Marcus Foster’s legacy continues shaping Oakland schools


Friday will mark the 100th birthday of the late Marcus Foster, Oakland’s superintendent of schools from 1970-73. Few residents today have heard of him unless they have read about his senseless assassination by members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army after a board meeting in 1973. I never met him, but I still feel his impact on me as an educator, parent and student.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a pivotal time in the nation’s history. There was the Vietnam conflict, multiple political assassinations and widespread civil unrest. In Oakland, there were significant questions about the city’s cultural identity and the future direction of its schools.

In this challenging time, Foster, the district’s first Black superintendent, stepped forward, boldly proclaiming that “Oakland’s time is now … to write a new chapter in the history of American education.”  With his team, he began to write that chapter. What did it include?

First, while much of public education had focused on sorting kids into academic tracks with stereotyping labels that followed them throughout their time in school, Foster focused on educating all children with rigorous curriculum and child-centered classrooms, making sure that we educators believed in every child’s potential and ability. He started “magnet” schools that still exist today and offered mini-grants to inspire classroom innovation.

Second, Foster lobbied for newer and safer schools. His Quake Safe bonds, supported by business, labor and community organizations, modernized many of our current Oakland schools. Each project included affirmative action policies that opened new opportunities for Black contractors and workers. Another bond would not be passed for 20 years.

Third, Foster believed that students succeeded when parents and the community were knowledgeable and involved in their children’s education. He formed committees to provide leadership training for both parents and staff who were given decision-making responsibilities, such as principal selection. Before we ever dreamed of community schools, he understood that community-focused public education played an important role in defining Oakland’s future.

Foster challenged educators to look beyond the assumptions and expectations of their own experience, which was often very different from those of the children in their care or their families.

Three months before his assassination, he wrote, “We’ll have differences, but as long as we don’t let those differences separate us and tear us apart in a disruptive confrontation; if we can believe in each other and stand on the common ground that children are what we are all about; if we do nothing to rob children of the opportunity to learn; if we are willing, whatever our adult differences may be, to work them out as professionals and adults; if we will not cause children to suffer while we solve our problems, we will make education work.”

Finally, Foster opened district doors for a significant cohort of administrators of color. As a young Asian American teacher, I gained role models who came from backgrounds like my own. Ten years later, I walked through those doors to become a site and district leader. I’ve humbly carried his message and encouragement for the 50 years I served in Oakland schools. That message is as relevant today as it was a half-century ago.

No matter the challenges, setbacks or tragedies of these times, our time is now to write our own chapter of hope in the never-ending story of public education in Oakland.

Gary Yee is a former Oakland teacher, school board trustee and acting superintendent. Learn more about Foster’s work and follow events throughout the year celebrating his legacy and honoring his life at the Marcus Foster Educational Institute (


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