Oakland Activists Say They'll Continue to Occupy Elementary School Until District Reopens it

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I woman stands outside a building with her fist up. A sign next to her says "stop the war on public education."
Misty Cross, one of those sleeping inside the school, said classes for kids and adults offered by supporters will begin next week. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Update, 1 p.m. June 10: Activists and parents who have occupied an East Oakland elementary school for the last two weeks say they intend to stay there until the district agrees to either reopen the school or hand over control of the building to the community.

Parker Elementary School families and supporters took their fight to Wednesday’s school board meeting, making the case that the district’s move to shutter the school will hurt its students.

Azlinah Tambu, the parent of a Parker student, told board members that the district has reassigned Parker students to other schools that are located too far away from their homes.

"Most of our children walk to the school because they live all through these apartments, and now they'll have to walk from 79th and MacArthur all the way to 98th and Plymouth,” she said. "These are gang-infested areas. There's human trafficking going on out here. There's shootings every day. Those are the real safety hazards that we're talking here.”

Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown this week said his union is in full support of the occupation — despite complaints from some activists that union leadership could be doing more to show up and help at the site.

Parents, Brown said, are rightfully frustrated they’re not getting a clear response from the district.

“If [the district] would have made the decision to authentically engage with families such as the families of Parker, they would not be forced to take the action that they're taking now,” he said.

Meanwhile, California's Labor Commissioner's Office is reviewing claims made by the union that the district violated an agreement promising to involve community members in its decisions to close schools. Those hearings resume Aug. 9.

Original post, May 28:
Parker Elementary in East Oakland was officially closed by the district on May 25, at the end of the school year, but families and activists have been sleeping in the auditorium since Thursday in an effort to reclaim the building for their own with a plan to begin a community school.

The activists say they will stay until the school board agrees to reverse its closure decision and fully fund Parker Community School, or give the community control of the building.

"Parents are liberating the school and want to keep it open and turn it into a real community resource to make sure it stays in the hands of the community,” said Timothy Killings, a caseworker at Westlake Middle School. He said GED classes, chess club and farm-to-table classes would be offered, with a celebration event planned for this weekend.

The current school-reclaiming comes after multiple attempts by those opposing school closures to get the district to reverse course, including repeated protests at school board meetings, a hunger strike led by two teachers, and a one-day district-wide teachers’ strike last month.

“If you don’t want to keep the doors open, then us, the people of the community, we want to keep the doors open,” said Rochelle Jenkins, mother of two daughters, age 12 and 6, who just finished at Parker. "When we see a faulty system and it's impacting our children and their education, we have to stand up and correct it."

A mother poses with her children outside of Parker Elementary school.
Rochelle Jenkins (right); her son Jayvien Bolden, 15, a graduate of Parker; her daughter Zariah, 12; and another Parker student pose outside the school, May 26, 2022. (Julia McEvoy/KQED News)

Two dozen women and children have slept inside the school the past few evenings, while others slept outside in tents to ensure the safety of those inside, Killings said.

“We have people inside and there's also people watching the outside,” he said. “There's going to be a lot of supportive people outside just making sure when the police come, everybody's safe.”

On Thursday, the school district sent its chief governance officer, Josh R. Daniels, to hand-deliver a letter to those camping inside the school. It said they were there illegally and trespassing.

One of those sleeping inside the school is Misty Cross, co-founder of West Oakland activist group Moms 4 Housing. Cross refused to receive the letter; her fellow occupiers received it and opened it.

“What Josh just told us is that what the district is not going to do is send force in because now they know that women and children are on site. We hear him, but we're not going to trust that,” she said.

In a statement, the district said it recognized some are upset about the closure of Parker but the vast majority of students and staff at Parker have accepted placement at other schools. It asked those sleeping and setting up classes inside the school to “choose a different means of protest — one that doesn't disrupt the normal year end procedures of staff and the need to close out the year."

Killings and others have pointed out the irony of the district closing community schools at a time when the state is heavily investing in them. In the state’s first round of grants to districts, last month, Oakland Unified received the largest grant in the funding cycle, with $66.7 million. Some of the schools on the district’s closure list for next year are district-designated community schools.

Killings said about 65 people are now involved in a rotation of shifts to occupy the school, as part of a broader liberation strategy.

“The community is waking up and the concern is pretty high around this issue,” Killings said.

Timothy Killings, an OUSD caseworker, says 65 people are now in a rotation of shifts to stay inside the school to keep it open. (Julia McEvoy/KQED News)

“We’re definitely using all of our expertise,” said Cross, who occupied a vacant home in West Oakland along with a group of moms in 2020, drawing attention to the Bay Area housing shortage and homelessness crisis. "We have folks that have occupied with the Oscar Grant movement. This is going to be strategic and structured around what the community needs."

“I think adults should fight for kids until they can fight for themselves," Cross said. "We can't keep trying to save a culture that was built to make us fail. We now have to create a new one, too, where it works with us.”

The plan beginning Monday is also an echo of the work done by Oakland’s Black Panther Party in the 1960s to feed and educate Black children, said Cross.

Cross stood in the school hallway while children roller-skated and played the piano behind her in the auditorium. Blue mattresses were set up on the floor with sheets and covers. Cross slept inside the school Thursday evening.

Outside Parker Elementary, Killings met with curious neighbors, explaining the idea behind the community school model they plan to deploy in the coming weeks.

Former Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks also drove by, asking what the group needed. “I support what’s going on. Even before I ran for City Council, I refurbished the library at this school,” explained Brooks. She promised to bring water and juice back to the school.

It is not the first time Oakland community members have occupied a school trying to keep it open. In 2011 when the district voted to close Lakeview Elementary School, activists occupied the building for 17 days before being evicted by police.

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Joel Velasquez was there then and sent his three children to the school set up by organizers, called the People’s School for Public Education, for those summer weeks. Velasquez is part of the Parker Liberation movement today. Then as now, the district argued that falling enrollment made it necessary to close schools and save money.

Another parent, Max Orozco from La Escuelita Elementary near Lake Merritt — one of three other schools to be closed or merged at the end of this school year — said schools have more money coming from the state from ever before so there is no reason to close schools. "All these children are going to be displaced, moved around, like literally poker chips, and that is what the district is doing," Orozco said.

A recent Stanford University study showed that closing schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods increases gentrification, underscoring the importance of considering the overlap between school policies and housing policies in cities such as Oakland.

“In an era where school districts are writing statements and promising policy in ‘defense of Black lives,’ this study is a reminder that school closures, as an educational reform strategy, can materially contribute to the disintegration of Black communities," co-author Danielle Marie Greene said.

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A hand holds a letter
A letter warning those camping inside Parker Elementary that they are trespassing, which the occupiers deny. The letter was hand-delivered on Thursday by OUSD Chief Governance Officer Josh R. Daniels. (Julia McEvoy/KQED News)

The district has argued it needs to close small, under-enrolled schools like Parker as part of a larger plan to downsize in order to save money and create a sustainable budget into the future.

Cross says it is also about offering something more: “What we're doing is showing the people that we have power. We're going to show them that this school needs to stay open.”

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