A teacher and an administrator at Westlake Middle School in Oakland, California, are on their ninth day of hunger strike in protest of the closure, merging, or downsizing of 16 of the district’s 80 schools. Both of the strikers, André San-Chez, a music teacher, and Moses Omolade, the community schools manager, were taken to the hospital for monitoring Tuesday morning after they experienced health difficulties. The strikers say they will not consume food until the school board agrees to end all school closures and honors their state and local demands, including a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom. The hunger strike is one part of a series of actions, including walkouts, rallies, and even a solidarity rolling hunger strike that the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) community has been organizing since they learned of the potential closures that will disproportionately affect Black students, who make up 22% of the district and 36% of the students affected by the closures, according to district data.
“Right now, my health is compromised,” Omolade said while calling into last night’s press conference from the hospital. “Doctors are saying my heart can fail; I could have seizures, and remember these officials have not come to see me.”
The OUSD school board held an emergency meeting Feb. 8 where they voted to close a majority of the 16 schools and to merge two of them. They also proposed an amendment to not merge Westlake Middle School in an apparent concession to the striking members. But during a press conference, Omolade reassured his community that they “would not be pacified.” Their demands remain to keep all schools open.
“They’re trying to divide us, but they came to the wrong school,” Omolade said.
The OUSD cited under-enrollment as the driving reason behind the changes during a Jan. 31 board meeting. According to district data, enrollment in OUSD has declined by more than 18,000 over the past 20 years as a result of falling birth rates, the pandemic, and the district’s push toward charter schools.
“I understand the importance of giving parents options in where they want to send their child, but [the district is] not being clear and honest about those options,” said Julie Slater, a special education teacher at Grass Valley Elementary, which will be closed. “Charter schools will drain the public schools of students, and the parents will get the promise of a better education at a charter school, but that’s not always the case.”
Community members did not hear about the proposed closings until Jan. 25, when school board member Mike Hutchinson made a Facebook post and shared the information for transparency.
“Waiting so long to tell us gave us very little time for the community to organize, to develop questions, and to understand the criteria and the process under which the district was making these decisions,” said Clarissa Doutherd, the executive director of Parent Voices Oakland. “To see this happen so quickly with no community engagement and to see the disproportionate number of students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities that would be impacted was horrifying.”
The decline has impacted the school’s state funding, resulting in $150 million less a year for the district. According to data presented at the Jan. 31 board meeting, the district is facing a $12.3 million deficit on top of $3.2 billion in repairs. Board members say closing and merging schools will save the district money in the face of these funding cuts, but community members in what is one of California’s largest school districts say the changes will be at the expense of students, teachers, faculty, and school staff. They say the changes will increase class sizes, traumatize students, increase travel time to school, and ultimately negatively impact the quality of their education.
“We’re a really tight-knit school where everyone gets along really well and works to support each other,” said Paula Mitchell, a teacher on special assignment at Grass Valley Elementary, with a student population of about 240. “If the school was closed, I would lose my community. There’s no guarantee where we would end up.”
Public schools across the country are seeing similar under-enrollment. According to NPR, school enrollment dropped by about 38,000 students last year and 13,000 this year in New York City. In Los Angeles, student enrollment declined by 17,000 last year and 9,000 this year. But, none of these cities are seeing school closures like the one slated for Oakland.
“It feels awful because they’re balancing the budget on the backs of kids,” Mitchell said. “This is the last thing we should be doing.”
School closures are always a threat in Oakland and have happened before. Prior to Grass Valley Elementary, Mitchell was a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, which closed in 2012 for similar budgetary reasons. When her school closed, Mitchell says she was lucky, and most of the faculty merged with Grass Valley Elementary. But, she says she may not be as fortunate to retain her community this time around.
“This is an issue of not really understanding what’s truly best for students,” Mitchell said. “Going to larger schools with bigger classes doesn’t help students learn. Balancing the budget by closing schools and packing more kids into classrooms doesn’t help.”
Many teachers say the timing is especially difficult for their community.
“It has been incredibly stressful and traumatic for communities of color to have this happen,” Mitchell said. “This is so destabilizing; school is a place of stability and structure for many of our students; it’s a place they can go and feel safe. And then to take that away in the midst of a pandemic, it’s really unconscionable.”
Part of Omolade and San-Chez’s demands include Gov. Newsom to pay off the school district’s deficit using funds from the state surplus for next year. An amount they call “a drop in the ocean.” The OUSD community members would like to see their schools remain intact, for the district to be transparent about their budget expenditures, and to invest in the majority-Black student body schools and preserve historically Black institutions in their district.