Left photo: Eleanor Wohlfeiler poses for a photo with her three children in front of Peralta Elementary School in Oakland. Right photo: Kristin Smith and her family outside Sankofa Academy in Oakland. (Brittany Hosea-Small)
When Eleanor Wohlfeiler's son, Eero, was in kindergarten, he was already talking openly about race.
"He came home from school one day and he said, 'Mom, am I white?' " Wohlfeiler said. "I said, 'Yeah, you’re white.' And he paused and he said, 'Are you white?' I said, 'Yep, that’s how it is in our family, we’re all white.' And I was interested in that, because 6 is pretty old to figure out your race, but it’s a lot younger than a lot of white people. I know it’s older than people of color figure it out, but at least he got it before 13."
"Most of our white neighbors didn’t look at Sankofa," Wohlfeiler said. "They wouldn’t even walk in the door. To us we wanted to not only walk in the door, but really look at what that meant."
What it meant was complicated for Wohlfeiler. She said Eero was happy. Her family felt welcome at the school. But there were challenges common in schools that serve mostly low-income kids. Eero had an inexperienced teacher the first year, frequent substitutes the next.
"It was like the bottom-of-the-barrel substitutes. Sankofa did not have the resources to retain like a full-time sub," said Wohlfeiler. "What I saw of it when I volunteered was real disrespect for the children as a form of crowd control. I was watching the children just shut down."
Wohlfeiler said she didn't think of Sankofa as a failing school. She just didn’t feel like it had the support it needed from the district. And there was another layer: Because Eero had gone to preschool, he was more prepared for kindergarten than many of his classmates who hadn't. Wohlfeiler worried that he was getting the incorrect message that he was inherently smarter than other kids.
"He got a lot of feedback about that, like, 'You’re so smart,' and that felt really complicated for us. He’s the only white kid in his class, and I bet we had a lot more books on our shelf than other kids in his class, and that just did not feel right," Wohlfeiler said.
She eventually decided to move Eero to another school, Peralta Elementary, three blocks away. He started there last year. Peralta is an award-winning school. It has higher test scores and lower teacher turnover. There is art all over the walls and in the classrooms, and parents raise money to pay for classroom helpers.
"And he was quick to tell me, there’s not a lot of black people in his class," Wohlfeiler said.
Eero had ended up in a pretty typical situation for a white child in Oakland. Only 9.6 percent of Oakland’s public school students are white -- that includes charter students. But they’re concentrated in a handful of schools, where they are the majority.
"There's very high segregation of blacks and Latinos in the schools in Oakland," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and an expert on school segregation. "I would characterize it as severe."
According to data compiled by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the average white student in Oakland goes to school with 37 percent low-income classmates. In contrast, African-American students in Oakland attend schools where 72 percent of fellow students are low income; for Latinos, it's 84 percent.
"Segregation, as you can see by these Oakland statistics, is double segregation by race and poverty, which is really crippling for a school," said Orfield.
It's crippling because schools with more poverty tend to have fewer parents with college degrees and fewer parents with time on their hands to volunteer in the classroom and raise funds. These schools have a harder time attracting and keeping quality teachers, and have kids dealing with a lot more social and emotional issues in the classroom because they may come to school hungry, or be hurting or scared because they live in neighborhoods that experience a disproportionate amount of gun violence, police brutality and poverty.
"Our kids are used to broken promises," said Dana Saks, who directs Sankofa’s after-school program. "Our middle school students have been waiting since they first had a sixth grade for lockers. And the district keeps saying, 'We’re going to get you lockers, we're going to get you lockers, and they haven’t gotten them.' And our kids are like, 'Yeah, they’re not going to get us lockers. They don’t really care about us.' "
Oakland Unified recently renovated part of Sankofa and its playground. This year, the district is focusing on improving academics at Sankofa and a handful of other poor-performing schools. This has pretty much been the equity strategy here: Make neighborhood schools more attractive and improve academic outcomes for all kids, no matter where they attend school.
"The system is broken and diseased," said OUSD's director of enrollment, Charles Wilson. "If everybody went to their neighborhood schools, then we might see greater mixing, but there is sort of this pantheon of five or six schools that everyone wants to get into, all above Highway 13."
Wilson said the district is looking into ways to integrate the schools socioeconomically, including redesigning programs at schools like Sankofa to make them more appealing to middle-class families, and changing the priority system to give kids from higher-poverty Zip codes more of a chance to enroll in high-performing schools. But that's still in the planning stages.
Lack of District Policy Puts Onus on Parents to Integrate
The glaring concentration of race and poverty exists in schools all over the city. But these two schools, Peralta and Sankofa, bring the inequities into stark focus because they’re so close. The streets directly around Sankofa are actually zoned for both schools. It’s historically an African-American neighborhood. The former headquarters of the Black Panthers was nearby. But the neighborhood is rapidly becoming whiter and more affluent.
Orfield said middle-class parents shouldn't be afraid of sending their kids to a high-poverty school. "One of the things that particularly white and Asian families don’t understand is that there is overwhelming evidence that privileged kids don’t lose [in a high-poverty school], because low-income kids are much more affected by school opportunity than middle-class kids," said Gary Orfield. "You can have one group gain a lot and the other group not lose and win a lot in understanding of society. If done correctly, integration is a very powerful tool."
Like most school districts in California that have not been taken to court over segregation, OUSD has never implemented a full integration plan. So the school district relies on parents to do it of their own free will. But that puts parents in a position where they have to decide between a school that has everything they want for their kids, and a school where they would have to work to make it good for all kids.
"Middle-class parents are experts at gaming things," said Janelle Scott, associate professor of education at UC Berkeley. "They have benefited from their own higher education, but also families who have taught them how to navigate complex systems. School districts have to be pretty savvy to make sure there is not this sense that one school is not dramatically better to get into, because parents will find a way to game that."
Scott said part of any district's integration plan has to be committing to spreading funds and teachers fairly across all schools.
"I hope that Oakland will mix it up a little bit," said Sankofa parent leader Kristin Smith.
She said the concentration of poverty at Sankofa makes it hard to compete with a school like Peralta, where the kids have fewer needs, and where wealthier parents raise money and lobby the district to support the school. She said Sankofa's principal has worked hard to get grants and work with community organizations to renovate the playground, build a music program and offer French classes, but she would like to have a full science program, more art and classroom aides.
"For OUSD’s portion of it, I would think they would want to make sure all schools at least appear to parents to be equitably served, so parents are choosing among a large pool of schools," Smith said.
Wealthier Schools Must Welcome Parents of Color
Smith moved her son to Sankofa last year, the same year Eleanor Wohlfeiler moved her son out. Smith's son previously attended a more diverse school in the Oakland hills called Kaiser Elementary. Smith misses the diversity but chose to leave after she found out her son had been pulled out of class for reading help for months and no one had notified her.
"I feel like perhaps if I had not been an African-American parent, I may have received information sooner," said Smith.
How Smith felt is important, because to successfully integrate schools, it's not just about getting more white parents to choose low-performing schools. High-performing schools also need to do a better job of welcoming families of color.
At Sankofa, Smith said her kids were excited to see so many other kids who look like them and Sankofa is giving them something they couldn't get at just any school.
"As African-American students get older, you can lose yourself in the world," said Smith. "Because you just don’t know anything about your history, you don't know anything about your past. You don’t know you came from a strong people, or the triumphs they've had or the struggles they've had, so you have no frame of reference with which to project yourself in the world. And that’s something that all the students here receive."
Sankofa is serving a lot of African-American families who feel unwelcome at other schools, she said.
Eleanor Wohlfeiler gets that. She knows families of color who have decided not to go to her son's new school, Peralta, because there aren’t enough African-American teachers or students there. She knows her own children lost something when she moved them to a majority white school.
"This seems to me like the most important project of our time, to deal with equity and to deal with racism and to deal with privilege," said Wohlfeiler. "And, you know, kids getting shot all over the country. And it’s so easy to ignore it. And I’m worried that the more white of a community my kids are in, the easier it is to ignore."