'It's All About Race': Parents Want Say in How Oakland Schools Integrate

Parents from several Oakland schools have been meeting regularly to discuss district plans and to find common ground. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Dover Park in Oakland's Bushrod neighborhood, a couple dozen parents formed a circle and sat in the shade under a tree, their children playing behind them on the playground.

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Their children attend radically different schools, but they had come together over a shared purpose. Frustrated with a lack of information from the school district about its controversial plans to merge or move their schools, they are creating an alliance in the hopes of gaining more control over the decision-making process.

Dana Garrett's children attend Sankofa Elementary.

"I believe that white, black, Asian, whatever, we can stand taller than anybody if we build our own home," she said. "And we can build it with multiple colors."

Several parents nodded in agreement.

Saturday's meeting was the latest in a series organized by a group of families that each face potentially huge changes to their schools.

Dana Garrett's children attend Sankofa Elementary, one of the schools Oakland Unified School District has identified for a possible merger.
Dana Garrett's children attend Sankofa Elementary, one of the schools Oakland Unified School District has identified for a possible merger. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

For example, one merger proposed by Oakland Unified School District would mean that Kaiser Elementary, located in the Oakland hills near the Caldecott Tunnel, would move in with Sankofa elementary, a school with a majority African American student population about two miles down the hill, roughly between Telegraph and Shattuck streets.

Kaiser has high test scores, more well-resourced parents and is racially diverse. Sankofa is struggling with a recent change in its principal and poor academic outcomes, and 90% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

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"We don't trust [the district]," said Kaiser parent Alicia Johnson. "And we don't trust any plans that they give us. And right now we are not willing to move until we see they are taking it seriously and thoughtfully implementing plans for change."

The issue of what it would take to integrate across a racial and class divide, and whether parents of privilege are willing to do so, is a problem facing other urban districts across the county: How can the district create equitable schools in districts shaped by a history of redlining and racially segregated housing?

In Oakland, white students are 11.4% of the district-run public school population but are concentrated in a small handful of top-performing schools.

OUSD argues that merging a stronger school with a weak one is a path to creating more equity. But the district is also relying heavily on an economic rationale for the changes, saying it must shrink the number of schools it operates to save money and avoid a state takeover.

Kaiser parent Katherine Lee and Sankofa parent Subodh Nijsure talked frankly about privilege and race.
Kaiser parent Katherine Lee and Sankofa parent Subodh Nijsure talked frankly about privilege and race. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

The district has been cited by the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) for operating too many schools. For comparison, OUSD has twice the number of schools as Fremont's school district, but the same number of students, an Alameda Grand Jury found.

The Kaiser-Sankofa merger plan has morphed since January, after Kaiser parents lobbied heavily against being sent to Sankofa. Now the district is considering merging Sankofa and Peralta Elementary instead, but keeping both campuses open, with K-2 grades at Peralta and 3-5 grades at Sankofa. Peralta is a popular, high-achieving school whose wait list typically has 200 students.

Kaiser is not off the hook, however, as the district is proposing to move them to a larger school facility at Santa Fe Elementary near the Oakland-Emeryville border.

None of these gyrations have built confidence among the parents meeting at Dover Park. Many in the group doubted that the school district could pull off complicated mergers of different school cultures successfully. No one from the any of the above schools had seen details for the proposed mergers.

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Kaiser Elementary parent Katherine Lee pointed to the example of the merger between Elmhurst Community Prep and Alliance Academy middle schools, which has been in planning stages for the last year. Lee said the schools had to figure out much of the merger on their own.

"They had to do a lot of individual fundraising to make those design hours happen," said Lee. "Teachers were volunteering additional hours."

Kaiser Elementary parent Katherine Lee said she doesn't trust the school district's ability to handle merging two very different school cultures.
Kaiser Elementary parent Katherine Lee said she doesn't trust the school district's ability to handle merging two very different school cultures. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Peralta Elementary parent Tierney Freed echoed these concerns. If OUSD is going to create a split campus between Peralta and Sankofa, with parents and children walking between them, why aren't city planners and transportation thinkers part of the strategy, she asked.

Freed, like some of the other parents, also questioned the district's argument that merging schools would save money. She pointed out that creating a split campus between Sankofa and Peralta doesn't eliminate a school, for example.

"They actually have financial data, finally, that says it's the most expensive option," said Freed, whose son is entering kindergarten this year. "Which means they are not going to save money."

Still, the optics of wealthier and whiter parents balking at merging with a majority black and brown school is not lost on these parents, especially in a town that prides itself on being progressive. At the recent gathering, parents tried to converse respectfully about questions of race and class.

One Kaiser parent, who doesn't want to see her school merged with Sankofa, denied that her opposition is due to race. Alicia Johnson, who is in a mixed race marriage, said she wants her school to stay small.

“I mean my husband is black and we are a mixed couple. We looked at all areas in the East Bay up to Danville and San Ramon when we were looking at housing here, and we thought those areas don’t quite fit our family," Johnson said.

"They’re beautiful and there is some diversity there but not as much as Oakland. And we felt like we hit the jackpot with Kaiser because we have so many different family types.”

But Sankofa parent Subodh Nijsure said he thinks there is no denying that race is a factor when both Kaiser and Peralta parents say they don't want to merge.

Sankofa Elementary parent Subodh Nijsure said he thinks race is a factor in why parents at Kaiser and Peralta elementaries don't want to merge with his school.
Sankofa Elementary parent Subodh Nijsure said he thinks race is a factor in why parents at Kaiser and Peralta elementaries don't want to merge with his school. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Nijsure said it doesn't feel good to be 'begging' other schools to join with them.

"There are so many people that I see every day walking by Sankofa, going to Peralta or driving their kids to Kaiser, and nobody wants to say it, but I'm going to say it: it's all about race because Sankofa is predominantly African American and non-Caucasian kids school," he said.

"A lot of people feel uncomfortable so they will drive three miles to a predominantly Caucasian school and nobody wants to say it but that's what the bottom line is."

Nijsure and other Sankofa parents recently voted that they would prefer to merge with Peralta, some saying they were put off by Kaiser parents' reaction to the suggested merger.

Peralta parents at the meeting shared a survey they conducted that concluded that the majority in their community don't want to be part of a merger. They also said teachers were opposed to a merger.

The collaboration group made of parents from Kaiser, Sankofa, Peralta and Santa Fe schools plan to meet again on Sept. 7, when they hope to hold a town hall. They have invited school district officials to attend.

The school board is next scheduled to vote on a merger plan Sept. 11.

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