Parents and Administrators in Oakland Battle Over Middle School's Future

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Westlake Middle School is one of several schools in Oakland that may have to share space with charter schools next year. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

In the art room at Westlake Middle School in Oakland, 14-year-old Cheyenne Lewis is working on a colorful mosaic for an outside wall. Cheyenne loves her school and she’s worried about what will happen if a charter moves in to share the campus, as proposed by the school district.

"I feel like they don’t really care about how inconvenient it is for us," said Cheyenne. "The board keeps saying ‘We’re taking empty rooms, we’re taking empty rooms.’ But that’s not true."

Under California law, school districts have to give charters access to the same kinds of spaces occupied by traditional public schools, when that space is available. The rooms at Westlake being offered to Downtown Charter Academy are not being used as classrooms, in part because enrollment has dropped in recent years from 747 in 2013 to 455 in 2015. But students and teachers say they are just as important: They include a restorative justice room, a computer lab, and a student game room, among other spaces.

"They keep presenting that Westlake enrollment has gone down and test scores are low. The fact is that our enrollment has gone down as the district has closed the schools that feed into our school," said art teacher Juliana Houston.


Houston says district-run schools like Westlake have to compete with charter schools for students, but they often don’t have the same kind of marketing tools. If enrollment drops, they often have to share space, too. She says teachers were working hard to turn the school into an arts magnet to attract more students, but now the room they planned to convert into a performance space is slated to be handed over to the charter, too.

"I understand that the charter needs space, too, and I’m not anti-charter. But it just feels really frustrating," Houston said.

Parents like Joel Velasquez say the district is making matters even worse at Westlake Middle School, by announcing it's going to remove its longtime principal.

"I think you are either intentionally, maliciously or incompetent to realize that if you remove leadership at the same time as you move another school to the site, you’re going to destabilize that entire campus," said Velasquez.

Oakland Unified School District has been struggling with where to put charter schools, as existing charters expand and new ones are created. According to the school district, Downtown Charter Academy requested space at Westlake because the rent in their current building is going up. The director of Downtown Charter was not available for comment.

Fourteen charter schools requested space from the district this year, and the district is offering them classrooms at schools all over the city. The California Charter School Association just filed a lawsuit against the school district last week, alleging  it’s not being fair to charters, offering them spaces split up across several campuses.

"It’s both discriminatory against charter school students and the choices their parents have made for them, and it's unlawful," said Ricardo Soto, an attorney for the charter association. "The end goal is ... for them to make reasonable and equitable offers to charter schools. ... It might require the district to reconfigure how they are accommodating their traditional public school students."

Oakland Unified spokesman Isaac Kos-Read says the district has a very good relationship with local charters.

"There is, of course, this irony in this," said Kos-Read, "in that we are known as being collaborative with charter schools, and yet not collaborative enough in the association’s opinion."

Kos-Read says the district is trying to accommodate students at both charters and traditional public schools.

"And are there going to be people unhappy on both sides of that equation all the time?" he asked. "Probably. You could argue that that’s a sign that we’re doing our job and that no one’s entirely happy with the final output."

Administrators meet Wednesday with parents, students and teachers at Westlake. The school board is set to decide on final offers to charter schools next week.