News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

January 28, 2019

What do students learn when the school board closes their school?

By Sandy Barnard, East Bay DSA member

“Why are schools being shut down on purpose, if their school is a good school? Roots has a lot of good teachers who always support us and to shut it down, it… it sends a message.”

Joshua Segundo, an eighth grader at Roots International Academy in East Oakland, came to a school board meeting on January 9 to plead with his school board officials (though not Shanti Gonzalez, who represents Roots, as she called in to the meeting) to leave his school open.

Shortly before the holiday break, Oakland Unified School Board announced its plan to close Roots, arguing that it wants to “reduce [its] footprint and improve quality.” But if improving quality is the goal, why close down a school that already has talented teachers, an innovative curriculum built on cultural history, and impassioned students? Why shut down a school that is so beloved that parents, teachers, and middle-schoolers come to school board meetings in droves to argue for its worth?

These were the questions Joshua, along with scores of Roots students, parents, and teachers came to the meeting to ask. They will be asking these questions again tonight when the school board plans to vote on the Roots closure, which would scatter 150 sixth- and seventh-graders to unspecified other schools.

Why disrupt the education of so many students whose families are happy with the Roots community? Racism and classism. Forty-three percent of students at Roots are English-language learners, and nearly all are on free and reduced lunch. “They aren’t touching the schools in the hills,” said Fatimah Salahuddin, an ethnic studies teacher at Roots.

As a teacher in a closing school, students often ask her why schools close, why their school is closing, and what to do about it. “It’s disheartening, but I’m trying to use this as a teaching moment and really empower them,” she said at the packed school board meeting. “I want my students to look back on this time and say ‘We fought back. This is the power we hold.’”

Lessons from Chicago

If my childhood experience fighting school closures in Chicago is any guide, Salahuddin’s students are indeed being politicized by this experience, and they are learning a lifelong lesson about the power of organizing.

I was 11 the first time I argued in front of a school board to save a school that was slated to close. Similar to Gonzalez, my superintendent, Arne Duncan, elected not to attend the hearing on the closing of Raymond Elementary, a poor, Black school on Chicago’s South Side that specialized in special education and early education. My younger brother was severely disabled and was expelled from his previous preschool for “not fitting in.” But he thrived at Raymond. His speech and social skills went through the roof, and he built a strong community of disabled children and the adults who loved them.

A year and a half after my brother started attending Raymond, it was slated to be closed by the virulent pro-privatization school board because of “underutilization.” Utilization is roughly calculated as the number of bodies in a school divided by the building’s square footage. Raymond put what little resources it had into high-need populations — special education and early education — which require more square feet per body. This meant the school was being closed for adequately serving its student population.

To an 11-year-old big sister who believed that the adults in charge of our schools wanted the best for us, it seemed clear that the school board was just confused. I prepared a speech explaining why they were wrong and needed to keep my brother’s school open. I didn’t understand at the time the implications of a school being 100 percent free lunch and almost entirely Black. The facts surrounding “utilization” are not important; the school board wanted to close down Raymond and would find any excuse to do so.

I made my speech at a sham of a school board meeting, and Raymond shut its doors for good a month later. The building currently houses Perspectives Charter School, the motto of which is “We Live a Disciplined Life”; they accept students only by lottery.

My school board speech did not work. However, six years later, another tactic would. When the Chicago teachers went on strike in 2012, my senior year of high school, everything changed. Rather than pleading with a school board that refused to listen, teachers walked out over their demands, and came away with a 18 percent raise and decreased reliance on testing. I joined my teachers on the picket line every day, which was the most empowering experience of my life. I’m a socialist today because of the power I witnessed when these diverse workers stood together against Rahm’s austerity agenda.

Every single student and parent in Chicago could tell the school board what needed to change in our system — higher pay, fair pensions, no new standardized testing — yet only the organized teachers, shutting down the city by withholding their labor, could show us how to get there. And the lessons learned continue to hold true. In 2016, just the threat of a strike caused the Chicago School Board to fix the teacher pensions.

The Future of Roots

At Oakland School Board meeting on January 23, regular business was disrupted by Roots students who wanted to look their school board members in the eye and explain what their school means to them and why it should stay. They formed a restorative justice circle to discuss problems in the school district and how the board should respond. The students were extremely clear about the racism and classism at play in the decisions, at times asking the school board directly why they were not considering closing schools in the hills, only in the flatlands. The stories were heartbreaking, and the change in structure demonstrated how powerful the students and teachers of Oakland are. The students ran that meeting, not the bureaucracy.

Yet at the end of the restorative justice circle, only Rosie Torres was willing to go on record and say that the stories moved her and she would vote to keep Roots open. Other board members were asked directly how they would vote, and they deflected, thanking the students for their bravery but insisting that they had to “weigh the costs.” I would like to think that the board members have more empathy than shutting down Roots after hearing these pleas by children.

Unfortunately, history is not on our side. At the meeting, one community member said, “I saw the same thing [in Oakland] in 2012. The parents cried, the children cried, and they shut down five schools anyways.” Three of the board members who voted to shut down schools in 2012 — Gary Yee, Jody London, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge — currently sit on the school board. All three are endorsed by the pro-charter group GO Public Schools and display loyalty to the pro-charter agenda of GO and its billionaire backers.  If appealing to their sense of humanity did not work in 2012, Oakland should not gamble that they have changed in the past six years.

So what can we do? I asked teachers at Roots what’s next in the fight. Salahuddin responded immediately, “I am ready to strike.” Anna, an Oakland elementary school teacher told me, “It’s only when we withhold our labor, and grind the entire school district and city to a halt, that the board will be forced to listen. We make the schools run, which gives us real power, and strikes are how we use that power.”

The Roots students and parents who come to school board meetings and speak truth to power are heroes. Their demands are righteous, and their vulnerability shows more courage than the school board members have ever known. Unfortunately, impassioned speeches rely on appealing to the empathy of a board that has shown, time and time again, that it has none. Ignoring the pleas of crying children is unconscionable, but Oakland Unified School District ignores them anyways.

As teachers and families proved in Chicago, West Virginia, and LA, though, it is impossible to ignore labor strikes. When workers band together and fight back, the world shakes.