Why OUSD Should Stop Closing Schools

At the school board meeting last week, four directors (a majority) floated the idea of closing several more schools at the end of this year, the so-called "ripping the Band-Aid off" plan. This came up as a way to address the devastating budget cuts that OUSD faces due to the state-wide combination of increasing costs and severe under-funding of education.

The Band-Aid metaphor is offensively flippant. Closing schools is more like major surgery, and just like surgery we should not undertake it without a clear understanding of the risks and benefits. In surgery, we need informed consent from the patient for it to be ethical and successful. That information and consent is clearly lacking here.

The question as to whether closing or combining schools even saves money, let alone brings about a better education for kids, is still an open question. After OUSD closed five schools in 2012, many students left for charter schools, private schools, or neighboring districts. One of the schools, Lazear, simply chose to reconstitute as a charter. No full study was made of the impact of those closures, to see how many students stayed in OUSD and how many left, what were the educational impacts for students who stayed, whether OUSD saved money or lost money from the closures after factoring in reduced enrollment, and if it did save money, whether it outweighed the impact to the kids at closed schools and the community around them.

Eight years later, we have repeated the experiment, with five school closure or consolidation decisions so far. Each of these is different, but all of them have been controversial. Even at Elmhurst United, held up as the 'successful' merger, teachers have argued that they would have been more successful without merging. I don't know of any publicly available data to counter their argument.

We need transparent and complete information so we can decide as a community which, if any, of these consolidations have been successful and why. Without buy-in and planning effort from school staff and families, a consolidation is unlikely to lead to better outcomes for kids, and is likely to lead to a cycle of declining enrollment.

Another glaring omission is any strategy to increase enrollment at OUSD. Many board members just accept the narrative that OUSD's enrollment will continue to decline, while it has been steadily increasing at charter schools, which now have 30% of the students in Oakland.

Two anecdotes from principals show what could be possible. Ms. Alderman from ICS told me that when, on top of all her other duties, she chose to visit neighboring pre-schools, she found lots of charter schools recruiting students, but no other district schools. Why isn't there a district program to aggressively recruit pre-school students for OUSD kindergarten and TKs?

Another principal, Ms. Ahmad from Piedmont Avenue Elementary, told me that some of her school's families live outside of Oakland, but enroll at her school because it is near to where they work. The number of families in Oakland may be declining due to gentrification, but it is increasingly a city that people who used to live here commute to. OUSD should also promote itself to those families. The fantastic HBO documentary about the Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Festival (you can watch it by clicking here) features a Piedmont Avenue student and provides a perfect opportunity for this.

So these are just a couple of ways (there are others, such as working on stronger feeder patterns from elementary to middle to high schools, in parts of the district where these are not working well) that OUSD could try to boost enrollment, instead of assuming that it will continue to fall.

Given overwhelming opposition to further school closures from teachers and families, OUSD should not further traumatize the community with a 'Cohort 3' of proposed consolidations.

If the Schools and Communities First ballot measure passes in November, it will give the district some breathing room to fully evaluate the closures and consolidations so far, and make that information available to the community. Now is not the time to rip a Band-Aid, let alone a finger or a toe or other body part, off of our school district.

I'm not talking about revoking the two school consolidations that are currently in process (Sankofa/Kaiser and Frick/SOL). I absolutely understand that the planned closure of the Kaiser campus and the SOL campus are very painful in different ways to each community because of the unique history and meaning of each school. But I have to be honest that it is not realistic to expect that those campuses will be kept open next year.

First, it's politically impossible to get there: I doubt a single board member would vote to revoke OUSD's September decision. Second, families have already made enrollment decisions based on the merger, and the design teams for each merged school are far along in their planning - revoking the consolidations would throw all of that into turmoil. Given the difficult budget cuts that are already in the planning stages at each school in Oakland, the uncertainty about enrollment and leadership if the consolidations were revoked would be devastating to all four schools (Sankofa, Kaiser, Frick, and SOL).

I have spoken with parents from Kaiser, Sankofa, Peralta and the Santa Fe community who are planning to enroll at the Sankofa/Kaiser merged school next year, and many have said that the calls to keep Kaiser open by the group called Oakland Not For Sale are prolonging the uncertainty about the future of the Sankofa campus. Like me, the parents I spoke to all opposed the consolidation decision at the moment it was made last September, but are supporting the planning process and encouraging people to sign their kids up at Sankofa/Kaiser for next year.

It's painful to say that Kaiser will be closed next August. But any politician that tells you otherwise is either not fully informed or is not being honest.

School closures are personal to me. I taught on and off at Edward Shands Adult School for seven years before it was closed in 2011, and was there in the last few days as it closed. Closing a school, even an adult school, is incredibly emotional and painful for that school community, because it contradicts all the hopes and dreams for the future that a school represents, and erases all the memories that live there. We can't take these decisions lightly, and we have to be honest with each other about what the impacts will be, and tell our kids the truth about what it will mean for their future.


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