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The road ahead for Oakland schools, according to outgoing Superintendent

Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has seen its share of upheaval over the past decade. In 2003, the state took control of OUSD after a series of financial missteps. In 2009, local control was returned to the district – with the understanding that it would pay back nearly $90 million in debt to the state. That was two days before Tony Smith took office as superintendent.


Since then, Smith has tried to turn the district around, on multiple levels. He’s overseen an improved school budget, which last year had no deficit. However, a recent state audit found 44 flaws in accounting, record-keeping, and fiscal management.

During his tenure, Smith implemented a radical five-year plan to create “full service community schools,” which provide enrichment, health, and social services to students and their families in addition to academics. He’s also closed some schools, sometimes controversially. Last summer, protesters camped out for three weeks at Lakeview Elementary to protest its closure, and to demand Smith’s resignation.

In April of this year, Smith announced that he in fact will resign, citing family reasons. KALW’s Holly Kernan met with him to talk about his term as superintendent, the road ahead for Oakland schools, and his educational philosophy.

HOLLY KERNAN: Oakland is a city with a lot of divides, and part of the mission you’re doing is to actually cross some of those divides and explain what it might be like to live in a part of Oakland that does have high crime, for example, versus a part of Oakland that doesn’t. But there’s still that resource balance, right, that sense of some people who in say, more affluent areas, feeling like, “Well, my kids deserve the best, too.” How do you balance that, and how do you communicate?

TONY SMITH: I think every child deserves the best. Right, and John Dewey said: “What the best and wisest parent wants for their child, so should we want for all children.” A parent who wants the very best for their kid should also know and understand that the very best for their child is not to be sitting in a city where there children are born two miles away who are experiencing not only fifteen fewer years of life, but trauma, and extraordinary upset and challenge on a daily basis – then that jeopardizes the health and well-being of their child. So there’s a linked fate in Oakland that I think we need more time and understanding about what does it look like to pass policy and not just try and attack each other – the ideological warfare and the ideological gang warfare that exists in Oakland, and for people to be able to scream, and holler, and attack, and assault, and threaten, but without taking responsibility. That’s a real problem.

Click the audio player above to hear the complete interview. 

Crosscurrents Education
Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.