students at a literacy celebration in Oakland

How Oakland is Disrupting Historical Inequity in Literacy


Written by Laura Troxel

How Oakland is Disrupting Historical Inequity in Literacy

Q&A with Jamilah Sanchez, Literacy Coordinator

Students needed access to the Common Core, and our data reflected that. We realized we needed to be aligned with the science of reading and ensure our students had access to foundational literacy, a strong core curriculum aligned to the standards, and robust literature that allowed students to see themselves,” says Jamilah Sanchez, Literacy Coordinator in Oakland Unified School District. 

Prior to the pandemic, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the Oakland community recognized the need to improve literacy in their schools.  

Jamilah Sanchez headshot

Beginning in 2019, OUSD started a multi-year partnership with Leading Educators to develop a strategic literacy plan to strengthen the selection and implementation of new curricula, support uptake through professional learning, and foster broad stakeholder buy-in. With the help of multiple community partners, OUSD is well on its way to disrupting what it calls a “history of inequitable access to literacy.”

Jamilah Sanchez is on the front lines of this work. As an elementary literacy coordinator for OUSD, Ms. Sanchez supports a network of schools within the district in improving literacy instruction through strategic initiatives, including professional development, curriculum adoption, and coaching. In this conversation, she talks about the key moves OUSD made and the impact they’ve seen in their schools.  

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

The district has said there was a “history of inequitable access to literacy” within the school district.  What challenges did you see students experiencing?

Our previous curriculum wasn’t culturally relevant. Students weren’t getting equitable access to the complex text within that curriculum, especially our Black and brown students. We didn’t have a strong foundation and literacy program. I think many of our teachers in our Flatland Schools (schools primarily in East Oakland, Downtown, and further south) felt that the curriculum wasn’t speaking to their students.   

Students needed access to the Common Core, and our data reflected that. We realized we needed to be aligned with the science of reading and ensure our students had access to foundational literacy, a strong core curriculum aligned to the standards, and robust literature that allowed kids to see themselves.

How did the partnership with Leading Educators start?  What were some of the needs OUSD wanted to address?

When we launched the partnership, our district wanted an instructional focus. We worked with LE to create a three-year plan to expand this focus and provide equitable access to standard-based instruction. The partnership with Leading Educators and EL Education, the curriculum provider, was instrumental in making the change.

We began with a pilot of seven schools, with grades 3-5, implementing EL Education. We saw some significant gains from the fall to mid-year data, which intrigued other school leaders, and they joined the pilot. We saw teachers really making a difference with this core curriculum. They felt that the rigor and the text were suitable for their students. 

Leading Educators was instrumental in helping us design the pilot process and shifting that [pilot] process to the adoption process.

How did the collaboration with LE address some of the district’s challenges? 

LE was instrumental in creating the change and building teachers’ capacity. Even now, in 2024, we’re seeing some really strong instruction thanks to the launch that LE supported us with. They were great at co-creating content, especially before the Teachers on Special Assignments(TSAs) came on board. 

At the beginning of the partnership, the LE team contributed to our monthly Wednesday PD sessions with amazing thought partnership. We would meet with them, and they would bring the content to us, and we would tell them what was happening on the ground.

We would tweak the content, make edits, and then deliver the content to teachers. Their partnership was so attentive, flexible, and invested in our work; they also invested in us as leaders, and relationship-building was key.

As every leader knows, creating systemic change is hard work. As you went through the adoption process, how did teachers and school leaders feel about it?

The proof has to be in the pudding, especially for a large district like ours. We have to change hearts and minds.

So, we sometimes model the lessons in classrooms and invite teachers to visit a colleague in a similar school with a similar population. There are demographic differences between our Hill schools and the schools in the Flatlands, and some people thought EL Education was only for kids of color, for English Language Learners. Some issues were coming up around that, and we had to really grapple with people’s discomfort with teaching a new curriculum. Curriculum change is hard for educators, no matter what.

To create change in a school, leaders must lean into instructional leadership. That’s especially challenging in OUSD and many other districts with high teacher turnover. While we have done a lot of foundational PD, we constantly have to redo it because we lose teachers. So, for some leaders, it can be really frustrating and hard because they put a lot of energy into building capacity, but then you lose staff, so you have to always be in that cycle of ongoing PD.

Is there a moment that stands out to you where you saw all the work the teachers, coaches, and leaders are doing pay off?

I recently observed one of our elementary teachers teaching a lesson about the book “Peter Pan.” It’s a 60-minute lesson, but she taught it for an hour and a half, and her kids were so invested. 

Students moved around the room with “noticings and wonders” of literary classics to discuss what the unit would cover. Once they got into the text, she read, and the students made meaning [of the text], and she used all these text-dependent questions. What we loved about it was that she had 100% engagement from her students.

Afterward, when speaking with her, I got chills because, initially, she wasn’t completely bought into the curriculum.

She said,  “You know I was resistant. When I read [in the lesson plan] that they had to write three paragraphs, I thought, who’s going to write three?” But then she did [the writing with her class], and she saw that what your students produce is invaluable. Recently, she had a celebration of learning for the parents and caregivers, and she said it made her really emotional because parents came in and were amazed and proud of the quality of writing their kids did and the amount of writing they did. 

So, her recommendation for teachers was that [the curriculum] is dense and it’s hard, but it’s so worthwhile. That’s what I want all teachers to feel – that efficacy and pride in their work and in their kids’ learning.

Looking ahead, what sustainable practices will the district continue to build upon?  

In the years we’ve worked together, LE helped build our content writing capacity. During the partnership, we launched a coaching collaborative that brought all the TSAs together for professional learning so they could take that learning back to their schools.

This year, we changed that space from having all TSAs in one room to creating cohorts of TSAs. We have three to four cohorts of TSAs [within each network] to make it more intimate and meaningful and make the cohort more of a community experience. Our focus has always been on students being leaders of their own learning, and we’re working to elevate that.

We’re also having the TSAs bring in the community through celebrations of learning. We’ve been working hard to create energy around them so people feel comfortable bringing the community into the classrooms, and we’ve really seen that come alive. 

We want to lift up literacy as a form of social change within our community.

School systems and educators are busy right now. What would you say to someone who is skeptical about focusing on this kind of deep, systemic work?

When creating a big systemic change, you need an outside perspective. You need someone to see your blind spots when you’re so invested in the work. LE really came through for us by providing support, conducting an assessment system, and guiding us through the visioning process.

You need a strategic partnership to help you achieve the vision and a strategy for how you want that partnership to guide the work. Once you feel your systems are strong and you have the expertise, you can phase out the partnership and still see gains and sustainability.

When you’re ingrained in the work, it’s hard. Sometimes, when you’re deep in it, you’re tired and exhausted and need someone to lean on. I feel LE really supported OUSD in creating a strong, robust curriculum-based system, and I appreciate the partnership.

Stay Engaged!

This interview is part of an ongoing series in which we chat with school and district leaders to shine a light on the most promising opportunities for systems change and the leaders who are making it happen.

OUSD is just one of a dozen partnerships across the country pushing the boundaries of what schools can offer students. Learn more about how we offer tailored support packages to help visionary districts, networks, and states go further faster.

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