Teachers and Families Rally Ahead of Upcoming Vote on Oakland School Closures

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A woman in a purple shirt with the phrase 'Reparations for Black Students in Oakland' appears holding a pink protest sign with her fist up and Oakland City Hall in the background.
Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez poses for a portrait during a rally at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Rachel Mann, a fourth grade teacher at Allendale Elementary, sat on the concrete steps of the amphitheater in front of Oakland’s City Hall on Friday, among the roughly 200 people gathered to protest the city’s recently announced school closure plans. 

“We are a school district,” Mann said. “We should be keeping schools open and cutting everything else we could possibly cut.” 

At the end of January, the Oakland Unified School District announced its controversial plan to close eight schools and merge six others over the next two years. If approved, the move would disproportionately affect Black students, who make up only 22% of the district's enrollees, but about 43% of students at the eight schools slated for closure.  

The school board will vote on the plan on Tuesday at 5 p.m. in a meeting open to the public virtually via Zoom.

Keith Brown, Oakland Education Association President, speaks to the crowd during a citywide rally at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Since the announcement, families and teachers opposing the proposal have demonstrated on school campuses, in car caravans and outside the homes of school board members.

Mann said she’d rather see cuts come from the salaries of district administrators or from the money OUSD pays to lease and operate its downtown headquarters. 

“I think those things should be cut first before actual humans are made to change their whole entire lives and go to a new school or have no school in their neighborhood,” she said. 

Standing nearby was Audrey Darnis, a teacher at Manzanita Community School, which serves students in Fruitvale and East Oakland. The district’s proposal would merge her school with Fruitvale Elementary, starting in the 2023-2024 school year.

“Many of the students live right in the neighborhood, right? So they walk to school. A majority of my students' families do not have cars,” Darnis said, noting that Fruitvale Elementary is about a mile away from Manzanita. “If their school shuts down, it's going to be very hard for them to get to another school.” 

Three young people stand with their signs. One in a purple jacket, one in a red jacket and one person in a jean jacket with a sign saying "Hands off our schools."
Malou, a Melrose Leadership Academy student, listens to speeches with two friends during a rally at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf says she understands the district’s proposal is hard on students and teachers, especially given Oakland’s history of school closures over the last two decades — many of them campuses where the majority of students were Black.

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"We have been through so much trauma and they have every right to feel distrustful and fearful about this decision,” she said in an interview with KQED on Friday.

Enrollment in OUSD has declined by nearly 20,000 students over the last two decades, from over 52,000 in 2002 to just under 35,500 now, according to district data. And because state funding for public schools is tied to attendance, as students left the district, so did a lot of money. 

Schaaf says consolidating schools is necessary to fix structural problems in the district’s budget. “When you look at districts like Stockton, Fremont, San Jose, they serve roughly the same number of students — about 33,000,” she said. “But they do it in almost half the campuses — between 41 and 48 campuses — in those three districts, whereas Oakland has 80 campuses.”

According to Schaaf, the consolidation would allow the district to redirect more funds from building upkeep and redundant administrative costs to student services. “This is an opportunity to do better for our students, our educators, and our families,” she said.  

Several red and white signs shown from a distance with many people standing in front of City Hall in Oakland
Educators, parents and youth gather in protest during a citywide rally at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

School board member Mike Hutchinson, who is opposed to the consolidation plan, said it breaks promises the district made to the community.

In March 2021, the school board passed the Reparations for Black Students Resolution, a response to longtime efforts by community activists to call attention to the displacement of Black students and the disproportionate impact school closures in the district have had on them. 

As part of the resolution, the board promised, among other things, to work with the newly created Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force to develop an equity impact analysis before announcing additional school closures. 

But on January 12, the board instructed the superintendent to move forward on a consolidation plan, in spite of its commitments made in the Reparations for Black Students resolution. They also instructed the district to do so without consideration for previous resolutions designed to improve community engagement ahead of school closures. Instead, the board asked for a plan as soon as possible, that could be put into action in the next school year and the year after. 

A bald man in a light blue hoodie stands for a portrait. Behind him a scattered crowd stands on blacktop at Prescott School.
Mike Hutchinson, school board director for District 5, stands on the blacktop of Prescott School in West Oakland during a rally there on Feb. 5, 2022. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Hutchinson says the rush is eroding community trust in the board. 

“We forget the real services that our public schools provide, everything from a community meeting space to educating generations of kids, to the anchor and the source of pride for a lot of communities,” Hutchinson said at a rally on Saturday.  

Prescott, an elementary school in West Oakland, is a prime example. The school, which has served Oakland students for more than a century, is where Ida Louise Jackson, Oakland’s first Black teacher, began teaching in the 1920s. Now it's on the chopping block.

Lavena Brown, who attended a rally at Prescott on Saturday morning, says she lives near the school and was once a student there. 

“There's a lot of memories here,” she said of Prescott,  the only elementary school in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland. “All my family, my parents went to this school. I went to this school in the '70s, my parents way before me.”

Under the district’s plan, Prescott students would go to either Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary — about a mile away — or Hoover Elementary — about two miles away — starting next school year.

A woman wearing a black head scarf and a black hoodie with images from Mario Kart poses for a portrait the a young child wearing glasses. The child is holding a sign that reads, "Don't cut our kids." Stick into the frame above them is the top of a basketball hoop. Behind them are two cream and blue portable classrooms.
Erica Wade and her son Samuel pose for a portrait during a rally at Prescott School on Feb. 5, 2022. Wade is a graduate of Prescott and Samuel is a student at OUSD's Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Hutchinson says keeping neighborhood schools open is a basic issue of fairness. “Every community pays taxes. Every community deserves the same access to resources,” he says. “If our anchor public elementary schools close, that leaves that community, that neighborhood, without access to public resources.”

Across town, two OUSD staff members have turned to more drastic methods to protest the closure plan: Moses Omolade, OUSD’s program director for community schools, and Maurice André San-Chez, a choir and dance teacher at Westlake Middle School, have been on a hunger strike since last Monday. The two are camped out on the front lawn of the school, which, under the district’s proposal, would be merged with West Oakland Middle School, roughly two miles away. 

Two tents, one gray and one red stand on a lawn above a small retaining wall. A sign next to the tents reads, "Westlake Middle School, Westlake convocation hunger strike day 5." In front of the tents a line of protest signs lines the edge of the retaining wall. Two read, "No cuts, no closures." Behind the tents and one story white and green school building is visible.
The OUSD staff members engaged in a hunger strike have set up a camp on the front lawn of Westlake Middle School. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Omolade says the short timeline for the approval of the plan and the lack of community engagement in the process has backed the families and teachers into a corner. When the plan was announced, he says, his world was turned upside down. “The community was struck. Kids freaking out, parents freaking out, staff freaking out,” he said. “Prescott, 150 years! At the stroke of a pen and a Zoom call, you think you're about to take Prescott?”

In thinking about how to protest, Omolade said he reflected on how his body has always been politicized. “I'm in a really large Black body — 6’8”, 210, and dark as night. And it's a beautiful thing, but that hasn't always been the messaging.”

A waist-up photo of a man wearing a maroon beanie and a gray Westlake Middle School t-shirt. He's sitting in a green armchair. He has two nose piercings and septum piercing. He has beaded necklaces around his neck and his arms are spread out over the arms of the armchair.
Moses Omolade, OUSD program director of community schools, sits in an armchair outside Westlake Middle School. Omolade is one of two OUSD staff members on a hunger strike. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

He says his decision to go on hunger strike is a way to show the board how much these closures will affect the community. 

“This is what it looks like when you continue to make choices that create harm that you are so far removed from,” he said. “You don't get to see those children and those families hurt and cry and travel across Oakland, lose hubs, community hubs, that produced their ancestors. So now this is what it looks like. I want you to see my body.”