To Make a Village

by Jeff Camp | February 8, 2016 | 0 Comments
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What Does It Take to Raise a Child?

Under the hopeful name "The Oakland Promise," the city of Oakland has set out to do something unconventional and difficult: collaborate with the school system. The dream calls for a village: a future in which schools, government agencies, philanthropies and families work together to solve the problems that get in the way of a bright future for every child.

Wait… Why is this difficult?

School administrators and city administrators are not set up even to to communicate with each other, much less collaborate.

Cities and school systems are almost completely separate from one another. They are funded in separate budgets. They are governed by separate councils and boards with members elected in separate contests. They hold separate meetings with separate agendas, separate advisors, and separate lawyers. They are led by separate chief executives -- the mayor and the superintendent of schools -- who are chosen in separate elections.

These public servants share constituents, but imperfectly: school district boundaries and city council boundaries rarely match. Teachers are organized in different unions from city employees, and use a different pension system. School administrators and city administrators are not set up even to to communicate with each other, much less collaborate.

Things are no better at the state level: in Sacramento at budget time, education advocates and municipal lobbyists compete for funds, sometimes bitterly.

The Oakland Promise program is trying to spur these separate systems to cooperate, at least in small ways. The program has a few things going for it, including a historically unusual appetite for collaboration between the city leadership and and school system leadership. The city's education-minded mayor, Libby Schaff, has appointed an experienced and charismatic local education leader, David Silver, to head the effort.

When cities get involved in schools, the usual reaction is to see it as an intrusion, or even as a "mayoral takeover." But the Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, Antwan Wilson, has embraced the project. Local community foundations and businesses have responded generously, adding new resources to the effort. The teachers' unions have announced support for it.

What is the Promise?

The Oakland Promise aims to make college a realistic aspiration by combining several programs and expanding them.

For parents, the most attention-grabbing element of the plan is the notion of a "Promise". Families want their children to go to college, but this dream feels increasingly out of reach for families living in poverty. The Oakland Promise aims to make college a realistic aspiration by combining several programs and expanding them.

  • The "Brilliant Baby" program envisions a small college savings account for each baby born into an Oakland family in need, funded by donations. (Similar programs have been started in other cities, such as San Francisco.)
  • The "Future Centers" program envisions new services for college and career counseling to intentionally connect high school with what comes next. California's three-tier system of public higher education already offers significant financial support for California's students in need; these centers will help students take advantage of the support available.

Other parts of the program also build on elements that already exist. For example, the East Bay College Fund (EBCF) awards college scholarships to students from Oakland and Emeryville. These scholarships combine financial support with practical support: each scholarship recipient is paired with a mentor, and the program keeps track of what happens to provides support if something goes awry. The program has been around since 2002, and the results have been very positive.

Big Challenges

Although Oakland's schools have made considerable progress over the last decade, a third of students still fail to finish high school, and only about one in ten advances to a bachelor's degree. These low rates of educational attainment are tangled up with issues of poverty, race, crime, health and opportunity - challenges that schools alone cannot solve.

The government agencies and non-profit groups involved in the Oakland Promise are hoping to work together and achieve better outcomes for kids. They have raised millions in donations from local foundations, businesses and supporters. The fundraising goal is $32 million.

It is important to put this number in perspective. The annual budget for Oakland's schools exceeds $600 million. The annual budget for the city weighs in at about $1.2 billion. In context, the funds associated with the Oakland Promise seem a rather small carrot. But if it is enough to coax disparate departments to develop shared goals and programs together, it could help. The old expression says "it takes a village to raise a child." The Oakland Promise might help equip these separate organizations to see themselves as part of the same village.

Join the Discussion

  • Does your mayor communicate with your district's superintendent? How often and in what context?
  • What services from your city or town are important to schools in your district?
  • Philanthropies often play an important role in bringing together city leaders and school leaders. Is there a local foundation that plays this role for your community?
  • Cooperation between mayors and school administrators can falter after an election brings in new leadership. How does your community build trust?

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