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You Tell Us: Searching for the right kindergarten

on January 18, 2011

As sure as it’s the New Year, it’s also school selection season in Oakland. Obsessing about kindergarten is one of those things almost every middle-class parent here does, as normal as buying a family membership at the zoo. So, parents are touring private school after private school.

“It’s a nightmare,” sighed one mom to me in the library, lamenting her packed schedule. A well-meaning dad in the grocery store explained, “Well, we only have one, so we can do it. What are you going to do? You have two! That’s going to cost twice as much!” Some are taking on additional jobs in order to afford it all. Many are planning moves to different districts, or scheming to fake their addresses. But I love my child so much, they say. She’s sensitive, smart, gets bored easily, loves art, is so good at numbers, can’t sit still, is young for her age, is old for her grade, needs small classes, will be a GATE student, has to play sports…I just want what’s best for her, the best. And, despite all of this expense and angst, many are freely dismissing Oakland public schools without ever stepping inside of one.

Why is this? I’ve participated in (and, I’ll confess, eavesdropped on) many conversations about local schools, and this talk almost always has a certain Oakland flavor––sheer panic. But is it justified?

I will readily admit that as the mom of a four-and-a-half-year-old, I have had many sleepless nights considering the Kindergarten Question. I love my son just as much as anyone could love a child, so of course I want what’s right for him. And I know that there are problems with Oakland schools…lots and lots of problems, probably infinity problems, to quote said four-and-a-half-year-old. As a particularly honest principal told me the very first time we met, “If you aren’t concerned about Oakland schools, then you don’t have your eyes wide open.”

I agree. As a former Oakland teacher, I have my stories. But I’m also a former Piedmont teacher, and I have troubling tales from that district as well. In fact, I know teachers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Lafayette, Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, Pleasanton, Los Altos, and Santa Cruz, and they all have concerns and worries about their schools.

This is because public schools and school districts here are complicated, largely because they serve the amazingly varied public of the Bay Area and make do with less than what they need. Oakland appears to have more diversity and problems than most districts. But just because there are difficulties in Oakland schools doesn’t mean that there is nothing here worth exploring or investing in; still, many parents don’t, partly because it’s just so easy to bash Oakland schools as a whole.

My own school research began four years ago. It started with my dream of a nice little neighborhood school: short commute, easy-to-find playmates, and a sense of community close to home. I come from a family of teachers that believes in public schools in a way that borders on the religious––we think society benefits in every way from having a well-educated public, not just a well-educated privileged few. We believe that if families with wealth and power stay in public schools, the schools will be better for everyone.

Besides my overall aversion to private schools on principle, there’s the money. Neither my husband nor I want to work a whole lot more to pay for private school. Our family benefits from the time we spend with each other instead of at work. (Even if we did have the money, we can think of a lot of things we’d rather do together, as a family, with the $100,000–$150,000 it would cost just to get our first son through the fifth grade.)

So, knowing that my children only need one good elementary school, I started with the Oakland public school closest to my home. It’s not one of the coveted “hills” schools. Many of the kids receive free or reduced-fee lunch. Most of the kids are not white (mine are). And the API scores are not terribly impressive (if you’re into that kind of thing). Chances are, unless you’ve talked to me, you may not have even heard of it.

My search ended at that school. Four years later, it’s the one I name when people ask, “So, where’s your kid going to kindergarten?” And maybe because I’m white, maybe because my kid goes to a preschool where most of the families seem to have more than enough money, maybe because the people asking me know I don’t live in a “good” attendance area, it is nearly always assumed that my family is on the private school circuit. So, when the questioner hears my answer, the first reaction is usually, “Oh really? Where is that?” followed by a pause, where I can almost hear the unspoken thought...How did I miss that one? When I say, “Oh, it’s the neighborhood school closest to my house. You know, a public school,” a certain look often crosses the other parent’s face. It’s the one I might get if I casually told someone I was breeding and raising cobras in the comfort of my own home––a clearly fascinated yet horrified look that says, Oh my God. Why?

By now you may be thinking, surely, she’s a little too sensitive. Maybe I am. But here are some of the unsolicited comments I’ve gotten (all from people who’ve never had a child enrolled at the school):

“That’s a horrible school!” was nearly spat at me at a birthday party (prior to the spitter learning that’s where my child would likely go).

“Have you seen that school? It’s a sea of black heads!” whispered a neighbor (about three months before moving to a homogeneous, wealthy nearby town).

“I go by that playground and what I see there scares me.” (I too go by the playground almost every day and have yet to find anything scary about elementary kids playing basketball or planting seeds in the garden.)

“Kids don’t learn there!”

Were I made of weaker stuff, I would take these comments as an indictment of my parenting. And, they are so wrong in so many ways that I would like to say I was surprised by them. But I wasn’t.

Privileged white people make up a lot of things about disadvantaged people of color. And everyone can be good at making up all kinds of things about the unknown. So really, is race the reason people are rejecting Oakland schools? I can’t know for sure.

What I do know is that unlike the people quoted above, I have, through a combination of luck and persistence, spent considerable time gathering real information about my child’s future school. What I have found is caring, creative, top-notch teaching amidst challenging conditions. The principal is young, smart, energetic, and working hard to meet the needs of a diverse community, which has arrived at her school’s doorstep from all over the world, speaking eleven different languages at last count. There are also loads of down-to-earth parents who love their kids, are proud of them, and appreciate the environment their kids get to be a part of each day. I’ve watched adorable kindergarteners perform plays and had fifth graders earnestly tell me about inspiring women they have researched. I’ve heard beautiful music the students have practiced and performed. And I’ve witnessed the frustrations of adults who struggle with getting these kids what they deserve.

In short, I have found a diverse urban public school that is neither wholly perfect nor entirely terrible. Yes, I still have questions and fears. It’s a school that could use more volunteers and funding, and there are things I hope will change for the better. But it’s a school where I think my child will learn great things about the real world and how it works, where he will meet some people who are both like and unlike him, and where teachers will care about him and help him become a better person. This, all very close to my home, in the community my family lives in and is a part of each day, is what I want for my child. So when I say he’s going to our local public school, it’s not because I don’t care about my child. It’s because I do.

Annelisa Hedgecock has lived in Oakland with her husband for over 12 years. She is now the proud parent of a thriving second grader and an almost-kindergartener. Due to increased family and neighborhood involvement, dedicated teachers, and improved test scores, it is entirely likely that now more people have heard of Sequoia Elementary School than when this was written in 2008.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

All essays reflect the opinions of their authors, and not of the Oakland North staff or the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Oakland North reserves the right to edit submissions for length, clarity and spelling/grammar. You Tell Us submissions must be written in civil and non-offensive language. We do not publish hate speech, libelous material, unsubstantiated allegations or rumors, or personal attacks on individuals or groups.


  1. Becky on January 18, 2011 at 11:31 am

    I am always glad to hear of good news from the Oakland school district! I don’t have to worry about this for another three years, but I’m already wondering what we’ll do when my child approaches kindergarten. I want to be an active participant in the local, neighborhood school, but it also seems like there is only so much that one person can do.

    I don’t worry about my child being one of a few white kids; I do worry about my child being the only one who doesn’t speak Cantonese or Spanish. How have others handled this? Is it really not a big deal?

    • clydemere on January 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      i am not sure what your particular concerns are – is it that the children at your child’s school will have been raised in homes where english is not the first language? normally in these situations the children don’t have problems integrating into the schools. it is the parents that have issues and consequently the parent/administration relationship that is affected. in my opinion the schools that have mostly parents who do not speak english as a first language suffer from low parent involvement. in these days of budget cutbacks parent involvement is what bridges the gap between low-achieving and high-achieving (and scoring) schools.

  2. del on January 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Great article that raises some very important points. One of the scariest for me (as an educator in the public school system) is the willingness of people to make these decisions without facts or even first hand knowledge of what is going on at the school. Comments like the above example “that’s a horrible school” are bandied about with impunity but based on nothing more than assumption and rumors.
    Good for the author who actually looked into what was going on, but most of all, good for her children who benefit!

  3. TheSkylineHighSenior on January 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I am a product of Sequoia Elementary School. Of course you should check out the reputation of a school before you send your children off to them for years but never let that be a deciding factor. My parents didn’t send me to Fruitvale (which was way closer) because they heard it was a bad school yet some of my brightest friends (current high school valedictorians, 4.30+ and Advanced Placement Scholars) came from there.

    Yes API scores and other test results will give you a general feel of the knowledge of your average student but it isn’t everything. Take a look at the very large “sea of black heads” of Skyline High for example, people will probably overlook the 20 advanced classes, clubs and other programs when they see the mediocre test scores but we have some of the most amazing AP teachers and well liked P teachers (well maybe not this one 12th grade English teacher but I digress) Again, it’s not everything but checking the number of AP Scholars they produced, where their graduates went (for high schools) and a visit to a school as well as checking out what they have to offer in terms of programs is better than just looking at scores.

    In elementary school, race was never an important factor in friendships. You don’t have racially divided areas until middle school. True, I was more geared toward Chinese Americans because their Cantonese attracted my attention first but nonetheless everyone is just trying to find friends.

    Just monitor your child’s progress in school, from ensuring that your child is reading at grade level to keeping a close eye on their report cards. Urge them to take advanced classes when they become available and extracurricular activities and you’ll be fine. Never forget that UCB, UCLA, Stanford and the Ivy League has seen their share of OUSD too.

  4. Melissa on January 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I wish more people were as thoughtful about public schools as Annelisa. I am a parent of two children at Sequoia and a public school teacher. The best way to improve public schools is to get in there and make things happen! I know that choosing the right school for your child is a tough decision but one large factor that so many families overlook is the societal responsibility piece. If every family with economic freedom and social capital chooses to send their kids to private school, who is left to struggle and fight for quality public education? The people for whom getting through the day is enough of a struggle.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and for all the hard work you do every day!

  5. Philippa on January 18, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    What a wonderful article! I am the proud parent of two kids at another under-appreciated Oakland public school, Piedmont Avenue Elementary. It amazes me, some of the dismissive things people say to me about our school (before they know my kids attend PAES). I’ll ask, “What is your connection with the school? Where did you get your information?” Most often, people will say things like, “My neighbor’s child went there 10 years ago,” or “The kids on the playground don’t look like my community,” or even “Well, everybody knows that school is bad.” We’ve been at the school for 4 years now and I can promise you that the kids on the playground look a lot like my community — my definition of community has expanded. And my kids scored in the 900’s on their standardized tests last spring — at least as high as the average at the highest performing hills’ schools. Try your local public school, whatever “people say” — you really may be pleasantly surprised!

  6. Hugh M. on January 19, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you for this article and positive posts. I’ve heard excellent things about Sequoia, a wonderfully diverse school that represents Oakland, similar to its neighbor, Glenview Elementary where our child goes to school.

    We heard similar concerns expressed by some of our Montessori friends, along with “I don’t want my child to be a social experiment”. (Like we do?)

    But when we toured and got to Glenview we found it to be a wonderful, diverse, caring place. It also helps that the Kinder teachers have T/A’s. It is less controlled than Montessori or private preschool, but that has actually helped our son open up. & since the Kinders are separated from the older kids that really helps them avoid any perils and ease the transition to be a “big kid” in 1st grade. Which the school is conscious about and why it set up this system.

    Finally, I entirely agree with you, I do not understand the generalization about a “sea of black heads” and other comments one hears when considering public schools.

    Sure there are some challenged kids, but most of the African American students & families are just as capable, proficient and engaged as those of any other race. Sure because of economics there might be a few challenged students. But not for most of the children and parents of minorities, who are some of our most capable, proficient and advanced students, and some of our most engaged families.

    There are challenges for sure. But these challenges are being discussed and addressed, as an increasing number of middle class and wealthy families of all backgrounds try public and add resources. It speaks positively to a diverse school when, despite these challenges, parents and PTA can come together with caring teachers, principal and administration to benefit all students of our wonderfully diverse city.

  7. Peter Fiske on January 25, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Wonderful, WONDERFUL article! Thank you so much for such an engaging and thoughtful essay. I wish every pre-school parent could get a copy of this essay.

    Thank you again,

    Peter Fiske (a.k.a. Measure L Man)
    parent of a 2nd grader and kinder in OUSD

  8. clydemere on January 27, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    before we started our child at sequoia we were conversing with a neighbor who said it could be a great school ‘if we could change the demographics of the student population.’ i.e. if only we could get more white families to send their kids there.

    i value the diversity of my child’s class as much as the commitment of the teachers, the number of extracurricular activities offered, the level of parent involvement and the sense of community. i love sequoia elementary and i love oakland!

  9. Ms.J. on January 31, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Wonderful. Thank you for your thoughtful post, your eloquence, and your commitment to public schools. I wrote something along the same lines to my daughter’s baby group as we are facing the same issue. I am impressed by and glad for you and your school.

  10. Jake Wegmann on February 6, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I greatly appreciate the honesty and self-reflection in this post. The author is dealing with a subject that I find, living in Oakland, to often be the undiscussed “elephant in the room.” I also appreciate her putting the issue of race front and center. That rings true for me, and I know it couldn’t have been easy for her to write it, because this is tough stuff, any way that you slice it.

    Guess what? Diversity, and the fact that our society, and especially our state, are becoming spectacularly diverse is a wonderful thing. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. It takes lots of effort, dialogue and introspection (some of it really uncomfortable) for it to work, not just well-intentioned “kumbaya” platitudes. And that’s probably most true for those of us who are white, who (even now) are the only group in America that usually has the luxury of not having to think about race at all if we don’t feel like it. The mere fact that some people actually claimed that the election of Obama (however thrilling it surely was) meant that we were now a “post-racial” society says it all.

    I don’t think the author’s children are “social experiments.” But it does sound like they will be two savvy youngsters who will be well-adjusted to the multiethnic, multiracial America of the future, and who will help therefore make this country better. That’s not an act of charity on the part of the author — I’d call that a smart decision. Her kids are going to have to function in this society, which is already more diverse than any other in the history of the world and getting more so with each passing day.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

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