Too Many Schools but not Enough Good Ones, Santa Fe CAN’s Challenge to the Oakland Narrative

What happens when a district has too many schools, and a growing grassroots community wants start a new one.  We are about to find out as the Santa Fe community, after a robust outreach process, is going to push on the District to open a new school, when many feel that schools should be closing.

This will be a test for the new superintendent and the board in how they productively work with community, and it is one we will be watching closely.  Progress can’t stall because of the district’s financial problems, and poorly handled consolidations or closings, don’t really save money, because many of those families leave the district.  Look at what happened with Lazear Elementary, the last time, closings rolled around.

So here you have a set of engaged families that want to work with the District to start/ re-open a neighborhood school, crashing against the District’s own rhetoric of too many schools.

CAN Santa Fe?

Santa Fe Community Association and Neighbors (CAN) is leading the effort to create the new school.  You can see the campaign they ran here, inclusively bringing in community, and really listening.  They conducted a community survey, knocked on doors, held multiple forums and have been at this for over 3 years.  The result has been hundreds of letters of support and signatures and over 1000 community members pledging support.

Megan Low, chair of the Santa Fe Education Committee summarized the situation, “we’ve spent most of our time listening: listening to neighbors’ hopes, fears, frustration, and ideas. If we can build a school that is rooted in all of this community feedback, then we know it will thrive because schools do best when families are stakeholders in the mission.”

And according to the research they did,

A) there were a significant number of children in our neighborhood that could support robust enrollment in a neighborhood school and B) there was general frustration in the lack of school options that were both high-quality and accessible. Current local options are either too hard to get to (across major traffic arterials), or too hard to get into (long enrollment waiting lists).

So, they want a new neighborhood school.  And they want to do it within the district.  Whether the district will make room for that is the question.  And the answer to that question will say a lot about the direction of things to come.

The case for a new school

The Santa Fe neighborhood is described as a “school desert” with dangerous commutes across major roads.   Where there are many school aged children, and many of them do not attend the local schools.  So the neighborhood is seemingly ripe for a school.

As stated in their report,

Due to the lack of viable school options, the Santa Fe area is now largely seen as a school desert. Most families have become resigned to the fact that they have to face an inconvenient route or commute to get their kids to school while some are deciding to move out of the area in pursuit of better options. Our movement and the momentum we’ve built toward restoring a high-quality program at the Santa Fe site is instilling hope of a more sustain- able community in which our children can thrive together.

And Low commented on the deeper divisions caused by the lack of a local option, “the lack of a neighborhood school has fractured our community on many levels. With most families turning to alternative school options throughout Oakland and in nearby cities, kids living on the same block aren’t familiar with each other. When kids aren’t playing together, the community will always struggle to work together.”

The community is mobilized, there is some broad consensus on the model and they are looking for partners to help develop the school.  So what could go wrong?

Asking the Right Questions

The too many schools question may be the wrong one.  It’s really a question about the right fit, programs and quality for the number of schools.  And the reality is that families have choices.  Many families can pay for private schools and many more can apply to charters.  So it’s not a simple question of do we approve more schools, or don’t we.

It’s got to be a deeper discussion around the schools we need- based on quality and demand.  And that can’t be a stagnant notion.  It needs to be responsive to community, demographics, and the students.

If we start there I think we will be all right.  If we start with a cap on new ideas, or an automatic no without really looking at the merits of each of these proposals, I fear the district is going to find itself in an even worse space, alienating families who want to partner with it, and poisoning the well for future efforts.

For more information about Santa Fe Can’s efforts to re-open a neighborhood school,  you can check out their website at  They currently are wrapping up an RFI for school development partners.

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