havenscourt campus
Oakland Unified's Havenscourt campus is home to an expanded Coliseum College Prep Academy and the now-closed Roots International Academy. Credit: Pete Rosos

Three years into a plan to close, merge, or expand dozens of schools in Oakland, some are questioning the district’s progress and whether the plan is working as intended. 

Oakland Unified School District launched the Citywide Plan in 2018, a sweeping five-year strategy to address budget shortfalls, under enrollment, and a lack of quality schools in every neighborhood. The plan’s goal is to have fewer but better resourced schools in order to save money and provide more access to high-performing schools.

“At the root of many of our challenges, we simply have too many unsustainably sized schools across our district,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell at Wednesday night’s district board meeting. “Many of these small schools are not large enough to generate the dollars needed to both support the staffing and programming that we want and need for students in Oakland.”

Revenues to pay for staffing and programming at schools is determined by the average daily attendance, therefore if attendance levels drop over time, some campuses can end up costing more to operate than the revenue they bring in.

As part of the plan, the school board in 2018 voted to merge Elmhurst Community Prep with Alliance Academy to form Elmhurst United Middle School on 98th Avenue in East Oakland. The board also approved a merger of Futures Elementary with Community United Elementary School to form Lockwood STEAM Academy near 66th Avenue and International Boulevard, and voted to expand MetWest High School on 10th Street just east of Lake Merritt, in addition to expanding to MetWest to a second campus at Westlake Middle School. 

In 2019, the board voted to close Roots International Academy and expand Coliseum College Prep Academy, both of which are located on the district’s 66th Avenue Havenscourt campus. Board members also closed Kaiser Elementary School, which was located in the Claremont Hills neighborhood, and merged it with Sankofa Academy in North Oakland to form Sankofa United. Similarly, the Oakland School of Language, which was located on 70th Avenue in East Oakland, was closed and merged with the nearby Frick Impact Academy to form Frick United Academy of Language. Melrose Leadership Academy in East Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood was expanded to two campuses and Fruitvale Elementary in Fruitvale is being redesigned to support a higher enrollment. 

A progress report presented at Wednesday night’s school board meeting showed that while most students who attended a school that closed remained in OUSD the next year, some expanded schools have not seen the increased enrollment that was anticipated, and expenditures have increased at several of the expanded schools, essentially recreating the problem that school closures, mergers, and strategic expansions was supposed to fix. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Oakland schools to close and pivot to distance learning last March, impacted some of the other measures that the district would use to evaluate the mergers, like standardized tests and chronic absenteeism rates. Because of this, and because the changes haven’t been in place very long, district officials emphasized that it is still too early to draw conclusions about whether the plan is working.

“There are just not enough years to say that changes that took root and every action led to improvement in quality, equity, and sustainability,” said Sondra Aguilera, the district’s chief academic officer. She added that these school changes require extra investments in the first few years. 

Coliseum College Prep Academy, Elmhurst, MetWest, and Melrose Leadership Academy had higher enrollments this year than before their expansions. Sankofa United and Frick United saw decreases of 52% and 13%, respectively. Sankofa spent about $909,000 fewer dollars this year than prior to its merger, while Frick spent about $62,000 less. The other schools spent more money this year, ranging from $89,000 to $2.1 million more than was spent in the year prior to their merger or expansion. 

After Kaiser Elementary was closed and merged into Sankofa United, 133 of Kaiser’s 221 students in kindergarten to fourth grade opted to enroll at an OUSD school other than Sankofa, while 51 chose the newly merged school. Thirty-seven students, or about 17% of Kaiser students in kindergarten to 4th grade, left the school district. 

Of the 93 sixth and seventh grade students who attended Oakland School of Language prior to its closure, 70 enrolled at Frick, 14 left the district, and nine enrolled at a different OUSD school. 91% of Roots students remained enrolled in OUSD after the school closed in 2019, according to the report.

“Each school has its own unique story. And the key component is to not draw a direct correlation yet about these mergers and expansions with this limited amount of data and limited amount of years in action that we’ve been there,” said Lisa Grant-Dawson, the district’s chief business officer. She added that several factors contribute to school spending, including staff turnover, salary increases, and changes in enrollment. 

Director Mike Hutchinson, who represents District 5, made it part of his campaign to end school closures and halt the Citywide Plan. 

“There’s not one data point anyone can show me that shows increased outcomes from having gone through this,” he said. “And then you throw the disruption, the trauma, the lawsuits that this has brought forward from the community by the previous school board insisting on going through a blueprint process that the community didn’t want.”

Earlier this year, Hutchinson and District 3 Director VanCedric Williams introduced the Reparations for Black Students policy, which included one point about preventing historically Black schools from being closed, and postponing school closures for one year. District officials, including the state-appointed trustee Chris Learned, opposed any action that would prevent OUSD from being able to close schools, citing the strategy as a way to fix budget holes. The policy was eventually approved, but without the line restricting OUSD’s ability to close schools.

During the meeting, Williams pointed out that the district has a history of closing schools but is still dealing with budget problems. 

“If we look at the past conclusions, we see that it doesn’t financially actually absolve us from debt. We’re still in debt,” Williams said. “And we’re at this place that we’re telling the community, we have to close more schools, because the last 16 weren’t enough to actually make us solvent.”

During the 2022-2023 school year, the district is expected to have a deficit of $58 million, Learned said in March.

Last spring, the board was supposed to vote on the next round of school changes, but that decision was interrupted by the pandemic. In June, district staff will present a map of more proposed changes that could include new closures, mergers, or expansions. The board is expected to vote on the map in September. 

District 1 Director Sam Davis suggested postponing future decisions about the Citywide Plan while the district is still reeling from the pandemic, especially since Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent proposed budget and federal COVID relief funding will infuse OUSD’s budget with more cash. 

“We’re trying to encourage families to re-engage with OUSD for the beginning of next school year, after a historic pandemic,” Davis said. “So putting out a message that we’re working on closing or merging schools will be very counterproductive when we’re all trying overtime to get families to come back to those same schools.”

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.