La Escuelita families, teachers, and community members gathered at the school for a march and rally on March 26, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

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An Oakland K-8 school that was born out of parent and community activism as a hub of Latino culture and language is among the Oakland Unified schools being downsized or closed as part of a larger district plan to save money.

La Escuelita, Spanish for “the little school,” will lose its middle school grades following this school year. District officials have said the school’s relatively small enrollment—there are currently fewer than 100 students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—is unsustainable. 

The decision has left families worried about how their children will make the transition to much larger middle schools. The two closest ones, Roosevelt and Westlake, have about 600 and 300 students, respectively. Many in the La Escuelita community are also frustrated by what they describe as a lack of communication from school board members and other district leaders to explain why La Escuelita was chosen to be downsized. 

Angelica Marquez, a mother of three students at La Escuelita and a monolingual Spanish speaker, told The Oaklandside through an interpreter that she and other members of the school community fear the downsizing places the school at risk of being dismantled entirely. 

“If we allow them this time to close our school, next year they will close the whole school,” she said. “And we’re making it clear that as parents, we’re not going to allow it.”

Students, parents, and teachers of La Escuelita hold signs in favor of keeping the middle school open. Credit: Amir Aziz

La Escuelita is one of four OUSD schools being closed, downsized, or merged this year. Community Day, an alternative school for expelled students, and Parker K-8, a nearly 100-year-old school in East Oakland, will both be closed by August. RISE Community School, an elementary school on 85th Avenue, is being consolidated with New Highland Academy, with which it shares a campus. 

Next year, Hillcrest K-8 will also lose its middle school, and five more schools will close: Korematsu Discovery Academy, Brookfield Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, and Grass Valley Elementary School.

Like at Parker, many families at La Escuelita are drawn to the school’s lower enrollment and small, tight-knit community, characteristics that also made it a target for closure. Also like Parker, being a K-8 school means that families with multiple children have a less complicated school routine.

A $75 million renovation was completed in 2014, providing state-of-the-art facilities for the K-12 educational complex near Lake Merritt, which La Escuelita shares with United Nation Child Development Center and MetWest High School. Having a shared campus means there are students who spend their entire educational careers, from preschool through high school, at one campus, which many families and staff see as a strength.

“That’s something that the district should be investing in and researching,” said Jaz Fortes, a third-grade teacher whose daughter also attends La Escuelita. “To see the benefits of having kids in the same environment with the same adults and kids building relationships, because I know that’s going to positively impact academics.”

Max Orozco’s daughter is in the fourth grade and his son was part of the school’s first eighth grade graduating class. Orozco’s daughter has a learning disability, and he said at La Escuelita she’s become friendly with most students and is rarely teased. When she enters middle school in a new environment, he worries that could change.

“She is going to go to a different school, where she knows she’ll be bullied,” Orozco said. “All that emotional stress is going to impact her once she goes into middle school—that she has to start all over again.”

La Escuelita was born from grassroots community organizing

In the early 1970s, the Latino community living around Second Avenue began organizing for an early childhood education center for their children, said Jorge Lerma, a local education activist who was involved in both the school’s founding and that of its predecessor. Galvanized by the Chicano movement, families wanted a preschool that would embrace their culture and their language. OUSD’s first Black superintendent, Marcus Foster, was eager at the time to grow the district’s preschool programs, Lerma said. 

Tragically, Foster didn’t live to see the eventual fruits of those collective efforts. He was assassinated in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the same year that Centro Infantil de la Raza, a bilingual and bicultural preschool, was established.

“As the kids started going through the early childhood education program at Centro Infantil, parents wanted to continue that bilingual, bicultural education,” said Lerma, who taught at Centro Infantil and also served as principal of La Escuelita. “La Escuelita grew out of Centro Infantil.”

In 1975, La Escuelita started as a small alternative school with a kindergarten and a first grade class, and added a grade each year after that, Lerma said. Parents and the community weighed in on curriculum and could approve or disapprove of new teachers. The Oakland school district initially secured federal funding for La Escuelita, and parents later pressured the school board to commit more of its own money to hiring more bilingual teachers and staff, and to create an office for bilingual education. 

Jorge Lerma, center, poses with the students of Centro Infantil de la Raza in 1975. Credit: Courtesy Jorge Lerma

La Escuelita, as its name portends, was never meant to be a huge school. In 2014, the school began adding middle school grades and in 2016, enrollment topped 400 students for the first time in more than 20 years. But over time, the district’s commitment to bilingual programs waned and La Escuelita became less of an experiment in alternative education and more like other traditional schools, Lerma said. 

“Those initial years were important academically because it centered on the language, the identity, and the culture,” he said.

In 1977, Latino families petitioned the Oakland school board for more resources for bilingual education. Credit: Oakland Tribune/Newspapers.com

Today, La Escuelita is one of OUSD’s seven transitional English-language schools, which help Spanish-speaking students transition to English-only instruction by the third grade—the type of English-centric approach that La Escuelita’s early founders did not want, Lerma said. OUSD also has dual-language programs at other schools that offer equal instruction in Spanish and English, with the goal of having students become literate in both languages.

Lerma, who is currently the president of the Educational Coalition for Hispanics in Oakland, lamented the loss of the culture that led to the creation of the school.

“While La Escuelita has lost much of its original identity and direction due to dramatic demographic and gentrification changes, it has always had outstanding teachers who single-handedly maintain that spirit of parent involvement and participation,” he said. “The working class, blue-collar neighborhood is gone. La Escuelita has been, from the beginning, a different place, a defiant and welcoming school, but the focus has to be on quality and not real estate alone.”

Students leave and school funding follows 

Parents at La Escuelita and Parker, along with community members and teachers, have organized protests against the closure including a march and rally last weekend. Taiset Jnidi, a fifth-grader at La Escuelita, told the crowd that the closure of her school was so painful that it felt like being stabbed.

“During the oratorical fest, teachers were apologizing that they couldn’t do their best to keep the school open,” she later told The Oaklandside. “It hurts deeply.”

Taiset Jnidi, left, speaks to the crowd at the beginning of the march. Credit: Amir Aziz

With 41 students currently in fifth grade, La Escuelita doesn’t have enough students to fill two sixth-grade classes, and too many students for a single class. In recent years, La Escuelita fifth-graders who haven’t been offered a seat at the school for sixth grade were more likely to leave the district than fifth-graders from other schools, according to an OUSD report laying out why La Escuelita’s middle school is slated for closure. 

Without the middle school, enrollment is expected to drop to about 310 students, which is just above the enrollment threshold of 304 that elementary schools need to be sustainable, according to OUSD. District officials cautioned in their report that if La Escuelita’s enrollment dips below that number, the school would require more money from the district’s general fund to stay afloat.  

With the closing of its middle school, La Escuelita will not only lose the attendance-based funding it previously received for those students; the school will also lose access to philanthropy and parcel tax funding that it has historically received because it has a middle school. For the 2021-2022 school year, La Escuelita received around $44,000 from Measure G1, which is allocated to OUSD middle schools to support teacher retention and arts, music, and language classes, and a $100,000 grant from Salesforce, which is given to middle school principals to use as they see fit. Although those funds are for middle schools, they can be used for extracurricular activities and other programs that all students can benefit from.

“It’s brought in music and drumming and arts and the PE coach. There’s a lot of things here for kids because of that money and it’s been used fairly for everybody,” said Jennifer Brouhard, the seventh and eighth grade humanities teacher. “Not only do a third of the students leave if [the middle school] closes, a chunk of our school budget leaves as well.”

Fortes, the third grade teacher, is also worried about how the closure could compound the stress and mental anxiety that students have experienced throughout the pandemic. 

“It just seems like the worst possible time to put families in this position, and to be adding that to students, when school is one of the only things that has remained constant in their daily lives.”

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.