Today, the Oakland Unified School District Board is in turmoil. From the COVID crisis to mask mandates and recall elections to vandalism and hunger strikes, it must be hard for the average person to even wrap their brain around the idea of closing schools. If you’re anything like the protestors who have seized my house and church or the homes and churches of my board colleagues, you must be thinking why would the board do this now? Why would I — as a Black man — stand in support of the school closures? After all we’ve been through?
The simple truth: We cannot afford to operate more than 80 schools with a student population that is quickly nearing 34,000. Fresno operates about 98 schools for a population of 73,000 students, while San Jose operates 41 schools for about 36,000 students. In every other district — except Oakland — the number of schools are proportionate to the number of students. My colleagues and I voted to reduce the total number of schools we operate because we want to redirect the money that’s being used to keep the lights on at underperforming and under-enrolled schools to welcoming schools that can better support student needs.
Right now, 15.8% of Pacific Islanders, 18.6% of Blacks, 24.1% of Hispanics, 50% of Asians and 72.7% of Whites met or exceeded reading standards. With such results, I think there is some work to be done. We can no longer hold blind allegiance to school buildings while our students are in crisis.
Notice that it is the Black, Brown and API students who are being harmed by our current system. Those with means and opportunity continue to find ways to navigate our broken system, while those who need the most help continue to languish, lacking access to real quality school opportunities. So while the news may say that Black and Brown schools are on the chopping block, what they aren’t saying is that those same Black and Brown schools are failing our children. Will we continue to allow our most vulnerable students to not meet reading standards? Or perhaps we can focus our attention on and make a concerted effort to “turn the ship” in the right direction?
Our decision is not meant to harm children but to stop the harm being done to children. The work is not done. We still have to make sure every student who is leaving a closing school finds a new, quality home where they are seen and heard. We must stop fighting about school building and start focusing on building a smaller, sustainable school system for the children of Oakland.
Together, we can make the difference.
Clifford Thompson represents East Oakland District 7 on the Oakland Unified School Board. He has served for over 40 years in public education as a teacher, administrator in both K12 and higher education.