Demographic change has left an unmistakable stamp in West Oakland, a historically black, industrial neighborhood near the foot of the Bay Bridge.
Some effects of the shift are obvious even to the casual observer -- the landscaped condominiums, the bicycles, the art cars.
Just below the surface, however, something else is happening: School-age children are disappearing.
"It seems I should see some kids walking to school, but I don't hardly see any," said Marilyn Williams-Reynolds, a preschool teacher and neighborhood activist.
It's a pattern playing out in cities across the United States.
Artists and professionals are returning to the urban neighborhoods they fled a half-century ago -- and black residents are packing up their families and leaving. Some have gone in search of jobs, new homes, or a safer place to live; others, evicted from their houses, had little choice.
Many of the newcomers taking their place don't have children in school.
Nationwide, the total number of 5- to 17-year-olds increased slightly in the past decade. But Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco, as well as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Atlanta, saw declines of 9 percent to 20 percent from 2000 to 2010, census data show.
In West Oakland, a small community a seven-minute train ride from San Francisco, the number of school-age children dropped by 31 percent in just 10 years.
New, upscale condominium developments, such as the 130-unit Zephyr Gate, don't seem to have been designed with families in mind. That may be beside the point; some of the area's new migrants don't yet consider their neighborhood, for all of its creative vitality, a safe enough place to raise the next generation.
"I think I'd be hesitant to have kids here. There's still too much crime," said Ryon Gesink, a metal artist who moved to West Oakland seven years ago.
The demographic forces reshaping the nation's inner cities are having a profound effect on Oakland's schools, particularly those in West Oakland. Since 2000, the combined enrollment of public, noncharter schools in the area has plunged by more than 60 percent.
The drop is most dramatic at the middle and high school level, but no school has been unaffected. Prescott Elementary, where Ida Louise Jackson, the first black schoolteacher in California, began her career, is half the size it was in 2005, with 175 students.
Williams-Reynolds' 14-year-old daughter, Chloe, is part of the trend. When her parents divorced a few years ago, Chloe moved to the Contra Costa suburb of Crockett -- which she describes as "an adorable town" -- with her father.
"There weren't a lot of kids for me to hang out with here," she said from the front steps of her mother's house, where she stays on the weekends.
The African-American birthrate, which declined by 24 percent nationwide from 1990 to 2000, is one factor behind the phenomenon. Another is the particular nature of the population of West Oakland. Many of the area's residents are "aging in place," as demographers put it, while their children and grandchildren are leaving the inner city behind -- often selling the property they inherited. In some cases, those moves are driven by risky or fraudulent mortgage loans, job losses and crime.
In the past two years, the community of 25,000 residents had 59 homicides, according to the Oakland Police Department. Most of the victims were black males.
The exodus of Oakland's black families began in the 1990s, but it was accelerated by the housing boom and bust in the 2000s, said Victor Rubin, director of PolicyLink, a national research institute whose mission is to bring about social and economic equity.
When the housing market rose sharply, demographers say, some African-American families took the opportunity to sell their homes and move out of the inner city. Meanwhile, others refinanced or took out second mortgages, borrowing against their homes' market value. Then, after the housing prices dropped and the recession hit, leaving residents jobless or owing more money than their homes were worth, foreclosures and rental evictions began to spread.
Nearly 10 percent of the homes in West Oakland were foreclosed from 2007 to 2011, compared to 7.1 percent of those in the city as a whole and 7.3 percent statewide, according to a data analysis produced by the Oakland-based Urban Strategies Council.
Support for schools
When demographic shifts dramatically reduce a city's public school population, as it has in Oakland, the educational system risks losing critical community support, Rubin said. So far, he said, he hasn't sensed that kind of neglect locally.
Despite a 30 percent enrollment decline during the past decade, voters have approved several tax levies for facilities upgrades and education programs. Still, the dwindling number of students has led to school closings throughout the city -- often, in historically African-American neighborhoods with few school-age children.
In October, the school board voted to close five schools. Four of them were predominately African-American.
In the mid-20th century, before it was devastated by plant closings and the crack epidemic that swept through the nation's cities, West Oakland was a prosperous working- and middle-class community. African-Americans streamed in from the South to work in the thriving shipbuilding, manufacturing, military and railroad industries. Today, with most of those jobs gone and neighbors dispersing, the younger generations don't necessarily see a future for themselves there, said David Glover, executive director of Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal.
"We just don't have those deeply indigenous communities hanging on anymore," he said. "If anything, they're being relegated to museum status."
West Oakland's population is roughly half African-American, down from two-thirds in 2000. The number of non-Hispanic whites more than doubled from 2000 to 2010, and the number of Latino residents increased by 13 percent, according to census data. Whites and Asians make up about 30 percent of West Oakland's population, up from 17 percent in 2000.
Glover says he is saddened by the flight and displacement of black residents from American cities. However, he said, it could be much worse for Oakland: Unlike in Detroit and Cleveland, Oakland's African-American exodus hasn't left the city empty.
"At least low-income communities in West Oakland are not completely abandoned," he said. "There are some gigantic problems, but at least you're not driving 20 square blocks and not seeing any inhabitants."
Pass through the area, and you will find a study in contrasts. Magazine-cover homes with landscaped yards sit next to houses with sagging roofs and blankets covering the windows. Vacant lots have sprouted community vegetable gardens -- or gated condominium developments.
In Dogtown, a neighborhood named after the guard dogs that once prowled the junkyards, you're more likely to encounter a Labrador retriever.
Prescott Elementary School Principal Enomwoyi Booker said her school, one of the oldest in Oakland, has educated generations of neighborhood families. In recent years, she said, a number of those families have sold or lost their homes. Hard economic times forced some to move in with relatives who live elsewhere in the Bay Area. Some of the houses nearby, owned by the same families for decades, have been sold, renovated, and either rented or sold again, often to young professionals.
"We are being gentrified," she said, as she looked out at the neighborhood surrounding the school. "We are in it. It's not coming; it's here."
An Oakland school district enrollment policy has compounded the effect of the population shift on West Oakland schools. School choice rules that took effect in 2005, while the district was under state control, made it easier for residents to enroll in any public school in the district with additional space. Proponents of the policy, including parents who use it, say it promotes equity in an economically segregated city. Critics say it stacks the deck against schools in low-income neighborhoods, hurting the families who don't have the means or desire to leave.
Today, about half of the public-school students who live in West Oakland go to a school elsewhere in Oakland -- often, one with higher test scores, a safer neighborhood or a better reputation. Still others attend private schools or independently run charters.
Schools receive a certain amount of money for each child they serve, making it nearly impossible for campuses with withering enrollments to maintain even a basic program without hefty subsidies from the school district. The 250-student McClymonds High School received $224,000 in additional funding this past fall, according to district records, and it still couldn't afford a secretary, guidance counselor or assistant principal.
Despite the enrollment patterns, no West Oakland school was considered for closure during the most recent round of closings in the fall. Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith and his staff exempted the neighborhood based on a new initiative, the STEM Corridor, which aims to infuse the area's schools with science, technology, engineering and math.
Smith says he thinks the effort is a much-needed investment in West Oakland. Booker agrees.
"I can't even begin to think of all the possibilities," she said.
Like most principals, Booker is concerned about her school's numbers. But she has noticed that some of the newer residents nearby have babies or toddlers. Some volunteer at the school and are considering its preschool program, she said.
She calls them, hopefully, her "pre-parents."
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LAURA A. ODA/STAFF
Principal Enomwoyi Booker talks about the history of Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland.