OUSD has had success with small schools, so why are they on the chopping block?
on May 5, 2022
Oakland Unified School District made a decision two decades ago that was intended to make its schools more equitable, improve academic performance and give principals autonomy over their budgets.
Following research that showed smaller schools could be tailored to a community’s needs and give kids more individualized attention, OUSD carved up campuses to reduce enrollment to fewer than 500 students in many of its schools. In the 22 years since, much of that plan has unraveled and small schools have been the most vulnerable to closure.
Ironically, the small schools movement that OUSD backed to create equity has worked against students of color. The seven schools that are set to close in the next two years as a money-saving move serve mostly Black and Latino students. Small schools have a harder time surviving in California because the state’s school funding formula is connected to enrollment, which favors bigger schools. OUSD receives a set amount of state funding based on total student attendance. It then distributes the funding to each school.
“Because of economies of scale, it matters a lot how big your schools are,” said Carrie Hahnel, senior policy director for the Opportunity Institute, which works to promote education equity. More schools mean more expenses for the district, which has to fill those schools with teachers and principals.
Given OUSD’s current budget situation, Hahnel said, “it’s necessary for the district to figure out how to be financially sustainable into the future, and it’s hard to see a path forward that doesn’t include school closure.”
The seven schools that the OUSD board decided in February to close in the next two years each have fewer than 400 students, as do the two the board decided to merge. All of them have a majority of Black and Latino students. The decision to close those schools and eliminate middle-school grades at two others split the board and upended the district, with children and parents tearfully asking board members to reconsider. Feeling bruised and powerless, students held protests and walkouts, as the community organized rallies and hunger strikes. On Friday, the teachers union held a one-day strike to register its opposition to the plan. But a majority of the board has stood firm in its decision.
More than half of OUSD’s schools have fewer than 400 students, which makes it unusual among districts of about the same size. And in the past two decades, many schools that had 500 students have seen their numbers shrink to fewer than 300, said Sondra Aguilera, OUSD’S chief academic officer.
“The decision to close schools is based on the need to serve students and families in well-resourced schools,” she said, adding that “sustaining many small schools stretches our resources thinly across too many schools, instead of allowing us to invest more deeply in fewer schools.”
The proliferation of small schools can be traced back to a grassroots initiative in the early 2000s to improve the quality of education in some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods.
A 2009 study by Stanford University researchers commissioned by the district, proved what supporters had predicted: Smaller schools generally made great academic strides. In addition, smaller schools had lower dropout rates and better teacher retention.
“OUSD has improved its districtwide [Academic Performance Index] score by 73 points since 2004, the largest gain of any urban district in California serving 20,000 students or more,” the report noted. “The new small schools have been a powerful engine driving that improvement.”
But a third of schools created during the small schools movement have either been closed, merged or expanded. Of the seven schools set to close, only one — Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy — was created under the movement. But the other six resemble Korematsu in size, making them less sustainable than larger schools.
At a January board meeting, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said size wasn’t the only thing administrators considered as they assessed schools. They also were also looking at which schools were growing and which were losing students.
“We are not saying that small was bad,” Johnson-Trammell said. “During the small school movement, there was the notion of small by design. But what we’ve seen over time is we have many other schools that are small as a result of declining enrollment. Those are two different things.”
Oakland’s overall enrollment is declining. It serves 46,000 students, about 2,500 fewer than in the 2015-16 school year. However, 20 years ago, the problem was the opposite — there were too many students in some buildings.
Emma Paulino, a director at Faith in Action East Bay (formerly the Oakland Community Organization) remembers the situation in 1999, when her son went to Manzanita Elementary, which was run year-round to accommodate two shifts of students.
“Schools were overcrowded, and because of that reason, our kids were not getting enough attention and resources,” Paulino said.
At that time, schools in the flatlands, the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in East and West Oakland, had double or even quadruple the enrollment of high-performing schools in the more affluent hillside neighborhoods.
“The best performing schools were in Oakland, while the lowest-performing schools were also in Oakland,” Paulino said. “So you see, the equity issue is so hard.”
In the 1990s, families from the flatlands organized through the Oakland Community Organization to make the system fairer. They used the small schools movement as an inspirational example that was spurring change in similar urban districts.
Besides creating smaller institutions, the movement wanted to give district-run schools the autonomy that charter schools had over their budgets, staffing, operation and curriculum.
“The idea of having autonomy is critical to be able to achieve equity, that’s an asset that charter schools had that Oakland Unified didn’t have.” said David Silver, the founding principal of Think College Now, a small school that has been operating successfully in the district since it was created in 2003. Silver is now the director of education for the Oakland mayor’s office.
In 2000, the Oakland school board approved a New Small Autonomous Schools policy from which 49 small schools would be created. Their administrators had control over curriculum, instruction, and budgets. Priority enrollment was given to students from underperforming and overcrowded schools, and the student body had to reflect district demographics.
“At the time, the district had a lot more resources to spread around,” said Sele Nadel-Hayes, a former OUSD administrator. “The funding for schools was more stable and there were more children generating revenue to the district.” She noted the small school movement also attracted philanthropic partners, who were interested in addressing educational inequities in Oakland, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Madeleine Clarke is the former director of development of BayCES, an organization that helped raise over $30 million in private funds for the small schools movement. She said some funding went to training parents, principals and teachers to “learn the skills that they needed in order to make decisions about budget.”
They came up with “results-based budgeting,” which distributes dollars to schools based on student population, and allows principals and teacher committees to develop their school budgets independently. Nadel-Hayes said the goal is to “allow a school community to really customize what their student population needs.”
Results-based budgeting was intended to tackle the equity problem. Under it, more resources were given to schools in lower-income neighborhoods. While results-based budgeting was successful in some schools, it was a struggle in others.
“There were principals who really used the opportunities that were created by site-based budgeting to maximize their resources and make it work,” Nadel-Hayes explained. “And there were schools where the leaders maybe had expertise in instruction, but not in strategic budgeting.”
State takes over
Shortly after the small schools movement took hold, OUSD experienced a fiscal crisis that led to a state takeover and a $100 million state loan in 2003. Under new state Administrator Randolph Ward, OUSD expanded the scale of the reform. Large schools were closed or broken down into smaller schools sharing a campus or a building. At the same time, results-based budgeting was launched districtwide.
But the district was subjected to much belt-tightening after the state takeover, leading to salary cuts and staff layoffs.
“With results-based budgeting, schools were allotted an inadequate amount and were told that they had to survive on that amount,” said Jack Gerson, a former teacher at Castlemont Senior High.
In 2004, Castlemont was broken into three smaller schools, but it reunified in 2012. Gerson recalled that many central services and programs were cut during that period.
“When my school was broken up into small schools, the library which had been a very good library, was closed and the librarian was excessed, that means that they were sent elsewhere,” Gerson said.
Results-based budgeting doesn’t work well when resources are scarce, Nadel-Hayes said. It requires school leaders to make tough decisions, such as choosing between a veteran teacher and a librarian. The turning point for small schools came during the Great Recession, Nadel-Hayes said, when the state’s education budget shrank in 2008-2009. The state funding was insufficient to meet students’ needs, she said.
“Because the revenue is generated for each kid,” she explained, “when you spread out the revenue in that way, and you also have a principal at each of these small schools and their fixed costs that come with having a school … we weren’t able to really gain economies of scale.”
Hahnel said California’s school funding is relatively low compared to other states. In 2019, California ranked 18th in per-pupil funding, at $16,800, according to the U.S. Census. Washington, D.C., ranked first, at $31,000, and New York ranked second, at $29,800.
“If we were funded like New York or New Jersey, who receive almost twice as much money per pupil as we do, it would be a different conversation,” Hahnel said.
After OUSD returned to local control in 2009, it had to deal with declining enrollment. Across the country, school districts were adjusting to a sharp decrease in the population of school-age children. In Oakland, that was exacerbated by the rapid growth in charter schools. Families could choose among 39 tuition-free charters. And many did. One in 4 Oakland students attends a charter school.
Closing and merging schools with low enrollment was considered a solution. Since 2009, nine schools have closed, 16 have merged and seven more are on the chopping block. Most of those schools served a majority of Black and Latino students. In 2012, in response to a proposed merger and teacher layoff, three schools that were created during the small schools movement voted to leave the district and become charter schools.
Since then, some schools have come up for possible closure more than once, bringing waves of instability, stress and anxiety for students, parents and teachers.
“Constantly putting the same school on the list over and over and over again really disturbs the learning of the kids,” said Corrin Haskell, who has taught for 25 years at Brookfield Elementary School. Brookfield has been on and off closure and merger lists several times in the past 10 years, and now is set to close after the 2022-23 school year.
A new Stanford University study shows that closing schools, especially those with a majority of Black students, could invite more gentrification. The research, published in February, revealed that when school closures happen in Black neighborhoods, the likelihood and extent of gentrification increase substantially. Co-author Francis Pearman, explained that in some respects, “the presence of schools in Black neighborhoods is a kind of safeguard to gentrification.”
Four of the schools set to close serve predominantly Black students, while Black students make up less than a quarter of the district’s population. Of the eight non-charter public schools that have a Black student population of more than 50%, three are going to be closed under the plan.
In April, the ACLU of Northern California filed a complaint with the California Department of Justice, urging Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate OUSD’s closure plan, calling it discriminatory against Black students and families.
In a news release, the ACLU argued, “By chronically underfunding and mismanaging small schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods, the district created the very conditions it now cites to justify disrupting tight-knit school communities and displacing hundreds of Black students.”
Aguilera, the district’s chief academic officer, called the ACLU’s claims “false.”
“We are proud to be a district that serves a high concentration of students of color, more than 78%, and we believe this diversity makes Oakland a rich learning community,” she said. “Any decision to close a school in our District, which serves so many students of color, will undoubtedly impact students of color.”
This story was updated to correct Madeleine Clarke’s association with BayCES.
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