Students arrive at Lockwood STEAM Academy, a public elementary school near the Oakland Coliseum, on the first day of the 2021-2022 school year. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

The Oakland Unified School District board meeting on Wednesday began as a celebration of the teachers of the year. But it ended with parents and other community members expressing concern about declining enrollment, school closures, and recent on-campus violence.

The 20-day enrollment count for the 2022-23 year reveals that OUSD is facing its fifth consecutive year of declining enrollment, with a student count of 33,762 compared to 34,428 last year. 

Source: Oakland Unified School District dashboard

While this year’s student count exceeds OUSD’s budgeted enrollment by 554 students, fewer students will mean a reduction in state funding for the district over past years.

Several community members urged board members to keep schools that are slated for closure open, to help prevent further enrollment declines. This past February, the school board approved a plan to close 7 schools and consolidate several others, in an effort to improve the district’s financial outlook. Two schools closed at the end of the last school year, and five are scheduled to close at the end of the current 2022-2023 academic year.

“Our communities demand and deserve neighborhood schools,” said Meghan Langston, an OUSD parent who attended the board meeting. “Instead, enrollment has gone down and attrition rates have skyrocketed. These closures do not end the problem; OUSD should invest resources into our schools to make them desirable instead of opening charter schools in their place.” 

Mark Airgood and Tania Kappner, teachers union representatives and educators at Sojourner Truth and Oakland Technical High School respectively, noted that attendance also factors heavily into the state’s formula for school funding. Lower daily attendance, like lower enrollment, means less money to OUSD. 

At Sojourner Truth, said Airgood, enrollment is high but there is no attendance clerk to follow up with students who are not coming to school. 

“We do our regular attendance, like all teachers, plus a state attendance that funding is partially determined on,” Airgood said. However, he said, “we have not had an attendance clerk all of this year, and for Sojourner Truth not to have one is just not viable.”

OUSD has struggled with attendance since the pandemic. Nearly 18% of its students were chronically absent in the last school year—more than twice the percentage of chronically absent students across the district in 2018-19, district data shows. This summer, the district cut its five attendance liaisons whose sole job was to keep kids coming to school. The district replaced them with six support specialists, who deal with a variety of educational, behavioral, social-emotional, and attendance issues districtwide.

Despite the enrollment and attendance challenges, Chief Financial Officer DeCarlos Kaigler said the district should expect about $9 million more from the state than anticipated since the enrollment numbers are still greater than what was projected.

The district also is on better financial ground at the start of the school year, Chief Business Officer Lisa Grant-Dawson reported. She said that its unrestricted general fund is more stable, with over $47 million this year compared to about $10 million last year. 

Concern over middle school shooting

Parents and students were also concerned about a recent episode of violence and other safety issues at schools.

Student Board Director Natalie Gallegos Chavez, an Oakland High senior, read a statement concerning the Aug. 29 non-fatal shooting of a 13-year-old by a schoolmate at Madison Park Academy Middle School in the Sobrante Park neighborhood.

“We feel saddened, shocked, and fearful to have this happen in our other school communities,” said Chavez.

District 3 Director VanCedric Williams asked Chavez to meet in the future to discuss ideas to improve school safety.

‘Teachers of the year’ recognized

The board recognized educators Michelle Chu, a teacher at Lockwood STEAM Academy,  Shartresa Nixon, a reading-intervention and career-readiness teacher at United for Success Academy, and Floresa Vaughn, a math teacher at McClymonds High School, for their efforts to provide students with a quality education.

“Our teachers of the year bring change, hope, and save lives,” said Ismael Armendariz, first vice president of the Oakland Education Association. “As your union, our school district, and district staff, we have to ensure that we provide you with the support to retain you for your career.”

Teacher retention has been a problem in OUSD in past, but things have improved over the last several years. The district had a 16% turnover rate in 2019-2020 according to EdSource, roughly on par with the national average.

Gisselle Medina's identity consists of multitudes—a Latinx, queer, non-binary from Los Angeles. They are a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism specializing in Narrative Writing and Multimedia. Through their reporting, they work to contribute to elevating diverse communities through investigating and accurately reporting on deep-rooted issues such as unequal access to mental health resources and racial inequality.