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Some parents at closing schools feel rushed into picking new school for their kids

on January 16, 2012

Every year, from early December till late January, the Oakland Unified School District has what it calls its “options enrollment window.” During this time, parents of incoming kindergarten, 6th grade and 9th grade students can pick a school for their child outside their neighborhood.

But it’s a more complicated process this year, because five elementary schools are scheduled to close after the semester ends this spring and an extra 1,000 students were thrown into the mix. Their families were given about six weeks to find a school for their child for the next school year.

The results have been predictably chaotic for some families, who have had to quickly decide which school their child would be attending in the fall of 2012 without knowing very much about the new school. “The key component that is going astray is the amount of time that’s been given—or the lack of time that’s been given—for parents to really make an educated choice that’s best for their children,” said Joel Velasquez, a parent of a 4th grader at Lakeview Elementary, a school scheduled to close after this school year.

The other elementary schools scheduled to close, after an OUSD board vote on October 26, are Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe.

For Velasquez and some other parents, the process was too rushed and there wasn’t enough time to find the right school for their child to attend. “Any parent that you’d ask is not going to decide what child their child will go to in a five or six week period,” Velasquez said. “There’s a lot of consideration around that, try to find what school is best suited for your child.”

Because of the influx of students from the closed schools this year, district officials designed an earlier options process for the families affected by the school closures. Before the regular options process—which runs from December 5 to January 20—began, the district had a “priority” options process for families at the closing schools. The priority process began soon after the announcement to close the schools, and concluded the week of December 19, when families were alerted of the school where their child would be assigned.

OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint said the district wanted to give those families a priority in registering “to minimize the disruption (for the families) and hopefully to help them have a safe landing at a school environment that is going to be a welcoming and attractive alternative for them.”

“We know it’s not going to take the place of the school that they love,” he added.

At the school board meeting on January 11, Denise Saddler, OUSD’s Director of Community Engagement, gave an update on the number of students displaced, and the results of the priority enrollment process. During that process, parents at the closing schools listed their top four options of schools they would like their child to attend, and after a lottery drawing, a large number of families got their first choice.

According to Saddler, at Lakeview, 221 of 237 families got their first choice; at Lazear, 102 out of 210 got their first choice, and 167 received one of their top three choices; at Maxwell Park, 171 out of 177 got their first choice; at Santa Fe, 133 out of 138 got their first choice; and at Marshall, 111 out of 112 got their first choice.

During her presentation, Saddler noted that there are several things district officials would have done differently with the process if they had the chance to do it over. She said district officials could have done a better job of explaining district protocols to parents during meetings and communicate better with parents about when scheduled events, like tours of new schools, were taking place.

Bus tours of schools should have been set up immediately following the decision to close the schools, Saddler also said, “so families can visit more schools.” Parents complained the tours were set up with little notice—Velasquez, for example, said his son brought home a note about a tour of schools for Lakeview parents two days before it was scheduled to happen at 9 am. Rob Rooke, the father of two Maxwell Park students and the PTA president, said in an interview that the tours were organized “haphazardly and late in the process” and called it “a jarring mistake” by the district.

Saddler told the board that the district will host more bus tours for parents from the five schools to visit prospective schools in their area, from January 19 to February 9. Saddler said officials are also organizing “transition teams” made up of parents, staff and community members to design activities to celebrate the closing schools and welcoming events at the new schools.

Velasquez said many parents are upset that these tours are being offered after the parents have already had to decide which school their child will attend in the fall. “It’s kind of redundant now that [they] want to do this,” Velasquez said.

Flit said that district officials are also still figuring out how kids at the closing schools whose parents don’t have a car will get to their new schools. He said the district’s current support for transportation for these families is “insufficient.” Officials have been meeting with AC Transit about rerouting some of the bus lines to make it easier on kids to get to school, but Flint said these routes are “generally not cost-effective and they’re under extreme financial pressure.”

“There are no guarantees, but we have a good partnership with AC Transit and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to reach an arrangement,” Flint added.

These issues have added up to a series of headaches for parents like Velasquez, who feels that the meetings and tours are being offered too late. “The biggest part of this process is making that choice for your children, not after the fact, when you realize maybe this principal doesn’t have the right vision for you, or an afterschool program that’s the right fit for your child, or maybe isn’t as diverse as you need it to be,” Velasquez said. “All of those things needed to happen before the choices were made, not afterward.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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