The Little School that Could; How a Relentless Community Fought for Lazear Elementary and Won

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them”Frederick Douglass

“We had to do it, our kids were first, no matter what it took.” Parent Leader, Rocio Gonzalez

In 2012 Oakland Unified moved to close Lazear Elementary School as one of five casualties of enrollment reductions and budget cuts. But the school, and the community that fought for it, are still here and thriving.

Their struggle demonstrates the power of the community to stand up, fight for, and win, against overwhelming odds.  And as we have a déjà vu moment with budget deficits and another round of threatened closures, other school communities should take notice.

A “family” used to fighting for theirs

The Lazear community had gotten used to getting offered the short end of the stick.  50 years ago the campus had burned down.  It wasn’t reconstructed.  Instead, portable classrooms were strewn on the cement foundation, the school sandwiched between a foul smelling highway, a major off ramp, and industrial sites. It was, and arguably is, Oakland’s worst school facility.

But Lazear is not about the buildings, it is about the people.  The difference between Lazear and the other schools that closed was the Lazear community.  Or the Lazear family.  It’s a neighborhood school, where grandmothers, mothers and now children go.  And they call this school home.

The community had a history of activism; strikes, picketing, and marches, drawing the ire and respect of school board trustees and superintendents.

And they would not go quietly.

“Si se puede”

Parent leader Rocio Gonzalez schooled me on some of this history, one of resistance, organizing, struggle and progress.  While Lazear did often initially, get the short end of the stick, they fought for more and usually got it.

The portable classrooms in the 1990’s were unbearable.  Many were windowless, they had doors that wouldn’t close, grit and grime so old that it was uncleanable, the water was brown from sinks, and where there were windows they were often unusable, and who knows what health hazards lurked in 50 year old portables.

The community asked Oakland Unified for help, but none came, so the families went on strike.  They shut it down.  Less than 10% of students showed up for school.  And they got their new portables.

When a teacher repeatedly put children at risk, they shut it down.  When a principal was assigned to the school, and not getting it done or holding teachers accountable, they shut it down.  And they got them out.

The school had to be accountable to the parents, or the parents would fight back.

Demanding voice

But it was not enough to just remove a principal.  The community wanted the power to choose the next one, and they got it.  The parents interviewed all the principal candidates and basically made the hire, and, their preferred candidate, Mr. Weaver chose the school.  He presented the community with a list of what he needed to be successful; more science and a deeper commitment to math and reading.  And a partnership was formed.

Despite challenges the school made solid progress. Mr. Weaver was digging in, the campus was humming with energy, science fairs were igniting young minds and families were again welcomed and building community at the school.  Lazear was back and kids were learning.

Then came the closure notice.  Not even a call, just the name showing up on a public list.

“That’s when our nightmare started”

Mr. Weaver passionately argued that the community had to organize, and there was fertile ground in the parents who really didn’t need any encouragement and were ready to go.  “It was late night school board meetings, where we were always last on the agenda, families and children there until midnight.  It was a very difficult year” Ms. Gonzalez said, and progress with the Board was slow or nonexistent.

Oakland Unified was going to close Lazear.

The one option left was to apply for a charter school, something that members of the Lazear community had experience with.  In fact they had helped create Oakland Charter Academy Middle School, which was the 9th charter school in California.  But the clock was ticking to submit a charter in time to open next year and the process had changed and become much more complex and professionalized.  And if the school was closed and they didn’t have a charter they worried the land would be sold, so they had to be ready to open in the Fall.

These differences in charter process showed when the Lazear families came to a board meeting to present their charter in a slim binder.  They saw Education for Change (EFC), a community based charter management organization, submitting volumes, ”We spoke to them, pulled back our petition and asked EFC if they would help.” Ms. Gonzalez remembered.

“This is crazy”

That was the uniform response from parents, staff, and the folks at EFC.  It was already October, they had no building, and no charter, and hadn’t agreed on a school model.  There were some tough early meetings and frictions.

Meanwhile, parents from other closing schools warned that the Lazear parents would lose their voice by going charter.  And it would take a lot of work to get this charter written and approved, and with no deep pocketed funders, much of that work would fall on the community.

But when it came down to it, the school leadership, and families met with Education for Change and there was no choice, “we had to do it, our kids were first, no matter what it took.” Ms. Gonzalez summarized.

It was never easy, delays and hearings in front of OUSD.  A soft promise that the charter would be approved under conditions, but when the vote came to the OUSD board, the Lazear families lost, with only 2 votes in favor.  The room was awash in tears.   Folks I know who I don’t think of as crying, were.  It was heartbreaking.  But it wasn’t over yet.

California charter law provides a set of appeals when you are turned down, first to the county and then to the state.  And if a charter meets a set of conditions the law states that it “shall” be approved.  So the county looks at the charters fresh.  And the experience at the county was an amicable one, where the school earned approval, spurred by the families, as board vice president Yvonne Cerrato said, “I’ve seen charter schools come and go…but the parents united and want something.”

But being approved and opening a high quality schools are two very different things, and it was getting late to open a good school.

A Relentless community a hard year and real progress

Getting approved was the easy part.  Now they had to open the school.  And given the uncertainty only 1 teacher stayed at Lazear.  Originally they only had 100 of the more than 250 students they needed.  And while they did get to lease their old school site, the district came in and stripped out anything worth keeping, leaving shells of classrooms.

But again the community came together.  They cleaned and painted, and organized the school site.  They walked the neighborhoods recruiting families.  The County helped where it could, and the staff from EFC and the community were on a full court press to recruit families back to Lazear.

By the end of September, the classes were full.  “It was a very tough year, but we had a happy end.”  Ms. Gonzalez summarized, “Now, Lazear is getting a new building, we have good teachers and high quality leadership, all those sleepless nights, all that hard work…it was worth it”

Reading the renewal report for Lazear from Alameda County it’s clear things are moving in the right direction,

“The Review team found the education sound, and in a number of ways exemplary.  When looking at cohort-matched data, Lazear experienced a 10 percentage point increase in proficiency from 2015 to 2016. Furthermore, all grade level cohorts experienced an increase in proficiency with the largest increases in 7th grade and 8th grade cohorts (22 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively)… The Lazear Charter Academy academic program is a success for its students.”

“We still have a voice”

Lazear is not perfect, but it is one of those evolving works in progress where the school is accountable to the community, and everyone partners to move forward.  There was a principal during the EFC years who the parents didn’t think was getting it done, they voiced their concerns, and a change was made.

“Before decisions are made, we talk about it, they come to us, and there are structures.  The schools have a parent coordinator, we have a family leadership council that meets monthly and we have two parents we elect to sit on the Board.” explained Ms. Gonzalez.

A tenacious community building family

Lazear is a community school from the community” said teacher Luis Torres, “it was that community feel that attracted me to Lazear and the strength and commitment from families… Every day I am awed by the tenacity, grit and perseverance of the community, that just kept pushing forward”, this was mirrored in the students, “I am amazed by what they go through sometimes, and they show up every day, they see violence and face trauma, but they have that grit and tenacity, they are relentless, and since they don’t give up we don’t give up either.”

And this idea of “home” or “family” came up over and over in the conversation, of a place where all the staff and families feel comfortable and the door is open.  This plays out in packed parent meetings, families constantly on site, and a legitimate partnership.  As Mr. Torres said, “parents are the first ones I go to when I need support.”  And he doesn’t need to go far.

On this afternoon a group of moms are selling nachos to raise money for prizes for a reading club, another set of parents mill in the main entrance and others come and go from the parent center we are speaking in.  Food is another lure, “we love to eat here” Ms. Gonzalez said as she described how both sharing meals attracts families and gives the opportunity to get to know them and for them to become comfortable.

A lesson for other communities

Community voice matters, and when it is unified, strong, and relentless, the game can be changed.

Our city and community are better with Lazear Charter School.  But it took a fight.  We didn’t have the money or the connections, but we had the organization, community, and the will.  And as this next set of axes falls in Oakland, with predictable victims, there are lessons to be learned from Lazear, that are deeper than any political action or decision.

This was voiced by parent, Alicia Rodriguez, she said around earlier strikes “these lessons are lessons for our children, they are getting a lesson in democracy and the power they can have if they assert their rights…I think my son is getting a lesson more valuable than anything he may learn from a textbook.”

I think we can all learn some lessons from this community, and hope we do.


Full disclosure the author is board member of Education for Change and is politely requests of the Lazear community not to strike.

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