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Oakland Unified moves forward with school closures despite protests

The Oakland Unified school board has voted to close Kaiser Elementary in the north Oakland hills in June and merge the campus with Sankofa Academy in the lower-income flatlands area of north Oakland. Kaiser's students come from throughout the city. (Photos by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

The Oakland Unified school board and superintendent are sticking to their plans to close and merge more schools over the next three years, despite escalating protests.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said she is moving ahead with plans to close Kaiser Elementary at the end of this school year and merge it with Sankofa Academy. The district’s plan calls for school closings, mergers or expansions every year over the next three years.

“The fact that not everyone agrees does not mean that these decisions aren’t right for Oakland’s students,” said Johnson-Trammell after a recent contentious school board meeting in which some protesters attempted to go on the stage where the school board members sit. A citizens group posted a video that they claim shows district police being unnecessarily forceful using batons to push back the protesters. Six protesters were arrested.

Johnson-Trammell, in a statement on Nov. 1, said she has directed “an inquiry into the use of force” to be conducted by “an impartial outside third party.” She also directed the release this week of all footage, including from police body cams, of the Oct. 23 meeting. The day after that meeting, district and police officials said they had to put up barricades to protect the school board. They said some protesters went too far by crossing the barriers.

“What occurred is not reflective of who we are as a community,” Johnson-Trammell said. “It is important for us to begin to address this situation from a place of compassion for everyone involved.”

The Oakland teachers union, which led its educators on a seven-day strike last February, issued a blistering criticism of the district for allowing its police to erect barricades and use force against the protesters. The state and district teachers’ unions, along with many protesters, blamed the superintendent and board for the police response and demanded an apology.

Undeterred, the protesters, joined by members of the Oakland Education Association teachers union, held a vigil outside the district office last week against school closures and the police response. Organizers and other anti-school closure activists said they planned to disrupt the next board meeting Nov. 13.

“We have demands,” said Saru Jayaraman, a Kaiser parent, referring to the group’s demands to stop school closures, redirect money spent on police toward students’ needs, curb charter school growth and involve residents in decisions about how to spend district funds. Jayaraman, whose 7-year-old and 9-year-old children attend Kaiser, has helped lead the protests. She said she was injured when police arrested her at the board meeting. “We’re going to keep holding actions and protests and going after board members until our demands are met.”

The protests began in September, after the school board voted to close Kaiser Elementary, in an affluent neighborhood in the north Oakland hills, and merge it next year with Sankofa Academy elementary, which is located about 2.7 miles away in a lower-income area of north Oakland known as the “flatlands.” Kaiser students come from throughout the city. Kaiser parents protesting the merger say they want to keep their successful small school, where children perform well on state tests and parents are involved in supporting the campus.

“We are uniting the Kaiser and Sankofa programs at the Sankofa campus to create an improved program — available to more students — and built on partnership,” Johnson-Trammell said. “This work has already started. A conversation between some families and some teachers at both schools is now underway.”

Sankofa Academy in Oakland Unified is slated to merge with Kaiser Elementary on the Sankofa campus next fall as the district carries out plans to reduce the total number of schools it operates so it can direct money saved into remaining campuses.

Kaiser Elementary Principal Dennis Guikema, in the school newsletter, confirmed that work has begun to bring the two schools together despite “the troubling images” from the board meeting. He said some parents attended an information meeting about the merger last month to find out how the new school will be designed.

“There was a feeling of optimism amongst participants, who used words like ‘opportunity’ and ‘possibility,’ while acknowledging that there is a lot of work to do and that the task ahead feels daunting,” he said. “Some important questions were raised about the facilities plan, budget, enrollment projections and supports for employees from both sites.”

The superintendent said she stands by the work of the “Blueprint for Quality Schools” and the “Citywide Plan” for schools, which outlined the district’s plan to reduce the total number of schools it operates to provide more resources to those that remain. She said she continues to support the plans because she knows “that equity and the success of all of our students are at the forefront of every decision made.”

A district report concludes that the district can serve its approximately 37,000 students by closing or merging up to 24 of its approximately 80 schools.

Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell affirms her commitment to continuing school closures, mergers and expansions during a press conference on Oct. 24.

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Johnson-Trammell said she expects to announce plans for a meeting with the protesters. She directed staff  “to support constructive dialogue to rebuild trust and empathy and to facilitate open and respectful communication.” School board member Shanthi Gonzales held a community meeting Oct. 26 and plans another meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 11 to discuss all school closings, mergers and expansions and their potential impact on residents in her East Oakland district.

“One thing I’m hearing a lot is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to and that their questions are not being answered,” Gonzales said in a message . “This is an opportunity to be heard, to ask questions and get answers.”

Johnson-Trammell said she implored “all of us to continue to engage in difficult conversations united by our common aim to improve quality education opportunities across the city.”

The protesters say they want a dialogue with the district and a stop to school closures. “The district and the elected board must engage with the people they are supposed to serve,” said parent protester Alicia Johnson.

Protesters including Kaiser Elementary parents, teachers and others from throughout the district who oppose school closures have formed a group called “Oakland is not for sale” and are demanding a moratorium on all school closures until the summer of 2022 in the hopes that ballot measures seeking additional funding will bring more money to the district next year. The group’s online petition has nearly 2,500 signatures and the support of the Oakland Education Association teachers union and the California Teachers Association.

In the past year, the district has closed Roots Academy and merged two middle schools. Two elementary schools are slated to merge next year, along with Kaiser and Sankofa and the School of Language and Frick Academy middle schools.

In the spring, the district plans to unveil a new list of schools to close, merge or expand. Next year and the following year, more schools will be added to these lists as the district strives to reduce the total number of schools it operates so it can use the money saved to invest more resources in the remaining schools.

Anti-school closure activists have broadened their protest agenda to include protesting against the spread of charter schools throughout the city. They advocate more spending on schools and less on district police and on the expansion of the Alameda County youth probation camp.

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.