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Racial Isolation, Poverty and the Limits of Local Control
as a Means for Holding Public Schools Accountable

Part 2

by Pedro Antonio Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.
Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.
  • Click here for Part 1
  • Click here for Part 3: Changing Schools from the Outside In: The Potential Role of Social Capital and Civic Capacity Building Efforts
  • Click here to open a second browser window to view all footnotes and references cited.

The Role of Social Capital in Improving the Quality of Public Schools

Several researchers have suggested that the quality of education children receive is directly related to the ability of parents to generate social capital (Coleman 1988, Laraeu 1996; Noguera 2001). Social capital is a concept that has been used by social scientists to describe benefits individuals derive from their association with and participation within social networks and organizations (Sampson 1998; Woolcock 1998, Putnam 1995). Like economic capital, social capital can provide concrete benefits to those who have access to it, such as jobs, loans, educational opportunities and a variety of services. The more connected one is to groups or individuals that have access to resources, the greater the possibility that one can obtain concrete material and social benefits.

However, becoming connected to influential social networks is not easy. Access to some networks may be based upon family ties, income, religious affiliations or association or with powerful groups that have been cultivated over time. It is generally not possible to simply join an exclusive social network. In addition to having less economic capital, the poor often have less social capital than the affluent because the connections they have tend to be limited to other poor people or to organizations with fewer resources (Saegert, 2001).

In cities such as Oakland, poverty and racial isolation constitute significant barriers to acquiring social capital, particularly “bridging” and “bonding” forms of social capital that have been identified as most important for community development (Woolcock 1998). Bridging social capital refers to the connections that link poor people to institutions and individuals that have access to money and power. In Oakland, poor people of color generally lack bridging social capital because they are often excluded from influential social networks as a result of race and class barriers, and social isolation. For example, although Oakland has several powerful and influential Black churches, their membership is more likely to be drawn from middle class residents who reside in more affluent neighborhoods and the suburbs than from the lower class communities in which the churches are located (Commission for Positive Change 1990). The same is true of many African American political clubs in Oakland such as the NAACP, the Niagra Democratic Club, and the East Oakland Democratic Club. Influential churches and civic associations play important roles in the political life of the City and often provide important services to the poor. But most poor people in Oakland do not participate in these organizations and their absence further exacerbates their marginalization and social isolation.

Bonding social capital that provides connections among and between poor people (Woolcock 1998), and that serves as a basis for solidarity and collective action, is also in short supply in Oakland. Over the last fifteen years, Oakland has attracted large numbers of Mexican and Asian immigrants who have moved into neighborhoods in East and West Oakland that have been traditionally African American (Clark 1998). This demographic shift has had the effect of diminishing community cohesion as language and cultural differences have contributed to fragmentation and distrust between new and older residents (League of Cities 2000). Aside from the fact that they reside on the same streets and even live in the same apartment buildings, these rapidly changing communities are made up of strangers who perceive themselves as having little if anything in common. (11) Rather than working together in pursuit of common community interests, growing diversity has increased the level of competition over community resources, which in turn has heightened tensions and fueled inter-group conflict. Tensions and occasionally violent outbursts related to demographic change have most frequently been manifest in Oakland’s public schools, one of the few sites where different groups come into direct contact with each other (Noguera and Bliss 2001).

Finally, poor people in Oakland tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods that lack strong social institutions, public services and businesses. The census tracts where poor people reside in greatest numbers also have the highest rates of crime and are therefore regarded as less desirable places to live by the middle class (City of Oakland 1994). In east and west Oakland, the poorest sections of the city, there are few banks, pharmacies or grocery stores. Libraries, parks and recreational centers are present in these neighborhoods, but residents frequently complain that drug trafficking and crime have rendered these potential community assets unusable (Office of Economic development 1994). Sociologist, Loic Waquant, has argued that public institutions in inner city neighborhoods may actually generate negative social capital (i.e. undermine social cohesion) because their unresponsiveness to the needs of residents undermines and erodes the social well being of the community (Waquant 1998). Furthermore, in addition to possessing few social assets, the poorer neighborhoods of east and west Oakland have a disproportionate number of vacant, abandoned and derelict sites. Undesirable land use facilities such as solid waste transfer stations, drug treatment centers and industrial plants that emit toxic pollutants (Office of Economic Development 1994) are also plentiful in these areas.

Throughout the United States, close examination of residential patterns reveals a high level of racial segregation and class isolation (Clark 1998; Massey and Denton 1993). This is also the case in Oakland where since the 1960’s race and class boundaries have tended to correspond to fairly distinct geographic patterns and census tracts (US Census Report on Oakland 2000). Reflecting a pattern common to cities throughout the United States, Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods are disproportionately comprised of lower class racial minorities, while white middle class and affluent residents of a variety of backgrounds reside in the hills and outer-ring suburbs. Following a trend evident in other parts of the US, formerly white suburbs to the south and east of Oakland are now more racially diverse, but data from the 2000 census suggests that race and class segregation remains firmly intact there as well (US Census 2000). Unlike the pre-civil rights period when racial boundaries were enforced by legally sanctioned segregation, restrictive covenants and occasionally violence, in the post civil rights era property values and social networks play a similar role (Massey and Denton 1992).

Social Capital and Institutional Responsiveness

The prevalence of race and class isolation often has direct bearing upon the quality of schools children attend. In Oakland, children tend to enroll in schools located in neighborhoods where they live. As a result of this practice, the poorest children generally enroll in the lowest performing schools, while middle class children from more affluent neighborhoods attend better schools. As the chart below reveals, differences between schools in different neighborhoods is striking. Though the District does not prevent low-income parents from enrolling their children in higher performing schools, lack of transportation and limited space make this an option that few can exercise.

Selection of Oakland Schools by Neighborhood and API Rating
School Neighborhood API Rating

Golden Gate West Oakland 1
ML King West Oakland 2
Sobrante Park East Oakland 1
Brookfield East Oakland 1

Chabot Claremont 9
Hillcrest Montclair 10
Joaquin Miller Hills 10

The relationship between poverty and school quality requires further elaboration. Research shows that poor children are generally less prepared than middle class children with respect to their academic skills at the time they enroll in school (Jecnks and Phillips 1998). Rather than adopting measures that might reduce the effects of differences in prior academic preparation, schools often exacerbate pre-existing differences in ability by providing poor children with an inferior education.

In this respect, Oakland is no exception. The schools where a majority of poor children are enrolled not only have lower test scores, they also tend to have inferior facilities, and are generally more disorganized. They also have fewer certified teachers and higher turn-over among principals (District Profile 2001). Some of the schools, such as Lowell Middle and McClymonds High School in West Oakland, tend to have lower enrollment because they have difficulty attracting students, while several of the schools in the San Antonio and Fruitvale sections of East Oakland are overcrowded and literally bursting at the seams.

Despite the consistency of this pattern, there is no evidence that shows that the condition of schools in low-income neighborhoods in Oakland is a product of intentional policy or a conspiracy aimed at depriving poor children quality of education. At least part of the problem lies with the lack of social capital in Oakland’s low-income communities created by poverty and social isolation, and the disproportionate social capital possessed by others. The leadership of Oakland’s public schools is more likely to be pressured with demands from its unions and the small but influential number of middle class parents it serves, than by advocates and parents of poor children. The first two constituencies are well organized, politically savvy, and have access to financial and legal resources. Occasionally, poor parents also organize themselves to apply pressure on the school district, but their efforts are rarely sustained. Even when they are, the demands of poor parents can be more easily ignored because they typically lack the ability to exert leverage upon school officials.

Yet, differences in political influence explain only part of the reason why the needs of poor children receive less attention. Research on social capital in schools shows that poor children of color and their parents also tend to be treated differently in schools (Lareau 1994; Ada 1998; Noguera 2001). While middle class parents often have access to resources (i.e. education, time, transportation, etc.) and networks (contacts with elected officials, Parent Teacher Associations, and if necessary, attorneys), that enable them to exert influence over schools that serve their children, poor parents typically have no such resources (Epstein 1993; Noguera 2001). Even if they lack these sources of support middle class parents possess the ultimate tool for exercising leverage upon schools: they generally can withdraw their children if they are not satisfied with the schools they attend. As I’ve pointed out already, poor parents typically lack this option, and for this reason how satisfied they feel about the schools their children attend has little bearing upon the quality of education that is provided.

Coleman has argued that social capital can produce a mutual sense of accountability between parents and school personnel, or what he terms “social closure”. This is particularly likely to be the case when association with a particular school is based upon shared beliefs and values that reinforce the goals of schooling (Coleman 1988). When schools are concerned about satisfying the needs of those they serve they tend to pay closer attention to the quality of services they provide (Fantini 1970). Coleman has suggested that parochial schools are more likely to exhibit a greater degree of social closure and to be more responsive to the needs of the parents they serve than public schools because shared religious beliefs and values serve as the basis for generating a sense of community and affinity (Coleman 1988). As a result of race, class and cultural differences, poor parents in cities like Oakland generally have less in common with school personnel than do middle class parents. Lack of social closure created by these difference results in poor parents having limited ability to exert constructive influence upon schools if they are dissatisfied with the quality of education provided to their children.

For all of these reasons, poor parents are less able to hold the schools their children attend accountable for the quality of education they provide. They have less time to attend meetings related to school governance, fewer personal resources to contribute to schools financially, and fewer options to exercise if they are dissatisfied with the treatment they or their children receive. As a “captured market” they are a group of consumers who are compelled to accept the quality of educational services provided to them, whether they like it or not.

A Dream Deferred: Racial Politics and the Unfulfilled Promise of Black Power in Oakland

With academic failure so persistent and widespread one might wonder why a community with a reputation and history for political activism would not have acted long ago to radically reform its schools. Oakland was after all the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, an organization that took on another public institution that was perceived as failing to serve community needs, namely the police department, which it accused of engaging in rampant harassment and brutality. Oakland’s history of Black leadership and political activism goes back to the 1930s when it served as the national headquarters of the powerful Sleeping Car Porters Union (Franklin and Moss 1988). In the 1920s Oakland had one of the most active chapters of UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association - the largest Black political organization in US history headed by Marcus Garvey) on the west coast (Martin). In the 1970s, Oakland voters transformed the city from a company town dominated by Kaiser Aluminum and controlled by white Republicans, into a city where all of the major public officials (Mayor, City Manager, Superintendent of Schools, Police Chief, State Assemblyman and Congressman) were African American (Bush 1984).

However, political activism and racial succession in politics have not made it possible for those served by the Oakland public schools to exert influence and control over them. Unlike unions and political organizations that have typically been comprised of individuals from middle and stable working class backgrounds, since the advent of school desegregation, public schools in Oakland have catered primarily to children from lower class families. Poor people in Oakland have not had the power or resources to effectively exercise influence over their public schools. Middle class residents have been less likely to take on this challenge because their children are less likely to be enrolled in failing schools with poor children or in the district at all. Poor parents and community activists have organized at various times to call for reform and improvement in the City’s schools. For the most part, such efforts have not resulted in significant or sustained improvements. Moreover, the fact that Black middle class administrators have held important positions throughout the district for over thirty years has done little to bring about greater accountability and responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of those who rely upon the public schools.

For the last ten years attempts there have been renewed attempts to mobilize grassroots pressure for school improvement. The Oakland Citizens Organizations (OCO), a broad multi-racial, faith-based coalition, has mounted considerable pressure upon the district for meaningful improvement and reform. At large public gatherings it has organized, OCO has pressured public officials to pledge their support for changes in the operation and management of the schools. Yet, while their efforts have led to the adoption of significant policy changes such as site-based decision making and an initiative to create several new, smaller schools (Thompson 2001), general academic improvement remains unattained.

The election of Jerry Brown as Mayor of Oakland in 1999 has also brought increased pressure and attention on the schools. Brown raised the need to reform of Oakland’s public schools prominently in his mayoral campaign and he pledged to use his office to bring about a complete overhaul of the school district. Brown’s efforts to improve Oakland’s schools have consisted primarily of attempts to obtain greater control over the leadership of the District. He has attempted to do this by getting the School Board to appoint his ally, George Musgrove, as Interim Superintendent. He was also successful in getting voters to amend the City Charter so that he could appoint three members to the Board. However, after a year in office, Musgrove was not selected to serve as the permanent superintendent by the Board. By all accounts, the Mayor’s relationship with the new superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, has not been good, and thus far, the only concrete change that can be attributed to the Mayor’s influence is the opening of a new military academy charter school (Brown 2001). (13)

Part of the problem with the approach that has been taken by OCO , Mayor Jerry Brown and the State of California, is that more than just pressure is needed for Oakland’s schools to improve. While a great deal needs to be done to increase the administrative efficiency of the district and to generally improve the quality of teaching, the simple fact is that the schools cannot serve the needs of Oakland’s poorest children without greater support. Other public agencies must provide additional resources and services to address the health, welfare and safety needs of students so that the schools can concentrate their attention on serving their educational needs.

Dennis Chaconas, the new superintendent of Oakland’s public schools, has made concerted efforts over the last two years to address the problems plaguing the school district. He has shaken up the central administration by replacing several long-term managers with younger professionals recruited from outside the district. He has also applied greater pressure on the principals of low performing schools and removed several principals from schools where there was little evidence of progress in raising achievement. It is undoubtedly too early to know whether the Superintendent’s efforts will produce meaningful improvements in Oakland’s schools. However, past experience suggests that placing greater demands upon the District Administration, the School Board, or the schools themselves is unlikely to lead change. Unless increased pressure is accompanied by systemic changes in the way schools respond to the needs of students and parents, and genuine assistance is provided to the schools serving the neediest children, it is unlikely that lasting, significant change will be made.

Click here for Part 3: Changing Schools from the Outside In: The Potential Role of Social Capital and Civic Capacity Building Efforts

Published in In Motion Magazine May 5, 2002

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