Parents occupy Oakland school to protest closures

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OAKLAND, Calif. - Despite the Oakland Unified School District's order that they leave the premises, parents and teachers occupying Lakeview Elementary School since June 15 say they plan to stay until the district agrees to keep their school and four others open, reversing its decision to close them as of the end of the school year.

The school district contends that Oakland has too many schools for the number of students in the system, and maintains the closings are needed because of the budget cuts it has suffered.

It wants to turn Lakeview, located in a lively business and residential district near scenic Lake Merritt, into administrative offices. Other schools slated for closure are to become charter schools, and one is being leased to neighboring Emeryville. All five schools now serve diverse, largely black and Latino populations.

However, parents maintain that the closings are part of a drive toward privatizing public education not only in Oakland but across the country. They fear overcrowding in new schools, and express concern over difficulties students would face traveling long distances to new schools, since the district doesn't provide transportation.

Rallies at Lakeview since the occupation started have each drawn over 100 participants.

Dozens of parents, teachers, children, and union and community supporters were on hand on the morning of June 18, hours after the order to disperse was issued. As they stood in front of the school, parents and teachers shared their perspectives on the school district's action.

The threatened closures "send a message to kids" from working-class, largely black and Latino areas in east and west Oakland "that they are not important, that they can be separated and dispersed to other schools," said Lakeview teacher Tamica Groves, an Oakland teacher for a decade who has just finished her first year at Lakeview. Groves said children transferred to other schools would face both safety and transportation issues.

Parent Tina Siu-Velasquez, whose oldest daughter graduated from Lakeview and 10-year-old son is now a student there, called the school, which opened 98 years ago, a vital part of the community. She said families seeking to enroll their kids in other schools are being told there is no room.

Members of several unions were also on hand.

Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, which represents the city's K-12 teachers, pointed out that the school district's practice of splitting schools into smaller units has left the system top-heavy with administrators.

"The state of California says 55 percent of school district budgets are supposed to go to classroom activities," she said. "But Oakland has only met that criterion once in the last eight years. The administration says it is trying to save money, but the savings [from the closings] will be minimal."

Tanya Smith is president of Local 1, University Professional and Technical Employees, representing workers at the University of California, which has suffered huge cuts in state funding in recent years. All of public education is under attack, she said. "We're letting the community know that the state can't make arbitrary decisions on matters that affect us all."

Parents and teachers at the other Oakland schools threatened with closure are also fighting back. At one, civil rights advocates are filing a lawsuit against the closure. Families at another have organized to keep their school open as an independent charter school.

Photo: This mural stretches over a block along a freeway entrance; it was painted by Lakeview Elementary students. Marilyn Bechtel/PW

 

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