Community disquiet about school closures erupts at school board meeting
on November 14, 2019
At the auditorium of La Escuelita Elementary school Wednesday evening, Oakland Unified School District police officers were notably absent. So, too, were the barricades that had been set up to block protestors during a previous school board meeting on October 23, which had ended with the arrest of several protesters who oppose school closures and charter schools. Instead, camera crews from multiple media outlets were present, along with a predictably large crowd of protestors.
Several people in the audience held up signs that read “Our Kids Not For Sale” and “Pencils not Police.” Others held up placards with the now ubiquitous slogan: “No School Closures, Oakland Not For Sale,” which was adopted by the Oakland Is Not For Sale Coalition, a group that has been particularly vocal in their opposition to the closures. The group had formed after the September 11 vote by the board to merge Sankofa Academy and Kaiser Elementary on one campus, and Frick Academy and School of Language (SOL) on another, as part of its Blueprint for Quality Schools.
The first agenda item this Wednesday evening was a brief report from school board student directors Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl. Addressing the attendees, Garibo said, to a round of applause, “I love this movement.”
“We have the power at the end of the day. We have the power,” he continued.
“I want to thank you so much for growing our movement,” said Kaiser parent Saru Jayaraman, as she approached the podium to address the board members. Jayaraman was arrested and briefly detained during the October 23 meeting, and on Wednesday, she and others criticized what they said was the OUSD police officers’ excessive and traumatic use of force. Some speakers called for the abolition of the entire OUSD police force. “Thank you for exposing yourselves as the illegitimate and brutal force that you are,” Jayaraman said.
Jayaraman then called on attendees to stand and turn their backs on the school board members. Most did so, and then began chanting: “No school closures. Oakland is not for sale!”
Shortly after, a call and response followed from the crowd:
“Whose schools?” “Our schools!”
“Whose kids?” “Our kids!”
“Whose board?” “Our board!”
As the chanting continued, student director Garibo tried speaking into the mic over the noise. “Let him speak!” someone shouted.
Garibo reiterated that while as student directors he and Smith-Dahl support the protesters, they were there to represent their constituents and could not do that with disruptions. Garibo added that he didn’t want a repeat of the last meeting, which ended with the board decamping to meet in a private room upstairs as protesters clashed with district police as they tried to take over the stage to hold a “people’s school board meeting.”
After a few mild verbal spats with some protestors, the student directors took their backpacks and left the auditorium, visibly frustrated. Walking down East 10th Street outside La Escuelita, Garibo politely declined Oakland North’s request to comment on why he and Smith-Dahl had decided to leave.
By then, the board members had announced a recess and left their seats on the stage, reconvening the meeting in an upstairs committee room several minutes later. Children, some of whom had previously occupied board members’ seats during a school board disruption on September 26, took their place. One by one, they read demands from the Oakland Is Not for Sale coalition, which include placing a moratorium on school closures and closing the “school to prison pipeline.”
Several of the children spoke about what they said was the trauma of the last board meeting, including alleging they had seen their parents being treated roughly by police officers. Others said that they had not been present at the October 23 meeting, but had talked with their friends and parents about what it was like.
As the children spoke, the board members continued to be in recess. Several minutes passed before Vice President Jody London (District 1) announced via the PA system that the meeting would reconvene with the live video feed turned on. London reiterated that due to the disruptions by protestors, the board members had no choice but to hold their meeting in a private room.
During the reconvened meeting, one of the agenda items was an update from Yvette Renteria, the Deputy Chief of Innovation for the district, regarding the mergers of schools in what district officials call “Cohort 2,” which include Kaiser Elementary and Sankofa Academy, the two schools caught at the heart of the debate over the district’s “Blueprint for Quality Schools” mandate.
Renteria said the work of merger design teams was largely facilitated by the principals of the schools being combined. The work includes discussion about the core values and missions of the merging schools, identifying new names for them, and trying to build community among with current and prospective students’ families.
Regarding Frick Academy and the School of Language (SOL), two schools in East Oakland also set to merge onto a single campus, Renteria said that a walkthrough of the Frick campus determined that a minimal amount of structural work—such as phone installation, a speaker system, and minor repairs—would be needed to support the merger. But, she acknowledged, building community was an ongoing challenge for the two school communities.
“How are you guys recording what you’re learning from these processes?” asked Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6), “and what are you learning about how to handle these situations in the future?” Gonzales said that while she believes the Frick-SOL merger works on paper, issues like capacity and staff vacancies complicate the process.
“One thing we’ve learned is that when it comes to community, the facilitation and the people that are leading that process really need to be identified by the community,” Renteria responded. She also said that principals from all the merging schools need coaching and support to do this design work.
If these issues come up again with Cohort 3 schools, which are the next to be merged under the OUSD’s Blueprint plan, Gonzales asked “Are you still going to move forward seeing how difficult it’s been with Frick and SOL?”
“We have not identified Cohort 3 schools,” Renteria replied. “One of our big pieces right now is to do these community engagements that we really are encouraging community to talk through what’s going on in their area.”
Director Roseann Torres (District 5) wanted more details about how the design teams are reaching out to the schools’ communities, particularly to families whose children have already been through school closures. “Because I think those most negatively affected at Kaiser are those that this is happening twice to their children and their family,” Torres said.
She mentioned that some students from Roots Academy, which was closed in January, had been transferred to SOL, which is now slated to merge.
“How do we avoid repeat negative and stressful experiences for families?” Torres asked.
Renteria responded by saying that events like a recent barbeque at the Bushrod Recreation Center behind Sankofa, at which Kaiser and Sankofa families were invited to share food and get to know each other, had been led by members of the schools’ community, not by district officials.
Torres pressed some more, and said that one of her concerns is the lack of information district officials have provided to the Kaiser community about what will be done with the campus property after the merger. “That has also not been displayed or explained or anything,” she said.
“That has not been determined and that will be coming, and we’ll be working with the facilities,” Renteria responded.
Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3) said, “The feedback that I’ve gotten from some Sankofa families is that they do not feel like they are a part of the design team because it is a closed system.”
“But I will push back on behalf of them,” Hinton-Hodge said.
Later, speaking about a separate issue, Neena Bawa Bhathal, the district’s Special Education Location Plan Area (SELPA) Executive Director, addressed the board. SELPA is part of a state of California master plan for developing an equitable educational opportunties for disabled students in the state.
Bhathal said that her department had also been providing monthly professional development trainings for special education teachers and support staff. “As you all know it’s vital to maintain consistency for our students and the district as well,” she said.
Other board business included hearing an updates on improvements to the district’s budgeting practices, a master plan for safety matting for play structures, and a multi-million-dollar fire alarm replacement fund.
The meeting was adjourned at 11:30 pm. By 10 pm, the majority of attendees had gone home, although a handful remained for the public comment segment on non-agenda items. There were no arrests.
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