An empty classroom at West Oakland Middle School. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Oakland Unified School District will need to reassign some teachers to different schools this month to make up for vacancies that have gone unfilled at other OUSD campuses. The process, called teacher consolidation, is a way for the district to balance out student-to-teacher ratios that have been disrupted by fluctuations in student enrollment. 

Enrollment in OUSD is down by about 600 students compared with enrollment projections for this year, with most of the decline concentrated among elementary grades. The drop has led to smaller class sizes at some campuses, while other schools saw higher-than-expected enrollment and have had to rely on substitute teachers since the start of the year. 

While consolidations happen each year and are not unique to Oakland Unified, some families and teachers are concerned about the impact that changing teachers could have on students who are still adjusting to being back in school after learning at home for more than a year. When a teacher is reassigned to a new school, their former students are split between the remaining teachers in that grade.

“There have been students without any teachers throughout this year. I’m very sympathetic to that, but it creates a lot of precariousness for us,” said Jaime Diaz, a fourth-grade teacher at Crocker Highlands Elementary School. “It adds a lot of stress to the entire staff because of the weight we’ll have to lift if they’re gone. There’s kids here, just like all throughout the community, that really need teachers and stability.”

Crocker Highlands typically enrolls about 450 students each year, but this year enrollment is down about 30 students, Diaz said. A fifth-grade teacher was initially going to be sent to another school, but she ended up replacing a third-grade teacher at Crocker who retired this year, Diaz said. The teacher’s fifth-grade students were split between the remaining two fifth-grade teachers starting last week. 

With one less teacher, the change has impacted the fifth grade block schedules and interrupted some of the progress that the teachers had been making in helping students bridge some of the learning loss they’d experienced during the last year and a half, Diaz said.

“I taught a lot of these students, and I know many of them had really challenging years last year,” he said. “Fifth-grade students had a lot of gaps, and a lot of that momentum has just been killed.”

Some parents are also questioning the rationale behind combining classes during a pandemic. At Manzanita SEED Elementary, enrollment is down about 38 students and the school will lose a fourth-grade teacher to another school. The three small third-grade classes, which each had 17 or 18 students, will be consolidated into two 27-student classrooms so that one of the third-grade teachers can replace the outgoing teacher in fourth grade. Karina Vasquez, mom of a third-grader at Manzanita SEED, said she felt comfortable with her son’s 17-student class, and the thought that her son could be in a room with 26 other 8-year-olds is enough for her to consider pulling him out of the school. The family also lives with Vasquez’s 66-year-old mother who has lung disease, and Vasquez fears what could happen to her if her son brings home coronavirus.

“If there’s 27 kids in a class, I just feel like that’s way too high of a number. It’s going to be super crowded,” she said. “I understand that fewer kids are enrolled. But if we go through with this, do they really think this is going to help the problem?”

Other parents, like Dulce Fajardo, believe that OUSD should try using incentives to fill the vacancies before reassigning teachers who already have students. 

“We’d like the district to offer hiring bonuses to fill those vacancies before they consolidate the staff. Because that is not ideal,” said Fajardo, who has a third-grader and a kindergartener at Manzanita SEED. “We are almost two months into the school year, and that would disrupt the whole learning process for our students.”

Diaz, the Crocker Highlands teacher, thinks that consolidations are a short-term solution to a more glaring problem: OUSD’s ability to recruit and retain teachers. Diaz also supports hiring incentives and higher salaries so that OUSD’s current teachers can stay in the district, and to attract more potential educators. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, 84% of OUSD teachers returned as teachers the following year, which means that 356 teachers either didn’t return or took another position. When teachers were surveyed earlier this year about the factors that make them want to leave the district, 54% pointed to housing affordability in the region, and 48% said salary. 

“I would imagine it doesn’t help with long-term retention to take teachers, uproot them from the communities they teach in and the kids they work with, and move them to other random spots and positions that happen to be open,” Diaz said. “If we really want to fix these issues long term, we have to give competitive salaries to teachers, or else they’re not going to teach in the district.”

A total of eight teachers will be reassigned this year to another school, Tara Gard, the district’s deputy chief of the talent division said at a district budget meeting last month. But those reassignments won’t address all of the district’s unfilled teacher positions. There are 16 vacancies left; seven of them are for special education positions in middle and high schools, and the rest are for the Sojourner Truth Independent Study program for students and families who prefer to continue with online learning during the pandemic, Gard said. The district also eliminated 14 teacher positions that were vacant, which will go unfilled.

“Where there wasn’t an impact on a person, there was still an impact on the school because they still lost a position,” Gard said during the meeting. 

OUSD hired about 400 new teachers this year, but they weren’t enough to avoid reassigning teachers to fill vacancies within the district, said OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki. Some years, consolidations have included layoffs at schools whose staffing levels don’t match up with enrollment, but there won’t be layoffs this year, Sasaki added. 

“We know it can be a little unsettling for some of our students, and certainly for some of our staff,” Sasaki said. “It’s also unsettling to not have a permanent teacher in a classroom. We want to make sure we can cover as many of our students as possible, to make sure everyone is getting the education they deserve.”

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.