six-year-old child using laptop for school
The school year started off rocky for Jaime Burnell's son Bates, 6, who completed half of his first grade year in OUSD's Sojourner Truth program. Next month he'll be returning to in-person school, Burnell said. Credit: Amir Aziz

A year ago, Oakland Unified School District had around 150 students enrolled in its Sojourner Truth Independent Study program. Today it has over a thousand, a direct result of the pandemic and fears among some families over returning for in-person school.  

At the start of this school year, OUSD scrambled to hire more teachers and staff for the program, where over the last decade enrollment had never risen above 250 students. But those efforts took time and, as a result, the first few weeks at Sojourner Truth were shaky: Hundreds of students were placed on a waitlist and substitute teachers were recruited to cover classes while district officials sorted out scheduling conflicts and families navigated Zoom links, Google Classroom, and other online learning platforms. 

As the year wore on, students received their permanent teachers and settled into a consistent schedule. But with rising concerns over the omicron variant, and a looming deadline for students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face unenrollment from in-person school, the Sojourner Truth Independent Study program could see another enrollment jump next month. 

And while many families who were dissatisfied with the program early in the school year are now pleased, some teachers and families who had been part of Sojourner Truth prior to the pandemic are now frustrated with what they describe as a dismantling by the school district of an education model that worked. 

“I don’t get this new SJT program. It’s not what I would have dreamed up,” said Roxanna Lenton, who had one son in the program prior to the pandemic and was planning to enroll her younger son also, before the program changed. “My kids were looking forward to going to school. To find out that their school just didn’t exist … it was mean.”

Before the pandemic and distance learning, students at Sojourner Truth would come to the East Oakland campus a few times per week to either get help with online coursework or meet one-on-one with teachers to go over individualized work plans. Students’ schedules were flexible, and they had access to in-person learning, counselors, teachers, and meals on campus. Now the program is essentially Zoom school, where students are at home and online most days from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Sojourner Truth isn’t the only independent study program that’s undergone changes this year. Assembly Bill 130, which the state passed over the summer, made changes to California’s independent study programs in light of widespread fears about returning kids to school sites during the pandemic. Families that wanted to continue with distance learning this fall were directed to enroll in independent study, and Assembly Bill 130 laid out live instruction and curriculum requirements for those programs, as well as policies for engaging with students who aren’t attending classes. The bill requires families enrolled in independent study who want to continue having some in-person instruction to leave and enroll in a regular school.

But many Sojourner Truth students had chosen the independent study program specifically because it wasn’t like traditional school. 

“There were kids who had social anxiety, there were some parents who were victims of abuse and they wanted to keep their kids safe, there were children who had safety issues. Every kid is there for a reason,” Lenton said. “I realize [OUSD] was told to make a program for those who didn’t want to go back to school, but these kids didn’t sign up for that.”

According to Lenton, who also teaches in OUSD, families previously enrolled at Sojourner Truth learned just a few days before the start of school that the program would be completely virtual. Midway through the semester, Lenton transferred her son out of Sojourner Truth to the district’s continuation school so that he could again have in-person instruction.  

“I’m sure there are people who are happy with this. You’ve got a thousand people who opted in, who asked for this. I didn’t ask for this, and I didn’t ask for my kid to be stuck at home,” she said. “Now it’s basically regular school but online. It’s not independent study anymore.” 

One of the things that teachers valued about Sojourner Truth was that educators had small caseloads of 15 to 25 students, and could develop deeper relationships with them, said Michael Shane, who has taught there since 2014. 

“It was very much a rewarding experience, as far as teaching goes,” Shane said. “A lot of our students had experienced some kind of trauma or were anxious. For whatever reason, they couldn’t navigate the traditional classroom setting.”

This year, some Sojourner Truth instructors who are teaching middle and high school grades have 150 to 200 students that they see on Zoom each day. Prior to the pandemic, Shane taught in Sojourner Truth’s electronic learning program, which meant his students would come to campus for a few hours each day to complete an online curriculum while Shane would provide supervision, guidance, and support. This year, he teaches four history classes and has two periods of study hall on Zoom. 

Growing pains

Many families have been grateful for the option to continue distance learning. Jaime Burnell and their partner decided over the summer that they would enroll their 6-year-old in the Sojourner Truth program, shortly after the delta variant became dominant in California. But it took weeks to actually complete the enrollment because so many others were trying to use the website, Burnell said. For the first month of school, Burnell’s son Bates didn’t have a permanent teacher, and the family wouldn’t know what the week’s class schedule would be until they got an email Sunday night. 

“It was really challenging at first. If it had stayed that challenging, we were going to withdraw him from public school for a year,” Burnell said. “But right around the point where we were starting to really assess whether or not we should pull him, they addressed our major complaint.”

Bates and his classmates did get a permanent teacher, which gave him more consistency, and he’s been able to get to know his classmates a bit more. While the family has been satisfied with independent study this semester, they’re transferring him back to Hoover Elementary School for the spring, in part so that he can experience in-person learning. As a first grader, his last school experience prior to the pandemic was preschool. But the bigger piece, Burnell said, was that he’s been able to get vaccinated. 

“I’ve been watching conversations between my friends on Facebook saying ‘My kid got exposed to COVID and now we have to stay home and we’re quarantined for a week,’” they said. “I’m very appreciative of the fact that my family has been able to stay home and stay safe.”

Enrollment at Sojourner Truth grew from 360 students during the first week of school this year to 943 students, with more on a waitlist, within the first month. Gary Middleton, OUSD’s executive director of alternative education, acknowledged that as a result, there had been some “growing pains” at Sojourner Truth. 

“Our program expanded overnight,” he said during last week’s school board meeting. “As our enrollment goes up, there will be a need to expand our teaching staff.”

OUSD has hired 41 classroom teachers for Sojourner Truth and three specialized teachers who help support other teachers. The district is currently recruiting for a school counselor and is in the process of hiring an assistant principal. OUSD is also partnering with The Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy organization, to provide literacy instruction and family support. Burnell, the mom of a first grader, also works as a literacy coach for kindergarten to second grade students through The Oakland Reach partnership. 

Oakland Unified’s student vaccine mandate, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, will require  students 12 and older to be vaccinated or have an exemption to attend school in person. OUSD officials don’t have an estimate yet of how many students will opt to transfer to independent study, but with more than 4,000 eligible students 12 and older still unvaccinated, the mandate will likely cause a spike in enrollment at Sojourner Truth. There may also be families, like Burnell’s, who transfer back to in-person learning now that their kids can get vaccinated. 

Of the 244 families with students at Sojourner Truth that have responded to an OUSD survey so far, 90% indicated that they’d be staying in the program for the spring, and 54% said they would stay enrolled for the 2022-2023 school year. At last week’s board meeting, Middleton added that many families have said they like the virtual learning model, and he anticipates enrollment for the 2022-2023 school year to be about four times as high as the school’s original, pre-pandemic enrollment, which could mean 600 to 800 students. 

Those projections leave Shane, the teacher, concerned that the district may never restore the original Sojourner Truth model.

“I worry that they are going to continue beyond COVID, and that they’re going to keep our program as a distance learning academy,” Shane said. “I will move on if I have the prospect of teaching on Zoom for any longer than this year.”

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.