West Oakland Middle School is located in a low-income neighborhood surrounded by heavy industry, the Navy yards and the bustling Port of Oakland. Jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, West Oakland is strategically placed just a few miles from downtown Oakland, and a short train ride from downtown San Francisco. Yet it has for years been regarded as one of the more troubled neighborhoods in the city because of its concentrated poverty, high crime rates and struggling schools.
West Oakland Middle School (WOMS) has been a “failing” school for many years.
In 2009–10 the school registered 245 students, of whom 195 were African-American and 200 categorized as socioeconomically disadvantaged. In 2010 only forty-seven students scored as proficient in English and thirty-nine in math. The facility once housed Lowell Middle School, which shut its doors in 2006 and reopened in 2007 as West Oakland Middle School in an attempt at reform. Since 2002 the campus has also hosted KIPP Bridge Charter School, part of the highly acclaimed KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of charter schools. Despite these changes, enrollment remains low, and there is little confidence that the reforms will bring about genuine improvement. According to a recent piece on Examiner.com, inadequate test scores at the school “cannot simply be due to lack of quality teaching or school leadership. High numbers of poor students put extra burden on teachers.”
WOMS has a look that is typical of many public schools built in California in the 1950s: functional, but not particularly attractive. Situated on a nearly six-acre lot adjacent to a park, the school has six buildings surrounded by a large asphalt-covered playground where students congregate before and after school. The park and the playground are where the fights have typically occurred, and according to one teacher, there have been as many as fifteen fights a week at the school. “Our kids are angry,” the teacher told me. “I still don’t quite understand it, but I can sense it. Sometimes it’s just a small thing that sets them off. When you see the rage they exhibit when they’re fighting you realize that something else is going on here.”
What’s going on is that WOMS, like many schools serving poor children throughout the United States, is overwhelmed by the social needs of the children. Approximately one in five children in the United States comes from families with incomes that fall below the poverty line. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the number of homeless children and youth in public schools in America has increased by more than 40 percent between 2006–07 and 2008–09. In most cases, even parents who can’t find work or housing, or who can’t afford healthcare, can and do send their children to school. Consequently, the nation’s public schools are shouldering the brunt of the economic crisis facing poor children, and they have done so largely without additional resources or even acknowledgment by state and federal officials.
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At the time the school was built, mostly in the late 1950s, it served a diverse, working-class population that included children from Irish-, Italian-, Slavic-, Mexican- and African-American families. West Oakland was a working-class community and Lowell was bursting at the seams with almost 1,000 students. The school did its best to meet the academic and social needs of its students with a staff that included a variety of professionals, including a psychologist, a nurse and a librarian. During the fall an audiologist and a speech therapist made regular visits to the school, and all the students had their eyes examined at least once a year by an optometrist who worked for the school district.