Concerned citizens protest school closures at OUSD board meeting

kids protesting

Leeloo Tatham and Elijah Scott Horning of Kaiser Elementary hold protest signs.

Concerned parents, children and community members packed the Oakland Unified School District board meeting Wednesday night, clutching protest signs opposing the district’s possible closure of as many as ten elementary and middle schools. So many people showed up for the meeting that latecomers were led to a fourth-floor overflow room, where they watched a live telecast of the meeting.

The OUSD has tried to close schools before, most recently three years ago, but met opposition from parents and teachers. The district operates 101 schools for 38,000 students, a much higher ratio than those of nearby comparably-sized districts. Oakland’s schools began multiplying more than a decade ago, when concerned parents sought to transform the flatland’s struggling schools by creating smaller ones in their place. Though many people support the movement toward smaller schools, the initial funding has run out, and the OUSD says it is unable to fund all 101 schools.

Three weeks ago, the OUSD began the closures process, approving a ranking system to help officials decide which schools to close. The school board presented a preliminary list of ten elementary and middle schools at its September 7th meeting: Marshall, Burckhalter, Lakeview, Santa Fe, Kaiser, Lazear, Maxwell Park and Sobrante Park elementary schools; and Frick and Claremont middle schools. Four of these schools — Lakeview, Santa Fe, Kaiser and Claremont — are in North Oakland.

During the public comments period, at least eight parents spoke out against the possible closing of Kaiser.  The school, in Hiller Highlands, is “one of the schools that is getting it right,” said Chris Jones, the father of a Kaiser kindergartener,  describing the diverse community of parents and students and good teachers. Other commenters spoke about the racial and economic diversity of the school, praising it as a place where everyone feels welcome.

Kaiser parent

Ann Whidden, parent of a first grader at Kaiser, speaks to the school board.

Ann Whidden, mother of a Kaiser first grader, described the school as “a safe haven for students of gay and lesbian parents.” She said that knowing there are other gay and lesbian familes at the school made her feel comfortable sending her own son to the school.

Outside the meeting, Ingrid McGraw, the single mother of a Lakeview 1st grader, was dismayed by the proposed closing of her daughter’s school. “I’d  be happy if they made it a charter school,” she said. “But don’t close it.” McGraw cited the experienced and thoughtful teachers at Lakeview, and said she appreciates how easy it is for parents to drop their children off at school on the way to work in San Francisco

Francisco Martinez, an 8th grade student at Edna Brewer Middle School, spoke out against the closings even though his school is not on the list. “Every time you close schools you give teachers a hard time and it’s hard for us students to learn,” he said. “Please don’t close these schools,” he continued. “We deserve our education.”

OUSD board member Jody London, whose district includes North Oakland, responded directly to the public comments by describing school closings as “one of those NIMBY issues,” using the acronym for “Not in my backyard.” She said that when she tells people that the OUSD operates too many schools, “They say yeah, they get it, but no one wants it to happen to their school.”

Later during the meeting, Jemahl Amen, a board member of the Oakland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, presented an NAACP report asserting that racial inequality in the OUSD has remained the same or grown over a period of almost 30 years. “We need to find a different path,” said Amen,  an Oakland native and alum of both Elmhurst Community Prep and Castlemont High School. What we’re doing now is not working.”

Amen pointed to statistics which showed that African-American students continued to be placed in lower level classes and have disciplinary trouble. Fifteen years ago, in 1996, 71% of special education students and 67% of truants were African-American. In 2011, although the overall number of black children in the district has dropped, half the district’s special education students and 83% of the truants are African-American.

OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith reacted with concern to Amen’s report, calling the situation for black students in Oakland “about as urgent as it gets.” He continued, “As a city Oakland has failed African-American students.” Cheryl Moore, Second Vice President of the Oakland branch of the NAACP, voiced concern that African-American students were targeted more than white students for disciplinary actions.

Later during the meeting, OUSD Chief Financial Officer Vernon Hal presented his 2010-2011 Closing of the Books report, explaining the unrestricted general ending fund balance. That fund, Hal reported, now has nearly $1 million less than expected.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ann Whidden’s son, Kaiser Elementary School 1st grader has two mothers. It also stated that Kaiser’s principal is openly gay. Mel Stenger, who was openly gay, was Kaiser’s principal until the end of last school year. The current principal is Darren Avent. Oakland North regrets these errors.





  1. oakland parent

    Why in the world would Kaiser be on the closure list? Token ‘white’ school?

    • KaiserParent

      If Kaiser is being targeted as a token “white” school this would be a tremendous mistake on the part of the board. Kaiser is 27% white and over 50% of Kaiser students are African American or Mixed Race. I was present at the meeting last night when the board members assured the NAACP representative of their commitment to African American education. Ironically, Kaiser is one of the few OUSD schools with African American API scores over 800.

  2. Liza

    I commend the reporting in the article, but wish it hadn’t been written as a two part piece. The school closure plan will disproportionately affect Oakland’s Adrican American community and while ir was councendental that the Naacp spoke to the board regarding inequities at the same time the public spoke against school closures , the two are closely tied. All the schools slated have large AA populations. Kaiser–hailed as a”hills” school, ie: white and affluent–is nearly 40% African American with a 17% population of kids of mixed heritage. It boasts the highest API if AA kids in Oakland! The board did not seem to be aware of which schools in it’s district have marked success at closing the achievment gap.

  3. Kaiser Teacher

    Just for the record: Kaiser School’s current principal is not openly gay, although last year’s principal was. Perhaps that explains the error.

    1) Kaiser is a cost-effective school. Every year we get our ADA (Average Daily Attendance) money from the state and every year we finish in the black. OUSD implemented Results-Based Budgeting in 2003-2004 where OUSD keeps some of the money and then the school gets what it’s allowed to spend and the principal and School Site Council have to figure it out. It isn’t always easy but we have figured it out, so how can we be labeled as not economical, or too small to be cost-effective.

    2) Kaiser is a diverse school. Kaiser School’s student body breaks down as follows: 16% multi-racial, 35% African American, 27% White, 10% Latino, 10% Asian. Kaiser shows what a truly diverse, integrated school can achieve. We are not a flatlands charter school that imposes militaristic discipline that no middle class parent would stand for. We’re not a hills school with token minority representation. We are a school that demonstrates what Oakland can achieve when all are included, when all are welcome.

    3) Kaiser is one of the top 4 African American public schools in Oakland. Only four schools have an African American student population over 33% and an African American API over 800. Kaiser School is one of them. Keeping Kaiser School open would do a lot more to help African American male achievement than a bunch of robo-calls urging parents to harass their child’s teacher about homework (such as OUSD sent out last week).

    4) Kaiser is a safe place for kids from all backgrounds. Kaiser is a school where kids can be who they want to be. We are a welcoming environment for mixed race families, two-mom families, two-dad families, immigrant families–if you have a family that wants to be a part of an appreciative, accepting community then Kaiser is the school for you. Don’t tell the parents at Kaiser that we can close this school and offer them an equivalent program at another school because it isn’t going to happen.

  4. livegreen

    I think both the Kaiser community & OUSD have valid points. So how to reconcile them?

    -As part of it’s Strategic Plan, OUSD has a goal to make all schools quality neighborhood schools. That is a valid goal for all students, families & communities.

    -As such, it both needs the money to do this & needs to reassure families.

    -For the money this comes in part from closing schools. It came up with a list of criteria that is valid to do this. My only question about it: Are “small schools” & Charter Schools included and treated the same as full sized schools like Kaiser?

    -OUSD’s presentation says displaced families will get priority in their school choice. It needs to both reassure families about this AND it needs to plan that if groups of families are moved to a neighborhood school, that school will receive focussed attention.

    That will be good for the district (retention of students & funding) and good for families (good education & community for their kids).

    The District HAS TO make hard choices. But it needs to do it in a fair and reasoned way that addresses all the issues mentioned.

    • Monica Yu

      Livegreen, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are absolutely right that OUSD has a goal – and I would say an obligation – to make all schools Quality Community Schools. Please keep in mind “community” is not always the same as “neighborhood,” and OUSD’s strategic plan says “community.” Kaiser families are a community, even if we don’t share a neighborhood. In a city where neighborhoods are stratified by wealth, I treasure Kaiser’s diverse community.

      Regarding your point about criteria: Many small, lower performing schools were not considered for closure at all because they are developing plans for ‘restructuring’ or participating in the West Oakland STEM Corridor. Kaiser did not have the opportunity to participate in these discussions. I do not believe OUSD looked at closing any charter schools.

      Regarding your point about school choice: I spoke with Mike Bonino in the Student Assignment office yesterday. He informed me that OUSD does not currently have a plan for how they would accommodate Kaiser’s students if the school were to close. He also told me that he believes it would be impossible for the district to accommodate all of Kaiser’s students at equally high performing schools.

      Yes, the district has to make hard choices. I just hope they make choices that will help our city achieve its goals and vision. Closing Kaiser would directly contradict the goals and priorities set out in the OUSD strategic plan and in the plan for restructuring.

  5. Kaiser Parent

    I would like to address Director’s Londons comments of NIMBY:

    Firstly, NIMBY is used mostly about issues that are imposed onto a neighborhood. This is not the case for most families at Kaiser, the majority of who come from all parts of Oakland voluntarily – an aspect of integration which the Board aspires to in the plan. So why would they close a school that embodies integration– and has done so for years – and is what the board wants to achieve?

    Secondly, Kaiser Elementary is in my back yard–we are one of those neighborhood families. But that is not the reason we want Kaiser removed from the list of closures. We urge the board to remove Kaiser from the list because it’s a school that offers a school life to our family that is not monochromatic, exposing our child to what society really looks like – African American, bi-racial, LGBT, adopted, differing socio-economic status and much, much more. It offers a balanced curriculum with art and music classes, (not just electives). It has one of the highest percentage of parental involvement and volunteerism–up to 70%. Our API scores are over 800, for ALL of our students. And we have dedicated teachers that collaborate, innovate, are exemplary in their teaching abilities and bring out the best in their students both academically and socially.

    Now why would the Board want to close a school with statistics that truly reflects the diversity of Oakland with enrollment of: 10% Latino, 10% Asian, 35% African American, 27% white and 16% multi-racial.? I can only think of 2 reasons: To transfer the site to a charter school – for which the board would receive moneys (and for which one might surmise may explain why David Montes de Oca is both the coordinator of OUSD charter schools AND the chair of the school closure task force); or, to sell off the real estate. Either way, the reasons can be hidden behind terms like “hill school”, “not supporting the neighborhood enough.” The reality is that Kaiser supports kids from all neighborhoods to the benefit of all students. It is a model of community and should be upheld as such.

    I was at the meeting on Wednesday. I saw a board that was out of touch with it’s own reality –nodding to the presentation made by the NAACP member while dismissing a school that was embodying those recommendations. I also saw a board unaware of it’s own statistics, and eager to uphold as valuable the success of a new charter school that does all that Kaiser has been doing for years!

    I challenge the board to reconsider, and remove Kaiser from the list of closures.

  6. Tara Scott-Horning

    Thank you for bringing exposure to the possible closure of Kaiser. We only want what OUSD claims they want from Oakland Public Schools…which is to end inequity in our school system. Kaiser hs been highly successful in building a strong community of parents an staff,who work together to provide supplemental staffing,like intervention specialists,and programs for a highly diverse student body. This is funded by our PTA…with no extra cost to the school district. We have met and exceeded state targets,and our API proves how effective our teachers,parental support, and community effort have contributed to Kaiser’s high academic achievement, while almost 50% of our student body is comprised of African American and Multiracial students. I was forced to home school one of my daughters,a few years ago..for a year and a half…because our neighborhood school failed us so miserably. My child was assulted by another student,and lack of the principal’s proper support,no parent support from the other child’s family..led me to the decision to home-school. My child was not challenged academically and lost her once positive attitude about school. With much hard work,she is now a well adjusted freshman at Oakland Tech….but if Oakland loses Kaiser, a high quality, model school will be unavailable to families seeking refuge from failing neighborhood schools and safety concerns. Being a West Oakland resident, it would be ideal to send my son to our neighborhood school,which is walking distance from our home. With the current conditions in my neighborhood school, this is just not a current reality for me or my 3 school aged children. I know schools like Kaiser work. I have a senior daughter at Tech,as well, and she’s an honor student, who will be a first generation UC attendee. We chose a school much like Kaiser,13 yrs ago (Peralta Elementary in Oakland)…and starting her education there,without interruption of a school closure…I am certain contributed for her continued enthusiasm and excellence in her academic life. Kaiser works! And OUSD directors and superintendent should be looking to emulate what Kaiser is doing,instead of shutting down a learning institution that provides so much to the Oakland community, by preparing our children, in all of our diversity…for a sucessful academic career…regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic level or family stucture. Kaiser works for and benefits EVERYONE in Oakland. Kaiser is providing the high academic achievement, multi-cultured, and diverse learning environment that ALL OAKLAND FAMILIES DESERVE. I IMPLORE THE SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS,DIRECTORS ANDS SUPERINTENDANT TO VISIT KAISER TO SEE FOR THEMSELVES WHAT KAISER IS ACHIEVING AND OFFERING…AND THAT THEY WOULD LOOK TO KAISER AS A MODEL SCHOOL…REMOVE KAISER FROM THE CLOSURE LIST AND FIND OUT HOW TO IMPLEMENT THE SAME TYPE OF ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT..FOR LOWER ACHIEVING OAKLAND SCHOOLS. IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE TO SHUT DOWN A SCHOOL THAT IS ACTUALLY ACHIEVING THE GOALS THE SCHOOL BOARD CLAIM TO WANT TO SEE IN OUR DISTRICT. Tara Scott Horning

  7. livegreen

    A potential challenge for Kaiser families is if their School Board representative covering the area the school is in is not the same as where they live, they effectively don’t have political representation.

    Also, it’s worth doing the extra, detailed work of comparing OUSD’s criteria with the facts on the ground. That way if there’s something factually off, they might be able to both discover anything political going on behind the scenes and counter it. (Since if that were the case OUSD would actually not be following the criteria they’ve stated).

    Including and especially any small schools or schools with low scores that somehow slipped through.

    Might be worth the extra work…

  8. I have a 2.5 year old and our district elementary school would be Lakeview. If it closes, how will those students be shuffled around?

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