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'They See Us As Expendable': Oakland Families of Children With Disabilities Call School Closure Plan Discriminatory

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A young girl sits at a table in a classroom next to a teacher's aide.
Dalaine, 9, works with her teacher's assistant, Yaminah Omari, in her special day class at Carl B. Munck Elementary School on April 7, 2022. Omari also accompanies Dalaine to general education classes as part of the school's inclusive culture for children with moderate to severe education needs. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Eight-year-old Max Pezold has bounced around Oakland public schools since preschool, a fairly typical path in this district for students with special education needs.

Diagnosed with autism and profound learning delays when he was 2 years old, Max began his formal education at a preschool program for children with autism at Montclair Elementary School. He then was mistakenly placed in a special kindergarten language program at Edison Elementary — which didn’t work out, because he is nonverbal.

After a short, challenging stint in what his parents described as a disastrously run classroom at Piedmont Elementary, Max finally landed at Carl B. Munck Elementary, a small school in the Oakland hills near Merritt College with a culture of inclusiveness, where nearly 18% of the students have disabilities. The school has been so welcoming that Max’s dad says he gets emotional describing it.

“You know, my son, he's a lovely boy, but he doesn't talk, he doesn't look at people in the eye,” Carl Pezold said. “But the other … kids, they greet him, they know his name. They say, ‘Hi, Max!,’ you know, [even though] he’ll just kind of barrel past them.”

Unlike in some other schools, where students with disabilities can be isolated from the rest of the school in portable classrooms, Max and his classmates are in centrally located rooms. They share hallways and other facilities with general education students, and join conventional classes twice a week.

When children in general education classes empathize with and accept kids like Max, it can be a profound experience for everyone involved, but one that’s all too rare in Oakland Unified, Pezold says.

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“You know, in the special education community or in the disabled community, what we want is to be seen. That's what they can do in this small school environment,” Pezold said of Munck, where half the students are Black and the vast majority come from other parts of the city.

And that’s why Pezold and other parents here were stunned to learn in February that the district was planning to shut down the school at the end of the 2022-23 academic year. That means families must enroll in a new school for the following year by this coming fall.

A young boy wearing a swim shirt and swim suit sits in folding chair on a beach.
Max Pezold, 8, who has autism, attended several OUSD elementary schools before coming to Carl B. Munck Elementary, where his family says he is thriving. (Courtesy of Carl Pezold)

Munck is one of the five small schools slated for closure next year, part of the district’s larger school-consolidation plan to address declining enrollments and ongoing budget concerns. The schools on the chopping block, which include Grass Valley and Brookfield Elementary, collectively serve 224 students with special education requirements — like Max — about half of whom have moderate to severe disabilities.

Many of the families affected say the district is targeting its most vulnerable students, noting that the closures will disproportionately affect students of color with disabilities.

But the district maintains it is currently “overinvesting” in small, under-enrolled schools like Munck, which has just 227 students. The district says it wants to create cost-saving efficiencies by consolidating many of its schools that have fewer than 400 students and reinvesting in neighborhood schools.

Because less than 6% of Munck’s families come from the immediate area — with most, like Max’s family, driving from elsewhere in the city — it is not considered a neighborhood school.

But when Munck closes, Max’s world will get turned upside down — again, Pezold says.

“The strides that he's making are going to be reversed, whether it be on toileting, whether it be on his language or some of his behavior. It's a shame, when he's doing so well,” he said. “It seems like the deck is stacked against you. You have a hard enough time trying to raise a kid with disabilities and then they throw this at you. You feel [the district] sees you as expendable.”

The special day classes for students like Max usually have no more than 10 children, less than half the size of a conventional elementary school classroom in the district, and require extra support staff — all of which can greatly increase a school’s operational costs. Students with significant support needs also tend to be absent more often, which lowers the per-pupil funding a school receives.

A small group of children sitting in a classroom, looking at a screen with an animated video on it.
Jolanda Murphy says her daughter, Dalaine, pictured here in a pink shirt on April 7, 2022, has been thriving in a small special day class at Carl B. Munck Elementary in Oakland for children with moderate to severe education needs. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Despite those factors, Munck’s principal, Denise Burroughs, has made it a policy to welcome these students.

“Once they come across the threshold, they know we're going to take care of them and we're going to interact with them, speak to them,” said Burroughs, who has led the school for nearly 20 years. “My moderate-to-severe children, many of them are nonverbal, but I'm seeing some of them react because we react with them.”

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Jennifer Blake, OUSD’s executive director of special education, agrees that Munck is a good example of how schools can better integrate students with disabilities into the general school culture.

But the district says it simply doesn’t have the dollars to sustain Munck’s small-school model, and has cited “over-investment” in its small schools as part of its justification for shuttering many of them.

“If we're talking about my dream-world scenario, we would have adequate base funding and adequate special-education funding at both the federal and state level to be able to ensure that we are able to build and foster schools that are small and highly specialized by design,” Blake said.

She acknowledges the optics of the current closure plans and the pain it’s inflicting on families, but says the closures will ultimately strengthen programs in larger, neighborhood schools.

“I know there was no intention to be able to target students with disabilities exclusively,” she said.

Blake says she wants to create more inclusive programs like the one at Munck, with TK-5 programs available at more schools throughout the district, so kids like Max don't have to bounce around.

But Jolanda Murphy, whose 9-year-old daughter, Dalaine, also attends Munck, says the district’s decision to close this school seems outwardly discriminatory.

“You're basically telling parents that do have kids with special needs that we don't care. We’d rather put the focus and the time and energy into something else,” she said.

Dalaine, who is in a special day class at the school, has cerebral palsy, and is prone to seizures. When she was diagnosed as an infant, hospital staff said she would never walk or talk.

A middle-aged woman with glasses.
Carl B. Munck Principal Denise Burroughs, in her office on April 7, 2022. She says her small school is under-enrolled in part because some white families in the Oakland hills are reluctant to send their children to a majority Black school. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

“But I told them that I serve a God who is going to do bigger and better things for her,” Murphy said. By 16 months Dalaine was crawling, and by age 4 she walked into preschool.

"And her teacher cried, because she knew how much I wanted Dalaine to walk," Murphy recalled.

Like Max, Dalaine is nonverbal but very expressive. Murphy says she has seen her make real progress at Munck, where she uses touch screens and flash cards to learn to count and identify letters.

In her effort to stop the closure of her daughter’s school, Murphy recently joined the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, which sent letters to the school board, the county, the state superintendent and the governor accusing OUSD of negligent treatment of disabled students — particularly Black students, who make up 27% of students with disabilities in the district.

The ACLU also has asked California’s attorney general to investigate whether the district took racial equity into account in its closure plans, as it is required to do under the district's Reparations for Black Students resolution that the school board passed last year.

Oakland Unified, by its own admission, has a history of chronically underfunding historically Black schools, says Linnea Nelson, a senior staff attorney in the ACLU of Northern California’s Racial and Economic Justice Program. “It now has created the very conditions that it is now citing to justify disrupting tight-knit school communities and displacing literally hundreds of Black students,” she said.

For its part, the district has said it remains focused on improving outcomes for underserved populations, particularly Black students, and that its closure plans are part of a broader strategy to redirect resources toward larger neighborhood schools that serve a greater number of kids.

But Murphy believes the district is specifically targeting Munck, in part, because it wants to repurpose the property the school sits on.

“This is prime real estate,” Murphy pointed out. “If they close the school completely, they're going to tear it down and build houses. Period. Point blank.”

California law makes it hard for districts to sell off school properties, but those plots can more easily be declared surplus and leased out to private schools and charter schools, or used for teacher housing.

“Carl B. Munck has a beautiful view of Oakland,” she said. “If you go up there, you can sit up there and just lose yourself because of the view of our beautiful city. You can see San Francisco, San Mateo just from their view of the school. It's such a beautiful campus.”

Munck’s serene location, largely devoid of sirens or traffic sounds, is particularly ideal for students with special education needs, Murphy notes.

A mother puts her hands on the hips of her daughter, who stands in front of her.
Jolanda Murphy with her daughter, Dalaine, 9, who has cerebral palsy, at their home in Oakland on April 7, 2022, during a 'sensory day,' when Dalaine is allowed to rip up paper, put things on the ground and be more 'loose' and less regulated, to calm her down after a stressful experience. Murphy says Carl B. Munck Elementary, which Dalaine currently attends, is the best place for her. Murphy is fighting the school's closure. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

But the predominantly white Oakland hills also is an area where discriminatory housing policies have, for nearly a century, largely denied Black families the opportunity to buy homes and attend schools here. And both Murphy and Burroughs, Munck’s principal, believe that racism remains a factor in the district’s decision-making.

“Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve actually had people say things like, ‘Well, I like the school, but I just feel like my child would be in a minority here,’ because there were so many children of African descent and color here. I’ve actually had people say that, judge the school that way,” said Burroughs, who is Black and has lived much of her life in Oakland. “It feels like you want to erase these kids from being here. That’s what it feels like to me. Because truly, if it’s just about under-enrollment, the goal would have been, ‘Let’s figure out how to increase enrollment,’ right?”

As for Murphy, she says she and other parents are not giving up in their fight to keep the school open.

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“I just feel that for my daughter, she needs to have the best,” she said. “And right now, the best is Carl Munck.”

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