Coffee Break: Oakland's Lakisha Young Is Done Waiting for Superman and Ready for Parents to Take the Lead

Jul 18, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Lakisha Young is executive director of The Oakland REACH. She has dedicated her career to promoting access to quality schools because she knows firsthand that a good education changes lives. Lakisha’s grandmother had a ninth-grade education and her mother only completed high school, but they knew they wanted more for her. Their unwavering commitment to Lakisha’s education paid off and she was able to attend great schools and graduate from college.

Lakisha is now the mom of three children who attend Oakland public schools, and she carries the dreams of her grandmother and mother in her own commitment to their education. She knows what is like to struggle to get her children into high-performing schools, and will never forget how powerless she felt the moment she learned her oldest child was placed in the failing neighborhood elementary school on the brink of closure. That sparked both fear and fire in her to be an advocate for her children and other parents’ children across Oakland.

In December 2016, Lakisha launched a fellowship of 50 parents whose children were attending the lowest-performing district and charter schools in Oakland. Parents from that first fellowship became the founding group of The Oakland REACH and they pledged to work together to make “the powerless parent powerful.”

To date, The Oakland REACH has met with over 3,000 parents across Oakland, listening to their stories and struggles and empowering them to demand more for their children.

Do you drink coffee or tea? How do you take it? Black tea with honey—I’m a simple girl! You started The Oakland REACH about two years ago. What are the goals of the organization? Our number one goal is to empower parents from our most underserved communities to demand better schools for our kids. The Oakland REACH engages parents by hosting one-on-one conversations about how schools are doing, offering information sessions in community spaces to talk more about the issues impacting our children, and providing the leadership training needed to change a system that has left students behind for far too long. We will keep fighting until every parent in Oakland who wants to put their child in a quality school—and on a pathway to college—has that opportunity. Charter schools today serve about 30 percent of the students in Oakland—one of the highest percentages of any city in the country. Why is there so much demand for choice in Oakland? There’s some great schools in Oakland but there’s a lot more kids that don’t have access to those schools. There’s a demand for choice because there is a demand for quality . All parents will seek the best opportunity they can for their kids—no matter where they live. And it’s definitely not a big secret that there are a lot of neighborhoods where kids and families don’t have those good opportunities. I live in a neighborhood where my “neighborhood” school is in the bottom 5 percent of schools in California. My children cannot and will not attend that school. That’s my personal story, and that’s the story of the members of The Oakland REACH. When my oldest child was entering kindergarten, there were about 10 elementary schools every Oakland parent wanted to get their child into. Ten years later, there are a lot more kids in Oakland, but we’re still all fighting for access to those same high-performing schools. The District hasn’t responded to meet the need for quality so parents look for other options. A report came out recently blaming charter schools for district financial problems—which indirectly blames the parents. How do charter parents react to this? Our goal is for parents to choose the best options and opportunities for their kids—and for many parents, that option is a charter school. For other parents, the best option is to try to navigate the district’s enrollment process to get their kids in high-performing district schools. In our work, we make sure our parents understand they have options, give them access to information to explore their options, and offer them love and support to feel confident in standing up and putting their child’s needs first. We are all singularly focused on quality schools—other folks can argue about the rest! What will it take for Oakland to become a high-performing school district? What kind of changes does The Oakland REACH want to see? What we really need to be thinking about is how Oakland can become a city with more high-quality school options for families. We have spoken to over 3,000 families and they want our district and charter schools to do better. We want the focus to shift away from the type of school to making sure Oakland students are prepared for college. We want some real momentum and action in service to kids. Oakland has a long and contentious political history: a very powerful and militant activist community, aggressive teachers union, noisy and acrimonious school board meetings, and a lot of turnover in leadership. What is the best hope for Oakland Unified School District right now and is it possible to bring all of these competing agendas together for kids? That’s a lot of interests listed in your question—it seems like students and families should be the first and only interest in that list. That’s what we’re fighting for. As a former teacher, I believe the folks who teach our children are also important, and the focus should be on them teaching our students well and getting teachers the support they need and deserve to do so. The Oakland REACH parents have been to every board meeting—no one talks about quality. The board needs to get on the same page with that. It’s our children’s futures at stake, so we’re done waiting for superman—we’re done waiting for someone else to take action. We’re taking the lead.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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