Mention Marcus Foster’s name today and most Oakland residents would draw a blank.
Yet the first Black superintendent of the city’s school district spearheaded changes that still are making a difference almost 50 years after his murder.
“Even when I talk about it, I get emotional,” said former Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Gary Yee as he recounted Foster’s influence not only on schools but the trajectory of his own career.
Yee had been in his first teaching job for only a few months on Nov. 6, 1973, when a member of a militant leftist group opened fire on Foster, 50, as he was leaving a board meeting. The killer targeted him because he believed that Foster had endorsed a proposal to issue students identification cards as a way of keeping would-be truants at school while preventing non-students from peddling drugs on campus.
Although Yee never had the chance to meet Foster, he came to appreciate the effect that the superintendent’s innovative views had on student performance and the district’s relationship with parents as well as the larger community.
As a novice teacher, Yee said he thought his job was solely to impart knowledge, but other educators who had been influenced by Foster taught him that it’s equally important to recognize that children learn in different ways.
Some process information better if it’s delivered in a visual or auditory format, for example, while others need hands-on activities, and Foster believed teachers should set youngsters up for success by accommodating those differences instead of relying on textbooks alone, he said.
“That carried with me my whole life,” Yee said.
Contrary to prevailing attitudes, Foster didn’t point the finger at students and their families when they were underperforming, added Alicia Dixon, executive director of the Marcus Foster Education Institute.
“His first question (was) always, if a student is failing, what did the system do, or not do, to produce that outcome?” she said.
A modern-day expression of Foster’s commitment to equity in the classroom — the practice of ensuring that all students get the individualized help they need to overcome obstacles in their lives — is how the institute he founded in 1973 approached the problem of high schoolers who were missing out on financial aid for college because they weren’t completing the application.
About a decade ago only 40 percent of teens — most of them racial minorities from low-income households — were completing the form, Dixon said.
The nonprofit worked with the school district as well as other organizations dedicated to helping kids get into college and together they came up with a simple but effective solution: Have teens fill out the form during the school day when adults are around to help them if they get stuck instead of hoping they will attend financial aid workshops in the evening when many have part-time jobs and other responsibilities.
“That was the key change,” Dixon said.
In three years, the Institute’s work boosted the financial aid application completion rate to 70 percent.
Another of Foster’s accomplishments was improving relations between the school district and families by fostering better communication and encouraging parents to become more involved in their child’s education than only attending Parent-Teacher Association meetings and signing off on report cards.
He helped them understand the inner workings of the district by setting up a committee that would meet with parents to explain methods teachers were using in addition to textbooks to present the curriculum; they also learned about additional money schools were receiving and how it could be used to help students who were struggling, Yee said.
“The more parents are involved in what and how their children are taught, the better the likelihood that (they) are going to do well,” he said, explaining that Foster’s inclusiveness gave them what they needed to know to supplement their child’s education at home.
Foster also afforded parents a voice in decisions affecting their youngster’s school, which meant inviting them to participate in the interviews of the principals he hired.
“He trusted the community to weigh in,” Yee said. “It’s a sign of his confidence that if they understood what schools are about, they would help him pick the best person for their school.”
And as that resulted in more Blacks, Asians and Latinos moving into administrative roles, parents in the increasingly diverse district felt better understood by them, Yee said.
Foster’s appointment as Oakland Unified School District’s top administrator also gave Yee and other minority educators hope that they, too, could rise through the ranks to senior leadership positions.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Yee rattles off the names of minorities who succeeded Foster in the wake of his death — Ruth Love, David Bowick, Joe Coto, Edna Washington, Richard Mesa, Carolyn Getridge, Carole Quan and Dennis Chaconas — and permanently changed the face of the historically all-white, all-male superintendency.
Foster, who launched his career in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later earned his doctorate from an Ivy League school there, received recognition on both coasts for his civic contributions and efforts to help students succeed.
He formed what is now known as the Marcus Foster Education Institute to raise money, in part so schools could implement creative ideas such as painting maps of the United States on playgrounds as a way to teach geography.
Another of the organization’s roles is to solicit donations from the community for scholarships.
Last year it defrayed the cost of college for 68 high school seniors, most of whom received awards from $500 to $3,750. The Institute also gives away a $5,000 scholarship each year.
Grant Din was one of the first six high school graduates in 1975 to receive a scholarship from the Marcus Foster Education Institute, a $500 grant that covered about 10 percent of the tuition and board he needed to attend Yale University.
Over the course of his career in nonprofit management and fundraising, Din gave back to the Institute by serving on its board, and over the past several years has appealed for donations on its behalf so the organization can continue equipping high schoolers with the information they need to decide on a college and get the financial aid they need.
“Students in Oakland have so many obstacles to go to college,” Din said. “If you’re in OUSD there aren’t enough resources to provide college counseling and students need more knowledge of the financial resources available to them.”
In 2021, the most recent year for which information is available, 10 teachers in the district each received up to $2,000 each to pay down their own student loans and mentor new teachers.
And over a recent two-year period, the Institute gave University of California, Berkeley graduate students fellowships worth up to $50,000 each.