OAKLAND -- Outside the closed Lakeview Elementary School Monday, Mamadou Guisse and his younger sister Awa Mar boarded a van that would take them and other former Lakeview students to their first day at a new school. Meanwhile their parents, Ami Diankha and Mamur Guisse, waited at its destination: Burckhalter Elementary. They wanted their children to become accustomed to taking the van, but they weren't about to miss their first day.
"They're here! They're here! They're coming!" Diankha said as a small group of children approached. "How was the ride? Pretty good?" she asked them. They nodded.
Mamadou, 11, and Awa, 9, are among hundreds of Oakland schoolchildren adjusting to new routines, new people and more complicated ways of getting to school each morning after the June closure of four elementary schools: Lakeview, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe. (Lazear, a fifth school that faced closure, remained open after all, but as an independently run charter school.)
The closure decision was enormously controversial, and Lakeview, in Oakland's Grand Lake neighborhood, became the epicenter of opposition to the district's plan. Last fall, parents, teachers, students and other supporters in neon yellow "Save Lakeview" shirts came en masse to school board meetings. This summer, a smaller group staged a sit-in at the elementary school for more than two weeks. Opponents still are questioning whether the disruption was necessary, and if the closures will ultimately save the school district much money. The most recent savings estimate amounts to about $2 million per year, though it doesn't appear to account for state revenue that will be lost as a result of Lazear's charter school conversion.
The change that activists have fought so hard to stop became real on Monday with the start of school. But at Burckhalter, which took the largest group of Lakeview children and teachers, people seemed to be taking the moment in stride -- even as the school swelled in size, doubling its teaching staff.
Awa's fourth grade teacher, Aleta Williams, also transferred from Lakeview. "I hated that they closed the school," she said in her classroom, before her students arrived. "But I was OK coming here, because I know this is a good school. I'm excited about this year."
Burckhalter, which had fewer than 200 students last year, was expecting at least 100 more from Lakeview, alone -- and a general education enrollment of about 330. Grass Valley, another elementary school in the East Oakland hills, is also growing quickly, as a result of the closure of nearby Marshall, and so is Sankofa Academy in North Oakland, one of the closer schools to Santa Fe.
Given the size of the Lakeview contingent, the change at Burckhalter took on the feel of a merger. Clara Roberts, Lakeview's former principal, came too; she'll serve as a co-principal, sharing the leadership duties with Carin Geathers. At staff meetings, people affectionately -- and very unofficially -- began referring to the school as "Burckview," Geathers said. To help the students gel, Geathers and Roberts are encouraging teachers to work getting-to-know-you activities into their lesson plans for the first nine days of class.
In Room 14, after Awa and other students had hung up their jackets, taken a seat and clarified the pronunciations of their names, Williams asked for a show of hands: How many students were new to the school? More than half. She pointed out that she was new, too, and asked children familiar with the school to find a buddy at recess to show around.
In the first few minutes after the bell, the students were uncomfortably silent. A few parents stood noiselessly in the doorway. Awa sat with her hands folded, unsmiling.
Later, Awa admitted she had been very nervous. But that was before the treasure hunt, the popular icebreaker in which participants race to find others who might play a musical instrument, walk to school or -- in this case -- not like the Oakland Raiders. Before long, Williams was reminding her pupils to keep their voices down.
Kalilah Epperson-Lee, 9, who transferred from the private Patten Academy this fall, said she was relieved to see so many new kids besides herself in the class. "I like how I wasn't the only one raising my hand even though I'm new to the school," she said.
Samariah Widemon, a 9-year-old Burckhalter veteran, said she found the influx of students and teachers exciting. "I couldn't sleep," she said. "I woke up super early. I was super ready for school."
By midmorning, Geathers reported there had only been "little fires" to put out, no big ones. A few children came who hadn't been assigned to a classroom, but they quickly found spots for them, she said. She said Burckhalter will hold its back-to-school night sooner than usual to bring all of the parents into the fold. For them, too, this year will be an adjustment -- in some cases, more so than for the children.
"This is so unfamiliar to us," said Miyoko Brown, of Hayward, whose children are 6 and 9. "We're so used to being at Lakeview. I don't even know where the bathroom is!"
But like Brown, Awa and Mamadou's mother said she was keeping an open mind. "Sometimes change is good too," Diankha said. "You never know."
As for Awa, things were looking up after the first few minutes of fourth grade.
"I thought I would not have any friends, but I do," she said. "Everything's starting off really nice and smooth."