Azlinah Tambu sends both of her daughters to Parker K-8, and she's determined to keep the school open. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Early March is usually an exciting time for Oakland families—it’s when Oakland Unified School District sends notices letting them know where they’ve been offered a seat for school in the fall. While thousands of OUSD parents this year felt a sense of relief over their placements, some at Parker K-8 didn’t receive any news at all.

This article is the second in a series by The Oaklandside profiling OUSD schools slated for closure this year and next. You can read other stories in this series here.

That was on purpose. 

“We collectively as parents, when they passed out the forms to us and rushed us to transfer to put a school down, we all put Parker on the form. Just to send a message,” said Azlinah Tambu, a mom of two daughters at Parker. “We have no intention of letting them take our school.”

Parker is one of two OUSD schools (the other is Community Day School) that will be fully closed at the end of this academic year as part of a broader cost-cutting plan by the district to address its financial problems. Soon after OUSD announced the closures, families at the two schools were encouraged to fill out enrollment applications to take advantage of the district’s “opportunity ticket” policy, which gives students from closing schools priority in enrolling at other schools. 

Parker serves about 227 students from kindergarten to eighth grades, who mostly hail from East Oakland. After surviving a tumultuous two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and stressing over distance learning, families were eager to regain some sense of normalcy this year with the return to in-person learning. That feeling lasted until January, when Parker families learned that their close-knit, community school would be closing in five months. 

Tambu, whose daughters are in first and fifth grade, sends her kids to Parker because it’s their neighborhood school. On most days they drive, but when the car breaks down, they walk. Now that the K-8 school is marked for closure, Tambu worries she’ll have to separate her daughters when the eldest begins middle school next year. 

“She’s going into middle school and coming into her adolescent self and I know that’s where you lose kids at,” Tambu said. “If they don’t feel secure, and there’s going to be more trauma added to the trauma they already have just from living over here, that’s a scary thing. I can tell she has a lot of anxiety around going to a place where she doesn’t know anybody.”

Inside the Parker K-8 building. Credit: Amir Aziz

Attending separate schools, she said, would also upend the family’s routine. Right now, Tambu’s daughters go to Parker’s free after-school program together. Next year, the girls may be at different schools with different programs and schedules.

Research has shown that schools with larger grade spans, like K-8 schools or those that combine middle and high school grades, can have greater academic achievement than schools with smaller spans. Transition years, most notably sixth and ninth grade, can also be tough on students. Denise Huffstutler, a teacher at Parker, said having a smaller middle school has allowed students and staff there to grow with each other.

“Being a K-8 school really allows us to support students with being able to just be kids and not have to face the challenges that I see a lot of other students having to do at a large middle school, with trying to fit in or be accepted,” she said. “Our kids go from kindergarten all the way to eighth grade here. They know each other and get along.”

Huffstutler also said there are few fights among students at Parker, which she attributes to the tight-knit community. Among middle schools in OUSD, Parker has one of the lower suspension rates. Only two middle schoolers were suspended there during the 2019-2020 school year, or about 2% of students in those grades. Middle schools, which have the highest suspension rates of all schools in OUSD, had an overall rate of about 6% that year. 

Oakland Unified currently has five schools that start with kindergarten or transitional kindergarten and go through eighth grade: Greenleaf, Hillcrest, La Escuelita, Melrose Leadership Academy, and Parker. The consolidation plan that the school board approved in February will reduce that number by three. This year, Parker is closing and La Escuelita will become strictly an elementary school. Hillcrest will also lose its middle school next year. 

Parker’s long history of serving East Oakland families

When Parker opened 96 years ago as an elementary school, 183 students applied for admission. Enrollment at the school was high throughout the 1990s, when Parker enrolled more than 500 students each year as an elementary school, according to data from the California Department of Education. The school started losing students in the early 2000s, which mirrored enrollment declines across OUSD at that time. The school began expanding into a middle school in 2014 with the addition of a sixth-grade class, and added the seventh and eighth grades in the subsequent two years. Enrollment at the K-8 school peaked at 370 in 2017 but has dropped each year since, falling to its current total of 227 students. 

According to OUSD, elementary schools need at least 304 students to be sustainable, and thus the school was targeted for closure. But conversations about closures have also contributed to the decline in enrollment, said principal Rocquel Colbert. 

“Every time this comes up, Parker loses 20% of our students, due to this threat. Who wants to enroll at a school that’s possibly closing?” she said during a town hall last month, after the board voted to close the school. “We want to grow and continue to attract awesome teachers and staff, but again, who wants to commit to a school site that’s going to be closed?”

During that town hall, Colbert emphasized how being a small school allows the teachers and staff to form bonds with their students over nine years, and mentioned the recent partnerships the school has created with community groups to improve the neighborhood. 

The Eastmont Neighborhood Council, a resident group, plans to create a peace mural one block away from Parker through Oakland’s “Paint the Town” program. The project also initially included a mural inside the school building, but when news of the closure was announced, that project was canceled, said Kaye Mraz, a council volunteer. 

A painted mural on the wall of the Parker K-8 building on Ney Avenue. Credit: Amir Aziz

“They’d been so receptive to the mural. The school principal was on board, parents would just light up when you talk about it, and even the kids—we asked the kids if they like to draw, and almost every hand in the auditorium went up,” Mraz told The Oaklandside. “We were really just getting started building the community-school connection, when the school board just shut the school down on us, with no dialogue and no interaction.”

Of the 442 students who live in Parker’s attendance area, 63 attend Parker, 125 attend charter schools, and the rest go to other OUSD schools, according to district data

Rochelle Jenkins and her family moved to Oakland from Fresno four years ago, and her children were assigned to Parker. Jenkins wakes up at 4:30 each morning to drive a commuter bus for a tech company, and her 11-year-old twin daughters walk to Parker each day for school. Jenkins, whose son also went to Parker and is now attending Skyline High School, didn’t fill out an enrollment application for any other school this year, along with nearly 1 in 4 other Parker parents. Jenkins, Tambu, and others are determined to keep Parker open.

For her younger daughters, this is the only school they’ve known since moving to Oakland, and she doesn’t want to uproot them. 

“If you need money, pull from the hills. Don’t pull it from the ones who already don’t have much,” Jenkins said. “Why take the little that we have?”

Huffstutler, the teacher, said many students are taking the closure personally and it’s affecting their self-esteem. 

“It’s really impacting them and giving them a lot to think about as kids that they shouldn’t have to be thinking about,” she said. “Where they’re going to school, their friends. [They ask] why isn’t their school good enough to stay open?”

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.