Attendees were able to learn from the experience of (right to left) Matin Abdel-Qawi, Beverly Jarrett, Nidya Baez and Alison McDonald
Last week, I held a community forum that was focused on learning from OUSD's history with school mergers and consolidations. The last round of school closures happened in 2011, and the speakers at the forum were all teachers or administrators at the time of the last closures. Matin Abdel-Qawi was Principal of EOSA, a small school on the Castlemont campus, and is now Principal at Oakland High. Beverly Jarrett was the Principal at Far West, which was merged into Oakland Tech. Nidya Baez was a teacher at Youth Empowerment School, and then came to Fremont as the small schools were merged back together. Alison McDonald was a Network Superintendent at the time.
What was most striking for me was, all these years later, there was still so much hurt and pain on the part of the leaders whose schools were merged together. I learned that school mergers are never easy, and that there is a lot that we can and must do differently as we try to create sustainably-sized schools, and eventually, fewer schools overall.
Here are some of the things that our speakers shared:
- Transparency was a major issue that all of our speakers mentioned. Every one of the leaders on the panel, including Alison McDonald, who worked in the central office, was taken by surprise because they were not involved in any planning or decision-making process about consolidating their school with another school or schools. They were also given different reasons for why they were being merged together, with some being told it was performance-related and others being told it was budgetary. However, some of the schools that were showing remarkable progress in student achievement were the ones that were told that the merger was related to poor performance.
- There was little or no voice for students or for staff in the decision-making, or the planning for the mergers, as well as little to no effort to engage or communicate what was going on, so people felt that something was being done to them rather than with them.
- There was too much haste, and not enough time for staff and students to grieve, process and plan for wrapping up and celebrating their separate schools while planning for a new, combined school. As a result, students and staff felt disrespected and dishonored.
- The experience that families and staff had led many people to leave OUSD - several schools left to become charter schools, many families left for the charter sector and we lost many dedicated staff and administrators. The schools that became charter schools only worsened OUSD's financial position, as we lost both control of our facilities as well as the state revenue that students bring to the district.
- We need to think through all the logistical and operational implications of merging schools. There were difficulties for students in getting transcripts for schools that had been consolidated, and they were left feeling that were was no plan to ensure a smooth transition for them.
- We have to support principals better going forward. Principals all remarked that once they were informed that their schools were being merged together, they were left alone to figure out how to do it. There was little to no support from the district, and no additional resources made available to them during the transition.
- It was especially disruptive when the small high schools on the Fremont campus were merged back together because all teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs. This exacerbated the disruption and made it harder to rebuild, because the school was not able to hold onto many of its experienced teachers.
- It does not work to forge ahead with a merger without a strong leader in place to see the work through. This made difficult situations even harder, because many of the reconsolidated schools floundered for years without stable leadership when long-term leaders left during or after mergers were finalized.
- Finally, all of our speakers reported that there was a lot of planning, intention, celebration and fanfare when their schools were launched, but nothing to mark when their schools were consolidated. The lack of recognition of their work and school communities made the situation even more painful.
Any process of change this complex is emotional, and messy, but hearing about the experience of our staff helped me to reflect on what we must do differently going forward. Already we are going slowly and being more more deliberate about community engagement, and making plans to help schools resource planning and transition.
I have the same fears that many community members do about the harm that this process may cause, but I am also afraid of the alternative, which we have been living with for many years - students without nurses, PE, music, dance, counseling, sports, libraries, etc. Having so many schools forces us to spread our resources incredibly thin, and many students are not getting what they need. If we can concentrate more resources in fewer sites, I believe we can do better for our students.
I have heard many community members say that we need to spend less in central, which is true, and we have begun, and will continue to, restructure the central office to spend more in schools in the years to come, but this is not going to be sufficient. We can no longer afford to operate so many underenrolled schools.
I will continue to create spaces to discuss these issues with community members, and the next opportunity will be on March 27 at 5:30 pm at Acorn Woodland Elementary School (1025 81st Ave), where Director Harris and I will be talking about with parents and others from elementary schools in Districts 6 & 7, and hearing community ideas about how to create a more sustainable, higher quality mix of elementary schools in Deep East. I invite you to be part of the conversation.