Inward Journeys Consulting

Who Is Fighting For Our Struggling Students?: An Oakland School That Turned Challenge Into Triumph

Barack Obama Academy, an alternative middle school in OUSD recently achieved significant gains in its California Standards Test (CST) scores for the 2010-2011 school year. This story of a school "least-likely to succeed" is a testament of hope.

Barack Obama Academy, an alternative education middle school in Oakland Unified School District and under the leadership of Principal Toni McElroy, recently achieved significant gains in its California Standards Test (CST) scores for the 2010-2011 school year.

Over a period of two years, from 2008 to 2010, Barack Obama Academy increased its API scores from 362 to 502 (this gain was 5 times the API growth target set by the California Department of Education). During the 2010-2011 school year, Barack Obama Academy also achieved the following academic gains (according to the California Department of Education's STAR test results): increased the number of students achieving proficient or advanced in English Language Arts (ELA) by 9.5% (there was a 19.5% increase among its 8th grade students) and in Mathematics by 2.7% (there was a 5% increase among its 8th grade students), decreased the number of students in the categories of below basic and far below basic by 25.3% (ELA) and 17.6% (Math) for its 7th grade students. In fact, 21% of its students achieved proficient or advanced in ELA in 2011-this was an 11% increase from 2010. In science, the percentage of students achieving proficient or advanced increased from 10% to 18% from 2010 to 2011. The 8th grade social science test scores jumped from 6% to 16% in one year in 2011. So why was this school restructured by Oakland Unified School District if its students produced achievement gains two years in a row and significant gains in 2011?

In 2009, Barack Obama Academy officially became the 1st school in the U.S. named after President Barack Obama. Barack Obama Academy, an alternative education middle school in Oakland, CA served a total of 58 students in the 7th and 8th grades by the end of the 2010-2011 school year. A total of four full-time teachers taught academic core classes with about a 9:1 student/teacher ratio. Over 70% of its students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2011. 76% of its students were African-American and 24% were Latino/Hispanic. According to, during the 2008-2009 school year, the educational level of parents of students attending Barack Obama Academy were: 0% Graduate School, 11% College Graduation, 11% Some College, 42% High School Graduate, and 37% not High School Graduate. Barack Obama Academy received students, on referral, from middle schools in Oakland Unified School District who had behavioral challenges and academic deficits. Students were sent to Barack Obama Academy from surrounding middle schools throughout the school year. Some parents also elected Barack Obama Academy as their school of choice because of the comprehensive services offered to its students.

In 2010, Inward Journeys Consulting, an educational consulting company based in Oakland, CA, held a conference titled, "Educating African-Americans for the 21st Century: A Call to Action" at Mills College. Toni McElroy, Principal of Barack Obama Academy, was the only principal who brought parents from her school to this conference and later became inspired to request the partnership of Inward Journeys Consulting in supporting the students of Barack Obama Academy. During the spring 2010, Inward Journeys Consulting delivered a test preparation program to the students of Barack Obama Academy to help them strengthen their test-taking skills. Principal Toni McElroy acknowledged Inward Journeys Consulting's Co-founders, Drs. NNeka and Chris Harrison, for contributing significantly to Barack Obama Academy's 107 point gain in their API score (from 395 points in 2009 to 502 points in 2010).

After a follow-up conversation during the summer 2010, Principal Toni McElroy invited Inward Journeys Consulting to join her team of community partners in supporting her vision for the school: "Barack Obama Academy students will engage in rigorous and culturally-responsive learning while challenging themselves to grow personally, academically, and socially. Supported by a team of families, community members, teachers, and clinicians, Barack Obama Academy's students will become prepared for success in high school and adult life." After participating in a summer planning retreat with Ms. McElroy's leadership team, Inward Journeys Consulting designed a plan of action to establish a professional learning community for teachers, offer year-long professional development and math coaching for teachers, provide parent engagement planning, and collaborative school improvement consultation for the 2010-11 academic year.

Inward Journeys Consulting joined Principal Toni McElroy's team of community partners which included San Francisco's Omega Boys Club (under the leadership of Dr. Joseph E. Marshall), Lincoln Child Center, and YMCA. The Omega Boys Club replicated its renowned "Alive & Free" violence prevention and education model each week as an advisory class that lasted two hours (with follow-up meetings with students, school staff, and parents). Lincoln Child Center's staff offered in-class (and out of class) intervention, in partnership with Barack Obama Academy's teachers, to help students address their social-emotional challenges. YMCA and Chef Lajuan Williams (of the California Culinary Academy) offered students extra-curricular activities during Barack Obama Academy's afterschool program. Students were also supported with clinical counselors / therapists who focused on issues that included substance and drug prevention, anger management, and conflict resolution. Teachers took students on outdoor fieldtrips, participated in school-wide celebrations of students and parents, and reflected on their practice, examined student data, and modified their curriculum to meet the varied needs of the students at Barack Obama Academy.

Principal Toni McElroy's determination to provide a high quality educational experience to the students of Barack Obama Academy proved to be not only effective, but also a beacon of light in a city whose crime statistics are overwhelming: over 70 people slain violently to date in 2011 and increased gang activity, and robberies. Many students arrived to school with the emotional trauma of growing up and residing in the so-called "killing zone" of flat-land areas in Oakland, CA. Yet, when the students arrived to school each day, they were greeted by caring adults who believed they could turn their challenges into triumph. So again, why did Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) decide to stop the process that Principal Toni McElroy started in helping the students of Barack Obama Academy turn their challenges into triumph?

According to OUSD's program evaluation and inquiry on Barack Obama Academy (a so-called experimental model), a report was produced which concluded that there had not been any "...significant changed outcomes for students due to challenges with leadership and staff as well as the need for deeper development with partners and outside organizations." (For more information on this finding that was published online on May 4, 2011 before the 2011 CST results were released, visit:

Meanwhile, the collaborative work and school improvement strategies spearheaded by the visionary school leader of Barack Obama Academy-Principal Toni McElroy, was brought to an end by unsubstantiated claims and findings in light of the recent standardized test scores released by the California Department of Education. What does this mean for students and families of Barack Obama Academy? How will this drastic change impact the surrounding community of Oakland that needs educational leadership in a school such as Barack Obama Academy that will prioritize partners who are effective in helping students overcome their challenges, support teachers in improving their practice, and engage parents in a meaningful way in the educational process of their children?

The question still remains, who will fight for our struggling students?

About Inward Journeys Consulting
Inward Journeys Consulting provides educational consultation, products and services to teachers, parents, school leaders, and other community stakeholders. Since 2001, Inward Journeys Consulting has partnered with public / private entities and individual families concerned about improving the quality of K-12 education. As Co-Founders of Inward Journeys Consulting, Dr. NNeka Harrison and Dr. Chris Harrison partners with schools, parents, community-based organizations, and other educational stakeholders to improve the quality of K-12 education through professional development, consultation, and educational products. For more information about Inward Journeys Consulting, visit

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Categories: Public Schools

Tags: Academic Achievement, Barack Obama Academy, CST results, Inward Journeys Consulting, OUSD, Race to Top, School Improvement

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Dr. NNeka Harrison
Inward Journeys Consulting

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