Oakland parents on school closures: Where do we go?
on November 16, 2011
A meeting with parents, teachers, and Oakland Public School District staff in the auditorium of Lakeview Elementary last week did not get off to a good start. “I got my school of choice,” said an angry Ingrid McGraw, whose six-year-old daughter, Victoria, attends Lakeview—but won’t this fall, because last month OUSD’s board voted to close the school.
McGraw was one of two parents to walk out of the Monday meeting, which was supposed to show them how to set up appointments to learn the next steps for their kids, a half-hour after it began. District officials’ efforts to make her feel better during the meeting—catered food and beverages—had exactly the opposite effect.
“We did not need them to come over and try and feed us some food,” she said. “That was B.S. They were trying to appease us.”
Nor did it help, McGraw said, when Denise Saddler, the new director of “Educational Transitions for School and Community,” welcomed parents by telling them the meeting also featured a raffle. “We have a lot in store for you this evening,” she said. “Did everyone get a raffle ticket? Because we do have a few goodies to give out tonight.”
McGraw’s reaction to that, too, was short and to the point. “Raffle,” she said. “That was a slap in the face.”
Like other parents dealing with school closures, McGraw is now trying to figure out where to send her child next year. “I don’t want anything to do with Oakland Unified,” she said. She is “on the fence,” she said, about sending her daughter to Piedmont Avenue, or Berkley Maynard Academy, an Oakland charter school.
Three weeks after the OUSD board voted 5-2 to close five elementary schools—Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe—and relocate or merge several other schools, parents and staff affected by the closures are working to figure out what they will do. Their array of “options,” which will be handled by “transition coordinators,” includes no guarantees. More than 800 children were enrolled in the closed schools. That means a lot of parents, seeking to relocate their kids, will be competing for the same schools.
At the Lakeview meeting, for example, the school’s principal Clara Roberts encouraged parents to send their kids to Oakland’s Burckhalter Elementary—almost 6 miles away from Lakeview, in East Oakland—with the reassurance that Lakeview teachers would be there, too. McGraw took a deep breath when she heard that.
She asked for her “French” to be excused. “That plan is just a proposal being kicked around,” she said during an interview the following day. “There are only a certain number of slots in each school, and none of us are guaranteed to get in.”
“It’s very sad,” said Tikia Carter, whose six-year-old daughter, Kimani, attends Santa Fe. “I understand we’re in a recession—but at least leave one school in each neighborhood. There are a lot of kids that walk.” Carter attended a Ready to Learn Fun Fair at Peralta Elementary School last month, along with another Santa Fe parent. Both want to send their kids to Peralta, which according the district will only have 15 seats available—that’s for first through fifth grades combined.
Rob Rooke, whose two daughters attend Maxwell Park, said he knows he must start looking at other schools, but that he still has “a lot of momentum, emotionally to keep the school open.” If that can’t happen, Rooke said, he is considering Allendale, Horace Mann, Laurel, and Burckhalter: all range from 15 to 40 minute walks from his home in Maxwell Park’s East Oakland neighborhood. “Up or down the hill,” he said, going over the location of each school, and its geographical proximity to the greater affluence of the Oakland hills. “It’s a weird way of describing schools,” Rooke said, “but it usually means more resources or less resources for kids.”
Rooke and his daughters are white, and he said his family’s insistence on the kind of school they’ll attend means some schools are out of the question. “We are very politically conscious parents, and will not send our kids to charters,” he said. “They are a stepping stone to privatization and private school. The school we have our eyes on the most is Burckhalter. It’s a stable, majorly African-American school. And we want our children to relate to everybody.”
The ethnic makeup of the kids in the school closures list has been the subject of argument since September. At Lazear, 97% of the student population is Hispanic or Latino. Santa Fe, a predominantly black school, had already absorbed previous school closures when it took in students from Longfellow and Golden Gate, both shuttered in 2004 (the Golden Gate building now houses Berkley Maynard Academy). Nine other public schools that had large black student populations—Burbank, Carter, Cole, Foster, John Swett, King Estates, Lowell, Sherman and Toler Heights—no longer exist.
“The district has systematically closed all of the elementary schools below Shattuck,” said Lena Williams, a kindergarten teacher at Santa Fe, “and they’re leaving all the other schools above Shattuck open… Parents feel like they are being discriminated against.”
Elementary schools like Peralta, Sankofa Academy (formerly Bushrod Washington), Emerson, Kaiser (saved from permanent closure last month) and Chabot, are all considered “above Shattuck,” or closer to the affluent areas of the Oakland Hills.
Williams is not concerned about her own placement, she said, because she has tenure with the district. “They have agreed to place all teachers that are tenured,” she said. “But I won’t know where I’m going or what grade I’ll be teaching.”
Santa Fe parent Mercedes Grave, who lives in Emeryville—the district choose to recognize, she said, her shared zip code with Oakland—already spent a lot of time finding the right school for her son. That school, she said, is Santa Fe. “He has some learning disabilities,” she said. I put him in a charter school, but he was only receiving 66 minutes a week of extra help… At Santa Fe he went from 66 minutes a week to two hours a day.”
Graver said she plans to enroll her son in Berkley Maynard Academy, Malcolm X Elementary—she’s reached out to Berkeley’s district and is hopeful—or Anna Yates Elementary School, in Emeryville. “To say that one place giving him the things that he needs is being closed has caused a lot of emotional stress on him,” she said.
Gerlen Anderson, the grandmother of a Lakeview kindergarten student, named Armiya, said she’s looking at Crocker Highlands for her granddaughter—but that her commute to Lakeview, by car, takes less time. And Crocker Highlands asks parents to make direct donations every year, Anderson said, which makes her wary and in her opinion serves as another reminder that the targeted schools were clustered in poorer neighborhoods. “They’re closing down flatland schools,” Anderson said. “They already had the decision made that they would close down these schools.” Gerlen is “likely to choose Burckhalter,” she said.
“I have strong suspicions that we [teachers] will all be placed in schools that are primarily in the flats, east Oakland, or the San Leandro border way out there by international 86th,” said Peter von Ehrenkrook, a 5th grade teacher at Santa Fe. Schools in those areas have a high percentage of newly hired teachers, he said, and the district wants to create a mix with teachers that have more experience. Ehrenkrook said Santa Fe is needed in its North Oakland neighborhood. “We have a lot of kids living with single grandmothers, parents who work nights, some kids living in shelters. This neighborhood looks middle class but there are pockets at the poverty level. No kids pay for breakfast or lunch at all,” he said.
“My plan it to keep going,” said Ethel Cabanlit-Turner, a Lakeview mom who also works for OUSD’s Transitional Students & Families Unit (TSF). She’s spoken against closures at school board and engagement meetings. “It’s very difficult, because I work for the district,” she said. “But when I’m with my parents, I’m not an employee, I’m a parent just like them.” Cabanlit-Turner, who may decide to move out of the state altogether, said she is waiting to decide where to send her son.
Focused on reversing the board’s decision, Joel Velasquez, a father with one son attending Lakeview, is a part of a growing number of parents taking legal or political action, he said: contacting the NAACP and the ACLU, filing complaints with the school district, and calling Barbara Lee, California’s 9th congressional district representative, to find help on the federal and state level. “I’m open to the idea of Burckhalter,” he said, because “it’s the lesser of two evils. ” Velasquez is also considering Glenview Elementary, where he knows some parents.
But according to the district, Burckhalter will only have a total of 39 available spots. Glenview will have 32. “It’s still a far cry from being a desired result,” Velasquez said.
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