Kaiser Elementary School has been vacant since the school was shuttered in 2019. Credit: Amir Aziz

Parents of young children in Oakland will soon have another option for early education in the Oakland Unified School District. Next fall, the district expects to open an early learning hub for infants and children up to 5 years old at the site that housed Kaiser Elementary School until it closed in 2019.

The move could be the start of an expansion of OUSD’s early childhood education program. Right now, the district has 28 pre-K programs, either at standalone sites or at elementary schools, that serve children between 3 and 5 years old. The early learning hub model coming to Kaiser, which will serve children from birth to 5, only exists at one other site in OUSD: Burbank Preschool in the Millsmont neighborhood. It opened in 2010 and served 195 students during the 2020-2021 school year, which is down about 30 students from pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

“We know that we need to expand some preschool opportunities specifically in the northwest area,” Christie Herrera, the district’s executive director of early learning, said at a board meeting earlier this month. “Our goal is to really introduce two or three more hubs in the next five years.”

A state grant will provide between $500,000 and $1.1 million to support accessibility renovations at the school, which is located in the Hiller Highlands neighborhood. Officials chose the site for a variety of ideal features: it has 10 to 15 classrooms, all located on the ground floor, and it’s closer for many families who currently travel to the Burbank center. The Kaiser hub is expected to serve 150 to 250 students, including both special education and general education classes, and infant and toddler classrooms. The district will also partner with Head Start providers to provide free spots to families who qualify. OUSD’s early childhood programs offer sliding scale tuition depending on families’ income and household size.  

Burbank’s diagnostic center, where families can have their children evaluated for learning or developmental disabilities, will also move some of its services to Kaiser to be closer to families in that area of Oakland. 

“It’s really more about providing that family experience from birth to five before they transition to TK or kindergarten,” Herrera said in an interview with The Oaklandside. “It’s a one-stop shop for families to get their needs met.”

She added that she would like to see future hubs in the Fruitvale area, one in deep east Oakland, and at a site in central Oakland.

The decision to repurpose Kaiser’s campus, two years after a contentious fight over the future of the school, has surfaced bittersweet feelings from some community members. While some people are eager to see children on the campus again and are glad that it’s being used as a school, some former Kaiser parents are also still grieving over the closure. Kaiser was at the center of controversy in 2019, when the OUSD board of education voted to close the school and merge it with Sankofa Elementary School, now called Sankofa United. 

“I feel elated that they are using the school property for public school purposes and that it is not going to be used as a Prop 39 offering to a charter school, or an expansion of the private school that lives just down the street,” said Susanna Hovland, whose child went to school at Kaiser and now attends Oakland Technical High School. “But it would be nice for the board, and in general, the district, to acknowledge the harm that they have done and caused to the families that were at Kaiser.”

Hovland got involved in the campaign to keep Kaiser from closing in 2011, when the school was on a list of schools slated for possible closure. After pushback from the school community, Kaiser was removed from the closure list and put on a list of schools for expansion, a consideration that also meant possibly relocating the school to another area of Oakland. It was a temporary victory.

In 2019, the district announced that it was closing Kaiser and sending students to Sankofa Elementary a few miles away. District officials cited few families with school-aged children in Kaiser’s neighborhood, and Sankofa being under enrolled with room to grow, as the reasons for the merger. 

Because Kaiser had previously been slated for a closure that didn’t end up happening, many parents hoped that would be the case again in 2019. It stung when they actually went through with it, said Aiden Sutton, whose son was in second grade at Kaiser when the school closed.

“The early learning center will feed into the system at some point,” Sutton said, acknowledging that one benefit of the Kaiser hub could be for those families to stay in district schools when they are older. “But they should do something that actually builds up good faith in the Oakland school district. So many people became disillusioned with the shenanigans of the school board (during the Kaiser debate).”

“There’s definitely some families that are still very upset about the closure,” said Sam Davis, who represents North Oakland on the school board. “It’s a reasonable question: Why would Oakland Unified close the campus one year and reopen it for a different age group another year?”

The District 1 director was elected in November 2020, and was not part of the board that voted to shutter the school. Davis added that he got on board with the decision to place the hub at Kaiser after hearing that it would be inclusive of both special education and general education students, and it would alleviate the travel that some families have to make to attend Burbank. 

He also pointed out the need for more child development centers in his district, which saw several centers close in 2010 and 2011 when the state slashed funding for early childhood education. That includes the Piedmont CDC site, which is currently being considered as a permanent library location, while some of the other sites, like the former Golden Gate CDC on Herzog Street, are still vacant.

“I would love to see those campuses used for preschool. I hope that the state does provide more funding for facilities and programming for early learning,” Davis said in an interview earlier this month. 

Earlier this week, the California legislature approved a budget that includes funding transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, which could mean an expansion of early learning opportunities in OUSD. Right now, only children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 are eligible for transitional kindergarten, which is a year of school before they go into kindergarten. The budget is headed to the governor’s desk. 

Kaiser’s early learning hub is expected to open to families in the fall of 2022. And when it does, Hovland said she’ll be there.

“It will be nice to see kids again on the playground,” said Hovland, who lives in Kaiser’s neighborhood. “I’ll probably go there and provide my support and see if they need anything, as I did before while my child was at the school.”

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.