Craig Colbert greets parents as they pick up their children from Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland at the end of the school day on April 28, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Craig Colbert mingles with parents picking up their kids outside Grass Valley Elementary’s front doors.
As the school’s community adviser, it’s his job to know students’ families. It helps that he grew up with some of them in this hilly green section of East Oakland, that his own son graduated from the school and that he’s worked here for a decade.
He saunters up to idling cars to chat with moms through open windows and offers dads standing on the sidewalk handshakes.
“What’s up, baby boy,” he says, gripping Steffen Scott Sr.’s hand.
They both played basketball on the Grass Valley outdoor courts as kids. Now, Scott’s fifth grader is in his first year here. At his last school in Union City, there were hardly any Black students in his class, Scott explains, “so he couldn’t really identify with anything.”
“They’re a lot friendlier here,” Steffen Jr. chimes in.
At Grass Valley, Steffen Jr. is surrounded by students who look like him. The comfort of familiarity has translated into greater confidence, Scott says, and he sees the difference in his son’s schoolwork.
“Seeing the joy when he walks out that door, it's everything to me,” Scott says.
Grass Valley, off Golf Links Road near Skyline Boulevard, enrolls the highest share of Black students — 65% — among Oakland Unified School District elementary schools. In February, the school board voted to close it next year as part of a broader downsizing plan that will shutter seven campuses. Black families will be disproportionately affected.
The decision comes less than a year after the board made a remarkable pledge to its Black students by adopting a community proposal that organizers named Reparations for Black Students.
The plan seeks to address practices, like school closures, that have helped cut the number of Black students in the district from 25,400 in 2000-01 to 7,400 this year. In the past two decades, Oakland Unified has closed 16 majority-Black schools. That’s left few elementary schools like Grass Valley.
When the board passed the Reparations for Black Students resolution in March 2021, it excluded one of the campaign’s central demands: that no majority-Black schools be considered for closure.
Under pressure to address a stubborn structural deficit, the size of which nobody seems to agree on, the board forged ahead. It did so despite the pleas of students, parents and teachers — and despite protest marches, rallies and a weeks-long hunger strike by two teachers.
“For those that don’t know the power of the word 'reparations,' the first part of the definition is a commitment to not cause harm again,” says Pecolia Manigo Awobodu, who chairs the Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force, which is charged with implementing the reparations work.
“The story of this campaign is not an easy one to tell,” she continues. “It’s a story of, how do you really get a system to address its lack of commitment to the education of Black students? And how do you do it in such a way that even when there is resistance, you’re still capable of making some levels of progress?”
Grass Valley Elementary opened in 1953 as a set of portable classrooms with 100 students before a permanent school was built for the rapidly growing area. Throughout the 1960s, newspaper ads for nearby housing developments enticed buyers with references to the “outstanding” and “wonderful” neighborhood school.
Today, teachers have taped up crayon signs in the classroom windows that say “save our school” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Before Colbert came to Grass Valley, he worked at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, just down the hill, until the district closed it a decade ago. Mostly Black students enrolled at Marshall, and the reasons district leaders gave for closing it echo those for closing Grass Valley: under-enrollment and poor test scores.
When he was packing up Thurgood Marshall’s archives, Colbert, 49, came across photos of himself as a student there in the '80s.
“I thought about the community, I thought about the kids that went there and how much they loved the school,” he says. “It was a tough deal.”
As a kid, he’d hitchhike up Golf Links Road after school to play basketball on the school’s courts. Many of the children he grew up with went to school there.
Back then, the neighborhoods close to the school were home to a mix of Black and white middle- and upper-middle-class families. Incomes dropped as you went down the hill, as did the share of white residents.
There are more Latino and Asian people now, and fewer Black families. Between 2010 and 2020, the share of Black residents in the neighborhood surrounding the school dropped from nearly 50% to 37%, according to research from UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.
“Having a school site where Black kids feel really valued and can be themselves is important,” says Paula Mitchell, another Marshall transplant who now runs Grass Valley’s project-based learning program.
“I purposely chose to be in a place where I could teach students that look like me because I didn't have any Black teachers when I was growing up,” she continues, “and I just know how it would have made me feel differently in my belief in all the things I could do in the world.”
About half of Grass Valley’s teachers are Black, compared to 20% district-wide, according to school-district data.
“I think families feel really comfortable sending their children here knowing that we get it,” Mitchell says. “We understand what's out there in the world and we're doing our best to hold their kids close.”
“In an age where school districts are writing statements and promising policy in ‘defense of Black lives,’ stakeholders must consider how educational policies are contributing to the further perpetuation of the disintegration of Black communities,” Pearman writes.
In his research, Pearman has identified a cyclical relationship between school closures and neighborhood change. Closing schools increases the likelihood that Black neighborhoods will gentrify. In turn, gentrification leads to lower enrollment as families are displaced and new residents opt out of the neighborhood school or don’t have kids to enroll.
“If these school closures are promoting the further dispossession of communities of color, making them even less likely to retain their historic profile of being Black communities, then there’s broader conversations that need to be had about what these closures mean for the lifeblood of Black neighborhoods,” Pearman says.
On April 11, the ACLU asked Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate Oakland’s closure plan, saying it is discriminatory and violates the rights of of Black students. On April 29, Oakland Unified teachers, including those at Grass Valley, held a one-day strike to protest the closures.
Colbert leaves his two-story, four-bedroom home in Stockton at 6:30 a.m. to get to Grass Valley's tree-ringed campus in time for work.
“I wanted to own my own house,” he says. “But I come here every day, so Oakland is still in my heart.”
About 10 Grass Valley families live outside the city, according to principal Casey Beckner, but most people leave the school behind when they move. They often leave for the Central Valley. Like Colbert, they’re relocating to become homeowners or looking for cheaper rent.
The pandemic has accelerated the exodus as parents put their kids in independent study or homeschool them. Public school enrollment plummeted across the state during the pandemic.
But Grass Valley staff blame the Thurgood Marshall closure for driving families away, too. As they tell it, transplanting the Marshall community to Grass Valley created a chain reaction of instability. The principal got burned out and left, then some teachers started chafing at the new administrator’s approach. As teachers left, more families followed.
“Once you start a cycle of people leaving, then you have an open door,” Colbert says.
Enrollment has declined at Grass Valley four years in a row, leaving the school with 198 students. District staff say that’s too small to make the school financially sustainable. For the past 15 years, state records show the school’s enrollment has hovered around 250 students, dipping as low as 177 and rising to 285 at its peak.
If one school doesn’t have enough students to generate the money to cover its costs, it hurts the whole system, says school board director Clifford Thompson, whose district includes Grass Valley.
“We have to use the money that [a bigger] school has generated in order to keep this other school afloat,” he says. “It’s a hard decision, but how long can you do that? It’s been done for several years, and now it’s time to really bite the bullet.”
District staff have pointed out that Oakland Unified operates more schools than many larger districts in the state. They say having more teachers per student than these other districts hasn’t translated into academic gains for students.
Thompson sees an upside to larger schools. He’d like to see Oakland’s elementary schools enroll about 400 students each. The former principal, who returned to teaching in Richmond a few years ago, says having multiple teachers for each grade allows educators to learn from each other, grow and innovate.
Many of Grass Valley’s teachers and staff who came from Marshall are wary of the district’s vision of a system improved through economization.
In Tammy Coleman’s classroom, the small numbers are a blessing. Typically, she’s had 25 or 26 students, and as many as 30. This year, she has only 18 in her combined first and second grade class, the fewest she’s ever had.
She’s grateful to be able to give students more individualized support as they get readjusted to the classroom after more than a year of distance learning. She says some second graders, who didn’t know the alphabet when they started the year, are now flourishing.
“It’s just a beautiful thing and it's less stress,” she says. “You can delve into what they need more.”
Late one morning, after reading instruction, she makes her way around the classroom, checking in with students who are bent over their notebooks clutching crayons and pencils. The class is studying birds and the students are responding to prompts in their new research journals.
“Hey, William,” Coleman says, leaning down to get a closer look at her student’s work. “What do you wonder about birds?”
“How birds fly, period. And how they lay eggs,” Williams says.
“We have a lot of research to do!” Coleman says before moving to another student.
Grass Valley’s closure would be her third. All three schools were majority Black.
She spent a decade at Cole Middle School, on 10th Street in West Oakland’s Cypress Village neighborhood, before the district closed it. She then moved to Thurgood Marshall. Based on her 28 years in the classroom, she says what matters most is individualized support.
“The kids come in needing so much and it’s hard for one person to give them all that they need,” Coleman says. “Are you going to close the achievement gap by shoving them into a larger school with larger class sizes, teachers they don’t know?”
When a group of local Black organizers began gathering community input to shape an agenda for improving Black students’ experiences in schools, stopping closures quickly became a priority.
“One of the reasons why it rang so true for us to name the campaign Reparations for Black Students is because we saw a trend in this district that majority-Black schools were always targeted for school closures, which meant that the bulk of the pain of that practice lived in Black communities,” Awobodu, an OUSD parent and lead organizer of the reparations project, says.
The evidence backs her up, says UC Berkeley professor of education and African American studies Janelle Scott, who’s studying school closures.
“We know that Black and Latinx students are much more likely to be targeted by school closures,” she says.
When Chicago closed dozens of schools a decade ago, for instance, 88% of the students affected were Black.
“So it’s not a subtle point of evidence,” Scott says.
Other research finds that school closures are associated with charter school expansion, which can further destabilize district enrollment.
Research suggests academic prospects for students whose schools close vary depending on many factors, including the quality of the new school.
Grass Valley’s general education students will be sent to Oakland Academy of Knowledge and Burckhalter Elementary School under Oakland Unified’s plan. The schools are three and four miles away and their academic, racial and socioeconomic profiles are similar to Grass Valley’s.
Scott finds that claims about declining enrollment and cost savings are often used to justify closures, but that the evidence doesn’t actually support the strategy as a cost-savings measure.
“It sounds kind of persuasive and simple, but the reality is not quite so simple,” she says.
That’s because the costs that can come with shuttering campuses, like facilities improvements needed to accommodate displaced students at receiving schools, can offset potential savings. Closing schools also can contribute to revenue decline by pushing more students out of the district.
“When you disrupt communities with school closures, however well-intentioned, many families do look for other options, so you see a relationship between school closures and even further enrollment declines,” Scott says.
Scott met with three Oakland Unified school board members in an effort to better understand their reasoning. They didn’t produce the evidence to persuade her. The takeaway, she says, was, “‘We don’t know what else to do. We know we need to do something.’”
In slating the closure, the district may have sealed Grass Valley’s fate: Families don’t want to sign up for a school that may not be around after next year, and some parents plan to pull their kids out preemptively.
Ericka Njemanze used to be an active Grass Valley parent. She was president of the PTA and a member of the School Site Council. Her second grader and fourth grade twins have been at the school since kindergarten.
“I picked Grass Valley because it had a history,” she says. “I heard really good things about the school.”
The family doesn’t live far from Grass Valley, but it’s not their neighborhood school. At first Njemanze thought she’d made a good choice, but her feelings have changed. Her kids fell behind during the pandemic, and the fifth grade teachers she was looking forward to for her kids retired.
In the harsh light of the closure, the things that bothered her became intolerable. She judged the test scores and wondered where the other professional Black parents were. Why wasn’t there more PTA involvement?
“I don't see the fifth grade teachers taking my kids where they need to be,” says Njemanze, who plans to send her kids to Laurel Elementary next year. “I guess I want to beat the wave. If my kids can transition a little faster, I think that will help my household.”
Colbert stands at the end of a long lunch table in the schoolyard. On a neon green sheet of poster board, he’s mapped out the fourth grade and fifth grade girls’ arm-wrestling tournament brackets.
Last week he held a tournament for the boys, and the girls demanded their own.
“This contest isn’t about strength, it’s about stamina and your will to win,” he tells the girls crowded around the table. “If you want to win, you will fix yourself to win. It doesn't matter how big or small the other person is on the other side.”
The girls pair up and lock arms. Their biceps tense as they strain and grit their teeth.
“Don’t give up,” Colbert says. “Don’t give up.”
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