Category Archives: school leaders

School Principals I Have Known

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals. Since the 1980s, as part of school-based research studies I have completed, I observed at least 20 different principals do this crucial (and often overlooked) job. So from below as a student, above as a superintendent, and next to as a researcher, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform. How common my experience as a teacher was with this unusual man, I do not know.

First, some personal background.

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s East side. I had been hired to teach high school history a few days before Labor Day–the traditional end of the summer and beginning of school. I hurriedly packed and drove to Cleveland.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli the weekend before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and continuously throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and a 21 year-old rookie teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth. My principal supported my efforts by getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the seven years I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments and bringing spouses into the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the school budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.

I suspect that many principals across the country do the same with rookie teachers today. I hope that those teachers would honor their mentors as I do here in this post.



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“Great” Superintendents? Context and Longevity Matter

Judging the greatness of superintendents has gone on for decades. Longevity is usually trotted out as the gold standard for being a “good,” “effective,” or “great” superintendent. How long did the superintendent serve? Superintendent-watchers usually dismiss school chiefs who served less than five years as wannabe “great” ones. Between five to ten years, well, perhaps, they can be considered. Serving more than a decade? Then, clearly a candidate.

Why is time such an important factor in judging “greatness?” Every district superintendent is hired to accomplish one or more key tasks defined by the school board or mayor that appoints the eager candidate. Those tasks may be to sustain a successful system, improve a middling one, or resuscitate a collapsed district. As most often happens in the latter case when a school board expects their school chief to turn around a failing district, the newly appointed superintendent even a veteran such as Rudy Crew in Miami-Dade County— disappoints supporters mostly through piling up enemies after tough decisions, budget retrenchment, and political slips with the school board, teachers, or community (or all three).

After serving in Chicago and Philadelphia before taking up the top post in New Orleans (and leaving that position after four years converting most public schools to charters), Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

That has occurred enough times in the last four decades to account for urban school chiefs’ tenure being just over five years. A new report says it is now six years. Longevity and effectiveness (as perceived by the school board, media, and the public) in accomplishing critical tasks surely become standards to judge “greatness.” But there are other criteria.

Has the superintendent raised student test scores, improved graduation rates, and prepared students to enter college and career?

As with teachers and principals, this standard in determining whether the superintendent is “good” comes from the past three decades of the standards,  testing and accountability movement launched in the mid-1980s with the A Nation at Risk report (1983). What added muscle was the No Child Left Behind law (2002-2015) putting the testing and accountability movement on steroids. Champions and opponents of current school boards or mayors trumpet loudly annual gains and dips in test scores as evidence of success or failure for the current school chief. One has to read no further than articles on any sitting superintendent to get the picture (see here and here)

Because the political role superintendents have to perform is more intense than the politicking teachers and principals have to do, beginning in the 1970s, superintendent careers have surged and some have crashed on the basis of student outcomes. Even though stability in test scores is statistically suspect, clauses paying superintendents annual bonuses for gains in student achievement began to appear in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s, and is now a fixture in urban superintendents’ contracts. The belief that big city superintendents can lift student test scores remains strong and abiding.

So here we have three practical measures of superintendent “greatness:” Longevity, achievement of key tasks, and improved overall student outcomes.

Some recent superintendents have met these standards: Carl Cohn, Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston, Laura Schwalm, Garden Grove (CA), and Pat Forgione in Austin.

But here’s the rub. Being a “great” teacher, principal, or superintendent in one place at a particular time does not easily transfer to another setting at another time. Being satisfactory or even inadequate in one classroom, school, or district may become “greatness” elsewhere. Context, for example, trumped greatness for Carl Cohn after Long Beach and for Tom Payzant in San Diego before Boston. “Great” superintendents in the 1920s during the height of progressive education would hardly earn the label by today’s standards.

So there are standards–shaped by the setting and times–used to judge “great” superintendents, principals, and teachers. Except for longevity.

In a world where fast, fast, fast dominates daily life, where social media fire-up or doom a career within weeks and an ever-shifting economy put a premium on moving from one job to another, where staying in one position for ten-plus years is often seen as a negative—(Teach for America novices still sign up for two years), the gains in expertise and wisdom that come to certain reflective superintendents in working their magic are seldom appreciated or encouraged. Both context and longevity may not be sufficient conditions for “greatness,” but they are surely necessary ones.



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The MetWest High School Story (Part 6)

I now sum up what I have learned about this small Oakland high school and render a judgment about its “success.” As I have stated “success” is not an either/or verdict. It has as many facets as does the crown of a cut diamond. Depending upon the available light, these facets shine brilliantly. MetWest’s ”success” is multi-faceted, highly political, yet marked by flaws.

Surely, the media accounts of MetWest have been positive, suggesting “success” in the number of high school graduates entering college and students learning through internships. That the small high school has been around for nearly two decades and now has a waiting list of 150 students eager to attend the school is further evidence that effectiveness in reaching particular goals, longevity and popularity, mainstream markers of “success,” seemingly apply to MetWest. [i]

Here I apply a two-part effectiveness criterion of  whether the school has achieved its goals with minimum political conflict. On the latter point, the answer is yes. Although there was initial political skirmishing and opposition, the finesse that the teacher founders displayed in getting this small high school adopted by the school board and its continuity for nearly two decades even with much principal turnover has generated little pushback from the community.[ii] Where there is an emerging conflict, it comes not from the community but from within the district.

There have been internal political battles over expanding the school to 320 students split between two sites. District officials have pressed the current principal and staff to establish another MetWest school to double its enrollment in order to reduce the current high per-student cost of maintaining the small high school. Such an expansion may well result in a split MetWest campus but at a political cost in staff disaffection and dilution of the BPL design. As I write in the summer of 2019, the principal informed me that MetWest will operate another campus that welcomes 42 ninth graders in the Fall of 2019 growing each subsequent year. Overall, then, there has been very little external opposition to MetWest from parents and mentors at community and business agencies housing school interns. [iii]

Beyond this political marker of “success,” the other half of the effectiveness judgment depends upon MetWest achieving BPL and OUSD academic goals including the dominant measures of “success,” that is, test scores, high school graduation, preparation for college yields. In this respect, a mixed record emerges.

Consider OUSD metrics on academic outcomes. MetWest’s graduation rate (93 percent) has improved in past five years and is higher than the district’s and the dropout rate (7 percent) has been going down in past five years and is lower than OUSD’s. MetWest seniors prepared for college and university admission over past five years has gone from 69 percent to 83 percent while OUSD average was 51 percent (2016).[iv]

But reading and math test scores for 2017 show that MetWest students still have a long climb ahead. In reading, 23 percent were above grade level and 29 percent were at grade level— but 47 percent were “multiple years below grade level.” In math, high percentages of students did not take the test (35 to 47 percent in 2016 and 2017). Those that did, scored poorly, that is, 51 percent were two or more years below grade level in 2016 and 2017.[v]

In its 2018 report to WASC, the staff’s conclusion on reading and math results was: “While MetWest outperformed the district, we still have a long way to go.” The staff looked ahead to creating reading and math literacy plans that were vertically and horizontally aligned by grade level and subject, helping struggling students, and collecting data in specific areas that students were having the most difficulty.[vi]

With Michelle Deiro named principal in 2018, a number of changes proposed in that WASC report have occurred. As the Report said:

[W]e needed to focus on gaining clarity in what we are teaching and why so that we could better assess student outcomes. Our [professional development] goals for the year are: 1) Articulate and document what all students will be expected to learn in each class and internship (create class and LTI learning targets that are aligned with MetWest Vision) and 2) Create and utilize assessments which accurately measure student growth through collaborative work.

Changes did occur. For example, all Advisor/Teachers now have a common period for preparation to make more collaboration possible. Grade and department level teams have been formed to further both intra-staff communication and joint work. All of this is aimed at increasing test scores and other metrics that OUSD, parents, and community activists use to judge school “success”[vii]

There is more to judging MetWest’s effectiveness, however. Considering the high school’s vision and BPL’s design, documenting what happens to individual graduates after leaving SJHA, the intersection of academics and internships, and community activism, all of which are at the core of MetWest’s mission, become the grist for judging “success.”

MetWest prepares young adults to recognize and take advantage of all resources to further their well-being and the well-being of their communities. Our graduates will have the skills, habits, knowledge, and networks to overcome obstacles to their success, access four-year colleges, engage in fulfilling work, and contribute positively to our world

Collecting such data to see if these ambitious (and multiple) goals have been met is an enormous job requiring follow-up surveys and interviews to capture over time what occurs to students who attended MetWest, graduated, went to college, entered careers, started families, and engaged in their communities. Gathering such longitudinal data is uncommon among U.S. schools in general and rare for particular high schools.

Thus, there is strong evidence that MetWest was “successful” politically in getting adopted, established, and sustained over time without creating any significant conflict within the community since its founding. No small achievement. It casts the glow of “success” around the small high school. It is far harder, however, to ascertain whether MetWest has achieved its vision, mission, and goals during the four years at the high school. Lack of data and tidying up amorphous goals into specific terms is tough to do when it comes to educational policies anywhere. At a complex place as a small urban high school, it is especially difficult. For what is missing are data on what occurs after students have graduated, finished college, and entered careers that are telling insofar as MetWest reaching its desired outcomes.

MetWest graduates. Apart from media accounts and individual stories told by students, Advisors/Teachers, administrators, and work-site mentors, I could find no follow-up reports tracking what has occurred to those MetWest graduates who attended college and what they are doing currently. After all, the BPL design and MetWest mission is to have students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college and then go on to complete the college or university they enrolled in. MetWest graduates since the early aughts are now in their 20s and early thirties launched in careers and families. I could not find such follow-up studies.

Internships. To what degree have the internship experiences been a factor in academic classes, assessing student performance, choosing a college major and getting a job after completing high school and later earning a degree? It is a reasonable question to ask, given MetWest’s mission, the goals of the LTI and the BPL design.

That internships played a role within classes I observed in lesson discussions, listening to students, and interviewing teachers. Among many students, internships became the basis for the Senior Thesis Project and final public Exhibition of their work. These performance assessments are part of the MetWest experience. Apart from stories I have heard and situations I have observed, there are connections but, again, I have not seen any reports that document these important linkages.

Community activism. Displayed continually in the atrium and classrooms are posters, paintings, and printed exhortations to take action in the community. I heard from students (and Advisor/Teachers) who have been active in political protests and campaigns in the Fall of 2018. Both MetWest teachers and students, I was told, worked hard in the run-up to the February 2019 teacher strike. The evidence is surely there but uncollected. Scattered among media accounts and anecdotes recounted by students and teachers is much involvement with the community beyond internships. A systematic collection of these data would help in determining in what ways and to what degree the BPL design and MetWest internships account for such community engagement.[viii]

With this mixed picture of “success” at MetWest in applying the two-fold effectiveness criterion (goal achievement with little political conflict), has this small high school approaching two decades of existence in OUSD expanded the mainstream definition of school “success.” Yes it has. Although I have supplied asterisks to the achievement of some of MetWest’s mission and goals, the BPL design is intact. And MetWest’s enactment of that design tailored to the demands of OUSD and the community it serves has broadened the meaning of “success.”

But MetWest after nearly two decades is not yet a resilient “success.” At best it is a robust “success” on the cusp of resiliency but with dark clouds forming in the district office mandate for the school to double in size and have two locations within the next few years. Should that expansion occur, conflicts within the staff, among parents, and community activists could rise to a screech making any future “success” precarious.

With one eye cocked on the traditional measures of “success” such as test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance and the other eye cocked on personalizing learning and community activism through a blend of academics and work experiences, MetWest has stretched the customary definition of school “success” in U.S schools to include personal well-being and community well-being. While all of the data may not be collected yet, it is clear to me that MetWest’s definition of “success” has expanded the common (and narrow) definition of the purpose of tax-supported public schooling to include other ways of judging, untidy as it may be, what a “successful” high school should be in a capitalist democratic society.[ix]


[i] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019; see above citations of media accounts on MetWest.

[ii]Allan McConnell, “Policy Success, Policy Failure, and Grey Areas in-Between,” Journal of Public Policy, 2010, 30(3), pp.345-362.

[iii] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019; email from Michelle Deiro, July 3, 2019.

[iv] Oakland Unified School District, “MetWest High School Progress Report,” for April 17, 2018 visit from Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western ssociation of Schools and Colleges, pp. 5-6.

[v] Ibid., pp. 7-9.

[vi] Ibid., p. 10.

[vii] Ibid., p. 13


[ix] I sent a draft of this chapter to Michelle Deiro, principal of MetWest. She read it and corrected a few errors I had made in describing the school and its program. For that I am most grateful.

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 5)


Forty percent of the school week is devoted to Learning Through Internships (LTI). Every teacher/advisor meets with their students in and out of school to discuss the work done at the intern site, the on-site mentor, and any issues that have arisen.

As in all Big Picture schools, MetWest has structured the academic year to have students search for and enter into two-day a week unpaid internships during school hours. Called Learning Through Internship (LTI), there is a coordinator that oversees the entire program. A former Advisor/Teacher Michael Cellemme heads this part of MetWest’s program. He is the only staff member who has also worked as a Teacher/Advisor at the first Big Picture school (The Met) in Providence (RI). He is responsible for finding sites for internships, interviewing potential work-site mentors, making matches between individual students and mentors, and monitoring what goes on in the internship.

Local mentors take on the responsibility of helping a student acquire the work and social skills necessary to succeed in a business, government agency, educational and health organization, and similar Oakland groups. Since 2002 when MetWest opened, the school had placed students with more than 400 organizations (2010), including local hospitals, radio stations and restaurants to provide learning opportunities.[i]

Advisor/Teacher Shannon Carey sees how the internship experience has made a huge difference for one of her 20 students, Kris McCoy. McCoy had struggled in school and had been in Oakland’s juvenile hall for being involved in an armed robbery while in the eighth grade. When he arrived at MetWest, he got into several fights in the ninth grade.

Carey said that “he came with an ankle bracelet, and with visits from his parole officer.” She continued: “And needing to be the alpha male and needing to show MetWest who he was and that he shouldn’t be messed with. He was way more concerned with that than he was with his academics or his future career.”

As Advisor/Teacher, Carey teaches English and social studies to that group and does circles in her daily lessons. In the middle of her room, Carey keeps a plant for circle discussions. In those circles, students would talk about personal experiences and how to cope with school incidents. Carey pointed out that “he would have been kicked out of another high school if he had been fighting the way he had been when he first arrived here.”

What happened was that McCoy began to trust Carey. He looked for an internship himself and found one at an auto repair shop. Edward Lam, his boss and mentor, gave him a chance and treated him like an employee, while teaching him many auto shop skills. Carey talked with McCoy’s family about staying longer at this internship than usually occurred. They agreed and McCoy allowed him to stay there for a few years, an unusual decision but one that helped the young man.

“For students, like Kris, who really struggle with positive adult relationships, I see no reason to interrupt that relationship,” she said. “He can go deep in the content and he can go really deep in the really caring, trusting, loving relationship with adult men in his life.”[ii]

The theory of action behind Big Picture schools such as MetWest using two-day a week internships is straightforward. By interning with mentors at a work site, teenagers enter the world of adults beyond family and school. Working with adults and picking up different technical and social skills broadens and deepens learning by engaging their hands, hearts, and minds. That engagement is deepened when MetWest Advisor/Teachers and LTI coordinator meet with work-site mentors and students. Such personal connections bridge the workplace and academic classes as teachers make curricular choices during the rest of the week in their daily lessons.  Connected learning occur also with Senior Thesis Projects (see above) and end-of-the-year Exhibitions most often growing out of internships. Or as MetWest staff puts it: “College Prep through Real-World Learning.”

Internships, then, lead to learning about how adults work in organizations and the repertoire of skills needed to succeed at a job while applying that learning to academics (and the reverse as well). Thus, through personal engagement between teachers, on-site mentors and students the two worlds of work and classroom come together to create deeper, more meaningful, and connected learning. That’s the theory.

Internships, however, do not always work out for students.  A few are fired for not showing up or being late. Some have to be re-trained. Most students and mentors, however, do fit together.

MetWest students go to their internships on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each Advisor/Teacher keeps abreast of their students in their internships as well as in classrooms.

Like any high school program with many moving parts involving 160 students, a dozen or so teachers, and over a hundred mentors in their workplace, some things go smoothly, some less so.


[i] Rachel Gross, “A California High School That Values College and the Real World,” The New York Times, June 23, 2010.

[ii] Katrina Schwartz, “Interests-to-Internships: When Students Take the Lead in Learning,” Mind-Shift, June 16, 2016 at:


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MetWest High School Story (Part 4)

Big Picture Learning schools have as part of their design “Authentic Assessment.” It means that “[s]tudents are assessed not by tests, but by public displays of learning that track growth and progress in the student’s area of interest. Assessment criteria are individualized to the student and the real world standards of a project. Students present multiple exhibitions each year and discuss their learning growth with staff, parents, peers, and mentors.”

At MetWest, “authentic assessment” is the Senior Thesis Project and the end-of-the-year Exhibition. I sat in one student-driven Senior Thesis Project Defense. Here I what I observed in March 2019.

As in other Big Picture schools, all MetWest 12th graders must do a Senior Thesis Project (STP). [i]

Seniors present their projects to a group of teacher/advisors, administrators, and staff who judge the worth of the presentation and determine whether student has passed or not. Each Defense has to include an action project linked to their research and anchored in social justice. Each student gets three chances to pass. Most often the STP is anchored in the student’s Learning Through Internship (LTI). Passing the STP prepares seniors for their final Exhibition, usually on the same subject, before an audience of students, teachers, family, and invited guests.

Each STP has a format in which the student prepares his or her slides to the jury of teachers. Each project has to have a question, a way of answering the question, the theory behind an answer, gathering evidence, analysis of data presented, and a conclusion. It is a format familiar in college and graduate work. MetWest teachers have created and revised the criteria laced with specific examples to judge each student’s presentation. A panel of MetWest teachers and administrators judge presentation whether it is “emerging,” “developing,” “proficient,” or “advanced” on its “relevance,” feasibility,” and “rigor.”

On March 11, 2019, I observed Brenda and Hugo make their first presentation to a panel of three teachers and the principal. Two ninth graders were there also to become familiar with the process.

Brenda was first. Interning at Oakland’s Heritage Psychiatric Clinic, the question she asked was: “Mass Shootings: Why White Males?” In a series of slides she describes the history and context of various shootings by white males such as Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower shooter (1966), Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer (2012), and Dylan Roof who murdered nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church ( 2015).

In a quiet voice, Brenda links the question to the psychiatric clinic in which she was interning. She reads through a series of slides about the question such as the “Big Idea, ” her “Theory of Change” driving her action project (that professional development of certain staff would reduce patients’ emotional volatility and improve their behavior) and her proposal. She elaborates her action project including the impact of the ideas she has on her design of the professional development workshop. She goes over rubric categories such as relevance, feasibility, and rigor of her proposal. She swiftly goes through the slides. They were in small font and hard for observers to read. Brenda ends up with a timeline of activities to execute the project. Group applauds at the end of her presentation. Staff exits to discuss her presentation.

After staff returned, Hugo presents his slides. Hugo interns at a nearby elementary school’s 4th grade class. His action project drew from the work of the Robert Moses Young People’s Project and sought to improve these children’s math skills and their mindset. His research question is: Why are low-income students of color not succeeding at  math?[ii]

In a series of slides, the senior lays out his theory of change:

If I target elementary students at La Escuelita in East Oakland with educational workshops and inspirational quotes, then I can help them improve their math skills and help them increase their confidence.

His tactics were to use workshops on math skills that included a multiplication game and 4th graders  parsing inspirational quotes. He wants to change the “mindset” of these 10 year-olds about math. He then describes No Child Left Behind and the Young People’s Project to get at the history and context of low performance of minority and poor children in math.

To illustrate relevance of the action project, Hugo shows a photo of himself at age 10 and tells of his own struggle with math in elementary school. Other slides get at rigor through a pre- and post-survey of these 4th graders’ responses to workshops. He ends with interview of mentor teacher with whom he worked.

Group applauds. Teachers and principal leave the room. I stay and listen to Brenda and Hugo express their nervousness over whether they passed or will have to present again later in the term. And they are anxious. The two other students there cheer them up and compliment their presentations. Staff returns.

One Advisor/Teacher gives the group’s evaluation of Brenda. He says that the staff judged her project presentation to be below expectations and she will have to do better next time in order to pass. He lists some strong points in Brenda’s presentation but overall there were a number of specifics such as little evidence that was collected and linking her question to the professional development workshop she designed. These need attention, he says, including the timeline. Brenda responds to the points and clarifies others. She is obviously disappointed. Another teacher says that what the judges reported on her presentation would be included in an email to Brenda.

For Hugo, another teacher presents the group’s conclusion. Hugo approached expectations and had much that the staff felt was worthwhile but improvements had to be made in providing evidence that 4th graders’ did improve in math skills and showing how exactly inspirational quotes would alter the mindset of these 10 year-olds. He would have to return with an improved presentation. Again, the teacher says that all of what the judges reported would be emailed. Hugo asks a few questions and staff members respond.

Group applauds Brenda and Hugo just as chimes sound ending the period.

[i] In 2005, Oakland Unified School District required a capstone project for all seniors. Some schools implemented it; others did not. Not until 2014, according to Young Whan Choi, did a teacher-designed rubric to assess quality of senior projects become generally used across the district. See Young Whan Choi, “Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s about Equity,” Learning Policy Institute Blog, October 26, 2017 at:


[ii] Former Civil Rights worker Robert Moses who was also a math teacher founded The Young People’s Project initially in Mississippi. The project aims at increasing math literacy for educationally disadvantaged children and youth. See:

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 3)

Here is a class I observed at the school.

From Design to Classroom:

A 27 year veteran of teaching in OUSD, Shannon Carey greets me at the door when I arrive at 8:30. She is wearing a UC Berkeley shirt (teachers that day wore clothes that advertised where they attended college) over jeans and dark ankle boots. The classroom furniture is arranged in a horseshoe with tables seating two tenth graders each facing one another across the open space in the middle of the horseshoe. There are two large couches in rear of room. The walls of the large classroom hold whiteboards in the front of the room with nearby easels showing assignments and homework.  Posters adorn other walls.

The schedule for this period is listed on the front white board:

Friday, February 1, 2019

I can reflect deeply on my strengths and weaknesses [Shannon mentions later in the lesson that this is the objective of the lesson]

8:30 Independent Reading

8:50-9:40 Non-Cognitive Variables: Self-Assessment and Interviews

Circles Today

HW [homework]

Gateway Project

–self assessment

–interview w/adult

–interview w/peer

Due Friday

As I scan the room at 8:45, everyone is reading a book or article—no devices or online reading that I see. Three students are sitting on the well-cushioned couches in the rear of the room. A sampling of what students are reading around me:

*Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

*Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

*Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods

In the open space within the horseshoe sits Shannon with her laptop. Sixteen students are there that morning. They walk in toss their cell phones in a box that Shannon holds [other teachers do the same at the beginning of class] and go immediately to their tables and take a book out of their backpack. The first half-hour is Independent Reading.

As students are reading, Shannon who is responsible for teaching English and Social Studies and managing her students’ internships while integrating both into her Advisory role in helping students become college-ready, scans classroom, walks around and checks students’ notebooks and assignments lying on table [students know this morning routine and have papers lying on tables]. She picks up and date stamps the students’ “work samples” such as “Semester Reflections” and papers from other classes at MetWest. Shannon submits these to the OUSD department of Alternative Education for certification that students are part of Independent Study schools. [i]

After a half-hour, Shannon segues to next part of lesson. She asks students to put away their readings and says: “I need everyone’s eyes on me.” She then begins a whole group discussion of handout on “Non-Cognitive Variables.” She cautions Juan to stop playing with stapler and Hunter to put away his book–he is sitting across from me and continues to read Food of the Gods.

Teacher asks: “Does anyone know a relative, adult, or friend who has gone to college?” Half of the students raise their hands. Shannon calls on students by name to tell about who they know and what they were told about college. A back-and-forth ensues between students and teacher on what they learned from those who have attended college.

Shannon then turns to “Noncognitive Variables” handout. “Does anyone know,” she asks, what “cognitive” means? A few students offer answers and teachers builds on their responses. She summarizes a definition–“mental processes”–writes it on whiteboard and asks class to write it down. Then asks a choral question: “How many of you knows someone who is school smart?’ Students call out and raise their hands. “What else do you think you need besides school smarts?” Student says: “high test scores.” Shannon replies that high scores does not mean you succeed in college.”

What unfolds is a whole-group discussion of non-cognitive variables–what teacher calls “people skills,” “soft skills,” and “social skills.” Asks class to take notes. As the teacher-led discussion proceeds with questions from the teacher and responses from different students, Shannon’s energy is obvious.

Calling it a mini-lecture, Shannon displays slides on front whiteboard of noncognitive variables listed on handout. She and class enumerate each one with teacher coaching individual students to define each one:

*Positive Self-Concept or Confidence

*Realistic Self-Appraisal

*Understands and Deals with Oppression

*Prefers Long-Range Goals To Short-Term Or Immediate Needs

*Availability of Strong Support Person

*Successful Leadership Experience

*Demonstrated Community Service

*Knowledge Acquired in A Field

Shannon asks different students to read each variable, group defines it–teacher asks students to put the variable in everyday language (“dumb it down,” she says), and then directs class to rate themselves on each variable on a four-point scale (e.g., 4= “This really, totally, positively describes me” to 1=”I do not think this describes me at all”). As the whole group discussion unfolds, the teacher constantly scans the class for students who are not attending, cautions them, and returns to Q & A of discussion.

For variable on “Oppression”, a student wearing a head scarf talks about sexism she recognizes in and out of school. Other students chime in. Shannon uses example of family discussions about immigration and fears about deportation. Teacher makes point that it is less a personal problem and more of a systemic, social problem.

Class’s progress through variables on handout halt as three students enter classroom and, with the teacher’s permission, announce a new tardy and absence policy. Also they say that they are selling cookies and candies for Valentine Day. They exit.

Shannon resumes lesson and asks individual students to read variables. For some, she offers personal examples from her life and occasional student chimes in with his or her experience. She asks Mohammed to read last variable and asks him for his “Knowledge of A Field.” She reminds him and others about internships they are involved in and their passions about cosmetic make-up, video gaming, and working with animals at a veterinarian’s office.

Now, for final part of lesson, Shannon turns to questions listed in handout such as “Which two variables do you feel you most demonstrate/ Give TWO reasons why you think this.” And “Which noncognitive variables did you score the lowest in?” As she eyes the class, she calls on Kevin to stop bothering student at his table. She asks students to read these questions and assigns class to answer them and turn in handout on Friday.

As time for session comes to a close, Shannon passes out green detention slips for being tardy and walks around checking on students’ completion of their assignments. Students begin packing up, picking up their cell phones, and wait for the buzzer to sound. Session ends at 9:40.

Descriptions of Nick’s and Shannon’s classes are ones where social studies and English—called Humanities at the school—are integrated into the counseling, mentoring, and coaching roles that teachers have at MetWest. In most high schools, teachers are subject-specialists who do perform these other roles in varying degrees before and after school (and during lunch and preparation periods).

At MetWest (as well as Social Justice Humanitas Academy), teachers are expected to perform multiple and expanded roles that wrap into one bundle of academic, emotional, psychological, and social connections with students in class, outside school, and in internships. Close relationships between teachers and students evolve and become close since Advisor/Teachers stay with the same group of students for four years. Of course, individual teachers vary in how they manage the social-emotional connections with students. Whatever the variation, at MetWest, BPL and site staff expect Advisor/Teachers to display and enact a much larger emotional and social skill repertoire than teachers in regular high schools.[ii]

Every MetWest teacher, however, is not an Advisor. There are math and science teachers who teach and do not have formal advisory duties with a group of students. At MetWest, these teachers are crucial to insuring that all students meet university and college requirements in these subject areas and perform reasonably well on state tests, their Senior Thesis Project and final Exhibition.

[i] For description of Alternative Education in OUSD and where MetWest fits, see:


[ii] Teachers managing additional roles beyond subject matter expertise is a feature of many small high schools since the mid-1990s. Higher and expanded expectations of student-teacher relationships is baked into Social Justice Humanitas Academy and MetWest as my observations and interviews documents. Also see Kate Phillippo, Advisory in Urban High Schools: A Study of Expanded Teacher Roles (New York: Palgrave, 2013).

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 1)

Readers who have followed this blog know that I am writing a book about success and failure in American schools. Over the past year I have posted sections including descriptions of teachers I observed in two California high schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District. I have already posted the history and operation of SJHA and in a multi-part series, I now describe MetWest High School.

Oakland Unified School District: MetWest High School

MetWest High School is neither a magnet nor charter. Founded in 2002 as a Big Picture Learning school (more below), it is part of OUSD’s decades-long effort to create small innovative, academically strong, and caring schools for children of color in a district that is largely minority and poor, and low-performing on state metrics of “success.” That small schools strategy begun in the early 1990s yielded many new schools yet strained a district budget subject to school board overspending, accounting errors and poor projections. Oakland Unified’s history of financial crises was well known in the Bay area including a state takeover for fiscal mismanagement. [i]

OUSD has an average daily attendance of over 34,000 students distributed across 121 elementary, middle, and high schools (2018). Of the 121 schools, nearly one out of four is a charter (2018). In addition to charter schools, OUSD has alternative schools, magnets, and thematic schools. The district has 87 of those schools with an average size of 412 students (2018), prompting repeated public calls amid annual budget deficits to close the smallest of these schools.[ii]

In 2019, it faced a fiscal deficit requiring substantial budget cuts, identifying schools to be closed, and a week-long teacher strike that netted OUSD teachers significant salary increases, further adding to the deficit. Within a week, the Oakland school board made $20 million in cuts to programs and individual school budgets and laid off 100 employees (mostly district office and clerical staff) in order to give teachers the raises they won in the strike settlement and balance the budget. [iii]

Consider further that top district leadership has been a revolving door. Many observers have pointed out that reforming urban schools requires continuity in top leadership. Turnover among the nation’s urban superintendents since the 1960s was frequent; district leaders averaged over five years in office. Yet scholars of school reform estimate that it takes anywhere from 5-10 years for school board and superintendent policies and programs aimed at improving district, school, and student performance to show positive outcomes.[iv]

And the record of superintendent continuity in OUSD? Since 2000, the district has had seven superintendents, the most recent sworn in 2017.

Not a picture of a school district displaying organizational stability, fiscal health, or on the road to higher academic performance. All of this with a half-billion dollar budget to spend effectively and efficiently. [v]

MetWest High School: A Big Picture Learning School

Within OUSD sits MetWest High School with 160 students. Of these students, 76 percent meet the measure of family poverty. Twenty-two percent are English Language Learners. On ethnicity and race, 61 percent are Latino, 19 percent African American, seven percent Asian and seven percent white (less than 100 percent due to no reports and multi-racial students).[vi]

This small Oakland high school is nearly 20 years old. David Bromley and Matt Spengler, two former social studies teachers from Los Angeles Unified District, founded MetWest in 2002, one of a national network of Big Picture Learning schools. There are now 65 such schools in the U.S. with others in Australia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in the world. [vii]

It is, of course, so easy to say that two teachers founded the school and leave it at that. What is missing is the grinding essential political work in the community that these teachers had to do with students and their parents, OUSD administrators, community activists, and the school board to simply get the mission of this small high school accepted and then get it up and running. The political spadework was constant and unrelenting in meeting people, locating resources, sharing the Big Picture Learning school design, and showing how MetWest would fit into the district plan for small, innovative schools.

And even after the school board formally adopted MetWest, the gritty work of finding a location for the school, acquiring staff, orienting parents, students, and faculty to its mission and design—all of these tasks were “musts” that involved serious negotiating and political tap-dancing. But each step of the way was completed and the small high school opened in 2002. Achieving the political basics of adopting and opening a new school was a “success.”[viii]

Mission and Learner Outcomes

Reflecting the mission and design of Big Picture Learning schools, MetWest has revised its mission statement and goals for students a few times. The most recent statement I could find was it “Progress Report” prior to a visit from a committee from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in 2018.

MetWest prepares young adults to recognize and take advantage of all resources to further their well-being and the well-being of their communities. Our graduates will have the skills, habits, knowledge, and networks to overcome obstacles to their success, access four-year colleges, engage in fulfilling work, and contribute positively to our world.[ix]

The generic-sounding mission gets more specific with its statement of Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLRs) which came about from preparation for a WASC visit in 2014. Prior to that, there were few specific curricular goals and objectives that the entire staff had agreed upon and enacted in their classrooms in a consistent way.

As one would expect in small schools such as MetWest with its largely low-income enrollment and being part of the Big Picture Learning network, different literacies (e.g., reading, writing, math, and science) and “critical thinking” were expected as student outcomes. In addition, there were ESLRs that reflected BPL such as “Real World Learning” (“Students will have the communication, independence, and self-advocacy skills … to follow their passions and successfully navigate professional and higher education environments”).   Social and emotional intelligence was another ESLR. Finally, there was an ESLR for “Social Change Agents/Promoters of Social Change” where students were to “understand the historical roots and current effects of oppression in society and affect social change in their communities and in themselves through conscious and liberatory actions.”[x]

This combination of a range of student academic, personal, and activist outcomes echoes the Social Justice Humanitas Academy’s mission and expected student outcomes as well (see previous chapter). While SJHA had continuity in leadership and a coherence in linking its mission to daily school activities with two of the founding teachers who had been colleagues for years at a previous high school serving as principals since 2011, that has not been the case at MetWest.


[i] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at:

Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, ”Oakland Unified School District: Assessment and Recovery Plan Update, September 30, 2003 at:

Katy Murphy, “Oakland’s Small School Movement, 10 Years Later,” Scope Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, May 6, 2009 at:

[ii] Ali Tadayon, “Grand Jury Report: Oakland Unified Operating Too Many Schools,” East Bay Times, June 28, 2018; Ali Tadayon, “ Oakland Unified Scrambles To Identify as Many as 24 schools That Could Be Closed in Five Years,” East Bay Times, January 8, 2019.

[iii] Theresa Harrington, “Oakland School Board Cuts $20.2 Million from Budget, Including 100 jobs,” EdSource, March 4, 2019.

[iv] Gary Yee and Larry Cuban, “When Is Tenure Long Enough,” Educational Administration Quarterly, 1996, 32(1), pp. 615-641; In Michael Fullan, “Whole School Reform: Problems and Promises,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, June 2001, he estimates eight years for a district “turnaround,” meaning improved student achievement. In my experience as a superintendent and research I have done on sitting superintendents, it takes five-plus years at the minimum and up to a decade to show positive results. See As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Larry Cuban, “The Turnstile Superintendency?” Education Week, August 22, 2008.

[v] Joel Shannon, “ ‘When We Strike, We Win;’ Tentaive Agreement Reached In Oakland Teacher Strike,” USA Today, March 1, 2019; Thomas Ultican, “Oakland Is California’s Destroy Public Education Petri Dish,” San Diego Free Press, April 4, 2018. In addition, I have tracked the arrival and departure of Oakland superintendents since the 1960s.

[vi] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at:

[vii] Information on founders comes from documents and interview with Michelle Deiro, current principal, February 1, 2019 and Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019. Because the first Big Picture Learning high school, located in Providence (RI) was called the “Met,” the Oakland unified high school was named MetWest. Brief history of the network is at the BPL website at:

[viii] Joseph McDonald, “Scaling Up the Big Picture,” 2005, “Unpublished study funded by an anonymous foundation, 2002-2005” in author’s possession.

[ix] Oakland Unified School District, “MetWest High School Progress Report,” for April 17, 2018 visit from Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western ssociation of Schools and Colleges, p. 2.

[x] Ibid., pp. 2-3.


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