backpacks and lunchboxes and other belongings fill school shelves in a transitional kindergarten classroom
Backpacks, lunchboxes, and other belongings fill the shelves in a transitional kindergarten classroom at Sankofa United Elementary School. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Unified School District’s special education programs, which serve more than 6,000 students, are being revamped this year and next year, with classes at several schools where students receive individualized support set to close at the end of this school year. 

At the same time, the special education department is opening up several new programs to accommodate increases in enrollment, particularly in the district’s early childhood programs, which serve 3 and 4-year-olds. District leaders are making these adjustments based on demand, staffing, proximity of similar programs at nearby schools, and budget needs. But for families of students who receive special education services, the district’s recent announcement of classroom closures means they’ll be searching for a new school for the fall, with only a few weeks left in this school year. The changes could also cause anxiety for some students with disabilities who thrive on stability. 

“I wish my son could finish at [his] school. I wish they would’ve waited one more year,” said Maricruz Carrera, whose son is a seventh grader at United for Success Academy. The school will be shutting down its class for middle school students with mild to moderate disabilities after this year. “He has one more year to graduate. We feel humiliated and disappointed.”

Carrera drives her son to the school, which is just down the street from where they live in Fruitvale. For eighth grade, her son has been placed at Roosevelt Middle School, and he’ll need to take district transportation to get there, she said. 

In the fall, at least one “self-contained” classroom—smaller classes that have lower student-to-adult ratios to support students with individualized education programs (IEPs)—at Joaquin Miller Elementary, Manzanita Community School, Bella Vista Elementary, United for Success Academy, and Montera Middle School will be closed at the end of this school year. At the end of the 2023-2024 school year, there will be more closures at Joaquin Miller, Manzanita SEED, and Montera Middle School. 

OUSD will also be adding three new early childhood special education classes next year, however, with new classrooms at Montclair Elementary and Melrose Leadership Academy. The district will also be reopening a program for deaf and hard of hearing students at a campus not yet specified. 

The district began notifying families of the changes in March, after the school board voted on budget adjustments eliminating special education positions. But some families who spoke to The Oaklandside say they first learned of the class closures only several weeks ago.

“We’re not just taking away [although] I do think it could feel that way because our communication was not strong,” said Jennifer Blake, OUSD’s executive director of special education and health services. “It’s led people to really focus a lot on what is being removed from campuses. However, we are also adding programming to several places.”

OUSD has been adding special education classes at more school sites over the last several years in response to an increase in students with IEPs, who are eligible for the classes, said Blake. The number grew from about 5,000 in December 2013 to nearly 6,000 in December 2022, even as overall enrollment in OUSD has declined. In that time period, the number of students in the district with autism doubled, and there was a 100% increase in students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The number of students with intellectual disabilities, however, decreased by 70%, Blake said.

“We have more students with disability profiles that can be well-supported in general education with specialized support rather than mostly or fully self-contained, separate instruction, so we are not seeing the same demand for self-contained placements we were 10 or even five years ago,” Blake wrote in an email to The Oaklandside.

While the closures will directly impact a small percentage of students taking special education classes—a few dozen—some in Oakland’s special education community feel the changes reflect a broader disregard for the effort it takes to find a school that fits for students with disabilities. 

“We don’t pick schools by data points or test scores. To us, what’s really important is the people who are going to be there and the community that’s there,” said Joe Manekin, a father of a first grader at Bella Vista Elementary. “Our hope was definitely to be able to stay and have the same school and get to know the same age-level peers, both in his classroom and in general education.”

Bella Vista’s self-contained classroom for third to fifth grade is being eliminated this year, which means Manekin may have to seek out another school by the time his son gets to third grade. 

OUSD’s community advisory committee for special education, which includes families, teachers, and staff who work with students with disabilities, has compared the changes to expulsions, and echoed arguments that opponents of school closures made last year when the school board announced a plan to shutter several schools. The committee wants to see more communication and more engagement with special education families before the district makes a decision to close or shrink programs. 

Sheila Haynes, the mom of a 12-year-old student with autism, knows the lasting impact a closure can have on students. Her son, James, was in a special education classroom for kindergarten at Charles P. Howard Elementary School. Haynes received a letter that year, saying that the program was closing and they would be placed instead at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland. 

“He was happy, he was at a place where everyone loved and knew him. It was a nurturing, happy, and safe environment and that was just yanked away from him,” she said of her son’s time at Charles P. Howard Elementary. “I think about where he is now, if he would’ve had stability in the very beginning, he’d be further along in all areas of development.”

Haynes’s son also attended Burckhalter, Sequoia, and Sankofa elementary schools, before the pandemic hit in 2020. Haynes, and other parents like her, worry that OUSD could make more sudden changes to program offerings in the future. Since 2020, Haynes has kept her son in OUSD’s Sojourner Truth Independent Study school, and she’s considering keeping him in that school until he can join OUSD’s young adult program for 18 to 22-year-olds.

“The adult school is the final place where these kids that suffered trauma at their younger ages finally have a chance to have some stability,” she said. “A lot of students and families and parents feel like, ‘This is the last chance our kid can recover from all the trauma they suffered as a younger student in these earlier grades due to school closures.”

School board directors Valarie Bachelor and Jennifer Brouhard plan to introduce a resolution this week that would put a stop to the closures and introduce a new process for redesigning the special education programs that would require a vote from the school board and input from the community advisory committee before any changes are made.

“Special education teachers have really fought and they advocate for their families, students, and build solid communities within their school so they belong,” said Brouhard, who formerly taught special education. “The district owes the stakeholders—students, families, staff—a discussion about their plans and intentions for special education programs.”

The school board could vote on Brouhard and Bachelor’s resolution at the next regular board meeting after April 26, on May 10.

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.