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Oakland Unified School District is preparing to close more than half a dozen schools over the next two years, and district leaders have pointed to years of declining enrollment—and with it, less state money to support OUSD’s current schools—as a primary reason.
Students, families, and educators have responded to the prospect of closures with vociferous opposition over the past several weeks, with car caravans, a hunger strike, and protest marches. On Saturday, hundreds of marchers gathered at the site of one shuttered East Oakland school, Roots Academy, which closed in 2019.
This school year, 61% of school-age children in Oakland are attending an OUSD school, 28% go to a charter school, and 11% attend a private school. What is leading well over a third of Oakland families to opt out of the district?
For many, choosing what school to send their child to is a politically challenging, complicated, and deeply personal process—one that is different for every child, sometimes even those within the same family. And sometimes, the reasons why families choose to leave or not enroll in OUSD—such as Oakland’s rising cost of living, which is pricing more and more families out of the city—have little to do with the school district itself.
“It’s not really a single narrative in Oakland,” said Sonali Murarka, OUSD's executive director of enrollment and charter schools. “That’s especially true in the pandemic: We saw families leaving for homeschooling, we saw families leaving for private schools, we saw families moving out of Oakland to live with other family members.”
In an effort to better understand some of the forces at play, The Oaklandside spoke to four families about what motivated their decisions to leave OUSD. What we discovered was a range of reasons: from feeling disappointed after a school was closed, to seeking out specialized academic programs that OUSD doesn’t offer, to simply feeling that non-district options were a better fit for their child. We also spoke with school board members and district leaders involved in shaping how local schools work to better understand how OUSD's policies may affect enrollment issues and what the district is doing to attract more families.
District or charter?
Many critics of school closures say that the proliferation of charter schools is the biggest factor. Although Oakland’s overall student population hasn’t fluctuated much in the last 20 years (sitting just above 50,000), the number of kids attending charters has grown a lot: from about 1,000 students in 2000 to nearly 17,000 last year. Over the same period, the number of kids in Oakland’s district schools decreased from 54,000 to roughly 35,000.
The most dramatic drop happened between 2000 and 2008 when the district lost 15,000 students, or about 28% of its student population. Things have steadied over the past decade, but enrollment is still declining. OUSD had just over 34,000 students this year, down from 36,000 in 2012, a decline that more or less mirrors what California school districts have experienced as a whole.
Tunisia Harris is a mom of four and also cares for three of her younger siblings. Two have graduated, while five of the kids are still in school, currently attending Lodestar and Lighthouse, two East Oakland charter schools run by the Lighthouse Community Public Schools organization. Harris grew up in Oakland and attended OUSD schools, including Castlemont and Oakland high schools. But for her own children, Harris’ first choice would be to homeschool them, which she did do for her oldest son, who is now 18.
“If we could have it our way I’d homeschool my children if I could, but unfortunately that’s not the situation,” she said. “I had to get back to work and take care of my family and siblings.”
For some parents, like Harris, choosing a charter school over a district school isn’t about politics or negative perceptions of OUSD as a whole. But disappointing interactions with her children’s teachers earlier in their schooling years, said Harris, led her to withdraw them in favor of homeschool or a non-district school. One of her younger brothers has autism, and finding a school well-equipped to help him was another factor, she said.
Despite those decisions, Harris, who is also a parent leader with Families in Action, a group that advocates for charter school families in East Oakland where charter enrollment is highest, isn’t flatly opposed to district schools. Her oldest son attended Fremont High School for his junior and senior years, after being homeschooled.
In her role with Families in Action, Harris talks to other Black and brown parents about her experiences and helps them find the best-fitting school for their children. In District 7, which includes deep East Oakland, 39% of students are attending a charter school this year—the highest of any school board district.
“I’m very passionate about it because neither of my parents got to graduate. By not graduating, that led to struggling. And I don’t want to see that for my children or for other children,” Harris said.
School closures drive some families out
The prospect of OUSD closing schools this year is bringing up sad memories for Helen Lee and her family. When she enrolled her daughter Emma at Kaiser Elementary for kindergarten five years ago, they were one of about two dozen families who lived in the neighborhood. Being able to walk to school was a plus, and Lee felt that Kaiser’s ability to attract students from all over Oakland was one of its strengths.
It turned out to be one of the reasons Kaiser was eventually closed.
“It’s really ironic because, for example, growing up in San Francisco, they bussed kids to different schools to diversify,” Lee told The Oaklandside. “Here, Kaiser Elementary was naturally that way because people of their own accord came from all over just to attend this wonderful community school. Everyone was shaking their heads.”
Oakland Unified has a modified open enrollment system, which means families can apply to enroll at any school in the district, regardless of their proximity to campus. But families who live in the neighborhood around a school are given priority over those who don’t.
Some schools enroll more students from their neighborhoods than others. Kaiser was at one end of that spectrum, drawing just 25 students from its attendance area in the Hiller Highlands during the 2019-20 school year. The other 235 kids came from neighborhoods all over the city, from deep East Oakland, to Fruitvale, to West and North Oakland.
When the school district decided to close Kaiser the following year and merge it with Sankofa Elementary, about three miles away in North Oakland, officials cited the low number of neighborhood families and limited space to expand the campus as the main reasons.
For the Lee family, the closure of their beloved neighborhood school was disappointing, but it gave them an opportunity to pursue a bilingual education for Emma—something the family had sought years earlier when they were researching kindergartens. At the time, they’d applied to Yu Ming, a Mandarin-immersion charter school in North Oakland, but didn’t get in. Two years later, when Lee was deciding where to enroll her daughter after Kaiser, Yu Ming still wasn’t an option because the school requires a level of proficiency in second grade that Emma didn’t have.
With no other nearby public options for a bilingual Mandarin school, the family considered Shu Ren International School, a private school in Berkeley. That school was willing to accept Emma despite her having little knowledge of Mandarin, so that’s where they settled, with help from family to pay tuition costs, Lee said.
“Our family’s decision was based on language. I would not have sought out another non-bilingual private school,” Lee said.
Although the Lees' reasons were unique to them, they weren’t the only family at Kaiser Elementary that chose to leave OUSD. About 17% of Kaiser’s students left for non-district schools after the campus was closed.
With more closures slated for this year and next year, some opponents say the plan will only serve to push more families out, just the opposite of what OUSD is hoping to achieve. District officials are anticipating a 10% attrition rate from families at schools that are closing, which include Parker K-8 and Community Day School this year, and Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy next year.
This will also be the last year for the middle school grades at La Escuelita, which will start the 2022-2023 school year as solely an elementary school, and RISE Community Elementary will be consolidated with New Highland Academy.
‘Fight your hardest to keep your school open’
Johnnay Ellis was 13 years old and attending Roots International Academy on 66th Avenue in East Oakland when OUSD announced the school would be closing in 2019. Although she was in the eighth grade and already preparing to leave for high school, the news was still devastating.
“Roots was like a family. It was better than my home life and I felt like I benefited by being there more than anywhere else,” said Johnnay, now 16.
Roots International Academy was one of a dozen new schools that OUSD opened in 2006 as part of a small schools initiative. The initiative, which took off in 2000, aimed to lessen overcrowding at larger schools by splitting them into multiple smaller schools. Doing so was also supposed to better focus school resources, and benefit students by decreasing class sizes.
But while smaller schools with lower enrollments were the goal then, they've since become part of the problem: contributing to the closure of schools in recent years, like Roots, and providing the basis for the board's latest decision to close more. Small schools, the district now says, aren't financially sustainable.
With the closure of Roots, district leaders also planned to expand Coliseum College Prep Academy, a more sought-after school serving sixth to 12th grades, which is on the same Havenscourt campus as Roots.
But students and teachers cherished the small, tight-knit community that Roots had. Johnnay spoke up for her school, attending school board meetings and begging the board directors not to close it, to no avail. Without the Roots community, Johnnay said she felt lost and didn’t feel at home in Oakland anymore.
“I wanted to go visit the school, go visit my teachers and get recommendation letters. When Roots shut down, I decided that I was going to move to Stockton because Oakland isn’t really a home without Roots,” she said.
Johnnay’s mom, who she was living with in East Oakland at the time, was supportive of her daughter’s decision to move in with her older sister in Stockton and attend Cesar Chavez High School there, where she’s currently a junior.
Johnnay said she still keeps up with school news in Oakland, and has advice for students and families that are now opposing the closures of their own schools.
“Fight your hardest to keep your school open. Do whatever you can to get the board’s attention, to get news attention, to get anyone’s attention. All that will matter,” she said.
Oakland Unified’s enrollment office has been working to reach each of the families attending a closing school to help them with the process of applying to other schools, said Murarka, the district’s enrollment director. Those families can apply for any OUSD school and will be given enrollment priority over other groups, including neighborhood students.
Should there be changes to OUSD’s enrollment system?
Roughly half of OUSD families choose to apply for district schools that are outside of their immediate neighborhood. This year, about 52% of OUSD families are attending their neighborhood school, while 48% are not, according to district data.
Some critics of OUSD’s open enrollment system, including District 3 school board Director VanCedric Williams, believe the choice system contributes to the enrollment troubles at individual schools by encouraging families to seek schools outside of their neighborhoods, leading some schools to be more “in demand” than others.
“We have turned our schools into a free-market-based system where there are winners and losers. That is a system that may be applied in business and in capitalism but in a public institution, all schools should be working,” Williams told The Oaklandside. “If the school is not a quality school or if there are concerns that parents have, it’s our responsibility as a school district to create the engagements, make the adjustments, and actually support and invest in those schools.”
Williams, who works as a teacher in San Francisco but lives in Oakland, also suggested that OUSD should examine its “attendance zones,” the invisible boundaries drawn around a school neighborhood that determine which families are prioritized, and consider adjusting them for schools that have low enrollments.
He pointed to two of the schools in his West Oakland district, Prescott Elementary and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Prescott, which has 110 students, was initially on the list of schools to be closed this year in part because of its low enrollment. There are only 186 elementary-aged students living in Prescott’s attendance zone, according to district data. MLK Elementary, located about a mile away, has an attendance zone of nearly 1,000 elementary students, giving the school a much larger pool of potential families to attract.
“There’s an imbalance there,” Williams said. “There’s a combination of factors that our district hasn’t looked at or analyzed prior to making any decisions about closing schools.”
Some families make sacrifices when it comes to school choices
Randolph Belle and his family live in the Oak Knoll area, but 12 years ago when they were scouting schools for their oldest daughter, they lived in the Laurel Elementary neighborhood. Belle and his wife put in applications for Laurel, along with Peralta Elementary, Sequoia Elementary, and Lincoln Elementary, all of which are in high demand and every year have more students applying than they can accommodate. They also applied to North Oakland Community Charter School and Yu Ming Charter School, and were interested in the latter for the chance to get a bilingual education.
The family was only admitted to Laurel, and was waitlisted at Yu Ming. Belle chose to enroll his daughter at Patten Academy of Christian Education, a small private school, instead. But about a month into kindergarten there, the family was moved off the waitlist and offered a seat at Yu Ming, which they took. When asked about what dissatisfied him about Laurel more than a decade ago, Belle’s memory is fuzzy, and he’s wary of wading into the often-contentious debate around charter schools and district schools.
“It wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t the best,” he said about Laurel. “I’m not an advocate for charter schools. I am an advocate for Yu Ming because it’s worked out incredibly well for us. The opportunity to learn Mandarin in that setting seemed too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Yu Ming serves students up to the eighth grade, and when the family began exploring high schools, they did consider Oakland Technical High School and Skyline High School. But after nine years of bilingual Mandarin education, Belle’s daughter needed a school where she could continue her language development at that level, which eliminated the OUSD high schools, he said. They decided on French American International School, a private school in San Francisco where she is currently in the 10th grade. Belle’s younger daughter is now in the fourth grade at Yu Ming, and the family will have to make similar considerations when she gets to high school.
“Would it be great to not have to get up hella early, drive to BART, have her get on BART, get off at Civic Center, and keep your head on a swivel? Probably,” said Belle, a San Francisco native. “But it’s also good for her to get up and do all those things and go to San Francisco because it provides a whole new perspective.”
While Yu Ming provided the academic rigor the family was looking for, there were still sacrifices, like being one of the school’s few Black families. Yu Ming’s Black enrollment is less than 10%, and Belle is helping to recruit more Black families to enroll. He’s also helped with the school’s cultural competency committee in creating a more inclusive environment there.
“We seek out diverse situations, and we’re always getting a range of cultural arts,” said Belle, who owns RBA Creative, a creative workspace in Oakland, with his wife. “We’re a family of cultural arts, and we embrace our Blackness.”
How can OUSD attract more students?
Murarka, the executive director of enrollment, said the district has embraced several strategies to increase the number of students attending OUSD, and the school board passed an enrollment stabilization policy last year that includes increased marketing for individual schools and the district as a whole on social and traditional media. The district has hired more counselors to help families with the enrollment process, including people who speak different languages, and opened the enrollment application earlier.
Another aspect of the enrollment stabilization policy was to exclude charter schools, which compete with district schools for students, from OUSD enrollment materials. That meant creating a new enrollment platform just for OUSD schools, removing charter schools from things like district maps and fact sheets, and holding enrollment fairs that only include district schools.
Another initiative is the “Oakland in the middle” campaign, launched in 2019 to advertise OUSD middle schools specifically, in response to the high number of families leaving the district after elementary school. During the 2016-2017 school year, only 40% of Oakland’s elementary school families returned to the district after fifth grade, while 25% opted for charter schools and 35% went elsewhere. The percentage has gone up since, to around 53% who returned last year. Across all grade levels, about 57% of Oakland families returned to a district school last year, according to district data.
Murarka added that the district will be doing more this year to survey families about why they’re leaving OUSD, which can help shape recruitment strategies. But there’s no one solution. And for some families, like Belle’s, considering OUSD schools will remain difficult if they don’t offer the same programs they can receive at a charter or private school.
And while charter schools are often maligned in debates about OUSD’s declining enrollment and financial troubles, it’s not certain that charter school families would all opt back into OUSD if their schools closed or didn’t exist.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out what will have the most impact. I don’t know that the team feels like we’ve identified yet the most productive and best ways,” Murarka said. “Some of these things are deeper than advertising and not knowing about OUSD.”
For Lee, the former Kaiser parent, considering OUSD again brings up painful memories of the school’s closing. Her current school, Shu Ren International, only serves students up to fifth grade, so she’ll be evaluating middle schools for her fourth-grader soon. The family may move to another part of the East Bay and is also considering Oakland School for the Arts, a charter school in downtown Oakland.
“When you’re already in a school district, you’re pretty committed. But when you get kicked out, like how we felt, it just puts a bad taste in your mouth,” Lee said. “We still all get very emotional about it. Now that we’re out of the school district, it’s hard to think about it again.”