The People's School

Oakland's Lakeview Elementary is seized and transformed by protesting parents

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Protests against school closures in Oakland evolved into the takeover of Lakeview Elementary.
PHOTO BY WENDY KENIN

yael@sfbg.com

Oakland elementary schools that were packed with kids until a few weeks ago are now closed for the summer — and five are closed for good. In October the school board voted to close them in a move that would save about $2 million per year.

But many Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) residents are not pleased. At the Oct. 26 meeting where the vote was cast, 500 protested. Concerned parents and teachers have been petitioning and meeting with school board members and Superintendent Tony Smith for months, trying to reverse the decision.

"No one wants to close schools, but the OUSD made this difficult decision because it's in the best long-term interest of students," reads a June 22 press release.

Resistance to that decision now continues at one school that was supposed to close June 18. To the dismay of the district, it remains open. Lakeview Elementary is the site of a sit-in and free school, orchestrated by parents and teachers.

"Lakeview has strengths," the June 22 press release goes on to say. "It has shown improved academic performance in recent years and, boasts a strong sense of community and close alignment with its afterschool programs." But low rankings in attendance and test scores overshadowed those strengths in the decision to close the school.

Yet it seems that "strong sense of community" seems to be more powerful than the school board thought.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Joel Velasquez, a parent of three and PTA member who has had children at Lakeview for 10 years, didn't think it would come to this.

"I've watched everything that went on as a parent here for 10 years," Velasquez said. When the school was threatened, "I probably spent 20 hours a week meeting, talking, emailing, researching, sending, forwarding — I mean, this is something that has been ongoing."

"I met with Tony Smith for an hour," Velasquez said. "I sat with board members."

But as the end of the school year approached, he was growing more desperate, so he ended up making an announcement: "On the last day of school, I'm not going to leave. And I hope that people join me."

They did. Lakeview's building is slated to be turned into administrative offices, and that process was scheduled to begin two weeks ago.

Now, the school that should be filling up with district employees' office supplies still has children running around its grounds. Organizers opened the People's School for Public Education, and classes, taught by an army of credentialed teachers and qualified volunteers, run from 9am to 3pm, Monday through Friday.

At a June 27 visit, I toured the school and sat in during a Social Justice class. In the People's School's organic garden, a smiling gardening teacher had to stop an overzealous six-year-old from drowning the kale. "They love watering!" he shrugged. Another child, still mesmerized 30 minutes after the official end of music class, improvised on the djembe along with the drumming teacher. From a balcony, a volunteer called to him: "There's ice cream!" he looked up, considered, and then kept drumming.

The group of kids has grown since the school opened June 15, as parents hear about the summer school and come see it for themselves. The Lakeview sit-in is unlike other recent occupations in the careful vetting process each visitor gets. After all, protecting the kids and their education is the most important goal of the project. But during school hours, parents are permitted to come inside and stay with their children as long as they want, seeing what the school is like.

Still, getting parents to send their children to a summer camp that isn't technically legal isn't always easy. "I think our society, not just parents, are really reluctant to do something like this," Velasquez said. "But I see it as a positive service to the community. We're using the building for what it's intended to be used for."

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