16 Aug, 2023
August 16, 2023
Estimated Read Time: 18 minutes
When the Rogers Family Foundation announced the sunsetting of our Oakland education strategy in October 2020, our team knew we’d reach a point of reflection on the last two decades of our grantmaking and improvement efforts. That time is now. This piece is one of a series designed to highlight the work and reflections of grantees across our strategic focus areas over the lifetime of the Foundation. Our hope is that these pieces remind our grantees, partners, and community of their incredible journeys, lessons learned, and accomplishments in service of students – and rally efforts to persevere for years to come.
“When you have agency and believe you deserve better, then the way you make education choices or push just becomes totally different. That’s what we want for our families.”
– Lakisha Young, Founder and CEO, The Oakland REACH
The Rogers Family Foundation (RFF) has a long-standing focus on improving the educational experiences and outcomes of Oakland students. However, after years of direct investments in schools, with complementary grants to organizations supporting school quality, it became clear that school investments alone are not enough. So, starting in 2016, we focused funding on the interconnected systems of students’ lives, including their families, neighborhoods, and communities, in addition to schools. We sought new opportunities to spur needed change at the individual and system level, commiting to building capacity within individuals to work towards a more equitable, reinvigorated vision of education in Oakland. Working in a city with one large school district (Oakland Unified School District) and more than twenty different charter school operators (by definition, each their own school district), leaders of this work must be willing to partner with all schools to assure high quality learning opportunities for Oakland kids.
We attended community gatherings to seek out leaders and new opportunities, and to listen and learn. We sat with leaders and practitioners across Oakland to hear from those closest to the work. Through this journey we identified three rising community leaders who are passionate about making a difference for Oakland students, and actively engage in reshaping the education ecosystem. These leaders – Micia Mosely of Black Teacher Project, Daneen Keaton of Lead Liberated, and Lakisha Young of The Oakland REACH – are all strong Black female leaders who continue a deep legacy of Black female leadership in social justice and education. They each bring a depth of knowledge, skills, and experience, along with a vision of what is possible for Black students, families, teachers, and principals in Oakland. These leaders and their work are critical to reimagining and realizing what is possible for Oakland students now and well into the future.
“Work with Black teachers to understand what they are doing, and how they can transfer what they’re doing to help their colleagues. It’s not just ‘Oh, we’re Black and all is well.’ There is something about their relationships and something about the listening.”
– Micia Mosley, Executive Director, Black Teacher Project
The Black Teacher Project’s (BTP) tagline is “Every Child Deserves a Black Teacher.” BTP knows that schools and students benefit when Black teachers thrive and succeed.1 Guided by the theory of targeted universalism, improvements in the experience of Black teachers ultimately improve the experience of all teachers, resulting in more positive shifts in the education workforce. Executive Director Dr. Micia Mosley frames her vision for BTP’s work as “sustaining Black teachers to lead change from the classroom, because Black people don’t leave education, we leave the classroom.” BTP develops solutions to counter factors that often drive Black teachers out of the classroom; these factors negatively impact all teachers and school culture overall. A former teacher herself, Micia experienced this first-hand. After seeing a former-student-turned-teacher contemplate leaving the profession due to such factors, Micia was driven to stop yet another generation of talented Black teachers from leaving due to micro and macro aggressions and the inequitable expectations frequently placed on Black teachers. This additional “tax” 2 tends to show up when, unlike peers from other races and ethnicities, Black teachers are expected to manage Black family engagement and to work with any Black students who have been deemed as “bad” kids. The assumption being that Black teachers will know what to do because they are also Black. Micia and the BTP team want to sustain Black teachers for as long as possible, even if that means Black teachers move across schools. She shares, “We always say to teachers to switch schools before you leave the classroom because sometimes the fit is really not there.” This sentiment speaks to the need to take a systemic look at why it is hard to hire and retain Black teachers. When Black teachers do leave the classroom, BTP wants to ensure that their knowledge, experience, and skills remain in the field as leaders and change agents.
While the impetus for BTP draws on Micia’s own experience, its development was based on needs identified by many Black teachers. In its early years, BTP focused on wellness and helping teachers build the awareness, skills, and mindset to sustain in their roles. Affinity spaces were created so Black teachers could be in community, share their perspectives, and learn together. While wellness remains an important aspect today, BTP’s Fellowship component brings a deeper level of professional development focused on conducting action research projects as a means to deepen knowledge and foster new skills. The relationship is mutually beneficial: BTP’s work is informed and refined by continually learning from teachers, while teachers develop their own professional portfolio as they improve classroom and school conditions. Fellows learn to identify the types of changes they want to make at the student, classroom, and school level, and are supported by BTP to develop strategies to reach their goals. Micia explains, “You want to do something at your school, how do you initiate? We work with folks whether it’s the language choice or the coaching around strategic moves to begin an initiative. It’s that kind of focused attention.” Teachers might engage in liberatory design or form partnerships with students to design an individualized learning experience. “They [teachers] have strong relationships with students, but they’re not able to often see them [students] outside the pressures of trying to get them to perform academically. By allowing teachers to co-design and co-create experiences for students’ benefit, it also helps teachers remember that their students are human and on a developmental spectrum,” Micia shares. This shifts the focus to the whole student and what they need to learn, rather than just trying to get students to complete specific tasks or perform well on a test. Over the years, BTP has seen participants remain in the classroom longer, demonstrating that providing Black teachers with programming that blends wellness and leadership development truly works.
BTP is not a teacher recruitment program designed to help schools, districts, or charter management organizations reach a target number of Black teachers. Even so, the BTP team receives requests from school districts to develop plans to recruit Black teachers. “I always tell people [that] there aren’t credentialed Black teachers sitting at home wishing they could find a job,” states Micia. If schools are looking to recruit more Black teachers, they need to do strategic, relational, and culture shift work that creates a positive and supportive space for Black teachers. The recruitment of Black teachers should be intentional and thoughtfully aimed at creating and sustaining a culture toward retention and a thriving environment – not just an exercise to meet a diversity goal.
Looking ahead, Micia wants to build more partnerships and collaborations that support the work of Black teachers, share their work locally, and bring back in-person programming. Peer-to-peer learning lifts up the work of Black teachers beyond the walls of their classrooms. The learning also brings insights into building deeper relationships with students, which in turn helps improve student achievement. Reflecting on the common practice to have Black teachers support Black students who need extra support, Micia suggests, “Work with Black teachers to understand what they are doing, and how they can transfer what they’re doing to help their colleagues. It’s not just ‘Oh, we’re Black and all is well.’ There is something about their relationships and something about the listening.”
Ultimately the work to shift our education systems to support Black teachers is not just the responsibility of Black teachers. Micia calls on everyone to take part in this work, “There’s a lot of racial healing that’s needed and it’s not just about Black teachers coming together to tough it out or navigate it. It is really going to require a different kind of move.”
“Experiencing leaders of color being scapegoated in this way, I realized it wasn’t about me, and that leaders of color need specific support to navigate racism.”
– Daneen Keaton, Executive Director, Lead Liberated
Years ago, Executive Director Daneen Keaton was a school principal whose work and leadership resulted in the school’s highest test scores and largest graduating class ever. And yet, the experience left her feeling depleted and contemplating her own future as an education leader. Fast forward to her work in Oakland supporting a number of female school leaders of color being scapegoated for issues at their schools. Daneen came to a realization, “Experiencing leaders of color being scapegoated in this way, I realized it wasn’t about me, and that leaders of color need specific support to navigate racism.” Daneen interviewed principals of color, vice-principals of color, and their supervisors across Oakland to better understand their relationship to racism and leadership. In response to what she heard, Daneen created The Antiracist Collective, Lead Liberated’s core offering, a program designed to support principals in recognizing and working through their own internalized racism in order to build the skills and knowledge to become anti-racist instructional leaders. Daneen’s innovative two-pronged approach sets Lead Liberated apart as it brings together two critical strands required for strong school leadership: deep knowledge of how to be an instructional leader, and skills that promote anti-racist practices and cultures. The approach responds to the deep, pervasive realities present in schools, education systems, and society.
Lead Liberated brings together cohorts of principals, their supervisors, and their instructional leadership teams. “Racism is so pervasive and internalized that most of us have a hard time really seeing it and identifying it,” Daneen reflected. Through their work with Lead Liberated, school leaders gain the confidence and capacity to challenge their school systems to champion students of color.
Participants assess how their practices and decision making produce racism and impede progress in student outcomes, and then explore how they can interrupt these patterns with liberated ideas and integrated leadership. Including supervisors and instructional leadership teams in these cohorts creates a support network in which principals grow as leaders as they embark on their learning journey, while simultaneously shifting the culture and practices across a school. Ultimately, the bottom line remains student learning. Daneen tracks student progress data from participating schools to understand how shifts in leadership help create shifts in classrooms and ultimately academic progress. This work is not easy, but being in community, holding space for healing and restoration, and learning together gives participants energy to carry on.
During the pandemic, many messages were shared about how damaging it was for Black and Brown students to have schools closed. This did not sit well with Daneen. She reflects, “The whole narrative of ‘this is going to be bad for Black and Brown students’ ignored the fact that school was already bad for Black and Brown students. This is our chance to actually create something that is good for Black and Brown kids.” In her eyes, this moment offered an opportunity to redesign schools in ways that would better serve students. By working with school teams, Lead Liberated addresses the root of why schools have been designed to poorly serve Black and Brown students in the first place, and inspires these teams to rethink what liberated, anti-racists schools look and feel like. As of this writing, schools and systems which have been influenced and trained by Lead Liberated include Acorn Woodland, Aspire Golden State Preparatory Academy, Aspire Monarch Academy, East Oakland Pride, Edna Brewer Middle School, Envision Academy (middle school), Hoover Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Madison Park Academy Primary.
Lead Liberated has established an alliance with Reach University so all principals who complete the program will clear their administrative credentials, a requirement to maintain a principal or higher leadership position. Daneen was elated when she shared, “We’ll have all these liberated principals running around with clear credentials. They will be unstoppable.” Former cohort members, with continued support from Daneen and her team, are developing ways to stay connected and engaged with each other. A network of anti-racist instructional leaders is building and growing, and our schools and systems are benefitting from their knowledge, experience, skills, and passion for change.
“Our goal is to build solutions that will free our families from histories of intergenerational poverty in the education system.”
– Lakisha Young, Founder and CEO, The Oakland REACH
The Oakland REACH is all about parent power. Launched in 2017, the REACH is not your typical nonprofit. As Founder and CEO Lakisha Young frames it, “We’re solution builders who leverage advocacy to implement, sustain, and scale the work because in an ecosystem where Black and Brown kids have been systematically failed, you can’t just build solutions alone to make an impact.” Lakisha brings a unique perspective and relentless love for her community to her work. Having attended some of the Bay Area’s best schools, Lakisha remains deeply cognizant of what a quality education experience looks and feels like. Now, as the mother of three, she realizes that what she expected and what she found available in terms of education in Oakland are at odds. In response, she and her team work so that no parent or caregiver feels like they have to compromise when it comes to their children’s education.
REACH families voice their issues and advocate for their priorities, and this informs the types of solutions the REACH team develops. The team uses a framework of “Ask, Listen, Build, and Liberate.” While the framework might sound simple, it takes deliberate work, well-built structures, and fidelity across a team to embody the steps and adhere to them consistently. The REACH team is receptive to what they hear and willing to shift work in response to the highest needs of families. This requires agility and the ability to quickly build new knowledge and expertise. That concept might seem challenging to some organizations who find more comfort in setting a plan and sticking with it, but students, families, and Oakland itself are in continual cycles of change, which in turn require adaptive solutions. “Liberate” is the newest addition to the framework. Lakisha frames this focus on liberation as, “Our goal is to build solutions that will free our families from histories of intergenerational poverty in the education system.” This focus empowers parents and other family members with the skills, knowledge, and agency to build a bright future for themselves. She is clear that when families face challenges in their lives, such as financial struggles, it can be hard for education to be front and center. But Lakisha never wavers from the end goal: supporting families so they can be the creators of their own destiny, have the power to dream big, and maintain the agency to reach those dreams.
In its early days, the REACH focused on parent fellowships, building parent advocacy skills, and hiring a team of Family Liaisons to help families navigate challenges related to education, such as choosing and enrolling in schools, navigating Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), advocating for their child’s needs with teachers and school leadership, or just connecting with fellow parents who “get it.” In response to parents advocating for high quality literacy education, the REACH co-launched (along with the Oakland Literacy Coalition and FULCRUM) the Literacy for All Campaign which seeks access to quality literacy curriculum for teachers, resources for students reading below grade level, dyslexia screening for K-2 students, and tracking of intervention of supports and outcomes, among other items. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the REACH team sprang into action by designing and launching the Virtual Family Hub, which gave students access to high-quality literacy instruction and enrichment courses during a time when many of them were receiving minimal instruction. For many families this was their first experience with high-quality education– they saw what was possible and demanded more. Back in 2021, the REACH launched the Literacy Liberator Model, inspired by the Hub. In partnership with OUSD, this model trains and pays adults to be skilled classroom tutors. As of June 2023 there are over ninety literacy tutors serving over 5,500 K-2 students. The REACH is now building out the model to focus on performance and retention of this new talent pipeline. The Liberator model has been so successful that the REACH has extended it to include math which, like literacy, also plays a huge factor in determining future achievement in school and beyond. For context, only 26% of Oakland students are doing math at grade level; for Black and Brown students, the rates are even lower at 12% and 15% respectively.3 In light of those numbers, the inclusion of math was an easy decision.
But Lakisha is not stopping there in her efforts to propel Black students and families forward. Moving into the future, the REACH will continue to innovate and pivot to meet the needs of students and their families where they are. REACH’s vision is to leverage the operating principles of the Hub, while integrating a robust technology platform that allows parents and caregivers to build personalized marketplaces where they will have the freedom to choose among curated resources and opportunities. This digital solution will help families navigate the abundance of resources available online and locally and provide parents and caregivers with an easy-to-use entryway that has been customized to fit their family’s needs. It is a “full lifecycle” solution, focusing on education, economic mobility and health and wellness.
This comes back to “Liberate” in the REACH framework: parents are liberated to think big, to ask for what they want, to dream, to design their future for themselves and their families. They have the agency to craft their lives and the REACH team squarely in their corner for the long haul. Lakisha frames it, “When you have agency and believe you deserve better, then the way you make education choices or push just becomes totally different. That’s what we want for our families.”
Lakisha drove home that a huge challenge in Oakland is that so many students can’t read or do math at grade level. In many regards this is THE challenge in Oakland education, full stop. This is more than just a low score on a test; the impacts are real in the lives and experiences of students. Lakisha emphasizes, “If we can get on top of foundational gaps earlier, I think the whole way students show up in their education journey changes tenfold. Let’s get disciplined and focus on this [reading and math] and it will start to solve a lot of other problems.” Micia shared a similar sentiment highlighting the fact that we collectively have the necessary resources, but they are often not aligned effectively, “The challenge is a lack of alignment with resources to really focus on the complexity of what students need… Let’s take a larger look at what is actually going on, what the common challenges are, and try to figure out what to do in a more holistic sense versus just looking for that silver bullet.”
The other big issue on the minds of these leaders is the teacher pipeline and preparation, given teachers’ crucial roles in educating and building critical relationships with students to create a sense of belonging and support student agency. Micia, Daneen, and Lakisha all shared that teacher prep programs don’t fully prepare teachers with the know-how to accelerate student learning, so once they’re in the classroom teachers are unable to truly support students. Micia points out, “We do this relational, social, and emotional work over here, and academics over here. We’re not making sure that all teachers know both.” Daneen and Lakisha spoke to the challenges of hiring qualified teachers and school staff — the lack of qualified teachers has led to a lowering of the bar just so roles can be filled. While it might fix the short-term issue, this will have serious long-term impacts as educators are unprepared in the classroom. To exacerbate things, these educators are then often tapped to move into leadership roles before they are ready. How teachers are prepared as well as how the teacher pipeline is addressed–or not–will have reverberating impacts on the principal pipeline in the future.
Micia, Lakisha, and Daneen are passionate, relentless leaders who bring a personal connection to their work and the communities they serve. They each draw hope, inspiration, and drive from those around them. “Every time a teacher decides to go back and decides to improve their practice, that is all the hope we [BTP team] need,” shared Micia. She takes a healthy approach to her work, understanding that BTP’s existence should be driven by an expressed need from teachers. The relationship is symbiotic; BTP needs teachers as much as teachers need BTP. In addition, BTP’s continued success opens up new avenues to make change, which keeps the team motivated and focused on the next stage of growth. For Daneen, her hope comes from the dedicated principals who are doing the hard personal and professional work to become liberated leaders. She asserts, “They are tired and exhausted, but they are still in it. They are in it together.” How could one not be hopeful and inspired by seeing committed leaders working to grow as individuals and leaders while addressing pervasive inequities in schools? Similarly, Lakisha sees an unstoppable drive in the REACH’s parents. Their willingness to grow, evolve, and push on is admirable. “The more you trust and believe in the power of families, and put big things in front of them, they will step into it,” said Lakisha. These words reflect how REACH parents and families recognize their inherent power, and are using that power for the betterment of their students’ education, their own lives, their communities, and Oakland.
“Listen to Black teachers. Like really, really listen to Black teachers. They were once Black students and they decided to come back to a system that did not serve them.”
– Micia Mosley, Executive Director, Black Teacher Project
The Rogers team expresses deep gratitude to Micia, Daneen, and Lakisha for their leadership, perseverance, and steady focus on improving the educational experience for Black students, families, and teachers. As we approach our sunset, we are inspired by the power of their leadership and know their teams will drive the change we need in Oakland education for years to come. It has been an honor to support their work. Over the course of the Foundation’s history we built relationships with many nonprofits focused on school improvement; we also thank and recognize them for their work and dedication. A complete list of school and nonprofit grantees can be found here.