Oakland Unified School District may soon have to consider one of the least popular moves a school district can make: closing schools. In short, the district has room for 10,900 more students than it’s serving, and not a single extra dollar to spend on maintaining empty space.
MK Think, a firm that specializes in developing strategic ways for organizations to use facilities, presented the numbers at a community meeting held by the education non-profit, Great Oakland Public Schools, on Thursday night. OUSD hired the firm as part of Superintendent Tony Smith’s strategic plan to develop a high quality, sustainable portfolio of schools for Oakland’s children. The plan calls for ten “task forces” to explore topics from effective teaching to full-service schools. MK Think is part of the task force looking at facilities usage.
“There’s a lot of fear out there,” Hai Sin Thomas of Great Oakland Public Schools, said when introducing the MK Think presenters. “We can’t be afraid of change. We can’t be afraid of looking at data, hard data, and making good decisions. We are not opposed to closing schools, but we think the community should be included.”
The district owns 95 campuses on nearly 500 acres throughout the city, Nate Goore of MK Think said. The buildings can accommodate up to 51,348 students, but only 41,440 students attend school in district facilities. The gap, Goore said, represented a chance for the district to turn a current financial drain into a financial gain.
Neither MK Think, nor Great Oakland Public Schools, will be responsible for making the final decision about which, if any, school buildings are closed or re-appropriated – perhaps to short-term tenants who will use the buildings as office space or to community centers that host a range of public services in addition to public school programs.
Thomas emphasized that closing school buildings does not necessarily equate to closing school programs.
For example, she said, Chabot Elementary in the Rockridge neighborhood is a quality elementary education program. Students there score well on standardized tests and parent surveys show high satisfaction with the school. Were the program to be moved to a different building though, there’s no reason that it wouldn’t continue to be a quality program, Thomas said. Thomas said she was not suggesting the district close the Chabot building, but that her goal was to push people to think creatively about how to best use the district’s available space.
“We have programs that are stuck in tiny buildings,” even though they could attract more students, she said. She pointed to Hillcrest Elementary in the North Oakland Hills as an example. The Hillcrest building has the capacity for 210 students, but nearly 350 attend the popular elementary program.
“Then we have schools that have huge buildings and a tiny population,” Thomas said. McClymonds High School in West Oakland, for example, can house more than 1,000 students, but only 237 students are enrolled there.
After the initial presentation of data, the audience – seated around small tables in groups of six or eight – was asked to discuss what they had heard. Each group had a print-out of maps MK Think had created to illustrate the capacity and structure of Oakland’s school facilities.
One person at each table had a list of questions meant to facilitate the discussion. John Colton led the discussion at a table near the center of the room. He wanted more specifics. “Which schools are at what capacity?” Colton wanted to know.
(The presenters had provided a sheet with enrollment numbers that could be cross-referenced with the maps, but it was a tricky process, especially since so many school programs in Oakland have different names than the buildings they are housed in.)
Junious Williams, who runs the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, said he was more concerned about the people at the schools. “It’s a nice exercise,” to talk about capacity, he said, “but race, class, values… You can’t do that on a map.”
For three teachers from Futures Elementary on the Lockwood campus in East Oakland, race and class were at the forefront of their thoughts while they examined a map showing which elementary schools feed into which middle schools.
Laura Gosewisch teaches fifth grade. She had noticed that most of the low-income, minority students who went to her elementary school stayed in the same neighborhood for middle school. “I’m just thinking about why our kids do stay around here. It’s a lot for transportation issues,” Gosewisch said.
“And it makes sense – it’s a good option,” her colleague, Sarah Upstill, added. Upstill said it was convenient for parents to have their different-aged kids all attending schools within walking distance of home.
“But it’s not a great option,” Monica Valerian, the third Futures teacher, argued.
Valerian allowed that the neighborhood structure made some sense, “but then you’re talking about super segregated schools. Also, we don’t necessarily want our kids to be stuck just in their neighborhood,” when there are beautiful schools in other neighborhoods. “It’s just not fair.”
MK Think will present this data again at a March 9 school board meeting. They will also present some potential scenarios for moving school programs and closing or re-appropriating school buildings.
No final decisions will be made until the data from all of the task forces task forces come in, Josh Jackson of MK Think said. Jackson expects to receive additional information about about current school operations and needs, he said. The new information will help inform MK Think’s work, but ultimately the tough decisions will be up to the board.
“It’s really about connecting these bricks and mortar issues with all of the people that are part of the system,” Jackson said.
March 12, 2011: The school board has added the MK Think data to their website, but it’s hard to find so I’ve uploaded it here for you. It’s a pretty large file and has more data than what was presented at the meeting I covered above.