Cars racing down Interstate 580 blasted their horns Thursday when they saw the colorful signs hanging on the bridge above — or maybe when they saw the size of the people holding them.
Children as young as 6 had marched up 35th Avenue from Allendale Elementary School in East Oakland with their teachers and their principal. They held handmade posters that read "Save our Schools" and "Cuts Hurt," some of them plastered with Band-Aids. Some yelled at the passing cars, whose drivers honked back.
Student protesters and sympathetic motorists could be seen and heard throughout the city Thursday, a statewide Day of Action in response to the deep, ongoing cuts to California's public schools, colleges and universities. Oakland's public schools alone will lose $39 million from next year's budget, about 15 percent of the district's general purpose funds. The district's teachers, facing another year without a raise, have scheduled a one-day strike for March 24.
School administrators say that unless California lawmakers find a way to raise revenue amid the state's fiscal crisis, there is no end in sight to the cutbacks.
"It's horrible in Piedmont, it's horrible in San Francisco, but it's devastating in the urban core," Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith said at a late afternoon rally in front of the state office building downtown.
A few hours earlier, high school and college students from Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda flooded into Frank H. Ogawa Plaza by City Hall; many had walked from their respective schools to show support for the cause. A smaller group of students and teachers attended the after-school rally at the state building, organized by Oakland school district and union leaders.
"I don't think people realize how drastically the cuts are going to affect public high schools," said Hope Schwartz, 16, a sophomore at Oakland Technical High School who said her physical education class now has 60 students. Although she and her classmates are too young to vote, she added, "It's our duty to protect our school and stand up for ourselves."
In Allendale's schoolyard Thursday morning, children stood in rows for a symbolic fire drill that was simultaneously held by schools throughout the city. Holding a bullhorn, Principal Steven Thomasberger told them their school would likely be forced to cut about $250,000 for next year. He said that in a few years, if these cutbacks continue as they have, "I may be the only one here."
One of the next casualties for the neighborhood elementary school might be its prized science program. In Room 20, Laura Prival's students have studied the impact of dams on snail darter fish. They have grown brassica plants, learned about the water cycle, and compared and contrasted snails. Soon, fourth-graders will build terrariums and learn about the preferred environment of brine shrimp.
But in many California schools, a specialized science teacher is considered a luxury. Prival is one of about a dozen elementary school science teachers left in the district, and she may not be around for much longer. She recently learned the position might be eliminated.
Instead of worrying about the future, Prival said, she wished she and her colleagues could spend all of their energy planning for it — finding novels for Allendale's new literature circles, for instance, or organizing an overnight life science trip.
"It should be a given that kids have access to science and math and writing and art and P.E.," she said. "It's frustrating to see the principal and the teachers and kids struggling with what might happen next."