Liberal and conservatives can agree on one thing. Let's close some schools and let's make life better/worse for black kids and try some experimental programs. Seldom does anyone ask the parents or the kids themselves. Seldom does anyone really care what the community thinks on the matter. It's always, gotta do it, running out of money. It's strange though whenever almost any school district or any other governmental program for that matter runs low on cash, no one thinks to cut back on things that benefit those of the paler skin. Gee, why is that?
The following too common example is from New American Media.
“We know everybody. The principal, the staff know my child,” said Waqia, speaking during a recent school board meeting to stop the impending closure of Lakeview and four other elementary schools in the city. “It’s truly a village, and that’s extremely important.”
Waqia and her family were among the hundreds of people who gathered on Oct. 12 in an effort to convince the Oakland Unified School Board to reverse its plan to close these schools before the start of next school year.
The school closures would save the district $2 million per year. The school district has trimmed its operating budget -- $470 million – by a quarter in recent years, and is under pressure to scale back its expenses even more. The school board will vote on the closures this Wednesday.
Since the district announced its plan last month, parents, students, teachers and community activists have mobilized, and the resulting debate has been emotionally charged and wide-ranging.
While some parents see the closures as an ongoing effort to privatize education by limiting public options, others see the school closures as yet another educational experiment at the expense of the district’s low-income African-American and Latino families.
“There aren’t any schools in the [Oakland] hills that are being targeted,” said Waqia, adding that the district has singled out communities of color to bear the brunt of the upheaval.
The schools slated to close next summer serve predominately African-American or Latino children, including Lakeview Elementary (68 percent African Americans), Lazear Elementary (94 percent Latinos), Marshall Elementary (63 percent African Americans), Maxwell Park International Academy (62 percent African Americans) and Santa Fe Elementary (81 percent African Americans). All the schools serve over 60 percent low-income students who are eligible for free and reduced meals. The school closures will directly affect a total of 931 African-American students and 259 Latino students.
District officials argued that they selected the five schools according to the low population density in the surrounding attendance areas, and not based on the demographics of their student bodies.
Many parents also questioned why the $2 million cut could not be made by trimming the number of high-paid administrators, but district officials refused to entertain that possibility, and instead insisted that the closures are necessary because Oakland Unified is out of whack with the rest of the state when it comes to the number of schools it operates.
According to district documents from a September board meeting, the Oakland Unified School District has 101 schools serving about 38,000 students this year, with 19 schools serving under 200 students. Compare this with Clovis Unified School District just outside of Fresno, which has 36 schools serving the same number of young people. Long Beach Unified educates twice as many students (86,000) in 89 schools. Both Clovis and Long Beach have better academic performance (API) scores than Oakland. For the 2010-2011 school year, Clovis scored 866, Long Beach scored 759, and Oakland scored 718 out of 1000.
At a meeting hosted by the district in mid-August, Oakland Unified administrator David Montes de Oca explained to parent groups and community organizations that the closures are part of the restructuring needed to implement the district’s five-year strategic plan. The restructuring also includes steps to reverse a previous policy that created small schools throughout OUSD, a move to build accountability by creating a number of smaller school communities that often share the same building or campus.
Montes de Oca said the new strategic plan involves grade reconfiguration (including the creation of more K-8 and 6-12 schools), the reunification of Castlemont and Fremont high school campuses (enrollment on these campuses plummeted after the small schools policy was introduced), and the school closures that are now the source of such heated debate.
Henry Hitz, executive director of the advocacy group Oakland Parents Together, said the district has ignored families’ voices.
“When you engage parents, you actually have to listen to them,” said Hitz.
Hitz’s point was underscored by dozens of parents and children, predominately African-American, in yellow T-shirts with “Save Lakeview” stenciled on the front. Another group of mostly Latino families sat nearby wearing purple shirts, holding signs aloft, and waiting for their turn to tell the Oakland Unified board why Lazear should remain open next year and into the future.
Testimony from both school communities echoed the same themes: Closing the school would be akin to breaking up a family. Parents had placed their children there because they felt safe and the services offered at that particular school couldn’t be found elsewhere.
Moreover, some parents voiced a concern that the impending school closures would drive students out of the city’s traditional public school system.
According to coverage from Oakland Local and the San Francisco Chronicle, an estimated 20 percent of students at schools on the chopping block will eventually leave OUSD. They will join the ranks of the 30,000 school-aged children who live in Oakland but are educated in private schools or non-district charters.
Perhaps the threat of exodus is one reason that pushback from parents, students and teachers has begun to have an impact on some school board members.
Noel Gallo, who represents Lazear, has now backed away from his previous support for the plan. Alice Spearman, who represents Marshall Elementary, agreed with the assessment that OUSD operates too many schools, but expressed concerns about how decisions determining closures had been made. Specifically, she regrets that the board exempted some schools from consideration, she told those assembled at the Oct. 12 meeting.
“Most of us up here are trying to do what’s right for the district with what we’ve got,” Spearman said of herself and her colleagues before continuing. “I want to tell this board, it’s not a done deal.”