OAKLAND -- In order to achieve safer Oakland schools, the community must seek out caring teachers and give them the resources to ensure student success.
Those were at least two of the conclusions reached by a panel of nonprofit professionals during a Sunday forum on school safety and achievement. The gathering was organized by Councilmember Libby Schaaf as part of her Safe Oakland Speaker Series.
Schaaf, who is running for mayor this fall, represents the City Council's fourth district, which includes the Dimond, Laurel, Woodminster, Melrose and Montclair neighborhoods.
Discussion centered on how the Oakland schools can keep students safe and prepared to graduate high school. Panelists included a member of the school board, experts in violence prevention, education and poverty. Safety and academic achievement go hand-in-hand, Schaaf said to open the panel.
"Oakland is never going to be safe until we achieve better success with our young people," Schaaf said. "It is an important part of our conversation on safety."
Oakland Unified School District board President David Kakishiba said district trustees are looking to improve student performance at the high schools. To that end, the board has hired Denver secondary school administrator Antwan Wilson as the new district superintendent.
Wilson has a background in turning around underperforming high schools, Kakishiba said. The board has also voted to place a special tax measure on the November ballot to raise $12 million annually for a redesign of the high schools.
The plan would use the career academy approach to help students explore careers through technical education and internships. Smaller schools would be an integral part of the program because when adults engage with students the teens are more likely to do better and attend school. Offering classes that stress relevant skills is important, Kakishiba said.
"For hundreds of young people, whether they are college bound or not college bound, high school education is irrelevant," he said.
Demetria Huntsman is program coordinator for "Teens on Target," a program offered through the violence prevention nonprofit group "Youth Alive."
Students, she said, want the same sense of safety as adults. Knowing that caring teachers will be there to support them is important, she said.
"When I connect with young people they don't say that safety is no guns," she said. "They want to feel that they are valued and that someone is truly interested in their well being."
Early intervention and violence prevention programs are needed to keep students safe, said Geoffrey Godfrey, executive director of the city's California Youth Outreach program. Godfrey's staff is deployed when violence flares up and street workers try to prevent retaliation and further conflict.
Truancy is often a gateway for students to take part in gang violence along with weapons possession, bullying and substance abuse, he said.
Junious Williams, chief executive officer of the Urban Strategies Council, said inadequate funding for schools is a major barrier in helping students to be successful. Other school systems around the country spend around $16,000 a year to educate students while Oakland receives only $8,000 per pupil.
"I reject the notion that money doesn't matter, money does matter," he said. "If you are going to educate them (students) adequately, you need adequate resources."
Schools should place more emphasis on basic education, said Kareem Weaver, a former teacher and school principal in the Oakland public schools. Students are required to learn algebra, but many struggle because they have not mastered multiplication and other prealgebra skills in earlier grades.
"Where are our checks at the basic level?" he said. "We have high school exit exams but we don't have third-grade multiplication exams."
Weaver later said the government has the will to invest in education but doesn't have a system for measuring what works in the classroom.
"I think there is a will to do something for education but there's an absence of metrics and accountability," he said.
Williams agreed. Alameda County, he said, allocates money to public programs but has no performance measures, he said.
Re-entry programs for inmates released from prison is one example.
"The criminal justice program has an 80 percent failure rate in Oakland," he said. "That's low performance. If you were a nonprofit your money would be gone already."