A conversation with OMI’s Johnna Grell
Charter renewals are stressful and time-consuming. School leaders already pressed for time face endless paperwork and a process that can feel daunting. The public scrutiny and the political environment are harsh. It’s no doubt difficult for any school to go through. The process can also be affirming, highlighting areas where a school is thriving and can feel proud, as well as areas of growth the school is addressing.
The Oakland Military Institute (OMI), a Locally Grown Oakland Public School, went through its charter renewal process with authorizer Oakland Unified School District at the end of 2018, and was approved for a five-year renewal through 2024 with a 5–2 vote. OMI was founded in 2001 by former Oakland mayor and California governor Jerry Brown, who now chairs the school’s board.
We recently spoke with Johnna Grell, OMI’s Superintendent, about the school’s renewal process and what she learned and can share with the Oakland charter school community.
Get started early
There is a lot of work involved in a charter renewal, much legwork to get parents and the community involved. Unforeseen challenges come up, too. For OMI, the entire process was moved up three months sooner than had been initially planned. Then the hearing was scheduled not only for a Friday evening, but the one before Thanksgiving break in the midst of the Camp Fire air quality hazard when schools were closed.
“Start early and really look at your organization and your policies, procedures, practices, your mission and even your board policies,” Grell says. “Make sure there are no big drastic changes.”
For leadership, the renewal can be a brand new experience and really intense. Grell says having one person in charge of the process kept things organized and everything moving a long.
“There were lots of different eyes but one monitor and gate keeper, who should do what and when,” Grell says. At OMI that person was Director of Academic Performance Katherine DeVinna. She handled the charter performance report and delegated out the other pieces, which were funnelled back through her. “I don’t know if we would have survived without her,” Grell says. “She did a lot of heavy lifting.”
Be transparent about successes and struggles
It’s obvious during a charter renewal to highlight what’s working well, but Grell says it’s important to also share areas of growth and where a school is struggling. Because the board will be sure to ask about it. “If you try to hide anything, you’re going to get caught up,” Grell says.
And before the board is asking the tough questions, parents will be asking once they find out the data. “I think we’re a better stronger school community for going through the process,” Grell says. “There is more comfort after having these conversations.”
Grell says it was important that the entire OMI community became aware of the strengths and weaknesses before the presentation and hearing. It helped deliver a coherent message to the board and also gave reason to feel proud and that the school is working. “Amazing aspects of our school were coming out even though we weren’t thinking about it, because we had to go through this process of looking at who we were,” she says.
You are not alone
As a school leader in charge of a school going through the renewal process, Grell felt solely responsible. Going through the worst case scenarios can make a school leader queasy. Grell says it helped to reach out to other school leaders and talk to them, as well as the California Charter School Association (CCSA) which also provided help and insight for the board presentation and hearing.
“It made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” Grell says. “In this charter world, although there are so many of us, we’re not in the district and you can feel alone.”
Grell and OMI staff also connected with members of the state and county boards, and the frequent contact with OUSD’s charter office helped improve their relationship. Having the school’s lawyer around helped set the context for the renewal conversations. “With new legislation coming up, no appeal avenue, it’s even more important,” Grell says.
Have the community tell the school’s story
Charter renewal paperwork requires following a strict process and submitting a lot of data. The process can feel clinical. The presentation, however, should be anything but and come alive with the human story of a school. “Obviously have your data, be prepared,” Grell says, “but don’t have it be the focus.”
For OMI, the alumni were a huge component of that and proof its program works. Jose Jauregui, an SFSU graduate, spoke passionately to the board about his positive experience — how OMI didn’t give up on him and why he returned to work at OMI to give back. “When the board members heard our alumni, they were so impressed and they couldn’t ignore the power from their statements,” Grell says. “Every school has these stories, don’t shy away from them.”
Grell says the presentation turned out to be an opportunity to celebrate the school’s accomplishments: 15 people (staff, students, parents, alumni) spoke during a 6-minute presentation, and others from the school community also spoke during the public comment period.
“Personal statements are good to show why the program is unique,” Grell says. “And get as many people as possible to do the public comment, it shows the demographics of your school and that it represents the community in which it sits and staff reflects that. And the more human contact (the board) can get, the better.”
Prepare for everything when it’s time to go before the board
Before OMI’s presentation, Grell heard the board would challenge the school either at the presentation or the hearing. Or maybe at both. The point was, hard questions were going to come at some point. And sure enough, the hearing was relatively tame. The scrutiny, of course, came at the hearing.
Grell says it was important that OMI families were prepared not only for what going before the board would be like (many are savvy about OUSD politics) but for what kind of decisions they could render. That meant having multiple contingency plans and understanding the appeals process and how to fight if the worst thing happens. “I would strongly suggest that, as uncomfortable as it is, for every school leader look at that strategically and have that conversation with their board,” Grell says. “What does the fight look like?”
After the decision, take time to breathe
The OUSD board approved OMI’s charter renewal application on November 16, 2018. It was a contentious hearing, and talk of closing the school freaked out some of the staff and alumni, Grell says. After, she reminded herself a tough 5–2 win is still a win.
“Have some community time and put everyone back together,” Grell says. “Give everyone a chance to breathe and not focus on it.”
The renewal process was very insightful, Grell says. It both affirmed what OMI is doing well and highlighted areas of growth it was already addressing. “Not one recommendation was made that we did not self-identify,” Grell says. Fear that bringing up vulnerable spots might cause families to leave or not apply and hurt enrollment proved false: the school had over 500 applicants for 124 spots this year.
Another benefit of the process is it brought the school community closer together. The board is much more informed. Grell says the process also motivated her to advocate and organize with other charter school communities.
“If charters closed, families wouldn’t be served,” Grell says. “How do we get people to see that, that there is room for all kinds of different schools. The commonality has to be about serving students and families. How can I not be an advocate and start talking to more people. If we find a way to have a collective voice we might get some work done.”