Grading Jerry Brown’s charter school
In the State Capitol, bills hostile to charter schools, which are deregulated public schools independent of school districts, have snaked their way through the Legislature. If they reach Jerry Brown’s desk, it will be interesting to see what the governor decides to do, since he founded a successful charter school, the Oakland Military Institute.
Established in 2001 when Brown was mayor of Oakland, OMI’s mission is to “provide a structured and rigorous academic program where cadets develop as leaders, scholars, critical thinkers and citizens.” In its early years, the school had trouble living up to that goal. According to Mark Ryan, a military Reserve lieutenant colonel and superintendent at OMI, achievement and discipline issues disrupted the school prior to his arrival seven years ago.
After taking over OMI, which serves grades 6-12, Lt. Col. Ryan used the hiring-and-firing flexibility inherent in charter schools to make needed personnel changes. He integrated military and civilian personnel into an effective team, and redirected the emphasis to a college preparatory focus. These changes have produced results.
OMI’s state Accountability Report Card shows that, for the past three years, its students achieved higher test scores for all subjects except for mathematics than the Oakland Unified School District average. While OMI is mostly outperforming the district, work remains to be done in raising student test scores to the proficient level in the core subjects. Still, about nine of 10 OMI students graduate versus six of 10 in the district, and nine of 10 OMI students complete all courses required for admission to a state university.
Maj. John Wells, admissions director, says that more than three-quarters of OMI graduates go on to four-year higher education. OMI’s success is especially noteworthy given that 80 percent of OMI enrollees come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families.
On a recent visit to the school, Maj. Wells informed us with pride: “With all the rules I challenge you to find happier kids.” These rules range from correct uniform wear to cell-phone bans to maintaining discipline. Not surprisingly, there’s been only one fight on campus in five years.
Pointing to her sixth-grade students, teacher Kim Holmes says that when they entered her classroom as new OMI enrollees their undisciplined behavior made teaching and learning nearly impossible. Now, after a year of a rigorous academic curriculum wrapped in a military model of discipline, her students study quietly, paying little attention to the visitors talking to their teacher.
Perhaps the best place to see the impact of the OMI model is at the end-of-the-school-year cadet review held on the school’s playing field. Cadets line up in formation in their companies, led by student officers. Seniors accepted into colleges and universities are called out and recognized. Awards, medals and ribbons are given out. Some cadets are allowed to ring their company’s special bell tower in recognition of their achievements. The ceremony ends with a grand review of the cadets marching past a line of dignitaries, which often includes Jerry Brown, although the governor was unable to attend this year.
“Our long-term goal is to become the West Point of high schools,” Maj. Wells said.
The school is progressing well toward meeting this objective. Indeed, there’s much for which Gov. Brown may take justifiable satisfaction when he next reviews the cadets at his school. The governor has good reason to deploy his veto pen if a bill hostile to charter schools reaches his desk.