On Saturday morning parents, students, volunteers and school district staff held hands as they danced to the beat of a drum in the gymnasium of Fruitvale’s United Academy for Success as part the Oakland Unified School District’s first Back to School Festival. They formed a circle, led by members of the Medicine Warriors, a Native American dance troupe. “This dance signifies friendship and unity,” George Galvis of the Native American community center Intertribal Friendship House said to the crowd.
The free festival, which was open to all Oakland parents, students and community members, was organized by the school district’s family, schools and community partnerships department to provide families with information on how to support their children throughout the new school year, which started on August 27. It also introduced families to community services and programs available to them that are run by the school district and other Oakland organizations. The day’s theme was “Many Cultures, One Oakland,” which acknowledged the diversity of Oakland’s student body and the district’s goal to serve each cultural group equally.
“We want to start the school year off celebrating culture and celebrating the work that is currently happening in our schools to build unity and build alliances across cultures,” said Raquel Jimenez, the OUSD coordinator for youth, family and community engagement and lead organizer of Saturday’s event.
Following the performances by the Medicine Warriors, the welcome program featured three representatives of Oakland Parents Together (OPT), an organization for parents of Oakland public school students. Judith Namoki, Victoria Figg and Maria Silva all spoke briefly about their experiences as parents who became active in their children’s schools, emphasizing the importance of volunteerism and communicating with other parents.
Namoki, who is also active in the Native American community and serves as a grade school tutor, talked about nurturing cultural pride. “A tree needs roots in order to stand tall and stay firm,” she said, adding that understanding one’s culture creates confidence. “Someone that doesn’t know their roots can be easily swayed because they’re looking for that identity.”
Namoki said OPT focuses on building a “school family as well as a home family” because students spend so much of their time at school. “We are all family,” she said about parents after the presentation. “We’re all important and our opinions matter.”
Figg said that too often “parents don’t speak to each other” despite the amount of time their children spend together in school, and it is important to talk about “the struggles we all go through in any culture.”
Throughout the day, parents attended “school readiness” workshops led by community organizers and district staff, which were divided by grade levels. Middle and high school students who attended the event also participated in a separate workshop for students. Topics ranged from attendance to parent-teacher conferences to graduation requirements. “We’re just setting up a space for people to talk about the good things that are happening at their school, but also a safe space for people to talk about anything that they experienced as far as disrespect, any hurt that they’re carrying so we can, as a community, hold that together and begin healing,” said Jimenez.
At lunch time, parents and students were able to visit booths in the courtyard manned by organizations like the Alameda County Social Services Agency, which shared information about Medi-Cal health coverage and handed out food stamp applications; the East Oakland Youth Development Center, which passed out brochures detailing their Pathway to College program; and the Native American Community Health Center, which provided diabetes and high blood pressure screenings. Parents were encouraged to visit each organization’s booth in exchange for a raffle ticket for prizes that were given away at the end of the day.
East Oakland resident Erika Romero, her sister Elizabeth, and her two sons Erick and Kevin checked out the free school supplies table which had been filled with binders, composition books, folder paper and other items donated by Office Depot and Barnes and Noble earlier in the morning. Only a few pens and notepads remained by lunch time. “I’m here for information on all these because I need to learn more,” Romero said, pointing to the festival’s “passport,” which listed all the community organizations present at the event.
Devina Whitley and her son Mihaloni, an eighth grade student at United Academy for Success, were also perusing the booths in the courtyard. “We came down here to see what was going on,” she said. “We’re going to try to attend as much as we can. There’s a college prep workshop that I would love for him to sit in on.”
Jimenez said that while nearly 600 parents preregistered for the event, fewer than half that figure actually attended. “I’m a little thrown back by the turnout,” she said, adding that she wasn’t sure why those who preregistered did not show up, and that she had expected the event to be well-attended given the positive response they received at three similar events held this spring. At that time, the district had facilitated three culture-specific parent conferences—one for African American parents, one for Latino parents, and one for Asian and Pacific Islander parents—and each drew a crowd of 200 to 300 people, she said.
Jimenez said her team will continue to work on events like these throughout the school year and focus on having “concrete ways for people to feel that there is a role for them but also that we welcome and want their support. That’s the critical piece.”