Letters for the Week of October 19

Readers sound off on Tony Smith, Addie's Pizza Pie, and Peet's Coffee.

“Tony Smith’s Vision,” Feature, 10/5

A Rose-Colored “Vision”

This article was well-researched, but unfortunately it gives a very sunny spin on a very dire situation. Having worked in the Oakland schools, in many schools and programs for the previous twelve years, I can only say good luck and God bless to Tony Smith! He will surely need it!A few points to consider:

1. The dropout rate may be higher than the school district’s stated 40 percent, but even giving them the benefit of the doubt, those who do graduate are way behind, or largely functionally illiterate, so their ability to handle college work is very compromised. Most of our graduates will take two years or more in remedial classes in order to handle community college work. I’m not blaming anyone, just stating a fact.

2. You cannot maintain teacher dedication forever without pay increases for teachers who have actually lost ground over the past ten years. Of course, no one knows where these increases will come from. Make no mistake, despite public condemnation of teachers, they are mostly a very dedicated group.

3. Our dropout problem deserves more effort, but also more common sense. This group of students has no academic background and they are three to five years behind in basic skills. What they really need is vocational and educational training, and paid part-time jobs with stipends. A few school systems have managed to implement this system for dropouts and those at risk of dropping out. But not Oakland.

Honestly, it took me a long time to get this on a gut level, because it goes against all reason. But, from their point of view, the students have no reason to stay in school — it does not speak to their interests or their abilities. They have failed at school, and we, in turn, have failed them miserably. In the old days, we had a so-called “tracking system” for academic, vocational, and general students. Many claimed it was racist and unfair. Now it has been replaced by a system that breeds a higher dropout rate, more failure, and higher crime rates. I’m sorry, but we are not all meant to be brain surgeons. I’m not advocating a tracking system, but real jobs for kids who prefer to work with their hands or computers or play music — that’s our best bet for winning back those who are at-risk during high school. Maybe these kids will go on to further training or college, and maybe not — but they will get a high school diploma and a skilled trade. And, most importantly, they will be off the streets during the crucial years, ages thirteen through seventeen.

4. The schools have failed the community, but the community — meaning many of the parents — have also failed their children. I know this is a harsh indictment, but it unfortunately has much truth. A successful school system would require all parents to sign a contract each year, asking them to fulfill their responsibility on a daily basis. They must make sure their kids get to school daily, do some work in school, behave themselves, and do their homework. It must also state that “unless the parent or parents do their part the schools cannot guarantee the safety and success of their children.” This is an obvious truth, but it needs to be stated, signed, and sealed on a regular basis. The community must do its part. It is the essential partner in this entire process. In fairness, most parents are in compliance, but many are not for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.

5. Never forget who really has power in the schools. I know this from personal experience — the teachers have no real power, and even the principals have limited power. One could even argue that Tony Smith has limited power. Of course, he has a bully pulpit, and the right to rebuild a failing system, and envision a new one. But, the real power is in the hands of parents. What the schools fear most is a group of intelligent and organized parents who make reasonable demands and ask for accountability by schools and administrators, and are also willing to go to the press. In the state of current chaos, there is much blame, but not a lot of organized parents in the inner city.

Perhaps Tony Smith’s plan will work, perhaps not — but a little common sense and a few concrete proposals could make a big difference.

George Cohen, El Cerrito

A Smith Supporter

Thank you for the terrific article on Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith and his vision to improve and strengthen Oakland’s public schools. His vision is making our wonderful city even better for all of us. While there are many challenges, Superintendent Smith is obviously up to them — and, in our experience, is a good listener. Biotech Partners is honored to collaborate with Oakland schools and looks forward to increasing its presence and success in this improving district.

Jerry Metzker

Development and Marketing Manager, Biotech Partners

Put the Soul Back in School

I hope Tony Smith’s vision is manifested and creates healing, but first of all, get over the food thing. Have you traveled through white America lately? Most people want their hotlinks and burgers, not kale and quinoa — no matter what race. It’s so patronizing to think black people need white people to tell them how to eat.

I taught in Hunter’s Point for a year in a small school with tons of extra services, counselors, nurses, three assistant principals, free food, and an after-school program that few kids attended. The school closed after five years as a result of low test scores. Just because you are willing to admit that teaching to the test is not making the grade doesn’t mean you are going to be able to enrich an already dubious curriculum. Listen to Betty Olson-Jones of the Oakland Education Association, who supports the plan to open campuses up to parents and families before, during, and after school so that they might access the new medical clinics, childcare, and employment and housing assistance you plan to provide alongside state standardized classrooms, standards way off the mark for our kids. The OEA would like you to free up teachers so they can be part of the healing. There is not even time in the classroom to have a discussion about the shooting that happened in a child’s neighborhood the night before. The Open Court (Oakland’s adopted reading program) police want you on paragraph nine, line three at 10:10 or you’ll be chastised.

And now that you’ve — to be fair, I’ll say “we’ve” — fired most of our school counselors and have one for every 700 kids, we’re going to call on local businesses and churches to take up the slack, as if they are not strapped and as if they have not been asked already. After-school programs are already run by nonprofit organizations that are often able to do a better job than teachers because they have more adults to students and are free to invent their own curriculum. We’re going to put in some extra play structures in the playgrounds, you say, rather than re-establish sports programs. Can you get your local businessperson to clear out the used condoms from under the slides before the kids get to school in the morning? Maybe you’ll offer dinners like many schools already do to attract parents to PTA meetings. I think this teaches dependence. Parents are tired and I think fear being condescended to. Maybe a handful will show.

Look at the little kindergartners coming to school in the first half of their journey. They come in bright and cheery, they go out depressed. Kindergarten is all day now with little room for play. Those in the field of child development do not approve but have no say. There is no singing or circle games, and art usually means coloring photocopies of letters with dried-up markers. Scientist and child advocate Joseph Chilton Pierce says, “When the soul is not nourished it destroys itself.” Kids need art, music, theater, dance, sports, and projects to involve their hands, hearts, and souls, but no corporation can profit from these activities. Art heals. Kids need decent things to read, and books that don’t weigh five pounds and are as aesthetic as a Sears catalog. Worried about stressed students whose overstimulated amygdalas make learning hard and acting out easy? Please get rid of the bells. Studies in Germany are showing the dangers of noise on our already shocked systems and private schools have gotten rid of bells. They are demeaning, aside from being unhealthy.

I can’t believe I’m being so cynical but I’ve been through and around many a school here and feel privileged and enriched to have done so, but the work is more about gaining trust and healing before fractions. The curriculum moves way too fast, and like you said, kids who are transient miss too much and kids in shock have difficulty learning and catching up.

Susan Angst, Oakland

“Sobering Graphic,” Visual Art, 10/5

The Exhibition Needs to Be Seen

In the past several years, a number of exhibitions of Palestinian art have had to seek new venues after similar pressure was applied by the self-appointed leaders of the Bay Area Jewish community — but it seems the times are finally changing. Not only was the Middle East Children’s Alliance able to find a better place for the exhibition, but MOCHA’s cancellation of the show at the behest of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League became not only a local story but one that quickly traveled worldwide, thanks to the Internet. I suspect JCRC director Rabbi Kahn and those supporters of Israel in the Jewish community who think like him will have second thoughts before trying to flex their muscles so publicly again.

The notion that the subject of this art is too “heavy” for our children is a flimsy excuse — not only because, as the article points out, children are exposed to images of violence on their computers and cell phones, but because previous exhibitions of children’s art from war zones have never been blocked for that reason. This is an exhibition that needs to be seen. The weapons that appear in the children’s drawings were paid for by US taxpayers.

Jeff Blankfort, Ukiah

Art During Wartime

These drawings are quite similar to the drawings of the children of El Salvador who were traumatized by the US-backed military and death squads of the dictatorship. I remember seeing the drawings showing Salvadoran soldiers shooting, planes bombing, etc. Unfortunately, there was no Internet back in the 1970s and 1980s, so many of these drawings only remain in the memory of those of us who were active working against US policies in Central America.

Jan Bauman, Mill Valley

“Oakland’s Other Gang Program,” News, 10/5

Less Self-Congratulation, More Work

The people who have all these untested “tough on crime” ideas seem to think that all the liberal social work ideas have been tried and that their tough-on-crime ideas are something new or “practical.”

So why do people think that the social causes of crime have already been addressed? The problem is that our local yokels have said that they have tried restorative justice, community policing, wrap-around “scared straight” interventions, and so on — and they sure give each other awards at their fundraising dinners. But when you check on what these programs have looked like in practice, you will find that we never really did the job. Every time we need space for one hundred, they maybe have twenty spots. Every time we need to do something differently at the DA or the police department, what we get is foot-dragging, requests for more funding, and shuffling the responsibilities off to some powerless nonprofit. But nonprofit and liberal Democrat PR requires a constant self-congratulatory discourse of those who have claimed to have done more than they really have.

Don Macleay, Oakland

“Addie’s Pizza Pie Gets a Re-Do,” What the Fork, 10/5

Some Addie’s Adulation

Addie’s rocks! I can’t speak to their crusts before, but their crusts now are just the right texture of chewiness. And if your kid won’t eat anything other than pizza margherita, bring them here (or bring a pizza to them). They use really good cheese and boy, does that come through in the flavor. Plus, the staff is super. Our elementary school PTA decided to use Addie’s as its pizza source for the fall pizza party honoring students who did all their required reading over the summer. Big hit. Not a crumb was left. To top it off (so to speak), they were willing to come in hours before they normally open, to do a special order for us and have it ready in early afternoon.

Kellie Whittaker, Berkeley

“How Peet’s Starbucked Itself,” Feature, 9/21

A Cole Coffee Convert

Wow … I like Peet’s coffee, but have seen it become so, so, so similar to Starbucks that I make a point to drive all the way across town to buy from Cole Coffee, where I’ve been going for about twenty years now. Love the coffee, it’s locally owned, and when I walk in the door the people who work there are nice. So I tip well when I go in each week.

Francesca Paige, Albany

Vote with Your Dollars

I worked for a Peet’s in Sacramento for fourteen months and came to all the same conclusions that are reported in this article. I agree with the recommendation to avoid supporting Peet’s with your dollars and to buy your coffee elsewhere.

Yes, customer demands for speed may exact pressure on workers, but changes like having more staff on hand at any given time could easily alleviate some of the pressure on Peet’s’ staff. The company’s management is at fault for the recent changes that put employees under such pressure to be ever-faster (to the point of physical injury), ever-friendlier, and more persuasive at selling products. A lot of my coworkers during closing shifts worked during their breaks to get done faster, since there was a certain time by which we had to clock out, regardless of how busy the store was. In order to avoid being yelled at by the store manager, they would just work on getting their tasks done off the clock. It’s just not a company that treats its employees well anymore. At Peet’s I was expected to work faster and harder and with fewer mistakes than anywhere else I’ve worked, and I made $8.25 per hour, which is 25 cents more than minimum wage. And there are many more retail corporations out there just like this. Peet’s is just an example, but the message is to vote with your dollars by choosing to spend them at businesses that are worthy of your support — businesses that practice social and environmental responsibility. How you spend your dollars has a greater impact than how you vote. So if you want to change the status quo, know where you dollars are going. (And don’t give them to Peet’s. Or Starbucks.)

Liz Shenaut, Sacramento

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