OAKLAND — Harold LeBlanc's thriving culinary arts program was promised a new kitchen after McClymonds High School split in two and his academy moved to another side of the West Oakland campus, into a space that initially lacked even a sink.
Nearly four years later, he has stopped waiting.
For some, the story of "Chef LeBlanc's kitchen" has come to symbolize the empty promises of the small-schools movement — or, at the least, its limitations. While some schools thrived, others have foundered in the face of funding cuts, principal turnover, dwindling enrollment, school choice policies, and the simultaneous surge of competing charter schools, which are tuition-free, but independently run.
Paul Robeson School of Visual & Performing Arts, named after a groundbreaking African-American actor and singer, no longer has a drama teacher.
"When you're creating something like an arts school, a business school, a technology school or a law school, and you're just slapping on the name without the resources to develop the curriculum and the projects "... it's not there," school board member David Kakishiba said at the January meeting in which school closures were discussed.
The Business Entrepreneurial School of Technology, or BEST, the new school at McClymonds that incorporated LeBlanc's culinary arts program and other career-oriented classes, will soon cease to exist. The school district decided to phase it out over time and merge it with Experience, eXcellence, Community, Empowerment, and Leadership, or EXCEL, the other new high school on campus known for its college focus.
If someone asked him about the city's small-schools movement, LeBlanc said, "I'd tell them it's a farce."
So far, five of Oakland's four dozen new schools have been or will be shuttered because of declining enrollment and unimpressive test scores. More could learn of a similar fate this year, as the district looks for ways to cut costs during California's budget crisis.
McClymonds, which at one point was home to a small middle school and two small high schools, will soon be one high school again.
Paul Robeson, one of four high schools on East Oakland's Fremont campus, is also slated for a slow-motion closure, one grade level at a time. District staff members say it's because Robeson's enrollment is too low and its Academic Performance Index last year dropped to 483, one of the lowest in the district, on a scale that goes to 1,000. Robeson's new principal, Betsye Steele, said 11 percent of Robeson's students test at proficient levels on state exams.
At a meeting last week at the school, Oakland's state-appointed administrator, Vincent Matthews, stood firm on his decision to close Robeson, starting with the elimination of next year's ninth-grade class. After answering a series of questions from students, parents and teachers, he asked one of his own:
"How do you think you've done here as a staff?"
"I think we are doing as well as a staff can do with the resources we have," responded social studies teacher Craig Gordon.
"So you think that 11 percent proficiency is as well as you can do?"
Robeson teachers told Matthews at two recent meetings the data are misleading, and they don't take into account the skill level at which students enter. They also asked why the school received little to no notice of the decision, while the district devoted dozens of community meetings to address overcrowding problems at Hillcrest and other schools in Oakland's affluent "hills" neighborhoods. Matthews had little to say in response, other than that he would "take the blame" for the poor communication.
Phasing out a school might be more politically palatable and less disruptive to students than closing it outright, but the financial and logistical challenges of the slow-death approach are complex.
Since school funding is essentially based on enrollment, Robeson will lose 45 percent of its money next year, unless it receives a district subsidy. (At schools with high dropout rates, the ninth grade is typically the largest class and therefore brings in the most funding.)
The fiscal outlook for BEST is similar, said district spokesman Troy Flint.
But what happens to those who remain at a dying school? How many will continue through their senior year, when there are fewer students each year and no one coming up behind them?
Brenda Gonzalez, a Robeson senior who plans to attend UC Riverside in the fall, wasn't too optimistic.
"Nobody's going to want to come back to an empty school," she said.