An interview with OUSD’s longest-serving principal, Moyra Contreras, the founding principal of Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA) and a Educate78 School Design Lab Fellow.
Moyra in front of her favorite mural on campus, featuring what she described as the cycle of life of a woman. She thinks it may be the only mural around featuring a nursing mother. (Painted by Pancho Peskador and MLA students.)
How did MLA begin?
In 2001, I was Principal at Melrose Elementary. We were doing significant work to redesign the school. The nearby middle schools were really not high quality academically; but worse, they were just not safe. Kids were dropping out after elementary school. And parents were coming to me begging for us to keep their kids. It was really hard to let them go, knowing where they were going.
The Small Autonomous Schools movement was happening. We had been working with BayCES. I was on a retreat, at a reception, and someone asked me, if you could have anything right now, what would it be. I said, “I’d keep my kids.”
But we had 520 kids at the time, located at the Melrose site at 53rd and International. We didn’t actually qualify as a small school – their definition was 350 or less. So in 2001 we opened a standalone middle school with 6th grade. We had two schools for a while, and I was principal of both.
How was starting a new school in OUSD at the time?
There was a lot of change. Melrose was a pilot school for the new results-based budgeting that the State Administrator brought in. While the Melrose Leadership Academy middle school was budgeted through the Small Autonomous Schools process.
We had no building for the first two weeks of school! Central office assumed we were going to be on the Melrose campus, but we had no space. We became good friends with the Rainbow Recreation Center at International and Seminary – that became our home base. And the kids learned about the city, traveling around to different locations on public transportation for “class” while waiting for the two portables.
Eventually they build us a new two-story structure on that campus, but that only worked for a couple of years. There was not enough space.
So where did you go?
Sherman, on Brand Street, was closed under State Administration, so MLA Middle School moved there. That’s when we really started to work with parents and teachers to design the school we’d envisioned: a diverse-by-design, integrated K-8 dual immersion school.
We were on the Sherman campus for five years while Melrose Elementary went through a No Child Let Behind-inspired transition and became Bridges at Melrose. But again, as we grew, we needed more space.
Under Supt. Tony Smith, Maxwell Park was closed. That’s how we ended up here today. That was six years ago. Our first kinder class is now in 8th grade.
Where did the vision for MLA come from for you?
It’s really tied to how I came to Oakland and my experiences before that. I was teaching in Seattle. It was the early 80s. It was the first year of busing in Seattle. I was the only teacher of color at an all-white school that was receiving primarily African American and new immigrant children…only to be resegregated once at school. I had a bilingual credential but there were no bilingual schools in Seattle. We had two daughters and wanted to raise them in a diverse community.
A friend called who was living in Oakland. I interviewed by phone with OUSD and they offered me a job on the call. Next thing I flew in to take the CBEST test in July, then went back home to pack the family up in a U-Haul, and that fall began teaching at Stonehurst. I was there for one year.
I moved to Jefferson, where we lived in the neighborhood and were super committed to the community. But then our Mexican AP who I was close to became principal of Melrose. Without the support of administration, we could not keep the change going that we had been working on. I was the only bilingual mentor in the district at the time. My AP recruited me to Melrose, but I cried when I left.
On the surface, the Jefferson and Melrose communities looked racially similar. But socioeconomically, there was way more trauma in the Melrose community. It was predominantly new immigrant communities surrounded by factories and pollution.
Every school you’ve mentioned so far has either closed or been reconfigured. School closures are hot on people’s minds right now. What thoughts do you have on the subject?
When we came here to Maxwell Park, it was hard. Change is painful for a community. But we are a public school. We have many more families from the community coming here. We’re offering a program within the public school system meeting the needs of this community. The previous program ended, but the school didn’t close; we’re serving the community. School closures are really complicated by class and race. They impact black and brown kids disproportionately.
But we have too many buildings for the number of kids we have. If we’re going to stabilize this district and provide quality facilities, we’re going to have to make tough decisions about how many schools we can maintain. This school was built in 1929, it has a boiler from 1929. The classrooms upstairs get to 110 degrees, but we can’t put air conditioning in because the electrical system won’t support it.
A related topic is the Blueprint – what do you think about it?
I am hopeful for the Blueprint process. It’s so important. It will be a 2-3 year process, and I’m hopeful we’ll be in the first cohort. Ultimately it may involve us splitting into two campuses to expand. Maybe one K-3 and one 4-8. We have 80 families on our kindergarten waitlist and more in other grades.
You’re the longest serving OUSD principal in the district right now, and your tenure as an educator began even before that. How has OUSD changed over the years?
I’ve seen about 20 superintendents in the last 34 years. That’s the biggest problem. New people bring new ideas, and we never build on what’s already here. Some of the things being “discovered” now as new things; we tried them 20 years ago, but they did not stick.
The vision must be held by the community, and then we need someone to come join and support the vision of the community. I’m happy for Kyla in that way. She’s been here in multiple positions. I hope she’ll stay and stick it out so we can really build something sustainable.
In the absence of that, I’ve tried to build here; given the constraints.
How could OUSD support more?
When we opened, we had autonomies – budget, for example – we helped pilot RBB. We had calendar autonomy: we started a week early and gave families a longer winter break to visit families – we have families that drive to other countries for the break and they need more time. We started with a “Discovery Week” where kids could choose a week-long elective while classroom teachers got the whole week for planning. We had camping, cooking classes in conjunction with the Catholic Worker at 54th and International. We had an extended day – all of our kids stayed until five and we gave kids extra time to eat breakfast in the morning. We even had our own report card – a more narrative one, that was standards based but had character development in addition to academics. But we lost them after a few years, and I wish I had them all back. It’s also hard to know what OUSD could do more or differently, because that’s all I’ve known.
And OUSD people seem to love your school – a lot of them have their kids here, right?
Many. I’ve always believed you should send your kids where you’re asking others to attend. My daughter and son were at Melrose when I was there, and long before we became MLA. My oldest daughter attended Jefferson while I was there.
What do you think of charter schools?
I recognize how hard it is in OUSD. And I recognize how many schools have not met the needs of the community. But I feel that charters have been destabilizing.
If we’d continued in the vein of the new Small Schools Movement, that could have created the pressure to transform the school district sooner. Charters may have released some of that pressure by taking those kids and families out of the system.
I love and respect many of the people doing the charter work as individuals. But I wish we could be creating opportunities within OUSD to innovate. How do we invite them back into OUSD? What would that look like?
What’s your proudest or happiest moment over the years?
One day I was standing at the corner of 53rd and International. Armed robberies had happened on three of the four corners. I thought, “What if we could get these kids just a little bit out of this neighborhood?” Just a reprieve – close enough that they could come, but not where they were still immersed directly in such violence and poverty. And what if we could mix with other, more affluent families. There are no liquor stores in this neighborhood. And here, people who are not the same are able to come together and understand each other deeply. I feel like we have achieved that, and are still trying to advance that dream, care for it, and make sure we don’t lose it.
What’s your leadership style?
My job is to provide everybody opportunities to lead – engage intellectually and professionally. Everybody wins that way. I can’t know what’s happening with the noon supervisor, but if they’re thinking about it and feel empowered, they can ask, “Wouldn’t it be better if we did it this way?” You can improve everything if everyone’s participating in that way.
My transition from Seattle to deep East Oakland was an incredible shock; Seattle was trying to integrate schools; Oakland wasn’t even talking about it. Stonehurst was like 1,000 kids with 90% free and reduced lunch. But what was most striking was how teachers were treated. In Seattle there was a supply room open to everybody. The principal gave me the keys to the school so I could go in early as a new teacher to. When I got here, the principal was asking me for weekly lesson plans, assuming I was incompetent, and treating me like I was going to steal.
The first thing I did when I became principal in Oakland was unlock the supply room. I told the teachers, this is how much we have; this is what our budget is. We’re all in this together. Before that teachers would hoard!
What motivates you most to keep keeping on?
In 34 years; it’s always been challenging, but there’s always been an opportunity, if you look for it really hard – to innovate. I’ve found them or helped make them. And learn. I did a two-year training when I started in Oakland to learn about coaching teachers. I did a program with the Bay Area Writing Project and became a BAWP consultant. We were a BASRC school, then a demonstration school in partnership with Cal State Hayward to train new teachers of color funded by Pacific Telesis. We were redesigning Melrose Elementary before creating MLA.
Sounds like that’s maybe part of why you joined the School Design Lab?
Exactly. We’d been trying to redesign – the middle school was not dual language when we opened it; we had been focused on expeditionary learning, but not appropriate. We are designing and redesigning every year, and thought it would be great to have additional resources, because it’s hard to do school full time and redesign.
What have you most liked about the School Design Lab?
I really appreciate the resources – to have a sub-principal once a week. It allows me to work with the AP with fewer distractions.
Also, the work around personalized learning is valuable for us. And rethinking how we’re organizing the school. It gives me time to think.
What feedback do you have for Educate78 about how to better move forward the cause of increasing access to quality school seats across Oakland’s 78 square miles?
Support schools like ours that can expand and improve, which I guess you are doing. If we were on two campuses, we could probably expand to 800. Also, I’d love to see more differentiated support. Each school in the lab is so different. Also, it would be good to figure out how to define quality schools more broadly. SBAC scores feel too prominent. I strongly believe in academic achievement and standards – but that does not define quality. There are schools with good test scores but not places I’d like to send my kids. What’s the quality of instruction in some of the hills schools? Or are the kids just doing well because they come to school with tons of privilege. We noted that many OUSD and other educators send their kids here. What do people see – it’s not the SBAC scores? They’re not great and they’ll never be great – we don’t teach English until 4th grade. Students learn to read and write in Spanish and the SBAC is in English and we have newcomers in all grades. How could we define what we have here?
And your hope for Kyla?
When I first became principal, I went through a hell that I thought would never be possible.
There’s so much dysfunction; you have to stand in it long enough and stand for something, to come out the other side with something better
I could not have imagined what some people were going to put me through; maybe if it were horrible enough I would leave. It was spearheaded by two teachers who did not want to change their practices.
But I’m a really stubborn person. You’re not going to try to push me out that way. I’m going to leave when I’m good and ready.
If you could have anything today? What would it be?
We’ve grown out of this space. I’d like to have a guaranteed solution for facilities for how we can continue to grow and thrive
What else do you want to share?
I love the murals here. Art is so essential. Here you have kids doing capoeira, art, dance. It’s organic – people take responsibility for what they’re passionate about.