When a group of moms found out four months ago that their children’s school would be permanently closed at the end of the year, they made a promise to each other: They would try everything in their power to keep Parker, a 96-year-old East Oakland school, operating.
On the last day of school, May 25, Parker promoted its final eighth and fifth-grade classes during emotional ceremonies.
“It was supposed to be one of the happiest times for these kids. And instead of watching them walk that stage happily, we watched them cry, hang on to their friends, and not want to leave the school,” said Azlinah Tambu, a mom of two Parker students. “So me, a group of mothers, children, and community members decided to stay after graduation and not leave.”
The group of about half a dozen families has occupied Parker since then, and doesn’t have plans to leave unless Oakland Unified School District reverses its decision to close the school. Other community leaders, neighbors, and education advocates stop by to take shifts for supervision and security, or to drop off donations.
This week, the group launched Parker Community School, a free summer program for neighborhood kids, unauthorized by OUSD.
The occupation is the latest community action against school closures, which the school board announced in January and approved in February. Parker and Community Day, a school for students who have been expelled from traditional middle and high schools, won’t reopen in the fall. Next year, five more schools will permanently close: Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, Grass Valley Elementary, and Horace Mann Elementary. Two K-8 schools, La Escuelita and Hillcrest, will no longer serve middle school grades.
School board members who support the closures have said they’re necessary to close the district’s budget deficit. Moving forward with the closures also allowed OUSD to be eligible for an extra $10 million in one-time funding from the state. Last fall, board members and OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell received a letter from county Superintendent L.K. Monroe warning that if they didn’t take drastic measures to cut spending, she could impose stricter oversight, and possibly revoke their salaries. Monroe, who is running for re-election as county superintendent this month, had concerns about the district’s reliance on one-time funding to bridge budget gaps and declining enrollment, which leads to less funding for the district. Monroe rescinded her warning after the board voted to close schools.
“Our children are worth more than any of the money that you think you’re trying to save,” said Rochelle Jenkins, another Parker mom. “Our kids do not have a price on their heads.”
In addition to the sit-in, OUSD is facing legal opposition to the closure plan from multiple parties. The Oakland Education Association teachers union claims the district violated an OUSD board policy that was negotiated in 2019, and has filed an unfair labor charge with the state Public Employee Relations Board. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California also filed a complaint with the state attorney general, requesting that the office look into the closure plan’s disproportionate impact on Black and Latino students. Earlier this month, an alliance of youth and community organizations called the Justice for Oakland Students coalition submitted a complaint to Alameda County alleging that the school district didn’t do the required environmental analysis when making the closure recommendations.
While the group at Parker has received trespassing warnings—a notice on one gate at the school declares the building and grounds are closed, and entering without permission from OUSD leadership is illegal—the district has not said whether it plans to remove them, and has portrayed the action as that of a minority of Parker families.
“We recognize that some individuals are upset at the closure of Parker,” OUSD said in a statement responding to questions from The Oaklandside. “We would ask that they choose a different means of protest—one that doesn’t disrupt the normal year-end procedures of staff and the need to close out the year.”
The campaign has been an exercise in “people power,” said Tambu.
“We knew that people in the community needed child care and continuing education for the summer,” she added. “So we took our core group of people and we talked about what our skills are and what we can offer.”
Following a launch rally on Saturday, the scene at Parker this week resembled a fairly typical summer program. About 20 elementary and middle school students showed up for art and chess lessons, which took place in a classroom, learned roller skating and double dutch outside in the Parker courtyard, and ate lunch in the school cafeteria. A Contra Costa County garden teacher created vision boards with the students, an OUSD staff member from another school taught chess, and a couple students led the session on roller skating and skateboarding. Tambu acts as a principal of sorts, working through the logistics of the class schedule, using a walkie-talkie to communicate with other adults on campus, and making sure students have what they need.
In addition to volunteers, the group is relying on donations of food and supplies and has set up a GoFundMe campaign, which received a surprise $10,000 contribution last week from an anonymous donor. The funds will go towards supplies and equipment to sustain the sit-in, and supporting the individuals who are supervising and teaching in the summer program.
Jayvien Bolden, who just finished his freshman year at Skyline High School, attended Parker and helped to teach the skating lesson. Jayvien’s two younger sisters also attended Parker this year. He wanted to help with the campaign to save Parker because of the teachers there who built his confidence when he was brand new to the school and the city, Jayvien said.
“My teachers told me I had a lot of potential, other than just goofing off,” he said. “Everyone here is genuinely trying to help.”
At the same time students were skating around the courtyard, some Parker staff were in their classrooms, packing up their books and decorations. Ellie Poling, Parker’s library technician, had hundreds of books to box up. Poling started at the school in the fall, and loved seeing students’ curiosity and love of reading swell when they visited the library. But since February, when the board voted to close Parker, the atmosphere shifted, she said.
“It’s always been such a joyful room,” Poling said. “But it’s just tough to show up here and not know how to save it, despite all the organizing and conversations.”
Poling, who is in her first year working in OUSD, has found some silver linings in the situation: She’s headed to Madison Park Academy and can take most of the books with her. She also gave some away at a free book fair she held at the end of the school year, and is offering up some of the books to the children now attending the community-run program at Parker.
The occupation is reminiscent of a similar action that took place 10 years ago, at the site of what was then Lakeview Elementary School. Much like now, OUSD had announced it would be closing several schools, including Lakeview, in an effort to save money. Protesters occupied Lakeview for more than two weeks until OUSD police cleared them out.
Participants in the Lakeview occupation and of other social movements in Oakland have also lended their skills. Misty Cross, one of the mothers involved with the Moms 4 Housing movement who also joined the Lakeview protest, has spent a few nights at Parker during the occupation.
“I know what it’s like to cry out for help and not get it,” she said. “I wanted to bring the things I learned throughout the Moms 4 Housing movement so they know they’re not alone. We’re utilizing all of our tools together to make this a successful movement.”
The Parker group is also working on a community resolution to submit to the school board reversing the closure decision. The group is also planning Warriors watch parties, a skating party on Saturday, and town halls to hear suggestions on how the community can benefit from the Parker building if it doesn’t remain a school.
Like the Lakeview protest, the Parker occupation has activated a number of parents and caregivers in the school community who weren’t previously as engaged in Oakland education issues.
At the beginning of this year, Tambu wasn’t registered to vote. She wasn’t aware of the school board, or that she had an elected representative on it. But the past few months have been a lesson in community organizing and local governance, sparked by the board’s decision in February to close schools. Since then, Tambu and some of the other Parker parents have attended every school board meeting to speak against the closure, and have participated in marches and rallies. And now they’re attempting to run their own school.
In a move that she couldn’t have predicted four months ago, Tambu also decided to apply for the District 6 seat on the school board, which was vacated by Shanthi Gonzales last month. The remaining board members will appoint a new director by the end of June.
“They need someone with this perspective; someone who’s not politically inclined,” Tambu said. “I really will make decisions based on what parents need to the best of my ability. I just want to do what’s right by the kids of District 6.”