Commuting presents challenges for some Oakland students

Many Oakland students commute to school on AC Transit buses.

Many Oakland students commute to school on AC Transit buses like this one at the corner of 40th Street and Telegraph Avenue.

It’s 8:15 a.m. and in front of Lee’s Donut Shop across the street from Oakland Technical High School, a group of students are stalling, waiting just a few more minutes before they must make their way to class. Cody Stewart, Ronaldo Perry Jr. and Layah Bennett are among those prolonging the inevitable. They can afford to wait for a few more minutes. They’re on time today.

Stewart and Perry both live in North Oakland. They both take the bus, and say the commute takes them around ten minutes. But Bennett, a senior at Tech, travels from East Oakland, so getting to school is a bit more involved.

The morning commute is “really an hour, because the bus driver takes forever,” said Bennett. After school, she works at a nearby Safeway where she stocks shelves. She usually catches a bus home after her shift, making her daily commute about two hours. When asked if she has time to finish her homework, Bennett laughs and answers with a definitive “No.”

Early this morning, from East Oakland to West, students climbed into AC Transit buses, fares or passes in hand, and commuted to schools in other neighborhoods. In 2004, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) rolled out a new enrollment policy, an “options process” which allowed parents to send children to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Parents wanted equal access to opportunities at schools throughout Oakland, and some specialty programs were only offered at one or two schools. Since the district does not operate its own bus service, most students commute using public transit.

Many parents took advantage of the policy, and as a result some schools saw a sharp decrease in enrollment, while other schools began to receive far too many applications. According to an enrollment analysis report published by OUSD in the 2014-2015 school year, only 24.4 percent of Skyline High School students actually lived in the school’s attendance area, bordering the Oakland hills. Another 36 percent lived in the Castlemont High School attendance area in East Oakland and 25.5 percent lived near Fremont High School, in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland.

At Oakland Tech last year, 29.2 percent of students lived in the attendance area for the school, in the Temescal neighborhood, according to the same report. Another 20 percent lived in the attendance area for Skyline; 14.8 percent from the Oakland High School area, located northwest of Lake Merritt; and 13.8 percent from the Castlemont area.

Oakland High School has seen a decrease in enrollment from 2,105 students in the 2002-2003 school-year to 1,515 in the 2014-2015 school year even though they, too, are receiving students from other school attendance areas, most notably Castlemont’s, with 21.3 percent of students commuting from that attendance area.

“The options process is more complicated than the traditional system where each student is just assigned to their neighborhood school,” said district spokesperson Troy Flint, “but those complications are worth it because although highly flawed, the options process does present more opportunities for families to choose a school that’s right for their child.”

While the options policy was intended to give students and families more choices, and to benefit those who feel they do not have quality school choices in their own neighborhoods, it may have unintended consequences. Some students believe that tardiness, difficulty completing assignments and challenges to their extracurricular schedules happen as a result of their long commutes.

A student who lives near Castlemont, which is 6.7 miles from Skyline, must make a one hour and twenty minute AC Transit bus ride to get to Skyline, changing buses once. A student who lives near Fremont, which is 4.3 miles away, must make a one-hour ride, changing buses once.

Meanwhile, a student commuting to Oakland Tech on AC Transit from the Skyline neighborhood would spend about one hour and fifteen minutes traveling to cover 7.7 miles, taking two to three buses and a BART trip on the way. And it would take a student commuting to Oakland High from near Castlemont 45 minutes to one hour and fifteen minutes, depending on where the student lives in the district.

Bennett said her biggest frustration with AC Transit is that the buses don’t follow the posted schedule exactly. When this happens, she said, she is often tardy. When she tries to explain the situation to her teachers, Bennett said, “I say ‘I swear to God, the bus did it,’ and they don’t believe us.”

Amber Chang, a sophomore at Oakland Tech, commutes from East Oakland. Every day she catches a ride downtown and then waits for a bus. In the evenings she takes two buses home, nearly two hours of commute time each day. But for Chang, it’s worth it. “I really like Tech’s culture and environment,” said Chang. As for schools in her neighborhood, Chang said, “There were options, but I just wanted to go to Tech.”

The coursework and programs at Oakland Tech are “very challenging, compared to other schools that I’ve seen,” said Sasa Win, also a sophomore. Win wakes up at 5:30 every morning and commutes from the Fruitvale, riding on AC Transit for an hour, transferring buses downtown in order to arrive on time for her first class at 7:30. But Win thinks it’s worth it because she has different course options at Oakland Tech. She became a member of the Fashion, Arts and Design Academy after a teacher in her freshman art class encouraged her to pursue art.

Another Oakland Tech program that attracts students and parents is Paideia, a college prep track for grades 10 to 12 that requires students to take a number of advanced placement (AP) social science courses. At the school board meeting on November 18, Director Roseann Gonzales (District 5) referred to a conversation she participated in with parents who were unsatisfied with their neighborhood school and expressed interest in the Paideia program. Torres referred to Paideia as “a rock star in our district.”

“Fremont, Castlemont, McClymonds lack AP courses, honors courses, and something even equivalent to Paidea,” she said.

But students, parents and teachers point out that long commutes have their drawbacks. Because many students have to transfer buses at least once, sometimes with an additional BART transfer, timing is key. According to Win, if her first bus is late even by a few minutes, she might miss her second bus, which will make her tardy.

According to Chang, time management skills are crucial for students who commute. “I just have to manage how much time I can spend on my homework, because it means I have less time to do it,” said Chang. “I usually try to get home earlier by taking an earlier bus.” Chang said it’s possible to do homework on the bus in the morning, but in the afternoon it’s not as easy because the bus is usually full of students.

And because she wakes up at 5:30 every morning, Win said she doesn’t generally eat breakfast. “If it’s that early, I don’t feel like eating at all. If it’s that early when I get on the bus, I feel sick,” she said.

Some teachers and parents say that options enrollment may even detrimentally affect some students in the long run. “When you have kids who are chronically tardy, they’re not developing the employment and college readiness habits that are necessary for success,” said Ben Visnick, a teacher and PTA president at Oakland High School. “If you’re traveling ten miles from your home, and you’re chronically late, then the open enrollment is not doing you any good. It’s hurting you.”

It affects classroom performance, says Mary Prime-Lawrence, a parent of two students at Oakland High School and a teacher at Westlake Middle School, located north of Lake Merritt.

“I have kids that are leaving their house at 7:00 and school doesn’t start until 8:30,” she said of her students. “Kids are still late, which impacts my classes, it impacts how students can learn.” Prime-Lawrence says when students miss important parts of the beginning of class, like roll call and checking in with the teacher, it affects their learning experience.

“Oakland is supposedly focusing on attendance,” she continued. “If kids are tardy or absent 10 percent of the time during the school year, which is 180 days, we know that that really impacts their academic performance.”

“Getting into a great school is of limited value if you can’t get there every day on time and be able to participate in the full range of activities that make the school a wonderful place to learn,” agreed Flint. “It’s really an issue that we have to address as a district with our city partners. We have a relationship with AC Transit that we’ve nurtured over the years, and we’re working even more closely with them now.” As of press time, AC Transit had not responded to interview requests.

After-school activities also present a problem, especially during the winter. Win participates in multiple extra-curricular activities, including badminton and dragon boat racing, and she volunteers as well. For many of these activities, she is required to stay after school. “I don’t really like how the time changes and then the night falls so fast,” said Win. If she has to stay late, she continued, “There won’t be any sunshine, so my parents get so worried.” Win feels okay when she’s on the bus near the bus driver, but waiting at the bus stop at night sometimes makes her uncomfortable, and on these nights her mother really worries. “I tell her to relax a little bit. I mean, I am also trying my best to be safe,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s not very safe, to be perfectly honest,” said Prime-Lawrence. “I had a student last year who brought a box cutter to school because her mom had given it to her to take with her when she rode the bus, because her mom was fearful of her safety on the bus. That’s not good.”

Other times, she continued, “I’ve had students say ‘There was a guy who was talking to himself and he was doing all these different creepy things, and I didn’t feel like I could talk to the bus driver. I just got off. And then I had to wait on another bus.’”

Despite the long hours kids are putting into commuting, not all Oakland education experts are convinced it’s worth the effort. “A lot of choices are based on perception rather than reality,” said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA). “People assume that if a school is above [freeway] 580, that it’s automatically going to be a better school.”

But some district figures show that some students actually fare better at the schools that are less popular options. According to an A-G requirement report from the 2012-2013 school year,  55 percent of students at Castlemont met A-G requirements, a measure of college readiness used by schools in California. The same year, 64.5 percent of students at Oakland Tech met A-G requirements. However, a higher percentage of students who identified as African American and Latino met A-G requirements at Castlemont than at Oakland Tech.

“I would hope that everybody would go and visit their neighborhood schools,” Gorham continued, “because there are very high quality programs, and very high quality instruction throughout Oakland.”

Currently, in order to apply to an OUSD school, there are three steps. Students and their parents must first gather their documents, including birth certificates and proofs of address, and then bring it to the Student Assignment Center to fill out forms and receive help from staff in choosing a school. The center is open from 8 am to 2 pm on weekdays, and this presents significant logistical challenges to working parents, a point on which the district and the OEA agree. “It is all centralized. A parent cannot walk to their neighborhood school and enroll their student—they have to go downtown,” said Gorham.

This fall, the school district re-examined the enrollment process, and now plans to move to a common enrollment system, in which students fill out one application online, list several preferred schools, and receive one school placement. The new system will also allow students to apply to both OUSD and charter schools at the same time, rather than separately, as they must do now.

In addition to hosting several community meetings and roundtable discussions, the district surveyed parents on enrollment policies and practices. The survey asked parents to state whether they were satisfied with the schools within their neighborhood boundaries, if their child was accepted into the most preferred school after the most recent application process, and whether parents think the school assignment system is transparent and fair to students.

The results of the survey, presented at the board meeting on December 2, revealed that 56 percent of the parents surveyed were not satisfied with neighborhood options and applied to other schools. The survey also showed that 77 percent of parents believe the current enrollment system should be updated or replaced, and 73 percent prefer a single application.

How the district prioritizes students in the enrollment process may change as well. Now, when assigning placements, schools give first priority to students who have siblings at the school. Students who live in the school’s neighborhood receive second priority. An open lottery is used to place the remainder of the students—many of them are likely to commute. But now, based on the results of the survey, the district may consider adding a third priority for students who attend a feeder pattern school, or an elementary or middle school that typically sends its students to a specific high school, usually in the same neighborhood.

The teachers’ union opposes the move to a common enrollment model. “When we have common schools, common issues around enrollment, common issues around discipline, then maybe we can talk about common enrollment. But we do not have common schools, so therefore we do not need common enrollment at this time,” said Gorham, speaking for the union at a November school board meeting.

Gorham argues that the new enrollment model will benefit charter schools while undermining the ability of many OUSD schools to attract students. “It doesn’t make sense to add charter schools to a system of enrollment run by OUSD. It robs resources, it’s confusing, it is not the job of the school board that was elected to govern OUSD schools, and the superintendent who was hired to run OUSD schools to bring this in as a solution,” said Gorham. “We do not see how common enrollment answers any of the equity questions and organizational system questions that have been raised in the options process.”

But Flint says a change is necessary because the current enrollment model isn’t meeting the needs of many families. “If there are options which exist in the city and the current process for selecting and enrolling in schools is interfering with a family’s ability to identify those options and situate their child in a school that’s going to present the right fit for their family, then we need to remove those roadblocks, make the process easier to navigate, make it more accessible and level the playing field,” said Flint. “A universal, city-wide, comprehensive enrollment system is a great way to move us in that direction.”

At the board meeting on December 2, board president James Harris argued that the core issue is providing quality schools throughout Oakland, and that the common enrollment conversation doesn’t necessarily address this issue. “We are all sick with the same disease,” he said. “At what point will we recognize that we all have this sickness—that we all want to get out of those so-called ‘worst communities,’ and that the answer to this problem is actually instilling values, instilling love and relationships in the communities that we’re running from? That is our greatest dilemma.”

“I would argue that the mechanism to get to that conversation real quick would be closing enrollment,” he continued, “and saying ‘You live next-door to Tech, you go to Tech.’ ‘You live next door to Skyline, you go to Skyline.”

For now, many students are still spending long hours riding the bus to attend their preferred schools, some even commuting to other cities. Raymond Lyons lives in East Oakland but is a junior at California College Preparatory Academy in Richmond. Cal Prep, a K-12 charter school, was originally located in Berkeley. When the school moved to Richmond, Lyons said he had to decide whether to attend a school closer to home or continue at Cal Prep. “I might as well go to Cal Prep, because waking up at 5 in the morning is way better than waking up at 7, getting to school, but getting a horrible education,” he said.

Lyons said his morning commute takes two hours. “I know a lot of my friends, they chose the location. But it’s not always the location, it’s thinking about the future. It’s not all about the here and now,” said Lyons. It’s about “what you want your legacy to be.”

At 8:20, the students standing outside of Lee’s Donut Shop begin to disperse. The first bell rings at 8:25, and students are considered late at 8:30. As she walks to class, Bennett knows she will not be late today. Students like Bennett, Chang and Win are sure that the benefits of attending Oakland Tech outweigh the drawbacks of traveling, as long as they manage their time. All of them take advantage of options enrollment, and they are happy with their choice, regardless of its distance from home.

At 8:40 more students pour out of the 51A bus at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, and scatter across Tech’s green lawn. Maybe a teacher will believe it if one of the students explains, “The bus did it!” Then again, maybe not.

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