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State Education Chief Thurmond Weighs Successes, Setbacks

Regarding commentary about his public visibility during the COVID-19 crisis, Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI)’s view is, “The way this job works, there’s a piece of it that people will never see. But I’d like to think that we have been the glue between school leaders, legislators, and the governor. In my role, we’ve had to be that glue between those entities, and that interplays on how decision-making happens.”

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond talks to a young student. Photo courtesy of California Black Media.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond talks to a young student. Photo courtesy of California Black Media.

By Joe W. Bowers Jr. | California Black Media

When Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI) was elected in 2018, he became the second African American in the office since the 1849 California Constitution established it. Wilson Riles was California’s and the nation’s first Black SSPI. In 1970, he also was the first African American voted to hold any statewide office in California.

Recently, Thurmond spoke to California Black Media (CBM) about his experience as the state’s highest elected Education official. He says the COVID-19 pandemic has been the defining challenge of his tenure.

It affected everything — from requiring him to suddenly draft a revised strategy for supporting schools to keeping students and staff safe. He did this while taking steps to improve the overall quality of public education.

“March 13, 2020. March 13, I’ll never forget it,” Thurmond told CBM. He was in his office when he started to receive calls “asking ‘what are we going to do?’ as school districts announced that they were closing to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic forced Thurmond to delay action on the initiatives he identified as priorities when he entered office.

Opening schools safely and dealing with the specific systemic inequities, particularly experienced by students of color, had to be tackled first.

The California Department of Education’s (CDE) action plan included securing 2 million masks for schools and working with the governor’s office to obtain five million rapid COVID tests.

While schools were closed, the state’s education department supplied over 500 million meals to students and families. When vaccinations became available, CDE developed a campaign that encouraged staff and students to get vaccinated.

While it was up to each school district to decide how it would deal with the COVID-19 crisis, Thurmond hosted weekly meetings with all county superintendents to talk through plans for reopening schools safely.

As distance learning became necessary, inequities in access to technology were exposed. One-fifth of California students lacked the resources to continue their education from home, either due to no internet connectivity or not owning a computer at home — or both.

To find a solution to the problem, Thurmond assembled a committee he named “Closing the Digital Divide Task Force.”

“We put legislators on that committee by design. We knew that in order to get the attention of the internet providers, they need to see legislators,” Thurmond said.

As a result, the state was able to provide computers and hotspots, enhancing internet connectivity to over 400 school districts across nearly all of California’s 58 counties. According to Thurmond, “There is about $6 billion for building out broadband in this year’s state budget. The task force helped to lay the foundation for that.”

Thurmond points out that state law grants the SSPI limited authority over California’s public education policies, funding and infrastructure. But despite his restricted power, Thurmond views the SSPI role as much more than being a figurehead. As one of only eight statewide elected officials, voters have given him a prominent bully pulpit from which he can influence education policy.

“They said the office doesn’t have a lot of tools to get things done directly, but I felt very confident using my relationships with the Legislature and the governor that I could find a way to put a spotlight on big problems and find ways to influence them even though it would have to happen in an indirect way,” Thurmond said.

The governor and the Legislature determine state funding for education and set policy direction. The State Board of Education determines academic standards, curriculum, instructional materials, assessments, and accountability.

The SSPI has no legal authority over the 1,000 local school districts in the state. Each of the state’s 58 county offices of education — not the SSPI — approve school districts’ budgets and provide assistance and instruction on how they can improve their educational programs.

Thurmond’s main job is to run the day-to-day operations of the CDE, which has about 2,600 employees and enforces California’s education laws and regulations. It also administers federal and state education programs and oversees federal education grant compliance.

In addition, it performs certain administrative tasks, such as collecting and compiling statewide data on district spending and student performance.

In 2018, Thurmond decided to not to seek another Assembly term and run to be SSPI instead. That way, he could work full time on education issues. At the time, he was a two-term Assemblymember representing the 51st Assembly District in the Bay Area.

A popular politician among his constituents, Thurmond received 90% of the vote during his last Assembly election.

For Thurmond, education is the great equalizer. He says it allows children to overcome challenging circumstances and it provides paths to opportunities for all of California’s kids. He started his term as SSPI by proposing an ambitious eight-year plan to significantly boost school funding and expand early childhood education.

Beginning with his first month in office, Thurmond formed 13 transition teams with over 1,000 people. Those teams focused on his top priority: closing racial and economic achievement and opportunity gaps in a state where African American and Latino kids score below statewide standards on achievement tests.

Town halls and webinars focused on Black and Brown student achievement became the genesis for his initiative supporting funding to diversify the teacher workforce.

Now that school districts have adopted the safety protocols like masking, vaccinations, and testing necessary to stay open for in-person learning, Thurmond says he has again turned his attention to pursuing pre-pandemic initiatives.

In September, he launched a literacy goal to make sure all third-graders are able to read by 2026. He also appointed the Task Force to Improve Black Student Achievement.

Thurmond told CBM, “I feel like I’m in a place now where, like Maxine Waters says, ‘I’m reclaiming my time.’ I came to the department thinking I’d have eight years to work on third-grade literacy, and that got undercut because of the pandemic.”

Funding from the state and federal government for California’s public education is at a historic high. As a result, money is available for initiatives advocated by Thurmond like universal Pre-K and universal meals, community schools, family engagement and mental health services for students.

At his inauguration, Thurmond told the audience, “This job is the type of job where you get all the blame for what goes wrong, but you don’t have the resources to fix what needs to be fixed.”

Although at the time Thurmond was speaking generally, his observation could apply to recent criticisms leveled at him in the media about the high turnover of his senior staff.

Thurmond thinks that CDE is underfunded and insufficiently staffed to be able to handle its bureaucratic responsibilities and support the initiatives that he sees as public education priorities. He says, “I’ve taken some time to think about how to structure the organization and how to restructure it.”

Regarding commentary about his public visibility during the COVID-19 crisis, Thurmond’s view is, “The way this job works, there’s a piece of it that people will never see. But I’d like to think that we have been the glue between school leaders, legislators, and the governor. In my role, we’ve had to be that glue between those entities, and that interplays on how decision-making happens.”

Thurmond does not have a button he can push to make something happen in California public schools. But he does have a microphone to broadcast where problems are and the good news is because he has the relationships he is in a position to influence education policy for the benefit of California’s public education students.

Activism

Oakland Black Contractors Demand Access to Contracts, Jobs for Oakland Residents 

The press conference was led by the NAACP Oakland Chapter, representatives from the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Minority Contractors Northern California, BuildOUT California, Oakland Latino Chamber of Commerce, Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, Bay Area Contract Compliance Officer’s Association, Asian, Inc. They were joined by Councilmembers Loren Taylor (District 6) and Treva Reid (District 7), (Sheng Thao, District 4,) who each addressed the importance of honoring the City’s commitment to distribute contracts in an equitable manner.

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First Row left to right: John Baptiste, Black Contractor, Antoinette Clark, NAACP, Bendu Griffin, Professional Services Consultants, Cathy Adams, OAACC, Stanley Cooper, Chair of Labor and Industry , NAACP Oakland Branch & Cooper Construction and Engineering, Councilmember Loren Taylor, District 6; Second Row left to right: Mario Wagner, NAACP Oakland Branch, George Holland, Sr., President NAACP, Oakland Branch, Jumoke Hinton, NAACP, Oakland Branch; Upper row: Nick Colina Anco Iron & Construction, Inc. & NAMC , co-founder Build Out California, Joe Patida, President of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, Derrick Johnson, representing the LGBTQ Community Center, Baasim Khufu, NAMC, Black Contractor, Jonathan “Fitness” Jones, (Post Newspaper Group) and Clifton Cooper, Vice President, NAACP Oakland. Photo by Auintard Henderson.
First Row left to right: John Baptiste, Black Contractor, Antoinette Clark, NAACP, Bendu Griffin, Professional Services Consultants, Cathy Adams, OAACC, Stanley Cooper, Chair of Labor and Industry , NAACP Oakland Branch & Cooper Construction and Engineering, Councilmember Loren Taylor, District 6; Second Row left to right: Mario Wagner, NAACP Oakland Branch, George Holland, Sr., President NAACP, Oakland Branch, Jumoke Hinton, NAACP, Oakland Branch; Upper row: Nick Colina Anco Iron & Construction, Inc. & NAMC , co-founder Build Out California, Joe Patida, President of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, Derrick Johnson, representing the LGBTQ Community Center, Baasim Khufu, NAMC, Black Contractor, Jonathan “Fitness” Jones, (Post Newspaper Group) and Clifton Cooper, Vice President, NAACP Oakland. Photo by Auintard Henderson.

By Post Staff

On Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, a coalition of community and business leaders held a press conference to call out the request by the City of Oakland’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to waive requirements that would ensure that small, local businesses get opportunities to bid for paving contracts worth up to $60 million.

The formal language to ‘Waive Further Advertising, Competitive Bidding, and The City’s Small-Very Small Local Business Enterprise Participation Requirement,’ essentially locks out minority contractors as well.

In blatant disregard for the City’s policy, the DOT requested that five contracts be awarded to Gallagher & Burk, McGuire & Hester and O.C. Jones & Sons, three non-minority contractors headquartered outside the City of Oakland.

The press conference was led by the NAACP Oakland Chapter, representatives from the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Minority Contractors Northern California, BuildOUT California, Oakland Latino Chamber of Commerce, Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, Bay Area Contract Compliance Officer’s Association, Asian, Inc. They were joined by Councilmembers Loren Taylor (District 6) and Treva Reid (District 7), (Sheng Thao, District 4,) who each addressed the importance of honoring the City’s commitment to distribute contracts in an equitable manner.

Oakland NAACP Chapter President George Holland noted that this item was ironically scheduled a day after MLK Day. “It is a shame that we are still fighting for the same things that Dr. King fought for nearly five decades ago. We will not concede the progress we have made and understand we have a long way to go.”

Councilmember Taylor’s office released a statement. “If we were to approve this waiver without pushing for higher levels of participation from our local, small, and diverse contractors, it would undermine the work that we have been doing over the past year. That is why I proudly stand with the community members calling for us to have a more concerted effort to seek out diverse contractors and will not support the requested waivers.”

Although unable to attend the press conference, Ed Dillard of the NAACP LIC stated, “Black contractors are taxpayers in Oakland and deserve work on City of Oakland funded projects. These Black contractors provide jobs for Oakland Black residents.”

When reflecting on her work to address the City’s contracting issues, Cathy Adams, president of the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce notes, “We are committed to ensuring Black businesses receive their fair share of City contracts.

“We were successful in our fight for the Disparity Study to be released. We were successful in establishing a better L/SLBE policy. We will be successful in our fight to eliminate current contracting disparities,” Adams said (L/SLBE refers to Oakland’s Local and Small Local Business Enterprise program).

Reid stated “It is an honor to stand with you all today and agree that we have to unite our power to deliver votes that delivers for us, our communities and our City to ensure we have an equitable outcome for all.” She also indicated that she would vote against the waiver.

Each organization echoed the sentiments expressed that the proposed waiver means a loss of opportunity, a loss of local businesses and a loss of jobs for Oaklanders.

District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife motioned that the awards be rejected and sent back out to bid. Councilmember Taylor seconded the motion with an amendment that the bidders be given until Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, to comply with the City’s L/SLBE requirements.

Council directed staff to work with the bidders to ensure that they comply with the City’s L/SLBE requirements in a unanimous vote with the motion as amended.

As Bendu Griffin from the Bay Area Contractor Compliance Officer’s Association stated, “it’s not a Black thing, it’s the right thing!”

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Activism

Citing COVID Safety Needs, Oakland High Teachers Limit Encounters with Students

According to Le’Lani Walker, a senior at OHS, teachers explained the work to rule action to students shortly before it began. Although she felt it was “kind of frustrating” when she needed a little extra help with chemistry, she “sees the bigger picture” and feels that the action will help students in the long run.

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Many teachers at Oakland High School have decided to refuse to do any work not stipulated in their contract in a labor action aimed at securing better COVID safety measures from the Oakland Unified School District. Photo of Oakland High School by Zack Haber on September 13, 2021.
Many teachers at Oakland High School have decided to refuse to do any work not stipulated in their contract in a labor action aimed at securing better COVID safety measures from the Oakland Unified School District. Photo of Oakland High School by Zack Haber on September 13, 2021.

By Zack Haber

Due to concerns about COVID safety issues, many teachers at Oakland High School have been engaging in ‘work to rule,’ a labor action tactic where workers only do the tasks specified in their contract, since January 6.

“It means is we don’t do anything extra,” said Cole Margen who teaches history at the school.

Teachers at Oakland High have been keeping their doors closed to students before and after school, as well as during lunch and their lesson planning periods.

According to David Byrd, a music teacher and union site representative at Oakland High, over 40 teachers out of 89 in the school have come to meetings related to the action and have committed to ‘work to rule,’ but he suspects more teachers are involved. Throughout the school, teachers have hung flyers on their doors indicating their support that say “To encourage greater COVID safety on our site this teacher is working to rule!”

Typically, most teachers at Oakland High School (OHS) would welcome students into their classroom for extra academic help and/or to socialize during non-classroom hours, even though their contract doesn’t require them to do so. English Immersion teacher Miles Murray thinks this extra work’s absence immediately becomes noticeable.

“There are extra hours we’re expected to work, and must work, in order to keep the school functioning,” said Murray. “We need to remind the public of that.”

While teachers interviewed for this article mentioned a variety of improved COVID safety measures they’d like to see OUSD implementing at OHS, they all stressed their demand for a safer environment for students to eat lunch, including more tables for the large cafeteria and more outdoor dining facilities. They report that the lack of spaces to eat safely and comfortably has forced students to eat in unsafe places, like the hallways.

“When I do work to rule and hold the line by saying ‘you can’t lunch in my classroom,’” said English teacher Marika Iyer, “I hope to make it clear to the admin, district and the community that these are not safe conditions.”

Oakland students also want safer options for eating lunch.

“I’m not sure where to go and I don’t feel like there’s anywhere safe to eat,” said Trey Shanklin, an OHS senior. “If OUSD provided more outside eating options I would definitely be eating outside more than inside.”

In an e-mail to The Oakland Post, OUSD director of communications John Sasaki stated that the district had built “covered outdoor structures at numerous schools since the fall,” and that they plan to continue to do so, but supply chain issues have slowed the process at some schools.

“Whenever [the materials] come in, our staff quickly gets them installed,” he wrote. “That will happen soon at Oakland High School.”

But until the facilities are installed at their school, OHS teachers say they plan to continue to work to rule.

In the meantime, the Omicron surge has affected OHS and other district schools. Murray, who was quarantining when he did his interview for this article due to becoming sick with the virus, said that in the days before his isolation period started, about a third of his students were out for reasons related to COVID-19.

A “no-go” list sent from OHS administrators to staff shows that between January 3 and 12, over 325 of the school’s approximately 1,550 students were absent at some point, usually multiple days, due to testing positive for COVID or COVID related quarantining.

OUSD’s data shows that, across the district, about 1,550 combined students and staff tested positive for COVID during the first two weeks back from school after winter break out of a total population of about 39,000.

As COVID cases have surged since coming back from break, students and staff at various OUSD schools have engaged in a variety of actions that they’ve labeled sickouts, strikes, and/or boycotts, that have involved them not coming to school out of protest.

These actions have been neither sanctioned nor denounced by Oakland Education Association, the teachers’ union for OUSD. A teacher-led sickout action for better COVID safety measures announced on January 6 and executed on January 7 caused a dozen schools to effectively close for a day.

According to music teacher David Byrd, OHS teachers were inspired when they heard about the January 6 sickout but since their school has many newly hired teachers, they felt an action involving teachers calling in sick en masse could be too risky for those who weren’t tenured to want to engage in.

“We said we’re acting in solidarity, and we support these other sites,” said Byrd. “But how can we expect these new teachers to put so much on the line so quickly?”

OHS teachers were successful in getting both long-term and new teachers on board for the action. One non-tenured OHS teacher who asked not to be named due to fearing that speaking to media might make it less likely they get rehired next year, said they were participating because it showed the unpaid work teachers do and the unsafe conditions students and staff eat lunch in.

“I feel safe participating in the action because of the solidarity shared by my fellow staff,” they said. “Almost all doors now have the work-to-rule sign posted on them, so I am much less likely of being singled out.”

Byrd described work to rule as an easy action to start with and that he hoped it could unify the staff for more actions down the line. Murray feels work to rule has been effective and is putting the staff in a good position to consider more radical actions.

“Now everyone is activated on our campus and looking for the next action,” he said.

According to Le’Lani Walker, a senior at OHS, teachers explained the work to rule action to students shortly before it began. Although she felt it was “kind of frustrating” when she needed a little extra help with chemistry, she “sees the bigger picture” and feels that the action will help students in the long run.

“I strongly support it,” Walker said. “The fact that they’re doing everything within their power to get the attention of the district to address COVID safety issues is comforting.”

OHS students like Shanklin and Walker have been organizing their own actions and have been in communication with teachers about them. When the students did a sickout action on January 13 to demand better COVID safety measures such as more outdoor spaces to eat and twice weekly PCR and rapid tests, they asked OHS staff to join them.

“If you are able to participate,” students wrote in their letter. “Please call in sick, stay home, and send a message updating families about our demands and current events.”

The day before the sickout, Oakland High’s administration sent a message to parents asking them to keep their children at home during the sickout day, and that students wouldn’t be “adversely affected for not attending school” that day. Byrd and history teacher Cole Margen, who were on campus that day said the vast majority of students weren’t present. Substitute teacher request logs show 52 teachers were absent from school that day.

On Tuesday, January 18, OHS students again engaged in a boycott for the same demands as their January 13 sickout. This time students across the district also did not attend school.

The petition for the January 18 boycott that has over 1200 student signatures from over 20 schools, states “If these demands are not met, we will be striking by not attending school. We will be striking until we get what we need to be safe.”

While The Oakland Post was unable to get official numbers for absent students across the district during the boycott, six different OHS teachers estimated that between a third and just over half of the students at their site were absent on January 18 and 19.

To support the student boycott, teachers at three OUSD schools — Bridges Academy, Acorn Woodland Elementary School and United for Success Academy — all engaged in a sickout action that shut down their campuses on January 18. Murray thinks students and staff are increasingly coming together to demand better COVID safety measures from OUSD.

“It feels like there’s momentum across the whole district,” he said.

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Activism

Comcast Announces Major Expansion of RISE Program to Include All Women-Owned Small Businesses 

“Women can sometimes be left out of conversations around funding and technology. If our business isn’t technology-focused, we can find ourselves left out of finding ways technology can advance our business. But every small business can benefit from a technology upgrade, whether you are in the hair, food or mannequin industry,” said Judi Henderson, a RISE Investment Fund recipient and owner of Mannequin Madness in Oakland. “Comcast recognizes the many challenges women business-owners encounter and the RISE grant is helping put women at the forefront.”

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Judi Henderson, a RISE Investment Fund recipient and owner of Mannequin Madness in Oakland.

Small Businesses Owned by Women – Regardless of Ethnicity – Now Invited to Apply for Comcast RISE Program Aimed at Helping Entrepreneurs Recover from COVID-19 Pandemic

By Adriana Arvizo and Maddie Moore

As of Sunday, Jan. 16, all women-owned businesses within Comcast’s California service area are eligible to apply for the Comcast RISE program.

This major expansion of Comcast RISE furthers efforts to advance digital equity and helps provide underrepresented small business owners with access to the digital tools and funding they need to thrive.

Of the Comcast RISE recipients named in the program’s first year, nearly 70% have been businesses owned by women of color, spurring Comcast to take a deeper look into the unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs.

According to a study by the National Association of Women Business Owners, 42% of businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, with more than 1,800 new businesses being started every day. This is nearly five times the national average.

However, according to the same study, women-owned businesses are growing at only half the rate of those owned by men, namely because women often face unique challenges when trying to access capital and other resources to help them succeed.

The Comcast RISE expansion to all women-owned businesses recognizes and seeks to help address these persistent inequities women continue to face in accessing the resources and funding that are critical to success.

“Women can sometimes be left out of conversations around funding and technology. If our business isn’t technology-focused, we can find ourselves left out of finding ways technology can advance our business. But every small business can benefit from a technology upgrade, whether you are in the hair, food or mannequin industry,” said Judi Henderson, a RISE Investment Fund recipient and owner of Mannequin Madness in Oakland. “Comcast recognizes the many challenges women business-owners encounter and the RISE grant is helping put women at the forefront.”

Comcast RISE, which stands for Representation, Investment, Strength, and Empowerment, is part of Project UP, and is accepting applications through June 17. Small businesses owned by people of color and women in California — in Comcast’s footprint — are encouraged to apply for the chance to receive consulting, media, and creative production services from Effectv, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable, or technology upgrades based on their specific needs from Comcast Business.

Additionally, Comcast California recently unveiled a new RISE Business Directory for laptops and mobile phones, highlighting nearly 300 small, diverse-owned California businesses that have received grants, marketing and technology services from the Comcast RISE program.

For more information and the applications to apply for either the grant program or marketing and technology services, visit www.ComcastRISE.com.

Adriana Arvizo and Maddie Moore are media representatives for Comcast and Fiona Hutton & Associates respectively.

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