Over a month into the new school year, Kaiser Elementary teacher Douglas Feague found himself in his principal’s office at lunch, digesting some difficult news: His position was being “consolidated.” In other words, the school could no longer afford an eleventh full-time teacher, and Feague, the least senior staff member, would need to relocate to a different school.
Teacher consolidations usually occur when fewer students enroll at a school than the district anticipates. The district gauges actual enrollment around the twentieth day of school and compares it to projections made the previous spring. For each missing student during the coming year, the school will lose about $5,000 in ADA (average daily attendance) funding from the state, which directly affects school site budgets, according to Oakland Unified School District spokesperson Troy Flint. Left with funding deficits, the district advises schools on what can be trimmed from their budgets, which can result in eliminating staff positions.
At Kaiser Elementary, the district projected that 294 students would enroll, but 23 fewer than that showed up. As a result, the school faced a $115,000 budget deficit, which the principal, district officials and Kaiser’s School Site Council (SSC)—an advisory group of parents and teachers elected by their peers tasked with evaluating the school’s performance and progress each year—were able to pare down to $26,000.
Suzy Hovland, SSC chair and a parent of a Kaiser second-grader, said they were able to cut down the budget gap by reallocating money set aside for things like classroom supplies, as well as by correcting some of the district’s “erroneous assumptions” about this year’s staffing. The district had believed that one of the most tenured teachers was still working at the school, when she was actually on sabbatical, Hovland said.
But the remaining $26,000 became the reason Feague, who teaches a combination fourth and fifth grade class, was told on October 8 that his 9 fifth graders and 19 fourth graders would then be taught by another Kaiser teacher. That teacher’s students would move into a newly created combination classroom.
“I don’t usually get teary in front of the kids, but it was hard because I deeply care about our community,” Feague said. He was given the option to choose one of several middle school positions in the district. But, he said, “I didn’t want to work in OUSD if I wasn’t working at Kaiser the rest of the year.”
Some teachers and parents argue that these mid-semester changes can be disruptive for students and teachers alike. “You’re asking [teachers] to jump into a whole new thing they’ve never tried before in the middle of the school year,” said fellow Kaiser teacher Steve Neat, the first vice president of Oakland Educational Association, the teacher’s union. “Not only is it rough on them, but it’s also rough on students.”
Kaiser teachers and parents also objected vehemently to losing a teacher, especially after the district put the school on its closure list last fall, which they say cast the school in a negative light, leading parents to enroll their kids elsewhere. “We’ve always had a waiting list—even before I got there I was always told we always had a waiting list,” said Renee Sanchez, Kaiser PTA president.
To some, the consolidation seemed to undercut the school’s efforts to stay open. “We feel we’ve worked really hard to stay open and growing,” said Maya Scott-Chung, parent of a Kaiser third-grader. “Then to have a teacher be taken away and shrinking our community really felt like we were getting our legs cut off when we were being told to run.”
This year, district-wide 14 classroom teachers relocated to other schools as a result of consolidation. Although the district did not have consolidation figures for previous years readily available, Flint said that consolidations have decreased “dramatically” over the past five years. But, he said, this year the slight increase in consolidations reflects the decrease in OUSD enrollment overall, which may be due to recent school closures and the loss of students who have chosen to attend charter or private schools. This year’s 20-day enrollment report showed an overall loss of about 1,750 students in district schools.
Flint said unanticipated charter school conversions—when new charter schools that were not approved by the district are approved by the county and unexpectedly enroll OUSD students—along with students moving to private schools, can throw off projections. “You often have the situation that the parents double enroll and don’t notify you that they’re not coming to the school until very late,” he said.
When Feague was notified of the district’s decision to consolidate his position, he immediately called his students’ parents to alert them to the situation; he urged them to contact the district on his behalf and ask that he be kept at the school.
By noon the next day, Kaiser Principal Darren Avent told Feague he could fill the spot of Diana Thomas, a Kaiser kindergarten teacher who was out on maternity leave. However, due to the $26,000 budget deficit, if Feague stayed, now Kaiser could no longer retain teacher Melissa Gale, who had just been hired to replace Thomas in late September. Instead, her 20 students would be divided among other classrooms, including a new kindergarten-first grade combination class.
Teachers and parents bristled at the idea of consolidating a position in a kindergarten classroom, which would affect the youngest students at the school. “They started with Ms. Thomas, who started the year and if I would have to leave, they would have a third person teaching them,” Gale said. “Some of them are very young and to have three classrooms and three teachers would be a very big deal for them. In terms of being in a kindergarten-first grade split class, that very much changes the tone of the classroom, and the amount of attention and work that they can get done, no matter how established the teacher is.”
After speaking against the consolidation at school board meetings to no avail, members of the Kaiser PTA decided to step in. They voted to raise the $26,000 to pay for part of Gale’s salary, preventing any teacher transitions or a combination classroom, so that Feague and Gale could remain in their positions.
The PTA has until next June to raise the funds. “It’s really frustrating what we have to do now,” said PTA president Sanchez. “It’s adding on top of our fundraising that we’re already doing and at the end of the year there aren’t any extras.”
The group kicked off a “$50,000 in 50 days” campaign in honor of the school’s 50th anniversary on October 26, which will put funds toward the school’s deficit by soliciting online donations from the greater community. “We’re trying to go more widely into our workplaces, families, neighbors and Kaiser alumni,” said Scott-Chung, who came up with the campaign idea. She said parents are working on setting up a donation website and will use social media to drive donations throughout the holiday season. New fundraising events are also in the works.
But while Feague and Gale have expressed their gratitude to the PTA, Feague also worries that the arduous task of raising this money will hurt the school in the long run, affecting funds for field trips, assemblies and other programs. The PTA already raises funds for the school’s computer lab and its instructor, along with “intervention consultants” who assist students outside of regular classes and now he said it may be expected to support a wider variety of staff members. “Who knows what kind of precedent this will set?” Feague said.
Meanwhile, parents from other schools like Cleveland Elementary near Lake Merritt had also voiced their objections to teacher consolidations, but were unable to prevent them. After Cleveland missed its projected enrollment of 375 by about 29 students, the position of teacher Alisia Graf, who co-taught a special integrated kindergarten class for both general education and special needs students, was consolidated. Six students were moved to other classrooms and the remaining teacher now handles a class of 5 special needs students and 15 general education students on her own.
Cleveland parents say that the loss of Graf has adversely affected the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of special needs students in the class. An IEP is a written plan outlining the type of educational services a special needs student requires in order to meet his or her goals, which must be met by the district under law.
Yodit Kiflit said she specifically brought her son, who has autism, to Cleveland for the unique set-up of the integrated kindergarten classroom. Eliminating the second teacher in the class “pretty much changed the whole placement and arrangement that we agreed to” in her son’s IEP, she said. “I feel that my child is being cheated. He needs more than what [the remaining teacher] is able to do for him right now. That’s not due to any fault of her own.” Kiflit is one of three Cleveland parents who have filed complaints with the district regarding their children’s IEPs.
Lisa Nakamura, Cleveland PTA member and parent of a general education student in the affected class, said that Kaiser’s plan to fundraise to keep their teachers was inspiring, but that she had not been aware a PTA could raise money to prevent consolidation. “Looking at Kaiser’s model, it really gives me a lot of hope. If we have more collaboration, there is a lot more that can be done,” Nakamura said. “It’s something we’re hoping to work on with [Cleveland’s] interim principal.”
Even so, Nakamura acknowledged that not all schools have the capacity to raise those kinds of funds. “Fifty-five percent of our students are socio-economically disadvantaged, so we have less resources to really bridge some of the gaps,” she said. “There’s only so much we can fundraise with the parents that are coming into the school. There’s a lot of sensitivity about that.”
As the school options program enrollment period begins in December, which allows OUSD parents and students to register for any school in the district, the pressure is on for schools affected by low enrollment to market themselves. Parents who are wondering where to send their children next year will take tours and attend school “open houses” to assist in their decisions by the time the options enrollment period closes on January 18.
Scott-Chung said the Kaiser community is vigorously advertising both the school and its fundraising campaign by word of mouth. “We have families going to every single neighborhood, going to libraries, cafes and bookstores,” she said. “They’re bringing fliers all over the community about our tours and our public events to bring people into the school.”
“I think right now we really do need to advertise our school to let people know we are still here and even with this issue, we’re going to be around,” Sanchez said, adding, “This is a school of fighters.”