marquee outside oakland high school
The Oakland high school marquee reminds parents to register their children for school. Credit: Pete Rosos

The public school choice system in Oakland, which enables families to look at the nearly 120 schools across the city and choose the one they think is best for their kids, is meant to even the playing field. Instead of being restricted to the closest school, which may have fewer resources or not fit their child’s needs, families in lower-income neighborhoods can have access to the same public schools as wealthier families. 

But new research from UC Berkeley computer scientists examining the Oakland Unified School District system questions whether that’s really happening. And it asks hard questions about how the current approach might be entrenching inequalities instead of fighting them. 

Researchers Samantha Robertson, Tonya Nguyen, and Niloufar Salehi set out to study the resources OUSD provides to families to evaluate schools—the school maps showing which programs exist at which schools, and the data dashboards detailing metrics like graduation rates and standardized test scores—to see how they could be improved, especially for low-income families of color in Oakland. They concluded that schools and districts should invest more in employees who understand families’ needs and have deep knowledge about schools in Oakland, and who can help parents and caregivers choose the best school for them. 

“There’s a lot of efforts in academia and also within school districts to provide better websites that give people more information about the different schools, but what we found was that for a lot of people, those were just unusable and not useful,” said Salehi. “Finding people who knew their circumstances, and they could trust, was actually what helped them find a decent school that works within their circumstances.”

The researchers interviewed 10 low-income parents and parents of color in Oakland and asked them what they wanted in a school, how they found information about schools, and about their experiences going through the application and enrollment process. They also interviewed four “parent advocates”—staff of OUSD or local community organizations who help families evaluate schools—about their work, the challenges they face, and how the enrollment process could be improved for the families they work with. 

Picking a school in Oakland takes time and resources

The first barrier that some families face is learning that the choice system even exists.

“Do they know that they have to apply for schools? Because a lot of people don’t, especially if you recently arrived either from another country or from a district that didn’t have any kind of choice,” said Robertson, who has also studied the enrollment system in San Francisco Unified. “It’s a reasonable assumption that you can walk up to the school near your house and just take your kids in.”

Once they know they have a choice, families are faced with an immense number of additional options. There are 51 elementary schools in OUSD alone. During the enrollment process, families are invited to use OUSD’s “School Finder” website, where they can see a map of OUSD schools and individual school pages listing school programs and student performance data. Families can rank up to six schools anywhere in the district, and enrollment is decided based on priorities like whether the family lives in the school’s neighborhood or has a sibling at the school.

This process relies on an assumption that parents have the time and resources to research and decide on a school, researchers pointed out. Parents are also encouraged to go on school tours, which further excludes those who have strict work schedules or need childcare.

Nate Dunstan works with newcomers to OUSD who have recently immigrated to the United States, including unaccompanied minors and families fleeing violence and war in their home countries, largely from Central America. 

For many of the families that Dunstan works with, being in a large urban area can be overwhelming, especially if they’ve come from rural areas of Central America. Their top priority is often just a school that’s close by, and it’s a plus if the school has a dual-language program or a community of other parents and school staff who speak their home language, Dunstan said. 

But finding a school for their kids is usually not the only concern for these families, and Dunstan can also help connect them with other social services, like Medi-Cal, immigration attorneys, and bus tickets. 

“We try to build trust with families immediately. The first thing we do is provide a backpack with school supplies and offer connections to resources,” Dunstan told The Oaklandside. “Our challenge is figuring out the logistics with somebody that just arrived. Looking at the map and figuring out how they’re going to get across town can be really overwhelming.”

Robertson, Nguyen, and Salehi recommended that districts invest in more people like Dunstan who are more attuned to the specific needs of families.

Balancing academics, culture, and convenience

The enrollment process also makes assumptions about what information is most valuable to Oakland families. The researchers noted that this can leave an information gap between what low-income families and families of color are seeking and what information the district provides about schools. 

Standardized test scores or absentee rates don’t reveal much about whether the school is a welcoming environment for students of color. One Black mom who was interviewed for the paper shared that she was looking for a school where her child wouldn’t be the only Black student. 

“I also wanted a school where there was going to be some socioeconomic diversity, and where I was going to fit in with the parents,” she told the researchers. “Because for Black kids, there’s so much literature, there may be a school that’s a good school, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best school for my kid.”

And judging a school based on certain metrics could obscure other factors. For example, a school may not have impressive overall test scores, but do a good job of helping students who are behind to catch up. The researchers noted that families are often making tradeoffs when selecting a school and factoring in more than just academics. 

One of those tradeoffs is transportation, especially in families with kids at more than one school.

Keta Brown, another parent advocate who was interviewed, helps parents navigate the school enrollment process at The Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy organization.

“I’ve had some parents whose kids got into their first choice; they felt like they got the golden ticket,” Brown told The Oaklandside. “But at the last minute, they pulled back and said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this and make sure that my child gets there and back and not have that as my worry.’”

Brown added that schools could make the enrollment process easier by providing information about all public schools on one platform. Last year, the OUSD school board passed an enrollment stabilization plan, which invested more resources into the enrollment office and revamped OUSD’s enrollment materials to exclude charter schools. 

Shanthi Gonzales, who stepped down from the Oakland school board earlier this year, argued last year that OUSD shouldn’t be providing information about charter schools to prospective families, like on district maps or its enrollment platform, because charter schools compete with district schools for enrollment. Before this year, families could explore public schools and access applications for both OUSD and charter schools on a single enrollment platform. But this year, there are two separate sites, adding to the burden placed on families to research schools. 

“Our families are going to choose what works for them. So do what works best for families,” Brown said. “Don’t take away options or ways to be able to make it easier for families to make decisions.”

Brown also mentioned that the school choice system doesn’t lead to more resources at every school, but encourages families to compete for a few spots at a few schools. Instead of tinkering with the school choice system, school officials at district and charter schools should be working together to figure out how to improve all schools, Brown said. 

“People shouldn’t have to sign up to get access to the better school,” she said. “It should be that I’m walking next door because this school is five blocks from me and I know my baby is going to be educated there and they’re going to thrive.”

The research paper acknowledged that online enrollment materials do have upsides, like enabling parents to apply and enroll in schools from a cell phone. But ultimately, they concluded, access to the information doesn’t make schools more equal, and doesn’t address school segregation. Robertson, Nguyen, and Salehi suggested districts invest more into parent advocates because they’re also the ones working outside the school system to push for more resources for schools, which can lead to more equality. 

“I felt like this is one of those cases where you have good intentions and algorithms that theoretically should be providing more equity and more equal access to all people in the city,” Salehi said. “But when you look at it in practice, in a lot of places it’s done the exact opposite, or it hasn’t helped as much as people hoped it would.”

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.