By Jared D. Childress | Special to The OBSERVER

Dr. Kadhir Rajagopal, who was removed as principal of Oakdale Elementary in December, has received written support from hundreds of parents and community members seeking answers to his dismissal. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Dr. Kadhir Rajagopal was removed as principal of Oakdale Elementary School on Dec. 17, months after implementing a schoolwide mentorship program to support the historically underserved K-8 school in North Highlands.

A cohort of community advocates, including parents of Oakdale students, have rallied behind Dr. Rajagopal, or “Dr. Raja,” demanding the Twin Rivers Unified School District (TRUSD) disclose why he was removed and reassigned to the district office’s special projects team.

A petition of more than 400 signatures, letters of support written by teachers, and student walkouts have drawn attention to the issue, but the reason for Dr. Rajagopal’s removal remains undisclosed.

In a written response to The OBSERVER, the district has said it does not comment on or publicly discuss personnel matters.

Dr. Rajagopal has worked for TRUSD since the district was established in fall 2007. He said the district removed him from the Title I school without his consent. Title I is federal legislation passed in 1965 that helps disadvantaged students meet state academic content and performance standards.

“They put me in a cubicle with no job description,” Dr. Rajagopal said. “After a few weeks, the media caught word of my story and the district put me on paid administrative leave, which I’m still on right now.” 

Principals do not have union representation, but instead can be removed at the discretion of the Superintendent or Associate Superintendent of School Leadership.

While TRUSD has disclosed little about the restructuring, Ramona Landeros, a TRUSD board trustee from 2016 to 2020, said Dr. Rajagopal has been targeted since “making noise” about graduation rates during his 2006-19 tenure at Grant High School, where he served as a teacher and vice principal.

“If you have 700 kids — mostly Black and Brown — in ninth grade and by senior year there are only 350 left, what happened to those students?” Landeros said. She noted that the district claimed a graduation rate in the 90th percentile, “but that’s only for the half that made it to 12th grade,” she said. 

While at Grant, Dr. Rajagopal — who was named the 2011 California State Teacher of the Year — launched the CREATE Academy, which raised the average GPA of 200 ninth-grade students from 0.6 to 2.55 in one year through individually tailored mentoring. The CREATE model was discussed in his 2011 book, “Create Success” and also recognized by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation commission as a schoolwide model for improving student achievement.

Dr. Rajagopal was reassigned for the 2019-20 school year to Castori Elementary, where he expanded his mentorship program to serve 300 students. The program, named Hands On Mentor, lowered suspensions from 165 to 25.

The following school year, Dr. Rajagopal was moved to the challenging Oakdale school, where 76% of the students were below grade level in English and 85% below grade level in math.

Landeros, who founded the Benito Juarez Neighborhood Association, has a child attending Oakdale whom she enrolled at the school after learning Dr. Rajagopal was made principal.

“I put my child there because I knew that he would thrive under Dr. Rajagopal’s mentor program,” Landeros said. “I know that the mentor program really addresses the whole child — not just the academic, but the social and emotional.”

Dr. Rajagopal made Hands On schoolwide at Oakdale to address both pre-existing and pandemic-related educational inequity at the school, which has 22.7% Black and 30.5% Latino enrollment. 

To pilot the program at Oakdale, Dr. Rajagopal secured funding from Sierra Health Foundation, a local private philanthropic group that provided a three-year grant totalling more than $500,000. The program also receives operational support from the local nonprofit Center for Fathers and Families, which acts as the program’s service provider and fundraiser.

Ten mentors, who were required to have attended some college, were hired in September to provide daily academic and social support, providing students greater access to counsel than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of a 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio. 

“At Oakdale, there’s one counselor for 700 students who live in one of the most challenging neighborhoods with drugs, human trafficking, and sex trafficking. The mentors fight against that,” Dr. Rajagopal said. “Every mentor supports about 40-50 mentees who they check in with daily. That 40-to-1 ratio is a huge difference from 700-to-1.”

In addition to the more narrow ratio, mentors intentionally were matched with students based on individual needs.

“The students are matched with the right mentor for them,” he said. “If the student is a native El Salvadorian who only speaks Spanish, then the mentor will be a Spanish speaker.” 

In a report provided by community organizers, the program showed early signs of academic improvement as more students were able to complete the math and English benchmark assessments, with completion rates rising 7% in math and 33% in middle school English. 

In a written response to The OBSERVER, the district has said no programs at Oakdale are in jeopardy due to the leadership change and that TRUSD continues to work with Hands On’s partners. 

While the mentors have remained on campus, Landeros said the program is not delivering what is outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between TRUSD, program funder Sierra Health Foundation, and service provider The Center for Fathers and Families.

“Things have been chaotic since Dr. Raja left,” Landeros said. “We’re not even getting a third of the services we were promised under the MOU. I want to know what they’re doing with all that money they accepted for the mentor program.” 

Sacramento City Councilmember Rick Jennings, who serves as the CEO of the Center for Fathers and Families, said the program has not been lost in the change of leadership; rather the district has committed to both grow and fund 50% of the program. 

“I meet with the school principal and the district on a regular basis to make sure the program is fulfilling its goals, including the requirements of the MOU,” Jennings said. “I think the thing that is missed is Dr. Rajagopal’s leadership.”

When asked about the public organizing to have Dr. Rajagopal reinstated at Oakdale, Jennings said it shows that Dr. Rajagopal was able to make a difference on the campus.

“Everyone is trying their best to deal with the situation. But as the service provider, it’s not up to me,” Jennings said. “My job is to fulfill the mission that Dr. Rajagopal started. Every one of us has had a mentor in our life that has made a difference in our life. Dr. Rajagopal has done that for hundreds of kids.”

While Dr. Rajagopal’s program remains at the school, Landeros said his removal reveals a systemic issue within the district.

“I think there’s favoritism, nepotism, and racism in the district, which is why a widely admired principal of color, who created a very effective mentor program, was removed,” Landeros said. “We’re going to be collecting signatures to remove these board members that are not listening to us. We need to do a recall.”

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.