Parents, students, teachers make final push to keep their schools from closing
on February 7, 2022
The Oakland Unified School District board is expected to vote Tuesday night on a controversial proposal to close or merge up to 15 schools in the next two years to help shrink its budget deficit.
Over the weekend, parents, students, educators and community leaders rallied at campuses at risk of closure in a last-ditch effort to persuade school board members to reconsider the plan.
Oakland Unified has experienced enrollment declines and budget shortfalls in recent years. Pressured by the Alameda County Office of Education to cut its budget by $50 million, the board introduced school closures and consolidations as a way to reduce the deficit last week. The news shocked the community, which urged the board to push back the decision until people had a chance to digest it and propose possible alternatives.
With the board intent on bringing the issue to a vote this week, opponents quickly mobilized against the proposal. Students walked out of their classrooms and marched to the district office. Two district staffers announced that they would be on a hunger strike until officials backed down from the plan. The Reparations for Black Students Campaign organized a “Week of Action” that drew thousands of people, as half of the eight schools that could close have the highest percentage of Black student enrollment in the district. And on Thursday evening, protesters caravanned to two school board members’ homes, chanting and waving signs urging them not to close schools. Friday, Saturday and Sunday brought more protests and pleas for the board to reconsider.
Over the past decade, OUSD has decided to close schools to save money at various times, and the community fought back against it every time. In November, the school board voted against another round of school closures and mergers.
Shortly after the vote, Alameda County strengthened its oversight over OUSD’s budget. In December, school board member Shanthi Gonzales and Board President Gary Yee directed the superintendent to come up with a new list of schools that could be closed or consolidated.
“When the board passed the resolution saying that they are not going to close any more schools, we thought we had gotten over that,” said Corrin Haskell, who has taught for 25 years at Brookfield Elementary School. Brookfield could close at the end of this school year, along with Prescott Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Carl Munch, Community Day School and Parker K-8. Horace Mann Elementary and Fred Korematsu Discovery Academy could close at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
According to Haskell, Brookfield has been coming up on closure lists for the past 10 years.
“Every year at this time of the year, all the staff have to fight for the school, instead of giving the kids the attention they deserve,” he said “It takes away from what we need to do for the kids.”
OUSD believes it has more schools than it needs, given enrollment declines in recent years. Schools on the closure lists serve fewer than 400 students, though staff members have said it’s hard to get a clear picture during the COVID-19 pandemic when absences have been high. Nearly all of the schools that could close or merge serve a majority of Black and Latino students. Many have deep historical roots and are treasured in their communities.
Founded in 1869, Prescott Elementary is the oldest school in the district. Rosemary Towns is with an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority chapter whose members have been volunteering at the school for over 20 years. “We chose Prescott because Prescott is the school where Ida Louise Jackson taught,” Towns explained. “She was the first Black teacher that was hired by the Oakland Unified School District.”
Prescott may be among the district’s smaller schools, but it serves its students well, said Stefanie Parrott, whose son is a third grader there.
“None of the schools on the list are failing schools,” she said. “We have dedicated teachers, dedicated families and amazing students.”
Zyla Conover is a kindergartener at Prescott. “ I don’t want my school to close down because it’s my favorite school,“ Zyla said.
Westlake Middle School, which has a 92-year history, is at risk of merger. Two district staff members are in their eighth day of a hunger strike outside Westlake, where they’ve pitched tents and have received much community support. Moses Omolade, a program director for Oakland’s community schools, said he and his colleague Andre San-Chez are in for the long haul.
“I am prepared for what’s beyond Tuesday,” Omolade said, noting that even if the school board backs down, the county could take action.
‘We can’t accommodate it’
Students and teachers in other schools that will be asked to welcome the displaced students also are concerned about the plan.
La Escuelita, which now serves students in kindergarten through eighth grades, is expected to lose its middle school. That likely will mean more students from La Escuelita at Roosevelt Middle School and at West Oakland Middle School.
“Our school doesn’t have enough room to accommodate the students that will be going here,” said Julie Mendoza, who teaches at Roosevelt. “And we don’t have the capacity to inherit their special education program.”
According to Mendoza, students did not receive any support from the district when they transferred to Roosevelt Middle School from Roots International School after it closed in 2019.
“It’s a really chaotic and unsupported transition when the students are forced to go to a school that they don’t want to go to,” she said.
“We are barely managing now,” she added.
On Friday morning, about 50 people marched at Dewey Academy, in conjunction with La Escuelita and MetWest High School, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, we don’t want our schools to close!” Under the plan, Dewey, a continuation high school serving older teens who need an alternative to traditional learning, would merge with Ralph Bunche Academy, where students prepare for careers in the hospitality sector.
Dewey students said they feel connected to the school and worry that they won’t find the same level of support at a bigger school.
“Dewey, they provide a lot of help and effort and they truly care, like they truly want to see you succeed,” Matthew Hodges, a Dewey student, said at the rally.
A merger would undoubtedly have a negative impact on Dewey students, said Andrew Manou, a former student there who graduated in December. He noted that Dewey serves students from across the district and forcing them to go to a new school could be a barrier.
“The previous situation, like how to get to school, and where school is and all that stuff is gonna be a problem because students live really far away,” he said. “I know like me, I live pretty far from Dewey Academy. But it was really worth the trip.”
Dewey is one of four alternative education schools set for closure or merger. Alea Luken, a Dewey teacher who was at the Prescott rally on Saturday, pointed out that the pandemic likely will increase the need for such schools.
“Because of the learning mode of COVID-19, students missed almost two years of school,” she said. “When they matriculate, they will need alternative education.”
The school board vote likely will not be the last say on the matter. Last Thursday, Oakland City Council leaders called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to prevent the closures by forgiving the district’s state debts.
In a news release, Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, Council President Nikki Bas, Councilmember Carroll Fife and President Pro Tempore Sheng Thao introduced a resolution to aid Oakland schools by eliminating the debt and amending the state’s funding formula, which works against schools with smaller enrollments.
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