Theresa Harrington / EdSource
The Oakland Unified school board has voted to close Kaiser Elementary in the north Oakland hills in June and merge the campus with Sankofa Academy Elementary in the lower-income flatlands area of north Oakland. Kaiser's students come from throughout the city.

The Oakland Unified school board and superintendent are sticking to their plans to close and merge more schools over the next three years, despite escalating protests.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said she is moving ahead with plans to close Kaiser Elementary at the end of this school year and merge it with Sankofa Elementary. The district’s plan calls for school closings, mergers or expansions every year over the next three years.

“The fact that not everyone agrees does not mean that these decisions aren’t right for Oakland’s students,” said Johnson-Trammell after a recent contentious school board meeting in which some protesters attempted to go on the stage where the school board members sit. A citizens group posted a video that they claim shows district police being unnecessarily forceful using batons to push back the protesters. Six protesters were arrested.

Johnson-Trammell, in a statement Friday, said she has directed “an inquiry into the use of force” to be conducted by “an impartial outside third party.”  She also directed the release this week of all footage, including from police body cams, of the Oct. 23 meeting. The day after that meeting, district and police officials said they had to put up barricades to protect the school board. They said some protesters went too far by crossing the barriers.

“What occurred is not reflective of who we are as a community,” Johnson-Trammell said Friday. “It is important for us to begin to address this situation from a place of compassion for everyone involved.”

The Oakland teachers’ union, which led its educators on a seven-day strike last February, issued a blistering criticism of the district for allowing its police to erect barricades and use force against the protesters. The state and district teachers’ unions, along with many protesters, blamed the superintendent and board for the police response and demanded an apology.

Undeterred, the protesters, joined by members of the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union, held a vigil outside the district office last week against school closures and the police response. Organizers and other anti-school closure activists said they planned to disrupt the next board meeting Nov. 13.

“We have demands,” said Saru Jayaraman, a Kaiser parent, referring to the group’s demands to stop school closures, redirect money spent on police toward students’ needs, curb charter school growth and involve residents in decisions about how to spend district funds. Jayaraman, whose 7-year-old and 9-year-old children attend Kaiser, has helped lead the protests. She said she was injured when police arrested her at the board meeting. “We’re going to keep holding actions and protests and going after board members until our demands are met.”

The protests began in September, after the school board voted to close Kaiser Elementary, in an affluent neighborhood in the north Oakland hills, and merge it next year with Sankofa Academy elementary, which is located about 2.7 miles away in a lower-income area of north Oakland known as the flatlands. Kaiser students come from throughout the city. Kaiser parents protesting the merger say they want to keep their successful small school, where children perform well on state tests and parents are involved in supporting the campus.

“We are uniting the Kaiser and Sankofa programs at the Sankofa campus to create an improved program — available to more students — and built on partnership,” Johnson-Trammell said. “This work has already started. A conversation between some families and some teachers at both schools is now underway.”

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Sankofa Academy Elementary in Oakland Unified is slated to merge with Kaiser Elementary on the Sankofa campus next fall as the district carries out plans to reduce the total number of schools it operates so it can direct money saved into remaining campuses.

Kaiser Elementary Principal Dennis Guikema, in the school newsletter, confirmed that work has begun to bring the two schools together despite “the troubling images” from the board meeting. He said some parents attended an information meeting about the merger last month to find out how the new school will be designed.

“There was a feeling of optimism amongst participants, who used words like ‘opportunity’ and ‘possibility,’ while acknowledging that there is a lot of work to do and that the task ahead feels daunting,” he said. “Some important questions were raised about the facilities plan, budget, enrollment projections and supports for employees from both sites.” 

The superintendent said she stands by the work of the “Blueprint for Quality Schools” and the “Citywide Plan” for schools, which outlined the district’s plan to reduce the total number of schools it operates to provide more resources to those that remain. She said she continues to support the plans because she knows “that equity and the success of all of our students are at the forefront of every decision made.” 

A district report concludes that the district can serve its approximately 37,000 students by closing or merging up to 24 of its approximately 80 schools.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell affirms her commitment to continuing school closures, mergers and expansions during a press conference on Oct. 24, 2019.

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Johnson-Trammell said she expects to announce plans this week for a meeting with the protesters. She directed staff  “to support constructive dialogue to rebuild trust and empathy and to facilitate open and respectful communication.” School board member Shanthi Gonzales held a community meeting Oct. 26 and plans another meeting at 6 p.m. Monday to discuss all school closings, mergers and expansions and their potential impact on residents in her East Oakland district. 

“One thing I’m hearing a lot is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to and that their questions are not being answered,” Gonzales said in a message . “This is an opportunity to be heard, to ask questions and get answers.”

Johnson-Trammell said she implored “all of us to continue to engage in difficult conversations united by our common aim to improve quality education opportunities across the city.” 

The protesters say they want a dialogue with the district and a stop to school closures. “The district and the elected board must engage with the people they are supposed to serve,” said parent protester Alicia Johnson. 

Protesters including Kaiser Elementary parents, teachers and others from throughout the district who oppose school closures have formed a group called “Oakland is not for sale” and are demanding a moratorium on all school closures until the summer of 2022 in the hopes that ballot measures seeking additional funding will bring more money to the district next year. The group’s online petition has nearly 2,500 signatures and the support of the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union and the California Teachers Association.

In the past year, the district has closed Roots Academy and merged two middle schools. Two elementary schools are slated to merge next year, along with Kaiser and Sankofa and the School of Language and Frick Academy middle schools. 

In the spring, the district plans to unveil a new list of schools to close, merge or expand. Next year and the following year, more schools will be added to these lists as the district strives to reduce the total number of schools it operates so it can use the money saved to invest more resources in the remaining schools.

Anti-school closure activists have broadened their protest agenda to include protesting against the spread of charter schools throughout the city. They advocate more spending on schools and less on district police and on the expansion of the Alameda County youth probation camp. 

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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  1. SH 1 month ago1 month ago

    EdSource, your reporting is one-sided, your fact gathering shoddy and you should really stop taking lead statement from the district’s spokesperson, and do your own legwork. And if you don’t understand the geo-economic politics of a location you’re reporting about, stop at the very least parroting the single source of your information.

  2. Judi Burle 1 month ago1 month ago

    Unfortunately Gonzales's Nov. 5 community meeting was not structured to "discuss all school closings, mergers and expansions and their potential impact on residents in her East Oakland district," or answer our questions about Cohort 3, as the meeting was advertised. Gonzales and several district staff structured the meeting to brainstorm a general vision for "quality, sustainability, and equity" in schools. While such conversations need to happen, right now we need transparent information about OUSD's targets … Read More

    Unfortunately Gonzales’s Nov. 5 community meeting was not structured to “discuss all school closings, mergers and expansions and their potential impact on residents in her East Oakland district,” or answer our questions about Cohort 3, as the meeting was advertised. Gonzales and several district staff structured the meeting to brainstorm a general vision for “quality, sustainability, and equity” in schools. While such conversations need to happen, right now we need transparent information about OUSD’s targets for further mergers and closures.

  3. Cheshire Isaacs 1 month ago1 month ago

    "[A] video that they claim shows district police being unnecessarily forceful using batons to push back the protesters"? "That they claim"? There's no room for interpretation with that video. Sergeant Donald Perrier rushes down from the stage, baton in hand, sees a teacher who's on the other side of the barricade looking somewhere else, and hits her with his baton, sending her to the ground so hard her legs fly up in the air. She … Read More

    “[A] video that they claim shows district police being unnecessarily forceful using batons to push back the protesters”? “That they claim”? There’s no room for interpretation with that video. Sergeant Donald Perrier rushes down from the stage, baton in hand, sees a teacher who’s on the other side of the barricade looking somewhere else, and hits her with his baton, sending her to the ground so hard her legs fly up in the air. She didn’t provoke him; she wasn’t even looking at him. She was just standing there. And he hit her with such force that she easily could have hit her head on the floor and died from it. I challenge anyone to look at that video and see something different in it. Here’s the video, in case you missed it:

    https://twitter.com/cheshiredave/status/1187262731046375424

    And for the last time, would you please stop emphasizing that Kaiser is in an “affluent” neighborhood? That may be true, but Kaiser itself is hardly affluent. And when you talk about “flatland” schools being poorer, would you please stop conveniently forgetting that Peralta Elementary, a flatland school only six blocks away from Sankofa, has a PTA budget nearly twice that of Kaiser’s?

    Note to another commenter: OUSD has never put forth a convincing argument for closing/merging these schools. It’s certainly not about quality; it’s about making large schools. OUSD had a quality school in Kaiser, one of its few success stories, and gutted it. Kaiser and Sankofa is not a true merger, no matter what OUSD tells you: there’s not nearly enough room for all of Kaiser to go to Sankofa. If you believe that OUSD is trying to do something altruistic and making the hard choices that will benefit all, you are buying into a steaming line of BS.

    PS: OUSD schools would be fully attended if it weren’t for charters siphoning off students. There are 11,000 empty seats in OUSD schools, and 17,000 students in charter schools. That’s easy math. Oh, and OUSD doesn’t have enough funds? It had a $21 million surplus in the past fiscal year. What it doesn’t have is a clear idea of how to improve its schools, and not even a good idea of how to consolidate them. Just ask anyone involved in the Elmhurst merger how well OUSD handled that.

    Finally, how can anyone trust a district that allows its police force to batter nonviolent teachers and parents? The reporter here fails to mention that Saru’s ACL and MCL were damaged when she was handled by the OUSD police, who were laughing at her and didn’t believe she was really injured until the doctor at the ER told them so. It’s horrifying that we’re allowing this to happen.

  4. Amy Haruyama 1 month ago1 month ago

    OUSD’s board and top administrators keep saying we have too many schools in the district when in fact we have too many charter schools. We have 45 charter schools in our district of 37,000 students, much more than all our neighboring districts. Oakland's charter schools enroll about 27% of our students and results in a net loss of $57 million in revenues a year for our district. Our board and top administrators have blurred the … Read More

    OUSD’s board and top administrators keep saying we have too many schools in the district when in fact we have too many charter schools. We have 45 charter schools in our district of 37,000 students, much more than all our neighboring districts. Oakland’s charter schools enroll about 27% of our students and results in a net loss of $57 million in revenues a year for our district.

    Our board and top administrators have blurred the lines between charter schools and traditional district public schools. 14 out of the 18 public schools closed since 2004 have become or now house charter schools. We have a Charter Schools Department and links to enroll in charter schools on our OUSD website, something I have not seen on any other neighboring districts’ websites. 7 charter schools are renewing their leases in 2020. Will the district deny any leases for the charter schools or will the district only choose to close OUSD public schools? The newly appointed Executive Director of Enrollment, Sonali Murarka, is also the Director of Charter Schools in OUSD. This is a clear conflict of interest. She cannot be an objective administrator for both departments. What is the board and superintendent thinking? Or, is this further proof that OUSD is continuing the road to privatizing public education in Oakland?

  5. Mona Lisa Treviño 1 month ago1 month ago

    There are several key issues that get left out of this process to downsize public schools in Oakland. The Citywide plan has no mechanisms to stop charter growth – it has been stated by charter advocates and the Superintendent, that they expect charter school growth. So folks need to stop parroting the line that OUSD has too many schools. Please. What we have is too many decision makers giving up on public school students and … Read More

    There are several key issues that get left out of this process to downsize public schools in Oakland. The Citywide plan has no mechanisms to stop charter growth – it has been stated by charter advocates and the Superintendent, that they expect charter school growth. So folks need to stop parroting the line that OUSD has too many schools. Please. What we have is too many decision makers giving up on public school students and programs. The Citywide plan did not come from the public – it came from a handful of people behind closed doors, who handed this process over to outside consultants.

  6. Michael Louden 1 month ago1 month ago

    The fight is against the adoption of the Friedmanesque BP 6006 of which the school closures are a part. The adaptation of the "Portfolio Model", establishing a market ethos where the commodity is our children and the currency is high stakes testing and US $, is a clear bid by OUSD to placate their billionaire donors and patrons without regard for the wishes of the voters and school families. Our problem is not too … Read More

    The fight is against the adoption of the Friedmanesque BP 6006 of which the school closures are a part. The adaptation of the “Portfolio Model”, establishing a market ethos where the commodity is our children and the currency is high stakes testing and US $, is a clear bid by OUSD to placate their billionaire donors and patrons without regard for the wishes of the voters and school families. Our problem is not too many schools, our problem is outside money attempting to destroy already under resourced urban school districts around the nation.
    Sankofa was doing everything right. They were building community and working with their children. The district, on the other hand, had initiated and abandoned 4 previous “remodels,” bringing in inexperienced teachers and administrators and gerrymandered their catchment area so neighborhood children were walking past the school on their way to other schools.
    Kaiser was doing everything right. They were one of the most diverse schools on all of OUSD. Reading and math scores for classically under-served groups were on the rise and closing educational gaps. The cost to the district for Kaiser, as measured by OUSD’s 2018 allocation data, placed them around #8 of 83 in terms of lowest per student allocation.
    Disrupting these communities in the name of “equity” is a bitter irony. Real estate equity perhaps?

  7. edward r gerber 1 month ago1 month ago

    As an Oaklander, I am distressed that we must close schools but the reality is we have too many schools and not enough funds to keep them all open. Change is often difficult but we must make change in order to continue to provide quality education to the children that still go to school in Oakland.

    Replies

    • Tara Wayne 1 month ago1 month ago

      The reality is that Oakland has too many charter schools that have been allowed to encroach on district schools with impunity, starving the district schools of resources, which forces the all but the most vulnerable students out of them and into— surprise!— yet more charters. The reality is that OUSD has an appalling lack of management, resulting in nearly $100 million in wasted spending on things like no-bid contracts and executive perks. If … Read More

      The reality is that Oakland has too many charter schools that have been allowed to encroach on district schools with impunity, starving the district schools of resources, which forces the all but the most vulnerable students out of them and into— surprise!— yet more charters. The reality is that OUSD has an appalling lack of management, resulting in nearly $100 million in wasted spending on things like no-bid contracts and executive perks. If there are too many district schools in Oakland, they should be identified and addressed holistically only after the root problems have been solved.