Michael McDaniel Jr. (left) stands with Alan Calmo, a FIA student organizer and senior at Oakland Charter High School during a launch party for the Unspoken Pandemic report at ASCEND presentation led by Families in Action on disparities for Oakland public school students at ASCEND TK-8 in Oakland, Calif. on Mar 2, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

A local education advocacy group has released a report laying out the reading and math levels of students in Oakland public schools—and the numbers are alarming, especially for the city’s Black and Latino students.

The organization that produced the report, Families in Action, launched in 2019 as a platform for charter school families to speak out against what they viewed as anti-charter hostility in Oakland. Over the past four years, the group has trained hundreds of parents and students in its leadership institutes, offering them skills in political advocacy and resources for pursuing high-quality public education for their children. 

More recently, the group has shifted its focus to making all of Oakland’s public school systems accountable for how students are doing. The new report, “The Unspoken Pandemic,” was created to illustrate the scope of the problem.

“As a progressive city, is Oakland ok with two in 10 Black and brown kids reading at grade level? Everyone’s got to call themselves out,” said Kimi Kean, the co-founder and CEO of Families in Action. “If we really are true social justice warriors, we know that we are debilitating our Black and brown youth by denying them the opportunity to get a quality education.”

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Parents and community members attend a presentation by Families in Action on disparities for Oakland public school students in Oakland, Calif. on Mar 2, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Based on state standardized tests from the 2021-2022 school year—the first year since 2019 that all districts participated in such testing—FIA’s report shows that 36% of Oakland public school students attending Oakland Unified, charter schools, alternative schools, and Alameda County schools in Oakland, could read on grade level, a four-point increase since the 2014-2015 school year. By comparison, the statewide number is 47%. In math, 25% of Oakland students tested at grade level. 

The results are more troubling for Black and Latino students, who make up the majority of Oakland’s public school kids: 12% and 15% tested at grade level for math, with 22% and 26% at grade level for English, respectively. 

“Why is no one talking about how much our Black and brown kids are struggling?,” said Michael McDaniel Jr., the political director and family organizer for Families in Action. “This isn’t us arguing about charter schools or traditional schools, because that’s really a moot point at the end of the day when our kids aren’t getting what they need.”

Over the last school year, parents from Families in Action have shown up to OUSD, county, and charter school board meetings, speaking in English and Spanish about how Black and Latino students are not being served well in school. At a press conference in February outside of La Escuelita where OUSD holds its school board meetings, parents and youth raised their concerns, and in March, the group hosted a launch party for to talk about the report. 

“The math and reading proficiency rates of our Black and brown students are appalling,” said Tunisia Harris, a parent leader with FIA. “We must break the cycle of low academic outcomes that have plagued our city for far too long.”

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Tunisia Harris, right, sits on a panel of parents speaking at the FIA report launch party on March 2, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

McDaniel Jr. began as a parent leader with FIA before joining the organization’s staff. He grew up in East Oakland and saw his siblings fail to graduate from high school, before his parents sent him to elementary school up the hill at Grass Valley Elementary and Skyline High School. He said the experience helped to shape his current opinion that families should not be so tightly bound to their neighborhood schools.

“Honestly, the only thing that kind of breaks some of the stigma that we see in this city is being able to see something different than where you’re growing up,” he said.

McDaniel’s own sons attended REACH Academy and Cox Academy, the former a charter and the latter a district school, that are located next to each other near 98th Avenue and Bancroft Avenue in deep East Oakland. 

Kean, FIA’s co-founder, also grew up in Oakland and has worked as a teacher, principal, and administrator for both OUSD and charter schools. When she was principal at Acorn Woodland Elementary, students saw massive gains in math and reading, but it took a lot of hard work, she said. Teachers were given more planning time, worked with coaches to help learn new curriculum, and were observed every week. 

One of the organization’s aims is to help schools  do more to engage parents. In the upcoming school year, Families in Action is hoping to work with 20 schools to organize “family engagement walks,” where school leaders can share their strategies for improvement with parents, and allow parents to see those strategies in action. 

Over the next few months, Families in Action will also hold a summer leadership institute and host a candidate forum for the OUSD special election to be held for District 5 on Nov. 7. 

“These families don’t believe in themselves—that they can be and do any more than their situation. And one of the best ways to get them to break out of that is to bring them into community, in partnership with their child’s education,” McDaniel said. “We need to tune back into our kids as well… It’s been too long since our schools have partnered with families—there’s been that disconnect because of the pandemic. We need to bring families back into the fold.” 

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.