For Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, strengthening family engagement is key to improving academic outcomes and keeping families in Oakland Unified School District.
Ritzie-Hernandez, 33, is running for the vacant seat on the OUSD school board against Jorge Lerma, a veteran educator. Along with increasing parent involvement, her platform includes creating more transparency and accountability around the budget, increasing cultural competency, and building stronger partnerships with community organizations to meet families’ needs.
Born in Acapulco, Mexico, Ritzie-Hernandez spent her childhood years in Costa Chica in the Mexican state of Guerrero and immigrated with her family to Oakland when she was 12. Her early experiences—going to public schools in Oakland as a newcomer student learning English, and helping her family navigate a foreign education system—have influenced her career choices as an adult, and shaped her priorities as a school board candidate. She was motivated to run for the District 5 seat after becoming a U.S. citizen earlier this year.
Upon arriving in Oakland, Ritzie-Hernandez was enrolled in the newcomer program at Havenscourt Middle School (now Coliseum College Prep Academy), later attended Roosevelt Middle School for one year, and spent two years at Oakland High School before dropping out. She enrolled that same year at Oasis High School, a charter school that closed in 2009, and eventually graduated from there.
“I fell out of love with education very quickly as I came to the states. I loved the part that was learning in English and being educated, but the bullying and the harassment that I experienced … I wanted to be anywhere else but school,” she told The Oaklandside in an interview. “I dropped out as a result of the harm that I received from OUSD.”
Ritzie-Hernandez has worked in recent years as a parent organizer with the nonprofit Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network, and as a bilingual instructor for the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, a role in which she trained poll-workers and helped oversee election processes, according to her campaign website.
Ritzie-Hernandez currently serves as the coordinator of Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice, a group focused on education equity for Black and Latino students at public school districts in the region. The lead organizations listed on the coalition’s website are Bay Area PLAN, Building Blocks for Kids, and Coleman Advocates.
One of her priorities as an OUSD director would be to bolster schools’ engagement plans that lay out how families can be more involved in their children’s schooling, which could include things like classroom volunteering and school tours for families already enrolled at the school, so they can learn about services offered at their students’ campus. She also wants to see more support for families who speak languages other than English.
“I’m hearing this from having conversations with a lot of our families: It’s not that they don’t want to take advantage of the services—sometimes they don’t know that the service exists,” she said. “[Strong family engagement] is something that I haven’t seen across the board.”
Building up OUSD’s “community schools” model, where wraparound services for students are paired with academics, could also be accomplished by partnering with community-based organizations, said Ritzie-Hernandez. She mentioned her experiences working with families to set up a food bank in deep East Oakland, where there are fewer options for fresh groceries.
“There are solutions to all of our problems. All we have to do is listen to our families, really engage with them, and get to know them,” she said. “That’s the stuff that I’m looking forward to. I want to create strong partnerships that really fulfill the needs of our families. Our families don’t feel like our schools are doing that right now.”
Ritzie-Hernandez is against the expansion of charter schools, and believes their growth can be destabilizing for the district. She doesn’t blame families that are looking for the best options for their children, however, and she contends that charter schools and district schools can offer a similar quality of education.
“My challenge with charter schools is they’re a privatization of education,” she said. “Our public education system is one of the very few systems that are still free and accessible to our families. So I feel the need to really fight for it.”
Oakland currently has 39 charter schools, including 28 that the OUSD board authorized and has oversight over. About 30% of Oakland public school students attend charter schools, according to data from the 2022-2023 school year. Because schools are funded based on attendance, as students leave the OUSD system, the district loses money. Critics of charter schools say the growth of charters contributes to OUSD’s long-standing financial issues.
She pointed to Oakland families leaving OUSD to attend charter schools as a reason for decreasing enrollment at district schools, which leads to lower revenues for OUSD. She said educating families about the impact of charter schools on the district is one way to persuade them to stay, or come back to district-run schools.
Ritzie-Hernandez also wants to scrutinize district spending and the academic outcomes that result from it, and pointed to the superintendent’s salary as an example.
“I’m not trying to come for her job, but when we’re spending half a million dollars on someone to provide academic support and you’re telling me that 50% of your students are not graduating college-ready, there’s a shift that needs to happen, in my opinion, in how we’re spending our money,” she said. “As a school board member I want to collaborate on being very strategic about how we’re spending our money.”
There’s also a need to evaluate OUSD’s contracts with community partners, she said, to ensure they’re fulfilling their obligations.
Ritzie-Hernandez is also opposed to school closures, but recognizes that enrollment and attendance rates at OUSD need to improve. She wondered whether additional professional development for attendance specialists could improve the district’s outreach to families to ensure students are showing up to school.
“I know the trauma that comes as a result of losing your school. And I don’t want that to keep happening to our students,” she said. “But in order for us to do that we really have to create better outcomes. That’s the only thing that we can do to show we’re able to really support our families, by showing that we can improve academically because it’s not happening right now.”
Ritzie-Hernandez currently serves on the school site council for International Community School and has nieces and nephews in OUSD schools. She’s been endorsed by elected officials including Attorney General Rob Bonta, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, school board directors Jennifer Brouhard, VanCedric Williams, and Valarie Bachelor, and Oakland City Councilmember Kevin Jenkins. Her endorsements also include several labor unions, including the Oakland Education Association, SEIU 1021, and the Alameda Labor Council.
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.
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.