It’s that time of year again—time for school-age kids and their parents to pick which Oakland public school they’d like to attend. Starting on December 6 and running through January 14, Oakland’s “options process” is meant to provide students and parents with greater flexibility and allow them to select the schools that are best suited to their particular needs.
Here’s how it works: Families with students entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade get a booklet with the list of all the schools in the district. They also get a form on which they can select their first, second and third choice school. In March, assignment letters are sent out to every participating family. Those that did not file an options form are automatically registered at their local neighborhood school. Children begin attending their selected school the following September.
Growing student enrollment at schools that have shown consistent achievement on standardized tests might indicate that this added choice has been a boon to parents faced with troubled neighborhood schools who are now able to enroll their kids at schools they see as better-performing. But has the process put struggling schools in even greater jeopardy?
Nora Broege, a Ph.D. candidate in U.C. Berkeley’s sociology department who is conducting research on Oakland schools, has found that it might. “My overall finding was that the options program is draining certain neighborhoods (e.g. poor, mostly minority) of their talent—a brain drain,” Broege wrote in an email.
In her master’s thesis research, Broege found that higher performing students were more likely than their lower performing peers to participate in the options process. This leaves the schools that are struggling the most attempting to serve the students who need the most help. Broege also found that minorities in general—and African Americans in particular—were less likely to participate in the options process than their white peers.
This winter, Oakland Unified School District officials began working with Broege and others who are studying the impact of the options process on Oakland’s schools. Anika Hardy, the district’s options and community engagement specialist, is leading a task force group—open to anyone who would like to join—that collects data that should clarify which enrollment trends are affected by the options process and which are not.
For example, some district high schools that have historically had very low standardized test score averages and graduation rates now have fewer than half the students they claimed in the 2002-2003 school year. A case in point is Fremont High School in East Oakland. The school had 1,862 students that year year. In 2004, the options program was approved by the state-controlled board and, simultaneously, Fremont was split into four small schools that shared one campus. Today, only three of those schools are still in operation. Though all three have made steady gains in their average standardized test scores, students on the Fremont campus still perform significantly below what the state of California considers proficient. Meanwhile, the total student population on campus has plummeted to 969, half of what it once was.
Careful not to speak for specific schools, Hardy said staff members at schools that have experienced these sharp declines “really dislike options.” Since state funding for education is disbursed per student, lower enrollment can affect a school’s ability to hire new teachers and run after-school programs. However, Hardy said, it’s not clear that enrollment declines at these schools are entirely due to the options process. “Their enrollment has declined,” she said, “but is that because of options in part or in whole? We would need more evidence to support that [the decline in enrollment] is because of options.”
For some students in East Oakland who would have been headed to those historically low-performing schools, the options process has allowed them to take control of their own educational path. Elliot Ahumada, 14, is a freshman at LIFE Academy in East Oakland, a small high school designed to prepare minority and low-income students for careers in medicine. Students complete internships in the medical field and each year, 92 percent of their graduating class heads to a four-year college. Ahumeda said he chose LIFE because wanted a school “I knew could help me for sure.” Ahumeda said he knew he wanted to be a surgeon as an eighth grader at Roots Academy, another small public school in Oakland, and he though LIFE’s focus on bioscience would help him achieve his goal.
On Wednesday, Ahumeda sat chatting with five fellow freshmen in a classroom at LIFE; all of them said they’d chosen the school in part because they believed it would help them go to college. Their parents expected them to achieve that goal, they said. But many of them also said their parents weren’t sure what the path to college looked like.
“I’m figuring it out myself,” Khawlah Al-Ofi, 14, said. Her parents both went to college in their home country, Yemen, she said, but “they don’t know anything about schools here.”
A number of other students nodded as Al-Ofi spoke. Many of them described their parents as “strict” and said there was no question that they would attend college whether their parents had or not. “It’s like my mom used to tell me,” Jovilynn Macaraeg, 14, said, “if I succeed, then she will succeed.”
James Monroe, 15, had been quieter than the others for some minutes. He finally spoke up. “They’re lucky their parents are forcing them,” he said. “I have a choice to go.” Monroe said he knew about LIFE because his brother had gone there, but he said his parents didn’t mind where he went to high school.
This difference in parental involvement is something Hardy and her team are concerned about. This issue was one of the concerns cited by the parents teachers and principals on the team during a recent brainstorming session on the pros and cons of the options program. One of the cons, the group agreed, was that some parents are able to “work the system”—they understand the options program well enough to navigate it and advocate on their family’s behalf—while others do not. A parent’s education level, English language abilities, and the amount of time and interest they can put into helping their children choose schools can all affect how well they “work the system.”
Even within the group of East Oakland youth at LIFE Academy, very few of whose parents attended college, the education level of their parents seemed to make a difference. “My first [school assignment] letter said Fremont,” Macaraeg said. “My dad was mad. We went with him to the district. We waited really long to talk to them with a lot of people who looked disappointed.” Macaraeg’s father, the only person in her immediate family who went to college, waited in the line until he was able to speak with someone at the district, Macaraeg said. She wasn’t sure if it was that visit or her parents’ continual follow-up with the school, but in the end she was reassigned to LIFE Academy.
The other factor students cited over and over again was family connections. Macaraeg said her older cousins went to LIFE Academy and they helped lobby to get her into the small school. Marisol Martinez’s older sister went to Skyline High School. Martinez, 16, who was initially assigned to Fremont, might have followed her sister, but that wasn’t going to well. “My sister just dropped,” Martinez reported. “She had to go to continuation school because of Skyline. [My mom] didn’t want me to go down the same path.”
Preston Thomas, the principal of LIFE Academy, agrees that the amount of information about school choice available to kids and their parents varies greatly. Not only are some parents more energized about picking a high school for their child, but middle schools spend very different amounts of time helping their students decide on a high school, Thomas said. The more informed the student’s decision, the better, said Thomas, who believes choosing a high school is one of the most important decisions a kid growing up in Oakland has to make.
“Those first two years [of high school] are incredibly important to getting onto a four-year college path,” Thomas said. “If they figure that out later in high school, it’s too late.” He said many Oakland schools could do a much better job helping students think about their aspirations in eighth grade and even earlier, so they have a clear idea of their goal when they start high school. Once a student is deciding between four-year colleges, Thomas said, they are already set. “If choice is between Cal and Davis, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.
Hardy said she thought the district’s outreach to kids and their parents to explain the options process had to improve. “I think we have not ever done [outreach] well,” she said. “With the resources that we have, we tried to do some different things, but in some places there’s just a lot more information available.”
After they have gathered enough data to draw some conclusions, Hardy said her team would make recommendations to the district about systems that could be put in place to better inform students and parents about the choices they have within the Oakland public school system. Hardy expects to have those recommendations ready by early April.
Even if more parents are informed about how the options process works and more of them participate, it’s not clear yet which factors end up making a school appear desirable to a student or a parent. Perhaps surprisingly, the school’s academic performance may have very little to do with it. According to a survey of LIFE Academy’s incoming freshmen this September, fewer than a third of the 49 students surveyed said they cared about college and graduation rates or average standardized test scores. Even fewer cared about the school’s reputation or location. What did matter? Safety, size, interest in science and whether or not the school came recommended by a friend or family member.
“My parents were concerned where I would go,” LIFE student Yuvitza Rivera, 14, said. “Since it’s high school and all, this goes on your record. We went to see Oakland Tech, but I guess it didn’t seem like that good a school. Also, my cousin just kept telling me to come here.”
If you are a parent or student who wants to learn more about the options process, you can click here: OUSD Options Information. The deadline to submit an options form is January 14.
If you would like to participate in the task force led by Anika Hardy, you can attend the next meeting on January 3 at 6:30 at Coliseum College Prep. Check the OUSD calendar for updates or email anika.hardy AT ousd.k12.ca.us with questions. There will also be an open forum with the group’s initial findings presented in early February. The public is welcome to listen and comment.