Walking her daughter to school in their neighborhood of Sobrante Park in East Oakland, Marina Muñoz passes an old mattress on the curb and several abandoned cars. Then she crosses an empty lot covered with old clothes and smelly trash.
"Here in East Oakland, we are all poor," says Muñoz in Spanish. "Poor in everything, including education."
Oakland prides itself on diversity. Students in the district's public and charter schools are 44 percent Latino, 26 percent African-American, 13 percent Asian and 9.7 percent white. But only a handful of its public schools fully reflect the district's diversity. They are more likely to look like their own neighborhoods, which are largely segregated by race and class. That's due in large part to the district's enrollment policy.
Muñoz’s kids' school, Madison Park Academy, reflects the neighborhood. It’s 95 percent Latino and African-American, and almost all the kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. More than half the kids in elementary school are English learners. Latino kids make up the biggest ethnic group in Oakland’s public schools. They’re also the most isolated from other races and the most concentrated in high-poverty schools, here and across the state.
The principal at Madison Park Academy has made a lot of improvements in recent years, with a health clinic and wraparound services for kids and families. Still, the school has larger-than-average class sizes and low test scores, compared with the top-tier schools in the district.
That bothers Muñoz. She's convinced her kids are not receiving the same quality education as kids in the wealthy Oakland hills. One of the most frustrating moments for her was last year, when her son was a junior in high school. She said he had a substitute teacher in one of his classes for months.
"He would say, 'They're not even teaching me anything. Mom, come get me, I’m not doing anything,' " Muñoz said. "How are we going to send our kids to college if we don’t have well-trained teachers?"
Integrating schools is one way to give kids of color and low-income kids the same educational experience that white and wealthy kids are getting. But in California most school districts haven’t attempted to integrate, unless they they've been taken to court. Oakland is no exception. It offers a semblance of choice: Parents have to turn in six options for schools. But the district gives priority first to siblings, and then to families who live in the neighborhood.
Muñoz never even considered sending her children to one of the top-performing schools in the Oakland hills. When she first moved here from Mexico, it took her two months to even figure out how to enroll her kids, let alone send them to a school outside her neighborhood.
"I didn’t have a car, and it would have been too hard to walk far, or pay for the bus," Muñoz said. "We wouldn’t have had enough money for food."
Transportation is a serious issue in this district. Oakland Unified doesn't offer free travel to get to a school outside your neighborhood, like some other districts. District officials say it would be too costly.
Even if Muñoz could get to a top-performing school in the hills, many of those schools wouldn’t have space for her kids because they fill up with kids from their own neighborhoods, which are mostly white and wealthy.
"I feel very strongly that there needs to be a conversation and a system put in place to desegregate the schools," said former Oakland teacher Tanya Harris.
Harris used to teach at one of the top-performing schools in the district, Crocker Highlands Elementary. It's a wealthy neighborhood, where the median home price is now more than $1 million. After teaching at Crocker Highlands for five years, Harris began working at schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, like where Marina Muñoz lives.
"And I would drive down that hill and past those beautiful, huge homes and tree-lined streets and I would get on the freeway, and get off and ... it brought tears to my eyes. I thought, it’s like I live in a Third World country," Harris said.
Harris says that stark inequity of poverty and wealth creates a two-tiered system of access.
"Access to everything," Harris said. "Access to health care, dental care and eyeglasses, access to, obviously, jobs, access to grocery stores, access to the educational experience that kids and families deserve in order to interrupt these continuous cycles of poverty."
And at wealthy schools?
"At Crocker, our kids had access to all kinds of enrichment. There was so much teacher autonomy for us to teach how we wanted to teach, and art was an integral part of everything we did. It was really hands-on, and kids did really amazing things," Harris said.
She says at other schools there was less parent fundraising to provide resources and materials for those kinds of enrichment projects.
Back in 2003, when Harris first started teaching at Crocker Highlands, she says there was space for kids from outside the neighborhood, because many families living in the neighborhood were sending their kids to private school. So Crocker Highlands was more evenly divided, with about 40 percent African-American and 40 percent white students.
"My first PTA meeting, I’ll never forget it, the PTA members were talking about how important diversity was," Harris said. "And then, several years into my experience there, that narrative shifted significantly."
What happened was that Crocker Highlands families started working to get more of their neighbors to send their kids to Crocker, to invest in the neighborhood school and improve it.
"There was an active group that was working with the local Realtor, who was really intentional about selling homes to people who were going to be committed to sending their kids to Crocker," Harris said. "So there was a real shift in the culture and climate in terms of accepting and embracing folks that were outside the little Crocker Highlands bubble."
Over time, more and more African-American kids from outside the neighborhood were squeezed out. Today, 60 percent of Crocker Highlands’ students are white, and only 10 percent are black. Just 3 percent are English learners, compared with 30 percent districtwide, and only 8 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, compared with more than three-quarters districtwide.
"Our schools really reflect what is a housing segregation issue," said Janelle Scott, an associate professor of education at UC Berkeley. "Our embracing of neighborhood schools, without any affirmative plan to interrupt neighborhood racial segregation patterns, means that our schools are largely going to look like our neighborhoods look, and our neighborhoods are quite segregated."
That neighborhood segregation wasn’t by accident. Like in other cities across the country, segregation in Oakland was by design. In the early 20th century, real estate agents and mortgage companies refused to give loans to people of color, and homeowner associations had specific policies against renting or selling to African-Americans and Asian-Americans.
One of the oldest of these homeowner associations west of the Mississippi was founded in the Crocker Highlands neighborhood in 1917. The federal government outlawed racial covenants in 1968, but this Oakland neighborhood didn't officially lift them until 1979. African-Americans have moved in and out of Crocker Highlands over the years, but today the neighborhood is mostly white.
Oakland Unified's executive director of enrollment, Charles Wilson, recognizes that the existing neighborhood boundaries reinforce the legacy of housing segregation.
"So the challenge for us is how do we push against that, at the same time recognizing that everyone has a right to attend school close to their home?" Wilson said.
He says the district plans to apply for a federal grant to try to integrate the schools socioeconomically, maybe offering spaces at high-performing schools to kids from low-income neighborhoods.
"What if we were to say, we will never allow a school to become more than 80 percent free and reduced lunch or less than 60 percent?" Wilson said.
That's still in the early planning stages, but Wilson says integration is a priority for the district.
"It's also a very thorny issue that is going to require a lot of delicate movement to include the community in," he said.
Integration Is a Hard Sell
School integration plans are often met with lawsuits, and white and wealthy parents fleeing to private schools. Neighboring Berkeley’s plan, however, held up in court. It has neighborhood zones that run from the wealthy hills to the lower-income flatlands and uses block-by-block information to pull students from a wide range of races, incomes and levels of parent education.
Of course, Oakland is a different city. It has fewer white students and more students from low-income families. But Janelle Scott says that’s not a reason not to integrate. Oakland’s diversity, she says, is an incredible opportunity for people to really understand each other, across lines of race and class.
"We have large numbers of Latino, African-American and Asian students, but we see that many of those students never even go to school together. So for me, it really comes back to what kind of society do we want to have?" Scott said. "Do we want our children as young adults to be able to get along with each other, to know about each other, to be respectful of each other? And that is one of the reasons why advocates early on focused on schools, because it was a place where children could grow together and learn together."
Don Clyde contributed to this post.