Ending Separate and Unequal Schools in Oakland

Most everyone says they want integrated schools.  Maybe not “too integrated” if you know what I mean, but “diverse” schools.  There is a significant body of research that says it’s good for kids too.  But integration ain’t happening.  Schools nationwide are more segregated than they were decades ago and nothing will change until we affirmatively act.

This issue was highlighted in a well-done series by KQED that initially looked at two Oakland families, one White and the other Black in the shared attendance zone of Peralta and Sankofa, schools with starkly different student populations, circumstances and outcomes.   Check out the graphs at the end.  One school is largely White and not low income, the other, largely Black and low income.

And I know.  I know.  We aren’t racist anymore.  Of course race doesn’t affect the experiences of children.  But the data says differently.  The most disturbing graph of the year can be found in the NY Times.  It shows the persistent racial and economic gaps in achievement in cities—and it’s a universal picture.  Black kids always do worse, even with similar income, and poor kids pretty much always do worse.  This is not coincidence or destiny, it is historical legacy, and current practices.

Separate and Unequal in Oakland- Parent Stories

I really appreciated the honesty of the White mother who initially chose the Black school, this is a snippet but she was thoughtful in her reflections overall and highlighted some of the challenges,

Her family felt welcome at the school (Sankofa). But there were challenges common in schools that serve mostly low-income kids. Eero had an inexperienced teacher the first year, frequent substitutes the next.

“It was like the bottom-of-the-barrel substitutes. Sankofa did not have the resources to retain like a full-time sub,” said Wohlfeiler. “What I saw of it when I volunteered was real disrespect for the children as a form of crowd control. I was watching the children just shut down.”

Peralta was a different experience.  And this isn’t to blame the school.  It’s the system, and the way privilege is formally and informally apportioned.  It really is a powerful article, so please actually read or listen to it.

A second piece in the series had similar sentiments

(the parent) was convinced her kids are not receiving the same quality education as kids in the wealthy Oakland hills. One of the most frustrating moments for her was last year, when her son was a junior in high school. She said he had a substitute teacher in one of his classes for months.

“He would say, ‘They’re not even teaching me anything. Mom, come get me, I’m not doing anything,’ ” Muñoz said. “How are we going to send our kids to college if we don’t have well-trained teachers?”

Segregation Hurts

Segregation hurts kids.  Low income and Black and Brown children lose academically.  And all children lose socially.  This threatens to continue our segregation and division as a society.  And Oakland is very segregated, both by race and income and usually both at the same time.  From the article and experts within it,

According to data compiled by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the average white student in Oakland goes to school with 37 percent low-income classmates. In contrast, African-American students in Oakland attend schools where 72 percent of fellow students are low income; for Latinos, it’s 84 percent.

When you concentrate poverty and wealth like that, it creates separate and unequal schools, like Sankofa and Peralta. In fact, the larger the difference in the poverty rate at schools for kids of different races, the larger the racial achievement gap, according to some researchers.

And further, better off children and White kids don’t lose academically by attending more diverse schools, generally.

So beyond historical legacies, some comfort level issues, and practical issues of transportation, enrollment and site responsiveness, why don’t we do something?

We Can Change This

Will is the main obstacle to changing this.  I was a little shocked by the statement from the District’s new enrollment guru, in a good way.  Normally this crap starts with a bunch of excuses, and devolves into the haze of bureaucratic rules- equity never to be seen, buried beneath heaps of well-meaning words.

This is what the new guy said—I hope he sticks around—smart, incisive honest commentary is usually frowned upon and oft punished,

“The system is broken and diseased,” said OUSD’s director of enrollment, Charles Wilson. “If everybody went to their neighborhood schools, then we might see greater mixing, but there is sort of this pantheon of five or six schools that everyone wants to get into, all above Highway 13.”

Wilson said the district is looking into ways to integrate the schools socioeconomically, including redesigning programs at schools like Sankofa to make them more appealing to middle-class families, and changing the priority system to give kids from higher-poverty Zip codes more of a chance to enroll in high-performing schools. But that’s still in the planning stages.

In the second article he also floated an idea about capping the percentage of high needs students at particular sites—which again is an interesting idea.  But there is an elephant in the room and her name is privilege.

Limited Supply of Quality Seats Means Someone Loses

I really hope that Wilson does not get run over by the privilege train.  When you are asking folks above the 13 to maybe go to a slightly lower performing school they may revolt, and they have a lot of time energy, bandwidth, and cultural capital.

Of course everyone will say we need to expand the number of quality seats—which I obviously agree with—but practically, we won’t have nearly enough soon enough no matter what.  And reform can’t hang on future hypotheticals.  Someone will have to give up their seat.  A seat that they thought they bought when they bought that 7 figure house.

But neighborhood attendance boundaries are not God’s law or the Constitution—they are creations of the school board, and can be changed.  And the basis of housing segregation is racism and what are now illegal housing practices.  Things I don’t think we should honor or continue.

I would go even further.  The Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas affirmed the ability of schools to use race as a factor in admissions.  And OUSD should.  I don’t have all the answers here, but we should include race and class as plus factors in enrollment, and also understand and address some practical issues.  This is up to us.

Transportation, Information, and the Hustle Factor

Choice systems (yes this includes charters) tend to advantage the relatively more advantaged.  And we need to understand and consciously counteract this.  As the article described,

“Middle-class parents are experts at gaming things,” said Janelle Scott, associate professor of education at UC Berkeley. “They have benefited from their own higher education, but also families who have taught them how to navigate complex systems. School districts have to be pretty savvy to make sure there is not this sense that one school is not dramatically better to get into, because parents will find a way to game that.”

Any system needs to account for student transportation, which already is problematic for students, really work to spread information more evenly and actively engage the unengaged.  We also need to make schools welcoming places for more diverse families.

So we need to listen to families throughout this process and also tailor supports to the challenges they are facing.

We have a chance to be a leader in balancing the scales for children and families in Oakland.

On one side are historical legacies and privileges and the other children and families who deserve more.  I hope we will have the will and vision to do the right thing.

What do you think?

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