Kaiser parent Daryl Guidry spoke in opposition to the Oakland Unified School District's closures plan at a meeting on Aug. 28, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)
Updated 11:15 a.m. Friday
At an emotional Oakland school board meeting Wednesday night, parents, students and staff from four schools slated for closure and consolidation made their case for more time to help shape the plans that will radically alter their schools.
Under pressure from a state oversight body to balance its budget, the Oakland Unified School District is crafting plans to reduce its total number of schools by up to 24 and to invest any cost savings in strengthening existing schools. Four schools — Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Elementary, Sankofa Academy, Oakland SOL (School of Language) and Frick Impact Academy — are targeted to be merged in the coming year.
But overwhelmingly the board was scorned by parents who showed up from across the district to express their profound mistrust of the institution that serves their children. Parent after parent asked for evidence that the closures would save the district money and, more importantly, help improve educational outcomes for students. Many cited the district's own history of fiscal mismanagement.
"We have been starving for resources for years now. My son attended Sankofa back in the second grade. He is currently in 10th grade at McClymonds," said Valerie Manchester, who has a fourth-grader at Sankofa. "You guys have lied to us and deceived us since then. It does not make any sense, I don’t see how you guys can sit on this board and sit here with straight faces and not consider these children."
One of the largest groups in attendance Wednesday night was representing Kaiser Elementary, sporting green T-shirts and carrying signs saying "Do No Harm" to express opposition to the proposed merger of their school with Sankofa.
Kaiser parents who addressed the board argued that they chose their school because it is small and their children do better in that environment. They also pointed to data showing that their school closes the achievement gap for its black students.
Daryl Guidry, a parent at Kaiser, said that families of color are being underserved in Oakland but not at Kaiser. "When you are closing schools that are taking care of families of color and most importantly children of color, that's just lack of resources," Guidry said.
But school board member James Harris challenged the Kaiser parents — a school that is about one-third white, largely affluent and located in the Claremont Hills — to reconsider their opposition to merging with Sankofa Academy in North Oakland's Bushrod neighborhood, where the majority of youth qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and are students of color.
“You’re coming from a special place. I would ask you to think about what would it mean to share that experience with people that have not had that special experience," Harris said. "What would it mean for the community at Kaiser to say: You know what? Oakland needs us to do something differently now. Oakland needs us to show up in a different way."
His statement was met with scornful jeers from some in the audience, but Harris rebutted, "I'm presenting this to you to think about as a community. You can take it or leave it. I’m not here to argue with you."
The board seemed united on one thing: forcing change on Kaiser. One option they're considering is relocating Kaiser to the larger Santa Fe Elementary campus where there is space to expand the model. Reopening Santa Fe is a move strongly supported by parents in that neighborhood, who also turned up in force at the meeting.
In response to the resistance that many Kaiser parents were showing towards any changes, board member Shanthi Gonzales went so far as to suggest the school be eventually phased out, by halting kindergarten enrollment after this year.
Several board members also questioned why district staff had abandoned an earlier idea of merging a different elementary —Peralta — with Sankofa. A Peralta parent gave the board a letter signed by 50 parents who support merging their school with Sankofa.
“I think there are Peralta folks who are interested in a merger with Sankofa, and I think that’s going to lead us to be much more successful,” Gonzales said. "I’m interested in them being at a bigger campus where we can draw more students into OUSD and into a quality program."
The fate of two other schools slated for a merger were also discussed at Wednesday's meeting. Oakland SOL and Frick Impact Academy, both in East Oakland neighborhoods that Gonzales represents, are slated to consolidate onto the Frick campus.
Gonzales seemed to agree with the cries of parents from both schools who say they're in favor of merging, but insist more time is needed to plan for the changes.
“You heard SOL and Frick ask for more time tonight. Is that possible?” Gonzales asked, directing her comments to OUSD Deputy Innovation Officer Yvette Renteria. “You have two brand-new principals at Frick and SOL. What do you anticipate them needing and how are they going to get it?”
Gonzales pointed to the fact that the schools are 1.4 miles apart and that Oakland SOL has a dual-language immersion program while Frick does not.
At stake for some parents is the changing racial makeup of their neighborhoods and schools. Frick Academy's students are about 41% African American and 53% Latinx, while Oakland SOL has a 71% Latinx student body. Some parents have expressed concern about how merging the two schools will tip the balance toward a much heavier Latinx student ratio.
One Sankofa parent concerned about gentrification in a historically black neighborhood said, "I know what I felt like when I went outside and my whole neighborhood changed. I been in that neighborhood for years and years, 40-plus. It’s important that you think of the people before you make moves."
At Wednesday's meeting, Renteria and some board members acknowledged earlier mistakes made during the first phase of mergers and closures last year. In merging Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep, district officials admitted that they did not provide enough support for the budgeting or planning process.
The district also failed to relocate all 266 seventh graders displaced by the closure of Roots International Academy into better schools, which had been the intention. In fact, 46 Roots students are now at Oakland SOL and Frick, potentially facing upheaval once again in the coming year.
Renteria said that to support the current phase of closures, a philanthropic foundation donated $200,000 over the coming two years to help fund the work of reconfiguring smaller schools into larger ones.
During the first phase of closures, Oakland-based nonprofit Educate78 paid for a consultant to help Alliance and Elmhurst middle schools combine into Elmhurst United this past school year.
The push to dismantle the district's smaller schools is an ironic twist in the history of school reform efforts in Oakland. In 2000 the Gates Foundation spent millions to help launch the small schools movement across the country, with an initial focus on the Bay Area. The first 10 of those smaller schools opened in Oakland, beginning with a difficult process of breaking apart older, larger schools and their communities.