By Kimberly Bajarias
OAKLAND, CA – On Feb. 9, the Oakland Board of Education made a disheartening decision to close seven schools over the next two years due to alleged low enrollment and budget issues. Alongside protests and hunger strikes, community members organized in front of the California State Building on Feb. 17 to demand that the schools stay open, raising concerns for the endangerment and educational impacts of Black and Brown communities.
Natalie Gallegos Chavez, student board director for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), encouraged community solidarity and youth advocacy, proudly calling the children speaking up “little leaders.” In speaking about her Oakland community at large, she said “those are my people, that’s my community, and it’s who I represent.”
During the Board of Education’s meeting to vote on the school closure plan, Gallegos Chavez recognized that the board was voting to close predominantly Black and Brown schools during February–Black History Month. Many of the schools have a majority of Black students, and voting against the education of Black communities furthered a tension in race and class relations.
“We have two teachers who are on a hunger strike right now for our students, and they’re putting their lives on the line for us,” noted Gallegos Chavez, referring to Westlake Middle School teachers Maurice André San-Chez and Moses Olanrewaju Omolade.
As of Feb. 19, the teachers will be entering day 19 of their hunger strike, despite Omolade’s recent hospitalization. At the Board of Education’s special meeting on Feb. 18, the directors decided against postponing the school closures, prompting community members, teachers, and even students to go on their own hunger strikes.
Board Directors VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson, who voted against the school closure plan, are allies to the community protests. According to Gallegos Chavez, “they have always been there to fight for us, and they always listen to us.”
When asked about the future of school closures in the Oakland community, Gallegos Chavez said that “it’s a history that keeps repeating, unfortunately.” Last year, the Board of Education tried to close schools down, but granted an extension due to COVID-19 recovery. Her elementary school was merged in 2007.
“Our youth and community, they always fight for each other,” stated Gallegos Chavez about the strength of Oakland.
Community members like Sarah Wheels, a fifth-grade teacher at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School, do just that. Her school is not affected by the closures, but she protested in solidarity on Feb. 17.
“This is not the first time that they have tried to close schools since I’ve been working in the district, and I haven’t worked here that long,” said Wheels.
Like other community members, Wheels noted that “it’s really racist and classist,” referencing the institutionalized racism and gentrification of closing predominantly Black and Brown schools. One of the goals of the community protests is to center Black and Brown communities in the fight to keep schools open. Many students from these communities come from underprivileged backgrounds, and the closures raised concerns about finances, transportation, and the search for new schools.
Although Wheels acknowledges that “being a teacher right now in Oakland is really hard,” she notes that the teachers “went on strike a few years ago. It looks like we might be going out again.”
Many people who are not from Oakland also protested on Feb. 17, like Aidan ByrneSarno and Eden Sharma. Both expressed disappointment in the Board of Education, the victimization of Black and Brown communities, and the privatization of public resources.
“It was a very common thing for governments to close down or take funding from public schools and put them into either charter schools or private schools,” said Sharma.
ByrneSarno added: “Nationwide, there have just been so many attacks, and I think that’s fundamentally a result of trying to privatize education from billionaires trying to get profits.”
Many of the speakers at the Feb. 17 protest addressed the idea that the Oakland Board of Education has provided little to no feedback, transparency, or explanation. The board directors who voted to close the schools attributed their decision to declining enrollment and financial concerns; however, opposing board directors claim these as lies.
As of the writing of this article, parents are threatening to take their children out of the school district, and community members are starting petitions to recall the board directors who voted in favor of the closures.
Kimberly Bajarias is a second-year student at the University of California, Berkeley.