Several efforts are underway to change OUSD's enrollment process, and board members will vote on some of them Wednesday. Credit: Darwin Bond-Graham

Groups at three of Oakland’s most sought-after public schools are proposing changes to the district’s enrollment process as a way to prioritize low-income families and increase or maintain diversity on their campuses. At the same time, district leaders are examining OUSD’s enrollment policy for all schools, and have formed a committee to develop strategies for giving more families access to Oakland’s academically higher performing schools. 

The school site proposals and the district committee are part of a broader effort among some Oakland parents, teachers, and school administrators to rethink how the district’s enrollment process works so that low-income students and students of color aren’t segregated into lower performing schools with fewer resources. On Wednesday, the school board will vote whether or not to allow the three schools to create their pilot enrollment programs. Each school will also have to come back to the board at a future meeting for permission to implement their pilot.

One factor contributing to school segregation in Oakland is the district’s enrollment process, which gives preference to students who live in the same neighborhood where a school is located.

“There’s been concerns for a long time that the system of school choice that we have is inequitable,” said Rachel Latta, a parent and member of OUSD’s enrollment committee that was convened earlier this year. “Particularly, people with means who are able to purchase a house in the neighborhood of their desired school essentially have the most choice.”

OUSD’s current enrollment process is a combination of school choice and a system of ranked preferences that move some students to the front of the line. A lottery is held within each category in the following order until the incoming class is full: 

  • Siblings
  • Opportunity ticket (students in schools that are closing)
  • Neighbors
  • Children of OUSD staff
  • Oakland residents
  • Non-Oakland residents

Under this system, most seats in incoming classes are filled first with students from a school’s neighborhood, and then other Oakland residents. At higher-demand schools where lots of neighborhood families want a seat, there are fewer spots for students from outside the neighborhood.

At today’s school board meeting, groups from Chabot Elementary School, Sequoia Elementary School, and Edna Brewer Middle School will present enrollment pilots that would add a preference for students living in low-income areas, measured by census data. If approved, the list of ranked preferences for those schools would look like this:

  • Siblings
  • Opportunity ticket
  • Neighbors
  • Children of school staff
  • Students in low-income neighborhoods
  • Oakland residents
  • Non-Oakland residents

Of the three pilot schools, Chabot Elementary in the hills of District 1, is one of Oakland’s more racially segregated schools. More than half of the school’s students are white, while in Oakland overall, only 10% of students are. The number of Chabot students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, one measure of poverty, is also starkly different from the district overall—16% versus 71%.

Sequoia and Edna Brewer, while more diverse than Chabot, have seen increases in the numbers of white and wealthy students enrolling, and teachers, parents, and students advocating to change the admissions formula at those schools say they want to implement the pilots to maintain diversity and to better match the diversity of the district. 

Brewer’s pilot would also guarantee that half of the total enrollment offers will go to students from low-income neighborhoods. Teachers and parents at Brewer had originally proposed a pilot that also included a guarantee for neighborhood families, but that language was not included in the final proposal approved by the enrollment committee.. 

Albert Hong, a parent in District 5 and a member of the district’s enrollment committee, anticipates that this shake-up will generate some push back from families who don’t want the current system to change.

“I’m really curious about how much parents who publicly value Black and Brown lives are willing to continue to hold that if it means that there might be a cost for their own child,” he said. “In order for everyone to have quality schools, some people who have been hoarding the quality are going to have to release some of that to other people.”

Some community members, however, including some on the district’s enrollment committee, think that reserving a few extra seats at some of the district’s most in-demand schools will not solve underlying issues like segregation, lack of transportation, or the inadequate number of high-quality schools across the city. They’d like to see the district move away from a process where families are competing for a handful of spots at a few schools.

David Byrd, a music teacher at Oakland High School and a parent of an eighth grader at Brewer, thinks the focus should be on improving schools across the district and making sure all schools have the same level of resources.

“I think we need to make every school equitable and make demand in every neighborhood instead of creating the situation where people are tripping over themselves in order to get in at only a couple places,” he said. Byrd went to Skyline High School in the 80s and said at that time, students mainly went to the schools in their neighborhoods. But now, he said, “we have Black and Brown families in deep East Oakland chasing resources and trying to ship their kids across the city.”

OUSD doesn’t provide transportation for students beyond AC Transit passes, so parents’ choices are often limited to schools that they can take their kids to. A parent who lives in deep East Oakland might not be able to consistently transport their child to a school in North Oakland, and vice versa.

OUSD board member Gary Yee, who represents District 4, will present a new policy Wednesday that will add integration as a consideration for assigning students to schools. His proposed policy does not define how it would be incorporated into the district’s current enrollment process, or whether the goal is racial, ethnic, class, or some other kind of integration. Yee is putting forth the policy to start that conversation with the rest of the board, he said. 

“This is something I’ve wanted to bring forward for quite some time,” Yee said. “What I want is that the board is ready to talk about integration as a goal. If it is, what kind of integration, and what are the goals we hope to achieve?”

Those decisions will help the district’s enrollment committee, which has been meeting throughout the year to examine enrollment policies, said Sonali Murarka, OUSD’s executive director of enrollment who is the head of the committee.

The district’s enrollment group, made up of parents, teachers, administrators and OUSD staff, have proposed several additional recommendations and two policy changes that would make smaller adjustments to enrollment in the district. The recommendations from the group include better marketing strategies for schools, providing more support to families who don’t speak English to help them navigate the district’s complicated enrollment process, and giving low-income families access to high-demand schools, like the proposed pilots. 

In addition to voting to allow the pilots, the school board could also vote Wednesday on a change that would allow pre-K students to continue on to kindergarten at their elementary school site or at the nearest elementary school. 

The district’s enrollment committee also conducted a survey this spring to gauge families’ concerns about the enrollment and school assignment process. Of the 4,500 responses, about half felt that keeping families at schools close to their homes should be a priority, and 58% strongly or mostly agreed that the enrollment process is fair to students regardless of race, wealth, or zip code. 

The enrollment working group is on hiatus for now, until four new board directors are elected. In the spring, those directors could select new community members to serve on the enrollment committee. Getting the support of the school board is essential to making enrollment policy changes, said Latta, the parent of a student at Prescott. 

If the school board approves the pilots, they will be implemented for the upcoming enrollment period that begins on Nov. 16 and will impact incoming kindergarten and sixth grade classes at the three schools in the 2021-2022 school year. The pilots would be in place for three years and could be expanded further. 

“The proposals for Brewer, Chabot, and Sequoia are good policies,” Latta said. “But they’re such a small part of our district and there’s a lot more work to do.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.