Neighborhood group fights to re-open Oakland’s Santa Fe Elementary
on November 19, 2014
Megan Low paced up Adeline Street in North Oakland with a stack of yellow fliers in hand.
This was not her first time passing out fliers in the Santa Fe neighborhood, and by now she has the routine down cold: House by house, she climbs stairs to front doors and slips a flier under the door or between the metal bars. Sometimes she rings the doorbell. Sometimes she does not. Sometimes people answer. Sometimes they do not.
“I graduated from Santa Fe,” one man said to Low during this neighborhood run, on a Wednesday afternoon, through the door of an apartment on 55th Street. “I wish you a lot of luck.”
Low, whose own 3-year-old son will be kindergarten-aged in two years, thanked him and walked away, carrying the stack of remaining yellow fliers with the words “Help Bring Back Our School” plastered at the top of the page.
Underneath those words, each flier displayed a headshot of new Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Superintendent Antwan Wilson. Members of the Santa Fe Community Association & Neighbors (Santa Fe CAN) Education Committee, an organization of about three dozen people, are meeting with Wilson Thursday to present their case to re-open Santa Fe Elementary School.
The group wants the school re-opened, say advocates like Low, so neighborhood kids do not have to cross busy streets to attend nearby elementary schools, to have a place for community meetings and to not have to face long wait lists for charter schools or pay private school tuition.
“Yeah, it’s going to take some trust and faith and an investment,” Low said in a recent interview at Earthly Coffee in North Oakland. “But we believe that it’s an investment that will pay off to make it a financially solvent school with full enrollment.”
The OUSD Board of Education voted to close Santa Fe Elementary in October 2011, citing low attendance by neighborhood families. Since then, OUSD has leased the property—at 915 54th Street, right at the Oakland-Emeryville border—to the Emery Unified School District (EUSD). Emery Secondary School, which enrolls about 200 students and covers grades 9 through 12, has moved in while its own location is under construction. Last month, the OUSD Board of Education voted to extend the lease to the Emeryville district through the end of 2015; and to increase the rent for the total three-year lease time from $1.5 million to $1.75 million.
Jody London, OUSD board director for the district that includes the Santa Fe site, said that since the school’s closure and consolidation with nearby OUSD schools, such as Sankofa, Peralta, Emerson and others, these schools have seen their finances stabilize because they are now receiving more funding based on a larger student population.
“I actually wanted to keep a school in the San Pablo corridor,” London said. “But it was very hard to justify keeping Santa Fe when so few families were choosing it for their children.”
When Santa Fe was considered an option for closure in 2011, London said that of the 400 K-5 aged kids in its attendance area, only 125 were attending Santa Fe. But Low counters that the district is considering numbers not reflective of the growth in the neighborhood, especially the potential growth before December 2015 when the current lease expires.
When London and former acting superintendent Gary Yee met with the Santa Fe CAN Education Committee earlier this year, London told the group that if it were to re-open Santa Fe, the district would have to be sure that this did not destabilize Emerson’s and Sankofa’s finances. There would also need to be 400 kids committed to attending Santa Fe, London wrote in an email.
“Do I re-open Santa Fe at the expense of Emerson or Sankofa?” London said.
Since Santa Fe has been closed, the number of K-5 aged children in the neighborhood has risen, said Low, a member of the Santa Fe CAN Education Committee. That number could continue to rise until the lease with EUSD expires, creating the opportunity to re-open Santa Fe Elementary.
Emery Secondary School’s former site, located at 1100 47th Street, is under construction. The site was demolished and is being rebuilt to house two schools in the EUSD: Emery Secondary School and Anna Yates Elementary School. There are no plans for Emery Secondary to stay at its leased Oakland location after construction at the old site is complete, according to Lisa Taymuree, the superintendent’s assistant for EUSD. After Emery Secondary School moves out, there is a possibility that an OUSD charter school, magnet school or language immersion school could move in, London said, though the decision has not been made.
With the closing of Santa Fe, the 94608 ZIP code does not contain a single public elementary school, said Low, who has lived in the neighborhood for five years and hopes to enroll her son at Santa Fe if it is re-opened as an Oakland school. There are a handful of charter schools in the area, and a few private schools, but often these institutions have a long wait list or require a deposit on tuition. Low said that re-opening the Santa Fe site as an Oakland charter school would be “better than nothing,” as long as the neighborhood has access to the site, in terms of facilities and enrollment of neighborhood children.
The closest public elementary schools to the old Santa Fe site are Sankofa Academy, Peralta Elementary and Emerson Elementary. But sending kids to these schools creates a safety issue, Low said, since Santa Fe neighborhood children have to cross busy arterial streets such as Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Shattuck Avenue or Telegraph Avenue to get to those schools.
The group heard London’s argument from outgoing Oakland Mayor Jean Quan when about twenty members met with her in the library of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) one Sunday afternoon last month. Quan suggested the group come up with the “magic number” of about 300 potential students to support the parents’ case.
London said the district is under a lot of pressure from charter schools to provide them with facilities. Under the terms of the voter-approved Proposition 39, known as the School Facilities Local Vote Act of 2000, all California school districts are obligated to provide approved charters with facilities. London said the Charter School Association has sent letters to OUSD threatening to sue if approved charters are not provided with facilities.
“They’re definitely looking at the Santa Fe site,” London said.
Families with children in the Santa Fe area are opting out of the next closest schools, like Sankofa, because of their distance from the Santa Fe neighborhood. Low said that if parents were going to drive their kids to school, they would likely enroll them in a better school in Berkeley or Emeryville. To do this, parents must file for an Inter-District Transfer permit, which does not guarantee the student will be accepted into the other district.
Although a decision will not be made during Thursday’s meeting with Wilson, the CAN members are still excited, Low said as she walked down Adeline Street toward Lois the Pie Queen, a smaller stack of fliers now in her hands. The members have been collecting signatures since the neighborhood’s National Night Out party on August 5. Now they have 170 letters signed and addressed to Wilson, and will hand-deliver them to him at the meeting.
“We’re really hoping it’s the start of an ongoing discussion with the Superintendent for him to take this in a really serious direction and talk to us about ways we can collaborate,” Low said.
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