Learning from Oakland's History with School Closures

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Kimberly Mayfield Lynch (left) was our Moderator for the forum on School Closures. She is Chair of the Education Department at Holy Names University. Celetta Hunter, middle, is a teacher at Castlemont, and Monica Thomas, right, is an OUSD Network Superintendent and the former Principal of Greenleaf K-8, a closed/redesigned OUSD school.

Last week, about 70 Oaklanders gathered to learn about and discuss school closures in Oakland: our history, whether they can be beneficial for students, whether they save money, and how we can mitigate harm to students during the process of school closures. 

Our panel was comprised of parents (Kristen Zimmerman and Cintya Molina), teachers (Celetta Hunter from Castlemont) and OUSD administrators (Monica Thomas), as well as academics from the Education Department at Holy Names University (Kitty Kelly Epstein and Kimberly Mayfield Lynch, who moderated the panel). 

School closures are one of a number of possibilities that may emerge from the ongoing Blueprint for Quality Schools process, which will culminate soon in recommendations to the School Board about changes to OUSD's mix of schools. Other possibilities include merging schools, moving schools, grade expansions, etc.

Since the discussions about each of these options have not been detailed, I wanted to create the space for a more detailed conversation about how school closures have played out previously in Oakland. Holy Names' Education Department and the Community Coalition for Equity in OUSD (CCEO), a parent organization, were co-hosts with me.

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Kristen Zimmerman and Cintya Molina, at right, are Special Education parents in OUSD. Their children were impacted by the closure of Tilden, a former OUSD school that was designed around the needs of Special Education students. Rachel Latta, second from left, is a Peralta parent, and Yolanda Schonbrun, leftmost, is a former OUSD teacher and administrator.

The overall message that I heard is that school closures do not always work out as planned or as intended (they are messy and unpredictable). A reason given for doing them is often in order to save money, but the research shared by Kitty Kelly Epstein during the forum found that districts often encountered unanticipated costs, such as legal battles, security for vacant buildings, and losing more students than was anticipated as a result of school closures.

In OUSD, there was a long and expensive battle when the community resisted (and occupied) Lakeview School after the board voted to close it.

Several schools also left OUSD to become charters after being identified for closure during the last round of school closures. In addition to losing several hundred students, we also lost control of the sites those schools occupy. So I learned that we need to be skeptical of rosy visions of the fiscal promise of school closures; the reality is more complex.

The other questions the panel explored were about whether students can be made better off through school closures and what can be done to mitigate harm to students if the board moves ahead with school closures. 

Most panelists had negative experiences or research to share about the impact on students; I will be sharing the studies that were shared at the bottom of this post once I collect them. Parents who had been involved in the design of Tilden in order to address the specific needs of special education students were especially scarred by the experience of having the school closed. They described the numerous instances in which special education students have seemingly been an afterthought in OUSD's planning and decision-making, and the closure of Tilden was no different. 

Students were scattered throughout the district, based on where there was space to open programs, often at OUSD's most troubled schools that were underenrolled and had space available. This has had the effect of concentrating high-need students in several schools - African American students (often some of our more high-needs students), low-income students, newcomers and special education students are often concentrated in the same schools, which struggle to meet their needs.

This is obviously not equitable, and we are working to more equitably distribute special education offerings across the district, but a big learning for me is that we need to be more intentional going forward about the potential for shortchanging our most vulnerable students through school closures.

Our most vulnerable students should not be made worse off academically by having their school closed, which is what happened to many special education students when Tilden was closed.

However, Monica Thomas, who is currently an OUSD Network Superintendent, had a very different experience as the Principal when former-Whittier Elementary was redesigned to become now-Greenleaf K-8. One way in which the Whittier experience was different was that the school did not just close and disperse the students across the city. Instead, Whittier was phased out gradually as Greenleaf was phased in, and she served as principal for both schools.

In addition to serving the same kids, she also retained most of the same teachers (70%), who were interested in the vision for the new school. One critique of school redesign is often that districts just want to get rid of the existing teachers and students, but because that didn't happen at Greenleaf, the transition was less disruptive to families and to staff.

In addition, the students at Greenleaf are doing much better academically than they were doing at Whittier. The school continues to grow academically, and this year, they have seen double digit growth in literacy. 

So I also heard that with careful thought and planning about how to mitigate harm to students and staff, the closure of a school can lead to better educational opportunities for students. Therefore, a key question would seem to be: if the district pursues school closures again, how do we do it with the care and thoughtfulness that went into the Whittier/Greenleaf closure and redesign? The potential costs are too high if we don't.

One of the big tensions I face as a board member is knowing when to take action. The point of my role on the School Board is to make sure our students have great schools, so I can't do nothing if schools are persistently not getting results for our students. And while it's true that poverty, immigration/language ability, etc affect student outcomes, we have many schools (Greenleaf is one of them!) that are getting great results with students who are 90% low income and nearly 60% English Language Learners.

But sometimes our efforts to improve schools make things worse (as in the case of special education students who were displaced when Tilden was closed). As with most things when it comes to education, it's complicated.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I will need to see very thoughtful, deliberate plans that demonstrate convincingly how students will be made better off by any school closures the board votes to approve. We owe that to our students.

 


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