Oakland School Board Approves Closure of Two Schools, Despite Fierce Parent, Teacher Opposition

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Parents, students and teachers from OUSD schools slated for closure shouted "Shame on you!" during an OUSD board meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 11, as the board voted on merger plans.  (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Oakland's school board voted late Wednesday night to close two schools and merge them with two others, following nearly five hours of fierce emotional testimony from parents, students and teachers who packed the meeting to voice their opposition.

The plan calls for closing Kaiser Elementary School in the Oakland hills and relocating its students and staff to Sankofa Academy in the Bushrod neighborhood, roughly 3 miles away. It also entails the closure of Oakland SOL, a middle school in East Oakland, and combining it with the nearby Frick Impact Academy.

With opponents shouting "Shame on you," the board approved the proposal 5-2, with board members Roseann Torres and Shanthi Gonzales dissenting. The board also agreed to consider reopening the closed Santa Fe Elementary campus as part of the next round of school closures, consolidations and expansions.

In an effort to appease the many angry attendees at the meeting, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said that each of the merged and expanded schools in this round of closures would get priority funding in the district’s 2020-21 budget to ensure they have the support they need to succeed.

"We will talk about what our priorities are,” she said. “We will need to think about the investments we need to make for the next school year."

Johnson-Trammell, who backs the mergers, noted the weight of the decision, acknowledging that the district is expecting to lose students who may not want to stay after their schools have closed. But she also said this created an opportunity to build stronger merged schools that may actually attract new students moving into those neighborhoods.

The move follows the board's recent approval of its Blueprint for Quality Schools plan to restructure the district and close up to 24 of its roughly 80 schools, many of which are under-enrolled and struggling academically.

In the first round of closures and mergers last year, which included the controversial shuttering of Roots International Academy, the district admitted it did not provide enough support to staff during the process. This time around, the district said, it has allotted $300,000 to help those school communities with the transition.

"Closing schools is not the answer to addressing those inequities," Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, told the board. "It's fully funding our schools."

The proposal to close Kaiser and merge it with Sankofa has proved particularly controversial and racially fraught.

Kaiser is a diverse school in the more affluent hills with a sizable white population and strong parent involvement. Its excellent academic reputation draws students from largely middle-class families throughout North Oakland. Sankofa, on the other hand, has long struggled academically, with declining enrollment and a largely low-income, African American student body.

The months-long debate over their merger has involved heated exchanges about race and equity in Oakland, with some opponents accusing the district of pitting the two communities against each other.

Multiple parents and teachers from Kaiser gave emotional appeals before the board, pointing to the school as a shining model of success in a district with a less-than-stellar record. They implored the board to instead consider expanding the campus and bringing other schools into it.

"I think there’s a way to do this so we could be successful, but we don’t have buy-in to do this,” said Gonzales, who voted against the merger. “Without buy-in from teachers, and very little buy-in from parents, I don’t think it’s going to work and I think it’s a little irresponsible."

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Some Kaiser parents have threatened to file lawsuits or initiate recall campaigns against board members. And a group of Kaiser teachers said they would refuse to participate in the redesign process, vowing to continue the fight after the vote.

"We will take a day to process and decide how to move forward as a community," said Alicia Johnson, a Kaiser parent. "A lot of damage was done intentionally to both communities, and the way forward is unclear. The board is corrupt and does not care about best outcomes for children and communities."

Sankofa parents and teachers, however, have said they would be happy to merge with anyone, as long as they could stay on their campuses and receive adequate resources to improve their school.

According to Johnson-Trammell, the schools will plan their “redesigns” this year and merge in 2020-21 with a goal of first getting the school communities to work together to support the new school and then moving toward improving academic achievement.

The board voted separately to close Oakland School of Language dual-language immersion middle school and merge it with Frick Academy, following Johnson-Trammell's promise that the two schools could spend more than a year planning their redesigns if necessary after merging onto one campus.

That move, too, while not as contentious, has also drawn ire from community members.

"The children wear uniforms now. It’s a better situation. And all of a sudden you're going to take the children in my district and move some other kids in there," one Frick parent told the board. "It’s not fair. You need to stop, man. Seriously. You need to let our children have their school."

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Additionally, the board approved expanding the popular Melrose Leadership Academy onto two campuses. It also voted to invest more money in Fruitvale Elementary in East Oakland in the hope that more families in that neighborhood in will choose to send their children there.

Fruitvale “posted significant double-digit growth” in its Smarter Balanced statewide test scores in English and math for students in grades 3 through 5 in 2018-19, according to the staff report to the board.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California.

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