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When Oakland Unified School District announced it would be closing Kaiser Elementary School and merging it with Sankofa Elementary, the opposition was fierce. Kaiser and Sankofa families, and others who didn’t want to see any schools closed, packed school board meetings, shouted chants, and heckled board directors as they spoke. During some of those fall 2019 meetings, the protests were so disruptive that the OUSD board moved to a different meeting space and excluded the public. At one meeting, police officers pulled out batons on protesters.
District leaders wanted to reduce the number of school campuses through closures and mergers to save money, and the two schools seemed like an optimal match for consolidation: Sankofa, in Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood, faced declining enrollment and had room on its campus to grow, while Kaiser, in the Hiller Highlands, was at capacity but had few neighborhood families. Still, some anticipated a culture clash, as Sankofa Academy, a school with a predominantly Black, low-income population, prepared to absorb Kaiser’s students, who were more diverse in race and class.
But more than a year later, the new Sankofa United Elementary School is six months into its first school term, and families and staff say the transition has been a success—mainly because of the work they did to connect with each other and create their new school community. They hosted picnics, put on movie nights, formed parent committees, and made other efforts to help students get to know their potential school mates.
Then in March the pandemic hit, schools closed to in-person learning, and everything “ground to a halt,” said PTA president Amy Stice. COVID-19 meant that students, families, and staff at the new school would have to create a culture and get to know each other virtually when the school opened in the fall.
“We weren’t going to have the community building through school drop-offs, or running into each other in the hallway,” Stice said. “We’d have to be very intentional about it. The people who could have a little bit of bandwidth in this time would have to drive this forward.”
Creating a new school
Even before the merger was finalized, students and families from multiple North Oakland school communities planned icebreaker events to get to know one another, knowing that a decision to consolidate schools in the neighborhood was likely. One Sankofa mom organized a picnic at Bushrod Park, a 10-acre space adjacent to the Sankofa campus, and invited families from several nearby schools, including Kaiser, Peralta, and Glenview, which was temporarily located at Oakland Unified’s Santa Fe campus.
After it was announced that Sankofa and Kaiser would be the two schools merging, Marin Moran, whose fourth grader attended Kaiser, became the chair of the joint community-building committee that included families from both schools. Early last year, the Sankofa PTA put on movie nights and held a Valentine’s Day celebration that they invited Kaiser families to attend. Since then, the community building committee hosted a virtual arts and crafts session around Halloween, and earlier this month held a Zoom happy hour for the adults.
While Moran was eager to plan events, she said one of her priorities was ensuring that there was equal input from families who had been at Sankofa for years. “I really wanted to join the school with humility and respect for everything that the school community, parents, and families at Sankofa had already built,” she said.
She didn’t have much reluctance about transferring her daughter, Cleo, to Sankofa, and said Cleo was excited about being able to meet new friends and run around on Sankofa’s big playground. Moran has since planned a few socially distant playdates with classmates for her daughter, but she knows it’s not the same as running around together at recess.
Dani Shelton, whose twin fifth graders have been at Sankofa since they were in kindergarten, said she was happy about the merger because it meant that Sankofa could increase its enrollment and avoid closure. Shelton, who is blind, joined the community-building committee to make sure that disabled children and parents were represented and had support.
“There was a group of us who felt the merger would be a good thing, and we didn’t want to see any bad blood or animosity,” Shelton said.
One of the biggest challenges for the community-building committee has been figuring out the best way to communicate with parents and foster interaction, understanding that families may not have extra time right now for socializing, even virtually. Finding ways for students to connect with one another outside of Zoom has been another challenge.
“Everything just moved really slowly this year—not wanting to overwhelm parents, since we were all trying to figure it out,” Moran said.
Parents worked with Erica Macklin, Sankofa’s community schools manager, to establish a room representative program. Each class at Sankofa designated one or two family members to be the room representative, or “room parent,” who would facilitate conversations between all the families in the class, and between teachers and families. The program, which came out of a need to help promote communication during distance learning, will definitely stay in place once students are back for in-person learning, Macklin said.
Fifty-one students from Kaiser—the school had 265 students last year—transferred to Sankofa United for the 2020-2021 school year, according to district data. In anticipation of their arrival, three new portables were built on the Sankofa campus, principal Dennis Guikema said. A long-time resident in the Sankofa neighborhood, Guikema spent the four previous years as principal at Kaiser Elementary. He was also part of the design team that planned the new school.
“It’s sad, and somewhat surreal, to be here on campus when we just hear the street noise and the wind, but not the laughter of children,” Guikema said in an interview in Sankofa’s vast school yard, which was renovated in 2010. “It’s possible that we’ll have an entire school year of distance learning. Next year is going to be a first for us.”
One of Guikema’s responsibilities has been helping his staff, which includes many teachers from Kaiser, get to know each other. At a staff training last week, a portion of the session was dedicated to a virtual team-building activity.
Derrick Wesby coordinates Sankofa’s after-school program and has been at the school since 2006. He acted as a liaison between Sankofa parents and the school district during early conversations about the merger, relaying information and updates about the process to families and bringing up their concerns at school board meetings. He also met with Kaiser parents to introduce them to the after-school program and encourage them to enroll their children, he said.
After the pandemic closed school buildings, Wesby trained his staff on virtual learning platforms and they revamped the after-school program to work with students and teachers during regular school hours. As a result, the after-school program staff has developed closer relationships with the school teachers, which has helped them to better support students.
“Sankofa has always been a tight-knit community, and has a really family-oriented feel on campus,” Wesby said. “With all the noise that we heard [over the merger], you would’ve never assumed that we had a great transition.”
Maintaining the Sankofa legacy
Many families who attended the school before the merger, like Shelton, chose Sankofa because of its welcoming atmosphere in the Bushrod neighborhood. Her college-aged son also attended Sankofa Academy when he was in elementary school.
“I was here when they introduced middle school and when they took it out. I’ve been there through the teachers’ strike, and I was there through the merger,” Shelton said. “Everybody welcomed us with open arms. They were attentive to my needs and helped me out as much as they could.”
The love and attention the staff gave to her oldest child has since been extended to her twins, Shelton said. Even though they’re graduating this year, Shelton said she’ll remain in the community because she lives nearby and will have a niece at Sankofa United.
Another mom, Tamiya Toliver, chose Sankofa for her son when he was in transitional kindergarten five years ago. Toliver attended Washington Elementary, the school that was previously located at the Sankofa site, and opted for Sankofa for her son because it was her neighborhood school. She was open to the merger initially, but bothered by the negative rhetoric she heard from some Kaiser parents about the majority Black, low-income students at Sankofa.
“But then I met a lot of nice people too. A lot of people like Marin, who were willing to sit down and have discussions with us, and who weren’t quick to judge us,” said Toliver, who is also a PTA officer for Sankofa United.
For principal Guikema and other transfers from Kaiser, being on Sankofa’s campus also means recognizing the legacy of the school and its sense of community. While the new school still serves mostly Black students and other students of color, the neighborhood around the school is gentrifying, which could impact the demographics of Sankofa’s enrollment.
During the open enrollment period this year, Guikema and school staff reached out to preschools and early-childhood centers in Black, Latino, and East African communities to publicize Sankofa United. They also hired a Spanish-speaking parent to reach Latino immigrant communities in North Oakland and encourage those families to apply. Three of the four members of the school’s leadership team are Black, and another of Guikema’s priorities is to maintain a staff that reflects the student body.
“I would be a lot less effective as a leader of a school that has majority African-American students, if I was not doing this in close partnership with African-American colleagues,” he said.
The design team also kept “Sankofa” as part of the new name as a way to uplift the school’s legacy. The name was originally chosen for the school in 2005, and comes from an Akan phrase encouraging returning to one’s roots and learning from the past.
The school closure fight
In August 2019, the Oakland Unified School District announced that the Kaiser Elementary School campus, located in Oakland’s Hiller Highlands neighborhood would be shut down and the students and staff would be merged with Sankofa Academy, located about 3 miles away in the Bushrod neighborhood of North Oakland. The merger was part of OUSD’s citywide plan to reduce the number of schools the district operates in order to save money in light of declining enrollment numbers. School closures and mergers have been a controversial issue in the district for years, and the Sankofa-Kaiser fight was no different.
“What I heard from families was just a lot of anger and frustration, hurt, and concern,” said Guikema, the principal. “This was something that the community did not choose.”
Critics pointed out that in closing Kaiser, where more than two-thirds of students met state standards in reading and math, district leaders seemed to be contradicting their goals of creating and expanding high-quality schools in Oakland. Tensions also arose over merging schools that served two very different populations.
“The decision was based around honoring and respecting students who had been least served under the system, which was students at Sankofa,” said Jody London, who represented District 1 on the school board until this year. “It was really grounded in, ‘How could we improve the educational outcomes and the resources available to students through this merger?’”
District officials noted that Kaiser was in an area with few neighborhood students and didn’t have space to expand, while Sankofa Academy had been suffering from declining enrollment for several years, and was in a school building that could accommodate 336 students. Sankofa had enrolled just 189 students during the 2018-2019 school year. OUSD estimated that the merger would cost about $150,000 during the 2019-2020 school year, but would save the district $161,000 during the 2020-2021 school year, and more than $500,000 the following three years.
Sankofa Academy opened in 2005 at the site of Washington Elementary School, which was closed because of poor performance, and initially served both elementary and middle school students. Nearly 90% of Sankofa students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch last year.
Kaiser Elementary was established in the early 1960s. In recent years, Kaiser was a commuter school, enrolling students from all over the city. Over the past 10 years, the number of Kaiser students who live in the school’s immediate neighborhood never rose higher than about 12%, according to district data.
Kaiser’s diversity was a selling point for families. In its last year as a school, Kaiser’s student population was around 35% white, 21% Black, 17% Latino, 14% multi-ethnic, and about 6% Asian.
“We wanted Cleo to have an experience getting to know kids who came from different backgrounds and situations than she did. Kaiser seemed like that was the place for us,” Moran said.
Kaiser and Sankofa will not be the last schools to close or merge. The third cohort of schools in the district’s citywide plan was initially going to be introduced last spring, but that timeline was derailed at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In December, the school board passed a resolution directing the superintendent to present in June a list of schools to possibly close, merge, or expand that would take place during the 2022-2023 school year.