Zarina Ahmad, principal of Piedmont Avenue Elementary in Oakland, put extra effort this year into creating a bright first day of school. She and her staff pasted a class list to the outside wall, with a photo of each teacher. Big orange cones separated children by their grades. Teachers ran a short pep rally, called the “Line Up to Learn.” Uniformed Oakland firemen welcomed kids into the school.
The extra hype was an effort to make students joining Piedmont from the recently closed Lakeview Elementary more comfortable at their new school. “Our staff was resilient,” Ahmad said. “We made sure the kids knew who everyone was, and that every new student had a buddy to go to if they had questions.”
Thirty students from Lakeview added to the Piedmont student body of about 360. Most of the other Lakeview students went to Burckhalter and Lincoln elementary schools. Lakeview is one of the five schools the Oakland Unified School District voted to shut in order to save money, causing a protest-filled summer. Over 100 parents, students, teachers and school staff attended protests, starting in mid-June and lasting throughout the summer, at Lakeview.
But the main problem on the first day of school at Piedmont, Ahmad said, was not protesting, but parking.
“It’s not a very parking-friendly area,” she said, referring to Piedmont Avenue, where the school is located. “The city provided us with two additional crosswalks with bright yellow lines, and ‘Pedestrian Crossing’ signs, so that should help.”
Parents who weren’t as affected by the changes are trying to help out as much as they can. “We’ve done our best to be as welcoming as possible,” said Nikole Wilson, a PTA member at Piedmont. “To have your school be closed down, and for it to be closed down in the manner that it was—I know the district did their best—but it was still a very fractious process, with lots of unhappy families.”
For many parents, the cost benefit, estimated at about $2 million, was not reason enough to shut down the schools. Wilson said the numbers didn’t make for a very compelling argument. But David Kakishiba, one of the Board of Education members who voted to close the schools and the director of the district in which Lakeview was located, said that there were more benefits than the $2 million.
“If you close down a shop, you’re going to automatically make money,” Kakishiba said. “But the other school consolidations that are beneficial for students get no mention in the protests.”
Kakishiba said that after the consolidations, other Oakland schools that had previously been under-enrolled would now be serving student to their capacities, which “just makes financial sense.” He gave the example of Oakland’s La Escuelita Elementary, which has expanded enrollment this year. Because of the increase in students, each grade will have its own class, Kakishiba said, unlike previous years, when two grades were consolidated into single classes.
“There’s obviously a lot of pain and trauma with the closing of the schools,” Kakishiba said. “But looking at it from a financial point of view, you can serve students with less schools.”
Now, with the decision made, Lakeview’s protest tent city dismantled, and the first week of school complete with no major problems, parents are focusing on settling their kids into their new environments, he said.
Clif Harrison is a Lakeview parent who was a little more affected than others. He has a daughter, a niece, a goddaughter and a few cousins who attended Lakeview who have now had to shift to other schools. His daughter, a second-grader, now attends Sankofa Academy in Oakland. He said his daughter is settling into the new school well.
“I took this as an opportunity to teach her not to let challenges defeat her and that the only failure is quitting,” he said. “We have a new perspective now. Her first day was very positive.”
As an active member of the discussions that took place about the school closings, Harrison said he was “disgusted” by the way the talks progressed. “It was apparent to me that the decision had already been made, and they were just doing talks with the community so they could say they had done them,” he said.
Though Kakishiba said the board is not making more preparations for further school closures, Harrison and others say they worry that this will be part of a bigger trend.
“I see consistent moves being made to drain resources from public schools,” said Harrison. “For now, we need to adjust. But I’m afraid of where moves like this will take us in the future.”