I had no idea what Courtney meant in her text. She messaged me in November 2021 asking how I was doing with schools closing and I just assumed she meant Omicron. It wasn’t until she gently sent me an upcoming school board resolution to close a number of schools in the district — including my own — that I knew what was going on.
As soon as I started teaching at Prescott in August 2020, I knew that the school had faced threats for closure in the past and had always been successful in fighting against it, in large part due to its status as the oldest school in the district and the first to hire a Black teacher. Still, it was nevertheless anxiety-inducing when a few months after seeing the resolution, our school received an email from the superintendent informing us that we would be recommended for consolidation, effective Fall 2022.
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Like with all things work-related, I immediately texted my teacher friends from my Masters program. My news, it turned out, fell smack in the middle of a maelstrom of terrible job updates around the Bay Area, where less than two years into our careers, we were receiving pink slips and notices of consolidation, revealing the crisis that was at hand.
Being a teacher these last few years has meant having the unique experience of working in a field that is constantly under attack in the court of public opinion. Politicians, journalists, parents, and school leaders alike are constantly — and deservedly — decrying all that is wrong with American education. Classrooms with too many students, districts with too little kids. Not enough money spent on schools, too much money not spent in the right way. Good teachers underpaid for their work, bad teachers ineffective in doing their jobs. Tests designed to fail students, students set up to fail tests. It is not enough that the shortcomings of schools are often apparent as when one steps on a campus, but the most challenging parts of a more-than-often rewarding job are amplified in every newspaper, school bulletin, and State of the Union address.
But whereas there seems to be unanimity on the problems plaguing, in particular, the US public education system, consensus surrounding the solutions to the aforementioned problems and more remains fraught. How many students should be in a classroom ? How do districts maintain and increase their enrolment? How do we better allocate money in and for schools? How do we define a good teacher? How do we support all teachers to become more effective? How do we assess students? How should they be taught?
One solution that has emerged and gained in popularity in the last few decades begins with the dichotomisation of “good schools” and “bad schools.” The passage of No Child Left Behind by George W. Bush in 2001 and Every Student Succeeds by Barack Obama in 2015 emphasised standards and accountability, by which schools were measured on how children performed on tests, and if too many of them did poorly for too long, the school would then face a series of Draconian measures running the gamut from charterization to school closure. But how and why does the shut down of an entire educational eco-system become considered not as the nuclear option, but as the most reasonable one? How does the solution of school closures exacerbate the very problems it seeks to solve? And what does it say about who education when the most when the “bad schools” deemed “failing” almost always tend to serve majority Black and Latinx students in lower-income communities?
The problem, we were being told, was under-enrollment. In her email, the superintendent explained the school board proposal to “reduce the number of schools that the district operates” was because under enrolled schools did not have the staffing to provide “a strong instructional program” and were unable to “properly serve as community schools.” Furthermore, under-enrolled schools, it was also said, required a “disproportionate amount” of operational resources that take away from other, fully enrolled schools. It was these under-enrolled schools — mine included — that then made up the list of 18 schools proposed for closure or merger, to be decided in a matter of weeks, to come in to effect as early as a few months.
In the virtual school board meeting that followed a few days after the email, the community exploded. For hours, current and former families and their allies posed question after question, many of which went unanswered. What was the criteria for under-enrollment, and why were the majority-white, majority-affluent district schools with similar or even smaller student populations left off the list? Why were schools being made to compete with each other for students, in the name of school choice, with the punishment being closure? And why was this decision being rushed and inadequately discussed in the middle of an ongoing pandemic?
And at Prescott, we made our case too. We spoke to school board members about the fixture that we were in West Oakland, and district-wide. We explained how the nearest elementary school would take nearly thirty minutes to walk by foot with a child, and it involved crossing many industrial streets favoured by large trucks and machinery. We hosted a rally with all of the other schools on the list, demonstrating our collective strength and unity to keep all schools open. We fought and we fought. And waited for the vote.
Structural problems in education tend to be approached individually. We know test scores are largely a reflection of socio-economic status and privilege, yet we seek to remediate students and teachers one-by-one for poor performance. We know student behaviours are a result of the safety created in the classroom and the trauma experienced at home, yet we respond to students through punitive measures narrowly addressing behaviours. We know that all schools, but especially those who serve the most marginalized children, could be better invested and improved on to meet academic and social-emotional needs, yet we divest from these institutions because that is the easier option. It is easier to put out the many little fires plaguing our field today, than to even glance towards the wildfire engulfing the entire system. The most severe options look reasonable when compared with taking to task the racist and capitalistic forces dictating our entire world, and denying children the education that they need and deserve.
So school closures are brought to the table. Not only in Oakland, but in other major metropolitan cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, mass school closures have taken place notably in neighbourhoods that were Black, Latinx, and/or low-income. But whilst closing schools seemingly gives districts and cities greater opportunity to strengthen already high-performing schools, there is an argument to be made that closures weaken educational systems as a whole by pushing students out of their schools, but also out of their neighbourhoods, cities, and states too. The more public education disinvests in its families, the more families will disinvest in it too.
What remains unsurprising is how racist and classist our solutions tend to be. Arguments in support of school closures and other measures around accountability frequently purport that would be problematic to not take drastic measures in response to the drastic injustice of a “bad school” exclusively serving the students most in-need. But what would drastic liberatory solutions look like instead, where we looked not at what and who should be punished, but what schools need to be made free in order to thrive? What drastic solutions can we find that bring liberation from poverty, cycles of trauma, White supremacy, unfettered neoliberalism, and the prejudices ensuring that some students thrive and others do not?
During the next school board meeting, neighbours, teachers, grandparents, parents, and students argued, and cried, and pleaded, and fought for schools to stay open. Once the vote was completed, three of the mergers were taken off, Prescott was removed from the list completely, and seven schools were set to be closed over the next two years. A month after the vote, the board made a decision to lease campuses of district schools to charter schools, either by way of co-location or on the sites of other schools that had been recently closed down. A month after that, teachers staged a one-day strike. A month after that, the school board member who was one of the two authors of the initial closures proposal resigned. The summer was then spent occupying one of the schools scheduled to be closed and filing lawsuits against the district.
At the start of the new school year, campaigns around upcoming school board elections picked up steam, with the Oakland Educators Association union mobilising in favour of their candidates. When the new board met, almost immediately, the topic of pending school closures came up, and almost a year to the initial announcement, the school board voted to reverse the consolidations.
We are in a moment where there is both momentum around people power and there is real change taking place. There is money coming in to schools and there are ways to spend it smartly. In Oakland specifically, there is undoubtedly room for improvement, and also, in a state where English test scores fell by 3.81% from 2019 to 2022 and Math scores fell 6.35%, Oakland Unified saw a 1.13% dip in Math scores and a 2.03% growth in reading scores, disrupting the narrative that nothing is working. There are teachers, families, and students using their voices louder than before, and there is a responsiveness that cannot be wasted. We can do better by trying what’s new and trying what’s right. Maybe it’s not as impossible as we think.
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