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School closures loom, but Sankofa likely to remain open next year

on December 9, 2009

Sounding almost as though she were accepting an award, Monique Brinson, the principal of Sankofa Academy in North Oakland, wanted to make sure all the important people were thanked by name.

“Please include Tony Smith, Denise Sadler, and Jody London,” Brinson said, reeling off the names of Oakland’s Superintendent, the Elementary School Network One Officer, and the District One School Board member. “All three have given me a wealth of support and I’m really honored to be a part of the Oakland School District.”

This weekend, the school district published recommendations for “focus schools” that have been singled out for their struggles with low enrollment, low academic performance, or both. The possibilities for all the schools on this list included closure, restructuring or conversion to charter. The recommendation for Sankofa, a small K-5 school on 61st St and Shattuck, was pretty much: keep doing what you’re doing, but increase enrollment.

In other words, the Sankofa doors will likely remain open next year.

The recommendations the district issued over the weekend, though they are the result of many hours of consideration by district staff and the superintendent, were technically just suggestions. They will not be official until the board votes on them next week at their December 16 meeting. The suggestions for nine of the dozen schools on the original list were not as rosy as they were for Sankofa however, and ranged from “increase academic rigor” to “closure.” A special board meeting will be held Wednesday night to discuss these recommendations, and district spokesperson Troy Flint said he expects a “big turnout.”

In the case of the three schools given the green light–Sankofa in North Oakland, Burkhalter in East Oakland, and Howard in Eastmont–there is no indication that the board will overturn the district’s recommendation to to keep the schools open. All three are elementary schools that serve minority populations and are “green tier” schools, meaning they are considered by the district to be doing well academically. Brinson said she was proud of her fellow elementary school colleagues and appreciated the way the district was thinking “outside of the box.”

“I’m elated that we will be able to continue providing this experience,” Brinson said, “where I’m hoping there’s a nexus of rigor and care.”

Sankofa’s standardized test scores have been climbing since the school became a K-5 for the 2007-2008 year. Scores went up by 183 points between 2007 and 2009. The largely African American student body at Sankofa now boasts an average score of 719, nearly 100 points higher than the average for all African American students in Oakland.

“Sankofa has just made amazing progress,” Jody London said of the school’s recovery. “It’s like it’s back from the dead. We have to give that school a chance to really stretch, especially with a new leader in place.”

The school will be stretching next year. Brinson said two K-2 special education classes for autistic children will be added at her school site next fall.  Brinson is thrilled.

“This follows the model I have always wanted to have,” Brinson said. “The fact that I will have both general education and special education classes at my school is very exciting.”

These new classes will boost enrollment. Sankofa currently has only 111 students. Though many argue that the benefits of low enrollment at a well-run school outweigh the costs, the district needs to trim $27 million from its budget for the 2010-2011 school year, and up to $100 million over the next three years if the cuts from the state keep coming.

Concerns like these bring London pause. “I was really glad to see that there was different thinking about how to proceed,” regarding Sankofa, London said. “What I can’t guarantee is what will happen next year.”

Though she hastened to add that she didn’t have any specifics in mind, London said, “We have a high carrying cost. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to keep operating the number of the schools that we run.”

The board meeting Wednesday will address both budget issues and the district’s recommendations to accelerate the closure of Tilden Elementary School, BEST High School, and Paul Robeson School of Visual and Performing Arts. These schools had already been slated to close, but were in the process of an extended phase-out process that will now be cut short. Explore Middle School has also been recommended for closure.

District staff members have refrained from making more than general recommendations for the six other schools on the original “focus” list. These are Far West High School, Leadership Preparatory High School, East Oakland School of the Arts, Castlemont Business Information and Technology, Youth Empowerment School, Martin Luther King Elementary School, and Lafayette Elementary School. No decision is expected on exactly what will happen with these schools on December 16 either.

Instead, the district will be significantly increasing its outreach in those school communities starting in January, district spokesperson Troy Flint said. Among the options to be discussed will be school redesign, school consolidation, and conversion to a charter school.

Wednesday night’s meeting is open to public comment and will take place at 6 pm in the Paul Robeson Boardroom at the district offices in downtown Oakland (1025 Second Ave.) The board will officially vote on the closures at the regularly scheduled meeting on December 16.

1 Comment

  1. […] Sankofa Elementary, Burkhalter Elementary and Howard Elementary were taken off the potential closure/restructure list for now, as a result of their recent improved academic standing, but the recommendations called for these schools to work toward increasing enrollment and special education services. (For more on Sankofa’s situation, an elementary in North Oakland, see here.) […]

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