Students protested OUSD school closures on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, at Frank Ogawa Plaza. Credit: Amir Aziz

Education has long been an issue that ignites the passions of Oaklanders. And in 2022—a year defined by controversy, protests, and an election at Oakland Unified School District—that was more true than ever. 

The Oaklandside’s education equity reporter, Ashley McBride, sat down with managing editor Jacob Simas to revisit some of the most important stories from an eventful and turbulent year for Oakland public schools.

2022 was a difficult year for OUSD in several regards. Talk me through some of the big storylines that kept you busy.

The year started with a COVID surge and budget cuts. I myself was actually sick with COVID the first few days of 2022. As soon as I came back, I was reporting on a massive petition that students had started in January asking the school district to provide more COVID safety precautions like masks and outdoor eating areas at their campuses, or they would refuse to come to school. 

At the same time, the district was facing financial problems and needed to cut tens of millions of dollars from the budget. A student strike could have compounded the budget issues because Oakland Unified School District’s funding is largely tied to student attendance—when students don’t come to school, the district gets less money. But even without the student strike, the district needed to trim its budget, which led to the school board approving a consolidation plan in February that called for closing and merging schools over a two-year period. 

That plan has been controversial to say the least, and much of the rest of my year was consumed with reporting on the closures, the schools and families that were impacted, the protests, and political fallout that even led to a veteran school board member resigning with seven months left in her term.

When that happened—when Shanthi Gonzalez, the District 6 school board director, resigned—it felt like a defining moment in this evolving story about Oakland school closures, signaling that the issue had escalated to another level.

Yes. So the circumstances around school closures were that OUSD was facing a budget deficit, and one of the options that school board directors have turned to in the past to save money is closing schools. Since the district gets money based on the number of students, if there are schools that are under-enrolled, those schools might cost more to run than the revenue they bring in. So that creates kind of a drag on the budget, where the district is having to cover the expenses for those schools. 

But when OUSD announced the school closures plan, it immediately set off a backlash in the community. People don’t want their schools to be closed. For a lot of families that attend these neighborhood schools, they function as community centers. The kids might have walked to school, and now without that school in their community, they may have to go across the city to attend school.

Things got pretty intense at the school board meetings at that time. There was a lot of anger being aimed at the directors who supported the plan, and multiple protests including some outside some of their homes.

Definitely. There were two teachers at Westlake Middle School, one of the schools on the consolidation list that was going to be merged with West Oakland Middle School. Two educators there decided to go on a hunger strike to protest the closures and they didn’t eat for over two weeks.

There were also protests throughout the city. Protesters went to school board members’ homes, which I think is one of the reasons why Shanthi Gonzalez ended up resigning, because she just didn’t feel like that level of vitriol was appropriate for this decision that she and other directors felt was in the best interest of the district.

Clearly the school closures are an emotional topic for many people, especially those being impacted directly. It’s also true that a lot of other people who care about OUSD, including a majority of the current school board, feel that closures and consolidations are necessary for the long-term health of the district. So it’s complicated. How have you gone about conveying these different viewpoints in your reporting?

It’s been something that I’ve given a lot of thought to and I do think it was important to cover the arguments for and against school closures. For the board members and others who support them, while they acknowledge that closing schools is very difficult and emotional, they do feel that it’s best for the long-term health of the school district. And district officials have for years been saying that the district has too many schools for the number of students that it has. That was another big big factor in this decision—that OUSD has had declining enrollment for several years. And so in my reporting, I wanted to dig a little deeper, beyond just the arguments for and against school closures. 

I also wanted to visit the schools that were being closed and talk to the students, teachers, and families who would be impacted and hear about what those schools mean to their communities. I visited Community Day School, which is up in the hills on the grounds of the former Chabot observatory. It’s kind of tucked away because it serves students who have been expelled or kicked out of their other schools, and they can come to this tranquil space up in the hills, away from the distractions of their usual environments. Now that it’s being closed, those students will be enrolled in an independent study program run by the county, and won’t have a physical school to go to. 

I also visited La Escuelita and talked to the families and teachers there and learned about the history of the school. It was founded because Oakland parents wanted a bilingual education for their children. Now, decades later, we have parents rallying to save the school.

 At another school, Parker K-8, a couple of moms took it upon themselves to try to force the district to keep it open as long as they could buy literally moving in and occupying it. Ultimately, that didn’t work—the school still closed, although the school board did agree to repurpose the building as a neighborhood resource center. But those women got a crash course in organizing and school district politics that I don’t think they’re going to forget. 

On the other side, I did a Q&A series with each school board member and asked each of them why they voted the way they did on the school closures. I wanted to give them an opportunity to explain from their point of view why they felt the closures were either necessary or misguided.

Speaking of the school board, it’s going to look a lot different come January, with three new members representing Districts 2, 4, and 6. What are your big takeaways from the recent election? Did anything surprise you?

One of the biggest challenges for the new school board will just be learning how to work together and how to govern. We had four new people join the board in 2020, and three more first-time directors this year. So in January, the school board will be entirely made up of people who’ve joined within the last two years. So there will be a loss of institutional knowledge and memory there, without experienced board members to say “We passed this particular policy in 2016 and we need to adhere to it.” So it’ll be very interesting to see how they govern with some of the challenges that we know they’ll be facing, such as school closures. 

The closures were a big issue for a lot of the candidates who ran for school board this year—a number of candidates ran on a platform to overturn the school closures. Two of those candidates were elected, and so it seems like the board may have the votes to reverse the closure decision. We’ll see what happens in January.

One of the other big storylines in Oakland education this year was, unfortunately, school safety. There were several high-profile incidents of violence on Oakland campuses this year, including a shooting at Rudsdale High School in the East Oakland hills that killed one OUSD staff person and injured five other people. What did you hear from students, educators, and district officials about campus safety in the aftermath of these incidents? Do you get the sense that people are on the same page about how to keep Oakland’s campuses safe?

I think what most people are on the same page about is that there does need to be changes and additional security protocols. A lot of students and families and parents are feeling unsafe with some of these recent incidents that have happened. There was a stabbing at Skyline High School a few weeks ago, where one student stabbed another student. There was a shooting earlier in the year involving 13-year-olds at a middle school. And then of course, the incident at Rudsdale in October. 

OUSD got rid of its police in 2020. But it’s not clear that police officers would have prevented the incidents that you mentioned. I spoke with the previous chief of Oakland’s school police department and he himself said that having the department there would not have prevented the Rudsdale shooting. What I’ve heard from him and community advocates is that there needs to be more investment in what they’re calling “culture keepers” or adults on campus who can monitor conflicts happening with students and intervene before things escalate to where there’s a stabbing or shooting. 

There are some other things that OUSD is working on right now, like making sure all schools have security cameras in good locations. The video of the Rudsdale shooting didn’t capture the faces of the assailants, and those people have still not been arrested for that shooting. In the near term, some students that I’ve talked to have suggested things like backpack checks or metal detectors. Longer term, some people have said that OUSD should be working with the Oakland Police Department, the city of Oakland, and community-based violence-prevention organizations. 

So to me, what it seems people are on the same page about is that there needs to be a change, and that it’s going to take much more than just OUSD working alone. But it remains to be seen what exactly the district will be doing to make students safer on their campuses.

If you had to choose, what would you say has been the most difficult story for you to report this year, and why?

I don’t know that any particular story was the most difficult to report. I think in general, one of the hardest parts of my job is just staying on top of everything happening in Oakland education and figuring out where to dedicate my time and energy. 

Some topics that I wish I could have spent more time on this year was more coverage of charter schools in Oakland. They enroll about a third of the public school students in Oakland. Also, higher education. I wrote one or two stories about Mills College and its merger with Northeastern. And now Holy Names University just announced it would be closing. So I wish I could have spent more time on some of these other topics that I hope to get into next year.

What story are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the pair of stories I did on school choice. Following the announcement that OUSD was closing schools and knowing how that was linked to enrollment, I wanted to learn more about why enrollment in the district has been falling so consistently. So I wrote a deep-dive on why parents choose to send their kids to private schools or charters instead of OUSD schools. It was the first time I really talked to parents about their school choice decisions, and I learned a lot about how varied and difficult those decisions are. 

After that story published, I wrote a companion piece about why families do choose OUSD. Both of those stories came from reader feedback. 

I’m proud of those stories because school choice in Oakland is just such a touchy subject. And as my editor, you know that I get nervous sometimes when I publish stories about controversial things. But I’m proud of the way those turned out and we got some pretty good feedback on them.

What are some of the big storylines that you’ll be keeping an eye on in 2003?

School closures are definitely going to be something that comes up almost immediately. The board will probably be voting on whether to reverse the remaining closures that are supposed to happen in 2023, with five or six schools currently set to be closed next year. And another big topic, as we talked about, will be school safety.

The budget will also be a big story. We just learned at the last school board meeting of the year that the OUSD budget is on track and the district is expected to cover all of its expenses for the next two years. That’s huge, and an important step toward possibly ending a state receivership that the district has been under since 2003, when it had to take out a $100 million loan. 

Improving academics is another thing the newly elected board members have brought up. The district and students are still kind of recovering from the disruptions of COVID and distance learning, so I think there will be a renewed focus on supporting students to get back on track and increasing their literacy scores, and math achievement.

I’m also interested in enrollment. OUSD has been focusing a lot more on trying to grow its enrollment through things like social media campaigns. And last year there were a couple of enrollment pilots where the district was trying to diversify some of the more sought-after schools. I expect the district will continue making efforts in 2023 to increase enrollment, and it’ll be interesting to see how that turns out.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.