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.

Until the budget cuts of the early ’90s, none of the services provided to students at Lowell were regarded as exceptional. Since the 1930s, public schools throughout the United States have operated on the premise that the health and nutritional needs of children were inseparable from their learning needs. In policy and practice, public schools were regarded as an essential component of America’s social safety net for children. Ironically, even though the Constitution does not recognize the right to an education, access to public education has served as an entitlement available to all children regardless of their status, and that “unofficial right” has also included access to food and health services.

Over the past thirty years, the safety net has eroded, and the ability of public schools to meet the social needs of children has been steadily compromised by a series of increasingly severe budget cuts. In California the decline was precipitated by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited increases in property taxes and over time substantially reduced the funding available to public schools. With shrinking public revenue, school districts were forced to gradually reduce the services they were able to provide. For schools like WOMS, the consequences of these cutbacks have been devastating.

With the decline in manufacturing in the 1960s and ’70s, jobs in West Oakland’s industrial hub became increasingly scarce and the neighborhood went through a dramatic transformation. Its diverse working-class population left in pursuit of better options in employment and housing, and low-income African-American families, many of whom moved into the newly built public housing units that sprang up in the neighborhood, replaced them. Though there are pockets of gentrification in West Oakland, almost none of the new middle-class residents send their children to WOMS, and only 54 percent of children in Oakland attend the public schools. Almost all the students at WOMS are poor and nonwhite. According to school records 91 percent qualify for free lunch.

Changes in the composition of the school and the economic decline of West Oakland coincided with the shrinking of California’s budget for public education. The budget cuts had an especially acute impact on schools like WOMS, which was no longer able to offer social and academic services just as the needs of its students were increasing. At first, the effects were gradual. During the recession of 1991 a noncertified media specialist replaced the librarian, the hours of the nurse and school psychologist were reduced, and screenings for sight and hearing were eliminated. When the district went into fiscal receivership in 2003, the state installed a fiscal manager, who closed schools and made other cuts, which took a tremendous toll on the district; by 2010 the Oakland public schools, which had enrolled 55,000 students in 2001, had 38,000 students (in addition to 8,000 in charter schools). Superintendent Tony Smith recently announced that the district will have to absorb another $5.5 million in cuts to its budget during the middle of the school year, and the community is also bracing for yet another round of cutbacks and school closings.

I worked with the school when it was Lowell, as part of a research project on school-community partnerships in 1993. Even with two guidance counselors, a nurse and a psychologist, the needs of the students were overwhelming. At the time 44 percent of the students suffered from asthma or some other chronic respiratory ailment, 22 percent were categorized as learning disabled and more than 60 percent of the students did not live with either biological parent. According to reports from district administrators, the needs of students at WOMS have become even more acute as the combination of high unemployment, home foreclosures and widespread violence have taken their toll on families in the neighborhood.

It is hardly surprising that in terms of academic performance, schools like WOMS show clear signs of failure. For years, test scores and attendance rates at WOMS have been among the lowest in the district, while suspensions are among the highest. In fact, it would be shocking if WOMS were an academic success, given the obstacles confronting the students, their families and the school that serves them.

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What is even more shocking is that education policy officials, both Democrats and Republicans, ignore the plight of schools like WOMS, and pretend that such schools should be able to produce higher levels of academic achievement without any additional resources or strategies to contend with the challenges confronting the schools and communities. Instead of support, policy-makers apply pressure in the form of humiliation and threats to close “failing” schools like WOMS.

For as long as data have been collected, the connection between poverty and academic achievement has been consistent. Students who come from the most impoverished families typically do the worst academically. Recognition of this troubling relationship prompted the Johnson administration to propose and Congress to adopt Title I, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A key feature of Johnson’s War on Poverty, Title I was designed to provide additional financial resources to schools like WOMS in an attempt to compensate for the effects of poverty on children. Though the law was never designed to correct the more fundamental problem of inequity in per pupil spending that was caused and perpetuated by the practice of funding schools through local property taxes, it did provide resources that made it possible for schools like WOMS to offer additional services and hire specialists such as psychologists and social workers, which were seen as essential to meeting the academic and social needs of poor children.

Today, such recognition is largely absent from public policy, particularly education policy. At a time when school districts have been compelled to enact draconian cuts in programs and personnel, state and federal government officials have been pushing for higher standards in curriculum and higher levels of achievement. Under the guise of equity, students at WOMS are required to take the same state exams as students in wealthy towns like Piedmont and Moraga, where household incomes average more than $200,000 per year. Not surprisingly, WOMS students and others like them almost always fare poorly in comparison with their wealthier counterparts. Policy-makers continue to proclaim their commitment to closing the so-called achievement gap while steadfastly ignoring that much of the gap is perpetuated by gaps in income, health, nutrition, parental support and access to early childhood education.

A new generation of reformers led by figures such as former Washington, DC, chancellor Michelle Rhee and former New York City chancellor Joel Klein, have called for schools to commit to a “no excuses” approach to reform, and have taken to calling education the civil rights issue of the twenty-first century. While they speak at length about the need to reform schools by expanding the number of charter schools, reducing the influence of teachers unions and holding teachers and students accountable through high-stakes testing, they never really explain what this commitment means in terms of the government’s responsibility to ensure the right of all children to a quality education.

Even in their present underresourced state, public schools still serve as an essential part of the social safety net for children, especially poor children, in America. Though they may fail to meet the academic needs of the children, they still provide hot meals, often breakfast and lunch, along with access to heat in the winter and some degree of safety through the supervision of adults. This is hardly adequate—but until we find a way to provide schools with the support they need, it is a mistake to attack and undermine them further.

Also in This Forum

Betsy Reed: “Occupy the Safety Net” (Introduction)
Lizzy Ratner: “Food Stamps: The Safety Net That Deserves Its Name
Kate Kahan and George Wentworth: “Unemployment Insurance Under the Knife
Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich: “The Making of the American 99 Percent
Diana Spatz:The End of Welfare as I Knew It
Patrick Markee: “The Unfathomable Cuts in Housing Aid
Sasha Abramsky: “Medicaid in Crisis
Kai Wright: “Hard Knocks in the Bronx
Frances Fox Piven: “A Proud, Angry Poor