students walking to class at Community Day School
Oakland's Community Day School serves dozens of students a year who have been expelled. It's slated to close this year. Credit: Amir Aziz

Among the 11 schools that Oakland Unified School District will soon close, merge, or downsize in response to years of declining enrollment is Community Day School, a small alternative school tucked away in the Oakland hills on the grounds of the old Chabot observatory. 

As the district’s only school for expelled students, Community Day provides a safe learning environment for young people who’ve been dismissed from traditional campuses for behaviors like bringing a weapon to school, fighting, or assaulting an adult. 

With the campus now slated to close at the end of this academic year, staff and leaders at Community Day say OUSD is removing a critical support system for some of the district’s most vulnerable students, without an adequate plan to address their needs afterward. 

“Without this school, these kids would not have any academic environment that supports them,” said principal Dana Sudduth. “As an expelled student, they would basically be kicked out of school with nowhere else to go.”

Framed pictures of previous Community Day School graduates hang on the walls of the main office. Dana Sudduth, principal of Community Day School, talked about what impact closing the school could have on students and the Oakland community. Credit: Amir Aziz

Community day schools have been used by school districts in California for years, as a place for expelled students and others with attendance or behavioral problems. But in recent years, as districts have moved away from punitive school discipline policies, enrollment at these schools has declined, and districts are increasingly referring students to county-run programs. OUSD’s Community Day School is the only district-run school of its kind still operating in Alameda County, according to California Department of Education data. 

Students typically spend a year or two at Oakland’s Community Day School, which serves middle and high school grades, before they are readmitted to a traditional school. Often, when students first arrive after being expelled, they’re guarded, angry, and have had mostly negative experiences with school during their lifetimes, said Rachel Machtinger, a social worker for Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit that provides therapy for students at Community Day.

“What do you think that kid with the gun is going to do in his free time? He’s not going to be in school because there is no school for him. He’s not going to stay in the house. So he’s going to be on the street.”

Principal Dana Sudduth

“I believe our school is an amazing place, but oftentimes they’ve been so burned by their experiences in school up until now, that by the time they get here they’re already disengaged,” she said. “A lot of them have experienced a lot of loss, a lot of danger, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and rejection.”

Right now, Community Day serves 18 students across middle and high school, but the number fluctuates throughout the year as more students are expelled from other schools, or as expelled students are readmitted. 

In October, when OUSD took an official count to submit to the state, the enrollment was nine. Full enrollment at Community Day is 60 students. Since the school opened in 2004, official enrollment tallies have ranged from 20 to 40 students, but those totals are one-day snapshots and don’t necessarily reflect the school’s highest enrollment during that year. 

After Community Day School closes, students expelled from OUSD will have the option of attending one of several  Alameda County programs: Quest Academy, an independent study program, serves seventh to 12th graders in Oakland and Hayward. Pregnant or parenting students can attend Fruitvale Academy in Oakland or Burkey Academy in Hayward. Students 16 or older can enroll at Opportunity Academy, which also provides workforce training and has locations in Oakland, Hayward, and San Leandro. 

Students attending Community Day at the time of its closure will be given an opportunity to transition to an OUSD school that they haven’t been expelled from.

Trey Keeve, who teaches English and U.S. history at Community Day, fears that not all his students will be ready to return to a traditional classroom, especially if they’ve only been at Community Day for a few months. 

“Usually, the first year that students come to us, they are still in that angry place—that place where they don’t see the purpose of education,” Keeve said. “When they come back the next year, usually we see a different person: someone who’s more engaged, they’re getting good grades, they’re learning, coming to school more, and changing their behavior.”

Trey Keeve is in his seventh year as a teacher at Community Day School. Credit: Amir Aziz

While Keeve said he’ll be happy to see his current students given another chance at other schools, leaving Community Day too soon often results in behavior that lands students right back again. 

Students at Community Day have access to weekly therapy and mental health counseling, and can benefit academically from the small class sizes and individual attention from teachers. Over time, those students build up their confidence, change their outlook on school, and form positive relationships with teachers. The school also has a digital media pathway where students have the chance to gain video editing and production skills through internships with KDOL-TV and Youth Beat. 

Things like counselors and case managers are also available at traditional OUSD schools, but those schools are often serving so many students that not everyone gets what they need, said Sudduth. She suggested OUSD could employ a case manager to work with Community Day students after they return to a traditional school—someone who could visit their campus, communicate with family, and make sure those students are still receiving the extra support they had at Community Day. 

Students at Community Day benefit from small classrooms and more individual attention from teachers. Credit: Amir Aziz

Principal Sudduth, Keeve, and others also worry about what may happen to students who have to enroll at Quest Academy, the county’s independent study program, who don’t have school to occupy them for seven hours a day, and what impact that might have on the broader Oakland community. 

“Let’s say you had a kid who came to school with a gun, and he’s expelled. And now his only option is to go to a county school and get a [work] packet from a teacher and go back home,” Sudduth said. “What do you think that kid with the gun is going to do in his free time? He’s not going to be in school because there is no school for him. He’s not going to stay in the house. So he’s going to be on the street.”

Sudduth, who is in her first year as principal of Community Day, said there are other ways the school could continue serving Oakland students that haven’t been considered, like co-locating the school on another campus, or becoming one of the county’s alternative schools while still operating at its Oakland location on Mountain Boulevard. 

Prior to Community Day being selected by the district for closure, Sudduth had planned to create an outdoor education program, taking advantage of the 17-acre campus, which is surrounded by trees and nature. She envisioned hikes, camping, roasting marshmallows, and other community-building activities for the students.

Students walk to their next class at Community Day School. Credit: Amir Aziz

“This site is really beneficial to the students because it’s away from their normal surroundings. They’ve got trees and wildlife, and it gives them a reprieve,” said Sandra Backer, an administrative assistant who’s been at the school since it opened.

On Feb. 8, the OUSD school board voted to close Community Day, anticipating a  savings of about $740,000. That includes a loss of about $163,000 in attendance-based funding that would instead go to the Alameda County Office of Education. 

Despite wanting to participate in protests to keep their school open, Keeve said teachers and staff at Community Day have been more focused on helping the children prepare for a return to traditional school.

“The day we’re out for a protest may be the day the kid on our roster who rarely shows up, shows up. That may be the day that makes or breaks their future,” said Keeve. “We have to remind ourselves that our fight is making sure these students are ready at the end of the year.”

Machtinger, the therapist, feels that Community Day students have less visibility in the fight to keep schools open, because of their low numbers and perceptions that expelled kids are less worthy of saving. She, and many others, pointed out that the students at Community Day aren’t any different from students at any other school in Oakland—they’re just the ones who were caught breaking the rules. 

“It’s just a social safety net. It shouldn’t matter how much it costs,” Machtinger said. “It’s like getting rid of an emergency room. It’s necessary.”

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.