OAKLAND — Families at Sankofa Academy in North Oakland and Burckhalter Elementary School in East Oakland will have to find new schools if the state administrator adopts the staff recommendation to close them in June.

District staff say the schools have too few students to sustain themselves financially, test scores have declined, and most neighborhood residents enroll their children elsewhere.

But parents and teachers at the two majority African-American elementary schools say the closures would disrupt the education of their students and leave a void in their neighborhoods. They said they were stunned by the news, which was announced at individual schools this week and posted Friday on the district's Web site.

"I think people feel as though we did what we were told to do, and we aren't sure what else we were supposed to do," said Danielle Neves, the founding principal of Sankofa Academy, a small school on 61st Street and Shattuck Avenue whose name is an African symbol of knowledge and wisdom.

The recommendations followed a series of community meetings at schools flagged for low enrollment and, in some cases, low standardized test scores. A similar process last year resulted in the shuttering of four schools: Kizmet Academy, Merritt Middle College, Sherman Elementary and East Oakland Community High School.

The number of children attending Oakland's district schools has dropped from more than

54,000 in 2000 to less than 39,000 this year.


Advertisement

District staff and school board members have said the slide has made closures difficult to avoid, since the schools are funded based on student attendance.

But school board member Chris Dobbins said he believes the 80-year-old school named after Oakland astronomer Charles Burckhalter should stay open. He said the district has recently spent millions of dollars to modernize the facility, and that parents were hoping to re-start a PTA, among other initiatives that emerged from discussions

with district staff.

"I just don't feel we're giving them enough time to improve it," Dobbins said. "I don't know why there's a rash to close everything down."

Neves and her staff, who have struggled for years to make Sankofa successful, feel the same way.

While it's not easy to create a school under any circumstances, it's widely agreed that Sankofa's start in 2005 was far from ideal. Former State Administrator Randolph Ward opened the academy after the closures of Washington Elementary School and Carter Middle School; unlike many of Oakland's new, small schools, Sankofa wasn't born as a result of community demand.

Instead of starting with the lower grades and growing into a K-8 school, Sankofa opened with kindergarten and grades 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7. The older students — many of whom were displaced from Carter and not pleased to be at an elementary school building again — didn't all embrace the culture Sankofa aimed to create. Discipline became a serious concern, and some of the families removed their children from the school because of the chaos.

"The way it was set up, it was kind of destined for failure," said Jill Guerra, a fourth-grade teacher at Sankofa Academy.

But Guerra and other school supporters say the climate has changed dramatically this year since the district eliminated the middle school grades — a decision announced in May. Four of the six teachers have remained at Sankofa since the beginning, and parents spoke highly of the education and encouragement their children were receiving from them.

Although the changes in Sankofa's grade configuration improved the learning environment, it shrank the student population to about 115. Neves said staff spent most of its time last spring trying to find new schools for its middle schoolers, leaving little time to recruit prospective students.

Neves and others say the school just needs time to grow.

"Even though the enrollment is small, we as a whole are very satisfied. Why can't it be a small school?" asked Sylvia Wallace, whose great-granddaughter goes to middle school next year. "The dynamic of the school has changed so drastically, so why aren't we given more of a chance?"

The school board and the state administrator hear the school intervention recommendations on Wednesday during its 5 p.m. meeting in the central office, 1025 Second Ave. The state administrator makes a decision on Dec. 19.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.