An Excerpt from the Introduction of

Hard Lessons:
The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School


Skyline High School perches on a the ridgeline of a range of hills a few miles from the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay.  Students arrive at this, Oakland’s best-performing public high school, before the morning mists have lifted.  Clad against the chill in padded nylon Starter jackets or polyester fleece, they gather on the concrete pathways that snake through the campus.    Like the million-dollar homes nearby, the school enjoys magnificent vistas, overlooking rolling slopes of golden grass and the aptly named Redwood Park.  “Located in the Oakland hills,” the school’s mission statement says, “Skyline High School offers students an extraordinary opportunity to learn in a diverse and challenging environment.”

In Oakland, income closely parallels altitude.   Oakland may be known as a black city, but the area surrounding Skyline is two-thirds white and Asian.  In 1990, at the census, a quarter of the households in the neighborhood boasted incomes over $100,000, putting them in the city’s richest 5 percent.  Even then, long before the dot-com boom sent real estate prices skyward, the typical home in the area sold for $350,000—twice the city’s median home price.  Now, homes in the hills fetch more than $2 million.

Skyline was built in 1961 to serve the children of the hills.  That arrangement, however, could not survive a decade in which Oakland became a city populated mostly by minorities, and deeply conscious of racial equity.  Today, Skyline is racially integrated, though less so economically.  Fewer than a quarter of its students come from poor families, but half the students are black, and a quarter are Asian; white and Latino children each account for an eighth of the enrollment.  While Skyline is no academic powerhouse, a child—black, white, Asian or Latino—can get a decent education there.  The school, which enrolls about 2,300 students, posts scores at the national average in math, and slightly lower in reading.  In one recent year, half of its seniors took the SAT, the college entrance exam, earning an average composite score of 956—just shy of the national average of 1,016.  One hundred and twelve students there took the Advanced Placement test, which measures whether high-schoolers have learned enough to skip a college course, and about sixty of them earned passing scores.  Every year, Skyline sends a handful of kids to the nation’s leading  colleges.  It is a place where the American dream—rewards for hard work—remains alive.

Skyline, however, is not the province of true privilege.  To find that, one might drive for a few minutes along lanes that wind through redwood forests, ending up at a cozy campus discreetly concealed from the street.  At a private academy called The Head-Royce School, a different sort of educational reality prevails.  Of 74 seniors, 74 took the SAT last year.  Their average score was 1,375—more than 400 points higher than Skyline’s.  Most students at Head-Royce take more than one Advanced Placement test, and earn passing scores on 86 percent of them.  “This year, students of color make up 35 percent of the student body,” a school pamphlet reports.  Few of these students are poor; despite the pamphlet’s statement that “the School makes a strong commitment to financial assistance,” 86 percent of Head-Royce families pay the full fare: $14,450 per year, plus “additional fees for books, elective art classes, class trips, and tennis lessons.”  For those with the good fortune—in both senses of the word—to attend, the doors of the elite colleges and exciting career choices stand open.

While Skyline may have a hard time competing with offerings like those, it stands far beyond other public high schools in Oakland.  As one descends into the “flatlands”—the section of town between the hills and the bay—curving, picturesque  lanes give way to gridded, numbered streets and avenues.  Houses crowd together; apartment buildings begin to appear.  The trees thin out, replaced by chain-link fences and asphalt.  This is the Oakland of public imagination—black and brown, impoverished and listless.  Instead of quasi-mansions with three-car garages, one sees board-ups, shambles, vacant lots.  These empty lots tell the story of the last half-century here—of an economy still reeling from the disappearance of shipbuilding and auto manufacturing after World War II.  In East Oakland, once a solid working-class community, the Victorian homes remain lovely, but they have become backdrops for urban gunplay.  For a generation, mayors have announced, Hoover-like, that prosperity is just around the corner.   In East Oakland, storefront rescue missions woo those who hope that Jesus is better at keeping promises. 

On Foothill Boulevard, which marks the edge of the flatlands, a billboard  on the side of a store reads, “If you are addicted to drugs get birth control—get $200 cash.”  The ad’s sponsor is Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, or CRACK, whose campaign to prevent unwanted, drug-addicted babies has been attacked as a scheme to sterilize poor black women.  The billboard does not explain that the birth control in question is usually permanent tubal ligation.  

Further down the street stands Castlemont High School, amid homes where poverty and single parenthood are the rule.  Plenty of people in Oakland can remember when Castlemont was good, when children from middle- and working-class neighborhoods could get a decent education there.  Back then, they  reminisce, “The Castle”—it did actually look like a castle—was architecturally lovely too.  By century’s end, though, the school was integrated only in the sense that African-American and Latino children shared it; there were thirteen white children among the 1,798 students.  The school’s mission statement claims that “Students attending our school can expect to receive the highest quality education in all areas of academic interest and personal need,” but that is a lie.  In 1999, the district devised for each school an “accountability dashboard,” showing academic performance as a series of little gauges.  By every measure, Castlemont was running on empty.  Students reading at the national average: 8 percent.  Students with grade-point averages below C: 58 percent.  Days of suspension assigned: 1,785—almost exactly one per student.  Percentage of students completing the coursework required for admission to the state university: 17.  The average grade in those courses: D-plus. Average SAT score: 708.  (Students get 400 points for signing their names.  Head-Royce’s score was almost twice as high as Castlemont’s.)  Castlemont’s reported dropout rate was 10 percent annually, but that is statistical sleight of hand.  In one recent year, Castlemont had 868 ninth-graders and 167 seniors.

Perhaps the saddest indicator of all was the Advanced Placement tests.  Under fire for failing to offer AP courses at its poorer high schools—a potent “equity” issue for African-American and Latino parents—the district began providing the classes at Castlemont, and steadily beefed up enrollment.  But enrollment is not education.  In one recent year, seventy-eight Castlemont students took AP tests.  Four passed.

Children at Castlemont, however, face more urgent fears than educational failure.  Frequently, the school is a  dangerous place to spend time.  According to a survey covering one year there, 81 percent of students have seen or participated in a racial fight, and 22 percent have witnessed or participated in six or more such fights.  The school employs a remarkable fourteen security guards, who speak openly about their fears for their own safety.

Every other inner-city system in the country faces comparable schooling woes.  At times, however, Oaklanders have felt like they had it a bit worse than everyone else.  They felt that frustration when Jesse Jackson called Oakland a “national laughingstock” over Ebonics, a policy passed by a unanimous school board which stated, quite clearly, that students would be taught in ghetto street language.  They felt it when the school board then paid a public relations “consultant” $100,000 to explain to the national media that the Ebonics policy didn’t really mean what it said. They felt it when the board decided to spend another $100,000 on corporate logos for the district and its high schools,  claiming that the old logo—an oak tree—looked too much like broccoli.  (The incident, memorably, led a disgusted former Oakland superintendent to wonder in the newspaper, “Why don't we just bend over and say, ‘We're mooning America?’”)  Parents felt that frustration when the district admitted that its teachers were absent more often than its elementary students.  They felt it when, in a poll of large cities, Oakland parents’ satisfaction with their schools ranked second-lowest in the nation.  And they felt it when the superintendent was toppled following a scandal in which the district secretly and illegally hired private investigators to root out embezzlers, and to film district gardeners using their district-owned tools to run private businesses.  (It didn’t help when the district explained it had broken the law and hired the private eyes because going to the cops would have made the matter public and—of all ironies—given the district a bad reputation.  Nor did it help that the scheme came to light when the cops discovered the private investigators videotaping on school grounds and put them in handcuffs.)

Yet, for all the problems particular to Oakland, places like Castlemont exist in every one of our nation’s great cities—New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, and a score of others.  At Castlemont and its kin, the American dream lies dormant and lifeless.  That dream rests on the notion that in America, parents—even the poor and the immigrant—can send their kids to good free schools, and see them emerge  equipped to prosper and thrive, to vault the barriers of  poverty into a more  comfortable life.  For many Americans, it is this invitation, this preference for merit over caste, that makes our country better than others.  All those bright prospects depend, of course, on public schooling.  A commodity as universal as tap water, public education ought to serve rich and poor alike, enabling each to go as far as his or her gifts might allow.  Yet at schools like Castlemont, one wonders whether that opportunity is still available.  Like every school, Castlemont has plenty of teachers who care deeply, and plenty of parents and students who strive to make schooling work.  Yet the numbers leave little doubt: an address in the Castlemont neighborhood amounts to an educational death sentence.

Castlemont’s depressing statistics highlight a larger truth about American education.  The real problem, which Oakland shares with every other major city, could be expressed in a single sentence: in America, race and income determine, with disturbing precision, how well children perform in school.  This simple equation has scrawled graffiti on the pedestal of the American dream.  Given a few key pieces of data—the parents’ income, their own level of education, and their skin color—one can predict, with unsettling certainty, how the child will fare in school.  A RAND study estimated that such family characteristics account for more than two-thirds of achievement differences.  The equation is so well understood, in fact, that some experts have predicted the performance of ghetto schools based on the demographics of their students, and suggested rewarding those that surpass the expected low level.  It is as if the gap in the education of rich and poor were a natural law, like gravity. 

As a teacher and then as a writer, I observed the perverse workings of that equation close-up.  In 1990, as a twenty-two-year-old fresh from college, I stood before my first class of inner-city ninth-graders.  Struggling at first, I became a better teacher in time, and after a few years, moved on to pursue my other professional passion, journalism.  In the summer of 1998, I took time off from my work as an education writer for the Oakland Tribune to  track down my first students.  It proved a humbling, sobering experience.  Now twenty-two years old, these newly minted adults often found the doors of life—of fulfilling careers and comfort—closed to them.  Many had not completed high school.  A few told stories of triumph over hardship, but most spoke in flat tones of dead-end jobs, unemployment, and boredom.  A handful were entangled in a world of cops and jails, after acts of violence at once galling and banal. 

Now, in 1999, in my reporting on schools for the Tribune, I heard the frustration of parents, teachers, and children daily. It was hard for me to escape the sense that something was deeply wrong.  A call resounded, righteously and achingly, from the hallways of schools like Castlemont: the call for something better. 

One evening in January, as I was preparing to leave work after a rainy, unseasonably warm winter day, I got a phone call that offered a taste of hope. The call came from a community organizer working for an unusual, formidable coalition of mostly working-class black and Latino families. Together with parents from his organization, he was hatching a plan to open a raft of charter schools.  If the plan succeeded, it would do more than mark a declaration of independence for parents who had long felt voiceless before the school district monolith.  It would also transform Oakland—a city of 400,000 residents and ninety schools—into a laboratory for one of the most exciting new ideas in education.