If voting with your feet counts, the election is over and it’s a landslide, West Oakland lost. Across all grades, only 31% of families chose a West Oakland school as their first choice, and at grade 9 it was only 15%. If we are promising quality neighborhood schools and trust families to choose, then we have to do better in West Oakland providing quality options in the neighborhood, and if we can’t, to make sure that those students practically can enroll in other good schools.
If you have a minute, check out OUSD’s enrollment presentation drawn from the Strategic Regional Analysis, which shows the most chosen district schools in Oakland (charters are not included). You will see a big nothing, when you get to the map of the schools with the highest number of first choice applications, as you scan to West Oakland. On the other hand, there is a cluster of schools in the western section of the map for schools with the lowest number of first choice applications. If we are going to collect this data then we need to use it, and West Oakland is crying out for some better schools.
First, I am glad to see OUSD actually collecting and publicizing this data, but as the urban poet Oshe Jackson wrote, “I can give it to ya, but what ya gon’ do with it.” A recent study from Chicago that looked at school choices as they shifted to a new enrollment system, had some unfortunate findings that matter for Oakland.
In Chicago, researchers had an unusual opportunity to study, over several years, how publicizing information about school quality influenced where families enrolled their children. And they found that many families did pull their children out of failing schools. But they usually ended up in ones that were just as bad, or only slightly better. Astonishingly, more than 25 percent of the transfer students moved to another school that was also on the city’s probation list of failing schools.
“The reason is geography,” said Peter M. Rich, one of the study’s coauthors and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University. “The low-performing schools are clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods in the South and West Side of Chicago. They have fewer nearby options to choose from.”
So just saying that families can choose and providing quality info, won’t solve our problems. The answer here has to be two pronged- improving school options in the West and also, as was the overall point of the presentation, we need to create a better enrollment system for families, that engages all families. To which I would add that we need to practically understand the geographic and other practical barriers to accessing quality schools, and create supports for families.
Oakland has always been the tale of at least two cities, unless we address the school crisis in West Oakland head on, and the practical barriers that families face in making choices, we are likely to perpetuate this inequity. The beauty of these enrollment and choice systems is that we create them and we need to write the rules and provide the resources to serve our most underserved families—and right now, geographically, that is West Oakland.