Jerry’s Kids

Jerry Brown's military institute has a lot of problems. The same sort of problems that always seem to follow the mayor around.

Jerry Brown’s greatest gift is his ability to infect other people with his vision. When he rode into Oakland back in 1998, he seemed almost more messiah than mayor, entrancing voters with the simple beauty of his four-point platform: ten thousand middle-class residents downtown; a no-nonsense crackdown on crime; remaking the city into Northern California’s art mecca; and, of course, finally liberating children from the shackles of their own public schools. No more excuses for mediocrity, he promised, no more teachers sleepwalking through their classes or bureaucrats more interested in their pensions than jobs. Brown was going to endow the schools with his personal dynamism, and students would finally see their promise fulfilled.

Of course, not everyone went along with his dreams. When the Oakland school board refused to approve Brown’s candidate for superintendent, the mayor launched a power grab so bold and uncompromising that it left people reeling. Forging an alliance with state Senator Don Perata and raising a war chest of more than $500,000, Brown won the power to stack the board with his proxies and push his agenda, in an election that left no doubt who was in charge in Oakland. And then, just like that, the mayor lost interest. His appointees proved to be disastrous for the schools: Paul Cobb was a Wilson-era patronage relic who spent most of his energy clamoring for black contracts, and Wilda White was just plain loopy. As the two of them wasted the district’s time with pointless crusades and bizarre posturing, Brown simply floated away, preoccupied with his next big idea.

Brown’s new project was a brand-new military school designed to apply the same iron discipline that characterized his own childhood education, which would turn disadvantaged ghetto kids into crackerjack students headed straight for college. Enlisting the financial and personnel support of the California National Guard, he opened the Oakland Military Institute in 2001 on the grounds of the West Oakland Army Base. Teachers would be assisted by a cadre of sergeants, who would drill the 160 seventh-graders in military science, march them around in platoons and have them salute the flag at morning reveille, and put a boot in their asses if they got out of line. The first year started with 169 seventh-graders, and school leaders expanded it to include roughly 130 eighth-graders in 2002, with plans to begin teaching high-school freshmen in September. As of the 2002-03 school year, the institute had fourteen teachers on staff.

Brown’s soldiers, he hoped, would drive a tough-as-nails work ethic into his kids, who would graduate confident in their own abilities and eager to learn. “I’m very much influenced by Mortimer Adler, a philosopher and teacher, who felt that ordinary citizens could master the great works, and should have the opportunity for the kind of education that involves history, philosophy, and great literature,” Brown told National Public Radio in 2001. “And I take that approach to the Oakland Military Institute. Because I think ordinary citizens are capable of great ideas and great participation.”

The Oakland Military Institute was explicitly designed to shame by example the Oakland public school district, whose leaders had foolishly denied the school a charter. Other observers quickly got the message; George Will, for example, dedicated an entire column to the institute as proof that Brown had set aside his moribund liberal notions and seen the light. This was where the mayor’s ideas about urban education would finally be put to the test. Unencumbered by small-minded interlopers who just didn’t get it, Brown would succeed or fail on his own terms.

Two years later, the Oakland Military Institute is facing a profound, if silent crisis. According to teachers, administrators, and even Brown’s own assistants, the school has been crippled by bureaucratic infighting, ceaseless turnover, policies that change from one month to the next, and a schizophrenic educational philosophy. Teachers have quit in disgust. Administrators have been fired. Student vandalism is an ongoing problem. In many ways, Brown has taken millions in public money and the energies of countless people and created just another public school.

The immature sniping that prevailed on the Oakland school board is an example of what happens to schools when the mayor stops paying attention. But what about when he focuses his remarkable intellect on just one idea, when he dedicates himself to a few hundred children and vows to turn their lives around? As it turns out, we get exactly the same outcome.

There’s no denying that Brown’s vision has produced some startling results. Two weeks ago, on the final day of the institute’s second summer session, National Guard sergeants patrolled the sunbaked blacktop that snakes its way through the portable classrooms. Any student running through campus or caught without his or her regulation black cap had some serious explaining to do. Sergeants saluted superior officers as they passed and demanded similar respect from the kids; only the civilian teachers were exempt.

Inside Sal Siino’s math classroom, where 25 students worked on four-digit subtraction problems, the atmosphere was so quiet that visitors spoke in awed whispers, as if they had entered a cathedral. Sure, many of the most troublesome kids had already been weeded out of the school; over the last ten months, more than 14 percent of the student body either dropped out or was “counseled” to leave — which is not exactly an option for Oakland’s other middle schools. Even so, a room filled with two dozen studious thirteen-year-olds is virtually unheard of in this town.

Major Robert Bradley, the new commandant of Oakland Military Institute, strode among his wards and admitted to both hope and apprehension. Bradley has dedicated years to cultivating a new sense of self-respect in young boys and girls — he’s working on his Ph.D in education and, up until a few weeks ago, oversaw the entire 8,000-student California Cadet Corps, a statewide program targeting at-risk kids and using discipline and structure to keep them out of gangs. Now, the National Guard has pulled him off his administrative duties and ordered him to do what it takes to whip this one school into shape. “I’m more concerned about leadership, and using a military model to teach leadership,” he says. “I’m not trying to get these kids into the army — I’m trying to get them into college.”

It’s a dream shared by his civilian counterparts. In spite of the school’s problems, every teacher interviewed for this story professed a firm belief that the military model can work. As the final bell rang and the students filed out to the bus stop, one new teacher bounced past, flashed the smile of the condemned woman who just got a call from the governor, and gushed about how relieved she was to be free from Castlemont High. When it comes to classroom dynamics, everyone here thinks Brown is onto something.

But beneath the orderly facade, the dry rot is growing. In a series of on- and off-the-record interviews, five current and former teachers — more than a third of the school’s faculty — allege that Brown’s vision has been undermined by a series of catastrophic, blindingly simple mistakes on the part of the military institute’s leaders. The blunders start with the mayor himself, who has been involved in almost every major decision the school has made, from hiring the leadership to selecting the school’s Latin motto. Over the last two years, these teachers claim, Brown has created a profoundly dysfunctional organization in which basic school policies are arbitrarily revised, National Guard staff have absolutely no training on how to deal with children, and every single school administrator has quit or been fired after at most fourteen months. Perhaps most critically, two parallel administrations — one military, one civilian — have been set up in opposition to one another, and tension between the two has grown so bad that teachers have personally confronted Brown about it or quit altogether.

These problems began in the school’s very first year, as military and civilian officials tried to get it up and running. Creating such a novel, hybrid creature was obviously a challenge, and some bumps in the road were only natural. Students didn’t read at the grade level teachers had anticipated. Administrators designed a daily schedule that proved too rigorous and had to be scaled back. Kids who clearly couldn’t hack it were pressured to leave after only a few months. But some problems were never addressed, creating a growing sense of frustration among many teachers. For example, the institute’s school board never bought or leased school buses, forcing students to take public transportation from as far away as Newark to get to school by 7:30 a.m. reveille. As they take BART to AC Transit and transfer to another line, some twelve-year-olds spend up to four hours each day alone on public transit. “It wasn’t unheard of to hear that a kid’s day started at four-thirty or five in the morning,” says former intern teacher Charles “C.J.” Patterson. “You had people coming out as far as Newark, Hayward, Union City.”

The institute’s first wave of leaders had no chance to learn from their mistakes, because every single one of them was gone at the end of the first year. Superintendent Brigadier General Ralph Marinaro, Principal Diana Adams, and Academic Director Rick Moniz all departed or were transferred elsewhere by the beginning of September. Brown and the school board had to hire an entirely new administration to start from scratch.

“That’s been a problem,” Commandant Bradley concedes. “There’s been a rollover since this thing started. … The typical charter school, which this is, takes anywhere from three to five years to really jell. So, that being said, we’re probably at a pretty good point. But in any organization, if you keep changing that group dynamic, and those key players keep changing, that’s not conducive to a good program.”

To make matters worse, more than half of the first year’s teaching staff never returned; of the seven teachers hired in 2001, four quit, and one scaled back her hours to part-time.

As Brown and his advisers sat down to replace the first generation of school leaders, they made what many staff consider a near-fatal error. For superintendent, Brown tapped Lauren Frazer, an elementary schoolteacher who set up an English school in Taiwan. Several teachers, as well as institute parent and school board member Cara Kapowski, believe Frazer only got the job because of her close friendship with the wife of Major General Paul Monroe, adjutant general of the California National Guard. By most accounts, Frazer was a terrible fit in the institute’s culture. Several teachers called her a “Berkeley type” who hated the idea of military order, and fired several sergeants for disciplining students in accordance with the very principles on which the school was founded.

“She stripped the military of their power, and we ended up with students who were getting away with too much,” says teacher Siino. “And that led to fairly serious behavior problems in the classroom. … She had us walking on eggshells. People were being dismissed without due process. It was to the point where I was afraid that the kids were going to report something bad about me, and I would be dismissed. So I was very careful about what I told parents, even if kids were out of control.”

Frazer made a fateful decision just two weeks into the school year. The board had hired a director of curriculum to construct year-round lesson plans, mentor rookie teachers, and generally oversee the academic side of the school. But according to several teachers, a personality spat soon emerged between Frazer and curriculum director Mary Tutass, and Tutass was gone just like that. First-time teachers had no one to turn to for advice; from now on, it was sink or swim, just as in any public school. “Mary, the backbone of the curriculum who did a lot of things with new teachers to mentor them and teach them the ropes, was gone,” one teacher says. “People were getting angry, they didn’t have the support they needed, the kids were acting up.”

What’s worse, school officials admit that the sergeants assigned to help out these teachers were never told how to do their job. The military institute’s classrooms have a unique structure: Where most schools simply have a teacher overseeing some two dozen students, institute teachers theoretically have a National Guard sergeant to assist them in class, enforce discipline, and often serve as an adult male role model for kids who lack structure at home. Unfortunately, no one ever instructed these sergeants how to work with students, which meant that the quality of the help depended on the quality of the sergeant. And while some truly inspired their students, others allegedly fell asleep in class, messed around on the computer all day, or wandered in and out of class, talking on their cell phones. “It was never consistent, and consistency’s the most important thing in school,” says one teacher. “The rules about what the sergeants were supposed to do were never well-defined.”

Simón Bryce, an Oakland assistant city manager who also serves as secretary of the institute’s board, acknowledges that staff turnover and lack of training are serious problems, but adds that starting such a unique school from scratch is bound to be a rough process. “It’s important in looking at this to separate the real problems from the growing pains of the school,” he says. “This school is attempting to do something that no other charter school in California is doing: using the Guard and the military structure to create the climate. That’s been very, very challenging because of the public educations laws governing discipline and expulsion. The school has been very challenged in finding out how to carry out its mission without diluting it, and being in line with public education laws. We bit off a huge one when we set the school up.”

Nothing better illustrates the confusion of the military institute than the case of former teaching intern Patterson. An eleven-year Air Force veteran who grew up in the projects of West Oakland and was hired in February, he seemed the perfect man to reach the institute’s students. Since his salary was only $12.50 an hour, Patterson was promised that he would just perform a few ancillary support tasks, but within weeks, administrators asked him to assume full-time teaching duties without even the salary of the uncredentialed teachers working next to him. Not that he minded too much; he got a kick out of the kids, and found he had a special gift for teaching them how to get along with the jarheads. “Some of these sergeants have, how do you say it, a problem with rank,” he says. “They let it go to their heads, and they don’t always know how to treat a child. They abuse their rank. So I would say to the kid, ‘Look, if a sergeant tells you to do something, just do it. It’s a whole lot easier that way. ‘”

But just as he was getting used to teaching, the institute’s staff gave him yet another assignment: babysitting the school’s most troubled kids. Patterson was put in charge of the “in-house suspension” program, in which students who got in trouble were sent to an empty classroom, where they sat and stared at the walls for the rest of the day. Patterson tried to make the time constructive for them, but it wasn’t easy. Students would drop in and out of his “class” every couple of days, making it impossible for him to organize a coherent lesson plan. As the days went on, more and more kids were warehoused in his class, particularly once some realized that by deliberately getting into trouble they could escape the hassle of being hounded by officers.

Then, one day in May, Patterson up and quit. A sergeant took a young girl to his class for in-house suspension and told Patterson that the student was a piece of work. The sergeant said she had been caught numerous times bringing weapons to class, and was clearly suicidal. But after talking to the school counselors, everyone agreed not to tell the girl’s parents, Patterson says. “Evidently she told the counselors and the sergeant that she didn’t want the parents to know, and the school complied with her request,” he says. “That’s when I said ‘Enough is enough.’ I had to leave. What if they found her swinging somewhere?”

Board Secretary Bryce emphatically denies Patterson’s story, and claims there’s no way the school would treat a student’s crisis so blithely. “I don’t believe that happened,” he says. “If a kid were that bad off, that would come to my attention.”

Events halfway across the globe also had an unforeseen consequence on students. When tensions between the United States and Iraq began boiling over, and George W. Bush started mobilizing troops in October 2002, a number of the institute’s sergeants were called to active duty and left the school. It was bad enough that sergeants were fired or goofing off, or that new teachers never got the support they needed. Now, the adults who were supposed to be a consistent force in the kids’ lives were gone. Students did what comes naturally: They started acting out. Graffiti began to appear on the school walls, and vandalism flourished. At one point, students ripped a sink off a bathroom wall.

The institute’s administrators had heard about this sort of thing; the previous year had seen a plague of vandalism, and sinks were ripped from moorings on a regular basis. This time, they determined to nip the problem in the bud. In December, the school adopted a new discipline policy and started doling out suspensions. The institute’s teachers are divided on the virtues of this policy; some thought it was about time, and others worried that kids needed something more than an iron fist. But everyone interviewed agrees that the so-called military cadre never bothered to tell teachers when their students were suspended, or why. One teacher claims that sometimes up to a third of the students in a classroom would be on suspension, and yet the teacher usually had to hear about it from other students. “You come into class, and you’d have nineteen kids instead of 25 in all your classes,” one teacher recalls. “Then it becomes an issue of education. How am I going to get suspended kids to take that test they couldn’t? And when are they coming back? And we never knew when a kid was going to be suspended or not. You never got a notice. You’d actually hear it from the kids.”

Both teachers and administrators claim that the officers botched basic communication with teachers, compromising their ability to conduct class. “There were times when we were never informed about assemblies, and we’d find out from the kids,” this teacher continues. “The military would plan something, and the civilians wouldn’t know about it. That happened at least three times. The lesson plans, the science labs, were totally disrupted by that. All that planning’s for nothing.”

Time after time Guard leaders scheduled school-wide events, such as one motivational speech by talk-show host Montel Williams, without informing the faculty. Teachers would draw up lesson plans, organize science labs, or prepare tests, only to discover — from their own students, no less — that the afternoon’s classes were cancelled. How were they supposed to teach these kids, they asked, when the Guard cancels class at a moment’s notice and ushers everyone out to hear inspirational platitudes from a television personality? Major Bradley acknowledges this communication breakdown, and says tension between civilians and the Guard must be resolved next year. “There’s a natural conflict in any military school between the teachers and what we call the cadre,” he says. “The cadre’s trying to march ’em, keep ’em disciplined, keep ’em lined up. The teachers are trying to get ’em in the classroom. … We have to do a better job of creating a partnership.”

By February, many teachers had had enough. The random suspensions, seemingly arbitrary firings, and inconsistent discipline had created a sense for many that no one was in charge. The institute’s finances were so disorganized that the superintendent had to hire an outside financial expert to fix the books. The special education program was a mess. Teachers began flooding Mayor Brown with complaints about Lauren Frazer, and he agreed to meet with several of them to hear their concerns. To be fair, not every teacher was so riled up. Maurice Poplar, who taught at the school last year, thought that some teachers had overhyped their complaints, and that the February meeting was unnecessary. “It shouldn’t have been called for, but it happened,” he says. “You shouldn’t need those types of checks and balances.”

By all accounts, the mayor was eager to hear what everyone had to say. Although some teachers were dismayed by what they call his ignorance that things had gotten so bad, they also were heartened by his resolve to improve the school. Brown even convinced Mary Tutass, the very curriculum director fired by Frazer, to serve as his personal education consultant.

But just one month later, teachers were angry all over again. This time, the school board had revised its advancement policy: Any student who was suspended three times or more in a year would not be asked back. Several teachers were furious that kids were being retroactively hit with a punishment that hadn’t been instituted when they were acting out. Although institute administrators ultimately gave kids a chance to remain at the military institute by doing well in summer school, the inconsistent policies once again contributed to the sense that no one was minding the store. In addition, some teachers claim that a culture of resentment toward problem kids began to infect the first-year faculty.

“The veteran teachers understood that we inherited students with bad academics, who act out to compensate for bad grades,” one teacher says. “New teachers were told that they were walking into an ideal educational school.” Another recalls: “In teachers’ meetings, it was all about, ‘Well, we’ve gotta get rid of certain kids, certain kids just don’t belong at this school. A lot of times it was teachers saying this. They were pretty militant. … It’s not in tune with helping kids, it’s more in tune with getting rid of the problem ones, so you don’t have to look at them every day.”

This sentiment underscores a certain schizophrenia in the institute’s mission. On one hand, the school is clearly designed to serve low-income kids with discipline issues, the ones who anonymously languish in the Oakland school district. On the other, it’s a college prep academy, where students who can’t cut it may need to think about transferring to a less demanding school. Many parents sent their most remedial kids to the institute thinking it was a juvenile boot camp, and were outraged when school administrators suggested that they don’t take just anyone. “I am opposed to having a kid in a school if there’s no reasonable expectation that they will be successful,” says Bill Goins, who served as the institute’s dean of students in its first year, and was later transferred by the National Guard to Southern California. “That’s a hot political subject, but charter school law says that schools can establish some enrollment criteria based on the intent of the school. Unfortunately, that translates into some kids are not going to qualify, and that’s a hard thing politically. … It sounds elitist to only take kids that are capable of doing that. But what’s the other side: settling for mediocrity? We’ve seen what mediocrity can lead to.”

Brown himself was quite explicit about this from the school’s inception. “Not everyone is what was called in my day ‘college material,'” he told NPR. “Not everybody can qualify for the scholarship. Everybody can learn a certain amount, but in terms of the University of California, or Harvard, or Yale, there’s a minimum capacity there that’s needed, and we’re looking for that kind of talent, which we believe exists, which is not developed and not identified in places like Oakland. And there are those who just can’t make it. They’re too far behind, they lack certain abilities, whether it’s emotional, cognitive, or whatever. And, therefore, they just can’t conform to the program, adhere to the discipline and the academic environment, which is the school.”

By June, many teachers were just relieved that the year was over. For all the institute’s faults, the teachers still believe the school could be great, and shudder when faced with the prospect of returning to a traditional public school. In its first year of operation, the institute’s students already outperformed the rest of Oakland’s kids in state testing, particularly in language arts. And this year the military cadres could boast that the institute’s drill team won first place in the California Cadet Corps drill competition. “With the guidelines they instill in the students, the hard work — I’m very involved there, and I just see such pride,” says parent Kapowski, whose son hopes to attend West Point. “The self-esteem has really grown in these kids. They’re much more respectful, they pay attention, they’re much more focused.”

Siino believes the school’s essential vision still holds promise. “We have very dedicated teachers here, we have teachers who really want to be a part of a school that works,” he says. “These teachers are often coming in at seven and leaving at six, putting in a lot of hours, making excellent lessons, and students and the parents are both very pleased with the teachers at the school. It would be nice if we had a strong administration that kept morale high.”

In addition, the institute’s supporters note that charter schools always suffer from these sorts of growing pains, and that they usually manage to work out the kinks in about five years. But given the institute’s $4.4 million annual budget, its problems are far worse than they ought to be. Most schools lay teachers off by the end of March, so they have time to look for a new job; the institute’s administrators didn’t get around to firing teachers till midsummer, stringing everyone along till it was far too late. Once again, the school will start another academic year with a new commandant and principal — and school leaders aren’t even sure if they’ll have a superintendent at all. And of the fourteen teachers on staff, at least five aren’t coming back, according to one teacher.

If Jerry Brown’s personal commitment to these students is any indication, the institute’s heart is certainly in the right place; he visits the school regularly, knows the children by name, and has been known to attend the graduation ceremonies of students who were forced to go back to Oakland middle schools. He even has city employee Dolores Blanchard working to reorganize the institute this summer, a task which may raise the eyebrows of Oakland taxpayers. Blanchard insists she acts as Brown’s liaison to the military institute board on her own time.

Still, the institute’s dysfunction has all the hallmarks of the Jerry Brown school of management: great ideas, but terrible follow-through. And his own teachers say that everywhere outside the classroom, the place is an unqualified mess. Next year, the school will add roughly 130 kids to its roster, as it begins teaching the ninth grade. Several teachers have already wondered if the school is really up to the task. Will the military institute be able to offer college prep classes? Can it set up a sports program? Or will it prove unable to resolve the basic organizational flaws that crippled it this year?

Brown, who has been on vacation in Europe, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment for this story, but in a 2001 issue of Education Matters, he wrote that the Oakland Military Institute “is even more committed to fostering an environment where creativity, leadership, and intellectual curiosity are deeply respected. Nothing will be done to interfere with or harm the student’s capacity to learn.”

If Brown wants to regain the confidence of the very teachers charged with implementing his vision, he’ll have to do something extraordinary to make that promise come true. Years ago, the mayor abdicated any pretense at leadership in the Oakland public schools; if he wants to be seen as anything but a failure in urban education, the Oakland Military Institute has to succeed. And so far, it’s merely surviving. When the school first opened in 2001, Brown coined a motto for it: age quod agis — attend to your business. The mayor may want to take those words to heart.

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