Teaching While Black: Exposing Institutional Racism at Claremont Middle School in Oakland
May 26, 2015 at 8:38 am
Claremont Middle School is nestled in the affluent and predominantly white neighborhood known as Rockridge, Oakland. It is an open enrollment public institution consisting of a diverse socioeconomic population of students from all over the East Bay. Many parents send their children to Claremont in hopes of a better education, but something is amiss behind its school walls. There are talks of Claremont becoming a neighborhood school-welcome only to students found in the school’s backyard. To achieve this vision, the current administration is actively working to push out black students and teachers. In this year alone, the school has instituted inequitable student tracking, transferred and fired several black teachers, and eliminated a popular Ethnic Studies program. “The school will be all white in 3-4 years,” states History and former Ethnic Studies teacher Kurt Kaakuahiuu.
It’s becoming increasingly evident that the school administration is feasting off of a culture of exclusion and intimidation to achieve its end goal. Claremont has had a troubled history for many years due to a massive amount of administrative turnover. However this began to change when Reggie and Ronnie Richardson were hired in 2011. The Richardsons were co-principals who were turning the school around; so much so, they received local and nationwide press. However the Richardsons did not return for the 2014-2015 school year, accepting a position instead with a neighboring school district. Once again, Claremont was left in a state of transition. The staff at Claremont prepared to collaborate with new principal Jonathan Mayer and Vice Principal Tonia Coleman. Former Afterschool Site Coordinator Aries Jordan noted, “It was unfortunate when (the Richardsons) left but I stayed because I’m committed to the children… I wanted to support the students through this transition.”
Racially-Based Student Tracking
“This is all about race.”
When asked about the leadership style of the current administration, the consensus is it’s an epic failure, and openly hostile to minority staff and students. Eighth grade History teacher Mirishae McDonald asserts that the current curriculum ”negatively impacts learning outcomes for students of color.” When asked to elaborate, she discussed an eighth grade program called the “Leadership Academy,” in which the lowest performing students are pulled out of the general school population and put into a class for the entire school day. The vast majority of these students are black and they are taught by a white teacher. It’s known among many students as “the dumb class.” The Leadership Academy is a controversial and inequitable practice in the field of education. While the black students are in the “Leadership Academy,” the remaining youth (primarily white) are getting a more enriching education. Mirishae McDonald harshly criticizes it, “It’s another way of tracking, and it’s not good for the development of the students.” Student tracking is a way to fuel institutional racism and there seems to be other ways that racism surfaces in the administration’s practices.
Kurt Kaaekuahiuu witnessed this firsthand during a teacher meeting in which Principal Mayer stated, “This is all about race. We know that the white kids will go to places like Stanford or Berkeley with or without our help. We would be lucky if black students at best graduated from high school and went to a junior college.” Another tracking program-“Math Intensive”- is happening concurrently in 7th grade. It’s a class designed for the more advanced students. Math teacher Alonna Haulcy teaches both Math Intensive as well as the traditional math class and notes, “I do think there are some (black) kids who are capable of being in Math Intensive. I’ve expressed that to the principal. He said he would have the department head look at their test scores and I never heard back from him.”
Demoralizing Teachers of Color
“They’re not giving me my own voice.”
Another major problem is Principal Mayer’s top-down approach along with an outward hostility towards any staff member who attempts to question his methods. Kaaekuahiuu states, “From the beginning, Claremont was framed from a complete deficit model. They looked at everything that was wrong with the school without prior knowledge or asking teachers.That says a lot about who you are as a manager.” Kurt used to be the Ethnic Studies teacher until he received an email that the school would no longer support the class. A 7th grader at Claremont reflects on the cancelled Ethnic Studies program: “All the students were engaged because he went outside of the book. His whole class was decorated with Ethnic Studies quotes and pictures. They were torn down by the end of the year and I wondered why.” Alonna Haulcy also feels constricted, “They’re not giving me my own voice. She noted that she is the only veteran teacher who is getting five classroom evaluations; something that is only required for new teachers. When she inquired about it Mayor gave no explanation; but she’s the only black teacher on the list.
Aries Jordan also discusses her struggles working with the administration while coordinating the afterschool program which is “99.9 percent black.” Ms. Jordan had a difficult time running the program this year since the cafeteria burned down in February. Instead of the Claremont administration accommodating the program with unused classrooms in the school, they forced students to have their after school program outside despite cold weather conditions. Moreover, Principal Mayer claimed that he wanted to make technology a priority in the afterschool program however, Jordan’s students weren’t allowed to use the computer lab or the 60 Macbooks and laptops owned by the school. “They recommended this technology program to us and then turned around and denied us access to the abundant resources available.” states Jordan. Finally, the administration conceded by loaning 4 outdated MacBooks to the entire program. Apparently the Claremont administration wants to institute a tuition policy at the after school program next year; yet another barrier to access students will be up against.
Removing Black Teachers
“Every person of color is leaving.”
It started with Ms. Bebe, a staff member who challenged Principal Mayer’s thinking and also questioned his racial biases. Soon after, her position was consolidated and she was transferred. Mirishae McDonald was next. She continued to advocate for her students by questioning the administration’s tactics and was given a notice of non-reelect shortly afterward. A non-reelect is something that is possible for all teachers in OUSD to receive during their first two years of teaching. If a teacher receives a non-reelect, not only are they not allowed to teach in the school for the following year, but they are banned from teaching in OUSD. There is no due process and it’s left completely up to the principal’s discretion. According to Music teacher Vincent Tolliver-a teacher with 23 years of experience in OUSD,“Your evaluations are irrelevant. You can get good evaluations and it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, it’s become a tool that an administrator can use to eliminate someone and not do their job of providing adequate training.”
Tolliver is also a member of the Oakland Educator’s Association who will soon conduct research for a report that investigates the disproportionate number of Oakland’s teachers of color who are non-reelected. He sees OUSD’s stated desire to recruit more teachers of color as lip service. “If you look at their practices, they’re not conducive to recruiting and retaining them.” Afterschool Site Supervisor Aries Jordan, was also fired by the administration through intimidation practices, and now other teachers are choosing to leave because of the hostile environment. Kurt Kaaekuahiuu and Vincent Tolliver will leave after this year, describing the work environment as “severely damaged.” Kurt looks on this experience solemnly. “I loved Claremont but now I feel incapacitated; not from the work but the professional culture of Claremont. People are devalued. Every single person of color is leaving.” Alonna Haulcy’s plans are unclear but she does admit that, “this is the first time I’ve wanted to leave.”
“Classrooms are a political battlefront; being present everyday is a political act. Nothing is neutral.”
The New York Times recently published an article about racial disparities in the teaching field which showed that “despite the fact that minority students have become the majority in this country, more than 80 percent of teachers are white.” (Rich, 2015) The article cited this trend in major East Coast cities however, it’s something that extends into the city of Oakland. Claremont Middle School is not just an isolated incident of institutional racism fueled by poor leadership, it’s a microcosm highlighting the poor treatment of black teachers in the U.S public school system. It raises many questions regarding institutional racism, and if school systems truly believe in the ability and agency of black educators. When asked about his next steps, Kaaekuahiuu strongly states, “I needed a wake up call. I needed a grave reminder of the gross inequities and the systematic attack on black and brown communities. Classrooms are a political battlefront; me being present everyday is a political act. Nothing is neutral.” Aries Jordan reflects on her traumatic experience and remains hopeful and determined, “My goal is to connect my experience to what’s happening across the U.S. How many other educators of color are being pushed out?” Mirishae McDonald also remains courageously outspoken, “I will not be bullied into silence. We need to come together and show that we are not afraid.”
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