Oakland: Where Social Justice Meets EdTech

“Oakland is the new Brooklyn,” according to SFGate. Social justice advocates have been working in Oakland for 20 years. Recently, they’ve been joined by reformers, talent developers, school networks, and investors seeking an affordable Bay Area hub. The airport and BART make downtown Oakland the most accessible and affordable location in the Bay Area.
Blended networks. With 37 schools serving 13,500 K-12 students in 10 California cities, Aspire Public Schools is the state’s top-performing, large, high-poverty school system. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, 100 percent of Aspire’s graduating seniors were accepted to four-year colleges. They developed the data management platform Schoolzilla. In 2012 they piloted blended learning classrooms with EdElements. Heather Kirkpatrick said, “Overall, the pilots were a great success, student achievement increased in both ELA and math, classroom instruction changed in innovative ways, teachers felt their work was more sustainable, and culturally, the blended learning classrooms still ‘screamed Aspire.’” As a result, they plan to open 10 blended learning schools in Memphis over the next five years. Check out their blended learning handbook.
KnowledgeWorks acquired New Tech Network in 2009 (a nonprofit rarity) and opened an office in Oakland. The 135 school network is the first platform-centric school network and is powered by Echo, a project-based learning management system.
Leadership Public Schools (LPS), a four high-school network based in Oakland, used collaborative and distributed innovation to create blended learning environments and tools including ExitTicket, a classroom assessment and competency tracking system spun off to EdStart which is disseminating ExitTicket internationally. LPS is positioned as a laboratory taking ideas through prototype and spinout. CEO Louise Waters said, “There has been a real J curve on innovation with the cycle that used to take a year now taking 3-4 months and much more collaboration around the innovations.” Recently LPS held a well-received network-wide PD session on technology and formative assessment with 8 experiential sessions (see also a Hewlett Foundation sponsored paper detailing the use of ExitTicket).
Envision Education is a three-high-school, gap-closing, project-based network headquartered in Oakland. A sister organization, Envision Learning Partners helps others schools deploy rigor, relevance, and relationships to get the same kind of results. With support from Carnegie and Hewlett, they will continue with the Deeper Learning Student Assessment Initiative along with New Tech, ConnectEd and Asia Society. (See A Survey of Performance Assessment and Mastery-Tracking Tools conducted for DLSAI.)
Treading water. For two decades Oakland has been the focus of education reform efforts and expenditures. The state took control of the district in 2003 to resolve fiscal insolvency. Superintendent Tony Smith, a veteran of Bay Area reforms, had a good four year run but an interim superintendent led the district this year.
Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) aims to make a high quality “full service community school” — schools that provide enrichment, serve as a community center, and connect families to health services — available to every family. OUSD offers free or reduced-cost preschool for students at 29 locations across the city. Brigitte Marshall, Associate Superintendent, leads efforts to inculcate “The Oakland Way” by “recruiting teachers that look like our students, are local, and have a commitment to community.”
Donors making a difference. The Rogers Family Foundation is supporting blended learning pilots in 8 Oakland schools. Blended learning director Greg Klein is kicking out important lessons learned. Klein’s Part 3 update to the Blended Learning in Oakland case study, in conjunction with the Rogers Family Foundation, was released in April.
When NewSchools Venture Fund announced their move to Oakland from San Francisco early in 2012 it became obvious that Oakland had emerged as an EdReform and innovation hub. (The move spurred the Smart Cities series and our consideration of how and where innovations occur.) Kapor Capital joined NewSchools in Oakland making 94612 one of the best zip codes for EdTech seed capital in the world (see the Smart Cities San Francisco post for a list Kapor investments and Silicon Valley post for other Bay Area startups).
Attracting talent. Education Pioneers places graduate students in school districts. CEO Scott Morgan said, “We’re excited about the entrepreneurial energy in Oakland — it’s one of the main reasons our national headquarters is there.” EdPioneers is making a difference in its hometown with more than 70 Pioneers working in OUSD, 11 in charters, and more than 20 in local edtech companies.
Tracy Session directs Teach For America (TFA) contributions in Oakland. TFA members and alumni have played a prominent role in new school development.
Oakland Unified School District teachers are innovating as well. In a hub for educational app development, many OUSD teachers are software education app entrepreneurs themselves. Having taken note, the school district is actively putting such new technology apps to use.
Advocates and options. Oakland is home to EdTrust West, the California affiliate that is known by education equality advocates for exposing gaps and advancing disaggregated data and gap-closing strategies.
Great Oakland Public Schools advocates for quality public school options. The Oakland Charter School Collaborative is the local affiliate of The California Charter School Association supporting the 55 charters in Alameda County.
Oakland families are also served by California Virtual Academy and Connections Education through local virtual charters, a California anachronism limiting digital opportunity by county lines.
Like San Francisco, a large percentage of East Bay students attend private schools including 20,000 served by the Diocese of Oakland. In the Berkley area, The Computer Science department at Berkeley is one of several partnerships that creates connections and advanced academic options for Oakland kids.
While Oakland lacks the EdTech startup energy across the bay (though some have migrated to Oakland), the East side has become a national reform and innovation hub.

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America’s great cities.  We’re writing a book about what we’re learning–and you can help.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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