The Return to Public Schools 

A growing number of Oakland families are making the switch from private schools.

For eight years, Joanna Berg and her husband spent $40,000 every year to send their two sons to Head-Royce, a private K-12 college-prep school in Oakland. Berg, who grew up attending private schools in San Francisco, had never considered sending her kids to Oakland public schools — and, financially, it wasn't necessary either.

But two years ago, when Berg's eldest son Jason expressed unhappiness with the culture at Head-Royce, Berg and her husband, who live in Montclair, decided to transfer him to Oakland Technical High School. "I was phenomenally impressed," Berg said, referring to the public school's specialized tracked programs. "I kind of can't believe I ever paid so much. It really gave me the sense that education is a right and not a privilege."

Today, Berg professes herself a "proponent of public school." "I love it," she said. "It is energetic, it is lively. ...You look around at all the people, and you think, 'This is Oakland.'" Plus, the Bergs have more money to send their kids to college. It was a no-brainer then that their younger son would also say good-bye to the fourteen-acre, polished confines of Head-Royce and enter the urban reality of Oakland Tech, which he'll do this coming school year.

Though not financially motivated, the Bergs are part of a small but growing number of Oakland parents who have traditionally sent their kids to private school but now view public schools as a viable option for their kids' education. The trend is a result of several factors, including the plummeting economy, a slowing of the migration of families out of Oakland, and the steady rise of private-school tuition.

"There is a huge interest from a lot of different families," said Oakland Tech principal Sheilagh Andujar. The school has ramped up its outreach at public and private middle schools. "We are pulling from every geographic area of Oakland," she said. These days, Andujar said, the demographics have shifted a bit, with Oakland Tech enrolling slightly fewer African-American students and slightly more Latino and Caucasian students. "The school culture is improving," she said, referring to the increased buzz surrounding Oakland Tech and a more diverse student population.

For the 2008-09 school year, 26 new freshmen entered Oakland Tech from private schools, according to parent Steve Gelb, who helps with the school's tours and outreach. Typically, fewer than five students a year make this crossover, he said.

Relative to the 1,713 students presently enrolled at Oakland Tech, the number is fairly small, but the weight it carries with it is tangible. Wealthier families bring with them more financial resources, as well as the ability to be more actively involved in school life, said Gelb. "When these families trickle over, it is a big deal," he said, citing increased parent involvement and investment. A recent silent auction held by the Parent Teacher Student Association raised $38,000 compared to $24,000 last year — a jump which Berg credits to the influx of more private-school parents.

Partially responsible for this shift is the slowing exodus of families from Oakland. During the last decade, the Oakland Unified School District has seen a sharp decline in enrollment as many families fled to Contra Costa County and beyond, in what demographers have characterized as an out-migration from Oakland. Since 1998, there has been a 28 percent drop in enrollment. But from the 2007-08 to the 2008-09 school year, the dip in enrollment was just 0.6 percent, says Juwen Lam, the district's acting coordinator of school portfolio management. That's compared to a 4 percent decrease in private school enrollment during the same time period, according to the California Department of Education Online Private School Directory. And the public school projections for 2009-10 show a drop of only 108 students, a 0.3 percent decline.

Meanwhile, the deepening recession is hitting Oakland private schools, where officials are allotting larger portions of their budgets toward financial aid. This places a strain on tuition, which, at the majority of local schools, has increased about 5 percent annually for the last decade and has generally faced some sort of rise every year since the school's inception. The operating budget of a competitive school is entirely dependent on tuition revenue, and as costs of financial aid, teacher's salaries, capital projects, and the maintenance and growth of programs and facilities rise annually, so does the tuition.

At the College Preparatory School, a private, 350-student high school, tuition has increased from $28,000 in 2008-09 to $29,950 in 2009-10. Accordingly, the financial aid budget increased from $1.5 million to $1.8 million in the same period. Around fifteen students who have never before needed financial assistance are requiring it, said admissions director Jonathan Zucker. Typically, he said, no more than two students newly require assistance. "There is no doubt that cost is a huge factor, and now we are competing a lot more with public and parochial schools," Zucker said. With their tuition costs continuing to rise, Zucker said he is wary of the persistence of this pattern. "In the long term, we can't sustain an 8 percent increase in tuition yearly," he said. Despite this, enrollment at CPS has remained steady.Applications at some private schools have gone down significantly. Tyler Kreitz, admissions director at Bishop O'Dowd High School, said that applications decreased by nearly 10 percent from 2008-09 to 2009-10. "People are losing their jobs and they just can't pay," Kreitz said. He added that the whole process was slightly less competitive this year, though they still managed to enroll a full class. O'Dowd's 2009-10 academic budget will include 24.8 percent of students on financial aid. Ten years ago, the percent of the student body on aid was less than half of that.

On campus, the financial battle has a looming role in everyday life. "It seems everybody is going towards financial aid," said O'Dowd freshman Sylvia Allmon. Allmon, who lives with her grandmother, said she is uncertain whether her family can continue paying for private school. "I talk to a lot of my friends and they are thinking of switching over," she added.

OUSD spokesman Troy Flint credits the increased enrollment not to private school costs or the economy, but to the improved image of Oakland public schools. "It is this idea that the future of America is tied to the quality of public school," he said. "It dovetails with the current economic state."

Still, Flint would like to see more students enroll in OUSD. "It would be really beneficial if more students filtered in to the district," he said, citing the policy within the district through which schools are awarded money based on enrollment and attendance. In addition, Flint said that a small baby boom in Oakland around six years ago is also providing new students and contributing to the flattening decline. Part of the baby boom, he said, is the influx of young couples into Oakland after the 1991 firestorm.

Katherine Epstein, admissions director at Head-Royce, said that she noticed a shift in her discussions with parents of kindergarteners. "There are families telling us that they just don't want to start on a tuition path," she said. "That is a message we haven't really heard as much in the past."

Lam said that the out-migration of families and the growth of charter schools were the two major factors that caused the initial decline over the last decade. Now, "families are not moving out, and there has been more of a stabilization," she said. "The issues in all high schools — and Oakland Tech is no exception — is that the key to enrollment is making sure students get what they need to continue from the 9th grade to the 10th grade, " Lam added. Better retention rates, she said, have also influenced numbers this last academic year.Along with the growing cost of private school education, Lam said that an even greater large-scale change may come from the potential migration of families back into Oakland — a trend she argues could have the most impact on fluctuating numbers. "The Oakland landscape has changed a lot," she said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

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