School is out and parents who disagree with the Oakland Unified School District board’s decision to close five elementary schools—Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell and Sante Fe—at the end of this school year are protesting by building an encampment on the Lakeview campus, just off Grand Avenue.
The sit-in began on Friday, June 15—after the last day of school—with the demand that the district keep all neighborhood schools open. The parents participating in the encampment say that schools in the flatlands, which predominantly serve under-represented minority groups, are the only ones targeted for closure. The district currently plans to turn Lakeview into administrative offices.
Over a hundred disgruntled parents, teachers, and community activists showed no sign of growing tired after fighting to keep schools open for over 10 months as they held a rally on Saturday afternoon and spent the rest of the day talking about their tent city of approximately nine tents. They brought in several speakers for the crowd, chanted slogans in front of the school and encouraged a day-long sit-in after the rally. There is no cut off date for the encampment—they intend to live in the tent city and rally until their demands are met. “We plan on reopening the school,” said an Oakland teacher who is camping at Lakeview and wanted to remain anonymous. “We have no plans to leave.”
Over the summer the protesters plan to open “The People’s School for Public Education,” their own school on the Lakeview site that will have teachers from Oakland and around the Bay Area work there as volunteers. “This is going to be the hub in Oakland, the place for public education,” said Joel Velasquez, a father with one son who attended Lakeview. “We are going to take back our public education system—it belongs to us.”
Parents have been getting help and advice from Occupy Oakland protesters. On Saturday, the scene had similarities to the Occupy Oakland encampment: tents on property owned by the city, remnants of a food line, filled dumpsters, and with a large bottle of instant hand sanitizer placed between the dumpster and Port-a-Potty, sanitation was a main concern. After the camp began on Friday, the district locked parents and their children out of the school’s bathroom facility. The protesters are currently using the Port-A-Potty, which is set to be removed on Monday. “After that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Velasquez, who voiced the same concern to school board member Alice Spearmen when she turned up at the encampment rally. “We understand their concern for the building, but we’re just families and parents and teachers.”
On Saturday there was no sign of police enforcement. Six kids slept in the encampment Friday night, while a large number showed up with their parents to rally during the day on Saturday. By nightfall Saturday, the number of kids was reduced to five with 10 parents on site, one of them adding another structure to the tent city. No Occupy protesters have slept on the Lakeview campus overnight.
“We had such a peaceful night with the families and the students and the teachers here,” said Velasquez of the mood in the camp on Friday night. “It just was a wonderful vibe. People were coming from the community to protect us. We had a 24-hour watch; basically people coming around the campus and making sure no one was coming onto the campus. People were showing up at 4 a.m. 3 a.m. 2 a.m. in the morning so it felt really good that people were coming down to make sure we were safe.”
Occupy protesters were a part of that protective coalition. “Occupy has been a tremendous help,” Velasquez said. “They came yesterday. They supplied some of the food. They worked really hard to feed the kids and the teachers and the family. They came and provided a PA [public address] system for us. We are very very grateful that they’ve respected our wishes, the principles around the action, and I think that the Occupy movement has changed and there understanding how to connect with parents, and teachers and students in the community. I’m very excited to see what the future brings for all of us.”
During Saturday’s rally one mother in the crowd called for parents to have their children spend their first day of school at a sit-in OUSD superintendent Tony Smith’s office. “If the seats are empty, they lose the money,” she said. Others are focused on the growth of the current encampment, bringing in more supporters, and making sure the upcoming election of school board members will change the district’s stance on school closures.
Spearmen (District 7) was the only board member to attend the rally on Saturday. Along with board member Noel Gallo (District 5), she was one of two board members who voted against the school closures. For the protest to make a difference, she said, the four board members who voted in favor of the closure would have to change their minds, and the board would have to re-evaluate which schools to close. “There’s some rotten school board members,” she said. “You have to be responsible board members. You have to know what your policies are and you have to stand by your policies. When they came up with the list of schools to close that list wasn’t vetted. Yes, we need to close schools but you have to close schools on criteria. We didn’t choose that criteria. The criteria was presented to us and its like ‘Yeah yeah yeah, that’s what staff says.’”
Spearman also said that the schools selected for closure have large minority student populations and none of them are “above Shattuck.”
While a number of schools in affluent neighborhoods in Oakland have a diverse student population, a larger number of parents in the “flatlands”—the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods of East and West Oakland—don’t have the means to drive their children to those locations, even if their children are enrolled in those schools through the OUSD’s options process. Elementary schools like Peralta, Sankofa Academy (formerly Bushrod Washington), Emerson, Kaiser (which was saved from permanent closure last year) and Chabot, are all considered “above Shattuck,” or closer to the affluent areas of the Oakland Hills. Parents say those schools lie within a geographic area in the city unscathed by school closures.
Nine other former OUSD public schools that had large black student populations—Burbank, Carter, Cole, Foster, John Swett, King Estates, Lowell, Sherman and Toler Heights—no longer exist and parents, teachers, and advocates say their closure shows a pattern that has existed for more than a decade of closing schools that serve minority students from low-income families.
A lawsuit, Pecot v. Smith, was filed in Alameda County Superior Court in April alleging that the district’s closures discriminate against minority groups. The lead plaintiff, Thearse Pecot, has three children at Santa Fe Elementary School, one of the schools slated to be closed.
As they marched along the sidewalk, gathered for the afternoon rally, and engaged with drivers who were waiting for the street light to change, the diverse crowd in front of Lakeview on Saturday repeated “Education is a right! Not just for the rich and white!”
As the rally ended around 4 p.m. people stayed active: carrying signs into the street to wave at drivers passing by, turning on music to keep people moving, discussing the launch of The People’s School through a free week-long summer program that will focus on social justice issues, and inviting everyone to see the encampment hidden behind signs Occupy Oakland protesters helped create. The protesters say they will continue to hold rallies every day at 2 p.m. “All of you are welcome to come [...] see the encampment,” Velasquez said to the crowd.
Update Monday, June 18: Campers given warning notice.
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.