Aug 27 - My Take on the North Oakland Elementary Schools Controversy

The controversy over planned changes in North Oakland elementary schools has been worsened by the District's decision to stick to its original recommendation of merging Kaiser and Sankofa Schools, even after hitting pause for six months to get feedback from parents. Since parents at all the schools argued for changes in the plan, the district's choice to stay the course makes it seem that the parent engagement period was for show rather than substance. Now it is up to our school board to show whether they have truly been listening, or not.

Some parents and school staff have argued against any change, but there are many reasons why it does make sense for the district to do something to change the configuration of elementary schools in North Oakland, most of which have below-average enrollment:

  • Glenview School has been temporarily located at the Santa Fe campus in North Oakland since 2016 during construction on their new building, but they will be moving back next year, which would leave the Santa Fe campus empty, and a large area of Northwest Oakland without a public school (it does have three charter schools: NOCCS, Yu Ming and Aspire Berkeley Maynard).

  • There is a disturbing racial disparity between Sankofa School (189 students, 71% African-American) and Peralta School (331 students, 53% white), even though they are less than 10 minutes walk apart. Sankofa has not had the resources it needs to adequately meet the needs of its students, and has had very high principal and teacher turnover, while Peralta has high academic achievement, but its campus is too small to enroll many students from outside the immediate neighborhood.

  • Kaiser School (268 students) is a warm and thriving school in the hills, but very few (10%) of its students come from its neighborhood. The argument for moving Kaiser is that if it was at a larger, more accessible campus, it could be a neighborhood school available to a larger, more diverse population of students.

One of the reasons that schools smaller than about 400 students are harder to maintain is that budgeting for schools is, in part, based on the number of students. As a principal, once you get to a certain number of students, you can afford to hire more support staff; too few students and it's hard to hire enough full time people other than your classroom teachers.

(Of course, California is one of the worst states in the U.S. in per-pupil spending, and OUSD is under fiscal distress and will likely need to cut another $10 million from its budget this year, so while I have always supported Prop 13 reform, and cutting central office to send more funds to schools, neither of those solutions is likely to solve these problems in the next several years.)

In January, the district announced its solution to these questions without any warning to parents: Kaiser would merge with Sankofa in 2020. Due to lack of engagement, the proposal was met with shock and dismay from families and staff at both schools, which created a dynamic where some Sankofa families felt that the Kaiser community was prejudiced against them, while the Kaiser community united in refusing to engage with discussing any plan that involved their relocation.

After the strike, the district pressed pause on the process for a few months, and then in June released three proposals, with the plan that parent engagement would happen over the summer with a decision between the three in September.

  • Option 1: The plan announced in January, merging Kaiser and Sankofa at the Sankofa campus
  • Option 2: Same as option 1, except at the Santa Fe campus instead 
  • Option 3: Merge Peralta and Sankofa over a two-year period, and move Kaiser as-is to Santa Fe

Parent discussions were limited since it was summer, but they did happen, mostly self-organized by parents. (See this great KQED article, for example.) I was not able to talk to many site staff, but I did hear the following feedback from parents:

  • Several Sankofa parents, frustrated by many years of broken promises, said they were open to a merger, as long as their students can stay at Sankofa. They are concerned that any transition will be yet another challenge that their students will have to overcome, after already confronting severe turnover with principals and teachers in recent years.

  • The Racial Equity parent committee at Peralta came out in favor of a merger with Sankofa, with a letter signed by over 40 parents. A much smaller group of Peralta parents signed a petition against a merger with Sankofa.

  • Kaiser parents proposed expanding enrollment at their site by converting their library into a classroom, adding portables to the campus, or both.

  • Santa Fe parents surveyed their neighbors to identify families that would enroll at Santa Fe were it to reopen, and said they would support any option that would allow them to have a neighborhood school.

  • Some staff and parents at Emerson Elementary (325 students) are worried that opening a large school at Santa Fe might attract families away from their school, which might send Emerson into the low-enrollment low-resource dynamic that has recently affected Sankofa. This concern, along with a similar concern for enrollment at Hoover in West Oakland, is reportedly why district staff decided against Option 3.

After all this feedback, OUSD announced its recommendation to the Board last Friday (Aug. 23): to proceed with the original Option 1 that they had announced in January, even though that didn't align with the feedback from parents at the affected schools.

In my opinion, this reinforces the narrative that OUSD does not care about families' opinions when they do engagement - that it is just engagement for engagement's sake. OUSD will need a huge investment of good will from families and site staff to make any changes successful, and to avoid losing significant numbers of families to other options (such as charter, private or out-of-district such as Emeryville or Berkeley). That good will requires that parents feel that their concerns and hopes are being addressed.

Option 1 is self-defeating in another big way as well: there is only room for 336 students at Sankofa. So a minimum of 121 students from Kaiser and Sankofa would have to move elsewhere. And the combined school would still be too small to be sustainable according to the District’s budgeting model, unless an addition to the building was made at some point in the future.

Here is what I am recommending to the Board members that I am in touch with:

  • Relocate Sankofa and Kaiser to the Santa Fe campus, as two schools sharing the same campus, for the 2020-21 school year. The school communities would form a design team over that year to heal the wounds of this controversy, and plan for a single consolidated school for 2021-22.

  • This modified version of Option 2 would allow a transition year where each school would stay together as a community in its new location, and begin to get to know the other school community. I believe this would help to address the Sankofa and Kaiser parent concerns about the trauma of a relocation. 36% of current Sankofa students and 17% of Kaiser students live in the Santa Fe neighborhood - this is a resource that can help to ease the change.

  • This plan will help to re-integrate our schools. Many studies have shown that integrated schools have better results for students of all ethnic backgrounds.

  • While there will likely be some attrition due to the move, the Santa Fe site can also attract back some students from charters. In the three neighborhoods below Martin Luther King and above 580, there are currently no public schools and three charter elementary schools. Many of these students attend charters because those are the only schools within walking distance.

  • The Board needs to ensure that resources are devoted specifically to supporting African-American students during this consolidation, as an acknowledgement of a long pattern of Oakland school closures and mergers disproportionately affecting African-American families over the past 15 years. This has led many families in West and Northwest Oakland to choose charters over district schools.

  • The Board needs to compensate for its broken promise under Measure J, the school construction bond, to the Sankofa community. They were supposed to get an additional building that was never built. Whatever decision the Board makes, one of the prioritized projects in the 2020 bond measure project list should be facilities improvements for the site designated for Sankofa students, and Sankofa parents should have the strongest voice in designing that project.

  • Another big problem throughout this process has been lack of a consistent narrative from District staff about the motivation for school closures and consolidations. Is it to save money? To create better options for students? To create neighborhood schools? To concentrate our schools on fewer campuses so that we have bigger schools that are better resourced? The Board can help resolve this confusion by naming the metrics that it will use to evaluate these consolidations, and then being transparent about the results. If this is Cohort 2 of the consolidations, that implies there will be future cohorts, and we need to learn from the mistakes that we are making. In most functioning organizations, that is done by evaluation based on articulated goals and metrics.

I would also be open to supporting other creative solutions to this issue. This change is going to be difficult, and we need to work together as a community and recognize that change is hard for all of us, rather than calling each other names or seeking to divide. I plan to contribute to healing the pain by bringing parents together after the decision is made.

Finally, some of the rumors that have swirled around this process are about what will happen with any empty campuses (Kaiser, Sankofa or Santa Fe) after these changes happen. In any consolidation, the Board needs to state its vision for future unused property - not a final decision, of course, but a sense of the Board, so that neighbors have some idea what will happen to that public property in the future. For one thing, if Kaiser, Santa Fe or Sankofa are left vacant, a charter school will be able to relocate there under Prop 39, further eroding district enrollment. Several Board members have told me that that is not what they want, but a majority of the Board needs to go on record with a plan for preventing that from happening.

There will be discussion at the Board meeting tomorrow, Aug. 28, with a final decision scheduled for Sept. 11. Unless the Board can take action to salvage this situation, and show that they have been listening to the community, they will be contributing to a downward spiral of lack of confidence in their ability to run the District, and the District's ability to support school staff and families that are pouring their hearts and energy into their local schools.

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  • Sam Davis
  • Sam Davis