Parents, teachers and students wearing green Kaiser Elementary t-shirts and holding colorful banners gathered outside the Paul Robeson building before the Oakland school board meeting Wednesday evening, in protest against the combining of the school’s kindergarten and first grade classes.
Kaiser Elementary is one of 13 district schools facing teacher consolidations, which OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint said are being implemented due to lower student enrollment. As a result, schools will be losing teachers, with some being asked to combine two grade levels in one classroom.
In a recent letter from Principal Darren Avent, Kaiser parents were told that their fourth and fifth grade teacher Douglas Feague, who was originally targeted to relocate under the consolidation plan, would be able to remain at the school to replace a teacher on maternity leave. But 11 first-graders and 17 kindergarteners still need to be combined into one classroom, the letter said. Steve Neat, a fifth-grade teacher at Kaiser and a vice president of the Oakland Educational Association, the teachers’ union, addressed the crowd outside before the meeting. “They’re feeling the pressure,” he said. “We have to watch out for compromise. The compromise we’re looking for is zero.”
“We’re asking them not to consolidate,” said Valerie Helmond, the mother of a Kaiser kindergartener and fourth grader. “We’re working really hard,” Helmond said. “We’re under-enrolled because of the possible school closure earlier this year.”
The board heard more than twenty speakers object to combination classrooms at Kaiser Elementary. Parents from Cleveland Elementary and Brookfield Elementary also spoke out against the combination of kindergarten and first grade classes at their schools, arguing that mixing students at different developmental and academic stages unfairly puts the district’s youngest children—who are just beginning their school careers—at a disadvantage.
“We stand by you, Kaiser,” said Cleveland Elementary parent Nipa Rahim, who has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in first grade. Rahim had also attended the previous school board meeting on September 27, with a contingent of Cleveland parents, to protest the consolidation of their kindergarten and first grade classes.
The district’s plans for special education also came under scrutiny Wednesday evening, as Karen Mates, the new special education department director, made her first appearance before the board since her hiring this summer. Mates, who formerly led special education for Marin County’s Tamalpais Union High School District, outlined the challenges facing Oakland’s program and the goals she would like to meet, which include bringing more special education students into general education classrooms, and pulling OUSD students currently receiving services at private schools back into public schools.
Programs for Exceptional Children, the district’s special education department, oversees more than 5,000 students, or 13 percent of the OUSD student body.
Mates’ presentation came after a series of events regarding proposed budget cuts at the end of the last school year—proposals that included dropping program specialists and classroom aides. After community protest, the board voted in June to delay the proposed cuts as long as the superintendent and staff involved parents and the public in future special education plans.
Just days before the first day of the school year, the district also issued reassignment notices to nearly 30 resource specialists. These specialists serve special education students in general education classrooms—and their relocation to other schools caused confusion and frustration among teachers and parents.
“Resource specialists reassignments were based on insufficient data, and certainly no community or union or teacher input before it happened,” Oakland Education Association president Trish Gorham said after Wednesday’s meeting, adding that the abrupt changes “broke longstanding community relationships and trust.”
Though the district eventually reversed about half the issued reassignments, Gorham said, “There are still teachers out there who want to be returned to their original assignments.”
“It’s like a constant emergency,” said Cintya Molina, chair of the Community Advisory Committee for the district’s special education department. This committee, made up of parents, teachers and community members, has the power under state law to advise the district on its special education services and policies. On Wednesday, committee members voiced their concerns about the district’s failure to consult with them before making further program changes. “I have heard from someone from the administrative level for the first time this week,” Molina said Thursday morning. “I welcome that call, but that’s the first time.”
Members of the school board also expressed disappointment on Wednesday that the special education department had not held meetings with the community to talk about future plans and goals.
“There are number of stakeholders in the community that want to participate in that planning process, not for the sake of participating, but to get work done,” board member David Kakishiba said. “I’d like to express my disappointment and my full 100 percent expectation that there’s going to be a 180-degree turnaround by next month.”
Board member Noel Gallo said the superintendent and staff should face consequences if they don’t “follow our directives.”
Mates responded to the board’s inquiries by saying that the department will be hosting teacher and parent focus groups in October and November to draft a strategic plan that will be presented to the board in May.
In other matters, board member Kakishiba asked his colleagues to address the issue of too many students enrolling in kindergarten at Crocker Highlands Elementary—which he said may be due in part to the board’s approval of expanding the school’s attendance boundaries the board approved earlier this year. The board agreed to take action on the matter at the next meeting on October 24.