After OUSD Closed Their School, Here's Where Roots Students Ended Up

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Last year, Octavio Mendoza attended Roots International Academy, a small school in his East Oakland neighborhood with just over 300 students. This year, the eighth-grader is trying to find his way among 715 students at a new middle school, Elmhurst United.

This transition wasn't the 13-year-old's idea. The Oakland Unified School District closed Octavio's previous school as part of a wave of school restructuring, with the intention of creating a sustainable budget model. But Octavio said the emotional toll of attending a new school has been high.

"I don't know anyone there yet, unlike Roots where I knew a lot of my friends." he said. "I could be who I wanted at Roots, but at Elmhurst I feel like people could judge who you are because you don't know the people."

His mom, Ady Rios, began to cry as she recalled her son's distress during the first week at the new school.

"I picked him up on his second day and he came home and didn't want to eat, didn't want to do anything," Rios said. "Straight two days it was nothing but crying. My husband and myself had to go lay down with him and tell him it was going to be OK."

Ady Rios said her son found switching schools stressful. "I picked him up on his second day and he came home and didn't want to eat, didn't want to do anything," Rios said.
Ady Rios said her son found switching schools stressful. "I picked him up on his second day and he came home and didn't want to eat, didn't want to do anything," Rios said. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Middle school is often a tumultuous time for teens, and starting over at a new school only added to Octavio's stress. "It was hard to get used to the entire school," he said. "Knowing I was in eighth grade made me feel kind of minimal there. I know I'm supposed to be like a leader of it, but it was just really weird to be there, in general."

The district closed Roots this year as part of its Citywide Blueprint for Quality Schools, a plan to reduce the total number of schools in the district by 24 over the course of several years. The district says that restructuring will help create higher-quality schools throughout the district.

Roots was one of the first schools to be closed under the plan. It had declining enrollment and poor academic outcomes, which the district said put it on the list for closure.

Students from the now-shuttered Roots Academy were enrolled at other district schools. OUSD was not able to track all former Roots students.
Students from the now-shuttered Roots Academy were enrolled at other district schools. OUSD was not able to track all former Roots students.

Roots Academy’s closure meant that 162 rising sixth and seventh-graders needed to be enrolled in new schools before the start of eighth grade, according to the district. District officials said they intended to work with those families to find the most appropriate placement for their children, and highlighted the opportunity to transfer to better-performing schools.

According to district data, 40 of those students are now at Elmhurst United, an East Oakland school newly formed by merging Elmhurst Community Prep and Alliance Academy, all part of the first phase of school restructuring. The district estimates 10 students left OUSD-run schools altogether, but can't confirm whether they went to charter or private schools, elected home-schooling or simply moved out of the area.

But for some Roots families, the upheaval may not be over. Twenty-three Roots students now attend Oakland SOL (School of Language) and another 23 attend Frick Impact Academy — both schools are slated for a merger within the next year. The stress and uncertainty of the looming closure is one more hurdle teachers and students have to overcome this year.

Many parents in the district now say they are wary of picking a school that could end up on a closure list, as plans continue to change.

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Charles Wilson, the district's former head of enrollment, stands by the decision to close Roots but regrets the compressed timeline. "I wish the decision had been made before the start of the 2018-19 school year so this [relocation of students] could have been carried out more fully," Wilson wrote in a statement. "I just didn't have the staff to devote to this."

A changing district

At Elmhurst United, principal Kilian Betlach said he and staff strategized on how to make Roots students feel welcome, even as they were trying to figure out the merger of Alliance and Elmhurst Community Prep.

"We put Roots students together when we could. We hired a Roots teacher also," said Betlach. He also worked with the district to get bus passes for Roots students.

Octavio said seeing fellow Roots students at Elmhurst has helped. "I try and socialize with them," he said. "We just stick together."

It also helped when former Roots principal Geoff Vu stopped by Elmhurst to check in on the first day of school, said Octavio. "He was wearing a Roots jacket and it just made me so happy," he said. "He gave me a fist bump."

Octavio worries about performing academically with new teachers and more structure than he had at Roots, but he thinks he'll get used to Elmhurst. "It's an all right school but I miss Roots, the campus and the feeling of being there."

Editor's Note: This story originally reported Roots International Academy had 266 rising seventh graders. The school had 162 rising sixth and seventh graders, according to the district. We regret the error.