When Manzanita SEED, a Spanish-English dual immersion school, opened in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood in 2005, it was serving almost exclusively low-income Latino, Asian and African-American families from nearby neighborhoods. Then, in 2011, the school won an award for closing the achievement gap.
“We just got bombarded with middle-class families from other neighborhoods who really had the means,” said parent and after-school director Simone Delucchi. “Maybe their children had gone to, like, fancy dual-language preschools, and now they can come and get this education, free.”
In three years, the number of white families at Manzanita SEED increased from six to 41. Today, white families make up 11 percent of the school population. In the same period, the number of families that qualified for free and reduced-price lunch dropped from 87 percent to 74 percent.
On paper, this looks like a good move toward integration. But Delucchi was worried it could go too far because she was seeing more and more African-American families leave the school.
“We would have chunks of people leaving, and [when] we didn’t have that big of a population to begin with, it’s noticeable," Delucchi said. "I started to openly advocate about us looking at what's happening with black families as well as what's happening with our Asian population, because they're dwindling to nothing."
It wasn’t just the number of better-off families that began displacing low-income kids, but the advantages they brought with them when trying to enroll their children. According to district policy, even if middle-class families are from outside the neighborhood, as long as they apply by January, they still get priority over families in the neighborhood who don't apply on time.
“They would just enroll early and ensure they got their spot. While our neighborhood lower-income families who are maybe not formally educated, maybe don't have any connections with teachers or the central office, they had no idea what the enrollment processes were in Oakland,” Delucchi said.
There’s a kind of momentum that builds up when more white and middle-class families come to a school in Oakland. The more of these families come, the more the school attracts others of similar backgrounds. People in the city talk about schools “flipping,” like real estate.
“You have to have a plan if you want it to come out differently, because the housing market doesn’t produce very many stable integrated neighborhoods that last,” said Gary Orfield, founder of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and an expert on school segregation.
Nearby Berkeley Unified School District voluntarily integrated schools by race in the 1960s, and in 2004 added in household income and parent education. Berkeley Unified's plan has held up in court, in part because it takes these factors into account by using a block-by-block analysis of census data instead of by individual student.
Oakland, like most other school districts, has not yet taken that step. In order to integrate the schools, Oakland Unified officials say they have to improve the quality of schools in low-income neighborhoods by developing programs to attract middle-class families, like the dual-language program at Manzanita SEED.
"We can say all day long that you have to go to X school or Y school, but given the fact that we have many families that have means to make other decisions, we want to make sure that families know that the options we're making available to them are going to be places where their children have a good shot of getting a good education," said Oakland Unified Superintendent Antwan Wilson. "So that's the first step."
The problem is, there's no plan in place to ensure that low-income children and children of color don't get pushed out.
A Top School That 'Flipped'
Peralta Elementary in North Oakland is now one of five district schools where more than half the students are white. And that’s remarkable because this is a city where just 9.7 percent of public school children are white.
When Nikki Lethridge looks at a picture of her sixth-grade class at Peralta in 1984, she gets nostalgic.
“It’s fun to think how really blended it was. You know, Asian, Latino, East Indian, black, white kids, mixed kids. I was part of the mixed kids group,” Lethridge laughs.
Nikki and her brother, Paul Musashi Lethridge, are African-American and Japanese-American. They know that the mix of kids at Peralta back then was rare.
“Coming from Peralta, I had a really specific view on how diversity works,” Paul says. “It’s like, it worked. It worked beautiful.”
Today, both siblings are still in the old neighborhood, living in the house they grew up in, just a few blocks from Peralta. But now Peralta’s racial and economic mix is very different.
Nikki sees it daily because her daughter is in fourth grade there.
“She's having a great time, she has lots of friends,” Nikki said. “There are African-American children, but predominantly white now.”
Just 10 years ago, Peralta was 66 percent African-American and 21 percent white. Today, it's 57 percent white and 16 percent African-American. Latinos make up 11 percent, kids of two or more races make up 12 percent, and Asians make up 3 percent. The free and reduced-price lunch numbers dropped from 53 percent to 22 percent in the last decade. If you look at last year's kindergarten class, you'll find it was 71 percent white.
What happened? The school became more and more successful, with a schoolwide program that integrates arts into the everyday curriculum. As the school became more attractive, more white and middle-class families began enrolling in the neighborhood school. In 2010 and 2011, Peralta won the same award Manzanita SEED did, for achieving high academic results with a socioeconomically disadvantaged population. Ironically, today Peralta would not be eligible for the same award, because it has too few low-income families. Home prices in the neighborhood have gone up, and many African-Americans have moved out.
“It happened pretty quick,” Paul said. “It’s kinda cushy up here. But then, one day I wake up and it’s really cushy, and it's nothing but Asian and white people. From what I see, it tells me that the people who can afford here look like that. And it's not black people.”
Parents Take On Outreach
In the absence of a district plan to keep schools diverse, some parents and teachers have decided to take on the task themselves of doing intentional outreach to families who may otherwise miss the enrollment deadline.
At Manzanita SEED, Delucchi spends a lot of time trying to keep African-American parents at the school. She visits local child care and rec centers to tell low-income families of all ethnicities about the school and how to enroll, so they can get in the door during the open enrollment window. She and other parents also started a Black Family Engagement group.
"So they feel like they're part of a network of people, they're not in isolation, like swimming among all these other folks with no support," said Delucchi.
At another Oakland school, Sequoia Elementary, teacher Tontra Love says principals have sometimes visited black or Latino churches or Buddhist temples to do outreach.
"I hope," she said, "that all the little pieces we are doing help."
Sequoia Teachers Make Diversity Outreach a Priority
Sequoia Elementary, near Dimond Park, is one of a handful of schools in Oakland that actually have a good mix of Latino, Asian, African-American and white students. But Love says in recent years Sequoia has seen a slow decline in African-American students and low-income kids.
She says teachers here are determined to keep their school diverse, so they are not afraid to talk openly and directly about the importance of diversity.
“When parents talk about making it a better school," Love says, "we say we want to make it a better school, too, but we want to make sure you’re interpreting better as still diverse in race, diverse in socioeconomic class, diverse in all different ways.”
Love says the school has made an effort to recruit and keep teachers of color, like her. And when potential kindergarten parents come to tour the school, Love always tells them about her son’s first day at Sequoia.
“His very first comment on the first day of school was, ‘I love my school because there’s kids that look like me,' ” Love says. “And, you know, as a person of color, I knew how important that was for me. So part of you is so happy that your child has that same thing and you can relate. How sad when at 5, they’ve also been in situations where they already weren't that, right? So that’s the story I start with.”
It’s that kind of clear talk that Love thinks attracts parents who value diversity, parents like Joel Tena.
“It was a wondrous moment, because we walked into the room, and we saw what we were looking for, which was quite frankly a reflection of Oakland,” Tena said. “My wife is Asian, I’m Latino. Our son is a little brown boy with long hair who loves to play soccer. And we wanted him to be part of a community that reflected our values and where we were coming from.”
Tena likes that at school his son plays soccer with a boy who speaks Arabic. He said Sequoia is teaching kids how to cross lines of race and class that adults in Oakland rarely do. But Tena is worried the neighborhood could be changing -- that his school could flip.
“Most of the people who are moving in are white. When they're able to go to school and they start looking around, they’re going to see Sequoia as the option for their kids to go to,” Tena said. “And unless there’s a plan in place to ensure that Sequoia retains the diversity it has right now, socioeconomic, class, race, it will be gone.”
Editor's note: Reporter Zaidee Stavely and OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson spoke on KQED "Forum" with host Michael Krasny from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 8.