OAKLAND -- Jody London said she never thought she would run for public office, let alone embark on her second term as District 1 representative on the Oakland Unified School District board of directors.
"It was a big undertaking," said London, who represents North Oakland. "But I felt I could be a voice of reason and a rational decision-maker."
London came on board in 2009 when Oakland Unified was on the tail end of state receivership.
"Since my swearing-in, we have closed the $40 million structural deficit, but we had to make some hard choices," said London, citing the closure of five schools and the consolidation of seven more.
"In 2009, the district hired Superintendent Tony Smith, whose
That meant addressing not just academics, but safety, health and equality.
"I believe strongly that every neighborhood should have schools where families are comfortable sending their kids," London said. "It's an interesting issue because Oakland schools are very safe. It's the neighborhoods, not the schools, that aren't safe."
She said that Oakland Unified is collaborating with the city to establish safe routes to schools.
"We're looking for safer routes, whether the student has difficulty getting to school in East Oakland because of gang activity or getting to Hillcrest Elementary because
London said Oakland is the first school district to instigate an African-American Male Achievement (AAMA) initiative.
"We are doing a lot to help young African-American men be successful in school," London said.
She said many young African-American boys -- and girls -- get mixed messages from the street versus what they hear in school.
"We're developing programs to help them stay focused on their goals and show them that it's cool to be smart and do well in school," London said.
She listed such programs as Voluntary School Study Teams and Read 2 Lead to help increase literacy and leadership.
London said Oakland Unified is pushing the academic program to be more available and more rigorous for all students.
"We are moving toward the federally mandated Common Core Standards," said London, adding that educational standards are currently "disparate across the country."
"There is a move to inquiry-based learning, rather than rote learning," she said.
Oakland Unified is in the process of realigning its requirements for high school graduation with the entrance requirements for the University of California and the California State University systems.
"Ours didn't match up," London said. "The students themselves requested this."
She said there's a lot of work to do because even students who get into college often aren't ready.
"That's especially true for kids of color," said London, adding that the number of Advanced Placement classes at McClymonds High School in West Oakland has increased from one to seven in the past year.
While on the campaign trail for her second term on the board -- she won in 2012 with a resounding 76 percent of the vote -- London was surprised that many people didn't know about the health and food initiatives in Oakland schools.
"We have 17 health clinics in our middle and high schools that provide physical and dental care for students," London said. "We provide the space, and Alameda County Public Health Department and community organizations such as Clinica de la Raza provide services."
37,000 meals daily: In addition, Oakland Unified provides 37,000 meals daily to children who don't have food at home.
"The passage of Measure J allowed us to revamp the food system so that now 40 percent of the food we serve is sourced locally," London said. "We're pushing hard to use our purchasing power to support local vendors."
London said that while Oakland Unified is working to improve academics, health and nutrition are vital, too.
"Kids are not ready to learn or reach their fullest potential if they're hungry or their tooth hurts or they've just witnessed some act of violence," London said.
Oakland voters passed Measure J -- a $475 million bond measure in 2012 -- by 84 percent. The measure provides for improvements to schools and facilities such as upgrades to classrooms and labs, safety, energy efficiency and earthquake safety.
In addition, passage of the state's Propositon 39 in November provides $2.5 billion for energy efficiency over the next five years.
"Some of that money will fund energy efficiency and clean energy projects in California schools," said London, who works as an energy consultant. "It provides money for such fixes as replacing inefficient boilers, installing insulation, replacing windows or investing in solar energy."
She said Oakland is a leader in "green" schools in California.
"Oakland was the first school district to be awarded a matching grant from the state for green building," said London, who provides pro bono assistance to Oakland Unified on energy policy and implementation.
London also has a personal stake in Oakland Unified -- both of her daughters have been educated in Oakland public schools and now attend Claremont Middle School. In fact, she first became active in the schools when her youngest daughter started Chabot Elementary School and London discovered that 16 of the 22 classrooms were in portables -- some dating back to the 1940s.
"It was crazy, I went to the PTA and said, 'What can we do?'"
London went on to co-chair the Measure B committee in 2006, which generated $435 million for facilities improvements throughout the district.
Improving union relations: Another goal of London and the board is to improve relationships with the teachers union.
"The relationship with the unions has been strained, so I want to work to improve that," London said. "We want to retain our teachers; we don't want them leaving after two years. We want to make sure they have the tools to educate the whole child."
As in urban areas nationwide, enrollment at Oakland's public schools continues to drop. Enrollment decreased from 55,000 in 1999 to 36,000 in 2012. About 10,000 students attend Oakland's 40 charter schools.
"I'm not a fan of charter schools," said London, who thinks people view them as safer. "We write into the charter that we hope they'll rejoin the district within two years."
Charter schools are publicly funded but not publicly accountable, London said. While Oakland Unified provides custodial, safety, food and other services, charter schools have their own governing board.
"I'm not an ideologue," London said. "But I want to make sure all kids have access to quality education."
The recent scandal regarding the alleged theft of $3.8 million in public funds by Ben Chavis, owner of American Indian Model Schools (AIMS), which operates three charter schools in Oakland's Chinatown, has drawn attention to charters.
"There is outrage over this, but because the schools have very high test scores and send a lot of kids to college, they continue to have support," said London, adding that 80 percent of the student body at AIMS is actually Chinese.
The Oakland Unified board issued a notice of intent to revoke the schools' charter if they failed to demonstrate more fiscal responsibility. The board will vote on whether or not to close the charters in March.
"It's clear that the governing board violated public trust by cheating," London said. "It shows kids that you can prosper by cheating."
London, who holds a bachelor's degree in English from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University, said she's always a staunch supporter of public education.
"I think Oakland has an inferiority complex, but we have more high-performing schools than 10 years ago, and kids continue to achieve," London said. "I want our board to show good governance, be clear about its objectives and work as a team."