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Roses in Concrete, a performing arts, dual-language charter school in Oakland, Calif., was founded by Jeff Duncan-Andrade, who wanted to offer low-income students of color the kind of arts classes normally reserved for wealthy students.
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Can teaching both 'Cat in the Hat' and Malcolm X boost test scores?

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Roses in Concrete, a dual-language charter school in Oakland, offers its mostly minority students the kind of art and music classes more often seen in wealthy suburbs – with a twist. Part 2 of 2.

  • Emmanuel Felton

Should an urban school serving black and Hispanic students try to emulate schools for affluent white kids?

In many struggling cities like Oakland, Calif., the answer has been no. That's true in the regular public schools, where resources often don’t exist to replicate programs offered at high-income suburban or private schools, as well as among the crop of urban charter schools intent on making up for those resource deficits. Urban charter schools have been stereotyped as embracing a boot camp-like environment that elevates test prep and tough discipline, while downplaying arts and athletics.

Jeff Duncan-Andrade, the founder of the two-year-old Roses in Concrete Community School, believes that needs to change. At his school — for people of color, designed by people of color — the conventional wisdom about how to improve outcomes for black and Hispanic children has been turned on its head, Mr. Duncan-Andrade says. The school is designed to match up against even the fanciest independent school, with students immersed in art, extracurricular activities, and athletics, and with less emphasis on test prep.

What’s different is the culture.

“It’s about acknowledging they’ll love ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ but also acknowledging they are black and brown kids in Oakland,” says Duncan-Andrade. “So you’ll see we hang the words of Malcolm X next to those of Dr. Seuss. To not talk about Black Lives Matter, even down to kindergarten, [would be] a political decision. Our kids already know this stuff. They have had brothers, uncles shot.”

While Roses in Concrete largely serves black and Latino students from East Oakland, the campus is located on seven acres in Oakland’s hilly Redwood Heights section. The sprawling property, which plans to grow to a K-12 school, is surrounded by well-maintained mid-century homes. The leafy neighborhood is just two blocks above?? the 580 freeway, which divides the city’s rich and poor. The curriculum replicates the progressive, well-rounded education for which many affluent families pay dearly — either through tuition or property taxes — but with a twist.

Roses in Concrete, named after a book of poetry based on the writing of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, is a performing arts community school. Students are expected to delve deeply into the arts, with requirements that they try modern and jazz dance and ballet, experiment with eight instruments, and learn how to arrange music. But these lessons are taught in the context of African, Latino, and Native American traditions. Singing, for example, includes songs in Ohlone, the language of the native people who inhabited the Bay Area.

“[They get] everything you’d get from an elite private school, but from people who look like them,” says Duncan-Andrade. “Everyone has to try everything and after they try it all, they can select to focus on something after school.”

'He's getting a kind of education I didn't'

It’s those extracurriculars and activities that keep Amanda Robinson, the mother of a first grader, at Roses in Concrete. “Look I have Piedmont tastes with an Oakland budget,” says Ms. Robinson referring to an affluent enclave, where nearly all residents are either white or Asian, carved out of Oakland.

“When you send your child to any new school you are taking a risk in some ways,” says Robinson, who was raised by a white mom and a black dad in an agricultural community near Sacramento. “But anytime I have a shadow of a doubt, and I say to myself, ‘Oh, we don’t have a library,’ the school has some kind of a performance and I see my son up there doing a style of drumming from the Ivory Coast, and I know he’s getting a kind of education I didn’t.”

The curriculum at Roses in Concrete is also dual language, something many well-to-do families have been clamoring for in recent years. At Roses, half the material is taught in English and half in Spanish.

“Some people worry about taking black youth who are already marginalized and putting them in a class where they can only speak Spanish,” says Duncan-Andrade. “Their brains are exploding. But the earlier one gets comfortable with discomfort, the more one will learn.”

From 2000 to 2011, the number of dual language schools in the United States increased by nearly eightfold, rising from 260 programs to around 2,000. Research has shown that dual language programs tend to boost students’ math and reading skills, but studies have also shown that students’ test scores sometimes initially lag behind their peers.

The idea for Roses in Concrete was born nearly a decade ago at a graduation party for some of Duncan-Andrade’s former students in Oakland. The students, nearly all of whom were headed off for college, said he should create a K-12 school that would do for other children of color what he had done for them, Duncan-Andrade says. Because of this, Duncan-Andrade likes to call Roses an intergenerational project. Those intergenerational relationships are easy to see any time he emerges on the playground. Students — many of them the sons and daughters of former students — run at him and climb up his tall frame.

'I feel like Oakland ... adopted me'

That kind of connection is something Duncan-Andrade longed for when he was growing up.

“I moved around a lot as a kid,” recalls Duncan-Andrade. “I never felt home. I feel like Oakland and these families adopted me and I’m trying to spend the rest of my life repaying that debt.”

Duncan-Andrade is the youngest of seven kids born to a Mexican-American mother and a Scotch-Irish father in Los Angeles. Duncan-Andrade remembers his family’s complicated relationship with schools.

“The expectations for us were low, not unlike many in our community,” he recalled. “My mother would say, ‘Go to school, get your lessons,’ but at the same time, she grew up on the border in Arizona, so she would tell us stories about how she would have to put on a dunce cap for speaking her native language. There was this dual message about whether school was really a place for us.”

Duncan-Andrade added that his mother assumed he would struggle in school, like his older siblings. The family was constantly on the move, he remembers, in an effort to keep his older siblings out of trouble. First they moved to Sacramento and then to rural Oregon, “We just kept going up I-5 to try to run away from our problems.”

Duncan-Andrade largely credits basketball for getting him to and through college.

“A lot changed in fifth grade, when I went to an NBA camp and got all of these awards,’ he remembers. “For the first time, I felt like there was real investment in me, there was this new narrative that I had potential. Real cash-infusions, shirts, stays in hotels, all of this stuff came and it was a clear statement that I had value.”

He believes that by exposing his students to as much art, music, and sports as kids at the schools with most resources, they will have a chance to find the same sense of self-worth he found through basketball.

As for his own basketball career, that ended his second day at the University of California, Berkeley, when he tore the ligaments in his ankle. In the weeks after that injury, he seriously considered dropping out, he says. He thanks a series of mentors, all men of color, for convincing him to stay at Berkeley and eventually guiding him into teaching.

“I was the first in my family to go to one of these really elite institutions and I wasn’t really sure what to do after,” he recalled. “I thought I was going to follow my dad into the service and become a Marine Corps pilot. But one of my friends was taking a class by Pedro Noguera, a sociologist who studies race and education, who is now one of my closest friends and mentors, and he said, ‘You have to sit in.’ I did and then later applied to [Teach For America].”

In a lot of ways, Roses in Concrete is a direct reaction against the wave of charter school chains that began opening around the start of this century — schools often founded by white men to serve poor black and Latino students — that focused on test scores and college preparation above all else. Roses is part of a growing movement of progressive and community-based charter schools that emphasize a broader liberal arts curriculum, bringing a full slate of art, music, and extracurricular activities into schools for poor black and brown children.

But the philosophy at Roses is also a reaction to Duncan-Andrade’s own schooling, much of it at the same kind of Catholic parochial school that served as an influential model for the urban charter movement.

“I was in school before we really knew a lot about anger management issues. I believe I had anger problems,” says Duncan-Andrade. “I had a sixth-grade teacher; she was the school disciplinarian back at a time with corporal punishment. I would get spanked all the time, and eventually I didn’t care. My father had cancer and we didn’t have health care. My brothers and sisters were running the streets. But in school they never asked what was going on.”

But he remembers one day, when his teacher was once again fed up with his behavior, she didn’t opt for the “beat it out of me approach.” Instead, she finally asked him what was wrong.

“After that, counseling became my punishment session and that started to change how I felt about myself,” remembered Duncan-Andrade. “But I never had a teacher like that again.”

'The work starts on the street'

Now, counseling is a central feature at Roses.

“The work starts on the street at 7 a.m.,” says Duncan-Andrade. “We staff the street, so that every kid gets physical contact, an assessment of how are they coming to us, what’s going on with kid and family before they even enter the building. That tells us a lot.”

But while many progressive schools — cut more in the mold of Waldorf schools than Catholic schools — shun testing, Duncan-Andrade says he can’t in good conscience toss aside test prep entirely.

“The value of test scores is giving our kids access to the kingdom,” he says. “I know our kids can perform well. But it’s about keeping those tests in the proper place. You have to create pathways for kids to get to college and that includes tests. We need to stop seeing it as a binary ... and can’t be talking out of both sides of your mouth. You have all of these degrees hanging on a wall but you are not giving kids a route to those degrees.”

During Roses’ first year, however, few students hit the proficiency mark on state standardized tests. Just over a fifth of third- and fourth-graders passed the English portion of the tests, and only 15 percent were deemed proficient in math.

The initial test scores don’t put off Robinson. She says she chose Roses in Concrete for her son over more established dual-language schools because of the school’s emphasis on teaching students their culture.

“You can tell you are in a different kind of school just from the fact that there is black and brown art everywhere,” said Robinson. “They are learning, from a very young age, about Frida Kahlo, about the Black Panthers. Everything they do is based in culture and art that reflects them.”

Lessons in strawberries

She points specifically to a moment with her son at the Oakland Whole Foods last year, when he was a kindergartner.

“I picked up a thing of strawberries,” remembers Robinson. “And my son looks up at me asks if they were Driscoll’s and I say ‘yes, they are, why?’ And then he tells me all of this stuff about how we can’t buy them because of how they treat their farm workers and then he compared it to how Martin Luther King started a boycott after Rosa Parks didn’t get up. This is a kindergartner. I grew up in a farming community and we never talked about any of this stuff. At this age, I’m not so worried that he understands phonics or can add or subtract. He won’t get this real education anywhere else.”

Duncan-Andrade considers Roses a “lab school,” a school tailored to a specific community. He hopes to share what works in East Oakland, so leaders from elsewhere can build their own schools that are responsive to their communities. But what works in one context cannot just be transplanted into another, he says. He adds that there would be a chain of Roses schools “over my dead body.”

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“A lot of people open schools because they can,” says Duncan-Andrade. “They have a degree, they have a pulse. But that’s the colonial model. You have to ask permission, not from the district or the state, but from the community.”

The bigger idea isn’t just to create good schools but to turn around long-struggling communities.

“I think the kid that’s most likely to become the shooter is also the one who is most likely to change our community,” he said. “It’s not about plucking the roses out of concrete and letting them flourish alone in the rose garden. We will fail if we send 100 percent of our kids to college and this community doesn’t change.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Race and Equity.

Part 1: To help low-income kids, more schools try dual-language programs