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Maxwell Park Elementary School kindergartners Elizabeth Wolfgramm, 4, center, and her brother Friendly Wolfgramm, 5, right, hold signs in the hallway outside the theater during an Oakland Unified School District school board meeting at Oakland High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011 in Oakland, Calif. Oakland School District Superintendent Tony Smith made a recommendation that the school board close five elementary schools in 2012: Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

OAKLAND -- The Oakland school district's student population shrank by about 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, but that decline was by far the sharpest among its African-American students, who accounted for more than three-quarters of the total drop.

The public school system lost about 12,500 black students in that decade -- roughly half, according to figures from the California Department of Education. The exodus is reflected in the latest census count, which showed black residents leaving Oakland and other urban areas of California in great numbers.

With fewer children, a number of historically black neighborhoods saw their local schools close during the 2000s. Now, as Oakland school district leaders prepare to close more schools, there likely will be more. The closure criteria is race-neutral, but four of the five elementary schools on the closure list -- Lakeview, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe -- have a largely African-American student body.

"A major consideration in the criteria is the need to build schools where school-age children live," said Troy Flint, a spokesman for the Oakland school district. "To the extent that any area becomes severely depopulated, it does increase the potential for school closure."


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As the East Oakland flatlands experienced a Latino population boom and grappled with severe overcrowding, enrollment in other areas fell. In some places, the population shifts were exacerbated by a district policy that allows families to choose a school outside their local attendance zone. Data collected by the district show that in many African-American neighborhoods, particularly in West Oakland, families are opting out of the local schools.

Schools that closed their doors in the past decade included Burbank, Carter, Cole, Foster, Golden Gate, John Swett, King Estates, Longfellow, Lowell, Sherman and Toler Heights -- nearly all of which were primarily attended by black students.

In 2007, after a public outcry over another round of school closures, Oakland's then-state administrator, Vincent Matthews -- now the superintendent of San Jose Unified -- acknowledged that Oakland's black neighborhoods had been disproportionately affected. Matthews reversed plans to close Burckhalter Elementary and Sankofa Academy, elementary schools with large African-American populations, low enrollment and poor test scores.

The composite state test scores at those schools have since risen by 23 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Neither appears on the district's most recent closure list, though Burckhalter was named earlier this month as a school under possible closure consideration.

Now, four years later, the district is in a similar quandary.

"I want you to think about equity at this moment, because this is not equitable," Marshall Elementary School teacher Diana Culmer told the school board at a meeting Tuesday night. "Look at the parents and the children here," she said, gesturing to the packed auditorium.

Flint said his sense is that many black families concerned about the safety of their children are leaving cities for the suburbs.

"My sense is that the number one concern of families, particularly black families or families in low-income neighborhoods, is safety," he said. "When you're losing families who have the means and are being proactive about moving to an environment that they perceive to be better for their children, you're losing a very valuable constituency."

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

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