The People’s School

yael@sfbg.com

Oakland elementary schools that were packed with kids until a few weeks ago are now closed for the summer — and five are closed for good. In October the school board voted to close them in a move that would save about $2 million per year.

But many Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) residents are not pleased. At the Oct. 26 meeting where the vote was cast, 500 protested. Concerned parents and teachers have been petitioning and meeting with school board members and Superintendent Tony Smith for months, trying to reverse the decision.

“No one wants to close schools, but the OUSD made this difficult decision because it’s in the best long-term interest of students,” reads a June 22 press release.

Resistance to that decision now continues at one school that was supposed to close June 18. To the dismay of the district, it remains open. Lakeview Elementary is the site of a sit-in and free school, orchestrated by parents and teachers.

“Lakeview has strengths,” the June 22 press release goes on to say. “It has shown improved academic performance in recent years and, boasts a strong sense of community and close alignment with its afterschool programs.” But low rankings in attendance and test scores overshadowed those strengths in the decision to close the school.

Yet it seems that “strong sense of community” seems to be more powerful than the school board thought.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Joel Velasquez, a parent of three and PTA member who has had children at Lakeview for 10 years, didn’t think it would come to this.

“I’ve watched everything that went on as a parent here for 10 years,” Velasquez said. When the school was threatened, “I probably spent 20 hours a week meeting, talking, emailing, researching, sending, forwarding — I mean, this is something that has been ongoing.”

“I met with Tony Smith for an hour,” Velasquez said. “I sat with board members.”

But as the end of the school year approached, he was growing more desperate, so he ended up making an announcement: “On the last day of school, I’m not going to leave. And I hope that people join me.”

They did. Lakeview’s building is slated to be turned into administrative offices, and that process was scheduled to begin two weeks ago.

Now, the school that should be filling up with district employees’ office supplies still has children running around its grounds. Organizers opened the People’s School for Public Education, and classes, taught by an army of credentialed teachers and qualified volunteers, run from 9am to 3pm, Monday through Friday.

At a June 27 visit, I toured the school and sat in during a Social Justice class. In the People’s School’s organic garden, a smiling gardening teacher had to stop an overzealous six-year-old from drowning the kale. “They love watering!” he shrugged. Another child, still mesmerized 30 minutes after the official end of music class, improvised on the djembe along with the drumming teacher. From a balcony, a volunteer called to him: “There’s ice cream!” he looked up, considered, and then kept drumming.

The group of kids has grown since the school opened June 15, as parents hear about the summer school and come see it for themselves. The Lakeview sit-in is unlike other recent occupations in the careful vetting process each visitor gets. After all, protecting the kids and their education is the most important goal of the project. But during school hours, parents are permitted to come inside and stay with their children as long as they want, seeing what the school is like.

Still, getting parents to send their children to a summer camp that isn’t technically legal isn’t always easy. “I think our society, not just parents, are really reluctant to do something like this,” Velasquez said. “But I see it as a positive service to the community. We’re using the building for what it’s intended to be used for.”

Julia Fernandez, a high school math teacher, got involved with the effort to save the schools through the Occupy Oakland Education Committee, and her two children, ages 2 and 4, are enrolled in the summer school.

As a nine-year resident of Oakland, Fernandez says, the cuts affect her and her family. She’s taking part in the demonstration partly “for my own kids,” Fernandez said. She said the cuts “affect the school where my kids would go. It’s likely that it’s going to be closed or turned into a charter school.”

“But the thing that motivates me the most is all these attacks that are happening against people,” Fernandez said. She guessed that it was adversity of many kinds, not just school closures, that motivated many parents to join the protest and send their kids to the People’s School.

“People are really upset about all the attacks that are being done on regular working class people. People are losing their homes, they’re getting laid off, and now their schools are closing. It just seems like all these services, all these rights people should have, are being taken away”

MORE THAN MONEY

Organizers emphasize that the money saved seems paltry, just $2 million for five functioning schools.

“Think about it, this is not very much,” Velasquez said. “And they’re wasting almost $4 million to do these transitions to close the schools. They’re spending more than the savings.”

OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint confirmed that the savings will be “in the $2 million range,” and that the total cost of the transition is about $3.7 million.

These expenses include about $117,000 one-time moving related costs and about $200,000 in staffing, including paying a transition director.

They also include $95,000 in transportation costs, which may not be one-time expenditures; they may “as needed for an additional year or more,” Flint said in an email.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 students will be displaced by the move. Many will move to Grass Valley and Burckhalter, and these school’s capacities will be expanded with portable classrooms.

“The promise that we made to students was that we would guarantee students at the closing school a place at a school that was higher performing than the one we were leaving. We were able to live up to that promise,” Flint said.

However, there was a problem: “Most of the schools that perform in the top tier are already subscribed to capacity, so we had to expand the capacity using portables.”

Will these high performing schools remain high-performing as an influx of new students show up at their doors in the fall? After all, Oakland has many more elementary schools than comparable districts, a result of the small schools movement, a policy adopted in 2000 that led to the closure of some larger schools, which were replaced by smaller ones. According to a study conducted by Brown University’s Annenburg Institute for Education Reform, Oakland small schools are “safer, calmer, and more welcoming to families” than the schools they replaced.

But as private donations from those excited about small schools, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, run out — along with federal and state money — Oakland may be reverting to larger institutions.

And as the OUSD sees it, that may not be a bad thing.

“To build toward the day when every OUSD school is a high-quality school, we need to concentrate our time, attention and resources in a manageable number of sites instead of spreading ourselves too thin,” he said in an email. “Quality over quantity is the goal when we can’t do both and the current financial environment prevents us from properly caring for 101 schools.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD PROBLEM

One of the reasons for the stated school closure is that it ranked in “the bottom quarter of elementary schools in terms of the number of children living within a half-mile of the school or within the attendance area” and the “lowest percentage of neighborhood students attending the school (30 percent).”

The school is also 99 percent children of color.

As Oakland Tribune education reporter Katy Murphy has written, about half of students in Oakland attend schools outside their district. As a statement from the group Decolonize Oakland points out, “We have to question why the families of black and brown students who live outside of Adams Point have chosen Lakeview.”

Maybe it’s that strong sense of community? All of the other schools slated for closure are also in the flatlands and serve mostly African American and Latino students.

Root, formerly Occupy the Hood Oakland, has played a big part in the organizing. So has Education for the 99 Percent, Occupy Oakland’s education working group, and other Occupy Oakland volunteers.

“A lot of people from Occupy have been extremely supportive and we wouldn’t be able to do this action without that support,” Velasquez said. “For example, the food, they have come every single day to feed, not just breakfast, lunch and dinner, but snacks and drinks.”

The sit-in has also received support from labor groups. A letter signed by more than 50 teachers’ union leaders and local school employees declares, “An injury to one is an injury to all. Let’s seize this opportunity to fight alongside parents, students, and community. We will mobilize our members to support this struggle.”

LEADERSHIP?

The demonstration has not, however, received support from the city of Oakland. Officers from the OUSD Police Service has visited the school several times (and Velasquez says they have done so without warning, despite agreeing to call first to avoid scaring children). Oakland police have been on site as well, and the protesters have received warnings to leave.

“I still remain hopeful that the protesters will see that the most forward-looking resolution to the standoff is to disperse peacefully and to concentrate their efforts on improving the school district for the year 2012/2013 and beyond,” Flint told me. “Right now we still believe that if there’s a relatively prompt resolution to the standoff, we’ll be able to meet our targets to get the facilities ready.”

“It’s not clear why they’re doing this sit-in in Oakland, an overwhelmingly Democratic district where Republicans can’t get elected,” Flint said. “The fundamental problem with this issue is all the Republicans have taken a no taxes pledge.”

Velasquez agrees. “It’s criminal what the state of California is doing right now,” he said. “But we’re focusing our attention on Tony Smith and the board because they’re accepting these conditions, and they shouldn’t…So if they feel that way, why are they not doing something about it, instead of accepting the conditions, and hurting the families and the students? Most importantly the kids.” Flint said the board would be willing to work with the group, but that the sit-in is pointless. “I don’t view this current action as something that is providing us any additional leverage,” he said, though he noted that his office had not attempted to use the sit-in to pressure the state. “We’ve coordinated people across the state, sending in postcards and petitions,” he explained. But when asked what worked best, he said nothing has. “I can’t name a time we’ve been successful,” he said, “because I don’t think we’ve been successful.” As budget cuts sweep the country many governments are feeling this kind of defeatism. The Peoples School for Public Education may not last forever. But they’ve taught 30 kids for free for more than two weeks now, and despite limited time and resources, show no sign of stopping.