Demonstrators at an OUSD board meeting on Jan. 23, 2019, at La Escuelita Elementary School voiced their opposition to the district's proposal to close Roots International Academy, a small middle school in East Oakland. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)
Roots Academy is the first of several schools that OUSD intends to close in the next few years. Many in Oakland are closely watching how the district handles this transition a model for what's to come. Some parents feel left out of the decision-making process.
Updated Jan. 29, 10 a.m.
On Monday night, amid angry protests, the Oakland Unified school board voted 6-1 to close Roots International Academy middle school at the end of the school year. Students will have the option of attending better-performing schools in the 2019-20 school year, the district said.
Original post: Oakland Unified school board meetings these days are rarely without drama. Chanting, protest signs, booing: That’s all par for the course. But even by those standards, the emotional outpouring at the most recent meeting, which took place last week in the packed auditorium of La Escuelita Elementary School, was pretty exceptional.
The Oakland Unified School District’s plan to shutter Roots International Academy in East Oakland is alarming some parents.
The school board had convened to discuss the potential closure of Roots International Academy, a small, relatively new middle school in East Oakland beset with consistently poor test scores and dwindling enrollment. In a move that caught the community largely off-guard, the district announced the proposal in December, just before the holiday break, and plans to vote Monday on whether to close the school by the end of this academic year. If the motion is approved, all the students and staff at Roots Academy will be placed in other district schools.
Oakland Schools: Put to the Test
Roots Academy students, with the support of hundreds of teachers and parents from across the district, marched into the meeting and quickly took over the agenda. They persuaded Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and members of the school board to join them in a restorative justice circle — a kind of conflict resolution process — and implored them to keep the school open. Over two emotional hours, a succession of students made poignant statements about the positive role the school has played in their lives and the distress they would feel from being forced to leave.
“You closing down Roots, to me, is like putting me up for adoption,” said seventh-grader Tenai Harris. “Roots made me who I am.”
Ever Pablo, also an eighth-grader at Roots, added: “They picked me up when I was down, they helped me. It's like a second home where I could go and tell any teacher how I felt because I trusted them.”
District officials responded sympathetically, but offered little indication of how they plan to ultimately vote. Protesters, meanwhile, have been trying to pressure the board to postpone Monday’s decision.
So why is the potential closure of an academically ailing school with fewer than 300 students causing such a stir? Here’s a brief primer.
What’s the bigger story here?
OUSD has a huge budget deficit — to the tune of roughly $30 million. Under intense pressure to cut spending and encourage fiscal responsibility, the district recently proposed a controversial plan to pare down the number of schools it runs by as many as 24.
Roots is the first school to be placed on the chopping block, and how that situation plays out could indicate the way the district handles other schools on its list.
The school opened its doors in 2006 as part of an earlier district reform effort to break large, underperforming campuses into smaller schools that could, in theory, better support at-risk students. Nearly all of its pupils are minorities who qualify for free or reduced lunch and a large percentage are English language learners.
Roots, though, has long struggled with declining enrollment and low academic performance. Just 309 students were enrolled during the 2017-18 school year, the majority of whom did not meet grade-level standards.
At Wednesday's school board meeting, OUSD Deputy Chief of Innovation Yvette Renteria noted that Roots' test scores are among the lowest in the district, calling it an “unsustainable small school with limited resources.”
In her presentation, Renteria said that closing Roots would save the district more than $345,000 next year, and expected that amount to increase over time.
Although the district hasn’t yet released the list of the other schools it's considering closing, it is preparing a “citywide plan” that compares factors like density, school enrollment and performance metrics. That likely means that most of the schools slated for closure will, like Roots Academy, be in underserved neighborhoods in the city’s flatlands, particularly in East Oakland.
Many parents in these communities see this as a disturbing pattern and have said that, despite the district's promises to include them in these discussions, they feel largely left out of the decision-making process. Many teachers and parents have also said they want to see the district invest more in struggling schools rather than shuttering them and busing their kids to other parts of the city.
To complicate matters further, the situation is unfolding against the backdrop of a looming teachers’ strike. Tensions between OUSD teachers and their employer have reached a boiling point. Oakland teachers are among the lowest paid in the Bay Area, and have been working without a contract since July 2017.
The union has also expressed its staunch opposition to closing schools, casting it as an equity issue. So the Roots Academy decision has become a kind of rallying cry for Oakland teachers and a focal point for their showdown with the district.
The Oakland Education Association, the teachers' union, plans to hold a strike authorization vote at the end of this month. In an early warning shot, hundreds of teachers and students walked off the job — and out of the classroom — in a one-day sickout on Jan. 18. A full-fledged strike could begin as soon as early February.
Why is the district thinking about closing so many schools?
The district currently operates 87 school sites, and is considering closing up to 24 of them. The idea is part of the school board’s long-term effort to chip away at its massive budget deficit and establish some degree of financial sustainability.
Much of that stems from intense pressure from the state.
Last year, California's Legislature approved a bailout for the financially ailing district of up to $34 million, as part of an education finance bill signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. But that money comes with some strict conditions, including a significant reduction of OUSD’s overhead costs. Failure to do so could result in another state takeover of the district, which last occurred in 2003.
The state bailout plan comes on the heels of an Alameda County civil grand jury report released in June 2018, which found the district had “lost control of spending” and was operating far more schools than its declining enrollment could justify. In the last 15 years, as the district lost a growing number of students to charter schools and other factors, enrollment fell from 54,000 to under 37,000, according to the report. Even so, the district continued to add schools.
More schools mean more administrators and other non-teaching staff, as well as additional overhead expenses. A major consolidation could therefore lead to significant cost savings.
The report noted that OUSD, compared to other similarly sized districts in the Bay Area, has an outsized proportion of schools for its student body. The average district school has 412 students, it found. In contrast, Fremont Unified, a similarly sized district that's more financially stable and has much higher overall academic performance metrics, has only 42 schools, or about 833 students per school.
The district is also looking at other cost-saving options to help whittle down its deficit, including trimming administrative staff, selling off surplus properties and increasing enrollment.
Closing schools, in and of itself, is certainly not a magic bullet. In 2011, OUSD shuttered five elementary schools in an effort to save about $2 million annually. Some critics of the move, though, say it led more students to leave the district, which ultimately offset most of the savings. School district funding from the state is, after all, based primarily on enrollment, and if enough displaced students decide to go to charter schools or even move to other districts, that could defeat the whole purpose of closing the schools to begin with.
What happens to Roots Academy students and teachers if it closes?
School district officials say that if the school closes, they intend to work with Roots Academy families to find the most appropriate placement for their children, with the opportunity to transfer to a better-performing school. School board members at Wednesday's contentious meeting also stressed that no employees at Roots would be at risk of losing their jobs.
The district wants to expand Coliseum College Prep Academy (CCPA), a higher-performing sixth- through 12th-grade school located on the same campus as Roots. Under the proposal, the school would double the number of sixth-grade seats it offers, taking on an additional 79 students.
But the district said that CCPA would definitely not be able to accommodate all of Roots' current students. Some students would also likely be sent to Elmhurst Community, Greenleaf, Madison Park Upper and Urban Promise Academy schools, according to OUSD spokesman John Sasaki, and potentially offered Clipper cards to get there.