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'How Dare You': Oakland School Closure Decision Inspires New Opposition Efforts

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A young man, left, holds a picket sign reading "keep our schools open" while yelling to a passing car, a young woman holds another sign that is cut off from the photo, behind him, with blue skies behind them.
Jayvien Bolden and Nailah Williams, both graduates of OUSD schools, participated in a rally on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

On Saturday afternoon, Oakland Unified School District employee Timothy Killings stood in front of a crowd of parents, teachers and community members scattered across the lawn at Markham Elementary School in East Oakland.

“The point of this town hall is to bring the sites under the most immediate threat together, so we could get some plans of actions going,” he said. “Truth be told, we should have been in the streets, like, yesterday.”

The group had assembled to plan protests of the district's planned school consolidations.

Sitting in clusters together in the grass, looking like students at recess, participants debated whether or not teachers should strike, school board members should be recalled, and other solutions, like lobbying state lawmakers in Sacramento to send funding to stave off the district’s budget woes. One idea floated would even see opponents of school closures partner with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers at Oakland’s port, since both say they are fighting privatization — of the port and of schools.

When not organizing resistance, Killings is a case manager at Oakland Unified School District’s Westlake Middle School. But on Saturday, his day off, he helped organize Oakland residents to push back against the district's proposed school closures, mergers and grade truncations.

A few dozen people sit in the grass, many cross-legged, facing a speaker that is off-camera. A baskteball court and the street can be seen in the background.
People gathered on a lawn at Markham Elementary School Saturday to plan protests of OUSD’s planned school consolidations. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

The latest version of the district’s plan would close two schools — Parker K-8 and Community Day — this year. Five other schools—Korematsu, Horace Mann, Brookfield, Carl B. Munck and Grass Valley — would be shuttered at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. Lastly, two additional schools — Rise Community Elementary and New Highland Academy — would be merged this year, and another two — Hillcrest and La Escuelita — would see the number of grades they teach decrease.

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As KQED reported earlier this month, an estimated 93% of students at the schools affected by the plan are considered either lower-income, English learners or foster youth, compared to the district-wide average of about 80%. Black students are also disproportionately affected – about 43% of students at the eight sites on the original school closure list are Black, almost twice the proportion of Black students in the entire district.

The district's plan for school closures was originally announced at the end of January, and attributed to a roughly $40 million budget deficit and declining enrollment. The plan was amended, decreasing the number of schools affected, on February 8.

On Friday, February 18, the school board held an emergency meeting to consider further changes to the plan but, at the end of the night, voted to move forward with the plan they had already approved that would see schools shutter.

The district’s plan faced opposition from the start, and after the emergency meeting that resistance is blossoming.

On Saturday, parents and alumni of Parker K-8 rallied on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland’s Eastmont neighborhood. Around 20 frustrated parents, alumni and people living in the neighborhood waved signs and drummed up enthusiasm, in the form of honks, from passing cars.

One of those fed-up parents rallying was Rochelle Jenkins, who worries for the education of her three OUSD students. Jenkins spoke to passing cars through a speaker. She directed her words to board members through a loudspeaker.

“How dare you guys come down and try to take the thing that is needed in each and every last community,” she said.

Jenkins says she plans to protest until the school board calls off the closure of Parker.

Two OUSD employees began a hunger strike in protest of the plans at the start of the month. One of those employees ended their strike at the emergency meeting Friday; the other, Maurice André San-Chez, a teacher at Westlake Middle School, announced the end of their hunger strike in an Instagram post on Sunday, February 20.

"Time to recover and gain strength to continue this battle,” they wrote on Instagram. “The torch is in your hands.”

At the emergency meeting, others said they would join the hunger strike if the board voted in favor of the current plan — and that’s exactly how the board voted.

Some of the anger at the school closures may have manifested in vandalism. Oakland Board of Education President Dr. Gary Yee encountered people disgruntled by the closures at his home over the weekend and later found his front window broken.

At least one person who said they would join the strikers Friday night has since decided not to.

High school senior and Oakland Youth Advisory Commission co-chair Aniyah Story says her mom convinced her to consider alternatives, something she says a group of community members discussed at a virtual meeting Sunday.

“I feel like even though money is a big issue, there's well-being, community, our future … it's way bigger than that,” she told KQED Sunday.

In a statement, Oakland Unified School District says it understands that many people in Oakland are upset with the decision to consolidate and it supports means of protest that do not jeopardize the health of those involved.

This story includes reporting from KQED's Sara Hossaini and Vanessa Rancaño.

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