By Jennifer Inez Ward
OAKLAND, Calif. – Brian Jimenez is a sixth grade teacher in his first year with the Oakland Unified School District. Three weeks into his job, he says, administrators told him to pack his supplies and move to another school.
“In the beginning I just felt shocked, especially because I was at a middle school with a great staff and administration,” he said. “I had done a lot of preparation for my new school and then all of my work got usurped and now I’m starting fresh.”
Jimenez was among dozens of Oakland teachers impacted by a spate of school closures and consolidations last year intended to save the district up to $2 million. While the decision was wildly unpopular with parents -- most of them from low-income communities -- for some teachers, it has been a disaster.
Many are still struggling with the changes.
Once he arrived at his second new school, Jimenez said he didn’t have a classroom assigned to him for a couple of weeks. “There was a time where technically I was a teacher but I didn’t have any students,” he said.
Now settled in at Westlake Middle School, not far from downtown, Jimenez says he was shaken by the experience. “It definitely made me feel like I wasn’t a teacher but a nomad in limbo.”
From Small Schools to No Schools
Beginning in 2003, the Oakland Unified School District began implementing a new program geared toward creating smaller schools as part of a broader plan to improve test scores, comply with federal No Child Left Behind requirements and give students an opportunity to learn in a smaller setting.
The plan was, in part, an attempt to contend with the district’s persistently woeful academic record, exacerbated by high rates of crime and poverty within the student population, as well as shrinking budgets and declining enrollment.
But after the district lost outside funding to support the program, it began shutting down the schools.
Beginning in 2004, when financial concerns prompted a state takeover of district operations, the district began phasing out schools that failed to meet key achievement goals.
For the current 2012-2013 school year the district shut down or instituted consolidation plans at 30 sites, the vast majority of them small schools. Officials say the moves will help boost district-wide enrollment while providing greater resources to existing schools. The extra money, meanwhile, will also go toward such things as improving test scores, making local schools more attractive to families.
But while Jimenez says he’s pleased with his current placement at Westlake, other teachers – especially younger ones new to the field – are heading for the exit.
Miles Murray, who now teaches at Oakland High School, says he also got swept up in the latest round of closings, adding the experience has left him with a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Working for the district two years prior, I’m not surprised because I’m used to being insulted by the district and totally undervalued,” he said. “So this is just one more smack in the face.”
Murray said that he wants to stay on with the district and help to facilitate deeper ties to his school community, but he’s not sure if the district will help in that process.
“I’m not optimistic about what the district can do and, yeah, I’m frustrated,” he said. “When it comes to the district, I’ve got a lot of scar tissue.”
Education experts are worried that school closings and consolidations could lead to a further decline in teacher ranks.
“It only makes sense that adding the threat of instability to the already stressful life of a new teacher would push them to seek more secure positions,” said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association.
“We don't keep teachers in Oakland because of the high pay and the state-of-the-art working conditions,” she said. “Teachers stay because they have built relationships with their students, their colleagues, and their community. If that can be stripped away at the whim of administration … then a commitment to stay in Oakland becomes more tenuous.”
Oakland's teacher pipeline is already in bad shape. Veteran teachers are fleeing to new districts and many new teachers are not sticking around.
“In Oakland you’re looking at 75 percent of teacher turnover within five years,” said Christopher Dobbins, an Oakland Unified School District board member who used to work as a teacher in the district. Nationwide, the number is closer to 50 percent.
“If they’re new and involved in a teaching program,” Dobbins continued, “they leave after the program has ended. If not, then once they gain experience then they leave to go to a district that pays more.”
The average teacher’s salary, depending on years in the district, ranges from $39,456 to $67,948.
According to the school district, of the 1,908 teachers (not counting coaches or teachers on special assignment), about 811 are teachers who have been with the district for fewer than five years.
“These veteran teachers are leaving to go work in a more stable environment,” said Chris Knaus, a professor in Cal State East Bay’s Teacher Education Department. “That’s a whole lot of expertise that’s no longer with the district.”
The decline has led to a number of new teachers being thrust into leadership roles in the community before they’ve even had a chance to gain their sea legs.
“New teachers, especially in their first and second year, need time to figure out their schools and the community they’re in,” he said. “The message being sent by closing schools is that you can teach anyone anywhere, and that’s just not true.”
The impact these closings and consolidations have on the classroom can be enormous, said Knaus.
“Those teachers are not focusing on teaching and preparing for class; they’re focused on setting up in a new school or learning about how the administration works on the campus,” he said.
School closings also have a deep impact on communities and the leadership role teachers play.
“While school closures and consolidations threaten the security of teachers, even more so is the instability felt within the community that has had its core shut down and locked up,” said Gorham of the Oakland Education Association. “Students who rely on their neighborhood school as a safe refuge are told that their safety and security and caring relationships are not to be counted on now or in the future.”
And while the plan has allowed the district to trim its budget, other goals continue to go unmet.
For the 2012-2013 academic year, enrollment in the district fell to 35,000 students, down from 55,000 students one year earlier. About 10,000 of those students from last year are in charter schools. The rest have left the district.
School closings, meanwhile, are expected to continue in Oakland.
In 2013, the district said that it expects Kaiser Elementary and Burckhalter Elementary schools to form into a single unit that will allow for the continued growth of each school's enrollment up to at least 380 students.
“Whether by design or negligence, the policies that produce closures and consolidations are preventing talented, caring individuals from choosing teaching as a career,” said Gorham. “And that will threaten the stability of the entire system.”
Jennifer Inez Ward is an award-winning investigative journalist and a contributing editor atOakland Local, based in Oakland, Calif., where she writes about City Hall and public education.