If the current enrollment numbers hold, Brewer could enroll about twice as many sixth graders from low-income communities this year as it did last year. Credit: Pete Rosos

In an effort to increase diversity at some of Oakland’s most sought-after public schools, three schools tested a different approach to enrollment decisions this past year—prioritizing students who live in low-income neighborhoods. 

While there could be some changes as families finalize their school plans for the fall, the initial results of the pilots are promising. At the three schools—Chabot Elementary, Sequoia Elementary, and Edna Brewer Middle School—the incoming kindergarten and sixth grade classes for the 2021-2022 school year are shaping up to have more than double the number of students from low-income communities compared with the 2020-2021 school year. 

“The big thing is really who’s going to show up when school starts, then we’ll have a much better sense of how this really played out,” said Sonali Murarka, the executive director of enrollment and charter schools for Oakland Unified School District. “But this is very promising data.”

It’s a small step towards addressing segregation in a district of 81 schools serving more than 35,000 students. In October, the school board voted to approve the pilots as part of an effort to address diversity and equitable enrollment in Oakland schools. OUSD’s current enrollment process does not take class diversity, racial diversity, or integration into account when assigning students to schools.

Although some schools have a more diverse student body, many schools have disproportionate demographics compared with Oakland Unified School District’s overall student population—evidence of segregation. For example, at Chabot Elementary, one of the schools participating in the enrollment pilot, about 10% of students are Black, about 12% are Latino, and nearly 48% are white. In comparison, OUSD’s students are about 22% Black, 44% Latino, and 11% white for the 2020-2021 school year. About 23% of students at Chabot qualify for free or reduced price lunch, while about 73% of OUSD students do. At Sequoia and Brewer, the diversity is more balanced than at Chabot, and the schools are participating in the pilot to maintain that diversity

We’ll have a much better sense of how this really played out [when school starts]. But this is very promising data.”

Sonali Murarka, OUSD executive director of enrollment

For enrollment in the 2020-2021 school year, Brewer made 342 offers to incoming sixth graders, and 47 of them went to families living in low-income neighborhoods. For the 2021-2022 school year, when the school gave preference to families living in low-income areas, 90 offers out of 253 went to students from those prioritized neighborhoods. So far, about 65 of those families have accepted their offers, up from 39 low-income families that accepted offers in the previous year. 

“I think this is a really good start for us to maintain, but this is something that works for our school site and maybe a couple others,” said Audrey Karlstad, a teacher at Brewer who is part of the committee that designed the pilot. “What we really need to see is something happening district-wide.”

At Chabot, the number of kindergarten enrollment offers to students from low-income neighborhoods increased to seven for the upcoming school year, up from just three last year. All seven have accepted those offers. The school made 110 total offers, and 96 have accepted.

At Sequoia, 33 students from low-income neighborhoods received offers to transitional kindergarten and kindergarten at the school for the upcoming year, and 23 of them have accepted. For the 2020-2021 school year, four students from low-incoming neighborhoods received an enrollment offer at Sequoia, and three accepted it.  

Oakland Unified enrollment process can entrench segregation

Oakland Unified has an open enrollment process, which means families aren’t limited to their neighborhood school and can choose to enroll their children in any school in the district. But in practice, students are prioritized for enrollment in the school closest to them, which can entrench school segregation in a city as segregated as Oakland, which one study found to be among the most segregated in the country.

During the enrollment process each school year, families apply to up to six schools, and rank them in order of preference. Then, OUSD evaluates the applications based on a list of priorities, with the highest priorities going to siblings of current students, then students from schools that are closing, then families from the neighborhood, then children of OUSD staff, and then other Oakland residents. 

Generally, most of the spots in an incoming class go to neighbors and then general Oakland residents. 

How the enrollment diversity pilots work

The enrollment diversity pilots prioritized families from low-income neighborhoods before those from other areas of Oakland. 

To determine which neighborhoods qualified for the priority, OUSD’s enrollment team analyzed census blocks in Oakland and targeted those that have two of the following qualities: the census block has more than 50% Black and Latino residents, and, either the median household income for the census block is less than $56,758 or the block is home to a significant number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school. The income ceiling is the amount that qualifies a family of five for reduced-price lunch.

The result is a map that prioritizes a few blocks in North Oakland, and most of West and East Oakland. 

“We decided to stick with that $56,758 and if you’re a family of two, that’s going to overrepresent your need, so to speak. But if you’re a family of eight, it’s going to be underrepresented,” said Jonathon Stewart, coordinator of registration and enrollment at OUSD. “We had to find a Goldilocks solution in the middle, to meet families where they’re at.”

While the pilots showed a considerable improvement in offering seats to students from low-income neighborhoods, Stewart added that OUSD schools had to curtail their recruitment efforts over the past year because of the pandemic. That meant that families and staff at Brewer, Chabot, and Sequoia who would usually invite prospective families to tour the school, or hold other in-person recruitment events, were limited. 

“They didn’t really have an opportunity to really recruit families from these areas, so a lot of this was done without necessarily directly recruiting families from these geographies,” Stewart said. 

The pilots will last for two more enrollment cycles, and this work is part of a larger effort within Oakland Unified School District to examine the district’s enrollment policies and how they could be amended or revamped to diversify Oakland schools. An equitable enrollment working group was convened last year, and the group brought forth a few recommendations: creating a better marketing strategy, allowing pre-K students to enroll in kindergarten at the same school, helping non-English speaking families navigate the enrollment process, and prioritizing families from low-income neighborhoods. 

Although school doesn’t begin for another month and families could change their minds about where to enroll in the fall, enrollment and school officials are not expecting major shifts in how many families have currently accepted an offer and who will arrive on the first day of school Aug. 9. Brewer, Chabot, and Sequoia are schools that are generally in high demand, and most families who accept a seat will enroll. Another consideration will be monitoring whether nearby schools see a drop in enrollment as more families opt for the schools running the pilots, which is why a district-wide policy on considering students from diverse backgrounds is necessary, said Karlstad, the Brewer teacher.

“Brewer is one of the schools where, even if every single fifth grader in our neighborhood went to Brewer for sixth grade, we would still have to fill half the school with students from all over the district. We’re just making it so that some of those students have a priority over the others, which hasn’t existed in the past,” she said. “This is something allowing us to show what our priorities are. And hopefully the district will find theirs as well.”

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.