Oakland offers students of closed schools alternatives to merged campuses

October 11, 2019

Protesters against school closures disrupt Oakland school board meeting as line of police stands guard on Oct. 10, 2019.

Oakland Unified’s plans to merge two schools by closing a high-performing campus and moving its students and teachers to a lower-performing one could be undermined because the district intends to allow students from the closed school to attend other schools of their choice instead.

The school board voted last month to close Kaiser Elementary, in an affluent neighborhood in the north Oakland hills, and merge it with Sankofa Academy elementary, which is located about 2.7 miles away in a lower-income area of north Oakland known as the flatlands.

Dozens of Kaiser parents, teachers and other district supporters have been protesting the decision since it was made on Sept. 11. Protesters forced the school board to move to an upstairs conference room Thursday after disrupting the meeting with anti-school closure chants and songs. The group had previously shut down the Sept. 25 school board meeting and has held two smaller protests outside the district office over the past two weeks, including a march to the state building to draw attention to their cause.

Andrew Reed/EdSource

Protesters rally against school closures outside the Oakland Unified school district office on Sept. 27, 2019.

The district revealed Thursday two developments that would limit the number of Kaiser students who would move to Sankofa next year. The district plans to redraw boundaries around Kaiser to allow students to attend other nearby schools instead of Sankofa. Currently, 28 of the school’s 270 students live in the neighborhood attendance area.

The district is also offering students who attend Kaiser an “Opportunity Ticket,” which is a new program that allows students from closed schools to get priority enrollment in other schools ahead of neighborhood students who don’t already attend the school. In this case, it will give the displaced Kaiser students priority to attend any other school in the district, as long as there is room.

“Come on, what kind of merger is that?” said Stephen Neat, a teacher and parent at Kaiser Elementary, who has been leading school closure protests. “They’re saying they want us to merge, but, ‘By the way, anybody at Kaiser who doesn’t want to be a part of it can go off to another school and get a leg up.’ Is it a closure or a merger? Things they’re doing make it look like a closure.”

The school board voted to merge the two schools because Kaiser was deemed too small to run cost-effectively, with just 282 students, while Sankofa with about 180 students, has room to spare on its campus which has room for 456 students if portable classrooms are added. The district says elementary schools need a minimum of 304 students for it to break even on costs versus per student funding.

Kaiser parents have said they don’t want to break up a campus that in many ways is a model for others based on its academic achievement, teacher retention, parent engagement and close-knit community that welcomes a diverse student population that reflects the district’s demographics.

Sankofa, on the other hand, has struggled academically over the past five years, with high principal turnover and declining enrollment since the district discontinued its 6th- through 8th-grade classes two years ago.

At Kaiser, 70 percent of students met math standards and 67 percent met English standards, levels far above state averages in the 2019 state Smarter Balanced tests. At Sankofa, zero percent of students met math standards and 17 percent met English standards.

When the board discussed merging the schools in August, board member James Harris urged the Kaiser community to consider bringing all the positive attributes of their school to Sankofa.

“Kaiser, you’re coming from a special place,” he said to parents and teachers from the school. “What would it mean to share that experience with people who have not had that experience? What would it mean for the Kaiser community to say: ‘Oakland needs us to do something differently now’? Maybe we can actually do something to build and deliver on the promise of Sankofa. I’m presenting this for you to think about.”

Sarah Isaacs, Kaiser PTA president, told EdSource that many families feel torn about whether to keep their community together and merge with Kaiser or to seek other options they believe may be better for their children. She said many Kaiser families travel to the campus from across the city in part because of its diversity.

“It’s hard, for a parent, to say that it’s your responsibility to go to this underperforming school and help lift up what’s there,” she said. “Many of the kids at Kaiser had been unsuccessful at a number of places and are finally succeeding at Kaiser. We are closing the achievement gap, especially with African-American students.”

Besides eliminating its costs to operate Kaiser, the district may be able to sell or lease the vacant building in a prime area in the Oakland hills to help offset impending budget cuts. However,the district has not yet decided what it will do with the property.

Many who are protesting school closures fear that Kaiser and other vacated properties may eventually be turned over to charter schools, which they blame for siphoning off students and stoking the need to close schools in the first place. The district estimates that it could close up to 24 schools to accommodate its student population which has dropped to 37,000 over more than a decade.

The Kaiser-Sankofa merger is the second round of school closings or mergers in the district whose plans calls for possibly many others.

Saying school closures are “hurtful,” Kaiser parent Tracy Gordon, whose two children attend the school, told the board the district has been misleading and unclear about its school closure plans.

“I just don’t understand why you think multiple school closures are OK,” she said. “My children are traumatized. I’m upset. If I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep. There is a movement. We will not go away.”

Although some Kaiser parents and teachers are willing to merge with Sankofa, others have threatened to leave the district, worried that they won’t be able to recreate the Kaiser “magic” on the new campus.

A few parents at both Sankofa and Kaiser have suggested that some of the reluctance to merge could be related to racial tensions because Sankofa is predominately African-American and Kaiser has a more diverse school population.

But the protesters say they are against all school closures and believe Sankofa deserves to remain intact with its own community. They say they are not just expressing dissatisfaction with the board’s vote over the closure of Kaiser, but are also raising awareness about the negative impacts that all school closures could have on the district, including future closures that have not yet been approved.

“The vote on Kaiser has happened, but that really is just one in a series of school closures the district is planning,” said Zach Norris, a parent leader of the group, whose children attend Kaiser Elementary. “We want to call attention to the continuation of this policy of school closures, which is self-defeating and needs to be challenged.”

Closing schools, Norris predicted, will push students and families out of the district and will cause enrollment to drop further instead of attracting more students to schools, which district officials say they want to do. The group is demanding a moratorium on school closures until the summer of 2022, in the hopes that voters will pass the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, an initiative slated to appear on the November, 2020 ballot that could bring $11 billion a year to California schools and could help keep campuses open.

“Kaiser will be moving,” said Sonali Murarka, executive director of enrollment, at Thursday’s board meeting. “We’re hoping families will move on to the newly merged school. We’re planning to assign Kaiser families to the newly merged school. But we need to redraw the boundaries so the relatively few families living in the area will have a new attendance boundary.”

The district’s school open enrollment process begins Nov. 4 for the 2020-21 school year.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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