Reflections On: Schools

06 Jun, 2023

Reflections On: Schools

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June 6, 2023

Reflections On: Schools

Written by Dana Wellhausen, Deputy Director and Greg Klein, Senior Director Innovation and Learning 

Estimated Read Time: 23 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 our grantmaking and improvement efforts over the last two decades. That time is now. This piece is part 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.

“Building relationships is so important to helping students succeed in the classroom and helping teachers feel like they’re valued and want to stay in the profession.”

– Paula Mitchell, Executive Director, Agency by Design Oakland


The Rogers Family Foundation (RFF) believes schools, and the principals and teachers who bring them to life, are the central lever to improve the educational experience of students. Over the past 20 years our team invested directly in schools while simultaneously working on larger systemic changes. Through these school investments, we listened and learned from students, families, principals, and teacher teams about challenges and also about the work that propels positive change for students. Through our Blended Personalized Learning and NGLC in Oakland initiatives, we worked in partnership with school teams to imagine, test, and build new models of what learning looks like in schools that innovate with and for students and teachers. Beyond these initiatives, RFF continued to support schools to focus on student outcomes and be open to designing new solutions to student needs.

Clear Conditions for School Improvement

Urban Promise Academy students, families, and staff work collectively to identify budget priorities. Photo courtesy of Tierre Mesa

Our schools’ teachers, staff, and leaders care deeply and devote their hard work to support students. We made long-term commitments to schools to innovate and improve, knowing that time is often the most scarce resource for busy schools. Through this work, we learned there are essential conditions that need to be in place for school improvement to take hold. Our learnings confirmed that school improvement is most successful when the entire school community agrees on the role of school, purpose of education, and current state of the school. Stakeholders must be invited and encouraged to engage in decision-making processes that respect all perspectives, experiences, and ideas. For all of that to occur, school leaders need resources to plan, facilitate, and listen.

Many of RFF’s grantees continue to apply these ideas to their work daily. They develop and are guided by a clear vision for school improvement and continue to build processes to listen to and incorporate the voices and experiences of students, families, and teachers into decision making. In this piece, we highlight three schools — ARISE High School, Urban Montessori Charter School, and Urban Promise Academy — who are on a continuous journey to embed these lessons into their daily practice and one longtime nonprofit grantee, Agency by Design Oakland, that provides professional development designed to help teachers reimagine the classroom experience with a learner-driven practice. We also share reflections from these school and nonprofit leaders on challenges students, families, and teachers are facing, their hopes for the future, and calls to action for the Oakland community and beyond. 

“We’re very intentionally building with the community-based learning team so students are exposed to careers, to colleges, to ideas about the future.”

– Karla Gandiaga, Principal, ARISE High School


ARISE High School 

Located in Fruitvale, ARISE High School has deep roots in the community and is guided by an ambitious mission and vision rooted in social justice. A main focus for the school is to develop each student into a warrior intellectual. While an ambitious mission and vision statement may look good on paper, ARISE worked to bring those words into reality, anchoring students, families, and staff regardless of disruptions outside of the school. Principal Karla Gandiaga frames ARISE’s purpose as, “To support students to come back to the community to improve it.” Having this clarity helps everyone understand the role they play in the organization and the structures required to make this true.

One way ARISE actualizes its mission and vision is through its Academic Mentor Program, highlighted in this video. The innovative program employs recent ARISE alumni to provide academic support and build trusting relationships with each student, strengthening their connections to school. Mentors and students often easily relate to one another since they tend to be close in age and come from similar or even the same neighborhood. The program, which currently employs around 20 alumni, reflects the full circle of the mission of coming back to the community and making a difference. Some alumni even progress from student, to mentor, to full-time ARISE employee. When this happens, the Academic Mentor Program brilliantly plays a role in a larger innovation effort to develop teachers for ARISE, Oakland, and the greater Bay Area.

In addition to the Academic Mentor Program, ARISE runs several programs to enable students and alumni to gain hands-on professional experiences which expand students’ understanding of what is possible after high school. Karla wants students to recognize every opportunity. She says, “We’re very intentionally building with the community-based learning team so students are exposed to careers, to colleges, to ideas about the future.” ARISE’s Community and Public Health pathway and other work-based learning opportunities work in conjunction with the Academic Mentor Program. Together they connect students to future careers deeply embedded in ARISE values and culture in the spirit of service and social justice.

ARISE students build their skills in filmmaking during Enrichment. Photo Courtesy of ARISE High School

Several years ago, Director of Teaching and Learning, Trevor Gardner and the ARISE team worked to define what is required at each grade level to support students to successfully meet the requirements of ARISE’s Graduate Profile.1 They defined what needs to happen in each classroom, the kinds of assignments students need to complete, and the types of experiences students need inside and outside of school. Each day, teachers support this foundational work by building a supportive and affirming culture while simultaneously providing students with rigorous academic experiences that push their own expectations and visions of themselves. As Trevor framed it, “If every teacher in every classroom is able to push students beyond what they think they’re [students are] capable of, then it’s not just about reading, writing. It’s about everything that they’re doing in the classroom academically, and beyond.” The work to align curriculum, coursework, and community-based learning to the Graduate Profile highlights the necessity of getting clear on the purpose of the school as a team as well as building the processes and structures required to maintain focus over time. As of 2022, ARISE is proud to share that the school ranks #1 in the Bay Area (#27 in California) for A-G completion among schools with 80% or more students who qualify for free & reduced lunch. Achieving this level of success requires an open and honest mindset across the school, and mutual understanding of what the school does well, where to improve, and the time required for change.

Teachers and families play an important role in a student’s educational experience. Families hold tremendous knowledge about their students, and for the ARISE team, all interactions with families are opportunities to gather information and feedback. Building two-way communication helps ARISE share its vision for student learning, hear what parents value, and build understanding around how the school and families support students together. Practices like home visits and grade-level meetings support a culture of partnership and mutual respect. ARISE in-person events are regularly packed with families in attendance, whether learning about how to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, athletic competitions and games, or art exhibitions and performances. This also reflects how welcomed and engaged families feel – they are eager to take up the invitation to be a part of their students’ school experience. Similarly, ARISE gathers feedback directly from teachers to inform organization-wide decisions. For example, after a period of high teacher loss, Karla and Trevor interviewed every teacher to understand how to improve conditions and ensure teachers feel supported in their roles. The team dramatically improved teacher retention by implementing a new structure for teacher prep time, a new salary scale, and simplified access to materials. For Karla and Trevor, building a cohesive, tenured faculty is key to the health, vibrance, and success of the school. Their leadership highlights the importance of directly acknowledging challenges and investing energy in listening to understand and create solutions.

“We want to reflect the demographics of Oakland and have our Montessori anchored here. We want to have Montessori work for our community.”

– Krishna Feeney, Head of School, Urban Montessori Charter School


Urban Montessori Charter School 

Urban Montessori Charter School (UMCS) is the only public Montessori school in Oakland. Head of School Krishna Feeney believes that UMCS gets to the heart of the Montessori model serving and reflecting the community that surrounds the school. “We want to reflect the demographics of Oakland and have our Montessori anchored here. We want to have Montessori work for our community, said Krishna. She also noted that Maria Montessori, a scientist and doctor, was constantly shifting to meet the needs of the community she was serving. UMCS embraces that intentionality and continually works to more explicitly reflect the community it serves. This approach can be at odds with a dogmatic view of Montessori education, often associated with private schools, and how the model should be applied. Rallying school staff and leadership around this focus – reflect and serve the community – provides a clear lens through which decisions are made and changes are assessed.

UMCS students receive a small group lesson from their teacher. Photo Courtesy of UMCS

A big focus and win for the UMCS team is hiring and retaining lead teachers of color. This is in part due to an intentional focus on its Anti-Biased/Anti-Racist Commitment and Land Acknowledgement work. Training and professional development for teachers and staff as well as learning opportunities for families anchor in this work. Through these interactions with staff and teachers, Krishna seeks to build a shared vision for UMCS embedded across the whole school, not just individual classrooms. Teacher support and retention got a big boost in the summer of 2022 when Krishna and Daniel Bissonnette, Assistant Head of School, created the Oakland Montessori Teacher Residency. The Teacher Residency launched with a cohort of six teachers of color who were formerly in support teacher or operations positions. Launching was a huge undertaking, and a necessary one for Krishna and Daniel. Krishna reflected, “When you see a need right in front of you, you just want to solve it.” The ability to train teachers from within the UMCS community means investing in the people who are already on campus supporting students. Krishna shared, “We actively look to hire local talent of color. People who want to be here, who are born and educated here as they are the most likely to stay.” Existing Montessori training programs located in other cities are geared towards training teachers for private schools. The Teacher Residency tailors the Montessori pedagogy to the needs and realities of Oakland’s public school students and families, while also reinforcing UMCS’s vision and what it means to be a public Montessori teacher. The program confirms the school’s desire to reflect and serve the Oakland community while stabilizing and retaining high performing staff. Teachers who complete the program are steeped in what it means to provide Montessori education at UMCS.

Engagement with families to build a shared vision for the school is an ongoing focus. Montessori is a specific model, one that many parents have not experienced themselves, so engagement is two-fold: learning about the model and growing participation in the community. One simple approach the school started to use is sending regular notes to applying families to help them better understand UMCS and the school experience. This builds excitement for the school and ensures families are choosing a school that is a good fit for their student. Krishna wants families to share a clear understanding of what the school is about, and create transparent lines of communication. These kinds of small touch points reinforce the focus of the school and create tangible ways students and families experience that focus.

Being a school leader is not an easy task and requires constant decision-making. Now in her fifth year as UMCS’s leader, Krishna shared how much she learned over time that informs her work each day. Krishna brings a learning mindset to her role – always looking ahead to see how to improve versus only dwelling on what has been. This is particularly important as she leads her team to adapt to the ever changing needs of students, families, and the broader school community. She raised an important piece of advice for school leaders, “Don’t make decisions out of desperation, no matter how desperate you are.” While it can be hard in the moment to step back and assess an issue from a broader vantage point, that wider perspective is required when facing the toughest decisions. Taking this kind of measured approach and assessing risk helps align decisions with the ultimate vision and goals for a school.

“It’s the exact same thing that’s important to us – that students feel supported, that they feel safe, that they are learning, and that they are prepared for success in high school and college.”

– Tierre Mesa, Principal, Urban Promise Academy


Urban Promise Academy 

Since its founding, Urban Promise Academy (UPA) aimed to be a different, smaller middle school that centered students. UPA focuses on the whole child: academics, social emotional development, mental health, and behavioral needs. Principal Tierre Mesa shared the school’s vision for student belonging as, “Every individual kid gets their needs met, is seen, and has a positive relationship with adults.” The UPA culture is palpable across the school and in classrooms.

Similar to ARISE, the UPA team designed a cohesive and inclusive culture grounded in a strategic vision. “Being strategic helped us respond to all of the uncertainty, challenges, and newness,” said Tierre. Aligning on strategy creates stability for the UPA team and supports everyone to root their work in the school’s goals, be clear about challenges, and understand the purpose of short and long-term solutions. Alignment also gives Tierre and the broader team a clear lens to assess new ideas — always coming back to the central question of “Is this aligned to our vision?” This approach paid off and resulted in a foundation of strong instructional leadership that balances rigorous grade level content with the scaffolding required so each student can access classroom learning. The team stays laser-focused on quality instruction, always pushing for continuous improvement. As Tierre shared, “As a school we are always pushing ourselves to think deeply about what instruction should look like and how we support teachers to get there.”

Eighth grade Newcomer students present their work to families at the Learning Expo. Photo Courtesy of Tierre Mesa

Holding a strong vision and shared understanding of the role of the school is only part of the puzzle to push for continuous improvement. UPA is also deeply intentional with student, family, and teacher engagement, and values their voices, experiences, and perspectives. Similar to ARISE, UPA’s student-led family conferences, family meetings, and school events and showcases are extremely well attended with engaged families. Families physically on campus help the school team get feedback on what is working and what needs further improvement. When planning, the school asks, “How are we engaging them [students, families, teachers] in the process of making key decisions at the school?” Mentors and advisors at the school check in with students daily. UPA understands the importance of a student’s experience beyond academics as well as building their sense of belonging. Tierre supports students to advocate for change within the school and beyond, always connecting back to the school’s mission and vision to ensure all aspects of the school are moving in the same direction. For families, Tierre leverages instructional walkthroughs as opportunities to hear from families on what they envision for their students. Likewise, walkthroughs are an opportunity to share UPA’s vision of quality instruction. These exchanges bridge understanding for the school and families, and help families build their understanding of what students are learning and the logic behind how classrooms are structured. These sessions highlight again and again for Tierre how the UPA team and families are aligned. She shared, “It’s the exact same thing that’s important to us – that students feel supported, that they feel safe, that they are learning, and that they are prepared for success in high school and college.” Advisory, or Crew2 as it is called at UPA, creates close connections for each student, their family, and a trusted adult.

Over time, UPA built a collaborative and shared decision-making culture across leadership and teachers. Systems and structured meetings are in place for teachers to provide feedback and participate in designing the focus for professional development. Tierre acknowledged the many years that have passed since she was a classroom teacher and so collaborating with teachers is the only way to ensure there are no blind spots in school planning. UPA’s range of engagement practices showcases the variety of methods a school can employ to continually listen to the experiences and perspectives across students, families, and teachers. In many ways, the care UPA takes to center students is extended to families and teachers alike.

“There are so many assets right in your classroom — right in students, families, and students’ communities that can be uplifted. Everybody can learn from each other.”

– Paula Mitchell, Executive Director, Agency by Design Oakland


Agency by Design Oakland 

Agency by Design Oakland (AbDO) began years ago with a cohort of Oakland teachers who sought to understand how to apply maker-centered learning in their classrooms. The organization matured and is now a tremendous resource for schools. Through its programming, school teams build a shared understanding of their successes and challenges, and teachers learn how to deepen student engagement with the ultimate goal of greater shared decision-making in classrooms. AbDO creates a professional learning community unique to those who participate, which really sets it apart from other providers. The AbDO team collects detailed information on participants well in advance of sessions and tailors the content and experience to the unique gathering of individuals. Hundreds of Oakland educators have experienced AbDO’s facilitation, including approximately fifteen school teams recently. As former teachers themselves, the AbDO team is intentional about how they design and deliver sessions. Executive Director Paula Mitchell reflected, “[Teachers] don’t get treated like the professionals that they actually are. We want to ensure that teachers feel like they’re honored as professionals, and at the same time that they’re being cared for. They have learners around them all day long. With so many demands on them that it’s rare that they get to be cared for properly.” AbDO creates learning spaces that encourage participants to slow down, connect, reflect, share what they are testing, and consider how to apply their learning. Teachers are also encouraged to engage with their full authentic selves, which serves two purposes: allow teachers to gain more from the experience and also observe the AbDO team model how to show up for students. “Building relationships is so important to helping students succeed in the classroom and helping teachers feel like they’re valued and want to stay in the profession,” shared Paula. In particular after the pandemic, connecting on a human to human level is a huge focus across schools.

AbDO workshop participants find healing by connecting with each other and their environment through making a community mandala. Photo Courtesy of: Nico Chen

When AbDO first began, its focus was on providing professional development for individual teachers. As a means to broaden impact at the school level, and ultimately the system level, AbDO now works with teams of teachers and principals from the same school to create shared learning experiences, and ideally, spread and embed change quickly. This refocusing broadened AbDO’s approach to systems change – from one classroom within a single school, to creating pockets of innovation across multiple classrooms in the same school, to ultimately spreading maker-centered education across an entire school. One of the unintended outcomes of this new strategy is that school teams create and prioritize time to meet together. The AbDO team uncovered, unfortunately, how frequently individuals within the same school did not regularly have time to plan together. Through their sessions, AbDO provides school teams with valuable time to connect and plan, supporting school teams to better understand and assess their current state, and then to drive change. The pace of school often precludes necessary time for school teams to be in conversation, dreaming and planning, which regularly undermines other school improvement efforts. If we want to see schools improve, we collectively need to embrace values and practices that allow for thoughtful and focused planning coupled with the ability to test out new ideas.

At the heart of AbDO’s work is a maker-centered framework used to shift power and develop learners’ agency, creating classrooms that truly center students. Participants apply their learning to classrooms, honoring individual perspectives of students, adjusting the pace to allow for curiosity and reflection, and seeking the expertise that students bring. AbDO’s work might spark teachers to ask, “How might I build-in more moments for students to reflect on their learning and experiences?” or “How might I help students apply these reflections to other areas in their learning or across subjects?” This work supports teachers, principals, and ultimately students to deeply engage in learning rather than checking off boxes and moving on with only surface-level understanding. Participating teachers move away from a deficit mindset of students and toward intentionally decentering the teacher. AbDO works with teachers to shift from being the sole holder of knowledge through applying an inquiry process. This shift opens up the potential for teachers and school teams to better understand the experiences and perspectives of students, and ideally families as well, which in turn informs how decisions are made. Paula highlighted, “There are so many assets right in your classroom — right in students, families, and students’ communities that can be uplifted. Everybody can learn from each other.” The AbDO team hopes that ultimately this work creates a groundswell of change that humanizes classrooms and inspires students to retain and grow their curiosity of the world. Paula shared, “We are hoping that teachers will find their own agency and create the conditions for their students to find their own agency to advocate for what they need in education.”

Challenges Facing Students, Families, and Teachers in Oakland Today

ARISE students distribute food during their internships in partnership with the Unity Council. Photo Courtesy of ARISE High School

The impacts of the pandemic continue to linger, influencing how students interact with one another and engage (or not) in school. Krishna highlighted that people tend to focus on the impact for younger kids, but older students (fifth grade and above) are having the hardest time in her experience. Being a small school, UMCS rapidly responds to a wide range of student needs customized for each individual. But a school’s ability to respond should not depend on school size alone. Tierre echoed the pandemic’s ongoing impact, sharing that some students have a high level of social anxiety — not comfortable talking in class, being around other students, or unmasking. In addition, distance learning eroded some students’ sense of efficacy and belief in their own academic abilities. The antidote is to build trust and create safe spaces for students through nurturing relationships so that students bring their full authentic selves and feel comfortable taking risks. Paula reflected, “Kids don’t want to learn from people they don’t think care about them.” While the learning loss from the pandemic cannot be ignored, neither can the loss of connection and relationship.

Across these organizations it is abundantly clear they value, care about, and think a lot about retaining teachers and the links between teacher retention, student engagement, and organizational effectiveness. Teachers collaborate and are part of making decisions, as leaders recognize the deep value of their perspectives as individuals and professionals. Each of these schools embed some form of pipeline so prospective teachers – and in the case of ARISE, alums – can build their skills and knowledge to support their own growth and career trajectories. These efforts echo the approach and values of AbDO — building teachers’ agency so they can design and advocate for change. The work to attract and retain quality teachers is imperative as teacher shortages continue locally and nationally. The high cost of living in the Bay Area compounds this issue, and impacts students, their families, and teachers. Several school leaders highlighted the shortage of teachers as the main “emergency” or “crisis” impacting schools. The implications of the teacher shortages cuts across schools — the toll on administration and teacher leaders to continuously train new teachers, and inadequate relationship building with students and families. As Karla stated, “If we can’t find teachers and retain teachers, then it doesn’t matter how good everything else is.”

Hopes for the Future

Apprentice in the AbDO Black & Brown Leadership Program works on defining the collective purpose for their work. Photo courtesy of: Agency by Design Oakland

Despite entrenched challenges, these incredible leaders remain hopeful and inspired in their work. Not surprisingly, it is the people – students, families, teachers, and other school professionals – who provide these leaders with the most hope. Students are clearly at the top of the list. Karla reflected, “The biggest thing that inspires me when I walk around is our students and our academic mentors. Seeing all the people that now work here that I used to know as students that are now just absolutely killing it.” This tracks with Karla’s and Trevor’s ultimate dream – one day a former ARISE student will lead the school. Tierre similarly draws energy from being in classrooms and seeing students she knows are capable of amazing things.

Krishna and Paula each touched on the power of teachers as a source of hope. The UMCS Teacher Residency is opening up opportunities to individuals who might not otherwise have a chance to become teachers by offering an alternative path to training and certification. This is an investment in Oakland’s local talent and expands the typical profile of who becomes a future Montessori teacher leader. AbDO’s training is a driving force for teacher and student healing and relationship building. Shifts toward centering students in the classroom has rippling effects across schools and beyond.

Schools are communities of students, families, teachers, staff, and leaders. Together these communities dream and build new education experiences focused on students reaching their potential. But this work does not happen automatically. These leaders agreed on the importance of school teams needing to work collectively to continuously improve student experiences. The power of these teams working collaboratively towards the same goal creates momentum and motivation in and of itself. Education is a challenging field that requires an incredible amount of energy and emotional stamina, and sustaining impact over time requires a healthy mindset. Trevor beautifully demonstrated this mindset, sharing that, “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to do this work and that in itself gives me hope.”

“Just meet each other as people. Just come visit schools.”

– Krishna Feeney, Head of School, Urban Montessori Charter School


A Call to Action 

Students First. We need to address the false dichotomies that too often pit charter-run schools and district-run schools against one another, which only hurts students and families, who often choose both options for their children. Schools are missing opportunities to collaborate and learn from one another. Krishna encouraged schools and leaders to visit and learn from one another, “Just meet each other as people. Just come visit schools.” Karla offered ARISE as a model on how to build a culture and environment that supports a positive teacher experience. It’s time to focus on what builds bridges towards a better educational future for all Oakland students.

Building a Better Pathway to High Quality Teaching. The need for additional high-quality teachers is clearly on the mind of all these leaders. They want local, state, and national leaders to help with real solutions to teacher pipeline shortages, including raising compensation particularly for high cost-of-living areas like Oakland. Many schools, such as ARISE, UMCS, Envision Education, and Lighthouse Community Public Schools, are taking this work on themselves or in smaller groups through “grow your own” teacher training programs because they can’t wait for solutions from elsewhere. Schools cannot function without qualified, high-quality teachers in classrooms.

UMCS student dives into science lesson with microscope. Photo Courtesy of UMCS

Value and Support The Teachers. Teachers need the freedom and support to do things differently in service of their students. This requires treating teachers like the professionals that they are, providing them with adequate resources, and ensuring a manageable workload. Leaders are clear that the post-pandemic enrollment declines will continue to put pressure on schools as funding is intertwined with attendance. Inadequate funding is felt across a school, in particular in classrooms as teachers might not have access to the materials and resources needed to educate students. We all certainly play a part in supporting teachers and honoring their hard work and dedication, including National Teacher Appreciation week, and sharing appreciation for dedicated educators year round. Moreover, though, education and political leaders must address the funding structure for schools, assessing if it truly meets the current reality of student educational needs.

What Does Success Look Like? While accountability and understanding academic progress are important, leaders called out that the current testing model is narrow, tests are known to be biased, and the results are not actionable. Overall the tests in California over-simplify how to understand all the on-the-ground progress being made by students, in classrooms, and across schools. Leaders encouraged an expansion in how we understand and measure school progress. Might schools define additional measures of progress rooted in their school model or pedagogical focus? Might progress be shared more regularly based on data outside of testing? There is an opportunity to engage as school communities and as a city to define how to track and understand student and school progress outside of our traditional understanding.

When it comes down to it, schools are for students, but often students are not at the forefront when decisions are made at a school or system level. Paula reiterated the importance of listening to and trusting students when she shared, “They [students] have feelings, curiosities, and excitement . . . we need to be honoring that, listening to that, trusting them, and incorporating that so much more into school.”

The Rogers team expresses deep gratitude to Karla, Trevor, Krishna, Tierre, and Paula for sharing about their work, steadfast dedication to the students and families, and passion to grow, nurture, and support teachers in Oakland. Their leadership and vision gives our team great hope now and for the future. Over the course of the Foundation’s history we built relationships with many schools and nonprofits dedicated to supporting schools, teachers, and leaders in their continuous improvement journeys. We also thank and recognize them for their work and dedication. A complete list of school and nonprofit grantees can be found here.

  1. This work was supported by Envision Learning Partners
  2. From the UPA website “Students have daily Crew classes designed to help students expand their self-knowledge, growth mindset and relational skills through the habits of success and goal-setting.”