Last month, as the Oakland school district embarked on the painful process of closing some of its 101 schools, the school board approved a criteria to help determine which ones would go. Board members talked about looking at the district as a whole, rather than zeroing in on certain schools in their respective districts. That was all before anyone named names.
On Wednesday, the names of 10 schools "identified for possible closure consideration" appeared on a staff presentation, highlighted in yellow: Burckhalter, Kaiser, Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park, Santa Fe and Sobrante Park elementary schools, and Claremont and Frick middle schools. Although Claremont and Frick were on the list, Superintendent Tony Smith said it was unlikely any middle schools would be recommended for closure.
The district already is consolidating the high schools on its Castlemont and Fremont campuses and doesn't plan to recommend any additional closures at the high school level.
District staff members stressed that the list was not a set of recommendations. They said it was the result of initial number-crunching -- running the district's schools through the first few steps of the formula the school board members approved in late August. That formula begins by ranking the need for each school according to enrollment trends, population density and facility size. Schools that are already undergoing some form of restructuring are removed from the list.
Still, with those names in black and white, the tenor of the conversation changed.
School board member Jody London (North Oakland) said she wondered if district staff had taken into account the "political reality" of closing the only school of a certain type in an electoral district -- namely, Claremont Middle School in North Oakland.
Another board representative, Alice Spearman (East Oakland-Elmhurst), said she was disappointed to see predominately African-American elementary schools near Interstate 580 on the list. A vocal critic of the district's small schools initiative -- in which a number of low-performing schools were closed and smaller ones were opened on the same campus -- Spearman said she'd rather see the district consolidate some of those elementary and middle schools, even if it meant creating a school in the city's flatlands with 700 or more students. Spearman also questioned why six schools in West Oakland were exempt from closure consideration because of a district initiative to bring a science, technology, engineering and math focus to the area, a policy that was clearly laid out in the closure criteria the board adopted.
Board member David Kakishiba urged his colleagues to maintain discipline in the face of a difficult decision.
"Two weeks ago, we approved criteria," he said. "The superintendent is coming back with results. When we get to the point where we're going to completely upend the criteria, we're wasting time. I'm wondering: What were we thinking two weeks ago?" A number of parents from Kaiser Elementary made their case for the high-performing school, which had 272 students in 2010-11. Although it's located in a wealthy neighborhood in the Oakland hills, they noted that most students come from other parts of the city, making the school racially and socioeconomically diverse. Last year, African-American students made up the largest ethnic group at Kaiser -- about one-third of the student population. They averaged a score of 816 out of 1,000 possible points on the state's Academic Performance Index, well above the district average. The school's API is 885. Lisa Cartolano, whose children attend Kaiser and Claremont, said the idea of closing either school doesn't make sense for the school district.
"This is why people leave Oakland," she said. "I have so many friends who have up and left. ... It's getting exhausting." Other speakers accused the district of protecting schools that serve large numbers of white children. "How do we keep Montclair and Thornhill when they're a block a way from each other?" asked Wandra Boyd, a longtime advocate for African-American students who once ran for a seat on the school board. "You're closing high-performing schools that have a large African-American population. ... In each and every case, you've never affected the white students." Preliminary recommendations for school closure and restructuring -- which will take into account special education programming, board feedback and other factors -- will be presented at a public board meeting Sept. 27. The board is scheduled to make a final decision by Oct. 26. Vernon Hal, the district's deputy superintendent of business services and operations, estimated that each school closure would free up about $450,000 to spend on the district's remaining schools, even if 20 percent of the affected students leave the district after their schools are closed. Consolidating two schools that share a campus, he said, would result in a savings of about $250,000.
Board members seemed to agree on one thing: The district's resources are stretched too thin with the number of schools it operates. But it's one thing to see the numbers on paper. In practice, with real families and real employees, it's another story.
"I think we need to move forward," London said at the end of the meeting. "We don't have consensus as a community about how to do this, but I think there is consensus that we need to reduce our operating costs. The moment has come where we have to get real about this."
Elementary schools: Burckhalter, Kaiser, Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park, Santa Fe and Sobrante Park
Middle schools: Claremont and Frick
High schools: none