Oakland Schools Chief: Integration More Complicated Than You Think

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A screen shot of Superintendent Antwan Wilson at a teacher effectiveness roundtable. (Oakland Unified School District Youtube Channel)

The head of Oakland public schools, Antwan Wilson, responded to KQED's series on segregated schools in a sit-down interview with morning anchor Brian Watt. We wanted to know if he has a plan for trying to make Oakland Unified schools more equitable across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Do families in Oakland want schools to be more integrated?

I hear the word sometimes, integration. But I don’t always hear the willingness to make the decisions to be made. We have schools that are highly sought-after schools. Well, in order to achieve integration that means we limit the number of slots that some families have, which reduces access in that school, opens up access to other families, and then we make other schools available to students who otherwise wanted to go to a high-demand schools. In order to make that happen, it requires some sacrifice. Have I noticed a strong desire to make that type of sacrifice? No, I have not.

So we’re not asking families to give up anything. We’re saying we want to be thoughtful and help people understand the strength in other schools, help them understand the power of having families who have both social capital, political capital, attend those schools and how it benefits all children to be in schools with students of diverse backgrounds, experiences and interests. That takes more time. So when I hear these issues discussed in a vacuum -- oh, you should just integrate -- well that just opens up a powder keg.

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It would help if kids could get to different schools with free transportation. Why isn't the district providing this?

Well, we are working on transportation, but it costs a lot of money. To talk about aspirations around integration, desegregation, and not talk about school funding to me is divorcing ourselves from reality a bit because we do have to talk about school funding, we do have to talk about the history of finances here and even in the city, and then also the disparities. We in Oakland are working on transportation solutions. I’ve been working on it for the last couple years. We are going to continue working on these issues. We’re working on a comprehensive effort to address transportation, but we can’t talk about that unless we talk about feeder patterns. Because if we’re just transporting kids the way we’re currently constructed, then you don’t have a thoughtful way of kids moving from elementary to middle to high, which helps reduce transportation costs, which makes using transportation as a potential solution for integration a part of it.

Does Oakland's enrollment policy reinforce segregated schools?

I don’t think neighborhood policy in and of itself is an insurmountable obstacle. I think it does require an expansion of what we consider “neighborhood.” People think of neighborhood as the school down the street. Oakland isn’t really that large geographically, certainly in terms of importance, but geographically not that large. The school down the street, you walk several more blocks, and there’s another school. Many times you have individuals saying they want to go to the school right down the street. Well, in order achieve integration we need to expand what we consider neighborhoods, and say you are guaranteed a slot in one of these schools. Part of the formula involves making sure you have opportunities for students from different Zip codes to have access to schools as well.

Also, it requires strategic placement of programs, some exciting programs that might attract people in, and placing those into some neighborhoods that some families aren’t used to seeing programs placed in. And saying we absolutely believe in these programs and students having access, but what we want to do is to have you travel, which really isn’t that far, to this school to receive it. And have those available throughout to two-thirds of our district. It just so happens that some of those programs will be below 580, and it will require that type of  reverse choice, as opposed to students to choosing to go up the hill.

If you’re going to achieve integration, you have to be intentional about it. What is the district doing to get there?

The No. 1 thing we want is to have a conversation around school quality and access to quality schools, and then create some structure so that we have good options so that families don’t feel like they’re forced to settle when making decisions for their children. That’s the first step. 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 who have means to make other decisions other than the places that they’re slotted into by the district, we want to make sure that families know that the options we're making available to them, although they may not know about them, are places where their children have a good shot at getting a great education. So that’s the first step for us, and there are several more steps after that.

The White House is offering grants to districts that want to integrate their schools more socioeconomically. Is Oakland Unified going after those grants?

In order to be in a position to have a great shot at getting the grant, we want to show that we have great strategy, that we have a great deal of community will, political will and being willing to work with the various partners we’re going to need to work with in order to move the work. So yes, in short, we are interested in pursuing grants, but not just with the government, but also with some local organizations, some national philanthropic organizations that are helping us on issues of school design, on how to make choice and equity. Not just ideas but real things that can be achieved here in Oakland.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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To hear OUSD Superintendent Wilson answer questions on KQED's Forum from Oaklanders about what it will take to desegregate more Oakland schools listen here.