Why Does Oakland Have So Many Small Schools?

An earlier district reform effort broke large, underperforming campuses into smaller schools that could, in theory, better support at-risk students. Since 2000, OUSD created scores of new schools, even as enrollment throughout the district sharply declined.

Want to know more? Read on...

Oakland Unified School District has about 37,000 students in 87 non-charter public schools, or an average of roughly 425 students per school. That comparatively high school-to-student ratio is largely due to an earlier reform movement to create smaller, more intimate educational settings for students. Today, amid a serious budget crisis, district leaders are revisiting the premise of the small schools experiment, and have suggested paring down the number of schools by upward of 25 percent. Here’s a look at how Oakland ended up with so many small schools.

Does OUSD really have that many schools?

Yes. The number of public schools OUSD oversees is much higher than Bay Area districts of similar size. Take nearby Fremont Unified, which has just over 35,000 students but only 42 schools. Or San Jose Unified, where about 32,000 students attend 46 schools.

Of course, Oakland still has its fair share of larger schools. About 1,800 students were enrolled at Skyline High School during the 2017-2018 school year, and nearly 2,000 at Oakland Tech. But a good number of district schools have fewer than 300 students. Among them: Roots International Academy, one of the schools slated for closure, which now has just about 260 students and Sankofa Academy, which has fewer than 200.

Schools in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD)

Why were so many new schools created?

Since 2000, the district has opened a huge number of small schools, even as its enrollment dropped by about 45 percent. Here’s how it unfolded:

In the late 1990s, Oakland’s public school district was dealing with many of the same issues it faces today, including financial problems, low test scores and high teacher turnover. Most of the under-performing schools were concentrated in the city’s “flatlands” neighborhoods and primarily attended by lower-income, minority students.

Unlike now, though, many of those schools were bursting at the seams and straining to manage far more students than they were designed to accommodate, particularly elementary schools.

In light of these overcrowded and sometimes chaotic conditions, a group of concerned parents teamed up with an alliance of religious and civic leaders, called Oakland Community Organizations, to push for a major overhaul of the district’s most troubled campuses.

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Members of the group called attention to the glaring disparities between their kids’ schools and the markedly smaller, safer and better performing schools largely concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods in the Oakland hills.

“I couldn’t believe that the same school district would be failing thousands of children, while the other kids in the more affluent neighborhoods were very successful,” said Emma Paulino, an immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, who was appalled by the conditions at Hawthorne Elementary, the East Oakland school her son attended. “It was like a slap in my face. My child is not a third-class kid just because he’s brown.”

Paulino became involved with OCO and its grassroots campaign to push the district to break apart some of its long-struggling, large flatlands schools and replace them with smaller autonomous academies. It was part of a growing small schools movement that had taken root in urban districts across the country, including New York, Chicago and Milwaukee, and touted as a transformational tool to help narrow the growing achievement gap between poor, mostly minority students and their more affluent peers.

Advocates believed that schools with fewer than 400 students could provide a stronger sense of community and security and create more engaging learning environments, particularly for students from underserved neighborhoods.

The small schools were also intended to empower a new generation of community and educational leaders who could help shape their school’s vision.

Oakland’s school board and its superintendent went all in, approving a new small schools policy in 2000 that jump-started the opening of nine new schools over the next three years. (To put that in perspective: the district hadn’t opened a single new school in the previous 20 years.)


Dennis Chaconas, who was the district’s superintendent from 2000 to 2003, said that besides reducing overcrowding, the goal was to create more community-focused and academically rigorous institutions.

“We wanted to get a group of teachers and community members to design schools in which they felt they would own the kids more, and actually end up getting better performance,” he said.

Paulino helped start ASCEND, an arts-based kindergarten- through eighth-grade school in East Oakland that opened its doors in 2001 (it has since become a charter school).

“At ASCEND, we the parents had a voice,” she said. “We worked really closely with the teachers. And all the adults were responsible for the children, including the custodians, people in the cafeteria, every person at the school. We were like a family. Parents really owned the school and all the kids were accountable.”

Who paid for the expansion?

A good chunk of the funding came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had begun infusing a number of urban districts across the country with large grants specifically earmarked for creating more small schools.

Between 2003 — when the financially distressed district was taken over by the state and its locally elected school board dissolved — and 2009, Oakland continued to receive multimillion-dollar contributions from the Gates Foundation for the explicit purpose of converting large campuses into multiplexes of smaller ones.

During that period of state receivership, the district shuttered seven large middle and high schools and seven elementary schools — located almost entirely in the city’s poorest neighborhoods in East and West Oakland — and replaced them with 40 smaller academies. Many had distinct vocational themes, from media studies and performing arts to architecture and activism. The schools’ teachers and principals all had to reapply for their jobs.

But by 2009, when the district finally regained local control, philanthropic enthusiasm for the small schools movement had waned, and the Gates Foundation shifted its focus to new educational initiatives.

All told, OUSD opened a whopping 49 new schools in a decade, each with its own separate administration and teaching staff. Some were eventually phased out or turned into charter schools, but the majority remain open today.

It was also during this period that district-approved, publicly funded charter schools proliferated in the city. Oakland’s underserved communities, which had just a few years earlier been sorely lacking in educational options for their children, were suddenly awash in an often dizzying array of new schools from which to choose.

So ... did it work?

The results were mixed. There were definitely some major improvements. Between 2004 and 2009, the district reported a 92-point increase in its overall Academic Performance Index score, which it claimed was the biggest improvement of any large urban district in California, although it still fell below the statewide average. And some of the new schools unquestionably outperformed the larger institutions they’d stemmed from. In 2008, Think College Now, one of the new small elementary schools in the Fruitvale district, was named a California Distinguished School at the same time as Hillcrest, an elementary school in one of Oakland’s wealthiest neighborhoods. That same year, about 40 percent of graduates from LIFE Academy, a bioscience-themed high school in East Oakland that opened in 2001, were admitted into the University of California system.

A 2009 Stanford study found that Oakland students in the new small schools performed better, on average, over a three-year period than students from similar socioeconomic groups who stayed in their larger, traditional schools. The same study also found that students, parents and teachers were “significantly more satisfied” than their counterparts at traditional schools.

Yet Oakland’s small school transformation was hardly the magic bullet that some reformers had hoped for. Many of the same problems persisted, and academic progress was at best uneven.

Data released in 2007 showed that the new small high schools at the Castlemont and McClymonds campuses — as well as all but one of the district’s new middle schools — failed to meet national education standards.

Meanwhile, by 2009, just as the district regained local control, it again found itself sliding into deep financial trouble, in large part because thousands of students were transferring into the many charter schools that had recently emerged throughout Oakland, taking with them critical state funding tied to enrollment, and leaving some of the newly created schools with an increasing number of empty seats.

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Operating more schools was also more expensive, particularly in the absence of foundational support. Each school required its own principal, administrative staff and additional overhead costs, adding millions of dollars every year to the district’s tab.

Matt Hill, a former OUSD program manager, said in a recent interview with the education site Eight Cities that the district probably opened too many schools at once. “There should have been a tighter look at financial and demographic need,” he said. “It wasn’t financially sustainable.”

By the time the Oakland school board regained control in 2009, some members were already suggesting merging some of the “new, small schools” back together again.

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