Educate78 recently met with Tierre Mesa, Principal at Urban Promise Academy, to learn more about her school’s experiences going through the school redesign process. As a teacher and school leader at UPA for nearly 15 years, Mesa has spent a great deal of time thinking about how to transform UPA into a quality school space that meets the needs of a very diverse group of learners and their families, about engaging students, teachers and families in this process, and about continually naming inequities in their learning spaces and taking steps to interrupt them.
Why did you and your school get involved with the Educate78 School Design Lab?
Tierre Mesa: We had just completed a Next Generation Learning Grant, which was a grant received through the Rogers Foundation. It was similar in that it provided funding to go through a process of rethinking school design, assessing how we are preparing students to be 21st century learners and college and career ready. We decided to adopt Summit Learning, a personalized instructional model, but the grant ended and we still had a lot of work to do to complete the instructional model, including clarifying how it connects to our school vision and mission. We were seeking school redesign process support that would allow us to really be authentic to our needs as a school community and to the students we serve.
To be honest, when we began the relationship with Educate78, I didn’t know much about it, and we learned as we went. Some of the other schools [in the fellowship] were entering in the beginning phases of entering into school redesign, but we were a bit further along. We were really at a refining step.
What does a quality transformational school look like to the community you seek to serve?
TM: I think that most importantly, it offers rigorous academic instruction so that our students are prepared academically to be successful in high school. One of our unique needs as a school is that we have a diverse group of learners. We have a program for newcomers, as 15 percent of our students have been in the country for less than 3 years. We have a specialized programs with students with IEPs, who make up about 15 percent of our student body. We also have students who are at and above grade level. So within one classroom we have a huge diversity in learning needs.
A quality school model is personalized to meet the individual needs of all these students. It’s critical that the students feel welcome, connected to each other and to adults, and have a sense of belonging. It’s important that our school is developing the students’ own voice, own identity, and agency to advocate for themselves in the classroom and larger community. We do that by supporting them to become self directed learners, make their own goals, shift their own goals as needed, and gather their own resources to help them meet their goals.
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?
TM: I think the first step is really prioritizing equity goals and building a shared understanding in the school community of how you’re defining equity, and how it exists in the larger system, in your school site and in the classroom. A lot of adult work needs to happen. There needs to be comfort in discussing race, power and privilege. We invested in providing professional development for all our staff to discuss issues that impact equity in our schools. We looked at how implicit bias, race, power and privilege show up in our classrooms and in our relationships with families. We built space for our staff to have these conversations. We want every adult in our school community to be able to name inequities they see, and take steps to interrupt them. For us to be able to engage in honest conversations about this requires a lot of trust building.
This year we are continuing that same work but also honing in on the policies and practices in classrooms that usually unintentionally impact students with regard to race, gender, and sexuality. We’ve also made huge shifts in our discipline practice. We’re doing a lot to cut down on suspensions, creating healing and making connections for students who have harmed the school community and classroom environment. We’ve organized staff professional development on restorative practices, and trained students to hold their own peer restorative justice circles, shifting our policies to focus on restoration and inclusion, rather than sending the kid home.
In the transformational school design process, Bela (our Educate78 coach) consistently brought equity to the forefront, both through our coaching but also in our cohort stepbacks. She was always questioning and asking us to have clarity around our own equity goals, our own values and frameworks as school leaders, and really taking intentional steps to interrupt policies and practices on our campus.
Over the last two years what have been the highest leverage supports from Educate78 that have helped you in your transformation/redesign work?
TM: The fact that Educate78 provided consistent coaching and support through the redesign process was invaluable. It was the opposite of what I’ve often experienced, where you create a plan, receive grant money, and they check in 12 months later. There was very intentional support through the process, not only encouraging us to be thoughtful about how we are engaging with our school community stakeholders, but also through giving us feedback through the quality school review process, as well as providing the systems and structures through the cohort meetings for us to learn as school leaders and to experience things you don’t see in the day-to-day.
I think of my time as an educator as being on the dance floor: responding to parents, talking to kids on the school yard, and solving problems all day long. It’s so important as a school leader to maintain the time and space to have those larger, intentional plans. Educate78 gave us space to get off the dance floor and get on the balcony, to look down at the dance floor to see what’s working, what’s not, and what needs changing. This was incredibly valuable as a school leader. Otherwise you’re just solving small problems and not looking at the larger issues.
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 (budgetary, systems, time, money, etc.)?
TM: I think the biggest learnings and wins are hand in hand. One of our learnings involved being really thoughtful about engaging students and families in the design process. I am not sitting in my office alone making these decisions‒I should be making these decisions with them. That for me is an equity frame that allows me to see my own gaps and better learn the needs and experiences of my families, and shifts the power dynamic to give them ownership of the redesign. The same goes for teachers and staff, because with that engagement process of generating ideas and prioritizing and getting feedback from students, families and staff, you create a plan that people are excited about. My work as a school leader is thus implementing, vs. convincing people that this is the right plan.
For us, the redesign is a 3-year plan and the staff are really excited about that. We aren’t going to make all the changes the first year. We won’t abandon priorities if they don’t show immediate growth. We are making bite size goals that will create larger shifts over time. I believe doing it this way will support us in teacher retention. I believe that teachers are excited about the school improvement work, they feel connected to it, and they feel that there has been a clear and transparent process that they can engage with. We’ve done a lot of PD for our amazing teachers and staff, and believe that retention is key to any school improvement plan.
A challenge is continuing to find ways to identify that balcony, high level view, to maintain a vision of our high level priorities. I feel like I’ve been able to voice my challenges to my transformational school coach and she has been super responsive. Educate78 has been really responsive to my feedback and the unique needs of our school community through this process, ensuring that the plans that we create, our goals and our priorities are authentic and have engaged our school community.
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?
TM: The big picture of our overall Oakland community is that it’s a very diverse city, but it’s also very stratified. We use terms like “hills” and “flatlands.” We see inequities showing up in outcomes in our schools. I would challenge Oakland to see every Oakland child as their own. Become interested in the school in your neighborhood, not just because your kid may or may not go there, but because you’re interested in the development of the children in your community.
I am also a mom of 4 OUSD kids and have had lots of conversations with other families. I have gone through the options process and decided where to send my kids. One piece of advice I’d like to offer is to stay curious about the wide range of schools in our community, to visit them, and to challenge yourself to see all the wins, all of the amazing experiences our students are having on a daily basis, vs. just seeing the needs. And volunteer! Even if you have no one at the school in your neighborhood, do it anyway. Asking what the school needs and how you can help is the starting point for us as an Oakland community to break down the isolation and the assumptions we are making about different schools based on the communities they are in.
We look at data around schools and see red and green schools. That’s not the only defining element of a school. Our schools are serving very different communities, and they may be supporting student progress in a way you can’t see from a data table. There can be a deficit narrative around OUSD schools, and the district-charter conversations can be harmful in our quest to provide quality education to every single child in our community, district or charter, hills and flatlands.