Two months after a tearful, final graduation ceremony at Parker K-8, about 20 students crossed the stage again on Friday, this time with a diploma from Parker Community School, the free summer program that’s been taking place in the school building since May.
Over the summer, youth have had lessons in roller skating, chess, poetry, music, art, and other topics, led by community members. The program, unauthorized by Oakland Unified School District, is a protest against the closure of Parker K-8, which officially shut its doors on the last day of school in May. Led by moms of Parker students, the group has refused to leave unless OUSD reopens the school.
Ten years ago, a similar sit-in at Lakeview Elementary lasted just over two weeks. The Parker coalition has occupied the East Oakland school building for 68 days.
“I thought I’d be on vacation visiting my brother in Puerto Rico right now. I cut that trip short,” said Azlinah Tambu, a mom and a lead organizer of the occupation. “I had no clue it’d last this long. I thought it’d last a week, tops.”
Parker K-8 was one of two schools that were officially shuttered at the close of the 2021-2022 school year. The other, Community Day, was an alternative school for students who had been expelled from traditional high schools in OUSD. A third school, La Escuelita, which served transitional kindergarten to eighth grades, was reduced to an elementary school . The closures and downsizing are part of a larger plan by Oakland Unified School District to address declining enrollment and revenue.
After the school board in February voted to close schools, Tambu and other Parker moms decided to do whatever they could to keep the school open. They attended every subsequent board meeting, submitted a resolution to reverse the closure, presented a list of demands to school district leaders, and Tambu applied to represent District 6, which includes Parker, on the school board when former director Shanthi Gonzales resigned.
While those efforts weren’t successful in pushing the school board to reverse its decision, the organizers view each day of the ongoing occupation as a win.
“Even on day one, just staying that night and waking up the next day was an accomplishment,” Tambu said. “Waking up each day after that was an accomplishment. When other kids started coming, Parker kids who needed somewhere to go, that was an accomplishment.”
The movement received support from around the Bay Area, as individuals and organizations donated food, money, their time and expertise to help out and teach classes. Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s poet laureate, volunteered and invited a friend, Isabelle Khoo-Miller, who visited the school several times over the summer to take on a security shift or do wire-bending art with students. On Friday, Khoo-Miller shared a video of youth from San Rafael offering their support to the Parker movement.
“It’s important that our communities can keep their schools,” Khoo-Miller said. “Our children are everything, and these kids need and deserve somewhere to go.”
Friday’s celebration looked like any other school party: balloons and streamers decorated the outdoor tables as students had their fill of pizza, cookies, and sugary drinks. Following an outdoor drum lesson, students filed into the school auditorium where parents and other volunteers helped dress the kids in their caps and gowns.
During the ceremony, students reminisced about their favorite memories from the summer, like watching movies at night in the auditorium, camping in the school yard, and cooking hotdogs and smores.
While the Parker occupation isn’t giving up, summer is winding down. Next week, the students who’ve been attending Parker Community School will move on to their new schools across East Oakland, like Elmhurst United, Lockwood STEAM, or Coliseum College Prep Academy. Educators who had been volunteering their summer at Parker will be going back to their classroom jobs.
Zoraya Jenkins, who just completed sixth grade at Parker, will be attending Elmhurst. Zoraya, 12, isn’t looking forward to it.
“I’ll miss my friends and I’ll cry every day,” she said. “I want [the district] to keep Parker open.”
Tambu is afraid that once school starts and there are fewer people occupying Parker, that the district will try to force the rest of them out. District officials are hoping the occupation will end on its own, said OUSD spokesman John Sasaki.
Tambu hasn’t yet figured out what her family’s school routine will be. They lived close enough to Parker to walk, and now her daughters will be attending Coliseum College Prep Academy and Lockwood STEAM Academy, which are located on the same campus about a mile and a half away from Parker. Her daughters were waitlisted for the after-school programs there, which they were part of at Parker.
Tambu and the other moms have been meeting with school board and City Council members to come to a solution on the best uses for the building if it can’t remain open as a school. They’ve suggested a community recreation center or an adult education center. OUSD is also considering using Parker as a space for community partners to provide services to students and families, Sasaki said. The school board will likely vote in the fall on the school’s future use.
The organizers are also thinking ahead to the November election, when three school board seats will be open. The school closures have motivated more parents to run for the board. Joel Velasquez, who helped organize the occupation at Lakeview in 2012 and has supported the Parker sit-in, is running in District 6. Max Orozco, a parent at La Escuelita who protested the closure of its middle school, recently filed to run in District 2.
Also looming is the upcoming school year, when five more schools are slated to be closed: Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy. Organizing parents from those communities and trying to flip the school board will be the main priorities.
“I’m going to remember this experience for the rest of my life. I need a break, but I’ll be back,” Tambu said. “Once people rest and regain our emotional strength, we’ll be back.”