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Members of The Oakland Reach, a parent-led advocacy group, showed up by the dozens to speak out for students of color. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.

Oakland school board votes to consolidate schools

on September 13, 2019

At a contentious marathon Oakland school board meeting Wednesday evening at La Escuelita Elementary School, the board voted to merge two elementary schools in North Oakland and the Oakland Hills onto a single campus, and two middle schools in East Oakland onto another. 

Under the approved plan, the district would close Henry J. Kaiser Elementary School and relocate its students and staff to the Sankofa Academy campus in North Oakland. In addition, the plan called for Frick Impact Academy and the Oakland School of Language (SOL), both in East Oakland, to be merged on the Frick campus. 

The back-to-back decisions, made after dozens of the schools’ parents, teachers, former and current students, and other Oakland residents voiced their opposition to the mergers, led to shouts of “Shame on you!” from attendees, and calls for board members to resign. Due to the high turnout at the meeting, the public comment session was limited to 1 minute per person, and the meeting lasted until 2 am.   

The board’s merger plans reflected the Blueprint for Quality Schools, a district-wide plan to reconfigure its resources by closing up to 24 under-enrolled and low-quality schools.  District officials are also hoping to address problems caused by under-enrollment, which has led to a struggle to fund more campuses than the current student body can fill.

Addressing attendees prior to the board’s vote on the Sankofa-Kaiser merger, school board Vice President Jody London (District 1) said, “While I respect the passion and persistence of the Kaiser community, I find that the school’s location in a neighborhood with few school-age children makes it difficult to justify continuing to operate the school at that site.”

Sankofa Academy has long struggled academically and primarily serves a low-income African-American community. On the other hand, Kaiser Elementary, overlooking Highway 24 in the Oakland hills, is well-regarded academically and has a racially-diverse student body. In a number of emotional appeals, attendees asked the board why they would vote to close a school that reflects the district’s stated values of quality education and diversity. 

“You have a high-performing school, and you’re going to close it?  There’s really nothing innovative about this at all,” said Jay Murphy, a parent of two former Kaiser students. 

Audrey McGuinness, former Kaiser Elementary student, and Anne McGuinness, current Kaiser Elementary teacher, protest the school board's proposed merger of Kaiser and Sankofa. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.
Audrey McGuinness, former Kaiser Elementary student, and Anne McGuinness, current Kaiser Elementary teacher, protest the school board’s proposed merger of Kaiser and Sankofa. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.

Some attendees accused the school board of catering to the interests of charter school supporters. “The city’s busting at the seams,” said Shelly Alvarez, a parent of a former Kaiser student. “Declining enrollment is directly related to you closing regular schools and allowing charter schools to move into their building. I resent that you try to make this about a ‘hills’ schools versus a ‘flatlands’ school.”

Still, London argued that Sankofa’s location on 61st Street in North Oakland next to the Bushrod Recreation Center and community garden would allow for a comfortable merger with Kaiser’s student body. Increasing the student body on Sankofa’s campus, she added, would allow more district resources to be concentrated on the site, improving the quality of education. 

“As a school board member,” London said, “part of my job is to think about the long-term.”

“Think about the children!” several audience members shouted in response.

Some members of the public said they were inspired to attend by the closure of Roots International Academy. At a school board meeting in January, the board voted to close the middle school, citing its low test scores and enrollment. At that meeting, Roots students asked the board why, instead of closing the school, they didn’t provide it with more resources and funding in order to improve. Many accused the board of not engaging with the Roots community.    

On Wednesday, a number of attendees made similar complaints as they spoke about the Frick-SOL merger. “Now once again OUSD is rushing through a process to merge Frick Impact Academy and Oakland SOL next year,” said one man wearing an Oakland Education Association (OEA) t-shirt, “without giving both school communities the opportunity they have asked for and deserve to genuinely consider what such a merger would mean for their students, families, teachers, and staff.”

Wednesday evening’s public meeting began with an acknowledgement of last week’s 2020-21 budget implementation meeting.  Board president Aimee Eng (District 2) also mentioned that on Friday the board discussed its three main priorities: fiscal vitality, quality community schools, and organizational wellness. Eng added that the board would continue to provide updates on these topics as the school year progressed.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel argued that making the district equitable to families across socioeconomic and racial lines requires tough and thoughtful consideration. “We still must exercise a combination of fiscal discipline and strategic spending,” she said. 

Johnson-Trammel added that one of the district’s main concerns was ensuring that all schools are large enough to sustain quality programs and retain good staff. “The ultimate goal of this incredibly complex work is to create a public school system where opportunity is no longer concentrated in the hands of a few, but granted to all,” she said.

The school board voted 5-2 in favor of the Sankofa-Kaiser merger, with board directors Roseann Torres and Shanthi Gonzales voting against it; the board voted unanimously to support the Frick-SOL merger. 

As parents and their children, some in tears left the auditorium for the evening, several more vocal attendees continued to chastise the board.  “Look what you did!” shouted one distraught father of a crying child.

2 Comments

  1. […] were Kaiser Elementary School parents and staff—had come out to make noise about the board’s decision two weeks ago to merge Sankofa and Kaiser elementary schools on Sankofa’s campus. That decision means that Kaiser, a high-performing, small school in […]

  2. […] students affected by school closures—and plans to rezone the area that formerly fed students into Kaiser Elementary, which will close at the end of this year to be merged with Sankofa Elementary on Sankofa’s […]

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