City Education Czar Tapped to Fulfill the Oakland Promise

Mayor hires David Silver, the city’s new education czar, to shoulder the responsibility of the Oakland Promise, an ambitious new program to assure every child an opportunity to go to college.


David Silver is the city of Oakland’s new education czar who will be announcing the Oakland Promise soon.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

In January 2016, Oakland will launch an unprecedented, ambitious program that promises to give every child the opportunity to go to college.

The program is called the Oakland Promise, and one of the people responsible for leading it will be David Silver. Hired this summer by Mayor Libby Schaaf, Silver will be the city’s first director of education—a position that will require him to advise the mayor on education policies and partner with the Oakland Unified School District to implement them. He’ll earn a salary of $155,000 annually, which is being funded by a multiyear partnership with the Oakland Public Education Fund, a private nonprofit organization dedicated to improving community resources for Oakland public schools. 

The details of the Oakland Promise aren’t available to the public yet. But according to Mayor Schaaf, it’s essentially a “cradle-to-career pipeline.” The program will include setting up college saving accounts for kindergarten students, establishing specialized centers for college and career counseling, creating strategic partnerships between the school district and educational organizations, and improving access to scholarships.

“This is a big initiative for the mayor, and David is a major leader in the city in partnership with us to help get this done” said Oakland school Superintendent Antwan Wilson. “He’s been excellent.”

Promising college education to roughly 35,000 public school students is a massive undertaking. But for Silver, it just represents the logical next step in a 20-year career spent helping students from underserved communities reach college.

Silver, who grew up in Michigan, was attending UCLA when news of the violent Rodney King arrest swept the state. The incident left a strong impact on Silver, and soon after he started studying urban poverty.

Graduating from college, he joined Teach for America and taught in Compton for two years. After organizing a workshop on college for student parents, it dawned on him that the obstacles to college education were insurmountable for many of the families he knew. In 1997, Silver started working as an elementary school teacher in Fruitvale, and later he became a program director for Teach for America in Oakland, San Jose, and East Palo Alto.

In 2000, Silver experienced a pivotal moment when he learned that only about 200 of the 4,000 freshman students in his high school would end up being eligible to attend a University of California school.

“That was basically one of out of the 20 kids in my classroom,” Silver said. “I was like, wait a minute, only one of my kids is going to be eligible to go to college—let alone go?”

To fight this problem, Silver decided to create a school called Think College Now, a public elementary school in Fruitvale that was designed to increase college access and completion for students. David Herrera, a fellow Teach for America alumni, was brought on board Think College Now in 2003. Herrera said Silver’s dedication to the organization was extraordinary.

“His energy level was beyond what you would see from most people,” Herrera said. “He was constantly giving inspirational speeches, inspirational messages, and talking about the urgent need to build up equity and better outcomes for our kids.”

Under Silver’s guidance, student proficiency in math rose to 81 percent from 23 percent, and proficiency in English language arts rose to 66 percent from 8 percent. But he had another pivotal moment when several parents asked him what he was doing to make sure their children made it to college. Realizing he didn’t have a good answer, Silver started looking for an organization that would help him achieve this goal.

In 2011, he became the CEO of College Track, a national education nonprofit that recruits students in middle school and provides them with training and resources until they graduate from college. Under his tenure, College Track more than tripled its budget from $4.5 million to $15 million and doubled the number of students served from 900 to close to 2,000.

Marlene Castro, a College Track alumna, met Silver in 2012 at a College Track graduation. She said she was struck by his intense dedication to his students.

“As an educator, David is someone who I model myself around as an educator in the sense that he is all in,” Castro said. “His passion to be an educator is not, ‘I check in and check out.’ He thinks about us; his life is dedicated to the students.”

According to those who have worked with him, Silver’s motivational style ranges from serious speeches to goofier incentives. Elissa Salas, Silver’s first hire at College Track nearly five years ago, noted that he once agreed to shave his head if his students read a certain number of words through the year, and that he frequently challenged them to “dance battles.”

“David assumes that all things are possible, and this is what makes him effective in his work,” Salas wrote in an email.

Having arrived at a position of significant influence, Silver said he intends to make the most of this opportunity. He noted that Oakland’s community leaders are strongly aligned when it comes to the Oakland Promise, and he’s optimistic about what it can accomplish for Oakland youth.

“When someone actually graduates from college, their future child will be three times as likely to graduate from college as well,” Silver said. “So it’s a real mechanism to address poverty and international poverty, and to transform Oakland into a place where college is an expectation.”

Correction: This article was originally published without reporting David Silver’s position is being funded by a multiyear partnership with the Oakland Public Education Fund.

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