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Oakland’s District 5 includes Fruitvale, with its largely Latino and immigrant communities, Jingletown, a working class artistic community that is becoming more gentrified, and Glenview, a well-off neighborhood of single family homes above the 580 freeway. Roseann Torres, the current D5 school board member, who was first elected in 2012, has decided not to run for reelection.
Candidates this year include two former educators, Leroy Gaines and Jorge Lerma, Mike Hutchinson, an activist on his third bid for the seat, and school counselor Sheila Pope Lawrence.
In interviews with The Oaklandside, all four candidates drew attention to the area’s incredible racial and ethnic diversity, and disparities in access to resources that need to be addressed so that students can learn.
COVID-19 and distance learning
The pandemic has driven OUSD’s teachers and students out of classrooms and online where most instruction now occurs. But the shift hasn’t been without problems. Racial and class disparities prevented some students from easily making the transition, and many issues with distance learning remain.
Lawrence, the school counselor, believes that distance learning, if it continues for much longer, could further harm students who have unstable internet or no computer at home. Oakland Unified is trying to address this digital divide by distributing laptops and internet hotspots. But the district’s existing efforts haven’t solved problems for students who are on their own most of the day because their parents work outside the home, or whose parents don’t speak English and can’t easily assist their children with their work.
Mike Hutchinson, a well-known activist and education advocate in Oakland who is on his third run for the D5 seat, expressed his concerns about students who need instruction in languages other than English. In OUSD, half of the students speak a language other than English at home, and a third of the district’s students are learning English.
“There’s no way, if you have a language difficulty, that you can access distance learning,” he said. “How is that acceptable?”
Hutchinson said that if Measure Y, the OUSD facilities bond, passes in November, the district should consider upgrading school buildings so that they can accommodate education in the age of COVID-19. This could be accomplished with wider hallways, smaller classes spread among more classrooms with more room between desks, and efficient ventilation systems.
Although Alameda County moved down last week into the state’s “red tier” for coronavirus spread—a designation that could allow schools to open for in-person instruction—it’s unlikely that Oakland students will be back in the classroom full-time until 2021.
Even if in-person schooling becomes an option, families in East Oakland may be wary of sending their kids because COVID-19 is hitting East Oakland the hardest. The 94601 zip code, which includes Fruitvale, has a rate of 4,070 cases per 100,000, compared with 1,281 per 100,000 in Alameda County overall. The other major hotspots in Alameda County are in deep East Oakland.
Leroy Gaines, who was principal of District 7’s Acorn Woodland Elementary School for nine years, said the obstacles and opportunities posed by the pandemic are what prompted him to run. In making his decision, he stepped down as the executive director of the Bay Area branch of New Leaders, an organization that trains principals, to avoid a conflict because of the group’s relationship with Oakland Unified School District.
“I started watching the conversations happening around distance learning and I realized that right now is a really pivotal time for us to think about how we’re moving forward,” Gaines said. With the pandemic upending education and four OUSD board members stepping down, Gaines thinks it’s an opportunity for more radical innovation.
Recruiting diverse educators
Gaines said it’s noteworthy that many educators and former educators have decided to run for the school board this year. He thinks it could create a crucial shift on the board if they are elected. Of current board members, only Gary Yee and James Harris, who represent Districts 4 and 7, have been a teacher or principal.
Gaines said there has been a disconnect between teachers and school principals and administrators at the district’s central office. In schools, teachers and principals are largely concerned with their students and the day-to-day management of their classrooms and may not have extra time or energy to focus on what’s happening at the central office. But with a whirlwind of problems converging in education this year, educators want a seat at the table to make policy, he said.
“Having the president that we currently have in place, Black Lives Matter, COVID … everything political has been impacting our classrooms and our ability to get work done. And I think educators are tired of it,” Gaines said.
In the D5 race, each of the candidates has served in Oakland schools in some capacity: Gaines and Lerma have been principals and Lawrence is a counselor. Hutchinson volunteered at Maxwell Park Elementary and Santa Fe Elementary until 2012, when those schools were closed, along with two others that year. Several former or current teachers are running in other district races as well.
Lerma, the president of the Educational Coalition for Hispanics in Oakland, wants to see stronger recruitment of Black and Latino educators to align with the student population. In OUSD, two-thirds of students are Black or Latino, while only about one-third of teachers are.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, they’re not available.’ No, what’s not happening is there’s not a full-court dedicated effort to bring them into the district,” Lerma said.
If elected, Lerma wants to pursue partnerships with the Peralta Community College District to create a pipeline of students working towards a teaching credential who then work in Oakland Unified School District.
Gaines also wants to see more diverse teachers and improve retention efforts at all levels. In 2019, the year that he stepped down as principal, 19 other principals also moved on. And when principals leave, teachers dissatisfied with the instability follow them, he said.
Charter schools play a significant role in the D5 race, with about 40% of students in District 5 schools attending one of the 11 charters there. The candidates all have different approaches to charter schools, which receive public funding and are independently run by charter management organizations and appointed board members.
Hutchinson, an activist who has been outspoken about the growing number of charter schools in Oakland over the years, said he wants to improve OUSD-run schools so they can compete with the charters that are prevalent in East Oakland. He also wants to see full enforcement of Assembly Bill 1505, which took effect in July and allows school districts to take a proposed charter’s financial impact on the district into consideration for approval. Since public schools receive funding based on attendance, OUSD loses money as more students opt for charter schools instead of district-run schools. The bill also creates a stricter criteria for when charter denials can be appealed to the county or state, makes it easier for successful charter schools to be renewed, and allows charter schools to be closed if they perform poorly for two consecutive years.
While Hutchinson supports a temporary pause on new charter schools, he said that, “in Oakland, a moratorium won’t really give us much relief, because we’re already saturated with charter schools.”. His focus would be on improving district-operated schools and opposing their closure.
“If there’s a public school that’s underperforming, then we need to take the steps to put in the resources to turn that school around. We don’t then close that school and tell the community, ‘You no longer have a school.’”
Lawrence, who currently works as a counselor in San Leandro Unified School District, agrees that OUSD shouldn’t approve new charter schools. In her work helping 8th graders choose their high school, she noticed how often they preferred charter schools because in their minds, they seemed safer, she said. Lawrence wants to learn more about why parents and students choose charter schools, in order to recruit them back to district schools.
“With the defunding of the police, and hopefully, more mental health support in schools, more social workers and counselors, some of the behaviors will change,” Lawrence said. “And I think students will feel safer at school.”
Gaines said that as a prospective school board member, he will be representing all of the students and families in D5, including those in charter schools. While he acknowledged that OUSD does have a lot of charters, he said they can be a source of educational innovation and do have a role in the district.
One of Lerma’s platform goals focuses on reducing reliance on standardized testing, which is rife with disparities across race, class, and language.
“Standardized testing is not about improving student performance, it’s about comparing the performance of schools to other schools,” he said.
Lerma prefers formative testing, which takes a more individual approach, he said, as opposed to standardized testing that labels schools as low-performing and categorizes students in groups like “meeting grade level” or “exceeding grade level.” Those labels have an impact on students’ opinions of themselves and their schools, he said.
As a way of reinforcing and emphasizing the diversity of D5, Lawrence wants to see an expansion of the ethnic studies curriculum. If students see themselves in the content they’re learning, they’ll be more engaged, she said.
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Another focus for her is strengthening career training. In high school, students can choose pathways like public service, health, engineering, or education. They take classes in those fields over several years and can graduate with a specific career in mind. Lawrence would like those pathways extended to lower grades, so students can feel invested in their education from a younger age.
Gaines’ primary goal is to increase the district’s abysmal literacy rates. About one in three OUSD students reads on grade level, and for Black students it’s less than one in five.
During his time as principal at Acorn Woodland, Gaines said the school piloted several literacy programs and made literacy the basis of the its curriculum. When he left in 2019, more than 40% of students could read at grade level, up from 32% four years prior.
“If we’re going to do anything well in Oakland, then it has to start with literacy,” Gaines said.