Oakland teachers, joined by student supporters, march down Adeline Street in West Oakland on Feb. 22, 2019, the second day of a districtwide teachers strike.

 Stephanie Lister/KQED
Oakland teachers, joined by student supporters, march down Adeline Street in West Oakland on Feb. 22, 2019, the second day of a districtwide teachers strike.  (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Outdoor Education: Why Some Oakland Students Are Joining Their Teachers on the Picket Lines

Outdoor Education: Why Some Oakland Students Are Joining Their Teachers on the Picket Lines

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When his English teacher abruptly quit last month to take a higher-paying corporate job, Will Flattery-Vickness knew something needed to change.

“If she had to leave to get a tech job, that just shows teachers need to be supported more,” said Flattery-Vickness, 18, a senior at Oakland Technical High School, whose class has been loosely supervised for several weeks by a revolving cast of substitute teachers. “It just added to the chaos of everything.”

Flattery-Vickness was one of the roughly 25 students who joined teachers on the picket line in front of Oakland Tech Friday morning, on the second day of a districtwide teacher strike. Oakland teachers, who have been working without a contract since July 2017, are among the lowest-paid educators in the Bay Area. They're demanding a 12 percent raise over the next three years, smaller class sizes and more nurses and counselors.

Flattery-Vickness said he felt compelled to be on the front lines supporting them, even though most of his peers had stayed at home.

“Most of my classmates were like, ‘Yay, no school,’” he said. “They don’t fully understand what’s going on, that this affects them, too.”

“At the end of the day my education is going to be so much better," he added, if teachers get what they need.

Theo Zarobell, 18, another Oakland Tech senior who came out Friday, echoed this sentiment.

“A lot of what teachers are asking for is really benefiting us as students,” he said. “I’m struck by how much they really care about us. I think we owe it to them.”

All 87 district schools have remained open during the strike, staffed by administrators and temporary substitutes, but the vast majority of students haven't attended, according to multiple reports. The district has yet to release official attendance records.

Later on Friday afternoon, a sprinkling of students stood out among the sea of hundreds of teachers and supporters who congregated at a spirited rally in DeFremery Park in West Oakland, at the site where the Black Panther Party staged demonstrations and social programs a half century ago. A lineup of speakers, including two high school students and legendary labor leader Dolores Huerta, fired up the crowd.

A lively crowd of teachers and students fills DeFremery Park in West Oakland during Friday's rally. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

“Education is a big part of my life, teachers are a big part of my life,” said Marie Rodriguez, 16, a junior at Oakland High School, who stood in the thick of the rally. Nearby, amid the cacophony of drumming and horn blowing, a giant inflatable rat bobbed in the breeze. “If they’re out here fighting for a cause, I need to fight with them.”

Rodriguez said her father teaches at her school, so this strike has very much hit home. She said Oakland High has one part-time nurse for 1,700 students, and that some of her classes were so overcrowded at the beginning of this year there weren’t enough seats to go around.

“This is showing me how to advocate when things get to the point that you need to go out on the streets,” Rodriguez said, adding that she was planning to take the SATs in a few weeks, but she wasn’t too concerned about the lost days of preparation.

Union leaders from the Oakland Education Association met with district officials on Friday, although it remained unclear by the end of the day if any progress had been made. Regardless, the strike will more than likely stretch into next week.

The district, which faces a huge budget deficit and sharply declining enrollment, has repeatedly said it supports paying teachers more, but simply can’t afford the 12 percent bump they’re asking for. In a last-ditch effort to avert a strike on Wednesday, district officials proposed a 7 percent raise over the next three years and a 1.5 percent retroactive bonus, an offer the union said didn't go far enough.

Etiene Torres, who teaches World History at Castlemont High School, one of the many schools the district is reportedly looking to close in the next several years, was pleasantly surprised to run into a group of his own students at the rally. Most of them are recent immigrants who are learning English.

“I didn’t even text them, they just came this morning on their own,” Torres said, noting that he planned to bring up the strike and the impact of collective action in his upcoming lesson on the Haitian Revolution.

“This is a lot more memorable than doing a writing assignment in the classroom,” he said, “It’s another way of learning.”

Students march with striking teachers down Adeline Street in West Oakland on Friday. (Matthew Green/KQED)

Carlos Mendoza, a senior at Life Academy, joined the throngs of demonstrators as they marched out of the park and down Adeline Street. He said his teachers needed all the support they could get in an increasingly unaffordable region.

“Looking at Oakland, it’s changing rapidly and OUSD needs to change as well,” said Mendoza, 18, who walked with a group of his teachers and classmates. “Some teachers I know are really struggling.”

He said there’s a big split between his classmates who care about what their teachers are fighting for and the ones who are just happy for the long weekend. The experience, he added, has broadened his perspective.

“You become more aware of what’s at risk and what’s at stake,” he said.

Most of the students at Friday’s rally were high schoolers, but a number of younger children also came with their parents. Delilah Daniels had her 7-year-old son, Isaiah, in tow. A first-grader at Allendale Elementary School, he hoisted a protest sign nearly as tall as he was.

Asked why he thought it was important to show support for his teachers, he said, “Because they like us kids.”