District 7 Director Clifford Thompson poses for a photo at Madison Park Academy. Thompson is in his 43rd year as an educator and second year on the school board. Credit: Amir Aziz

One of 19 children, District 7 Director Clifford Thompson grew up in Oroville and attended UC Davis, where he started out pursuing medicine but switched to education after getting a C in organic chemistry. (“A person getting a C cannot be a doctor,” he joked.) 

43 years later, Thompson has served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and is now back in the classroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Richmond. Thompson is also in his second year serving on the Oakland Unified School District board of education.

Thompson represents deep East Oakland, where three elementary schools are slated to close at the end of this school year: Brookfield, Korematsu Discovery Academy, and Grass Valley. District 7 also has the highest charter school enrollment of Oakland’s seven districts: 39% of students there attended a charter school during the 2021-2022 school year. District 1 had the lowest charter enrollment, at 16%. 

Thompson spoke with The Oaklandside about how OUSD can benefit from having former teachers on its board, why he abstained during a key vote earlier this year, and how charter schools and district schools can better collaborate. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What has been your involvement in Oakland education?

I previously was a teacher in Oakland in many of the schools, and also an administrator, and assistant principal and principal, here in Oakland. Then I started tutoring in Oakland. While I was teaching, I was still tutoring. I would tutor kids here in East Oakland, especially African American kids, through my church. 

Just recently, within the past two years, I decided, well, how can I get back to Oakland? And since I wasn’t working in Oakland—I was working in Richmond—I decided the best way I can get back is to be on the board. After two years of talking to people and researching, trying to figure out what the board was all about and what it was doing, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. 

Why did you feel it was important to get back to Oakland, and why run for the school board?

My primary reason is to really refocus all of us and try to put the majority of our attention on the academic growth for all students, but specifically African-American students and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students.

I saw a decline in academic growth. And that really concerned me, because I remember when I was a classroom teacher in Oakland, there was slow growth. But we sort of worked together, and we made sure growth was happening. When I saw that things deteriorating, I wanted to make it better. And I thought, well, the best way to make it better is to get in there and do something about it.

In your almost two years on the board, what are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of?

One is looking at A-G requirements (the classes and grades required for admission to a state college or university), and really focusing on making certain that all of our students who graduate, graduate with A to G qualifications, so they can actually have choices for their post-high school experience. 

The second thing is trying to beautify the facilities that our students are in and that our teachers go to. 

The third thing is looking at Measure N—which is now Measure H (a city ballot measure that would fund career pathway programs at high schools)—and making certain that that’s a part of every child’s experience, or at least it’s available to them at every high school, and then seeing how we can parlay that into what I call “articulated growth.” That’s growth from middle school to high school, making certain that we have kids on that path.

When it comes to the budget and fiscal sustainability, what are your budget priorities?

Overall, making sure that in the budget we have money allocated in the proper places. And making sure you’re in the black when you can be. I think the primary purpose of schools is to provide a good education for all students, number one, so you have to make sure that your budget is in line with your priorities. 

We don’t want to get in a situation where we’re looking at adult interests, and student interests are taking a second priority. Of course, you want to make sure you do the things that are needed for the adults, because they’re the ones who are providing the services that we need. But we do want to make sure as they provide the services, your primary focus is on making sure that everything relates to student achievement.

You’re in the classroom now, and you’ve been an assistant principal, principal, and board member. What can board members do to impact academic achievement? Because it seems like that is something that happens primarily in the classroom or at the school site.

Board members have to actually develop policy and pass policy to facilitate the implementation of curriculum that’s needed for academic growth. Now, I know that sounds very easy, but it’s difficult because you have the politics that happen at the board level. You also have teachers who probably want autonomy to do what they need to do. Of course, you want teachers to have autonomy, but you also want to provide a direction or a path for teachers. I have a real good handle on what teachers need, because I’m in that position right now. But I also have a good handle on it because I’ve worked in all those levels you’ve mentioned. And so I’ve never extricated myself from the classroom, necessarily, even though I was in the role of a leader. I always kept in mind what classroom instructors needed, in order to be good providers of educational opportunities for kids.

What do you believe teachers need most from the board to be able to excel at their jobs?

I don’t want to say this to castigate us or have us at odds with each other, but I think teachers need to know that they have board members who have walked in a teacher’s shoes. I think it gives a little clout to the individual who’s making the suggestion for the teacher in the classroom, the board member who’s making the policy. I think that helps a great deal because there is understanding, implicit and explicit understanding, of what actually goes on day-to-day in the classroom. 

When you’re looking at creating policy, that involves creating the verbiage that has to be enacted by the superintendent. But you’re also saying, for example, “Let’s drill down far enough not to make the grade size too small, but to make it such that the teacher can work with what’s going on.” I think many times policy might be made, and the individuals making the policy are totally out of step with what one is actually encountering who has to implement the policy. For me, it’s kind of a great position to be in, to make policy and know what a person has to do to implement the policy.

OUSD has experienced five straight years of declining enrollment, and the trend goes back even further than that. What should OUSD be doing to address this?

The enrollment decline is because many people are not satisfied with the quality of education that’s being provided. Most parents really want a high-quality education for their kids. Another thing would be facilities, making sure that the facilities are appropriate, they’re inviting, and they’re sustainable. It’s almost like having a house to go to: If your house is run down, you’re probably not as enthusiastic about making it look as good as it could look. But if your house is rather well-kept, you want to do more to make it look even better. They almost sound simplistic, but those two things, I think, are big things that people need.

What are some of the unique characteristics and issues confronting schools in District 7?

District 7 has a great number of students who are people of color. I think, unfortunately, some of our schools are located in areas that are not that good, meaning there’s too much smog from the freeway. That’s a problem. We don’t have enough green spaces. That’s a problem. We have a lot of individuals who are either at the borderline or they’re actually dealing with low income. We have a lot of homelessness, or homeless encampments in the East Oakland area. That’s throughout Oakland, of course, but we have quite a bit in the East Oakland area. 

Those are some of the tangible things that we see happening that we have to address. And then we can’t allow things to happen like what happened on the [King Estates] campus just the other day, the shooting. From a personal perspective, it’s really unfortunate that these things take place on our campuses. Of course, we wish that they never take place. And especially for me, I don’t want it to take place on a campus where it impedes on someone’s educational access and educational growth.

I think if we elevate our consciousness, in terms of how we respect and embrace our facilities, the places of learning, I think that will breed a different attitude toward how we look at things.

District 7 also has the highest percentage of students attending charter schools. What kind of relationship do you think OUSD should have with charter schools and families?

When you look at any school, be it a charter school or district school, if it has a program that’s working, there should be some sharing of that between the charter schools and district schools. So I would like to see more sharing of best practices between both types of schools, because it really should not be a fight to see who has the best type of school. We should not reduce ourselves to having a competition between a district school and a charter school. What we need to do is raise the bar and look at the educational program that’s provided by either. 

I think research bears this out: We have more parents who are Latino than any other ethnic group that attends charter schools. Well, we need to hear the Latino voice and see why they are attending the charter school, and then make adjustments in our district schools in order to satisfy the needs of the parent that has selected the charter school. 

Is bringing people together on all sides a role you’ve tried to fill as a school board member?

It’s something that I’ve mentioned. It hasn’t happened as of yet. But I have to keep mentioning it to the charter matters committee. I read in a document somewhere, a statement that says that charter schools and district schools are to collaborate. I’ve been looking for it like crazy and can’t come up with it. But once I find it, I’m going to be a little bit more vocal about what we need to do here.

Back in February, when the school board first voted to close schools, you abstained. Can you explain why?

I was confused with my board colleagues because they did not approach the issue like I thought we were going to. 

We need to bite the bullet. I think we have kicked the can down the road for years and years and years. And it’s time for us, for someone, to stand up and take the bull by the horns and let the chips fall where they may. I really believe that. And I abstained because I felt that several of my colleagues were still wanting to kick the can down the road, and I wasn’t for that. And so instead of throwing a wrench in things, I decided it would be best to just abstain. That would be the best thing to allow the process to move forward, and still hold on to my integrity. And so I did.

You felt that was a better way to signal your stance than just voting yes and supporting the plan?

Yes, absolutely, I felt it was better. Because what happens is, many times, we will vote a certain way, and then we create animosity on the board. And boards are not supposed to work that way. Board colleagues are supposed to work together. You can have differences of opinion, and that is totally okay. But when you are trying to achieve something, you should be able to lay differences aside and move toward a common goal. And because I felt there wasn’t enough discussion to identify those differences and lay them aside, I felt it was best just to abstain. That way, I would pull myself out of either yes or no, I would not create an alliance with either one, and allow the process to go forward.

How do you feel about how the closure process has played out since that vote?

I’m somewhat ambivalent. But I’m still holding on to the fact that we have to make our decision for several reasons. I mean, it’s a state reason, it’s a local reason, and we have to make sure that we’re solvent, number one. Because if we’re not solvent, it’s going to end up trickling into other areas, like facilities, like charter schools, like meeting the demands of Proposition 39, etc. So it could make things really, really difficult [if we don’t close schools]. 

I think we have to keep in mind that we’re going to have to be solvent. No matter what, we have to. And we aren’t at liberty to actually discuss all the implications. But the one thing for sure is, if your district is solvent, if your budget is doing what it’s supposed to do, then you don’t have the infusion of outside people—you don’t have the infusion of ancillary entities to actually direct how the board should perform.

And so now that the board has made the decision to close and consolidate schools and has gotten the extra $10 million from Assembly Bill 1840, along with new cash from the state budget surplus and the community schools grants, what do you think is the best way to invest those funds?

Number one, what are the mandates for the funds? Just because you receive funds doesn’t mean that you can use them in any area you want. That’s what the public doesn’t understand, and that’s where a person who has been an administrator will have a better understanding of how certain funds can only be used for certain things.

An effective school board will show its effectiveness by having at least 65% of its time spent on academic issues, approximately 15% of its time, maybe 25% spent on facilities, and the rest of the time spent on other issues in the district. That’s an effective school board. That’s been borne out by research. If you look at the California School Board Association, you can actually find articles there that bear that out. 

Number two is making sure that whatever you use your funds for, the bulk of it is for academic growth. If that’s getting textbooks, if that’s getting Chromebooks, if that’s creating an academic environment for kids, whatever that is, you look at that. And then you look at the ancillary things, like making sure that you have competitive salaries, because that plays into creating an environment in your school for your kids to be comfortable and want to attend. 

It’s more difficult than simply saying, we have $10 million to spend. No, you have to look to see if it’s restricted or unrestricted, you have to look to see how long it takes. When will it be allocated? You have to look at whether you have to write a grant for it, or you have to do an evaluation of the program in order to get it. You have to look at all of those things—it’s not just getting money. The state gave us a bunch of money, one-time money for COVID. That’s wonderful. But there were stipulations as to what it can be used for. Everyone knows you don’t use one-time funds for FTEs (full-time employees). You just don’t do it. I mean, that’s a good budgetary practice because you have to look at how you sustain that, once your one-time funds are gone.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.