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A caravan of vehicles that stretched for blocks paraded through the streets of Oakland Thursday evening, honking in solidarity against the Oakland Unified School District’s plan to close eight schools and merge others.
The caravan slowly made its way through the streets, stopping at the home of OUSD Director Sam Davis, where dozens of people, old and young, showed up with handwritten signs and posters that read “No School Closure.” After protesting for an hour, the caravan moved across the city to the home of Director Shanthi Gonzales, hoping to pressure the board member to vote against the proposed closures.
People of different ages and professions attended the protest, including students, parents, teachers, and activists, all opposed to the plan to permanently close or merge up to 15 schools in the next two years.
Oakland Unified has experienced enrollment declines and budget shortfalls in recent years and is facing pressure from the Alameda County Office of Education to cut its budget by roughly $50 million. A majority of OUSD school board directors have expressed a willingness to consider school closures and consolidations as one way to reduce the deficit.
Board directors discussed a closure plan at a contentious public meeting on Monday night that stretched into the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The school board is expected to cast votes on Tuesday next week.
The backlash to the closure plan was immediate, with protests across the city including a hunger strike by two Westlake Middle School staff members.
If approved, the closures would disproportionately impact Black students, who comprise roughly 22% of all students in OUSD but 43% of the students at the eight schools targeted for closure. Half of the schools at risk of closure have the highest percentage of Black student enrollment in the district.
“In the past 20 years, we grew up with this racist systematic oppression and here we have it again in 2022,” said Kim Shree Maufas, a coordinator of the Reparations for Black Student Campaign.
“Breaking up and closing schools would break the children’s community,” she said.
Jessica Myers, a full-time substitute teacher at Grass Valley Elementary School, one of the schools on the closure list, said the plan will also hurt children with special needs. “In our everyday class, we install many repetitions into the process,” she said. “But now they will make our kids leave their friends, go to different schools with new teachers, and even take a different bus schedule.”
Joline Castaneda is a community partner at Community Day School, which is among the schools that would be closed in the second year. The school offers an alternative program for children who may have been expelled or need a second chance to succeed. Like all eight schools on the chopping block, none of which has more than 400 students, Community Day School has low enrollment relative to many other schools in the district.
“The enrollment rate of the school fluctuated since the school is not designed to be a big campus with hundreds of students,” Castaneda explained.
“We came here tonight because we want our representatives to change their mind,” said Geraldina Lionetti, a parent with a child at Hillcrest School. Under the plan, the K-8 school in Upper Rockridge will lose grades, becoming strictly an elementary school. “One of the reasons we ended up living here is because of the school and the associated middle school,” Lionetti said.
Nine-year-old Nico Graham, a fourth-grader at Hillcrest, was looking forward to staying there for middle school. “They are closing our middle school, but I want to go to middle school with my friend,” he said.
None of the school directors showed up during the protest. “Especially in the context of a global pandemic, a lot of those officials are sitting behind the screen,” said Zach Norris, one of the organizers of the protest. “It removes them from the harm they are causing.”
This article was reported and published in collaboration with Oakland North.