Black Parents Say It's Up to Them to Fix Unequal Oakland Schools

1 min
Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell (right) joined local education officials at a State of Black Education Oakland event.  (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

The posters up on display in a downtown club in Oakland last Saturday were startling and thought provoking.

Fewer than one in eight black students in Oakland Unified School District meet state math standards. Fewer than one in five meet reading standards. Black students are far more likely to be chronically absent or get suspended than white students in OUSD schools. Nearly 70 percent of Oakland's homeless population is black.

But these data points were meant as a rallying cry, not a sign of defeat.

Those who milled about reading them had come to an event billed as the State of Black Education.

At a time when tens of thousands of black residents have left the city and the gulf between black income and white is growing, the conference organizers wanted to refocus attention on longstanding educational inequities and the need for renewed community action.

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“Those years when we made up the majority of the school board, or elected successive Black mayors, they are becoming increasingly unlikely,” State of Black Education organizer and education advocate Dirk Tillotson wrote ahead of the event.

“As our political clout declines, so too does the focus on the problems of Black children and families and the will to push for solutions, or even see them.”

Posters on display at the State of Black Education event at Geoffrey's Inner Circle in downtown Oakland.
Posters on display at the State of Black Education event at Geoffrey's Inner Circle in downtown Oakland. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

Tillotson and fellow organizers Charles Cole, who runs a youth organization, and Oakland Unified School Board Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge worked with community members to compile research and collect input on how Oakland schools serve black students. They used that work to inform a set of policy recommendations released on Saturday.

About 100 people spent Saturday afternoon at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle learning about their work.

“Welcome to the SoBEO!” Cole told the crowd as the event got underway. “We are so excited to have you here. State of Black Education Oakland is an opportunity for us to take a real look at every crevice and crack of Oakland education and the things surrounding it that involve and affect black people.”

Students, parents and teachers shared their insights into Oakland schools. Students raised concerns about being unfairly tracked into less rigorous classes, about having substitutes for months on end and having few teachers of color.

The State of Black Education collaborative collected input from students to inform recommendations.
The State of Black Education collaborative collected input from students to inform recommendations. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

They also talked about how bias, both implicit and explicit, shaped their learning environment.

“I've had several teachers who would show up ... not knowing the background of the students and make racist remarks,” said Haifa Algabri, who graduated from McClymonds High School and now attends Mills College.

“One of our substitute teachers said 'Slavery was 100 years ago. Get over it. Stop using it as an excuse to not do work.'”

Lakisha Young, who worked on the event and heads up a parent advocacy group The Oakland REACH, raised concerns shared by many parents.

"We are the mamas, the grandmammas, the aunties and uncles of the kids at the lowest performing schools,” she said of her organization.

Young, who has three kids in Oakland schools, joined a panel of fellow REACH members in discussing their frustration with abysmal test scores, chronically absent teachers and administrators who don’t stick around.

They talked about the lengths to which they go to escape their poor-performing neighborhood schools, driving across town daily to deliver their kids to charters that promise — but don’t always deliver — better outcomes.

A display at the State of Black Education event traced the impact of redlining and racial segregation through to contemporary outcomes for black students.
A display at the State of Black Education event traced the impact of redlining and racial segregation through to contemporary outcomes for black students. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

Around the room, maps depicting the legacy of redlining policies grounded the talk of today’s inequities in the intentional discrimination of the past.

“The problems with quality and black children have been happening since before many folks in this room even set foot in Oakland or were even born,” Young said, echoing a sentiment repeated throughout the day.

Young and her group helped develop a policy recommendation they’re calling the Opportunity Ticket. And it's pegged to Oakland Unified's latest attempt to consolidate schools in order to economize and reduce its deficit. The so-called Opportunity Ticket would allow parents whose local schools get shut down to send their kids to any school in the district.

Oakland Unified may close schools to help manage its budget crisis — and advocates worry black kids will be disproportionately impacted.

“Black staff and Black families will bear a disproportionate burden, in the district righting itself, while the hills schools will feel nary a thing, unless we organize,” Tillotson wrote in his blog.

Parent Keta Brown supports the Opportunity Ticket policy and other ideas put forward at the event, like setting public goals for hiring and holding onto black teachers, using the school district’s unused property to help Oakland’s foster youth and homeless, and giving students a chance to participate in teacher hiring and evaluation.

Oakland REACH member Keta Brown at the State of Black Education event.
Oakland REACH member Keta Brown at the State of Black Education event. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

“A lot of the black and brown community is underserved and our voices are a lot of times never heard,” Brown said. “We want to make certain that we are a part of having a seat at the table and not just sitting and hearing about it on the outside.”

Representatives from the county and district listened to the recommendations, answered questions from the community and offered comments.

Alameda County Board of Education Trustee Amber Childress pointed to research that shows black-white achievement gaps persist regardless of socioeconomic status.

“The opportunity gap is about students of color,” she said. “This is a system that's doing what it was designed to do, so we have to really tear down this system.”

Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell went to Oakland schools herself.

“We've been in a state of emergency crisis since before I went into school,” she told the crowd, arguing it would take continued community involvement to turn the tide.

“What is the system's response for a school that hasn't been serving the community for generations? I wish I had an answer. But to me that’s why these conversations are important,” Johnson-Trammell said. “Because I'm very clear it's not going to be me by myself that's going to have the solutions."

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Members of the State of Black Education collaborative plan to formally present their Opportunity Ticket recommendation to the Oakland school board before the end of the year.

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