Oakland, CA — After more than a year without a contract, the Oakland teachers' strike for higher wages and improved classroom conditions kicked off last week. Negotiations between teachers and the school district are ongoing.
For school administrators, however, the strike poses a difficult question: do they side with the district or stand with their teachers?
The day before the strike officially began, 75 Oakland principals signed an open letter to show their support for the striking teachers. Some administrators also drove to Sacramento to lobby for their teachers at the California State Capitol. They asked the state for three things: to increase per-student spending, to forgive OUSD's $100 million debt to the state (the result of a 2003 bailout), and to review and revise charter school legislation.
YR Media’s Lucy Barnum talked to Cliff Hong, the principal of Roosevelt Middle School, about the challenges of leading his school during the strike.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lucy Barnum: Why do you support the teachers’ strike?
Cliff Hong: Actually, I share the position of most principals in Oakland — if not all principals — which is that the most important worker in our district are the teachers. And we need to make sure that the turnover rate of our teachers is low so that teachers can stay and build their craft and their skills [and] our young people are able to thrive. For us, a big part of that is their wages. All teachers want a wage that insures that they can pay rent in Oakland and buy a home, and right now the wages that they’re earning [do] not let them do that.
LB: Has teacher turnover been a big problem?
CH: In middle schools, in general, the turnover is higher than in high school and elementary school. At Roosevelt, we have one of the lowest turnover rates out of the middle schools in OUSD, and still, it’s half a dozen or more teachers each year.
LB: How does that turnover impact students?
CH: Well, schools are not supposed to be factories, schools are communities. When you have turnover like that, it’s hard to build those relationships and trust within the staff. And for the students, they’re looking for stability and familiarity, especially students who experience trauma — there’s many in Oakland. To have new faces every year can add to that trauma. It’s definitely a big problem that we’re trying to address.
LB: What was it like to talk to state legislators in Sacramento about public school funding?
CH: It was great. I was really proud of my colleagues. We’re not just facilitating learning for students, but today was a giant learning experience for us, too. I mean, none of us have done lobbying work like this before, and so we were all really taking a learning stance ourselves and learning how the process works.
LB: How are you holding your school together during the strike?
CH: You know, nobody knows what’s going to happen. I just have faith that we’re all on the same page. We’re all on the same team, all the educators and students and families in Oakland. At the end of the day, we all want the teachers to get a healthy pay raise and we want the students to be safe and to be thriving. We’re really happy that the vast majority of our staff are exercising our rights to strike and we hope that there’s a good resolution.
LB: Are you going to be on the picket line?
CH: I’m not sure. It kind of depends on the number of students. If all 575 students show up and I’m the only person in the building to take care of them, I will probably have my hands full.
LB: What do you think your biggest struggle will be during the strike?
CH: I don’t want the teachers to be soured by the process. I hope that it’s an empowering thing for them, as opposed to something that makes them feel like the school district doesn't care about them. That’s something that I think about.
LB: Are most administrators like you, standing with their teachers?
CH: I don’t know. My sense in talking with my fellow administrators is that they do support the teachers. They recognize that we were all teachers, too, at one point, and we dealt with the same low wages as well. I think the principals want to see our teacher colleagues being able to have more stable lives as well.