Oakland’s school community really is unique. In California, only about 5 other districts of similar size and demographics exist:
School districts in CA with more than 30,000 kids, at least 50% CALPADS unduplicated students (FRL/EL/foster), and at least 10% Black, Latino, and White students. Source: California DOE (2019/2020)
When we look at these districts’ levels of school segregation, however, they are markedly different. Twin Rivers Unified has a Black-White school poverty gap of only 7% compared to Oakland’s 29% (see below). And the dissimilarity index for Black or Latino students (the percent that would need to move schools to be equally balanced across all sites) is 20% higher in Oakland than most districts except West Contra Costa.
Source: The Education Opportunity Project at Stanford University. See full map
The larger the racial gap in school poverty, the less likelihood there is of closing racial achievement gaps. That pattern holds among these five school districts as it does for most throughout the country. And while no large school district has closed racial achievement gaps, it’s clear that those that minimize the racial gap in school poverty have a better chance of doing so.
Oakland’s uniqueness is not always a good thing
Why is school segregation in Oakland so severe? Poorly constructed attendance boundaries are one culprit. Most boundaries in Oakland – outside of the high school level at least – are not purposefully constructed to include a heterogeneous mix of racial and socioeconomic demographics. Offering neighborhood preference using these types of zones is guaranteed to reinforce neighborhood segregation.
OUSD elementary school neighborhood boundaries and their underlying census block groups grouped into three wealth categories (yellow – high wealth; dark blue – low wealth). See detailed view here.
One could argue that OUSD’s Open Enrollment (OE) policy has the potential to alleviate the segregation that attendance boundaries reinforce. Not only does OE offer families a choice to opt out of their neighborhood school if they believe better options exist elsewhere, it potentially creates opportunity for students to interact with peers from across the city.
In reality, families in the 11 wealthiest and Whitest hills neighborhoods use neighborhood and sibling preference to hold about 90% of elementary seats in their local schools, leaving few spots for those outside of the neighborhood. Students in flatland schools in West and East Oakland are more likely to use OE to leave their neighborhood school but, because of the scarcity of seats up the hill, are left with largely segregating choices.
Overall, we actually make segregation at the neighborhood level worse in our schools. In elementary schools, for instance, White students would have about a 44% chance of interacting with a Black or Latino student if everyone attended their neighborhood school. Instead, in public schools today (district and charter), White elementary students are less than 24% likely to interact with Black or Latino classmates. A similar pattern exists for other racial groups.
We need a new systematic policy approach, not hackneyed truisms
If we want to see better outcomes for all students, we should prioritize school integration and not, counterintuitively perhaps, the “quality schools in every neighborhood” approach. I of course believe in the ultimate goal of quality neighborhood schools. However, we have tried this approach for almost 20 years and 65% of elementary schools still produce “below average” growth in ELA for Black students (half are below average in Math).
Furthermore, centering quality is always going to be subjective and problematic. Quality is too often tied to test scores or other school outputs which are directly correlated with race and class. I personally know that many schools in Oakland with low test scores have strong, thriving communities; I consider them high quality.
At the same time, many of these same schools remain in low demand and are under-resourced as a result. A new enrollment policy should not only encourage more diverse environments for all the socio-emotional and academic benefits, but also encourage families to opt-in to more schools which currently suffer from “bad quality” labels.
Change is a real possibility; let’s consider some options
Through my other organization, Across Lines, I have constructed three alternative enrollment scenarios at the elementary level. As a community, we could use any one of these as a starting point to imagine more diverse school environments, potentially leading to better outcomes for low-income students of color and more stable enrollment patterns.
I plan to introduce the app more fully soon but, for now, you can view a working visualization of all scenarios and the full methodology here (click on a school box on the left and then toggle between the different scenarios to see changes to enrollment patterns).
#1 Everyone goes to their neighborhood school
A seemingly unrealistic scenario at first – given Oakland’s high degree of choice – a neighborhood-only model offers an interesting hypothetical. If all families went to their geographically closest school, racial and socioeconomic diversity would actually increase in schools.
Compared to now (2019-2020 data) when 22 elementary schools enroll over 60% of one racial group, only 15 would do so in a neighborhood-only model. Moreover, more than double the number of schools compared to today would serve a percentage of low-income students (my model uses a neighborhood proxy) that is in line with the district average. If this isn’t the largest indictment of our current system, I don’t know what is.
Yes, some schools become remarkably less diverse because of neighborhood segregation. However, families would travel much shorter distances and about half of our schools would not have a single racial group in the majority (compared to around 35% of schools today).
#2 A Berkeley-style zone model
In Berkeley Unified, elementary schools are grouped into zones that are purposefully designed to encourage racial and socioeconomic integration. Students still select a preference for certain schools but are limited to those in their zone. Then, during the lottery process, the district ensures that schools are balanced according to students’ diversity factors which are based on where they live.
Oakland has very similar residential neighborhood segregation patterns and could easily construct zones in hills-to-flatlands patterns (check out the “multi-school diverse zones” layer in the link). Granted, Oakland has more schools than Berkeley and, with a greater charter school presence, Oakland may get some push-back implementing a similar model.
Still, a zone model stands out in its ability to close the racial gap in school poverty that is so tightly linked to racial achievement gaps (San Francisco is also about to implement a similar policy). Each racial group would attend schools whose poverty rates are much more in line with the district average (see below) with White and Latino students seeing the most significant shift.
Racial exposure to school poverty is tightly linked to racial achievement gaps. Here’s how that metric changes in each scenario.
A zone model is also compelling because families still retain choice (each zone has about 10 schools in my model); guardrails are in place to ensure wealth/poverty is not concentrated in separate regions of the cities; and there is more predictability for families when looking at schools outside their immediate neighborhood. Moreover, this policy would likely lead, as it has in Berkeley, to better resource distribution (from PTA funding to teacher experience) and balanced enrollment.
#3 A boundary-free open enrollment plan (with guardrails)
If zones don’t make sense for Oakland, considering the slightly more limited choice it would present for families, Oakland should look at getting rid of attendance boundaries altogether. It should only do so, however, if, like the zone model, a number of seats were held at each site for different socioeconomic groups. Doing so would likely produce similar diversity outcomes to the zone policy. Even looking at travel patterns, only White students would most likely travel further compared to a zone model.
Approximate student travel distances in each scenario compared to today (2019-2020).
Getting over enrollment policy inertia
All of these models are of course hypothetical and make assumptions such as every family prioritizing their closest school. Other options obviously exist too, such as ensuring all neighborhood attendance boundaries encompass an array of neighborhood types. Nevertheless, a large take-away is that each of these models improves on every school segregation metric and is quite feasible from an implementation standpoint.
The scenarios also highlight how Oakland has too many district-managed school seats (over 3,000 at the elementary level); more than 40% of schools are under-enrolled (less than 90% capacity), regardless of the scenario. By revamping our enrollment policy, however, we could completely rethink which schools need to be closed or merged. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the ones currently in low-demand or under-enrolled but the ones that, in a neighborhood-only model, don’t reach at least 80% capacity. Transplanting these school communities to denser areas like those in the flatlands could both further school integration and address enrollment woes.
Our enrollment system today offers the illusion of choice for many low-income families of color while often protecting the interests of White and affluent ones. Instead of looking to reform the system with tired approaches or in a piecemeal fashion, a complete rethinking may help us get beyond the politics that have kept the status quo in place for so long.