Changing Oakland’s Future

OAKLAND, CA (April 21, 2016) — David Silver, who attends New Hope Covenant Church, is helping spearhead the Oakland Promise, a bold citywide plan that will provide cradle-to-career services for Oakland students, such as providing college savings accounts for every child, assistance to families, and college scholarships and persistence support.

Silver says the program is designed to overcome educational inequality, which he calls, “the civil rights issue of our day.”

“Out of 100 kids in Oakland, only 10 are graduating from college—that’s not equity, that’s not justice. We are proposing that we can dramatically change that and triple the number of college graduates within a decade with a tangible solution,” Silver said in a recent interview.

Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf and local school officials began discussing the idea in early 2015. The mayor hired Silver as director of education in June 2015 and tasked him with guiding the initiative, which launched this past January.

One of his primary responsibilities has been to develop the broad-based partnerships needed for the program to be successful. Oakland Promise leverages those partnerships among the city, school district, colleges and universities, businesses, and more than 100 community-based nonprofit organizations.

The massive undertaking—expected to serve more than 25,000 students and families in its first four years—will cost an estimated $38 to $40 million in that time. Leaders assert the importance of such an investment in the students and the city. “We can talk about equal opportunity for all and the American Dream, but unless we put our money where our mouth is, it just doesn’t mean anything,” Silver said.

If we care about justice, we must transcend whatever failures we have and continue to model resiliency for our kids and for our community.

The Oakland Promise draws on best practices from around the country to support children and families at various levels. “For us to be able to attain our vision for all kids to graduate from high school and complete some form of post-secondary education and go on to a career, we felt we needed to start much earlier and continue much later and be more holistic to make it happen,” said Silver.

The first step is an initiative called Brilliant Baby that will open college savings accounts of $500 for children born into poverty. It is being piloted next school year with 250 families. Studies of similar programs elsewhere have shown that children who receive such accounts in their first several years are three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to complete college.

Kindergarten to College, the next initiative, will provide a universal college savings program in which every Oakland student entering kindergarten will have a college savings account of $100 opened in his or her name.

“Our theory of change is not just about the kids, it’s also about the parents,” Silver said. “Parents in the Brilliant Baby program can earn up to $500 in incentives as they take steps toward their children’s healthy development, which may include activities such as going to the library and working with a financial coach.”

Schools at every level will promote expectations of completing college and will help students apply for college as well as seek financial aid and internships. Another lead partner in the Oakland Promise is the East Bay College Fund, an existing program that has provided college scholarships as well as counseling, mentoring, and peer support throughout the student’s time in college to ensure that he or she graduates. EBCF has a college graduation rate that is four times the national average for students from low income backgrounds.

Silver has dedicated his career to empowering underserved students of all ages. Originally from Michigan, he was attending UCLA when the Rodney King riots erupted in 1992. It had a profound impact on him. After he graduated, he joined Teach for America and taught in Compton for two years.

In 2000, Silver was teaching elementary school in Fruitvale, when he realized that only one in 20 of his students would be eligible for a state college. That led him to pull together a group of educators, families, and community leaders to create Think College Now, a public school in the neighborhood that began talking to children from an early age about going to college. He served as Think College Now’s founding principal from 2003 to 2011.

During that time, students at the school increased their proficiency in math from 23 percent to 81 percent, and from 8 percent to 66 percent in English language arts. He was interviewed by Forbes magazine and testified in Congress on how to turn around a school.

Not every parent was impressed, however, he said in an interview with Teach for America. “When I came back from Washington, I talked to some of the parents who helped design the school, arrogantly thinking they would continue to praise me. Instead they said, ‘We don’t care about these test results. You made us a promise eight years ago that our kids are going to go to college. What’s going to happen after fifth grade?’ ”

Their comments led him to consider how he could keep his promise. He became chief executive officer of College Track, an Oakland-based national nonprofit that provides support to students in underserved communities from ninth grade through college. That program also grew under his guidance.

One of his College Track employees told Oakland magazine, “David assumes that all things are possible, and this is what makes him effective in his work.”

Silver emphasizes that relationships developed by leaders with students are key to helping kids reach their goals. One of his proudest accomplishments is that he maintains relationships with former students, even visiting some families in Mexico.

Silver knows from past experience that making transitions is difficult and not every aspect of a program will be immediately successful. But, he says, “If we care about justice, we must transcend whatever failures we have and continue to model resiliency for our kids and for our community.”


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