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 (OMI).
Established in 2001 when Mr. 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 California State Military Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ryan, superintendent at OMI, achievement and discipline issues disrupted the school prior to his arrival seven years ago.
After taking over OMI, which serves grades six through 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 re-directed 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, around nine out of 10 OMI students graduate versus just six out of 10 in the district, and nine out of 10 complete all courses required for admission to a state university.
Major 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 socio-economically disadvantaged families. Yet, OMI students are thriving.
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 cellphone 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.
“I was a 14-year veteran in a Mt. Diablo school,” says Holmes. Just one-third of the students in the Mt. Diablo school district in Contra Costa County are disadvantaged. Holmes got tired of the district’s bureaucratic regulations, visited OMI, was impressed by the military model, and made the leap. She hasn’t regretted her decision, pointing to the great collaboration with her colleagues and the effectiveness of her “self-contained” classroom, where her students stay with her all day and she teaches them all subjects. In most middle schools, students go to different classrooms for different subjects.
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. All cadets line up in formation in their companies, led by student officers. All 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 usually 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,” says Maj. Wells. 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.