Who Should Get Priority Enrollment in Oakland Schools? OUSD Weighs Details of Policy Shift

1 min
The entrance to Sankofa Academy in Oakland, pictured on Feb. 18, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

The Oakland Unified School District's radical plan to downsize by closing and merging schools includes a key component to making sure displaced students end up in better schools. It's a policy change that could result in diversifying some of the city's most in-demand schools. But details of the so-called opportunity ticket have yet to be hammered out.

The opportunity ticket is the brainchild of The Oakland REACH, a parent group committed to getting underserved communities into high-quality schools, and was approved by the OUSD Board of Education last March.

District enrollment currently gives priority to siblings entering a school and then to children of families that live in the school's neighborhood. The opportunity ticket would change that, allowing displaced students from schools that are geographically relocated to get priority enrollment.

An advisory group, including parents, met with OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell last week to recommend a fair way to implement the policy.

"The data’s very clear. Kids do better after a closure only if they go to a better school," said Katherine Lee, parent of a first-grader at Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Elementary School and a parent in the advisory group.

"We’ve heard the district say a lot, ‘We need to start doing things differently.’ Well closures and mergers aren’t different, but this opportunity ticket is different. It’s the one different thing that they are doing when it comes to how they are implementing these."

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Historically, school closures have hit schools harder that have a majority of black and brown students. That's why The Oakland REACH came up with the opportunity ticket idea, along with Dirk Tillotson of the State of Black Education Oakland, said group co-founder and executive director Lakisha Young.

"The intent behind the policy has always been clear," Young said. "It’s to provide a new chance for folks who have been disadvantaged in the system."

The new enrollment policy has the potential to integrate some of the city's top schools by race and class. Currently, white students make up just 11.4% of the district-run public schools but are concentrated in a handful of top-performing schools.

After reviewing the policy over the summer, the advisory group told Johnson-Trammell they are sticking with the original recommendations of no more than 10% of any grade level, nor more than 51% of open seats in any given school during an enrollment period, going to students with opportunity tickets.

Lee said she was told the district convened the working group to take another look at how many opportunity ticket students would get priority over neighborhood students.

Restructuring at the Oakland Unified School District
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"They wanted specifically for us to revisit those percentages because some of them had gotten some calls from parents at high-demand schools specifically," Lee said.

Here's how it might play out: If there are 100 open seats in a school, and 20 siblings enroll, then of the 80 remaining seats, at most 41 of them would go to children from outside that attendance area, using the opportunity ticket. As some critics see it, that's 41 neighborhood kids who would be displaced. Elmhurst United Middle School Principal Kilian Betlach, who was on the district's advisory committee, disagrees.

"Neighborhood preference is not a guarantee. It’s preference," Betlach said. "I wouldn't choose the word displacement. That’s the way it’s being framed."

If the district moves ahead with its plans to merge Kaiser Elementary School with Sankofa Academy at the Sankofa site, and Oakland SOL with Frick Impact Academy at the Frick site, just the 280 students from Kaiser and 136 from SOL would get opportunity tickets to move to any of the city's top schools. Students from Sankofa and Frick would not have that option.

The idea that Kaiser parents at a school that is 31% white and already high-achieving would see their students get an opportunity ticket to another high-performing school is an irony not lost on Young.

"If a bunch of privileged families take a loophole in the policy to take this ticket to get a further leg up for their families, then I think folks need to take a long look in the mirror and revisit the signs in the window," Young said, of Kaiser parents who are resisting the merge with Sankofa.

The advisory group considered limiting the ticket to affected students who fall into "disadvantaged student" categories defined by the Local Control Funding Formula, but backed off, said Lee. Betlach agreed with that move.

"It's hard to be policy leader in place like OUSD, where it’s incredibly segregated and a huge part of your community is not well served, and at same time the kids going to school in the hills and those young people ... we are also accountable to them," Betlach said. "We can’t be hostile to them or to their privilege. They are part of community. It's a line to walk."

Several on the advisory board spoke of the opportunity ticket as a mechanism to soften the blow of the hardship of changing schools.

"School closure kids go through negative experiences, and these structural changes are understood to be for the greater good. It makes sense to offer something for the sacrifice," Betlach said.

Kaiser Elementary parent Katherine Lee said it was still unclear how her fellow parents were thinking about the choice between moving to Sankofa and creating a newly merged school or taking an opportunity ticket.

"You know, it's [Kaiser] an academically well-performing school. And so there might be a desire to go to another school that is as well performing or better," Lee said. "And unfortunately, in Oakland, that tends to mean whiter schools. Ultimately, I don't know what each family's going to do."

Some Kaiser Elementary parents are already threatening to sue or leave the district altogether, should their school be merged, opportunity ticket or not.

The district is expected to weigh the recommendations before a final vote in October.

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