The Challenges of Choosing a School in Oakland: A Parent’s Story

By Taraneh Arhamsadr

When we had the opportunity to buy and move into our Santa Fe house in 2012 – two years before any kids were in the picture – we were told that the neighborhood school had recently closed. No problem, we thought. We have our home—and years to figure the school thing out!

I  blinked, and it was late 2018. I’m now a mom to an incoming kindergartner and a baby with special needs, who will likely need additional supports when he enters the public school system. Our neighborhood school has yet to re-open, and instead is serving as a temporary host for a great school (Glenview) that is remodeling its own campus.

Failure of the Best Made Plans: Challenges in the Options Process

Alongside hundreds of other parents, including my next-door neighbor, whose 5-year-old son is essentially a sibling to my daughter, I began attending one kindergarten tour and info night after another, researching both district and charter schools in my area. We had a game plan: explore our “options,” agree upon one that would be a great fit for both of our kids, and submit our applications with an identical ranking, maximizing our chances of getting our kids into school together.

The process was, in a word, discouraging. At each school we liked, there was some big deal breaker. Whether it was a prohibitive commute (Cleveland) or a school so deeply impacted or that even neighborhood kids aren’t getting in (Peralta), we couldn’t find a place that felt like home for our kids.

That is, until we visited Kaiser.

We loved everything about it. The intimate campus, the diverse student population where my Iranian-American kid would fit in nicely, a warm principal who asked his 5th graders to lead the tour and give their unfiltered opinions.

But our feelings of peace were short-lived. A week after I decided Kaiser was the school for us, the district announced its plans to merge the school with Sankofa, a move that many Kaiser families immediately and vehemently opposed and continue to fight.

“My Daughter Deserves the Best, but so Does Every Daughter”

I was conflicted. Was I ready to put my little one into a school setting that would be in transition, where so much was uncertain? Not my kid, I thought. She deserves the best.

As soon as that thought crossed my mind, it was quickly challenged by another. Yes, my daughter deserves the best, but so does the little girl assigned to Sankofa whose parents may not have the resources and information that our family is privileged to have. Even as someone who works in education, who had the privilege of flexibility to attend school tours, who has access to data and honest input from my education leader colleagues, I struggled with what the best decision for my child was. But I am no different than any other mother or father across Oakland who just wants the very best for their kids, and wants to do what they can to make that a reality.

So why not work together to make an excellent education available for as many Oakland kids as we can? If we believe in public education, if we live in and love our Oakland home, this is the very least we can do.

We decided to commit, to follow our instincts and make Kaiser our first choice on our applications. We decided that if we got in, we’d be active from day 1. If the decision was made to move forward with the merger, we would work to support this effort that aims to use the district’s limited resources more efficiently, and serve more students equitably.

Decision Day

On March 14, my neighbor and I logged in to see how the dice had rolled for our families. I received an offer from Kaiser. My neighbor’s offer? Sankofa, with a Kaiser waitlist number of 46.

Given the controversy around the Kaiser project, we didn’t expect that we wouldn’t both get in, and even though I work in education, I am quite puzzled about a lottery process that aims to assign families to their highest-ranked choice‒but very often does just the opposite.

Maybe we’ve been offered another opportunity. Maybe my neighbor and I can start our kids in kindergarten at their respective schools and play an active role in the parent communities, engaging in a thoughtful planning process that brings together the best of both schools, should the merger move forward. Maybe it was meant to happen this way.

In any case, the enrollment process hasn’t been easy for me or any other family I’ve come in contact with. We need to continue working hard to make it more accessible, transparent, and fair for all Oakland families‒and we have a long way to go.

Taraneh Arhamsadr is an Oaklander, communications professional and mom of 2, including an incoming Oakland kindergartner. She’s worked in the Bay Area nonprofit community for over a decade, and spent the last two years working in Oakland public education for organizations like GO Public Schools, Enroll Oakland, and Educate78.

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