Two weeks ago, as part of its big restructuring and school closure process, the Oakland school board approved a system of ranking schools, primarily based on where they are most needed, geographically. Board members talked about the importance of looking at the district as a whole when determining how many and which schools to close, rather than advocating for their respective districts.
That was all before anyone named names.
On Wednesday, the names of 10 schools “identified for possible closure consideration” appeared on a staff presentation, highlighted in yellow: Burckhalter, Kaiser, Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park, Santa Fe and Sobrante Park elementary schools; and Claremont and Frick middle schools. (Note: The superintendent said at the meeting it was unlikely any middle schools would actually be recommended for closure. The district is already consolidating a number of its high schools and doesn’t plan to recommend any more.)
District staff members stressed that the list was not a set of recommendations, but the result of initial number-crunching — running the district’s 101 schools through the first few steps of the formula the school board members approved. They began by ranking schools according to enrollment trends, population density and facility size. Schools that are already undergoing major changes are removed from the list.
Still, with those names in black and white, the conversation changed.
Jody London (North Oakland) said she wondered if district staff had taken into account the “political reality” of closing the only school of a certain type in an electoral district — namely, Claremont Middle School in North Oakland. Alice Spearman (East Oakland-Elmhurst) said she was disappointed to see smaller, predominately African-American elementary schools near Interstate 580 on the list. A vocal critic of the district’s small schools initiative — in which a number of large, low-performing schools were closed and smaller ones were opened in their place — Spearman said she’d rather see the district consolidate elementary and middle school campuses in the district’s flatlands, even if it meant creating an elementary school with 700 or more students.
Spearman also questioned why six schools in West Oakland were exempt from closure consideration — as specified in the criteria — because of a district initiative to bring a science, math, technology and engineering focus to the area.
Board member David Kakishiba urged his colleagues to maintain discipline in the face of a difficult decision. “Two weeks ago, we approved criteria,” he said. “The superintendent is coming back with results. When we get to the point where we’re going to completely upend the criteria, we’re wasting time. I’m wondering: What were we thinking two weeks ago?”
A number of parents from Kaiser Elementary made the case for their high-performing school, which had 272 students in 2010-11. Although it’s located in a wealthy Oakland hills neighborhood, they noted that most of its students come from other parts of the city, making it racially and socioeconomically diverse. Last year, African-American students made up the largest ethnic group at the school, with about one-third of the student population; they averaged a score of 816 out of 1,000 possible points on the state’s Academic Performance Index, well above the district average. The school’s API is 885.
Lisa Cartolano, whose children attend Kaiser and Claremont, said the idea of closing either school doesn’t make sense for the school district. “This is why people leave Oakland,” she said. “I have so many friends who have up and left. … It’s getting exhausting.”
Other speakers accused the district of protecting schools with predominately white student populations.
“How do we keep Montclair and Thornhill when they’re a block a way from each other?” asked Wandra Boyd, a longtime advocate for African-American students who once ran for a seat on the school board. “You’re closing high-performing schools that have a large African-American population. … In each and every case, you’ve never affected the white students.”
Preliminary recommendations for school closure and restructuring — which will take into account special education programming, board feedback and other factors — will be presented at a public board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 27. The board is scheduled to make a final decision by Oct. 26.
Vernon Hal, the district’s deputy superintendent of business services and operations, estimates that each school closure would free up about $450,000 to spend on the district’s remaining schools, even if 20 percent of the affected students leave the district. Consolidating two schools that share a campus, he said, would result in a savings of about $250,000.
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