CharterFolk Contributor Kimi Kean – Coming Soon to a Town Near You

Greetings, Charter Folk.

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Kimi Kean, CEO and Co-Founder of Families in Action for Quality Education.

During our inaugural CharterFolk Chat with Arne Duncan, the former Education Secretary challenged our movement to get more parents and youth involved in our advocacy efforts. This is the moment in the interview when Arne first challenged us, if you want a refresher.

Since then, how to involve our parents and youth in advocacy efforts has been a recurring theme in our posts. The role of all of us connected to the charter school movement is to help ensure public education turns out to be a great force for helping our society overcome its shortcomings and deliver a fair and just level of opportunity to every young person in this country. When parents are genuinely brought into the effort to achieve such a goal, given the resources to fully embrace their voice and flex their power, it is a beautiful thing.

This requires us to be very intentional about how we effectively structure the work and authentically engage parents and youth. We’ve become smarter on these topics over the years.  We recognize there is not one best way to do this work, and every community must engage parents and youth based on their local needs and conditions. I continue to be inspired by the levels of commitment and new ideas being utilized by our charter leaders across the country to do just that, and I enjoy being able to share their stories.

Kimi Kean helped found Families in Action for Quality Education in 2019 to raise awareness about education disparities in Oakland and to increase students’ and families’ access to quality schools and equitable resources. Families in Action for Quality Education envision an Oakland public school ecosystem, in which all schools see families as critically important to student success and where the entire school community is accountable for the education of all students. Families in Action for Quality Education works to organize and channel the power of students and families in Oakland to fight for access to quality schools, no matter if they attend district or charter schools.

What started as coalition of public charter schools that banded together after suffering two years of instability in charter renewal for high performing charters and increasing facilities losses in Oakland, CA, has continued to evolve. Families in Action for Quality Education builds the leadership, voice, and organizing skills of parents, youth, educators, and school leaders to build power and influence in city-wide issues.

I hope you enjoy Kimi’s story about the lessons they’ve learned in Oakland when listening to parents and youth.  Make sure you read the letter from parent and youth leaders to the Oakland school board linked below in Kimi’s story, it addresses the topic of school closures and the state of Oakland schools.

Kimi Kean is the CEO and Co-Founder of Families in Action for Quality Education, a coalition of Oakland charter schools which focuses on developing family leadership and voice to increase access, quality, and equity across Oakland education. Kimi previously spent five years as the Bay Area Superintendent of Aspire Public Schools and 14 years in the Oakland Unified School District as a teacher, principal, and Regional Executive Officer in East Oakland. 

Kimi grew up in Oakland, California. She holds an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a B.A. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California at Berkeley, attained after dropping out of high school as a sophomore. At home in Oakland, Kimi loves spending time with her two teenage daughters, husband, and two mini-dachshunds.

Coming Soon to a Town Near You…

It’s been nearly 25 years since Oakland’s first charter school was opened, the result of a campaign by an organized and angry group of families and community allies who were fed up with district schools that persistently failed the Jingletown community. That activism fueled a movement of reimagining schools through the creation of small, community-based schools and charter schools. That movement turned Oakland’s public school ecosystem from a sea of red, failing schools to one with better performing green, yellow, and orange schools.

But critical issues remained. Sticky issues like teacher quality and pay, saturation of schools, and declining enrollment were treated as cans and kicked down the road. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) created 35 small schools after closing about half that number. In 20 years, 40 new charter schools were opened. While some charter schools have been closed, OUSD never figured out how to downsize and do the painful work of putting quality first and closing its own underperforming schools. Instead, they filled the empty classrooms in under-enrolled schools with Special Day Classes. Despite having the 4th highest average daily attendance (ADA) in California, resources are spread thin operating twice the number of schools as other districts with comparable population size in the state. Teacher salaries are rock bottom in the Bay Area.

Fast forward to 2022 and our city’s schools are rife with tension. Data shows 20+ district elementary schools are below the minimally required 300 student population and thereby not financially sustainable. A recent report showed that 40% of district-authorized charter schools are under-enrolled. Despite student walkouts, a disapproving public, and hunger strikes by two teachers, the OUSD school board recently voted 4:2:1 to close or merge 11 schools over the next two years.

What are the lessons to be learned?

We would do well to listen to our parents and youth. Parent and youth leaders in our Oakland charter school coalition, Families in Action for Quality Education recently wrote this open letter to the school board.

Their demands were clear:

  • Focus on quality
  • Partner with families to find solutions
  • Don’t accept the status quo – take earlier action to interrupt the harm caused by school failure.

I would add another. As public education ecosystem leaders, district, and charter, we must confront the hard truths early on and demonstrate our alliance to children and families, especially those most underserved. The tough issues of under-enrollment and persistent low quality need to be confronted and dealt with early on. Or you can follow the Oakland example of dealing with them in an environment of scarcity. This is something that I fear is coming soon to a town near you.

FIA leadership institutes bring parents and youth together to network and develop their organizing skills.
FIA leadership institutes bring parents and youth together to network and develop their organizing skills.

FIA leadership institute graduates go on to co-lead FIA issue campaigns that make a real impact in improving education.
FIA leadership institute graduates go on to co-lead FIA issue campaigns that make a real impact in improving education.

If you want to learn more about Families in Action for Quality Education, please visit http://fiaoakland.org. You can also learn more about Families in Action for Quality Education by reading Kimi’s thoughts in CharterFolk Contributors Respond to Arne Duncan’s Challenge to Involve Parents.