The number of students attending Oakland’s district-run public schools shrank by about 30 percent between 2000 and 2010 — a trend that’s partly explained by a decline in the number of children living in the city and partly by the explosion of independently-run, state-funded charter schools during that time.
Despite that striking statistic, the district has even more schools today than it did back then.
If you don’t count the already-closed Youth Empowerment School (which somehow ended up on the list of schools to be phased out next year), there are still 100 schools in OUSD — about 15 more than there were in 2000. As education blogger John Fensterwald pointed out to me, that amounts to an average of 640 students per school in 2000, compared to an average of about 380 per school today.
With numbers like that, you might think this is the first time OUSD has considered reducing the number of neighborhood schools it operates. Not so. Oakland Unified shuttered about a dozen during the 2000s — and that’s not counting the ones that were closed and reopened as a school improvement strategy, or the new schools were shut down soon after they opened.
Most of these schools closed their doors before I started covering OUSD, but not all: Burbank, Carter, Cole, Foster, Golden Gate, John Swett, King Estates, Longfellow, Lowell, Merritt Middle College, Sherman, and Toler Heights. (Am I missing any? Not sure how to classify Cole or Lowell, as West Oakland Middle School opened on the Lowell campus as Cole was closing, but years after Lowell closed. And Hawthorne Elementary was a charter conversion. )
As parts of the city experienced a population boom and grappled with severe school overcrowding (which triggered the small schools movement), enrollment in other schools fell. Many of the closures during those years — whether in North Oakland, West Oakland or in the East Oakland foothills — were in predominately African-American neighborhoods, or serving large numbers of black students.
Even now, when I think about a 2007 meeting with district staff and parents in the Sherman Elementary School cafeteria, I can almost feel the tension. And how the raw, angry voices gave way to near-silence after the closure news was announced.
That criticism resurfaced last night, as parents from Lakeview, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe asked why their largely African-American schools were being targeted. (Lazear, the fifth school facing closure, is majority-Latino.)
Alice Spearman, who represents a mostly black and Latino swath of East Oakland, echoed their sentiments. While she supported closure criteria that placed a heavy emphasis on population density and enrollment, she has been lobbying hard for her African-American constituents in recent meetings.
“I have 21 schools in my district, and the only schools you chose to pick on were the ones that were predominately African American,” Spearman said last night to the superintendent. “You’ve got to look at the other group,” she said.
Schools in flux
As anyone who followed OUSD in the last decade knows, its school closings and openings were often anything but straightforward.
There were the schools that were closed and reopened — like Washington Elementary (replaced by Sankofa, which was first designed to become a K-8 school, then a K-5, now possibly a K-8 again) and McClymonds High School in West Oakland, which is back to being McClymonds after once housing three separate schools.
Some school campuses are now two closures deep: The two high schools that moved into the shuttered King Estates Middle School have since shut down — East Oakland Community High School and Youth Empowerment School. Explore Middle School, which moved into the closed Burbank Elementary School, itself closed in 2010. Burbank is now home to a preschool center for children with special needs, some of whom were relocated from Tilden — after it closed.
Change isn’t always harmful, of course. In some places, the teachers and parents there will say it was badly needed. But the instability of the past decade shouldn’t be forgotten, either — especially as the district embarks on what’s been billed as a “multi-year process” for shrinking itself down a more manageable size.