Choice, Equity, and Transportation in Oakland

More school choice, by itself will not lead to more equitable outcomes.  Indeed “choice” for underserved families is often one of those platitudes, like “justice” whose airy description bears little resemblance to the ground level realities.

So as Oakland potentially moves to a common enrollment system that will ideally increase the numbers of families making choices, we need to deal with the nitty gritty of making quality choices real.  A crucial and undervalued link is student transportation.

Students and families struggle with school transportation

Getting to schools can be really hard in Oakland.  According to the SRA roughly 35% of students choose a school outside of their neighborhood.  Many of those students spend several hours a day, on buses or waiting for them.  And not surprisingly those students who travel the furthest are typically Flatlands kids trying to access better schools.

When the District created the Options process for high schools allowing for choices outside of a student’s neighborhood, many Oakland parents voted with their feet, according to a recent Oakland North article,

‘in the 2014-2015 school year, only 24.4 percent of Skyline High School students actually lived in the school’s attendance area, bordering the Oakland hills. Another 36 percent lived in the Castlemont High School attendance area in East Oakland and 25.5 percent lived near Fremont High School, in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland.’

These schools are actually not that far apart.  As the crow flies, around 6-8 miles, but each trip requires multiple transfers and takes between 2-3 hours on a good day.  The buses are also (rightly) considered dangerous, and as the sun dips, many students don’t feel safe at bus stops, and parents nervously await their return.  Students are also at the mercy of AC Transit, often racking up tardies when buses are late or connections are missed.

One of the inspiring things is really how dedicated these students are to their education, showing the grit and persistence that we say we want, but paying a cost for wanting a better school.

As one said,

‘The coursework and programs at Oakland Tech are “very challenging, compared to other schools that I’ve seen,” said Sasa Win, also a sophomore. Win wakes up at 5:30 every morning and commutes from the Fruitvale, riding on AC Transit for an hour, transferring buses downtown in order to arrive on time for her first class at 7:30. But Win thinks it’s worth it because she has different course options at Oakland Tech. She became a member of the Fashion, Arts and Design Academy after a teacher in her freshman art class encouraged her to pursue art.’

And the answer is not, as some would say, to shut down the options process, because we haven’t figured out transportation.  Nor can we sacrifice today’s students for the idea that someday there will be high quality neighborhood schools everywhere in Oakland.  We need to figure out transportation.

Irises and Dandelions

“Fit” matters in education.  Some students will thrive almost anywhere but other students need specialized programs to bring out their potential.  The analogy I heard was dandelions and irises.  Irises are those students who can grow so beautifully, but are more delicate, and need certain conditions to thrive, anyone who has a yard can figure out the dandelion piece.

We can increase student motivation and achievement without opening another school, by just matching  students with the right schools.  Some kids will thrive in a dual language program, others in an arts school, some may benefit from the structure of a military style school, others will really want a counselor who speaks their native language, etc.  And thankfully in Oakland we have a range of programs.  But right now, we don’t do a good job of matching, and because transportation is difficult, choice advantages those who have the resources to actuate the choices.

Choice has to be easy for it to be equitable.  So what can we do?


First, hats off to MetWest, I saw their kids studying AC Transit routes and preparing to testify on changes—so get the kids and families involved

Second, we need to rethink school transportation. What if we facilitated carpooling amongst neighborhood families going to the same schools, maybe subsidizing the driver?  The enrollment office has that info and it could help coordinate families, there are apps for adults getting to work—why not families getting to school?  And Uber is here, we could consolidate routes through private rideshares, or employ those smaller buses, like Google uses in San Francisco.  There is not one answer, and it will probably cost money.

But there already is an immense cost paid by the students and families.  Those schlepping hours every day, parents worried whether children will get home safe, and even more importantly, those students stuck in badly fitting neighborhood schools, who hear us talk about the power of choice, while mired without any.


What do you think?

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