In an interview with Oakland North, Oakland Unified School District board member Gary Yee (Ed.D), at left, a 30 year veteran educator and Stanford alum, detailed the context behind the contentious vote last night (5-2) to close 5 elementary schools and a further 20-30 schools in the next 3 years.
“The small schools movement occurred more or less with the movement for more charter schools,” There were multiple educational experiments underway at the same time, Yee said—changes in how individual school campuses were managed, for example; as well as the increased popularity of publicly-funded but privately-run charter schools (Oakland has 35). ( The "Small schools" movement was popular in early 2000--the idea was to have no more than 400 students per school)
In 2000, the OUSD board approved its New Small Autonomous Schools policy: “There was a lot of interest in all this as a solution,” Yee said. “For some, the small schools movement was an effort to keep people interested in different kinds of strategies in the school system, as opposed to the charters.”
As a result, OUSD created 45 new schools, partnering with The Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (now the The National Equity Project), with an initial $15.7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (who invested a total of $40 million before withdrawing funding). Large schools were closed or divided into smaller schools within a single building or campus. In particular, OUSD hoped to improve the educational outcomes for students living in the racially segregated and impoverished areas of Oakland called "the Flatlands".
Ten years on, OUSD Is struggling with low enrollment numbers and huge cuts in state funding ($150 million in two years); neither of these factors were anticipated or planned for a decade ago.
According to an OUSD’s budget report this year, the district’s major money problems include “low levels of funding…probably the last in the nation now;” and the volatility of existing funding, which the report called “totally unpredictable.” A decrease in number of students—in the last ten years, enrollment in the district has dropped 30 percent—has added to the district’s financial challenges.
Currently, the district operates 101 schools for 38,000 students, a much higher ratio than those of nearby comparably-sized districts. In March this year, MK Think, a facilities firm hired by OUSD school superintendent Tony Smith, released a report showing the district had so much excess capacity, given no growth in student numbers, that it could enroll another 10,900 students.
According to OUSD spokesman Troy Flint, the factors considered when recommending schools for closure were building capacity, enrollment percentages, school performance rank, and population density around school buildings, “We used census data heavily,” Flint said.
The schools to be closed are Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe elementary schools, affecting 900 students. The closures will save the district $2 million annually.
Board members Noel Gallo and Alice Spearman opposed the measure.
Written for California's Children by Elizabeth Carlyle.