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Reversal of Oakland School Closures Renews Hope of Reparations for Black Students

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A smiling woman and child stand next to each other on a playground with their arms around each other, smiling and wearing masks. The child is holding a sign reading 'don't cut our kids'
Erica Wade and her son Samuel pose for a portrait during a rally against school closures at Prescott School in West Oakland on Feb. 5, 2022. Wade is an OUSD alum, and her son was a student at OUSD's Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School at the time. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

The decision by Oakland’s new school board to rescind a school closure plan has renewed hope in the reparations movement to improve the outcomes of Oakland Unified School District’s Black students.

But the movement remains in limbo.

In March 2021, the school board passed the Reparations for Black Students resolution, an initiative to provide more resources for almost 8,000 Black students. For some observers, the resolution acknowledged the inequitable education students have received for generations.

The resolution created a task force to monitor academic performance and, among other things, provide anti-racism training to district teachers and staff. Early versions of the resolution included a ban on school closures where more than 30% of the students are Black, a line item that was opposed by the school district and Chris Learned, the state trustee who oversaw the district’s finances. It was ultimately removed from the final resolution.

For two decades, the school district has been under state receivership because of a $100 million bailout in 2003. To address budget shortfalls, the school board voted in January 2022 to close what it deemed were underperforming schools with low enrollment. The vote sparked protests, which included a hunger strike, a 125-day occupation of Parker Elementary School after the district closed it, and a State Department of Justice inquiry into claims that the plan continued a trend of discrimination against the district’s Black students.

A group of protesters hold signs against school closures as they march on a city street.
Educators, parents, youth and supporters protest during a citywide rally at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. The rally was one of several events last year in support of the Reparations for Black Students campaign. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

The closures derailed the reparations effort to hold the school district accountable for improving the education of Black students. But the reversal, which was approved during a special meeting in January, has activists and community members cautiously optimistic about OUSD’s future. The action was made possible by newly elected board members who opposed the previous board’s decision.

As the California Reparations Task Force continues to study and develop proposals for the entire state, a look into Oakland’s effort reveals just how difficult reparations can be to implement.

“We are now finally positioned to start doing things differently,” said Mike Hutchinson, the school board’s new president. “We have to embed this work in the district so it becomes a core part of what we do, and I think we are starting to do that.”

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Luz Cázares, the current trustee, will have to sign off for the reversal to be permanent. The Alameda County Office of Education must also approve. As The Oaklandside’s Ashley McBride reported, “the board’s decision could also threaten a separate influx of state cash the district was expecting as a result of closing schools.”

Still, if the decision is confirmed by the state, it will save five elementary schools that serve predominantly students of color — Brookfield, Grass Valley, Horace Mann, Carl B. Munck, Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy and Hillcrest Elementary School, which would also continue to serve kindergarten through eighth grade. The majority of students at Grass Valley and Carl B. Munck are Black.

“Having the board make that decision as soon as it did has really given the system a breath of fresh air,” said Pecolia Manigo, chair of the Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force, the body created to implement the reparations resolution.

Ongoing fight against systemic racism

Jordan Rancifer was captivated by the stories of anti-Black racism in Oakland’s public schools that he heard in the Oakland High School auditorium in 2017.

“It piqued my interest because it’s like, damn, I’m not the only one having these racial experiences in OUSD,” he recalled in an interview with KQED.

The event was one of a series of community listening sessions held by the Justice for Oakland Students coalition. Students described being called racist slurs by peers. They said they felt ignored when they brought concerns to school administrators, and alienated by curricula that neglected Black experiences. Parents described years of limited enrollment in programs meant to support Black students and funding that always seemed to quickly run out.

A young Black man with a black hoodie and shoulder-length black twists looks at the camera while standing on a sidewalk in an urban street.
Jordan Rancifer poses for a photo on Grand Avenue in Oakland on April 15, 2022. Rancifer spoke at the listening sessions that led to the Reparations for Black Students resolution when he was a senior at Oakland Technical High School. Now he's studying political science at Cal State East Bay. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Rancifer was then a senior struggling in math at Oakland Technical High School. He shared his experience in a room full of teachers, students and parents.

“I just didn’t feel like, as a Black man, I was being helped or noticed,” said Rancifer, now 23 and studying political science at Cal State East Bay. “They just kind of let me fail.”

Black students accounted for 20.5% of district enrollment — roughly 10,000 out of 50,000 students — in the 2021–2022 academic year, according to OUSD’s dashboard. Two decades ago, Black students accounted for nearly half. Since then, the district has shuttered 16 majority Black schools, fracturing school communities and separating students from friends and familiar teachers. At the listening sessions, speakers said the closures contributed to the exodus of Black families from district schools.

The listening sessions laid the foundation for the reparations resolution.

The resolution promised to address the declining enrollment and poor outcomes of Black students, and set its sights on ending the achievement gap, also called the opportunity gap, by 2026.

In September 2021, the district created the Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force, a 25-member volunteer body to carry out the resolution. By that time, Rancifer was in college. His mother, Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, an Oakland teacher and vice president of the Oakland teachers union, became the task force secretary.

“The thing that makes me so excited about our work is being able to bring Black folks into a safe space, and for them to know that they’re not alone in their experiences and that other folks are experiencing the same thing, but that they can also come up with the solutions,” said Manigo, who is also executive director of the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network, an Oakland-based nonprofit that empowers parents to advocate for their children in public schools.

According to Manigo and Hutchinson, things were going smoothly for months after the task force began its work. The volunteer group of Black parents, educators, district employees and community activists met regularly on Zoom, gathering virtually to view colorful slide decks put together by Manigo, mother of two OUSD students and one OUSD graduate.

OUSD receives special state funding for students from lower-income families and foster youth, many of whom are Black. The task force aims to track how OUSD invests that money.

Oakland has been trying to improve the outcomes for Black students for decades. OUSD founded the African American Male Achievement program in 2010 and what is now known as the African American Female Excellence program in 2015. Data shows the programs improved graduation rates and lowered rates of suspensions.

But the impact of other, more diffuse efforts like curriculum changes and diversifying staff is harder to trace. The task force set out to build a system to quantify the impact of district interventions.

“Being able to say whether something is effective or not effective, and whether it's helping to close opportunity gaps or not … we knew that that was a big challenge,” said Manigo, who was unsuccessful in her bid for a school board seat in November.

According to Manigo, the school closure plan, announced four months after the task force began its work, revealed that the district was unwilling “to understand the implications of the lived experience and wisdom that so many of us had been putting before them.”

The closure plan felt like a betrayal. “By saying reparations, there is an immediate demand to stop the harm,” Manigo said.

A Black woman with a purple top and short cropped hair smiles at the camera as she stands in a park.
Pecolia Manigo poses in Maxwell Park in Oakland on Aug. 25, 2022. Manigo is the chair of the Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Instead of focusing on improving outcomes for Black students, conflict grew among members of the task force who found themselves on opposing sides of the closure debate.

“We are in a highly polarized political context and I think our minds are pretty trained to put a stake in the ground and not move from that,” said Dr. Dexter Moore Jr., the superintendent’s representative on the task force. “It put a wedge in the work. No question about it.”

Last March, a report presented by Moore to the school board on behalf of the district superintendent showed that a year after the reparations resolution was passed, many of the worrying trends affecting Black students continued.

Black students were being suspended at more than twice the district average, and more than half of Black students were chronically absent, which Moore attributed in part to the impact of a surge in COVID-19 cases at the time. Between the 2020–21 and 2021–22 school years, Black student enrollment dropped by more than 400 students, continuing the decades-long pattern of Black students leaving the district, according to OUSD data. Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, district superintendent, instructed the task force to pause indefinitely.

The task force initially refused to stop holding meetings, but momentum waned.

“We went from 25 folks being able to meet in the very early days and having really great conversations looking over different indicators and putting metrics to those things, to then eventually 15, 16, 17, to slowly but surely many individuals just stepping back,” Manigo said.

The task force stopped holding public meetings in April. Not enough members were regularly attending to have a quorum. Ten months later, meetings have yet to resume. But developments since the new year might signal a change.

Hutchinson has nominated board members Clifford Thompson and VanCedric Williams, co-author of the reparations resolution, to new positions as board liaisons to the task force. He hopes Thompson and Williams will help the task force rebuild its membership.

A Black man with clean shaven head and wearing a blue hoodie that reads "Protect West Oakland Mural" smiles at the camera with people in the background.
Mike Hutchinson, an outspoken opponent of school closures in Oakland, became the president of Oakland’s school board in January. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

Manigo feels frustrated that so much time was lost fighting the district, especially in a year with a massive state budget surplus. Instead of galvanizing energy around petitioning the state for more funding for Oakland schools, Manigo said community organizers like her spent the year fighting with the district to keep schools open.

“What was lost was the opportunity to really tell the Oakland story, to give lawmakers and the larger community hope that we really can create a district where all students are valued, where racially just schools are real,” she said.

That model could be important, because what Black students are up against in Oakland is similar to what Black students face throughout the state. California remains the sixth most segregated state in the country for Black students (PDF), according to the interim report published by the state reparations task force in June. “In California’s highly segregated schools, schools attended by white and Asian children receive more funding and resources than schools with predominantly Black and Latino children,” the report says.

It’s a reality with deep roots. In 1855, California passed a law that withheld state funds from schools that taught Black and Chinese children (PDF). Although California taxed Black residents to pay for public schools, the money was only used for the education of white children.

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Systemic racism continues to affect Black students. According to statewide data, in 2021–2022 only 30% of Black students met English language arts standards and less than 16% met the standard in math, placing Black students behind all other racial groups.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2023–2024 budget attempted to address some of this inequity, but the budget proposal drew criticism from advocates who say they want to see more funding and support specifically for Black students.

What has played out in Oakland’s school district is not an anomaly when it comes to reparations, said Dr. Cheryl Grills, a state task force member.

“It’s sometimes harder to implement things in the spirit in which they were intended than it is to get the win on the books,” said Grills, professor at Loyola Marymount University.

The state task force, which meets Friday and Saturday in Sacramento, is expected to publish its plan for repairing almost 200 years of anti-Black racism in the state in June. To address racial disparities in public education, preliminary policy proposals (PDF) being considered include an increase in funding to schools through the local control funding formula, which determines how much money schools receive from the state. The preliminary proposals include repealing or amending Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that prohibits state and local government affirmative action programs in the areas of public employment, public education and public contracting. “Proposition 209 is widely viewed as an impediment to the adoption of remedial measures,” the task force stated in the proposal document.

No part of a reparations plan will become law without the support of the governor and the state Legislature. Like the reparations push in Oakland, it will require consistent public pressure.

“There is a historic moment that could happen in California,” Manigo said. “And I believe that the time is now.”

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