Overhead shot of two four-year-olds playing with colorful dominoes and other toys.
Four-year-olds in Dawn Ung's transitional kindergarten class at Bella Vista Elementary play with dominoes and other toys on the first day of school, Aug. 7, 2023. Credit: Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

On Monday, more than 34,000 students returned to campuses across the city for the first day of school in Oakland Unified School District. Clear blue skies and splendid sunny weather created perfect scenery as students greeted their teachers, reunited with friends, and met new classmates.

Teachers are returning to their classrooms months after a strike in May that led to a substantial raise across the board: all teachers and members of the Oakland Education Association received a 10% retroactive raise, and starting salaries for new teachers increased by about $10,000. OUSD begins the school year with about 69 teaching vacancies, which is around the same number of openings OUSD started with last year, said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

First Day of School 2023
TK students from Ms. Ung’s class play in the classroom during the first day of school at Bella Vista Elementary. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez
First Day of School 2023
Students cheerfully chat and hide during recess on the first day of school at Bella Vista Elementary. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

“It’s never ideal to not be fully staffed. But in this day and age, as a school district, you have to plan with that in mind,” she said. 

Another focus for district leaders this year will be keeping a high attendance rate. Last year, 60% of OUSD students were chronically absent, which means they missed more than 10% of school or two days per month. 

“We have to get back to those campaigns of telling people we need you to come to school,” said Johnson-Trammell, who is entering her seventh year as district superintendent. “Making sure that families are being called and that they’re having that warm, loving response when their kids are here, reminding them of the importance of attendance and celebrating the kids who are coming on a regular basis.”

First Day of School 2023
Students at Claremont Middle School participate during class on the first day of the new school year. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez.
First Day of School 2023
Students of Claremont Middle School receive instructions on the first day of the new school year. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez.

At Claremont Middle School, eighth grader Aaliyah Solomon helped lead the superintendent and other district staff on a tour of the school, from the school grounds where a new building is being constructed, to a student wellness room featuring light music and soft pillows and chairs for students to decompress in. 

“The first day of school is nerve-racking and exciting—I have mixed emotions about it,” Solomon told The Oaklandside. “I’ve been interested in art for a while and this year I’ve got art as an elective and I’m looking forward to that.”

OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell smiles during a visit to Claremont Middle School on the first day of the new school year. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

For Principal Tremaine Moore, in his third year as the Claremont Middle School leader, the first day of school always brings jitters. This year he’s looking forward to the completion of a new multipurpose room on campus, eight years after a fire damaged the school’s cafeteria. The new space is supposed to open in November or December this year, Moore said. 

First Day of School 2023
Students at Bella Vista Elementary line up in the hall before going to class. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez
First Day of School 2023
During recess, students run around the playground at Bella Vista Elementary on their first day of school. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

Nyika Brame joined Bella Vista Elementary School last year as a literacy tutor. This year she became the school’s family liaison and will serve as a bridge between parents and school staff. In her new role, she plans to keep a focus on literacy. In her office, she has backpacks for every student in kindergarten to second grade, each filled with five books. She also plans to hold reading challenges and host a Friday carnival to reward students for their reading. 

“We want to be able to make sure that all the kids are reading on level by the end of the school year,” Brame said. “I really try to make them feel loved and comfortable because we don’t know what they’re missing at home.”

First Day of School 2023
Classmates at Claremont Middle School greet one another in the schoolyard on the first day of the 2023-2024 school year. Credit: Carla Hernàndez Ramírez
First Day of School 2023
In the Claremont Middle School courtyard, two students discuss their new class schedules. Credit: Carla Hernàndez Ramírez

Sonya Shumate, an aide to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms at Bella Vista, returned for her third year at the school and her eighth year in OUSD. Shumate also attended Bella Vista as a child in the 1990s. Working with the transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students, she said, is one of her favorite parts of the job.

“It’s a different type of atmosphere here than when I was younger, but the community and connection is why I came back.”

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.