OAKLAND, Calif. — Should an urban school serving black and Hispanic students try to emulate schools for affluent white kids?
In many struggling cities like Oakland, the answer has been no, both in the regular public schools, where resources often don’t exist to replicate programs offered at high-income suburban or tony private schools, but also among the crop of urban charter schools intent on making up for those resource deficits. Urban charter schools, many of which are run by white leaders, have been stereotyped as embracing a boot camp-like environment that elevates test prep and tough discipline, while downplaying arts and athletics.
Jeff Duncan-Andrade, the founder of the two-year-old Roses in Concrete Community School believes that needs to change. At his school — for people of color, designed by people of color — the conventional wisdom about how to improve outcomes for black and Hispanic children has been turned on its head, Duncan-Andrade says. The school is designed to match up against even the fanciest independent school, with students immersed in art, extra-curricular activities and athletics, and less emphasis on test prep.
What’s different is the culture.
“It’s about acknowledging they’ll love ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ but also acknowledging they are black and brown kids in Oakland,” said Duncan-Andrade. “So you’ll see we hang the words of Malcolm X next to those of Dr. Seuss. To not talk about Black Lives Matter, even down to Kindergarten, [would be] a political decision. Our kids already know this stuff. They have had brothers, uncles shot.”
While Roses in Concrete largely serves black and Latino students from East Oakland, Duncan-Andrade chose to locate the campus on seven acres in Oakland’s hilly Redwood Heights section. The sprawling property, which will eventually grow to a K-12 school, is surrounded by well-maintained mid-century homes. The leafy neighborhood is just two blocks above the 580 freeway, which divides the city’s rich and poor. The curriculum replicates the progressive, well-rounded education for which many affluent families pay dearly — either through tuition or property taxes — but with a twist.
Roses in Concrete, named after a book of poetry based on the writing of rapper Tupac Shakur, is a performing arts community school. Students are expected to delve deeply into the arts, with requirements that they try modern and jazz dance and ballet, experiment with eight instruments, and learn how to arrange music. But these lessons are taught in the context of African, Latino and Native American traditions. Singing, for example, includes songs in Ohlone, the language of the native people who inhabited the Bay Area.
“[They get] everything you’d get from an elite private school, but from people who look like them,” said Duncan-Andrade. “Everyone has to try everything and after they try it all, they can select to focus on something after school.”
It’s all of those extracurriculars and activities that keep Amanda Robinson, the mother of a first grader at Roses in Concrete, around. “Look I have Piedmont tastes with an Oakland budget,” says Robinson referring to an affluent enclave, where nearly all residents are either white or Asian, carved out of Oakland.
“When you send your child to any new school you are taking a risk in some ways,” said Robinson, who was raised by a white mom and a black dad in an agricultural community near Sacramento. “But anytime I have a shadow of a doubt, and I say to myself ‘oh we don’t have a library’, the school has some kind of a performance and I see my son up there doing a style of drumming from the Ivory Coast, and I know he’s getting a kind of education I didn’t.”
The curriculum at Roses in Concrete is also dual language, something many well-to-do families across the country have been clamoring for in recent years. At Roses, half the material is taught in English and half in Spanish.
“Some people worry about taking black youth who are already marginalized and putting them in a class where they can only speak Spanish,” said Duncan-Andrade. “Their brains are exploding. But the earlier one gets comfortable with discomfort, the more one will learn.”
From 2000 to 2011, the number of dual language schools in the United States increased by nearly tenfold, rising from 260 programs to around 2,000. Research has shown that dual language programs tend to boast students’ math and reading skills, but studies have also shown that students’ test scores sometimes initially lag behind their peers in traditional English-only classrooms.
Duncan-Andrade, a 45-year-old dad of two twin boys, traversed a pretty well-worn path for education reformers. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, he joined Teach for America at age 22 and went on to found an inner-city charter school dedicated to getting poor black and Latino students to and through college. But unlike famous TFA alums Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg — who co-founded perhaps the most famous charter school network, KIPP schools, before turning 30 —
Duncan-Andrade’s journey took him 22 years.
Duncan-Andrade says that the more than two decades he spent teaching in Oakland and the eight years he spent planning his school makes it different from the famous college preparatory charter school chains — more responsive to the unique needs of his community and better positioned to tackle its challenges.
The idea for Roses in Concrete was born nearly a decade ago at a graduation party for some of his former students. The students, nearly all of whom were headed off for college, said he should create a K-12 school that would do for other children of color what he had done for them, Duncan-Andrade said. Because of this, Duncan-Andrade likes to call Roses an intergenerational project. Those intergenerational relationships are easy to see in action any time he emerges on the playground. Students — many of them the sons and daughters of former students — run at him and climb up his tall frame.
That kind of connection and support is something Duncan-Andrade longed for when he was growing up.
“I moved around a lot as a kid,” recalled Duncan-Andrade. “I never felt home. I feel like Oakland and these families adopted me and I’m trying to spend the rest of my life repaying that debt.”
Duncan-Andrade is the youngest of seven kids born to a Mexican-American mother and an Scotch-Irish-American* father in Los Angeles. Duncan-Andrade remembers his family’s complicated relationship with schools.
“The expectations for us were low, not unlike many in our community,” he recalled. “My mother would say, ‘Go to school, get your lessons,’ but at the same time, she grew up on the border in Arizona, so she would tell us stories about how she would have to put on a dunce cap for speaking her native language. There was this dual message about whether school was really a place for us.”
Duncan-Andrade added that his mother assumed he would struggle in school, like his older siblings. The family was constantly on the move, he remembers, in an effort to keep his older siblings out of trouble. First they moved to Sacramento and then to rural Oregon, “We just kept going up I-5 to try to run away from our problems.”
Duncan-Andrade largely credits basketball for getting him to and through college.
“A lot changed in fifth grade, when I went to an NBA camp and got all of these awards,’ he remembered. “For the first time, I felt like there was real investment in me, there was this new narrative that I had potential. Real cash-infusions, shirts, stays in hotels, all of this stuff came and it was a clear statement that I had value.”
He believes that by exposing his students to as much art, music and sports as kids at the schools with most resources, they will have a chance to find the same sense of self-worth he found through basketball.
As for his own basketball career, that ended his second day at the University of California, Berkeley when he tore the ligaments in his ankle. In the weeks after that injury, he seriously considered dropping out of college, he said. He thanks a series of mentors, all men of color, for convincing him to stay at Berkeley and eventually guiding him into teaching:
“I was the first in my family to go to one of these really elite institutions and I wasn’t really sure what to do after,” he recalled. “I thought I was going to follow my dad into the service and become a Marine Corps pilot. But one of my friends was taking a class by Pedro Noguera, a sociologist who studies race and education, who is now one of my closest friends and mentors, and he said, ‘You have to sit in.’ I did and then later applied to TFA.”
In a lot of ways, Roses in Concrete is a direct reaction against the wave of charter school chains that began opening around the start of this century — schools often founded by white men to serve poor black and Latino students — that focused on test scores and college preparation above all else. Roses is part of a growing movement of progressive and community-based charter schools that emphasize a broader liberal arts curriculum, bringing a full slate of art, music and extra-curricular activities into schools for poor black and brown children.
But the philosophy at Roses is also a reaction to Duncan-Andrade’s own schooling, much of it at the same kind of Catholic parochial school that served as an influential model for the urban charter movement.
“I was in school before we really knew a lot about anger management issues. I believe I had anger problems,” said Duncan-Andrade, a man who, while prone to impassioned speeches, takes on a much more relaxed and easy-going demeanor in one-on-one conversations. “I had a sixth grade teacher; she was the school disciplinarian back at a time with corporal punishment. I would get spanked all the time, and eventually I didn’t care. My father had cancer and we didn’t have healthcare. My brothers and sisters were running the streets. But in school they never asked what was going on.”
But he remembers one day, when his teacher was once again fed up with his behavior, she didn’t opt for the “beat it out of me approach,” but instead finally asked him what was wrong.
“After that, counseling became my punishment session and that started to change how I felt about myself,” remembered Duncan-Andrade. “But I never had a teacher like that again.”
Now, counseling is a central feature at Roses.
“The work starts on the street at 7:00 a.m.,” said Duncan-Andrade. “We staff the street, so that every kid gets physical contact, an assessment of how are they coming to us, what’s going on with kid and family before they even enter the building. That tells us a lot.”
But while many progressive schools — cut more in the mold of Waldorf schools than Catholic schools — shun testing, Duncan-Andrade says he can’t in good conscience toss aside test prep entirely.
“The value of test scores is giving our kids access to the kingdom,” said Duncan-Andrade. “I know our kids can perform well. But it’s about keeping those tests in the proper place. You have to create pathways for kids to get to college and that includes tests. We need to stop seeing it as a binary … and can’t be talking out of both sides of your mouth. You have all of these degrees hanging on a wall but you are not giving kids a route to those degrees.”
During Roses’ first year, however, few students hit the proficiency mark on state standardized tests. Just over a fifth of third and fourth graders passed the English portion of the tests, and only 15 percent were deemed proficient in math. Roses students are only slightly outperforming black and Latino students in Oakland’s district schools, but Duncan-Andrade thinks they will start pulling ahead after more time at the new school.
The initial test scores don’t put off Robinson. She says she chose Roses in Concrete for her son over more established dual language schools because of the school’s emphasis on teaching students their culture.
“You can tell you are in a different kind of school just from the fact that there is black and brown art everywhere,” said Robinson. “They are learning, from a very young age, about Frida Kahlo, about the Black Panthers. Everything they do is based in culture and art that reflects them.”
She points specifically to a moment with her son at the Oakland Whole Foods last year, when he was a kindergartner.
“I picked up a thing of strawberries,” remembers Robinson. “And my son looks up at me asks if they were Driscoll’s and I say ‘yes, they are, why?’ And then he tells me all of this stuff about how we can’t buy them because of how they treat their farmworkers and then he compared it to how Martin Luther King started a boycott after Rosa Parks didn’t get up. This is a kindergartener. I grew up in a farming community and we never talked about any of this stuff. At this age, I’m not so worried that he understands phonics or can add or subtract. He won’t get this real education anywhere else.”
Duncan-Andrade considers Roses a “lab school,” a school tailored to a specific community. He hopes to share what works in East Oakland, so leaders from elsewhere can build their own schools that are responsive to their communities. But what works in one context cannot just be transplanted into another, he said. He added that there would be a chain of Roses schools “over my dead body.”
“A lot of people open schools because they can,” said Duncan-Andrade. “They have a degree, they have a pulse. But that’s the colonial model. You have to ask permission, not from the district or the state, but from the community.”
The bigger idea isn’t just to create good schools but to turn around long-struggling communities.
“I think the kid that’s most likely to become the shooter is also the one who is most likely to change our community,” he said. “It’s not about plucking the roses out of concrete and letting them flourish alone in the rose garden. We will fail if we send 100 percent of our kids to college and this community doesn’t change.”
*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the ethnicity of Duncan-Andrade’s father.
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