Oakland, CA

The OAKLAND story shows how it is possible for community members, educators, and policy makers to come together to transform their School District

The Oakland Community Organization (OCO) was founded in 1977. Today it is a federation of 40 congregations and community groups representing 40,000 families, focusing on issues of affordable housing, crime prevention, neighborhood safety, drug abuse prevention and education.

“We encourage people to sit down and listen to one another, and be intentional in building relations… It’s really about changing schools from having a bureaucratic culture to having a relational culture.” – Liz Sullivan, OCO Education Director


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Since the early 1990’s, at meetings all over the district, organizers listened to the concerns of parents, teachers and community members, hearing their frustration and anger at the unsafe, dirty, overcrowded and failing schools. In the fall of 1999, OCO brought together over 2,000 parents, teachers and leaders in a large public action. By May of 2000, OCO won approval from the school board to establish the New Small Autonomous Schools Policy, a first in California. OCO sees the foundation of their education work as trying to change the internal culture of the schools.

Emma One of the main characters in the film is Emma Paulino, an immigrant from Mexico in her mid forties. Dissatisfied with the extremely poor schools her children were attending in Oakland, she became active in Oakland Community Organization’s (OCO) Small School Campaigns. “The problem was for us as parents that we felt really isolated. I felt that it was only my problem. I didn’t know that there were so many people with the same problem. I thought there was something wrong with my son. I didn’t know there was something wrong with the system.”

After proving herself as a parent leader, OCO hired her as an organizer. Emma and her son’s 5th grade teacher, Larissa Adam became the driving force behind the design team for one of Oakland’s first new small schools, Ascend.

Today, with 49 new small public schools opened, Ascend is a powerful symbol of the positive results that sustained organizing with a strong vision can have on improving public education. Larissa Adam is the Principal, and its high standards and quality education are apparent in all the classes.

Despite the many challenges still to be faced in Oakland, Emma remains an optimistic and dedicated full time organizer. As the Oakland story ends, we see Emma at the orientation session for Arise, a new high school OCO has fully designed.