A sign in a window at Kaiser Elementary School in Oakland referring to the 2019 fight over closing the school. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Despite much opposition from community members, the Oakland school board decided Wednesday night to move ahead with a plan to reduce the number of schools in the district through closures and mergers. Oakland Unified officials plan to announce the next series of school closures and mergers this fall and implement them in the fall of 2022. 

Some OUSD board members, as well as parents, students, and teachers, have raised questions about the timing of these decisions, however. District leaders are grappling with how to re-establish relationships with OUSD families after more than a year of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and critics of the closure and merger plans say moving ahead could further alienate families, and possibly cause more of them to leave the district. 

Students will return to campuses on August 9 for the 2021-2022 school year, and one week later, school communities will begin to learn if their school has been slated for a closure, a merger with another school, or an expansion. School principals will be notified at the end of July, school communities will learn their fates between Aug. 16 and Aug. 27, and the district will present the changes to the school board in September.

“I have no doubt that we do need to make some significant changes around addressing the quality in our schools and the number. I have some concerns around the short timelines around both engagement and decision-making,” board director Aimee Eng, who represents District 2, said during Wednesday’s school board meeting. “The early fall just does not put us as board members in a great position to be able to weigh the decision around recommendations and also the potential impact.” 

The district’s Citywide Plan is a process to increase students’ access to higher quality schools by closing some schools, and merging and expanding others that have more successful programs and room to grow. District officials say it will also alleviate budget constraints that result from under-enrolled schools. The costs of running a school, including staff salaries and building maintenance, are the same whether a school has dozens of empty seats or is fully enrolled. But because schools in California are funded based on student attendance, many smaller schools don’t bring in enough funding to support themselves, superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said.

“Even when we supplement the funding from some of our larger campuses, students who attend these very small, often under-enrolled schools, end up without access to the arts, librarians, nuses, and other critical programs and supports,” Johnson-Trammell said during Wednesday’s school board meeting. “This is unfair to our students, and it is particularly unjust for most of our vulnerable students who need more than just the basics.”

Introduced in 2018, the Citywide Plan’s progress has been halted for a year and a half because of the pandemic. The long-awaited announcement of the next round of schools was supposed to happen during a board meeting this month, but the board members approved a resolution late Wednesday night postponing the news until September, when the school board will vote on a new district map that includes the school changes.

District staff will use a combination of factors related to quality, equity, and sustainability, to analyze and score OUSD’s 81 schools and determine which will be recommended for closure. 

“This work is extremely difficult. Our schools work hard every day to serve our communities and students,” said Chief Academic Officer Sondra Aguilera. “We consistently have struggles in quality, equity, and sustainability that we must address.” 

Schools that struggle the most in the category of quality, in which staff consider standardized test scores, reading levels, graduation rates, college preparedness, career pathway participation, and school climate, include Markham Elementary and Horace Mann Elementary in East Oakland, Emerson Elementary in North Oakland, and middle schools Madison Park Academy, Coliseum College Prep Academy, and Life Academy, all in East Oakland. East Oakland high schools Castlemont and Fremont, and Street Academy, an alternative school on 29th Street off Broadway topped the list of high schools where academic quality is lagging.

Equity metrics include disparities in student performance on standardized tests, chronic absenteeism, suspension rates, and schools that have already been through a change, like a merger. Schools that struggle the most with equity measures include elementary schools Futures and Markham, both in East Oakland, middle schools Frick United and United for Success Academy, also in East Oakland, and West Oakland Middle School. High schools that had the most equity concerns include Castlemont and Fremont. 

To judge sustainability, the district is evaluating each school’s demand rate, which is the ratio of enrollment applications to seats at a school, teacher retention rates, enrollment trends such as whether more or fewer students are attending a school over time, whether facilities and buildings are in good condition and have space to increase enrollment, neighborhood feeder patterns that reveal where schools draw their students from, and the ability for school leaders to manage a change. Schools with the most room to grow in sustainability metrics include East Oakland’s Howard Elementary and Burckhalter Elementary, and Sankofa United Elementary School in North Oakland. Middle and high schools include Roosevelt in East Oakland, Westlake near Adams Point, Castlemont High School, and McClymonds High School in West Oakland.

Aguilera, the chief academic officer, emphasized that just because schools ranked at the top of each category—meaning they struggled the most in each area—did not mean they are slated for closure. Those decisions haven’t been made yet. Other factors that the district will consider include school demographics and neighborhood dynamics, like whether there are other schools nearby that serve the same grades and how many families live in the neighborhood.

“This is not a list of school sites that we are recommending for changes,” Aguilera said. “From these frequency tables, we will be making recommendations.”

Community members and board members opposed to school closures point out that school closures in Oakland often impact students of color, especially Black students. They said they find this process to be no different. 

“Nothing says ‘Welcome back to school for a restorative restart’ than to tell schools filled with Black and brown students that we’re going to close your school or change your school because you’re not doing well,” said parent Kim Davis during a public comment portion of the meeting.

According to the metrics that district staff came up with, the schools that topped the list as having the most room for improvement in equity, sustainability, and quality, are mainly in East Oakland, with some in West Oakland, but all are neighborhoods that historically and continue to serve Black and Latino residents. Few are in North Oakland, and none are in the Oakland Hills. All the schools that top the lists enroll high numbers of Black and Latino students, and a majority of students attending those schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. 

Other school board members and public commenters mentioned a presentation last month from district staff about the mixed results of the first school closures and mergers under the Citywide Plan. The report showed that some merged schools have not seen the expected increase in enrollment, while some other schools haven’t benefited financially in the few years since the changes. 

“My biggest concern is that we haven’t fully shown the results over an extended period of time to say that they actually work. All the previous closures combined still hasn’t shown us how much financial savings we have recouped from that,” said Director VanCedric Williams, who represents West Oakland. “Our assumption is that it provides financial benefits to the community. And we have yet to actually prove that.”

Directors Mike Hutchinson, who represents Fruitvale, and Williams, voted against moving forward with the Citywide Plan timeline last night. Director Eng was absent for the vote, but the other four directors approved it. 

“This is not something the board relishes putting schools through. It’s necessary because our enrollment continues to decline,” said OUSD Board President Shanthi Gonzales. “Other costs facing the district continue to rise. I understand how unpopular this is and that it’s really painful for schools to be put through this. We don’t have good choices.”

Sam Davis, who represents North Oakland, said he voted for the new timeline because a previously approved resolution would have obligated the board to vote on a list of closures at the next board meeting.

“I’m going to be voting for this solution because I was in favor of postponing it until April or May of next year. But I don’t want to, by not approving this, actually accelerate the process,” he said.

During Wednesday’s board meeting, directors also approved a plan to renovate part of Cole Middle School to house the district’s administrative offices, which are currently housed in a commercial office building on Broadway in downtown Oakland. The project is estimated to cost about $48 million, and will be funded with money from the Measure Y bond. Previously, the board had explored dispersing central office staff across several school campuses, but school communities opposed that plan. 

Directors also voted to direct the superintendent to develop a plan to fully repay OUSD’s state loans by January 2023, three years ahead of the original plan. In doing so, and after passing a financial audit, the district would become free of state oversight and the state-appointed trustee who has veto power over budget decisions. 

Next week will be the last school board meeting of the academic year, and directors will be making several significant decisions, including approving the district’s 2021-2022 budget, the local control and accountability plan, which is a three-year plan for how the district will spend funds for specific student groups, and the superintendent’s strategic plan, a vision for the next three years. 

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.