Educate78 met with Anita Comelo and Jessica Jung, the Principal and ELD Teacher Leader at Bridges Academy to discuss their experience with our Transformational Schools fellowship and leading their school through a redesign process. As Oakland seeks to find the right mix of public schools that will best serve all children, especially our most vulnerable, it is essential that we continually improve our ability to redesign and develop schools that are anti-racist, high quality, and transformational for students and our community.
Why did you and your school get involved with the Educate78 School Design Lab?
Anita Comelo: The impetus was that our school had previously gone through a redesign in 2004-05. I came on in 2015 and realized we need to rethink what we are doing at the school. I was new, our results were poor, and the school climate wasn’t doing well. It was an opportunity to rethink how we were doing things, and reset.
Jessica Jung: I got involved late in the game. Anita asked me to be a thought partner in the process. There were various ways I was involved: in a quarterly review meeting with Bela Bhasin (Educate78 lead on this work), and also through the School Autonomies group. There was an overlap in ways to leverage the great team we have here and to create autonomy across all OUSD systems in order to make them work better.
What does a quality transformational school look like to the community you seek to serve?
JJ: It definitely involves improving our student achievement across a variety of measures. We are doing OK now, but we can do better in terms of supporting our students and families to get better results.
AC: We have a concentration of students who are low income, as well as a number of newcomers. Creating a transformational school for this community means answering the question, “How do we create a place where the outcomes are more equitable and give these kids access to a better future?”
As leaders committed to transformation, you have to be intentional about interrupting policies and practices that perpetuate oppression. How have you done this at your site? How has Educate78 helped you in this work?
AC: We have done this in a number of ways: Having expectations and aspirations for your students that are worthy of their intellect. Teaching at grade level standards. Ensuring that teachers have the skills to teach kids at grade level standards. Educate78 has helped us to have a clear vision through community engagement with families and teachers around our mission, vision, and values. Educate78 also helped us identify several teachers to attend the Standards Institute.
JJ: The Standards Institute helped me shift the way I see systems and policies. It’s one way to access equity for our students. It gives them access to standards and curriculum that we can’t provide if we don’t have access. Educate78 gave us opportunities like this so that we can be better at our school sites.
Over the last two years what have been the highest leverage supports from Educate78 that helped you in your transformation/redesign work?
AC: Our coach, Bela, has been a really good partner. She helped us really think through agendas and timelines, making a plan for transformation, and has been right next to us to help us craft our long-term thinking, as well as help us support families, and provide coaching and funds to support standards training, meals, and anything else we need to do this important work.
JJ: Through having Bela here regularly to support us, I’ve learned a lot. She’s been super supportive, but has also pushed both of us forward in the way we think about things, in part through the difficult conversations around equity that need to be had. The grants were exciting to receive, they helped us narrow down our focus to the most high leverage opportunities, guiding us in our work. There are so many competing demands at our school site every day, and continually refocusing on our goals and priorities centers us.
As a school, what have been your biggest learnings in the time you’ve been involved? Your biggest win(s) that you believe has/will move the needle for students? What are the biggest challenges to moving this work forward?
JJ: It’s all connected to standards based instruction. I’ve been digging into it for 7 years. My biggest learning is a better understanding into the details of the standards, a big win is that we can focus on the standards for families and students, and the biggest challenge is pushing to keep our instruction centered around the standards, because the levels of understanding of our staff varies. We need to have autonomies to be able to support our staff.
AC: The biggest learning has been to have a focus on grade level standards and building the future capacity of our teachers to teach. A major win, in my opinion, is that we are moving in the direction of instruction being more standards-aligned. But we have a lot more work to do across the school in terms of teaching grade-level standards. We need more time, we need more money, and more people‒these elements continue to be challenges.
How can all of Oakland take more collective responsibility in making sure ALL students/families in Oakland have access to quality schools? What would you ask of OUSD, other schools (district and charter), our unions, businesses, and people who live across this city?
AC: I believe that the funding for schools in Oakland and California has to change for the better. It’s critical that all entities come together, and unions at all levels must lobby our government and public to put more funding toward public schools.
JJ: People make decisions based on family needs and priorities. As a parent of a younger child, it’s still theoretical for me. Ultimately, when I think about collective responsibility and funding issues, I think about not just my kid and my family, but how these things impact all families and children in the city. If more people sent their kids to public schools in Oakland, then the quality would increase. But until quality increases, they won’t do it. It’s like a chicken or egg thing. Charters are one way to have an alternative to lower quality options, but we are spreading our resources too thin. The more we can band together under public education and demand quality public schools, the better chance we have to change the way things are. As long as I’ve been working in OUSD, one of our greatest assets is the quality of our instructors‒it’s just that they don’t have the resources they need. It’s about resources, race, segregation, it all comes into play: how can we begin breaking those things down?