Oakland's School Closure Plans Off to a Rough Start for Some Parents

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Roots International Academy, a middle school in East Oakland, opened its doors in 2006 as part of the school district's small school expansion policy. But after years of declining enrollment and poor academic performance, the district plans to shut the school down at the end of the year.  (Roots International Academy/YouTube)

This story contains a correction.

A group of parents at Roots International Academy, an East Oakland middle school that's been targeted for closure, say the district's plans were made without their input. They are headed to Wednesday night's school board meeting to demand answers, saying they've been living with the fear and stress of not knowing what will happen to their students next year.

As part of its controversial plan to begin closing or merging up to 24 schools in the coming year, Oakland Unified School District had promised community input on which schools would be closed. But that's something some parents at Roots Academy say hasn't happened.

"They didn't ask us," said Ady Rios, whose son is a seventh-grader at Roots. "We were not part of it. They did it on their own."

The school district informed parents of the closure plan shortly before the winter holiday break. It pointed to the school's extremely low scores and dwindling enrollment.

Ady Rios is the parent of a 7th grader at Roots International Academy, which is slated to be closed by OUSD.
Ady Rios is the parent of a seventh-grader at Roots International Academy, which is slated to be closed by OUSD. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Roots Academy was created in an earlier district reform effort to create smaller schools that could provide more support for at-risk students, according to teacher Rebecca Blakley. She agreed the school has been on shaky ground for a while.

"I see why, to people who are not in the school, it makes sense on paper," said Blakley. But she said her middle school students appreciate the tight-knit community and family feel of the school.

As part of its closure plan, Oakland Unified is proposing to expand the neighboring school, Coliseum College Prep Academy (CCPA), into the space that Roots currently occupies.

The district is still working to determine what the savings will be with the closure of Roots, said Oakland schools spokesman John Sasaki in an email.

But Blakley questions the criteria for and cost effectiveness of closing her school. If falling enrollment is a factor, she said, why pick on Roots Academy?

"I’m fairly sure other schools are suffering enrollment," Blakley said. "But they are not as quickly put up for closure."

"They are targeting us. It's gentrification," speculated Rios, the seventh-grader's mother. "There is more building going on around here and they want us out."

School district officials said they will work with Roots families to find the best placement for their children. But Rios fears that students like her son will face stigma wherever they go.

"What are they going to feel?" asked Rios. "They're coming from the school that didn't go good, because that's what you're telling them."

Another Roots parent, Sylvia Ornelas, said without a clear path for the school's students, there is fear, confusion and, for her daughter, a lot of questions.

"She was almost in tears," Ornelas said. "What is going to happen to our teachers? How are they going to go somewhere else? What’s going to happen to my friends? Are we even going to go to the same school? It’s just, like, question after question I had no answers to."

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Right next door to Roots, Coliseum College Prep Academy is considered a relatively successful middle and high school. But it's unclear how many of Roots Academy's students would end up at CCPA. Spokesman Sasaki said in a statement that "integrating 150 students into another school such as CCPA would be far too disruptive for everyone involved, the students, staff and families."

According to Sasaki, seventh- and eighth-graders could be sent to attend Elmhurst Community, Greenleaf, Madison Park Upper and Urban Promise Academy schools.

Parent advocate Lakisha Young with The Oakland REACH  said the district's current work to consolidate and merge schools is supposed to bring students in East and West Oakland better-quality schools.

"Here we are sitting on top of an issue where a low-performing school has the potential to be still in the neighborhood and merge into a higher-quality school," said Young.

But she is concerned about how the district is communicating with parents and families. She fears that lack of information and clarity will contribute to the community's feelings of helplessness and anger.

"I'm sorry but they need to figure out how to make it work," Young said. "It's going to be a bit of a challenge. But if this can't work, if this can't get figured out, I think we're a long way from being able to figure out real quality solutions for families."

Many see what happens to Roots Academy's students and their families as a test case of how the district will treat other East Oakland school communities on the chopping block. Seventeen of the proposed 24 school closures are expected to be in East Oakland.

The school board intends to make a final decision on the closure of Roots Academy within the next two months.

Jan. 10:  This story has been updated to correct the timeline for the school board's vote on the closure of Roots Academy, which will be within the next two months, not by Jan. 23.

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