of Education, however, released an opinion this past June essentially limiting use of these funds in a proportionate manner to support special education for disadvantaged students.
The Long Beach Unified School District, 69 percent disadvantaged, drew fire for a multi-year plan to use funds to serve disadvantaged kids to finance $14.4 million in pension and employee benefits payments and $7 million for salaries this year.
The district’s plan reasoned that compensation attracts qualified staff to support students, “particularly the low-income and other historically disadvantaged subgroups.” Civil-rights groups objected, and in September the district amended its plan, although not to activists’ satisfaction; instead, the district is investing $12 million in salaries and more than $2.5 million in benefits, arguing that these investments translate into “supplemental education support” for disadvantaged kids. In the coming academic year, these same expenditures jump to $16.5 million and $3.6 million.
More than one district has used extra funding for disadvantaged kids, rather than general grant money, to augment school policing.
For instance, the Stockton Unified School District, 88 percent disadvantaged, has invested more than $2 million for its own sworn police officers, adjunct safety officers, an alarm system, a crime data analyst and a bilingual K-9 officer and dog. The district plan asserts that security investments improve “school climate.” But some parents are unhappy because of Stockton school police officers’ forays into discipline that have led to arrests, tickets and restraints — including a 5-year-old whose hands and feet were bound with zip ties after an officer got involved in a discipline issue.
Oakland's district is spending almost $4.4 million in funding for disadvantaged students on security officers at select schools. The security staff are going through training to de-escalate conflict, however. The 78 percent-disadvantaged Oakland district has limited the role of actual sworn police at schools. Opinion on the need for security guards is split. The district is mindful that in 2015 it paid a $550,000 settlement to a disabled Oakland High student in a wheelchair whom a former security guard struck and dumped to the ground after the two argued.
Kirst, for his part, seems philosophical about controversies he believes will get hashed out over time. There may be a justification, he said, for limited raises for teachers paid substantially less than prevailing area pay, or to finance security, if there is consensus these decisions support students.
Once failing schools strive to connect
In Los Angeles, in the gang-plagued neighborhood of Watts, teachers and principals are already deepening a culture of restorative practices they believe is key to improving academics by changing the atmosphere in school.
The concept of restorative justice strives to resolve conflict by bringing parties together to air grievances, with a coordinator, to hold people accountable but also repair relationships. With White House support, a growing number of schools nationally are turning to restorative methods because of research suggesting that it is a more productive way — compared to suspensions — to support students who are caught up in cycles of disruptive behavior.
This year, the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center, which provides research to schools, concluded that “preliminary evidence does suggest that [restorative justice] may have positive effects [on] discipline, attendance and graduation, climate and culture, and various academic outcomes.”
A short walk from Watts’ housing projects, at the corner of East 103rd and Grape Streets, the mostly Latino and black children who attend the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School raced around a playground at recess. Some shot baskets or skipped rope. Two girls sat under a tree organizing piles of twigs and pebbles, as another girl stood over them, concentrating.
“I’m the judge,” she explained. “And they’re the cooks. I pick which one made the best brownie.”
Joyner staff say their job requires more than just ushering students into seats, going through lesson plans and organizing activities. Two critical positions — an attendance counselor and a restorative justice teaching adviser — have been added since the adoption of the LCFF.
“We have to deal with the impact that crime and poverty have on the children, before we can actually teach the whole child,” said Akida Kissane Long, Joyner’s principal. In 2015, Joyner’s students were 97 percent disadvantaged.
Watts, the scene of devastating riots in 1965, is transforming for the better, many say, putting the worst of its high-crime days behind it. But the South Los Angeles neighborhood is still punctuated by gunfire, sirens and police helicopters. It’s hard to miss drug dealing on some corners. Kids have seen people shot not far from school.
Long said she’s been a principal long enough to not presume what another school needs. But she says she knows what is working for Joyner — and quite a bit of it is “social emotional learning” that helps kids develop empathy and positive relationships.
To help kids process experiences, teacher Raquel Williams has her fifth-graders regularly gather in a circle and, if they wish, take turns picking up a “talking stick” and sharing thoughts about a topic that Williams introduces. Williams says circling helps kids listen more to one another. She says they’re more articulate and seem happier. And she’s noticing improvements in their ability to focus on school work — exactly what LCFF supporters hope districts can accomplish with flexibility.
“It’s a really good use of class time,” Williams said. The gamut of what kids discuss, she said, “is wide and vast.”
Joyner is a Los Angeles Unified School District school, but it’s run by a nonprofit called Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which took over management in 2010. Leveraging donations from businesses and foundations, along with district funding, it manages a number of L.A. schools where test results were poorest, dropout rates highest, suspensions rampant and parents dissatisfied.
L.A. Unified made a commitment in 2013 to institute restorative practices to all campuses by 2020. During this academic year, however, the district plans to invest only about $10.8 million in this goal out of more than $870 million in funds specifically to support disadvantaged kids. That’s a slight increase from $7.2 million invested last year, an amount critics argued was paltry in a district of more than 600,000 kids. Teachers in the district last year complained that not enough was invested in restorative initiatives, while at the same time they were expected to reduce suspensions.
Initially, in 2014, a draft accountability plan proposed shifting $13 million out of funds for disadvantaged students to the district’s large police force, which has an annual budget of about $57 million. The grassroots Labor-Community Strategy Center, which organizes students and parents, successfully fought that proposal. Between 2009 and 2011, citation data showed that school police were sending thousands of kids to court for tardiness and middle-school student fights, mostly from low-income areas like Watts.
Other district plans for $870 million in targeted money this year have broader support. There’s $145 million for “high need” campuses to beef up afterschool programs, counselors, and support for kids taking college-required classes. Another $115 million was slated to cut the size of math and English classes, link older kids to careers and prepare kindergarteners for reading. Some $70 million was budgeted to support English learners and libraries. About $15 million was earmarked to create learning plans for each foster child in the district, and $5.7 million is for hiring more psychiatric social workers. About $500 million goes right to campuses to invest.
Last spring, at Joyner’s campus, Williams’ students formed a restorative circle, and Williams asked them for their thoughts about “happy places.” Snuggling in a warm bed, one child said. The school library, a boy said, because “it’s soooo quiet.”
Williams then asked about places, real or imagined, that made them “shudder.” Kids giggled when classmates talked about Halloween, or roller coasters or going to middle school. One girl said she gets scared seeing a “crazy man” taking drugs near her home.
A boy took the talking stick and said: “There’s a secret place and a whole bunch of people hide bullets.” Boys and girls rose from seats at times to pat one another on the back and offer each other tissues if classmates looked sad.
About 37 percent of Joyner’s kids are classified as English learners, but Williams’ fifth graders spoke English with ease.
“It’s like a relief,” student Melanie Sanchez said of the circles. “Whatever happens in circle, say people say something very personal, everything stays inside the circle.”
“In math,” Melanie also said, “we really didn’t have the confidence to talk about to speak in front of our classmates.” But after kids got used to speaking in circles, she said, teachers didn’t have to make kids pick sticks to try to get them to talk.
"I agree with her," said Ricardo Vargas, Melanie’s classmate. "Because at first we didn’t really have trust in one another — to stand up and say we know the answer [and] this is how I found it. But now we feel like we can express our feelings and talk to each other.”
Joyner appears to be making progress. Seventy percent of third-graders in 2015 scored “standard not met” in English language arts. Last year, as fourth-graders, the proportion of students who scored at the bottom was 59 percent, an improvement. In math, 64 percent were below standard in 2015, and 49 percent below in 2016.
One of the foundational LCFF principles is for schools to show “continuous improvement.” No longer will schools be threatened with takeover by the state strictly because of test scores. The State Board of Education envisions its evaluation rubric — an annual school “report card” — as empowering parents with information so they can demand attention to failings. The report cards will reveal how well students are doing on proficiency tests, graduation and college readiness rates, but also the progress schools are making with parent engagement, school climate and suspension rates.
Brenda Ponce, a Watts native and mother of a first- and a third-grader, volunteers at Joyner and believes restorative practices have made it a better school. And she’s happy that her kids are already talking about college—a goal she said no one discussed with her in Watts until she was almost done with high school. Joyner’s walls today are plastered with college pennants and inspirational slogans.
The rampant suspensions that plagued the school are now rare, Ponce said. “The children tend to want to study more,” she said. “And that’s a big difference from before.”
In 2010-2011, 15 percent of Joyner students were suspended at least once. In 2015-2016, that figure dropped to less than 2 percent. Joyner’s black students in 2010-2011 were disproportionately affected, with 32 percent of all African -American kids suspended at least once. That figure dropped to less than 5 percent last year.
Ponce said Joyner has also worked harder to involve parents. She helps organize support for parents who want to be able to help their children, including parents hesitant to speak up because their English is limited. "We give them ideas,” Ponce said. “If the kids want to use a tablet, here’s a reading application that they can use so they can learn to read.”
Spreading funding strategically
Just southeast of Watts and north of Compton, also known for its mean streets, Paul Gothold is the superintendent of the smaller Lynwood Unified School District: 14,776 students enrolled in 18 schools. The students are 96 percent disadvantaged, with a third classified as English learners.
The district developed a strategic plan six years ago that emphasized approaching “each child holistically.”
“A lot of the things were aspirations that we may not have had the money to afford, to be honest with you,” Gothold said. The new way of funding schools “has been beneficial to us without a doubt.” In 2013-2014, the district received an allotment of $103 million. The next year it received $120 million. And last school year, funding rose to $141.3 million. Its estimated full-funding target in 2020 will be $160.9 million.
The new money has been used for a variety of initiatives. Staff identified 2,000 families without health care and has since matched 1,500 to services. The district is working more intensively with programs like the National College Resource Foundation, which sends college mentors to work daily with kids, tutoring them and assisting with college planning. Another priority: college mentoring services specializing in working with African-American and Latino students.
“Whatever we need to do to make our kids feel connected at school,” Gothold said.
The district has also invested in coaches for teachers and in career technology classes organized into “academies” for biomedical science, engineering, culinary arts and television and film. It has expanded its student support division from three to 15 employees, and now has a restorative justice center. There are no at-home suspensions of kids. Instead, they’re matched to services.
In addition, Lynwood has used some of the extra cash to bring in new counselors for high schools and middle schools, two specific counselors for foster youth, nurses, psychiatric social workers, case managers to develop relationships with kids and families, athletic support and “credit recovery” so students can catch up and a variety of extra staff to work with English learners.
“Our philosophy in this district is simple: We’re going to prepare you for college,” Gothold said. “And if you decide not to go, it’s going to be your choice, but it’s not going to be the system.”
Graduation rates six years ago were under 60 percent. In 2015, Lynwood High’s rate was almost 89 percent, and the rate at Firebaugh High, also part of the district, was 90 percent. That same year, 47 percent of Lynwood and 49 percent of Firebaugh seniors had completed the requirements to apply to four-year state colleges — healthy comparative percentages for high-poverty schools.
Making school relevant
Back at Oakland High, the bell rang and case manager Percy Foster was ready, with tardy slips to hand to students as they entered — late. If students accumulate too many slips or they aren’t in class on time, there are consequences.
But not detention. Instead, they’re assigned to after-school Academic Hour, with tutoring and support to catch up on any missed assignments.
It’s a positive spin on undesirable behavior that Foster and another case manager created, part of the cultural remaking of this campus of mostly low-income African-American, Latino and Asian kids. Detention sounds like prison, the case managers decided.
“You’ll be doing your work during your Academic Hour,” Foster said. “You’ll be catching up on your assignments. When is detention ever used to do those things?”
Were it not for the LCFF, Foster might not be there.
The total amount of money drawn in by disadvantaged kids for the Oakland Unified School district this year is $66.6 million, on top of $292.2 million in base funding — a total of about $358.8 million.
Like other districts, Oakland is pouring new money into hiring more teachers and adding services to upgrade academics. But Oakland is also putting almost $2.3 million into “parent engagement,” nearly $3.7 million into restorative justice and other behavioral and emotional support, almost $1.4 million of this directly from funds for disadvantaged kids. About 34% of supplemental and concentration money is allocated directly to school sites and to programs. The earmarked money is supporting a full-time restorative justice coordinator at the Oakland High School campus. And it’s supporting some of the costs of case managers like Foster — who are critical to running the school, according to Oakland High Principal Matin Abdel-Qawi.
Oakland High has a menu of sports and clubs, but “street culture,” Abdel-Qawi said, has its lure, and he’s investing to create a “counter-narrative.”
“We’re talking about going to Google, going to Facebook, going to the Port of Oakland, going to several different organizations around the Bay Area that are important for our students to see,” the principal also said. “One of the things young people suffer from is lack of exposure to what’s available to them.”
One of the district’s deepest concerns is its abysmal on-time graduation rates for African-American students, who are 29 percent of enrollment, and Latino students, 45 percent of enrollment. Only about 56 percent of Latino students graduated in four years in 2015, compared to 83 percent of all seniors statewide. For African-American students, the on-time graduation rate fell just short of 61 percent.
Some metrics, though, have begun to move in the right direction.
The on-time graduation rate in 2015 for African-American males, for example, actually improved by 7 percentage points in just one year — jumping from almost 53 percent the year before to almost 60 percent. The district saw an even bigger surge in on-time graduation for foster youth, from about 34 percent to 58 percent.
The district attributes this gain to more engaging material, including those Manhood Development classes, and more emotional support. In fact, the Oakland district is so bullish on the success of African-American-focused curriculum and activities that this year it’s investing more than $1.6 million in a new Office of Equity to start replicating the model for Latino males and African-American females. More than $1.2 million of that investment comes from funding for disadvantaged kids.
At Oakland High, Manhood Development teacher Jenkins’ salary is partially paid for with these same funds. He’s also in charge of the new entrepreneurial Khepera Academy, an option for students with an African-American focus and links to local businesses. Heftty portions of the funding specifically for disadvantaged kids is boosting Pathway Programs, academies that match teens with potential career interests.
For Jenkins and Abdel-Qawi, the bottom line is basic: Black boys don’t see themselves enough in a positive light. Jenkins and Abdel-Qawi believe African-American boys benefit from time with role models, and from access to history — back to the contributions of Africa — which hasn’t always been emphasized.
“When we come in thinking about ourselves and thinking about our place in this country, what happens is we start thinking about ourselves as a slave first,” Jenkins said. “There’s no reference to the old kingdoms and dynasties of Africa at all.”
“The only thing we get to hear about is maybe a little bit of Egypt,” he said, “a couple of pyramids, and then boom, the slave trade.”
Josiah Harris, 14, took versions of the Manhood Development class in seventh grade and eighth grade. He also joined a leadership group associated with the district’s office of African-American Male Achievement. He said the courses were a "a brotherly space" he'd never found before in a classroom setting.
"Brothers can go in there and feel love. They can go in there and feel they can't be stopped," Josiah said. "We have a man to talk to about certain stuff. We can let out our feelings."
Between African-American literature and Manhood Development and the Khepera Academy curriculum, students can satisfy English and elective courses they need for eligibility to apply to four-year state colleges.
Jenkins’ class — for which there’s a waiting list — makes time for students to get personal about being black males. Students conduct research and write essays, but Jenkins also keeps things loose with techniques like rewarding boys with fake money for exceptional work. The cash can be traded for snacks. “It translates into a life lesson,” Jenkins said. “It builds up the work ethic.”
Senior Sky Lowe took Jenkins’ class as a 10th-grader and thinks all kids should get their history with diverse perspectives. “I thought it was more of a fun way to relax,” he said, “and just be happy in school.” He says there were times he thought he wouldn’t make it to school, but thought: “I’ll go — because I don’t want to miss Earnest today.”
Sky’s family has moved repeatedly, resorting to shelters and staying with relatives because of high housing costs in the Bay Area. He’s had to scrape for city bus money to get to school, and a stipend from an internship with Californians for Justice buys basic needs. The 17-year-old serves on a student advisory committee at Oakland High that holds brainstorming sessions about what they, students, would like to see schools invest in using the new money from the state.
Geordee Mae Corpuz, the former college-prep advisor, advises that committee.
“Even if a school can’t solve the family problems a kid may have, can’t provide a job for parents or a place to live,” Sky said, “how can schools help the student still engage at school and do well?”
Part of the answer: Percy Foster.
As classes were changing, Foster cruised halls, checking with kids. Why was a boy in a shirt that said “Trouble Follows Me” not in his seat? How was that kid doing who’d been in the juvenile justice system? He corralled a boy who’s a talented artist and told him to consider careers in digital media. He helped calm two girls who got in a screaming match. He answered texts endlessly from both parents and students. Every student is assigned a case manager when they enter Oakland High. Not every kid needs help. But many do.
“I’ve seen the worst kids make turnarounds,” said Foster.
“We’re dealing with grades — grades not being good, how to get them back up. Transportation issues to and from school,” Foster said. “Pregnancies, to not having somewhere to live, lunch money, daily food, whatever.” Kids, he said, “really want somebody to really listen to them and really act on their behalf.”
Jenkins and Foster have the credibility of being Oakland natives— they’ve cruised the same streets as these kids. “You’re somebody they can connect with,” Jenkins said. “You’re not something that popped off the TV. You’re authentic.”
Oakland’s own tracking since more funding began rolling in shows the percentage of graduates completing required college courses is up, from just below 40 percent in 2014 to almost 46 percent in 2015. The district also exceeded its goal to increase the percentage of third-graders reading on or above grade level by five points each year. Other benchmarks are headed north as well. Suspensions of black male students have dropped by more than half in six years, and juvenile lockups have dropped by 40 percent.
Principal Abdel-Qawi is encouraged.
“I have to believe that the funding that we have is enough for what we need to do to change the trajectory of some of our young people from the streets to the university,” he said. “I have to believe that we can create the climate and culture for all of our young people to be successful.”
On Nov. 9, Californians weighed in with their own vote of confidence. They passed Proposition 55, a measure that extends the 2012 temporary income tax hike on the wealthy that helped fire up the school funding revolution. The measure extends those taxes for 12 years, until 2030.
A lot of folks will be watching what that extra investment in disadvantaged districts yields — watching not only here in California, but across the country as well.
This story was supported by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.