1,300 More Students to Be Affected by OUSD School Closure Plans

OUSD recently proposed closing Kaiser Elementary School in the Claremont Hills and merging it with Sankofa Academy in Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

The Oakland Unified School District has unveiled plans for its second round of school restructuring, and it is already hearing from incensed parents who don't want to see their schools altered.

Last year the district shuttered Roots International Academy Middle School, which became a rallying point for teachers and families at school board meetings during the teachers' strike. This Wednesday's board meeting is now the first opportunity for district staff, parents and students to weigh in on the latest recommendations in front of the full board.

Restructuring at the Oakland School District
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The district has been rolling ahead on a controversial plan to pare down its number of schools by as many as 24.  In the first phase of the citywide plan, six schools were targeted for change with roughly 1,500 students affected. Beyond closing Roots, two other schools in East Oakland were merged, another two are still in the planning stages and a third, Met West, has expanded.

This second round of closures and mergers, expected to affect another 1,324 students, took some by surprise when it tagged a small, successful and diverse school in the Oakland hills, Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Elementary, to merge with Sankofa Elementary on the Sankofa campus in North Oakland. In addition, Oakland SOL in East Oakland, which offers a dual-language immersion program, will merge with Frick Impact Academy on the Frick campus, also in East Oakland. And Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA), another dual-language program, would expand to upper and lower campuses across Maxwell Park and Sherman facilities.

The district used a variety of factors to determine which schools would be affected, including the potential for cost savings, how well a school was performing academically, teacher retention, enrollment trends and demand for certain programs. The district is under pressure to reduce the number of schools it has in order to save money, but officials and school board members have maintained the restructuring is also an opportunity to create more equitable schools across the district.

Not all parents see it that way. Kaiser Elementary parent Alicia Johnson said parents at both Kaiser and Sankofa would be sending a letter to the board opposing their merger.

"OUSD staff continues to use misinformation, unscientific 'data' and conflicting rhetoric to justify their closing of Kaiser Elementary and starving Sankofa of much needed resources," Johnson wrote in an email. "The school board has the opportunity to do the right thing and demand that OUSD stop this flawed and deceptive process and truly engage their community to tackle the problems OUSD is facing."

Kaiser parents are scheduled to meet again with OUSD officials Monday evening.

The district held a series of meetings over the summer with parents from all of the schools involved, in order to discuss the possible changes. The final recommendations were made public just a few days ahead of the Aug. 28 board meeting, when the board will take public comment. The board is then scheduled to vote on the recommendations on Sept. 11.

Parents from Kaiser and Sankofa have expressed skepticism that the district can successfully pull off a consolidation of two school cultures. The district reported some MLA families shared that concern and that some SOL parents are worried about the lack of safe routes to Frick for students who live near SOL.

Principal Kilian Betlach is already overseeing the merger of two schools into Elmhurst United. (Olivia Obeneme/KQED News)

Principal Kilian Betlach has overseen the merger of Elmhurst and Alliance middle schools in the first phase of the district's plan. The two newly merged schools, renamed Elmhurst United, opened three weeks ago.

Betlach said that after his schools' merger was announced, the district seemed to take a "do-it-yourself" approach when it came to supporting the two schools through the planning process. Betlach said he hopes this time around the district is more intentional in the planning.

"Some of what would be interesting to me would be to see what level of detail staff goes into, what support they will offer. With us it was incredibly vague, it was pretty much nothing, in terms of support, and with a really small amount of money," he said.

Betlach, though, considers the outcome of the merger to be positive so far. Elmhurst United has increased enrollment to 715 students this year, beyond district expectations, he said. And the school was able to bring in new resources to hire an assistant principal, two science teachers, and add music, dance and Spanish.

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Some parents are supportive of the potential mergers as well. Lakisha Young, who runs Oakland Reach, a parent group representing many families in East Oakland, said she supports the efforts to remake schools if it leads to more quality schools for all students.

"The district has been trying to get Kaiser down off that hill for years," said Young, referring to earlier attempts to close Kaiser, which the school fended off. "This sends a big message. The will and the courage to do what’s right for all students, that is the leadership that is needed. I think it’s important that all communities, not just all flatland communities, are impacted by this shift.”

The district is estimating the second round of mergers will save $1,147,117 over five years. This would be slightly offset by an expected $100,000 increase in spending with expanding MLA over the five-year time frame. The district has also stated it hopes to find ways to increase revenue from the vacated Kaiser and SOL buildings.

You can read through the district's proposed recommendations below:

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