What is the recipe for a good education and a great school? That is the question that drives Oakland Public High School Principal, Cliff Hong.
Hong is at the helm of Roosevelt Middle School in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland, which has about 650 students.
Mills College student and KALW reporter Karen Gordon met Hong a year ago, when he was in his second year as principal of Roosevelt Middle School.
KAREN GORDON: What is the recipe for a good education and a great school?
CLIFF HONG: We believe in broken windows theory -- where you take care of the little things and then the big things won’t materialize. Like you can’t have hats in the building, no hoods, and that’s a practical thing, too, because we want to know if there’s some sort of stranger that’s on campus, so we can’t have kids covering their faces. We need to see who’s here. Once we change the reputation of Roosevelt, more people will enroll. We’re almost there, but we need about a hundred more kids to make that perfect structure.
Gordon wanted to find out what’s been happening at Roosevelt since that story aired. On her second visit, Hong greeted her with news of Roosevelt’s recent achievement, a big increase in his students’ scores on the state aptitude tests, better known as STAR tests.
HONG: It was the largest gain of any Oakland Unified Middle school and over two years it’s a total of 41 points and the score that we have this year is the highest score that Roosevelt Middle School’s had in 14 years.
GORDON: With such a dramatic improvement in test scores, it was clear that something new is happening here. Hong says they are creating a different culture at the school.
HONG: There were lots of fights when I first got here -- this is my third year as principal -- and there were fights in the alleyways outside the school, fights in and out of the school, so the first order of business when we got here was to make sure this school was a safe place for our students, because students who are stressed out won’t be able to focus on their academics.
We have a new partnership with the Oakland Police Department where they’ve added some extra patrols in the neighborhood, to be able to provide safety for our students to and from school and so were excited about that partnership.
Another exciting partnership at Roosevelt is between the school’s music department and the Oakland East Bay Symphony. The symphony’s Music for Excellence program brings its professional musicians into Roosevelt’s music classes each week.
Roosevelt’s Music Director, Daniel Andrade, explains that many students are drawn to Roosevelt because of its full music program, with two bands, two string sections, and a choir. Six Roosevelt students are members of the All District Honor Orchestra, and earlier this year, Roosevelt hosted the All District String Festival.
HONG: So we really see this school as not just as a school for reading, writing, and arithmetic but as a community center.
In addition to enhancing student accomplishment through the arts, Principal Hong is also focused on science and technology. He is looking to the future and intends to make sure his students can compete in science, technology, engineering, and math, the so-called STEM courses. By moving the school’s programs in this direction, he hopes to stay on track with his goal of transforming Roosevelt and rebuilding the school’s reputation.
HONG: We’ve been looking at the strengths of our school, particularly having strengths in our math and science departments. And…we think the STEM focus in addition to the focus we’ve had on serving the community and having students being prepared not just for their own benefit in the future, but really learning because of us, that they are to be citizens of their communities and to empower their communities, were hoping that the STEM focus and the community focus are going to yield some great kids once they leave us.
Hong is also taking a lesson from other middle schools in the area. He and his team toured successful schools to find ideas to bring back to Roosevelt.
HONG: We visited KIPP Bridge in Oakland, it’s a charter school, and we also visited a school called El Sausal in Salinas, CA.
GORDON: Roosevelt’s students are mainly English language learners, 37 percent officially…
HONG: … but unofficially its probably closer to 90 percent.
Hong says by weaving vocabulary and literacy instruction into daily class lessons, teachers give students more opportunity to increase their language skills. And one other innovation, now used in over a dozen Oakland middle schools, is proving very effective for Roosevelt students.
GORDON: So I noticed these orange tags attached to your necktie.
HONG: So these are what we call our Bulldog Bucks and these are given to students if they are demonstrating that they are responsible, respectful, or if they’re being safe. This is part of an effort that is new this year that is called the Positive Behavior Intervention System where instead of just pointing out kids and giving a whole lot of energy to negative behavior, we want to flip the script and put a lot of energy towards positive behavior. I think that that’s been a big part of what has calmed our campus down.
But even with improved test scores, community partnerships, and increased calm and safety, Roosevelt faces a major hurdle – the need to increase enrollment.
HONG: And this has been one of my biggest challenges.
Nine Oakland charter schools have opened within the past three years, five just this year alone. Two of these charters serve the middle grades. And two regular elementary schools have expanded to include grades six to eight, reducing the number of students available to enroll at middle schools, like Roosevelt.
There are currently 650 students attending Roosevelt Middle School. Full enrollment, about 100 additional students, would bring more money into the school because school funding is currently based on student population and attendance. And more money could help improve Roosevelt’s curriculum, test scores, and student outcomes.
HONG: We’re looking at different ways to outreach and market to compete. And it feels kind of strange that as a public entity that we’re competing as if we’re in a market system. But these are the rules that are set for me to play by and so we’re going to do our best.
Principal Hong will do what he has done for the last three years – anything and everything to improve the quality of education for Roosevelt’s students.