Lamentations of the Fall 

First an Oakland elementary school was damaged by arson. Now the district wants its kids to cohabit with high schoolers.

As Oakland's schoolchildren prepare for summer vacation, parents, teachers, and administrators at one of OUSD's biggest success stories are viewing the fall with trepidation. The fire was challenging enough. As was relocating an elementary school to a middle-school campus in one week. Now parents of Peralta Elementary students fret that their kids, some as young as five, may have to share their temporary digs with a crop of high-school kids.

An act of arson on March 26 forced more than 250 Peralta students to abandon their cozy Rockridge campus and move to the vacant Carter Middle School site about a mile south. School was canceled for a week, during which the Peralta community mobilized to beautify the neglected Carter campus, reclaim all they could from the old site, and stock the barren Carter classrooms and library. Even so, the middle-school complex hardly resembles Peralta's pedagogical Eden. Its doors are too heavy for little kids, its toilets too large, and the list goes on.

"There is no age-appropriate playground equipment," laments Christopher Waters, outgoing co-chair of the Peralta Parent Teacher Group, the school's PTA. "It makes it very hard to engage these students during recess. The kids are frustrated and they feel like they have nothing to do."

That wouldn't be so bad if parents knew their kids were headed home. But two and a half months after the fire, not a nail has been hammered at the old site. And that could be a problem, given that one hundred ninth-graders are scheduled to start classes at the Carter campus in late August. Before the fire, the district promised the site to Oakland International High School. The new school is part of the International Network for Public Schools, which enrolls only immigrants in the US fewer than four years.

Officials have tried to move fast. Kimberly Statham, the state administrator overseeing the Oakland schools, approved an emergency resolution allocating $750,000 for repairs shortly after the fire. And she and state schools superintendent Jack O'Connell have pushed to speed the Peralta repairs through the state's glacial bureaucracy.

Fast is a relative term, however. Blueprints were submitted May 24 to the Division of the State Architect — which must approve all public school buildings — and the architects met with the division last Thursday. That's remarkable by DSA standards, but even if the plans are approved this week, Peralta's homecoming will depend on an ambitious sixty-day construction schedule. Tim White, OUSD's assistant superintendent for facilities, told Peralta parents and staff last week that the contractors may not be able to get materials for the $1.25 million job in time.

If Peralta's campus isn't ready by August 27, the district will colocate the schools at Carter, says OUSD spokesman Alex Katz. "There are ways to separate the two programs so that they use separate facilities at the school," he says.

Peralta parents are prepared to go to the mat. "The vast majority of the parents are very concerned about both schools using the same campus," Waters notes. Spanish teacher Susan Killebrew, a Peralta activist and mother of three students, asserts that the problems extend beyond logistics. "It's developmentally inappropriate to have those two age groups together," she says.

Statham, Waters says, promised parents and teachers in early April that "at no point in time, and under no circumstances, would we be expected to share the new site with anyone else, including, specifically, the new International High School." Now, he says, the district is backpedaling. Statham could not be reached for comment, but Killebrew, who was also present, confirmed the administrator's promise. "I'm just figuring that they hadn't thought it through," she says.

Waters believes Peralta should get precedence. "We've already been moved, we've already had a fire," he says. "That should trump the immediate placement needs of a high school."

The district, however, views the Carter site as ideal based its proximity to public transportation, since the immigrant high schoolers will come from all over Oakland. Carmelita Reyes, principal of International High School, says she's not looking elsewhere. "The school site was promised to us," she says. "That is not on the table at all. We have been reassured by the district several times in the process."

Reyes doesn't see the big deal. "All of our schools share sites with other schools," she says, referring to the larger International Network. The setup, she adds, "gives a chance for the older immigrant students to practice English with the younger students, and for the younger students to learn about the immigrants' home countries."

Waters acknowledges potential upsides. However, he insists, "It's not an arrangement that you make cavalierly, and not a choice you make at the last minute. You don't throw together two groups of students with no modicum of advanced planning."

The distribution of space is also a concern. Reyes says the district promised her six of the roughly 24 Carter classrooms, plus a central space for administration and part-time use of the gym, library, and cafeteria. Peralta principal Rosette Costello says she only heard about this directly from Reyes, and wasn't included in the district's decision-making process, a fact she finds frustrating. "It is ultimately those details that will make or break a school," Costello says.

Some Peralta parents are fed up with the bureaucratic snafus. "It's absurd. If the district forces the school to colocate, I will pull my daughter from the school," says Elizabeth August. She says she knows of at least two other parents who concur. Betsy Merzenich, who has a second-grader at Peralta, says she, too, would consider other options: "Initially the district was very supportive of us. But their lack of transparency and their unwillingness to listen to us about co-location makes me think twice about keeping my child under this management."

Killebrew, who has been pivotal in attracting neighborhood parents who might otherwise have chosen private schools, worries that the district's actions could damage Peralta's upward momentum. "I worry that it is going to turn a lot of families off of urban public education," she says. "We have been working very hard over the past five years to build this great community, and these kinds of things can destabilize a community. How are other school communities throughout Oakland going to react if parents who have been busting their backsides got so frustrated that they left?"

Full disclosure: Managing editor Michael Mechanic has a child entering kindergarten at Peralta.

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