There is one election in Oakland this year, for the District 5 school board. With a divided board, the person elected will have the opportunity to cast a deciding vote. With so much at stake, we wanted to hear directly from the candidates so voters and the public can better understand their views and plans for their time in office. Students will be those most affected by the decisions the board makes, so we collected student questions from The Oakland Youth Commission to ask candidates Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez and Jorge Lerma. Below is a transcript of our interview with Ritzie-Hernandez, edited for clarity. Here’s a link to our interview with Lerma.
Great School Voices: Thank you for being here with us today for this Great School Voices interview. To start off, if you could just introduce yourself.
Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez: Hi, everyone, my name is Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez and I was born in Mexico. I’m actually from a small for indigenous community in the South of Mexico, in Guerrero. I was born in Acapulco, but I grew up in Costa Chica in a very small town. After a few years, my family decided to move to the city, and (because of) violence, natural disasters and many other things, my family made the difficult decision to move to the United States. So my father and my brother migrated first, and then my mother and I joined them shortly after. One of the many reasons why I was able to succeed in school, in many ways, was because my family, both my mom and dad, were very involved in my education. For them, it was really hard to navigate the education system here in the US. And so I had to become their interpreter and their advocate. Both my mom and dad achieved higher education back home, my dad was a doctor, my mom was a teacher for over 20 years. And so when they came here, my dad became a gardener. My mom was cleaning Holy Names University, which is my university where I graduated from. My family, my mom and dad, are really one of the reasons why I’m sitting here today. As a student, I valued their efforts to really be champions in my education and not wanting me to fall through the cracks, which we have seen with a lot of our students. Unfortunately, we have an education system that is not always the most welcoming environment for our families, for our students. We’re seeing people not wanting to be in school for multiple reasons, whether it’s safety, bullying, just a lot of challenges that we are facing as a community. But the passion and love that I felt by becoming my parents advocate is the reason why I became a parent organizer. I’m not a parent myself, but I was able to take the experiences of supporting my family to my day-to-day job. I’ve been a family engagement specialist for the last seven years, particularly focusing on preparing families for school, making sure that they know their rights. I did a lot of workshops around leadership development, and I always thought that if I could transfer the love and passion and just just all of the great things that I was able to do with my family, that if I can replicate it with other families, I would be in a happy place because I love working with the parents. For the last 10 years, I’ve also encouraged parents to become advocates for their children. That advocacy, sometimes translated to them coming to the school boards and asking for better policies or to pass policies. I empower them to build relationships with our board members and elected officials. For me, I feel like it’s a natural progression for me to try to run for school board given that I’ve been empowering families and being in the background, doing a lot of organizing to improve our education system. Unfortunately, when we’re looking at those policies that are not always implemented, and that has come to really disempower, or create a lack of trust within our community, because we know that our representatives are not always moving the work forward, to ensure that our students are doing well academically, that they’re safe. So that lack of trust is one of the reasons why I decided to run because I feel like family engagement is a priority. And you could really support advancing our district. And it’s not always at the center. So I would like to shift the narrative and look at our families for who they are, who are our incredible assets to our community that come with incredible knowledge, that come from different parts of the world. We need to celebrate that diversity and we gotta create a more welcoming environment for our families.
GSV: School Safety is a major concern for everyone in Oakland, especially with several school shootings in the last year on Oakland high school campuses. What ideas do you bring to the table to improve school safety?
Ritzie-Hernandez: There are a couple of ideas that I have brought forward. One of them that I’m really, really passionate about is that every school has a safety plan. So ensuring that our safety plans are not only known by the the school community, but really working to disseminate information to the community, because the last thing we need when there’s a crisis, or there’s an emergency, is for our families to not know what to expect or who to call. So we want to ensure that all of our established emergency plans are also informed to our families, that our families know what to expect. In addition to that, one of the things that’s come up because I spend, at least once or twice a week, I really tried to spend as much time at the school site. I’ve had multiple conversations with staff, and one thing that’s come to light is that in the beginning of the school year, our teachers received a training and some of the the teachers shared with me that unfortunately, the training was not trauma informed, and he wasn’t culturally competent, which can be a challenge, because we want to ensure that if we have safety trainings, or anything in relationship to the potential of a crisis or an emergency, we want to be as sensitive as possible. So one of the things that I will be very committed to in terms of safety is also ensuring that wherever curriculum is available to our community, also is piloted by the community, that is reviewed by the community to ensure that we take in consideration our demographic, that we take into consideration our diversity, and that we don’t forget that what we’re trying to do is to inform the community to prevent harm. And so sometimes when we’re not eloquent with our words, or when we’re not really intentional about the trainings, it can cause more harm than you can benefit the community. Regardless of what happens on November 7, my commitment will be safety. I am already thinking and planning about what these moments leading up to the election can support. Me getting a better sense of where the community is, as far as solutions for safety. Now, the other thing that is at the table, and if elected I will be pushing for is the full implementation of the George Floyd resolution. Again, I’m not interested in recreating prisons in our schools. That is something that I don’t want to do. That further pushes our students through the school to prison pipeline by recreating those systems within our school. I’m not interested in bringing the police back or not interested in recreating those systems in our school sites. But I’m also interested in hearing from the community and implementing more restorative justice, which I hear from the students is super important mental health support. One of the conversations that I’ve been having is we need mental health services for everyone, and some of our teachers have also experienced some really challenging things. Making sure that our entire community feels like they will be supported and that the services are available to them. So those are some of the things that I’m thinking about in terms of safety.
GSV: Graduation rates have been steadily improving but still average at 75% of all OUSD students. What do you think can be done to boost graduation rates to 100%?
Ritzie-Hernandez: It’s really interesting because I’ve just been looking at some data around our district and two of the biggest challenges are literacy and math. Definitely one of the things that I feel like is missing in our district that can support our academic achievement is really evaluating the programs that we have in place now, see what are the best practices, what is working, but also being innovative. If things are not working, if we keep buying the same product or using the same service, and we’re not receiving the results that we need, then there needs to be a shift. I’m very interested to see what programs are working in our district, so that way we can share best practices. That’s another thing that I’m really interested in is creating an opportunity for us to work together. Because as a community, specifically in District 5, I want us to get to a space where schools are talking about what is working for them, what isn’t working and share ideas. OUSD has a tendency to work in silos. One of the things that I want to ensure that we do is that we are building bridges, that we’re able to work together. And if we see that a program or service is working for a specific school, how do we learn from their lessons to move other schools? I think literacy and math will be one of my priorities, we need relevant curriculum. I can tell you as a student of color, that growing up (for) math, I was always told, ‘Oh, math is difficult. Math is difficult.’ And so a lot of our students of color are growing up with this idea that math is so difficult, that it is going to be really hard. We need to move away from that, we really need to move in a more growing mindset that allows us to really see our students’ potential, and not just where they are right now. That is something is just shifting the culture and the way that we address academic achievement is also very important. We need to celebrate also those students who are doing really well, we need to ensure that when one of our schools is thriving, and is doing really well, again, that they share those best practices, and that we document them and we are able to celebrate them as well. I think it’s going to take a lot of evaluation and see what have we been doing for the last two decades that has resulted in such a gap.
GSV: Why do you think there are a lot of charter schools in District 5, what what do you see as your role in supporting district schools and charter schools?
Ritzie-Hernandez: Honestly, one of the things that I’ve been hearing a lot, and my wife and I were doing the math yesterday. Everybody says that our enrollment keeps declining, but the number of students is pretty sturdy throughout the district. The difference is that we now have charter schools. So we do have a significant amount. I think it was 30%, don’t quote me on that. I don’t remember I think it was like 30% of our students are going into charter schools. We’re crunching numbers right now and one of the things that I want to make sure that I am able to do as a as a board member, and I think that I’m deviating from the question just because I want to say this because it’s important, as far as the charter school question is concerned, it’s like really crunching the numbers, understanding our budget, knowing what exactly what money is given to every school, how is it be spent? That is something that is information that is not as accessible as people may think. One of my one of my priorities will be ensuring that we have a balanced budget, obviously, to support our public schools. I also think that it’s important for us to be transparent about the numbers. I think that we’re not having enough conversations around us losing our students to charter schools. And so long term, the charter school model is not going to be sustainable long term, because we’re seeing that, at least for me from my vantage point, and the way that I am seeing this challenge is if our charter schools do not thrive or do not succeed, all of the students can can always come back to public education. If public schools do not thrive, unfortunately, all of our children cannot go to charter schools, there’s going to be a deficit. So my priority will always be to continue to invest in our public operated schools, focusing on increasing resources, focusing on increasing services, creating genuine, robust community schools is going to be one of the things that I am going to be working on. I am following right now, as I’m doing my homework, following how much money is allocated for community schools in every District 5, school so that I can really focus on supporting them to ensure that that money really shows a more robust way of engaging families, that is going to go towards supporting academic achievement, and that we really have community schools that have all the services that our families needed. So if you ask me, one of the first things that I would do in supporting our public schools, is creating a needs assessment. What do we need? What services do we already have? And what else is needed? I don’t know if that answers some of the question. That is a very heavy question, because there’s a lot of challenges.
GSV: What ideas do you have to dismantle the school to prison pipeline?
Ritzie-Hernandez: Partnership, partnership, partnership. One of the things that I pride myself is in being a coalition coordinator. I know that there’s incredible organizations within Oakland and we don’t even have to look any further. We don’t need outside forces. The reality is that Oakland has a very strong community that really has worked really hard from getting, again, what I was saying it was like the George Floyd resolution and, and taking the police out of our schools was a great first great step towards dismantling this school to prison pipeline. But to me, the reality is, if we don’t have to recreate the wheel, we don’t have to, we can rely on some of our community, our organizations, our school community as well, because I believe that this is a topic that the students need to lead and I am going to be an ally in those conversations to ensure that our students are the ones really sharing what they want their district to look like to end the school to prison pipeline, because at the end of the day, they’re the most impacted. We need them at the table, making those decisions and making sure that their voices are part of the overall planning for that. Again, partnerships 100%, with the community, with the students, with our educators as well, and with our families. Our families definitely don’t don’t want to see their children end up in prison. We want to pull them in to ensure that we let them know that this is a an emergency, this is a moment for us to come together. Because everybody tells me as a candidate, again, I’m an organizer, I never really expected to go into politics in this fashion. Everybody asked me ‘why do you want to do this work?’ and I always say it is because I didn’t have people like me growing up that weren’t going to give me the space to really raise how I was feeling as a young person. And as an adult ally, I want to provide that space for our students, and I’m an organizer at heart. So it’s all hands on deck, and people tell me to stay on topic, but I can’t because there’s so many challenges. We don’t have to be the experts of one single thing, but we can do is partner with people who already have established some of that work. So for me, it’s going to be really important to continue to build strong relationships with those community organizations that are doing the work and that have already integrated some of their programs to our schools or have engaged some of our students within their programs. The other thing is the Oakland community just needs more opportunities. And in this campaign trail, I’ve learned so much and I want to share something that I share almost in any interview because I feel like it’s pivotal for our future is, just like we have the army recruiting at our school sites, we need to have our unions be part of that recruitment process or that information sessions because we have incredible union uns in in the Bay Area that do apprenticeships which would allow students to study for free and get a degree, study science, math, chemistry, I mean all these incredible things. I just visited one of our unions and saw their apprenticeship program, and I was just so amazed by the quality of education, I was amazed by the quality of materials that they were using. I was so incredibly amazed by all the things that they had. I thought to myself, why didn’t I go into a union job? Why didn’t I become like a welder or a plumber, I went to school for education. And now I have to pay $400 a month on student loans, when our education could have been free, and been a great union worker with a job that comes with dignity, that comes with respect, that comes with a great pay, that comes with rights, that comes with a union that is going to protect you. We also have got to give our students are an incredible and more robust transition to out of school. What are they going to do? What services can we provide, and how can we open opportunities for our students? That’s really what I want to do.
GSV: What is your stance on school closures, and how do you plan to vote on future proposals regarding consolidations?
Ritzie-Hernandez: I do not like the idea of school closures whatsoever. The reason why I say that is because historically it has never proved that we’ve been able to save a significant amount of money by closing our schools. But what we can see is the harm that our school closures have had in the Oakland community, and I’m one of them. Just recently, this is not an OUSD school, but my university closed, which is Holy Names University. I met my wife there, I got my degree there, I was so happy that I had a university in our town that had an incredible education department that was a pipeline for teachers in Oakland. I know firsthand, just recently, what an impact closing schools can have. From visiting schools to just seeing the trauma, just seeing the, I don’t know if I’m trying to look for the right word, because what I’m hearing from schools, specifically when they share campuses, is this fear of merger, because our schools are different, they all have their own identity, they have their own culture, they have their own personality. I’m not comfortable with our students fearing that their school won’t be open, that this is not going to be long term, that we continue to lose the trust of our families. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with school closures unless there’s a very robust community engagement process where we don’t tell the community that we’re closing their schools right at the end of the school year when they can no longer organize, because I’ve been part of that, too. I’ve been supporting the anti-closure movement for a while now. I think that robust community engagement will be necessary if there are going to be any closures. Impact analysis should also be conducted. I don’t think any school should be closed unless we hear directly from the community how this will impact their lives. In addition to that, I don’t think that OUSD in the past had a solid plan on how to support the students transition, and those transitions, we lose a lot of students to charter schools. So if we have a merger, those two schools don’t always see eye to eye so a lot of our students end up not going to the next school, which is something that happened with Roots and CCPA. I don’t want to see more students leave our district as a result of the lack of engagement of our families and community or because we don’t have a solid plan on how we are going to retain our students, because that is something that I have never seen from OUSD, have a solid plan on how to engage community or how to retain our students when there’s a school closure. Most importantly, historically, Oakland has closed majority Black and Brown schools. There has to be an equitable way to do this, and it doesn’t always have to come at the expense of Black and Brown students.
GSV: What do you think about the use of Restorative Justice practices in OUSD, and do you think there should be a bigger emphasis on using Restorative Justice practices?
Ritzie-Hernandez: I believe so, I think that everybody needs to be trained on Restorative Justice practices and give an update every now and then to their trainings because I found it very helpful in spaces where I was supporting families at Reach Academy, and also Madison Park Academy. And we used a lot of Restorative Justice practices, even within our families, because we have a diverse group. So there’s sometimes tension, there’s sometimes arguments, there’s not always seeing eye to eye. So creating space for healthy communication is always helpful. I think Restorative Justice should be all the way around, it really should be a way of life for our students, for our administrators, for for all of our staff and for us as as community members and also our board members. I think that this needs to be something that we solidifie as part of the OUSD identity.