Oakland residents have watched their public school district grapple with big changes, including a state takeover, a return to local control, and the shift to multiple smaller schools, for more than a decade. Now the OUSD board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the most contentious issue in recent years: the closure of five elementary schools next fall, and 20 to 30 more over the next three years.
For two months, angry parents and teachers from the threatened schools have spoken out against Oakland school superintendent Tony Smith’s proposals for both an immediate and long-term drop in the city’s number of public schools. After several public meetings with the school board present, people are still trying to understand how Oakland came to create a total of 101 schools and why school officials now say they must cut that number down.
“The small schools movement occurred more or less with the movement for more charter schools,” board member Gary Yee said in an interview last week, as he tried to put the last ten years in context. “I was skeptical of small schools for a solution to declining quality,” Yee said. The term “small schools” came into popular usage as a trend toward these schools, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, grew across the United States in early 2000. Cities like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and San Diego joined the push to encourage schools with no more than 400 students, allowing more individual attention.
There were multiple educational experiments underway at the same time, Yee said—changes in how individual school campuses were managed, for example; as well as the increased popularity of publicly-funded but privately-run charter schools (Oakland has 35). Charters, unlike the new small schools, are run differently from other kinds of public schools and are not limited by such rules as collective bargaining or teacher seniority. “It’s not right to single out the small schools movement as the only thing,” Yee said.
The Oakland school board approved its New Small Autonomous Schools policy, which focused on the development of small schools, in 2000. “There was a lot of interest in all this as a solution,” Yee said. “For some, the small schools movement was an effort to keep people interested in different kinds of strategies in the school system, as opposed to the charters.”
These new schools, pushed by concerned parents who wanted transformation in schools in the “flatlands,” the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods of East and West Oakland, gained support from private sources. “Oakland already had quite a bit of schools,” said Betty Olson-Jones, president of Oakland Education Association, the union that represents teachers. “But flatland kids in particular were getting an inferior education.”
Partnering with The Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (now known as The National Equity Project) and an initial $15.7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, more than 45 new smaller institutions were created in Oakland. Large schools in the district were closed, or began housing more than one school within a single building or campus. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested over $40 million in Oakland school reform before ceasing funding.
From the beginning, Olson-Jones said, leaders of the teachers union were concerned about the risks of using so much foundation money to effect changes in the schools. “But people were hoping the future would take care of itself,” she said.
But after ten years, the district is pressed for cash and not as stable as people hoped. According to an OUSD’s budget report this year, the district’s major money problems include “low levels of funding…probably the last in the nation now;” and the volatility of existing funding, which the report called “totally unpredictable.”
A decrease in number of students—in the last ten years, enrollment in the district has dropped 30 percent—has added to the district’s financial challenges. Currently, according to official calculations, a public school in Oakland needs at least 380 kids to support itself. “We are facing the worst budget crisis in generations for public education,” said Jonathan Klein, a board member at GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that includes Oakland parents and teachers. “There are more than 800 less people working for OUSD today than two years ago. Just massive cuts, and more cuts are on the way.”
Board members, who have the power to approve or reject Smith’s plans, are feeling the pressure. “It’s really bad,” board member Jumoke Hodge said in a telephone interview. “We cut $150 million dollars last year to maintain schools. A lot of those cuts are happening away from the classroom.”
By now, with the budget continuing to shrink, the district operates 101 schools for 38,000 students, a much higher ratio than those of nearby comparably-sized districts. In March this year, MK Think, a facilities firm OUSD hired as part of superintendent Smith’s strategic plan, released a report showing the district had so much excess capacity, given no growth in student numbers, that it could enroll another 10,900 students.
According to OUSD spokesman Troy Flint, Smith worked with MK Think and a school district department called Quality Community Schools Development (QCSD) to develop his plan. “It’s a cross-district effort,” Flint said. Among the factors considered when recommending schools for closure, Flint confirmed, were building capacity, enrollment percentages, school performance rank, and population density around school buildings, “We used census data heavily,” Flint said.
On Oct. 26, the board is scheduled to vote on Smith’s plan: Five elementary schools—Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell and Sante Fe—to be closed in 2012. Two elementary schools—Burckhalter and Kaiser—to be either enlarged for more students or relocated to somewhere else in Oakland. A merger, between Madison Middle School and Sobrante Park Elementary, that would create a K-12 school in just over a year.
In addition, seven high schools that are now small schools on the Fremont and Castlemont campuses—College Prep & Architecture, East Oakland’s School of the Arts, Information Technology School, Leadership Preparatory, Mandela Academy, Media Academy and Youth Empowerment School—have already started the process of merging back into two schools.
Hundreds of Oakland residents are expected at Wednesday’s board meeting. OUSD has tried to reduce the number of school in the district before. Four schools—East Oakland Community High School, Kizmet Academy, Merritt Middle College High School, and Sherman Elementary School—were closed in 2006. The following year, Burckhalter Elementary and Sankofa Academy, both comprised predominantly of black students, were placed on the chopping block by then state schools administrator Vincent Matthews.
But public pressure succeeded in keeping both Burckhalter and Sankofa open. Two years later, Smith recommended the closure of Tilden Elementary School, Business and Entrepreneurship School of Technology (BEST), Explore Middle School and Paul Robeson School of Visual and Performing Arts. All of them have been shuttered.
The district, still working to help flatland schools, chose not to consider any West Oakland schools for closure this year. “That was very intentional,” said Hodge, who wants to see “real effective reform in the west.” She paused. “Here comes the issue of equity,” she said. “If people have not been given resources, how can you expect them to compete? It’s [focusing on West Oakland schools] an attempt to level the playing field.”
Troy Flint, OUSD’s spokesperson, confirmed in an interview with Oakland North last month that West Oakland schools are the district’s priority. “West Oakland schools have not been served as well,” Flint said. “We are addressing that. East Oakland has benefited from small schools more.”
One factor in the closures recommendations that has particularly angered parents and teachers is the question of neighborhood kids in each school—the number of students who live right nearby. In recent years, Oakland has allowed parents to request any school in the district for their children, no matter where they live in Oakland. As a result, schools in some neighborhoods have a low number of students enrolled and in some cases are being targeted for closure.
“There’s always a tension between choice and neighborhood schools,” said board member Yee. This argument, kids attending schools in different communities, has been underway since Oakland and other school districts first introduced the idea of busing kids away from their neighborhood schools to improve racial desegregation. “It was an effort to integrate schools based around ethnicity,” board member Yee said, “Our current so-called ‘option’ process is different because parents provide transportation themselves,” he said.
Board members cannot discontinue the options process entirely, as the No Child Left Behind federal legislation includes requirements allowing parents to move their children out of failing schools. However, the district can aspire to more neighborhood focus on schools. “We hope to transform the school district and have people come back to their own neighborhoods,” Hodge said.
But some are arguing that the district’s push for more neighborhood schools could re-segregate children by race and class. “Why do you want to focus on neighborhood schools in a heavily segregated city like Oakland?” said Zeus Leonardo, a professor of education at UC Berkeley, during a meeting Jody London attended last week. “Comments [by board members] on community involvement suggest schools fail or succeed by an act of will,” he said, “which really underplays differences in resources and racial and class makeup.”
The next board meeting that will approve or reject Smith’s recommendations will be held on Oct. 26 at Oakland Tech High School from 5 to 9 p.m.
Oakland North will have live Twitter feeds from the board meeting on Wednesday, follow us here.