There was ample sunshine, a lot of cameras (including a drone), some people wearing business suits, a homegrown NBA basketball player, and a hint of irony after school on the last day before spring break at Markham Elementary in East Oakland.
On Thursday, March 31, the Oakland Unified School DIstrict, in partnership with the Golden State Warriors, Trust for Public Land, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company held a celebratory event to unveil a new living schoolyard on the campus. The event was such a big draw that students stayed after school to attend, even though they were already officially on vacation.
A Living Schoolyard
In the week prior to the unveiling event, a mural designed by Oakland artist Favianna Rodriguez and Markham students was painted on the basketball court, and new basketball hoops installed as well. Project Blackboard was involved in the basketball court improvements.
Earlier in the school year, a new play structure had been installed.
Over the past several years, two gardens, outdoor classroom space, and an artificial turf play field have been installed on the campus as well.
Markham’s living schoolyard was started over 20 years ago, when Kat Romo, a teacher at the school back then, started the first garden on the campus.
Around 2015, former Harlem Globetrotter Moses Omolade, who was the director of the afterschool program at Markham at that time, came up with the idea to expand the garden that Romo had started 15 years earlier. Omolade, who now works at Westlake Middle School, was one of the staff at Westlake who engaged in a hunger strike to protest school closures earlier this year.
In 2016, Omolade hired Paloma Collier, an AmeriCorps volunteer, to be the garden teacher and to help with the afterschool program. Collier, who is now an employee of Growing Together, a school-based gardening and nutrition education program, is still the garden teacher and afterschool program staff at Markham.
Collier said that in her first year at Markham, she worked with Omolade to create a design for an expanded garden. Grey Kolevzon, who worked for the OUSD central office at the time, found grant funding for the project from the Trust for Public Land. Additional funding was also secured from the California State Coastal Conservancy and other private funders.
Collier spent the next several years engaging the students, staff, and families at Markham in designing a living schoolyard. One of the main priorities identified by students through that process was a field where they could play soccer.
She said that it has been empowering for the children to participate in the greening of their schoolyard, and she is proud to have been part of that process.
“It’s a spiritual thing,” Collier said about her work creating spaces where children can connect with each other and their environment. “The kids develop their own relationship with the ladybugs and the hummingbirds and the soil and the earthworms.”
In 2019, shade trees were planted in a new “nature yard” in the middle of the campus, and fruit trees were planted in a new orchard that expanded the original garden.
During the spring of 2021, more trees were planted throughout the campus, and the new artificial turf playing field prioritized by Markham students was installed.
In a community where many families suffer from some sort of trauma, all of the positive benefits of this project are appreciated. “Nature is healing,” Collier said.
Markham Has Additional Needs
While the campus improvements are appreciated, some Markham staff couldn’t help but have mixed feelings about all the pomp and circumstance organized on their campus by the district’s central office just one day after district central office staff unsuccessfully tried to give away some of their classroom space to a charter school.
“I feel good for the kids to be able to experience this moment,” said fourth grade teacher Nikita Gibbs.
However, she told Oakland Voices that despite the two-hour photo op, the resource-starved school that serves some of OUSD’s highest needs students still has other needs as well.
“When all the cameras are off, we’re still here facing the challenges of being an underserved school,” she said.
While the campus upgrades are appreciated by the Markham community, Gibbs says that the classroom buildings are still inadequate. Several classrooms have windows that can’t be opened, and the classrooms get extremely hot and extremely cold depending on the weather.
She noted that it took a union grievance to get fans for the classrooms during a brutal heat wave a few years ago. The added shade trees should help cool the entire campus at some point in the future, but that won’t help heat the classrooms in the winter.
Last year, 90% of Markham students were low income, 54% were English Language Learners, and 10% had disabilities. Seventy-three percent of the students were Latinx, and 22% were Black.
Gibbs, who grew up in East Oakland, has taught at Markham since 2008. She started her teaching career at Lockwood Elementary, one of the oldest campuses in Oakland, in 2003.
Her younger brother attended Markham, but she attended Sherman elementary, which was closed in 2007. The former Sherman campus now houses a co-location of Melrose Leadership Academy and Urban Montessori charter school.
She says that her time at Markham “has had its ups and downs,” as there has been high turnover amongst the administration and staff.
When asked why she has stayed at Markham for so long, she cited the families and staff at the school. “The community is very welcoming,” she said. “They’re really the reason I keep coming back.”
A Welcoming School
Markham was not on the list of schools that the board considered closing due to low enrollment back in February. However, Markham was identified as a welcoming school for families from Parker Elementary, one of two schools that will be permanently closing at the end of the year.
In a head-scratching move given that designation as a welcoming site for families from another school, district staff also recommended Markham for a co-location of a charter school as well.
During the March 23 board meeting, district staff proposed to offer 10 classrooms at Markham and seven classrooms at East Oakland Pride to Yu Ming charter school. Under Prop 39, the district has to offer up underutilized classroom space to charter schools that have requested it by April 1. However, the board chose instead to direct staff to work with Yu Ming to find other alternatives.
During a special board meeting the following week, staff reiterated their recommendation to offer classroom space at Markham and East Oakland Pride to the charter school.
In the end though, the board did not agree to offer any classroom space to Yu Ming at all, potentially in violation of Prop 39.
District spokesperson John Sasaki told Oakland Voices via email that despite the timing of the two occurences, the proposed Prop 39 co-location offer and the schoolyard unveiling event “were entirely independent of each other.”
Meanwhile, with an anticipated influx of students from another historically under-resourced flatland public school, there will be a need for additional resources at Markham.
Last year, 96% of the students at Parker were low income, 31% English Language Learners, and 11% had disabilities. Fifty-two percent of the students were Black, and 39% were Latinx.
However, with regard to any plans to welcome Parker families next year, Gibbs told Oakland Voices that Markham staff have not yet been told whether or not they would be getting additional resources to accommodate the additional families.
‘We’re still very much in the dark,” she said.
As far as Parker closing down permanently, Gibbs told Oakland Voices, “It’s upsetting because you know there’s another Oakland school closing.” “I feel bad for the families in that situation, as well as the teachers and staff,” she added.
On Monday, the ACLU of Northern California filed a complaint with the California Department of Justice urging Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate OUSD’s racially discriminatory school closure plan, which disproportionately impacts Black students and families.
Meanwhile, back at Markham, current and future students will get to enjoy a greener campus with a renovated playground.
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The Markham community will be hosting another event celebrating the greening of their campus on Friday, April 15, from 3-6pm, and that event will be open to the public. There will be Danza Azteca, games, music, food, and art.