No fixes yet for school overcrowding problem

I hope no one came to this morning’s Special Committee on School Admissions, Attendance and Boundaries meeting expecting solutions to chronic overcrowding at the city’s hills schools.

What the committee did seem to conclude, however, was this:

  • Moving from full-day to half-day kindergarten isn’t the best or most effective way to increase a school’s capacity.
  • To make sure all neighborhood families have a home school, the district will have to add classrooms to various schools (Montclair was mentioned), move attendance boundary lines, or both.
  • The district needs to balance out the number of special education students at various schools (Some schools, if I heard correctly, have none; in others, special needs students make up to 30 percent of the student population).
  • District staff needs to address “split-street” boundary lines, where kids on different sides of the same street attend different schools.

There was some debate about the timing of these solutions, and whether the special committee had completed its work. It was pretty confusing at the end of the meeting, but the committee members ultimately decided to meet again at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 3.

At that time, they will discuss staff recommendations on how to fix the problem, as well as some of the other issues I outlined above.

Board member Kerry Hamill was adamant that the decisions are made by December (last year at that time, the board delayed making the call), before the enrollment process begins. “We have a problem here to solve, and I think we need to solve it in the next couple of months,” she said.

Do you think boundary-line adjustments are necessary? Do you think it was wise for the board to take the better part of a year to study the issue, and do you think there are options they should consider that they haven’t already?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Former OUSD parent

    Yes the boundaries will need to be examined and changed.

    The boundaries haven’t been significantly reviewed in five years. The law may require the Board to look at the boundaries every other year. But the State take-over clan, never really had the power or the competence to examine the issue.

    Only when Hillcrest wanted to make thier attendance area smaller did the Board take up the issue.

  • an OUSD parent

    Boundaries do need to be examined! When schools are closed, the surrounding schools have to pick up the slack. For instance, when John Swett school was closed the district split its neighborhood between Laurel and Redwood Heights. Redwood Heights was already at capacity but now has overcrowding issues because of the larger attendance area. Redwood Heights remained the same size but the attendance area grew. YES the boundaries need to be re-evaluated.

  • Anon

    If the Board is going to open the question of school boundaries, I hope they will also take the opportunity to really examine the walkability of schools. We are equidistant from two schools, for instance, and are districted to the one that isn’t walkable (the freeway cuts the neighborhood off, so kids would have to walk over or under it–not safe in our area) instead of the school that’s a mile down a safe, walkable street. I don’t imagine walking or biking to school crossed the district’s mind when they put those original boundaries in place, but I imagine we’re not the only family with that challenge. It would be great to at least have the option of attending a walkable school, given that one exists. (Granted, in this particular case neither school is strong/popular and thus if our kids were ready for school we could probably choose either–but that hopefully won’t always be the case!)

  • another hills parent

    The bigger problem at Redwood Heights is not the boundary areas. It is the continuing acceptance of falsified addresses, which has continued this year despite what OUSD says.

  • OUSD parent

    The School Board is perpetuating inequality in Oakland schools by supporting the very artificial solution of keeping Hillcrest a K-8 institution. Meeting after meeting, Board members (and the OUSD demographer who must listen to their direction), insisted on showing charts that considered only 40 or 60 incoming Kindergarteners despite requests by OUSD parents to work out a scenario where 50 Kindergarteners were accommodated at Hillcrest. Now the Board is insisting that the only scenario that will work is the one in which Kindergarten is limited to 40 students, and the middle school grades are limited to 20 students. This leaves Hillcrest 5th graders to face the horrible experience of going through options again — a lottery — pitting neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend — vying for those precious spaces. The most logical solution is to accept 50 incoming Kindergarteners and eliminate the middle school grades. You end up with classes that are perfectly enrolled — guaranteeing 20 students in K-3 with one split-grade class that Hillcrest has always had. This is a much more equitable and logical solution. 25% more families living in the Hillcrest area are allowed to attend their neighborhood school and, if OUSD is presented with a “medium” enrollment scenario instead of a “high enrollment” scenario, there might even be room for some transfers! Either from families moving into the neighborhood with children in upper elementary school grades, or god forbid, from other Oakland neighborhoods looking for a better education and a brighter future. In addition, the long-term effects on the enrollment of other hills schools would be minimized. Kerry Hamill may claim that Hillcrest transfer students aren’t causing enrollment issues at other hills schools — but in the future, this will surely change, particularly at Chabot, which will have an increased neighborhood attendance once it has its new building and updated campus. But Kerry Hamill’s agenda is clearly to appease Hillcrest parents (perhaps as her upcoming campaign for City Council at-large approaches? campaign contributions anyone?). Her responsibility to make sure that OUSD operates an equitable school system clearly hasn’t made much of an impression on her. She claims that she wants to protect Hillcrest because it is the only working middle school in Oakland. Well if you take a group of only 60 middle school students and give them the teacher-student ratio provided through “aides” paid for by Hillcrest’s PTA, you are going to get “excellence” in any neighborhood! This excellence is the result of special privilege, pure and simple.

  • hills parent

    San Ramon schools has an incredible problem with overcrowding and most new students now are deferred to non-neighborhood schools. BUT, all of the schools are wonderful so there is little concern that children would attend an inferior school. This is what needs to occur in Oakland. Without improving all of the schools parents will, and should, be concerned about where their child attends school.

    There is good reason that Oakland families leave Oakland or find private schools during the late elementary years. If this is not corrected, then more will leave at the secondary years.

  • John

    Hills Parent: I know what you mean about San Ramon, I feel the same way about the other OUSD through that long dark tunnel. (Orinda Unified School District).

    Regarding the need for “improving all the (Oakland) schools,” the way to achieve it would be to send Orinda, Lafayette, Moraga, San Ramon, and Piedmont students to the Oakland schools while sending Oakland students to the aforementioned districts.
    Unfortunately, the result of such an experiment is one the ‘divide and conquer’ political practitioners of Oakland’s hills VS flatland education can ill afford.

    Successful politicians need, and their majority constituents demand, a good fairy tale. Smash it and things get ugly and people get unelected real fast.

  • Hills Neighborhood Parent

    Yes, they need to readjust boundaries. I hope the board has the guts to do this!

    Neighborhood families should have a degree of certainty in this process and not be left to wonder, hope and pray to get into their local school. It is very unfair for families who live across the street from a school or within a block or two to face the prospect of being redirected to another lesser performing school. If you can walk to the school, within reason, you should be able to attend the school!

    In addition, the board needs to move special ed kids to schools that aren’t at or over capacity. What happened at Montclair (where blind children were relocated to Glenview) helps to open up space for local kids. That was the right decision and a similar thing could happen at other popular schools as well.

  • Jane

    Over time Montclair has become more and more a neighborhood school. Years ago when my 5th grader entered kindergarten 40% of his class was from outside the attendance area, this year there are no kindergarteners from outside the attendance area (and 2 of the three classes are well over 20 kids). Over the years Montclair has maintained high test scores even when we had a greater mix of non-neighborhood kids. I am thrilled to hear that the board is considering increasing Montclair, it will be great if we can again be a choice for out of neighborhood kids (and have enough space for in-neighborhood too!).

  • realist

    OUSD Parent:

    Why are you so interested in tearing down something that is working? 6-8 grade students are equally deserving of a good education at a neighborhood school. Doesn’t Oakland need all the success it can get? Don’t you think it would be better to try and replicate this K-8 model where appropriate to give all students the option of attending a K-8 school if they so desired?

    Some facts:

    * Many educators feel that the transition between elementary and middle school can disrupt a child’s education. Students who have trouble in middle school are more vulnerable to failure in high school or dropping out (sound familiar in our fair city?).
    * In addition, research has shown that K-8 students show higher levels of achievement in math and reading; have higher attendance rates; and display better self-esteem, leadership, and attitudes toward school, all of which affect achievement. Parents often praise the greater sense of community they feel exists in K-8 schools, and stronger relationships exist between students, teachers, and parents in K-8 schools.

    I think you are mistaken in your beliefs that Hillcrest’s K-8 success is due to special privilege. Hillcrest’s success is directly attributable to the staff and parents who work tirelessly to make the program work. I’m sure you have parents and staff such as these at your school too. It would be more productive to spend time making positive changes at any Oakland school rather than making divisive comments that help no one.

  • yet another parent

    I personally would love to see more K-8 schools in Oakland. All my kids went to Bret Harte and did very well there. The only problem was that I felt it was too big for that age group. Middle schoolers would do much better in a smaller setting. If not K-8 schools maybe OUSD should consider more middle schools that are smaller in Oakland and also smaller high schools. Our students tend to lose their identities as individuals at the secondary level.

  • Hills Neighborhood Parent

    Hillcrest can’t even accommodate all its projected middle-schoolers and that’s why starting next year their 5th graders will have to fill out an options form (if I am remembering correctly from some OUSD presentation). With such a need on the elementary level in that area, I can’t believe Hillcrest has been allowed to hang onto its middle school. I think it is very unfair for all the K kids that will be denied a spot. If space weren’t an issue, I think K-8 is great model.

    I also think that small, stand-alone middle schools would be able to accomplish many good things too.

  • hills parent

    Realist: Come on, now let’s be real. The Hillcrest students would be successful wherever they went. This is clearly a case of the privileged getting what they want…and of a school board under their thumb.

  • realist

    Even without the middle school, Hillcrest will not be able to handle the projected kindergarteners, so admitting 50-60 kids per year is out of the question even if the middle school were not part of the equation.

    There is a great need in Oakland for good schools, elementary, middle and high school. We need to focus on developing the schools that need help, not destroying the ones that are doing ok. Having multiple schools that are successful would give families more than one or two choices of schools that they consider “good” in Oakland.

    As unfair as it may be to re-direct a kindergartener from Hillcrest, it is equally unfair to deny 11-13 year olds the opportunity to go to an existing, successful middle school in their neighborhood, a school that they have been at all their lives, and a school that is working for them and their families.

    It took many years of hard work to put the K-8 model in place at Hillcrest. We should be applauding that effort, not looking for ways to undo the accomplishment.

  • Hills Neighborhood Parent

    I don’t agree that it is “equally unfair” that Hillcrest kids are denied a middle school onsite. Why don’t you ask a family who spent a lot of money to move into that area how they feel about not getting into kindergarten at their neighborhood school? I’d rather the school serve more families for a shorter time than fewer families for longer.

    OK, maybe some would still need to be sent elsewhere as Hillcrest can’t handle 60 kids a year. So maybe the school can handle 50 kids, with combo classes where needed. I think that’s still better than 40 kids or whatever.

    Bottom line: doing away with the middle school makes more room for elementary kids (even if it doesn’t make enough room).

  • Catherine


    You are correct in your stats for slightly below / average / slightly above average students in reading and math. However, for advanced students a small school setting does not provide the advanced education in algebra, science, literature, languages and philosophy. A school as small as Hillcrest simply does not have the means to provide advanced classes that many advanced learners need.

    Some students are better off in small schools, however, many gifted students would be better off in a school such as Montera where the depth of study and the number of math, science, language and English classes would meet their needs.

    What I see from a great number of friends who live in the Hillcrest school area (some have elected to send their kids to private school) is that there is a big fear factor. There is fear about letting their kids play outside in the neighborhood without an adult present, fear of sending their kids to a school like Montera with nearly 900 kids and fear that their kids cannot take age-appropriate responsibility without getting lost in the shuffle.

    To look at this problem, I believe that parents really need to take a look at their own fearful emotions. Then they need to really know their kids – some kids really would love the stimulus of more children, more teachers, more after-school clubs and an environment that is more grown up and urban.

  • realist

    Hills parent: We will just need to agree to disagree.

    Catherine: I agree with you about students having more options in bigger middle schools, particularly in terms of being offered advanced classes. There is a trade off whether a child chooses to stay at Hillcrest or move to a bigger middle school, and reasons for each are compelling depending on the student. Either way, the middle school at Hillcrest is preparing almost all of its students well for high school study, whether they opt for public or private.

    I also agree with you about the fear factor. I’ve noticed that often parents will keep their kids in private school through 8th grade, and then when the child is older and they are more comfortable with the child’s independence they are taking the steps to go with a public high school in Oakland vs. staying at the private school that they’ve been at. My observations have been that most of these parents have been pleasantly surprised as to how positive their big, urban high school experience has been.

    I find it sad that people are so quick to jump on the “let’s dismantle the middle school at HC and the problems will be solved” bandwagon. That will never be true in a big urban school district. Atleast with the availability of HC middle school, many parents are staying with the public school (which is good for Oakland) rather than putting their child in a private one. Hopefully many of these kids will go onto Skyline or Oakland Tech (local high schools for HC) and as a result these schools will become stronger too.
    I continue to believe that the solution is to improve all neighborhood schools rather than expending the energy to take apart something so many families worked to put in place when Hillcrest was not as popular as it is now.

  • John

    Realist in your response to OUSD parent you make some good points about the benefits of the K-8 model. You are correct in your observation that “Hillcrest’s success is DIRECTLY attributable to the staff and parents who work tirelessly to make the program work,” a circumstance not “directly attributable” to the existence of a K-8 program model.

    Having spent my career teaching in lower elevation Oakland schools it has been my observation that “parents who (are able or willing to) work tirelessly to make their (school) program work” are very far and very few between to non-existent at most schools.

    You’re being “sure” that others have parents at their schools like you have at yours is inconsistent with your self designation. Perhaps your comments would be more Realistic if you came down to town from your school on the hill to practice your ‘making positive change’ preach under less positive circumstances?

    I hope these divisive comments inspire you to learn by practicing what you preach at “any” Oakland school, NOW whose being unrealistic? Guilty as charged!

  • realist


    re: “Perhaps your comments would be more Realistic if you came down to town from your school on the hill to practice your ‘making positive change’ preach under less positive circumstances?” – yes, I am currently doing this, are you?

    re: “inspire you to learn by practicing what you preach at “any” Oakland school, NOW whose being unrealistic?” yes, doing this as well at a Title 1, NCLB program improvement school, are you?

    You are the one being divisive in your efforts to “pick a fight” rather than focus on making positive changes. For this, I feel sorry for you.

  • Jon Simon

    Get rid of attendance areas and bus them. Schools are getting more and more segregated. It’s separate and unequal by geography and attendance area. By mixing populations, those previously without role models of success will get them, and money previously wasted on hopeless cases can help the high achievers get even higher.

    Of course it will never happen. It’d be political suicide. Only a court order could make it so.

  • Hills Neighborhood Parent

    If what Jon Simon suggested happens (which it won’t), we’d move or go private. Not enough families can or do focus on education in Oakland and there is no way I’d accept having my kids in an environment where the schools were all mixed up.

  • Sharon

    Jon: You said, “By mixing populations, those previously without role models of success will get them…”

    Yours is a solution that commonly gets suggested which MIGHT work in a district that has a VERY LARGE middle-class enrollment, making middle-class values dominate, but that isn’t OUSD. We’re not balanced that way; we’re bottom heavy.

    If all the schools in Oakland were heterogeneously homogenized, all OUSD schools would be 64% Free/Reduced Price Lunch, 13.7% Asian, 6.2% White, 36.5% Latino and 36.3% African American.

    A 30-student class would have 19 low income kids and 11 non-low income kids (and the majority of those families would be a long way from being affluent). The class would have 11 Latino kids, 11 African American kids, 4 to 5 Asian kids, 1 or 2 White kids, and 2 “Other” kids. The average educational level attained by the parents would be high school graduation, and a couple of college classes taken at some point.

    The average class of students that would be created won’t be one that is made up of kids with mostly professional parents busily doing all of the PTA and teacher support along with general advocacy for the few other parents who don’t/can’t. That is the setting that might help underclass students, if there were only a few of them present.

    Even if OUSD bussed and balanced things perfectly, the kids and parent sensibility from the lower income groups would dominate. Of course, this is all connected to why OUSD elementary schools are more tolerable to higher income families and why the secondary schools are not. It is the eventual departure of higher income families from OUSD (by those who haven’t entirely shunned the schools) that makes OUSD so bottom heavy. The population of Oakland looks very different than OUSD.

    Our neighbor to the north (Berkeley Unified), for example, has 41% Free/Reduced Price Lunch, 8% Asian, 41% White, 19% Latino and 25% African American. The average parent ed. level is 2.73. It’s a different group.

    Back to the drawing board…

  • Jon Simon

    Many kids have no vision of educational success at all. Provide ample enrichment for higher kids without the focus on the bottom of NCLB and, overall, everyone will be better off. If HNP’s kid got more small group time with a teacher’s full attention (not in the classroom), perhaps it’d be worth it to stay.

  • Catherine

    If the statistics from Freakenomics are correct, we should put books in every home BEFORE and AFTER the children start school, we should make sure that all parents are 30 years old or older when they have their FIRST child, and we should have parents name their children “success” names rather than making names up as they go along.

    Come to think of it – we should correct both parents and children who use non-standard English in all conversations at school so that they ask questions, answer questions and make statements in complete, Standard English syntax. These items will automatically insult people, yet are the exact things we know which makes good students.

    So, just as those in the middle and upper middle class correct their children, and the children correct their peers when mis-statements or non-standard English are spoken, would we then be able to do the same with those families that do not come from the same background, who want their kids to attend schools in an upper middle class neighborhood?

    My daughter attends one of the “Hills Schools.” We are not an upper class family, however, we educate our only child as though we were. Her friends correct each others’ English and misinformation.

    I would gladly accept our “fair share” of reduced price school lunch kids, kids of color and those children whose parents did not graduate high school in our school IF we could make every student speak in Standard English syntax, have the ability to transfer students whose parents do not get them to school on time (for the parents who drive their kids, not the kids on public transportation) and if parents do not make sure that their children complete their homework on time correctly.

    Only when we have the courage to set the same expectations for ALL OUR CHILDREN will we have educational success for all our children.

  • Jon Simon

    One other thing. It’s silly to stop at district borders. Perhaps that will help the whole demographics situation. I’d be perfectly happy to see low-income kids BARTing and busing to Orinda and Lafayette.

  • John

    Realist: Thanks for the altruistic revelation regarding your efforts in behalf of a lower elevation Oakland (“flat land”) school.

    I can only assume such involvement constitutes your experiential basis for advising OUSD parent that: (a) “Hillcrest’s K-8 success is (not) due to special privilege,” but to “the staff and parents who work tirelessly to make the program work;” and that, (b) OUSD Parent “has parents and staff like those at Hillcrest at her/his school too.” Your comments to this parent suggest that Hillcrest’s results can be replicated at “any Oakland school.”

    Your latest revelation of volunteer (?) involvement in a Oakland “Title 1, NCLB program improvement school” leaves me humble and a bit curious as to: (a) which “Title 1, NCLB program improvement school” you are involved with; and, (b) how long you’ve been involved at this school. I am familiar with many such schools and have contacts at others. If you could please answer these questions I’ll happily check it out in an effort to understand the experiential basis for your comments to OUSD parent, whose comments you label as “divisive” – while being ever careful not to “pick a fight.”

  • BILL

    There is no way that Hillcrest should be able to keep it’s k-8 school. You cannot make a population suffer due to the entitlements of a select few.

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