Saturday, November 15, 2014

West Oakland Project Combines Housing, New School

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- A West Oakland charter school is partnering with an affordable housing developer to combine academics and apartments by building a new $9.5 million school that will be finished in time for classes next fall. 

Bridge Housing is building a new home for Vincent Academy elementary school at 2501 Chestnut Street near McClymonds High School. It will be across the street from Bridge's Chestnut Linden Court Apartments and in the vicinity of 700 other affordable housing units in the area. 

Bridge spokeswoman Lyn Hikida said the developer hopes children living with families in those units will go to the new school. 

School Head Kate Nicol said the idea is to combine the elementary school with nearby affordable housing so families don't have to drive out of the neighborhood every day to attend other schools. 

"It's a new concept in community revitalization and from our perspective it makes so much sense to have the housing and schooling piece together," said Nicol, who added her school's current home on Union Street is way too small. "For the students I see coming here, it's really critical to have housing for them." 

The school is being paid for with New Market Tax Credits from the community development arm of Chase, $2.6 million in donations and from a loan. Bridge already owns the land. 

Vincent Academy started in 2011 and now has 143 students and will grow to 350 when it adds a fifth grade next year, Nicol said. 

The housing and schooling partnership is new for Bridge, said Hikida. 

"We've never built a charter school before, but this works out with our larger development goals," Hikida said. "We do affordable housing and this school is conveniently across from one of our new apartments buildings and we have over 700 units in West Oakland, so we can urge our tenants to attend Vincent." 

Thursday's 4 p.m. groundbreaking is at 2601 Chestnut Street. 

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School Districts Copy Oakland's Black Male Achievement Program

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- New data shows the Oakland Unified School District's office of African American Male Achievement is starting to turn around decades of failure for young black men, a development prompting the office to document its formula for others around the country to copy. 

The district is paying consultants about $90,000 to put in writing the program's best practices around discipline, racism and academics for young black males that its director says is paying off four years after it started. 

"This will be our most comprehensive report yet on how our program addresses structural racism in the Oakland Unified School District," said Christopher Chatmon, director of the office, which now has a $1.2 million budget. 

Chatmon said since the office was first conceived in 2010, the dismal graduation rate of 6,500 African-American boys has risen from 42 percent to 57 percent, and the rate of high school sophomores who pass the high school exit exam has increased from 28 percent to 38 percent. 

Chatmon said in just the last six months, he met with the executive staff of San Francisco Unified School District, the school board and parents of Antioch Unified School District, and staff at Minneapolis Public Schools in Minnesota to show them what he has done in Oakland. 

This fall Minneapolis Public Schools opened an Office of Black Male Student Achievement, with a startup budget of $200,000. 

Chatmon said when he started in 2010, he knew it would take at least 10 years to bring "true systems change" to the school district, so in addition to working on districtwide policy, his office launched elective manhood development classes for African-American males that now have an approved curriculum and certified teachers. About 650 boys take the classes, he said. 

"We needed something immediately from day one, and now those classes are in 16 schools," he said. 

Vajra Watson, director of research and policy for equity in the UC Davis chancellor's office who will be doing some of the documentation work for the Oakland office, said other school districts, like Minneapolis, want to do the same thing, but they need a road map to get started. 

"If you're a school superintendent in Kansas or Yolo County and you want to heed this call and look at the data and respond, this work will say, 'Here's what you can do,'" Watson said. "School superintendents really have been waiting for some kind of blueprint to follow on this." 

Watson said she has been interviewing some of the 650 students in the Oakland manhood development programs and found that the office's work has helped them change the way they feel about themselves. 

"I surveyed hundreds of students when they first started the program and asked them, 'What does it mean to be a black male in America?'" Watson said. "All those boys described being menaced by society and used negative words to describe how they were being treated in schools. After they went through the manhood development classes, you start to see this reconceptualization of who they are. They talk about how important it is to be black and smart. They are redefining what it means to be black men." 

Chatmon agreed and said one thing the data, which has plenty of room to go up, does not point to is the change in "spirit" in young black men in Oakland schools. 

"The year the department was created we came into a culture that had normalized the failure of African-American children," Chatmon said. "It went from a negative deficit model to one that's more filled with hope." 

In her report Watson also plans to make recommendations to the district on how to better "leverage change for kids still falling through the cracks, and the kids who are still caught in that life of stealing and robbing."

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Coffee, Cats and Cookies: Adoption Cafe Opens in Oakland

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- Oaktown is now Cat Town. 

A new place to adopt a cat, drink coffee, eat a cookie and maybe buy a cat calendar opened on Broadway this month, and the owners of Cat Town Cafe say it's the first of its kind in the nation. 

Co-owner Adam Myatt, 28, of Oakland, said the new space that opened Oct. 25 at the corner of Broadway and 29th Street is all about connecting people crazy for cats with, well, cats. 

"It's something new and fresh that hasn't been done here, and people don't quite understand it," Myatt said, noting that the place has been full since opening day, and the press has been eating it up. "The whole mission is to get cats adopted, and it's fun to do that." 

Myatt, a struggling musician and photographer who sells cat calendars, said he had heard about cat cafes and feral cat islands in Japan. The idea simmered in the back of his mind until he came across a fresh litter of cats and their mom across the street from his Oakland home. 

He approached Ann Dunn, 49, who had started Cat Town, a cat adoption network since 2011, to find homes for his new feline friends, and the two hit it off immediately. 

"I never imaged when I started volunteering at the Oakland animal shelter that it would lead to this," Dunn said as she took a shift in the Cat Zone, where humans meet cats. "At the shelter we see a lot of people who leave overwhelmed and depressed and empty-handed because they feel bad about taking one and leaving the rest in cages." 

She said the Cat Zone was designed so cats have a nice place to live and adoptive owners feel better about the environment where the cats live. 

She said in the past few years she often entertained the idea of a cafe next to a cat adoption center. Then she met Myatt. 

"We connected on some kind of weird, crazy cat level," Myatt said. "I said to her 'I have these super cute, highly adoptable kittens. Can you point me in the right direction to finding them homes?' We got to talking about how to save cats, and I said, 'If you're down to start this really weird business, I am.' It was just crazy cat people connecting. It's a bizarre story for sure." 

Cat Town Cafe has a cafe and a storefront area, where prospective foster cat parents can meet with cats who strut around carpet-covered replicas of Oakland landmarks: the Tribune Tower, City Hall, Port of Oakland cranes and, coming soon, a small cat house copy of a whale currently at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. 

On Friday, 10-year-old Allie Blair, of Berkeley, was in the Cat Zone soaking up the cat culture. Blair already has three cats and a dog at home, but her love of cats brought her to the Cat Town Cafe twice already, even though she has no intention of adopting a fourth. 

"I think the cats like it a lot better here in this room than they do in the shelter," Blair said. "They have more things to do and places to take a nap." 

Dunn said the place is averaging about 140 visitors a day since it opened. 

All the recent attention has resulted in good things for cats that Myatt and Dunn rescue from the Oakland Animal Services shelter. 

"We've had 11 cats adopted since we've been open," Myatt said. "If we can keep that up, it will be amazing." 

After the two talked about starting a cat cafe and adoption center, Myatt used some money he got from selling cat calendars to visit cat cafes in Japan. 

"I went to 12 cafes and two feral cat islands," he said. "One of them was like 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'Snow White,' where you are transported into this weird world and it was like, 'Oh, this is what I want to do.'" 

He said he and Dunn scraped together about $90,000 to rent the storefront and cafe space through an Internet crowdfunding pitch, a $20,000 donation from Pet Food Express and other individual donations. 

With the sale of coffee, cookies and merchandise, the two hope to be able to start paying themselves and their volunteers. 

Myatt said he loves all animals, but the universe somehow put cats in the forefront. 

"I said to myself, 'I'm just going to follow this cat thing,'" Myatt said. "It's great. It's like a crazy cat people meet up space." 

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Oakland Students' Composting Worms Lost in Rocket Explosion

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- It will be awhile now before students at an Oakland middle school will know if red worms can turn garbage into compost -- in space -- after their experiment onboard an unmanned rocket blew up Tuesday in Virginia along with a payload of supplies headed to the International Space Station. 

"I was kind of surprised about what happened with the explosion," said 12-year-old Cithlali Hernandez, a student at Urban Promise Academy, whose three-person team devised a winning experiment that was chosen to be on the space station. "I was thinking that the worms probably died." 

The rocket capsule was loaded with 5,000 pounds of experiments and equipment for NASA, including student experiments, 32 mini research satellites, food and a meteor tracker. 

Hernandez, who likes to play soccer and hang with her friends, said the purpose of the experiment was to see if worms could be used to turn astronauts' garbage on the space station into compost. 

No people died in the explosion of Orbital Sciences' unmanned Antares rocket that blew up moments after liftoff from the Virginia coast. 

Urban Promise assistant principal Dennis Guikema said Hernandez and her team has already been assured they will get another chance at sending red worms into space, but they just don't know when. 

The school put up $20,000 it got from fundraising and from a school district grant to allow all 324 students in teams of three and four to design experiments to go into space, said Principal Claire Fisher. Hernandez' team, whose members had to write a seven page paper about the relevance and practical application of red worms composting garbage in space, was judged a winner by scientists across the country, Fisher said. 

"So we were pretty disappointed and a little shocked when we found out the rocket exploded," Fisher said. 

Guikema said the entire school was watching the launch at 3:22 p.m. Tuesday on a big screen in the school auditorium. It was not immediately clear that the rocket exploded from the video and kids were dismissed, although teachers suspected something was wrong, he said. 

"After the kids left, everyone started checking their phones for news and then it became apparent," he said. 

Guikema said he doesn't know how long it will be now before the experiment from Urban Promise gets launched into space again. He hopes Hernandez and her team are still at the school when it happens. 

"Losing the experiment has also been a good lesson," Guikema said. "It's an opportunity for the students to reflect on it and to learn what it means to have a setback. And the whole school is grateful no one got injured." 

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Black Student Suspensions Drop, But Huge Color Divide Remains

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- The school district here has reduced the number of suspensions of black students in the last three years, but they are still being taken out of school at a much higher rate than white students, according to a yearly report to the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education. 

In 2012, the school district promised to voluntarily reduce suspensions of African-American students after the office opened an investigation into whether they were disciplined more frequently and harshly than white students. 

The suspension rate for African-American boys and girls dropped from 14 percent to 10 percent between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years, according to school district data that will be presented at a school board meeting Wednesday. The rate for African-American boys dropped from 16.7 percent to 12.7 percent in the same period. 

"We've done a lot of work in terms of transforming school culture from punitive discipline to restorative practices," said Jean Wing, the district's executive director of research, assessment and data. "That's really been the cornerstone of reducing those numbers." 

Those restorative practices mean looking deeper into why a student is misbehaving and trying to solve the problem instead of just kicking them out of school for a day. 

But the disparity in suspensions between African-American and white kids still is huge. 

Last school year, 10 percent of all African-American students were suspended for a day or more, while just 1.1 percent of white kids were suspended. 

The most dramatic decline in African-American suspensions came in the middle schools, Wing said, "which was the biggest single contributor to the overall decrease we see in suspensions across the district." 

"We're providing more training around classroom management and cultural sensitivity so that teachers can interpret how some kids are," Wing said. "Part of our move toward restorative practices is to have a schoolwide culture where every adult and student knows how we are supposed to be in school." 

In other words, the rules are the same for every class and every common room and space on campus and everyone knows the rules at the start of the year, Wing said. 

"Some teachers are known for letting students do 'x' in their classroom, while others do not, so kids have to change hats all day long," Wing said. "We're trying to move away from that." 

According to the report to the school board, the district in the last three years introduced restorative justice programs at 23 of 86 schools, started tiered behavior intervention programs in 33 schools, and started the Manhood Development program in 16 schools. 

Theresa Clincy, the school district's coordinator for attendance and discipline, said giving children the rules and having adults hold them accountable is part of the equation in solving the discipline problem, but it also includes how to handle students when they know the rules but still don't follow them. 

"If there is a problem, we have a conversation with a kid," Clincy said. "Then if the child still cannot comply, we ask, 'Who can I get them to talk to so that they do?' It's trying to get a sense of why the child is misbehaving so they can continue to be in class instead of being suspended. And these are all considered research-based approaches that have been proven." 

Clincy said she is glad to see the numbers, which she called "ridiculously high four years ago," come down. 

She said the district was able to reduce the numbers because leaders "were finally able to locate some strategies that were successful in other districts, and we were able to implement them and provide the funding to do that." 

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Oakland Schools' Bad Credit Costing Homeowners Millions

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- A decade of sloppy financial record keeping in Oakland's schools is now costing city homeowners and businesses more than $29 million in extra property taxes after the district lost its credit rating for borrowing money, according to a new report to the Alameda County grand jury. 

Rating agency Standard & Poor's withdrew its credit rating of the district in 2011 and Moody's removed its in 2012, driving up the cost of current borrowing on bonds that are repaid in residential and business property taxes. 

The credit ratings were removed because the district has not been able to complete any financial audits mandated by the state since 2003 due to missing records, a lack of internal accounting controls and books that are basically in shambles, according to a spokesman with the State Controller's Office. 

"The District's financial advisers have estimated the additional cost to Oakland taxpayers may be over $29 million," stated a Sept. 10 report to the Alameda County grand jury signed by school board President David Kakishiba and new Superintendent Antwan Wilson. 

Although the cost of borrowing money was driven up by just 1.4 percentage points in a recent round of borrowing, it amounts to a whole lot of money because so much is being borrowed. For example, Measure J, approved by voters in 2012, allows the school district to borrow $475 million for school facilities, and it does so in increments. 

Ever since 2003 when the state gave the Oakland school district a $100 million emergency loan and the State Controller's Office became the district's auditor, the school district has not been able to complete a single audit because "there was a weakness in internal controls and their records were in disarray," said controller's office spokesman Garin Casaleggio. The office has issued a finding of no opinion on the district's financial situation because it didn't have enough information. The latest audit it attempted to finish was for the 2010-11 school year. 

The state controller will continue to audit the district's books until it pays off the remaining $55 million of the emergency loan. 

"We're still their auditor, and what we're after to issue an opinion is at a minimum to have sufficient internal controls and accounting structures in place," Casaleggio said. "We've done seven audits in all, and we haven't issued an opinion on any of them." 

Oakland's school district financial books are in disarray because it has had trouble hiring and keeping solid employees who watch over them, Kakishiba said. 

To its credit the school district has recently hired a chief financial officer and an executive director for budgeting. It has also set aside $1.3 million to try and get its financial records together and has hired an outside accounting firm to help the State Controller's Office perform an audit. As a result, an audit for the 2011-12 school year that should be done soon is costing the district $400,000 from the State Controller's Office and $250,000 from the outside firm. 

"As a board member I've been frustrated about us not filling and retaining top-notch fiscal management leadership, and we've had a lot of turnover and many vacancies," Kakishiba said. "You could say the buck stops with the board and the superintendent who manages all these people, and that has been a source of deep frustration for me." 

Kakishiba said the state has not even looked at the district's financial statements in years past because "the controller's office has said it is not worth auditing -- the books are in shambles so it's not even worth auditing them." 

The State Controller's Office said it is a good sign that the district has hired an outside firm to help with its financial books. 

"We take it as a positive sign that Oakland has brought in an outside CPA firm to help prepare its financials for which we are auditing and to help implement reforms we are recommending," Casaleggio said. 

Kakishiba said the latest audit of the 2011-12 school year should be a little better as a result. 

"I suspect we will get to some kind of opinion this go around," Kakishiba said. "I don't think it will be 100 percent clean, but I do anticipate progress." 

Kakishiba said the fact that Oakland taxpayers have had to pay so much more to finance its school bonds is the fault of both the state for taking so long to do its audits -- they are two years behind -- and the fault of the school district for perpetuating a "grand conspiracy that people are out to screw over Oakland." 

"Either way the Oakland taxpayers are getting screwed, and the Oakland kids suffer, too," Kakishiba said. 

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Oakland: Jack London Square Bets on Bowling, Beer, Live Music

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- A new 50,000 square-foot sports bar and bowling alley that opened in the old Barnes & Noble space at Jack London Square has area business leaders hoping it attracts more people to the area and eventually more retail businesses. 

Opened last week, the indoor-outdoor venue called plank features 12 lanes of bowling, outdoor bocce ball, 40 television screens, food, beer and a game arcade. 

At $150 a square foot, owner Trifecta Management Group of Agoura Hills invested more than $7.5 million to renovate the space, which features an outdoor bar and beer garden that can accommodate 800 while the inside space can hold up to 1,200, said Managing Partner Michael Auger. 

Auger said the venue also will have live music, with acoustic sets outside and full live acts on a stage inside. 

Jack London Square already has restaurants and office workers that inhabit the area during the day, but at night and on weekends it can feel like a ghost town. 

"There's not a lot for kids down here," said John Lyman, who was bowling with his friends and 2-year-old daughter at plank Friday night. "So this is great. It's exactly what Jack London needs." 

More people like Lyman and his family could mean more retail, which is what the area really needs to take off, said Dean Rubinson, director of development at Ellis Partners, which leases 11 square blocks at Jack London Square from the Port of Oakland. 

"The missing element really is foot traffic at all times of day," Rubinson said. "It's a great spot for families. I did my son's 12th birthday party at plank last week. Then the vibe changes at night and becomes more of a nightclub scene. It's really intended to fill that foot traffic void." 

Rubinson said foot traffic is sacred for retail shopping and that's what he hopes happens next at Jack London Square. 

"We filled up the office space, added five or six restaurants, and then the entertainment and retail follows," Rubinson said. "We hope we're at that tipping point. Retailers want to see foot traffic before they put a store there." 

He said Jack London Square has been perceived as unsafe in the evening because it gets lumped in with the rest of high-crime Oakland. 

"Relative to the rest of Oakland, it's very safe," Rubinson said. 

And with the launch of the new Jack London Improvement District in May with a $750,000 budget and "ambassadors," who will walk people to their cars, pick up trash, refer street people to social services and call the cops if necessary, the area should start to feel safer. 

Savlan Hauser, executive director of the district, said the main thrust of the new business improvement district is to keep the streets clean and make people feel welcome "and happy to come down here." 

She said she hopes with plank the area will get "that critical mass of visitors to bring in the retail." 

Hauser said getting a grocery store in the area also would be great. 

"We're right on the threshold of having more neighborhood amenities," Hauser said. "We want places people who live here can walk to. As it stands now, a lot of people get in their car to go and do grocery shopping." 

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