Parents, students, teachers, administrator, and allies march in front of La Escuelita Elementary School protesting school closures. La Escuelita Elementary, Oakland, California. 29 April 2022. Credit: Harvey Castro

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Thousands of students were out of school on Friday as the Oakland Education Association held a one-day strike to protest school closures.

The strike is just the latest action against Oakland Unified School District’s plan to close and consolidate schools. OUSD board members voted in February to close seven schools over the next two years, merge two schools, and reduce two K-8 schools to elementary schools. District officials have said the moves are necessary to save money, and that the district has too many schools for the number of students it serves due to years of declining enrollment. 

The teachers union has accused the district of refusing to bargain with OEA over the closures, and of violating a policy the school board adopted in 2019 requiring that OUSD give school communities at least nine months’ notice before shutting down a school.

“We find ourselves facing a majority school board that has gone back on its written promise to us educators,” said Keith Brown, the president of the teachers union. “And that promise was to never again ambush a school with a last-minute closure.”

District officials, meanwhile, have said the strike is in violation of its current collective bargaining agreement with the union. In a last-minute effort to stop Friday’s action, OUSD officials filed a request with the Public Employee Relations Board to intervene, but the board denied the request on Thursday, clearing the way for teachers to form their picket lines on Friday as the sun rose. 

Siobhan Sheil, an OUSD social worker, joined her Westlake Middle School colleagues around 6:30 a.m. to speak out against the closures, which will disproportionately impact Black and brown students.

Siobhan Sheil, social worker in Oakland Unified School District and member of the Oakland Education Association, stands in front of a mural at Westlake Middle School. Sheil took part in the one-day teachers’ strike against school closures in Oakland. Credit: Harvey Castro

“Schools are more than schools. They’re hot meals, warm blankets, nurses,” she said. “It’s a massively violent move with huge ramifications that isn’t going to solve the budget crisis.” 

Parker K-8 is one of the two schools closing this summer. It opened in 1926 and has educated generations of families in East Oakland, including that of Jona’e Foster, a fifth-grader. Jona’e has been at the school since she was in transitional kindergarten and was eager to complete middle school there. On Friday, she led a picket line of about two dozen teachers in chants to save the school.  

“I don’t feel good about [the closure],” she said. “This is one of the small number of schools with an elementary and a middle school here.”

Jona’e, who lives nearby, said she’ll probably attend Coliseum College Prep Academy in the fall, a middle and high school about a mile and a half away. 

Jona’e Foster, 11, stands outside of the only school she’s attended in Oakland, Parker K-8. She joined teachers and led chants on the picket line during the one-day teachers’ strike on April 29, 2022. Credit: Harvey Castro

Before Rhiannon Cogley and her friend Aviva Powers headed to Oakland Technical High School on Friday, her mom cooked them waffles for breakfast—not so they’d be nourished for class, but to send them off to the picket line with full bellies. On any other Friday morning during the school year, Oakland Tech would be bustling with students. This morning, it was empty except for about a dozen teachers and students marching with signs in hand. 

“They’re closing majority Black and POC schools, which is unacceptable,” said Aviva, a sophomore who said she participated in the 2019 teachers’ strike. “We’re going to continue to fight.”

It’s been a tumultuous two years in Oakland Unified and Friday’s strike added another day of missed instruction for students who’d already spent more than a year in distance learning. In January, students and staff returned from winter break during the omicron surge, leading to hundreds of COVID cases among students and staff. Teacher “sickouts” in January caused some schools to close for a few days in January, and a student boycott over COVID safety also led to students staying home from school. 

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell advised families not to send their children to school on Friday because without teachers and other staff, there’d be a lack of supervision. 

Cesar Cruz, co-founder of Homies Empowerment stands in front of La Escuelita. Cruz and his team delivered food and drinks to various schools in Oakland that were taking part in the teachers strike. Credit: Harvey Castro

“While most students across the district stayed home today with excused absences, some did come to school. Our focus right now is ensuring that they are having a positive experience on campus,” the district said in a statement. 

Throughout the morning, the community-based organization Homies Empowerment supported the strikers with breakfast burritos, fruit, and water. At La Escuelita—which is set to lose its middle school—Homies Empowerment co-founder Cesar Cruz said he wants to appeal to school board members’ humanity in asking them to reconsider the closures. 

“I understand that we’re making difficult decisions when we feel like we’re in a fiscal crisis,” said Cruz, who is also an OUSD parent. “But this is really hurting the community. We have a beautiful K-12 pipeline here [at La Escuelita]. This is a gem we should be celebrating here in Oakland. Instead, we’re severing the middle school to save some dollars, but at what expense?”

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.