Throughout his career, Jorge Lerma has been a champion for Latino families and an advocate for education that meets the needs of Oakland’s diverse students. Now Lerma, 73, is one of two candidates running for the vacant District 5 seat on the Oakland Unified school board.
In an interview with The Oaklandside, Lerma spoke about the need to bring innovation to schools, develop academic programs in partnership with the community, and be judicious with the school district budget. Lerma views the diversity of Oakland’s student population as a strength, and he would like to see schools incorporate more culturally relevant curriculum to support them. District 5—which includes Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods in East Oakland—has some of the district’s highest-performing schools and some of the lowest, Lerma added, and it is his priority to find out why.
Lerma, a former educator and principal, is running against Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, a community organizer and education activist who The Oaklandside will also be profiling. The special election on Nov. 7 is to fill the vacancy in D5 left by Director Mike Hutchinson, who last year ran for, and won, the District 4 seat after the redistricting process shifted district boundaries, leaving Hutchinson’s address in the new District 4.
Born and raised in Oakland, Lerma attended Lafayette Elementary (now the site of KIPP Bridge Academy) and Bret Harte Jr. High, and graduated from Oakland High School in 1967. He enrolled at Laney College and then transferred to Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay). Lerma joined Teacher Corps, a Great Society-era federal program that trained college students of color to become teachers in low-income areas. He was initially assigned to Oakland Tech.
“I’m 73 years old now and I don’t know anything other than to work as a coach, a teacher, a tutor, and a mentor. That’s what I’ve done all my life,” Lerma said.
The public school system has remained largely the same for decades and it’s time for a change, Lerma said.
“So many of the issues that we have that hold our children back are grounded in the fact that we’re repeating the same old thing over and over again. We basically have an industrial era, mass production, assembly-line educational system,” he added.
He emphasized the need for “multi-dimensional” approaches to learning that recognize not all students learn the same way. Lerma wants to see academic programs developed in collaboration with school communities instead of developed centrally and imposed on schools. To improve academic achievement, Lerma pointed to intensive tutoring, small-group instruction, and greater academic support in afterschool programs.
Lerma also wants to see more culturally relevant lessons, especially given Oakland’s increasing number of immigrant students and students who speak languages other than English at home. He suggested more robust ethnic studies and bilingual education programs, and even monolingual instruction in a student’s home language. Half of OUSD students speak a language other than English at home, and one in three OUSD students is learning English. Last school year, about 2,700 students were recent immigrants.
“Kids are happy to be at their schools. But at the end of the day, when you look at the report cards, they’re in the low percentiles, and this is primarily Black and brown kids. I know for a fact these kids are not broken. There’s nothing missing in their cognitive ability,” Lerma said. “What is missing is opportunity that’s based on looking at their needs as children, and their culture.”
In the 1970s, Lerma helped found Centro Infantil de la Raza, a bilingual, bicultural preschool, and La Escuelita, which was created so that families from Centro Infantil could continue their bilingual education in elementary school.
Lerma added that he will hold charter schools to the same high standards as district schools, and disagreed that charter schools are responsible for declining enrollment in OUSD. Low performance is one reason why families leave district schools, said Lerma, who also pointed to gentrification, rising rents, and the loss of blue collar jobs for driving working-class families, who would typically enroll their students in public schools, out of Oakland.
Lerma is not opposed to school closures, but emphasized that decisions made about restructuring the school system must be done with input from the community, and acknowledged that closing a school means losing a legacy. He also would want to see a report on the environmental impacts of closing a school before making that decision. Some sites could be repurposed as housing, Lerma suggested.
“I’m ready to look at repurposing, redesigning, or renovating the school district. There are no sacred areas for me,” he said. “I see reprioritizing as bringing up what’s important for us as people and community and letting go of some of those things that because of technology or innovation, we could let go of.”
On school safety, Lerma said he’s open to alternatives to police, and emphasized the need to develop safety plans in conjunction with parents and the school community.
“It’s an easy decision to say no more cops. And you can bring in a couple of young people who have t-shirts that say ‘Culture Keepers,’ but there needs to be an investment, and those culture keepers must live in the community,” he said. “We need to have parents, moms and dads, working together to develop a safety plan for the school.”
He praised Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell for her leadership, and thinks the district is doing a good job of hiring and recruiting a diverse workforce. He wants to see stronger partnerships between OUSD and local colleges to build up a teacher credentialing pipeline.
Lerma has been endorsed by several elected officials, including school board directors Mike Hutchinson, Clifford Thompson, and Sam Davis, City Councilmember Noel Gallo, and former mayor Libby Schaaf. Lerma also lists endorsements from community leaders Cesar Cruz of Homies Empowerment, Karely Ordaz of The Unity Council, David Kakishiba of EBAYC, and Cynthia Adams, the president of the local NAACP chapter.
Early voting for the District 5 special election begins Monday, Oct. 9. Voters who live in District 5’s previous boundaries are eligible to vote in the special election, and will be sent vote-by-mail ballots beginning Oct. 9.
Oct. 23 is the last day to register for the special election. Election Day is Nov. 7.
Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Oakland residents who live within District 5’s previous boundaries can vote in this special election.