The People’s School for Public Education is nearly a week old.
Protesters, including parents of students at Lakeview Elementary and members of Occupy Oakland, continued to occupy the Oakland Unified School District elementary school across from the Grand Lake Theater on Thursday, holding classes like gardening, art and social justice for the dozen or so adolescents present.
Protesters started occupying the school—one of five in the district scheduled to close permanently this week in an effort to save the OUSD $2 million—on June 15, the last day of school. They built a tent city and demanded the school be re-opened and that Superintendent Tony Smith resign. The group held rallies over the weekend, and on Monday, began its own volunteer-run school inside the building. Though stay-away orders posted by OUSD police officers have gone up every morning this week, and there has been a police presence at the school, Joel Velasquez, a Lakeview parent and protest organizer, said the school is going strong and building momentum.
“With the exception of a few people intimidated by the police here, people are still coming back every day,” Velasquez said. “We’re seeing many parents and teachers. For example, the mother who brought her son wants to now come and teach. And that’s kind of how this has been going.”
OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint said that as of Thursday afternoon, the situation at the school was “status quo.” While Flint said district officials “reserve the right to escort the demonstrators off the premises” they still have not, and “nothing has really changed in the past couple days” with the exception that on Wednesday and Thursday, Lakeview teachers returned to their classrooms to clean them out and pack up their belongings. Flint said that was scheduled for earlier in the week but postponed because of “the disruption.”
“Apart from that, I’d say we remain at a standoff with the protestors,” Flint said. “There has been intermittent contact, but we regard their demands as extreme, and I don’t see where there’s any opportunity for middle ground, at this point.”
The entrance to Lakeview on Grand Avenue was guarded by Occupy Oakland protesters on Thursday, who tried to limit who came and went from the school to only parents and students. Inside the campus, elementary-school aged children worked in the garden and then inside the classroom of longtime Lakeview teacher Pamela Chinn-Scoffern on art projects, including designing a logo for the People’s School.
Nirali Jani, who lives near Lakeview, sat behind her 3-year-old son at the art table on Thursday afternoon. Jani said she was hoping to send her son to Lakeview when he got old enough because “this is our neighborhood school.” When Jani heard about the protest this week, she decided to pull her son out of preschool in the afternoon and bring him to the People’s School. Thursday was his first day.
“The activities here are really beautiful, and hands-on, and I felt like since it’s summertime I wanted to get our hands dirty,” Jani said as she watched her son draw at the table. “I think it’s important to be around parents and teachers who are building together.”
As she was leaving campus when classes ended at 3 pm, Jani spoke with Velasquez about returning to the school next week to help teach a social justice course. Still, she knows police could move in at any time and evict the protesters. “I see it as an inevitability,” Jani said.
Chinn-Scoffern, who is sympathetic to the protest and allows classes to be taught in her classroom, was cleaning up her room Thursday afternoon, her final day at the school after 25 years. Chinn-Scoffern said she decided to “retire early” instead of going to teach at a different school next year.
As she cleaned, Chinn-Scoffern encouraged her co-workers attend a rally scheduled for Saturday, when protesters will march from Frank Ogawa Plaza to the school, starting at noon.
But Chinn-Scoffern said she thinks that the encampment at the school can’t last forever. “At some point, the district is going to come in and run everybody out,” She said. “Hopefully, they will just find another area to continue it, and have the movement grow.”