Every year, thousands of families in Oakland are faced with a daunting decision: where to enroll their children in school. For parents of students starting kindergarten, or going into middle or high school, that choice can shape their child’s experience for several years.
Oakland Unified School District increasingly faces competition for those students. There are about 120 public schools in Oakland, and more than 30% of them are charters. That’s not to mention the East Bay’s many private schools, and even neighboring school districts that are also working to attract Oakland students.
The growing number of options available to families is one reason why OUSD’s enrollment has steadily declined for three decades, leaving the district in a financial crunch. Because state education funding is mostly tied to attendance, the district receives a little less money every year, leading OUSD officials to eventually take drastic measures, like closing and consolidating schools.
Earlier this month, The Oaklandside published an article examining the enrollment decline and why some families choose to opt out of district schools. Since then, our readers have asked if we could also share perspectives from families who do choose OUSD schools—a group that still makes up the majority of Oakland families.
The Oaklandside spoke with several parents whose first choice for their children was OUSD. For some, choosing the district was an expression of their values and support for public education. Some wanted their children to feel more connected to their neighborhood community. Others appreciated the array of program offerings at OUSD, or went to district schools themselves and wanted their children to have the same experience.
But choosing OUSD doesn’t mean the district is perfect, and the families we spoke with also lamented what they see as inequity in OUSD’s open-enrollment system, which every year leads to some schools having waitlists in the hundreds, while others struggle to fill their rosters. Yet, most of the parents said they are committed to OUSD and have ideas for how the system can improve.
What do Oakland parents look for in a school?
Kristina Molina is an Oakland native and mother of four boys living in East Oakland. When her oldest, Figo, was headed into kindergarten, one of Molina’s top priorities was a school where her children could breathe fresh air. The flatlands of East Oakland deal with higher air pollution than other parts of the city, in part because of a truck ban on Interstate 580 that spares the Oakland hills from diesel emissions but forces big-rigs onto the parallel Interstate 880. As a child, Molina’s asthma attacks were triggered by the poor air quality, she said.
“I decided on Thornhill. What I liked is that it’s surrounded by trees and it’s far away from Highway 880,” Molina said of the elementary school in the hills above Montclair. “I liked that it was diverse, and the teachers and everyone seemed really nice.”
Of her four boys, two of them are still at Thornhill Elementary, one is at Oakland Academy of Knowledge, an elementary school near the Oakland Zoo, and her oldest is at Montera Middle School near Shepherd Canyon. Each of her children has special needs and either a 504 plan or an individualized education program (IEP) plan, which are documents that outline the extra support a child is to receive in school.
Molina, who herself attended Oakland public schools, felt dissuaded from considering charter schools after a friend told her that one local charter school wasn’t able to serve her own child who is on the autism spectrum.
Charter schools in Oakland enroll lower percentages of students with disabilities than OUSD schools, a fact that's often cited by some charter critics. About 15% of OUSD students have disabilities, compared with about 11% of students in charter schools.
Finding schools that can support her sons has been challenging, said Molina, especially for her 9-year-old, Quetza. He’s already been to five different schools in his lifetime, and will be at another new school this fall after recently being diagnosed with autism. Despite the difficult journey, Molina said she’s now better equipped to find an OUSD school that will offer him the best fit.
“My child was being seen as someone with behavioral problems. He’s not a child that has behavioral problems, he’s a child who has autism,” she said. “So right now I’m like, ‘Wow, we made it.”
For Alicia and Omar Staples, who also grew up in Oakland, sending their boys to OUSD schools was a natural choice. Omar Staples graduated from Skyline High School, his mom taught English for the district for 30 years, and his dad taught for San Francisco Unified School District. Their sons attend Oakland Technical High School and Edna Brewer Middle School.
Myles, a sixth-grader, has benefited from OUSD’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical festival. As an elementary schooler at Crocker Highlands, he qualified for the district-wide competition for three years.
“They offer the opportunity for young children to have a voice and present about things that they believe in,” said Alicia Staples. “We have many, many friends that go to private schools, and they don’t have any of those types of oratorical programs to celebrate all the rich Black history.”
The couple also appreciates the learning academies that OUSD offers at its high schools, which give students a chance to pursue career pathways and connect with internships in those fields. Omar Jr. is in the health academy at Oakland Tech, and was recently accepted into an internship program at Highland Hospital. OUSD also has a partnership with the Peralta Community College District that offers high schoolers a chance to earn college credits while still in high school.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in the Oakland school district but parents have to know about it, and be somewhat proactive,” Alicia Staples said.
Neighborhood schools strengthen community ties
When Jana Luft and her husband moved to Oakland a few years ago, they knew that they wanted to be part of a rich community, and that included sending their children to OUSD schools, Luft said. In the fall, her 5-year-old will be going to Sankofa United Elementary School, and the 2-year-old could follow in a few years. The family lives across the street from the now-closed Santa Fe Elementary School in North Oakland, and Sankofa United, about a mile away, is their neighborhood school.
“When I think about what I want my kids to learn in school, in addition to academic skills, I want them to develop critical thinking skills, a deep curiosity about the world around them, a joy for learning, a sense of community with those around them and families who come from all over the world who are rooted in Oakland,” she said. “We feel OUSD can offer our kids all of that.”
When Luft began researching elementary schools, she started with Sankofa since it’s their neighborhood option. While OUSD families can apply to send their students to any school, those living in the neighborhood around a school are given priority. Luft said she talked to other Sankofa parents, went to the school’s open house, and was impressed by the principal’s commitment and dedicated teachers. Sankofa United recently welcomed students from Kaiser Elementary, a hills school that was closed in 2020, and Luft said she wants to see the merger succeed.
Lynn Lewis is a mom of three OUSD students: two at Skyline High School and one at Sequoia Elementary School in Laurel. When her older children were entering school, Lewis also made Sequoia, their neighborhood school, her first consideration.
“We wanted our kids to be intimately connected with where they live and be a real part of the community,” she said. “We wanted them not to be separated from that or have to be driven to school. We wanted them to have friends in the neighborhood.”
Lewis also saw how passionate the teachers were at Sequoia, and with schoolteachers in her family, Lewis wanted to be able to support public education by enrolling her children in the local public school.
For fourth-generation Oaklander Harold Lowe, the sense of community is lost when neighborhood schools are closed. Lowe is the dad of three OUSD students.
“When I was a kid, people walked to school. When you walk to school, everybody in the neighborhood goes to the same school, and they stay at the same schools for years at a time. That’s how you forge relationships,” he said. “When you don’t have that, you’re losing Oakland. People don’t even know each other anymore.”
The elementary schools Lowe went to, Golden Gate and Kaiser, no longer exist. The school his mom attended, Santa Fe, is also closed. Lowe said he wants to see OUSD work to make sure all neighborhood schools can remain viable options for families. Today, more than half of OUSD students leave their neighborhoods to attend school.
The talk of school closures and instability in OUSD may lead some parents to consider other options, but for Luft, the prospective Sankofa parent, being part of OUSD means she has an opportunity to improve the system.
“That doesn’t shake my commitment to sending my kids to Oakland public schools, but rather I feel like I have more leverage to push the district to be more equitable in decision-making as a parent who is part of the system,” she said.
What makes a ‘good school?’
When Lewis talks to other parents about their school decisions, the phrase “good school” comes up all the time.
“I kind of wish we would ban that phrase. Because so often it seems to me that what families really mean is either test scores, or someplace that feels fancier,” she said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of instruction is better or that the experience that any child would have is better there.”
When searching for a school, Lewis recommends that parents visit the school to meet the teachers and students, go on a student-led tour, or spend time volunteering at the school before their children are old enough to attend to get to know the school community.
For many families, evaluating schools can be an overwhelming process. Becky Grigsby and her husband live in the Laurel District, and when their oldest child was entering kindergarten, she decided that they’d start with their neighborhood school and the others within a two-mile radius, including Laurel, Sequoia, and Redwood Heights elementary schools. Private schools weren’t in the budget, and they didn’t consider charter schools, she said.
“It’s super important in a society that values people to have really quality public education available for every child regardless of their resources,” Grigsby said. “The number one thing you can do to support public education is to send your kids to public schools.”
Grigsby said she was drawn in by the allure of Sequoia, which wasn’t their neighborhood school, but is talked about amongst parents, has a celebrated music program, and is an in-demand school that receives more enrollment applications each year than the number of students it can accommodate.
“It’s hard not to be seduced by these coveted schools,” she said.
She enrolled her son at Sequoia, but after returning to work, caring for a toddler, and trying to balance before-school care, after-school care, and daycare, Grigsby switched him to Redwood Heights, which made their lives much easier, she said.
Sarah Wheeler, whose son attends Emerson Elementary, the family’s neighborhood school in Temescal, co-founded Get Schooled Oakland with Jeremy Gormley, a former educator who researches school segregation in Oakland, last year to help parents broaden the range of schools that they’re considering, and highlight the impacts of their school choices. Wheeler has also worked in schools as a teacher, counselor, and school psychologist.
“Schools are really complicated, and there’s a lot of things you cannot tell from a tour or a website. And there’s lots of things that are wonderful that you could never know by just glancing at a school,” Wheeler said. “I started getting interested in working with parents of preschoolers to start talking about not just equity and segregation, particularly in Oakland, but also, what does it mean to have a good fit for your kid? What does it mean to look for a good school community for your kid?”
Many parents in Oakland form their opinions about schools based on recommendations from other parents, along with school rating sites like GreatSchools.org, which ranks schools but also has been found to steer families towards whiter, more affluent schools. Wheeler and Get Schooled co-founder Gormley wanted to come up with a way for families to vet schools using measures other than standardized test scores.
The group hosts information sessions and panels with OUSD parents and school leaders to spread the word about district schools and programs beyond those that are the most in-demand.
Get Schooled Oakland specifically focuses on elementary schools, and spotlights schools that have four strengths: high teacher retention and experience levels, principals with a tenure of more than four years, students who show growth in test scores over time (rather than just raw scores), and schools that have short or no waitlists so that parents aren’t competing to get in. Wheeler and Gormley make it a point not to rank the schools that are featured on their site, but to highlight them. Their focus is also on schools in East and West Oakland.
“We want to help families with an approach that we believe will not further inequities, or further segregation, and really close the perception gap,” Gormley said. “There are ideas of what certain schools do or don’t offer that are unjust, or are many times racist in notion, and we want to help bridge that divide and show that there are many wonderful schools.”
Where does OUSD have room to improve?
While the OUSD parents we spoke with for this article said they are mainly satisfied with their schools, many had suggestions for how the district could improve. Some raised the issue of certain programs and sports being offered at some schools but not others. Lewis, the mom of three, sent her older children to Bret Harte Middle School, and her son was disappointed that the school didn’t offer baseball as a sport.
Some believe inequities are baked into OUSD’s enrollment system that prioritizes families based on where they live. Alicia Staples questioned whether OUSD could bring aspects of some of the more sought-after schools to other campuses that are struggling to maintain their enrollment.
“Myles went to Crocker Highlands, which is a very highly resourced school,” said Alicia, whose family lived in the Crocker Highlands area at the time her son enrolled there. “Where you live should not define the type of education, or opportunities for education, that you receive.”
Molina, the mom of four boys, wants to see OUSD make a greater effort to diversify its schools, including those in East Oakland. When reminiscing about her own childhood, Molina lauded the fact that the schools she attended were racially diverse, and she learned a lot by being around people from different backgrounds.
“I can’t really imagine sending my kids to a school that is 90% Latino, and unfortunately there are schools in East Oakland, public and charter, that are overwhelmingly representative of one race,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good education for my children.”
OUSD has an equitable enrollment committee whose aim is to examine how to make the enrollment process fairer. Last year, OUSD launched equitable enrollment pilots at three schools, but the program focused on bringing students of color from low-income neighborhoods in East Oakland to three of the district’s most popular schools, Edna Brewer, Sequoia, and Chabot, all of which are located in more affluent neighborhoods above I-580. While the results seem promising, the pilot programs reinforce the idea that some families must leave their neighborhoods to attend a better school.
Molina added that she’d like to see OUSD do more family and community engagement, especially before decisions are made, so that they can help come up with solutions. And interviewing parents who are leaving the district would be most helpful, she said.
“What are parents looking for? Begin listening to those that are leaving, and those that decide to stay.”