Manzanita SEED

Small Oakland school receives national equity award.

Manzanita SEED, a small, Spanish-English immersion elementary school in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, was one of only two schools in the state to win the 2010 National Title I Distinguished School Award.  The principal, Katherine Carter, shared some key insights on their success.  She noted that her school took several years to show student achievement results, that the process was messy and did not always look like conventional success, and that rather than replicate her programs, schools aspiring to equity would do better to learn from their process and vision of leadership, which she developed with the National Equity Project.

About 85% of SEED’s students come from low-income families and half enter kindergarten as English learners. But the reading and math scores of both groups are at or above state averages. Last year, SEED earned a score of 842 out of 1,000 on California’s Academic Performance Index, well above the statewide goal of 800. Three of four students, and 100% of fifth-graders, reached proficiency on the state math test, a subject they learn exclusively in Spanish through the third grade.

SEED, which stands for “School of Expeditionary learning, Equity and Diversity,” opened on the Manzanita Elementary School campus in 2005, one of several new small schools created to replace a struggling large school on that campus, like many others across the city. The National Equity Project was a leader in the Oakland small schools movement and coached the principal and many teachers from its inception.

“What was most critical in the support we got from the National Equity Project was the big vision,” said Carter. “It was more than ‘every child can learn,’ it was more than building a better school, it was doing school differently. It was thinking outside the box to create a transformative school, not one that would reproduce the inequities of the current system.”

Students at SEED are taught in English for half the day and in Spanish for the other half. Unlike a traditional bilingual program, which separates English learners and native English speakers, two-way language immersion classrooms are integrated by design. Children with special needs also learn side by side with general education students.

Principal Carter worked with the National Equity Project in several ways: as a participant in our (discontinued) LEAD certification program (“that was where I first encountered in my career the fundamentals of their equity and inquiry approaches and also met a like-minded cohort of peers who were taking leadership for equity”), school design team coaching, principal executive coaching, and now instructional team coaching in our Impact 2012 program. “I always felt supported as a partner even when we didn’t have a formal contract.”

Principal Katherine Carter with students at our 2003 Small Schools Conference.

Over the years working with the Project and on equity, Principal Carter has learned some lessons that education leaders can never hear enough.

“It’s not surprising that a number of people have approached me saying that they want to ‘replicate’ our school, but this is not the way to achieve equity. What got us here was the process, and it took a long time. We began with a vision that existed solely on paper, and we had a whole year of incubation to develop that vision and work on how to implement it. And still, the implementation required years of work beyond that.”

“We didn’t see increases in student achievement until after several years, and in that time I was not always evaluated as an ‘effective’ school leader. Once the test scores started to rise, then suddenly I got positive evaluations, but I was not a different leader. What was different was that the process was bearing fruit. That takes time: to build a school community and culture, to attract and develop great people, to get all the pieces to work together in our unique context. The process is messy, there is no easily replicable template, what you need are approaches that are based in a vision of distributed leadership and collaboration, it can’t be top down.”

Principal Carter said that she is excited about this year’s work with our Impact 2012 program. It is “taking us to the next level of going really deeply into each student’s learning.”

National Equity Project Senior Director, Lisa Lasky, worked with Principal Carter for many years.

“Katherine is a testimony to what can be achieved when a leader commits to a vision of what’s possible for her students and families over the long term,” said Lasky, “and works tirelessly to create the conditions, culture, and relationships where teachers learn and grow, students are held to high expectations, and the community is a real partner.”

“Manzanita SEED is a place that demonstrates what is possible when a community of caring adults surrounds all students. None of this has happened by accident – Katherine is a learner who has worked constantly on not just achieving but sustaining success. And she does that with grace and humility – always willing to share and learn with leaders and educators outside of her school as well as inside.”