Teachers Join Parents to Fight Closure of Oakland's Roots Academy

Students and staff from Roots International Academy gathered for a pep talk before taking turns at the podium, pressing OUSD board members not to close their school, on Jan. 9, 2019. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

Parents and students opposed to the school district's plan to close Roots International Academy in East Oakland are vowing to fight to keep it open. And with a labor strike brewing, teachers around the city are seizing on the issue.

At this week's Oakland Unified School District board meeting, teachers, parents and school staff came to speak out.

"These students are the reason I'm prepared to go on strike, why all the teachers here are prepared to go on strike," East Oakland Pride Elementary School teacher Adi Hoag said to cheers. "We can make this fight. I'm not planning to go back in there if they close any schools."

Hoag pledged to keep Roots Academy open by any means necessary, throwing out the possibility of a sit-in at the school.

Roots Academy families also plan to join teachers in a teachers union rally in downtown Oakland on Saturday that's aimed at boosting education funding in California.

Some community members opposed to the closure of Roots Academy say they will join in a teachers union rally on Saturday. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

Shortly before the winter holiday break, district officials announced their plan to close Roots. Officials cited the middle school's dwindling enrollment and poor teacher retention as reasons for shuttering the school.

"We wanted to make sure that our students were given the opportunity to make a transition to a higher performing school before any adverse conditions at Roots grew any more challenging," district spokesman John Sasaki said in a statement.

At Wednesday night's meeting, school board members listened in silence as parents vented their anger and sadness.

"I just want to know why are you attacking our communities," parent Concepcion Resendiz told the board, explaining that her son struggled in school until he found what felt like family at Roots. "We are the ones that you left always behind, and instead of giving us a hand you just throw us away."

Board members did not discuss the proposed closure of Roots Academy at the meeting, but assured community members they'd take up the conversation at their next meeting on Jan. 23.

The Oakland Unified School District is in the process of developing a controversial plan to pare down the number of schools in the district by as many as 24. It's a move the district says is critical to shoring up finances in the long term.

District officials had assured the community they'd be heard throughout the process, but some Roots Academy parents say that hasn't happened.

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"For it to come down this way without us really knowing and having a seat, that's what bothers me more than anything," said parent Gwen McWilliams, whose daughter, Robyn, is in sixth grade at Roots. "I think we should have had some say."

At the very least, McWilliams said she wanted a chance to ask decision-makers the questions that still nag at her. "What could we have done differently that we didn't know about in time? What could we do to keep it open?"

McWilliams' daughter, Robyn, worries about having to leave her friends when she goes to a different school. "It feels like the people don't really care about our education," she said.

Parents, teachers and community members attend an Oakland school board meeting. Jan. 9, 2019
Parents, teachers and community members attend an Oakland school board meeting on Jan. 9, 2019 (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

The district has not yet determined how the placement process for Roots students would work if the school closes. "We will work with families with incoming seventh- and eighth-grade students to find the best placement for their children," Sasaki said in a statement.

McWilliams says she will consider other Oakland schools, but if she doesn't like her options she's ready to look elsewhere. "If push comes to shove I'll have to go out of the district," McWilliams said, "possibly moving."

The board plans to hold a final vote on the Roots closure in the next two months.

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