On a cold Monday night in the middle of a pandemic, almost two hundred members of the Manzanita Community School family and their allies gathered for a watch party on the school playground to witness the disruption of their lives introduced as legislation before the Oakland Unified School Board.
Eleven public schools are slated for closure or merger or relocation at the end of this year. Five more, including Manzanita Community, will be similarly disrupted at the end of next year. Manzanita Community shares its campus with Manzanita SEED Elementary, which is not currently slated for closure. It remains to be seen whether SEED will take over the entire campus, or if another school will move into the vacated half of the campus.
Even though school closures have been devastating Black and brown Oakland neighborhoods for the past two decades, OUSD school communities throughout the city were caught by surprise when the reason for a special board meeting to discuss school closures was publicized on short notice and without any community engagement process.
All but one school on the list slated for closure this school year or next school year is majority Black and/or Latinx or BIPOC. Only Hillcrest Elementary is not. Schools like Prescott Elementary in West Oakland and Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland, both schools with a majority of Black or Latinx students, have rich institutional histories that will be lost if they close.
The district states that it has too many under-enrolled schools. After almost two decades of fiscal oversight by the state and county, OUSD has made drastic budget cuts in two of the past three years, and says they need to make another $90 million in cuts this year.
The Board meeting lasted over nine hours. Over 2,000 people logged into the Zoom, with more people viewing the live stream via the internet or on KDOL television. All but one speaker during public comment opposed the closure plans.
During the Board meeting, the district shared that closing schools would save the district between an estimated $5-$15 million, which is 2% of the district’s annual budget.
As of Monday evening, the list of schools slated for closure at the end of this academic year are: Prescott, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Parker K-8, Brookfield Village Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, and Community Day will be closed; La Escuelita will lose grades 6-8; Westlake Middle Special Day Classes and Newcomer programs will be merged and displaced to the West Oakland Middle School campus; Ralph J. Bunche Academy and Dewey Academy will move to the vacated Westlake campus; and Rise Community and New Highland Academy will be merged into one school on the same campus where the two schools are currently co-located.
At the end of the 2022-2023 school year, Horace Mann Elementary, Manzanita Community, and Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy will close. Hillcrest will lose its 6-8 grades.
The district claims that in order to improve funding for teachers, they need to close under-enrolled schools. Under their stated guidelines, that means any elementary school with less than 300 students is unsustainable.
In an email to parents, OUSD’s Chief Business Officer Lisa Grant-Dawson wrote:
“A prime example of this cost is the fact that we spend more on teacher salaries than 85% of the state’s largest districts, yet our teachers have the lowest average salary and the fewest years of teaching experience. We know this is unacceptable, particularly in the expensive Bay Area, but how did we get here? The answer lies primarily in our investment in unsustainably small schools and small classes that’s being accelerated by declining enrollment, lower attendance, and the resulting reduction in our primary sources of revenue. Of course, the pandemic has only made the situation worse.”
However, from a pedagogical standpoint, a lower student to teacher ratio is helpful for students to learn. Critics of the school closures also point to high salaries of high-level administrators, consultants, and the yearly lease of the district’s downtown headquarters at more than $1 million a year.
Two Educators Start Hunger Strike
At midnight on February 1st, 2022, Westlake Middle School Choir Director Maurice André San-Chez and Westlake Middle Program Manager Moses Olanrewaju Omolade began a hunger strike “to end all school closures,” according to a letter the two sent to the OUSD Board.
“Both San-Chez and Omolade will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of their health until either OUSD ends all school closures and meets to honor our developing community demands OR their internal organs fail and they die,” they added.
Later on Tuesday, La Escuelita, MetWest, and Westlake students and staff walked off campus and marched to the expensive, privately-owned building housing district headquarters, where they held a rally to speak out against the closure of their schools.
At the rally, San-Chez told Oakland Voices that 13 hours into their hunger strike, they were starting to get a little light-headed, but San-Chez’s spirit was lifted seeing OUSD students standing up and fighting to save their schools.
When asked whether or not they thought that Westlake students would feel welcome at West Oakland Middle School, which is 1.7 miles away, San-Chez replied, “The district seems to think so.” However, San-Chez was a bit skeptical, citing gang issues at WOMS as a potential challenge for Westlake students, who come from all over Oakland, including deep East Oakland.
Like many OUSD flatland schools, Westlake has had a tumultuous past few years. Popular principal Misha Karigaca was reassigned away from the school after the Westlake community organized to oppose the co-location of a charter school in 2015. Two years later, after accepting half of MetWest High School as a co-location on its campus instead, Westlake was turned into an arts magnet school in 2017.
MetWest High School, a product of OUSD’s small schools movement that district leadership is blaming its financial problems on, is physically co-located on both the Westlake and La Escuelita campuses.
It is not immediately clear what will happen to MetWest if Westlake and La Escuelita are closed.
Later in the afternoon on Tuesday, activists organized a car caravan to the houses of Sam Davis and Shanthi Gonzalez at sunset.
Surrounded By Charter Schools
Corrin Haskell taught fifth grade at Brookfield Village Elementary for 25 years up until this year, when he became a science teacher for all grades in the school’s brand new Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, & Math laboratory. The new STEAM lab was created with the help of a $100,000 grant from the NBA Cares program.
Brookfield is surrounded by charter schools that Haskell says have “Slowly been siphoning away our students” for the past decade.
If Brookfield were to close though, Haskell questions whether the charter schools surrounding Brookfield would want all of Brookfield’s students. He said that some of the students who have learning challenges, behavioral problems, or need special education support may not receive it at the local charter schools. “We have a lot of SPED (Special Education) classes,” he said.
The closest public school is the recently renovated Madison Park Academy, which is 1.2 miles away from Brookfield in a one way in/one way out type of neighborhood that is ”a treacherous walk” across busy 98th Avenue. The next closest public school is Korematsu, which is 1.2 miles away across both 98th Avenue and San Leandro Boulevard, but that school is slated to be closed at the end of next year.
The district’s plan is to send Brookfield students to a new school that they plan to create by merging Rise Community and New Highland Academy, but that campus is 1.8 miles away from Brookfield Village.
During the first two meetings of the shelter-in-place era in March 2020, the OUSD Board voted to offer a prop 39 co-location lease on the Brookfield campus to a charter school from up the hill, but that charter school eventually opted against expanding into the deep east flatlands.
After school on Wednesday, the Brookfield family marched across the 98th Avenue overpass above the 880 freeway after school on Wednesday to protest the closures.
Week of Action Continues
Later on Wednesday, an art build is scheduled to prepare for rallies in the coming days. On Thursday evening, another car caravan is planned. On Friday, a rally in front of City Hall is being planned.
On Saturday, February 5, there will be a gathering in West Oakland at Prescott Elementary.
Prescott opened in 1869, and is the oldest school in OUSD. It is home to the beloved Prescott Circus, and recently unveiled a new community garden. Ida Louise Jackson, Oakland’s first ever African American teacher, started teaching at Prescott in 1925.
Stefanie Parrott has been a parent there for the past decade, and she told Davey D on Hard Knock Radio on Monday that Prescott has been one of OUSD’s most improved schools during that time.
She said that that improvement has come despite a lack of support by district leadership.
“There’s no support of the schools,” she told Davey D. “It’s tragic to feel so unsupported by the district.”
Despite the growth in recent years, Prescott has been threatened by district leadership with a charter school co-location three times in the past 5 five years.
If Prescott were to close, the school that Prescott families would be displaced to, Hoover Elementary, is 2.1 miles away.
Parrott also conveyed the importance of fighting against school closures.
“This is our chance to defend these amazing institutions,” Parrott told Hard Knock Radio.
The Board is scheduled to vote on a final list of schools to be closed this year and next year during a special board meeting scheduled for February 8.
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Update: We have updated the pronouns used for Westlake Middle School Choir Director Maurice André San-Chez.
Lets us also honor the Reparations for Black Students campaign who have been working tirelessly over the last year to protect schools in Oakland from closure. Their week of action includes the organizing efforts mentioned on this platform. Uplift community organizers! Black Organizing Project (BOP) and many many others