Last year I visited Oakland Charter Academy (OCA) in Oakland, California. A colleague suggested that I visit to see this extraordinary school with my own eyes.
Indeed, OCA is an impressive high school. The students, 96% Latino and African American, are focusing and working hard, always. Their hard work pays off. Their GreatSchools Rating is a 9 out of 10, and their GreatSchools parent reviews are glowing. In fact, the parents who have left comments and reviews on GreatSchools.net tell the story better than I can:
"My child attended another charter school before coming to OCA and had all kinds of problems. I took her out and put her here at OCA, it was the best move I made. My daughter hated it at first, but as a parent that is a good sign in Oakland. There is strict disicpline, and tons of work. I used to be a person who thought that all charters schools were good, but in the search for a school in Oakland, boy did I get an eye opener. So many bad charter schools! I am very pleased with OCA and all of the focus on education and children. All my girl needed was authority and structure, but this is what most schools in this city avoid giving."
"What can you say? The most improved school in the city 2 years in a row. It is strict, and gives a lot of homework, and Mr. Lopez does not play. But my child has grown tremendously, academically and matured. Keep up the good work."
Principal Jorge Lopez is the key to OCA’s success. Simply put, he does not play. He sets high expectations for behavior and academic achievement. He sets high expectations for his teachers: They work hard to reach kids who often have not experienced success in school before. And he sets high expectations for himself: He's always learning about new education issues himself and pushing the school to improve.
When I visited, he told me that one of his motivational tricks is to challenge the mostly poor kids who attend the school: Do you want to grow up cleaning the homes of the rich people who live in the hills? Are you as good as their children? The answer, clearly, is that Jorge's kids are as good as "their" children.
Congress is debating changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is supposed to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged kids. I think they ought to cut short testimony from experts who have never turned a school around, and they ought to call Jorge Lopez and a dozen like him to the stand and learn what it really takes to turn a failing school around.
The key to turning around low-performing schools in this country is to find 20,000 Jorge Lopez's and give them the tools they need to succeed. Let's talk about how to make that happen.