Should Oakland Schools Finally Try to Integrate? 

OUSD, like the city itself, is highly segregated. But unlike Berkeley, Oakland has never attempted to desegregate its public schools.

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In the 1977 report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights outlined the effects that Berkeley’s 1968 integration plan had on schools. Some of these problems continue to plague schools that attempt to integrate.

The researchers looked at various outcomes in the district, such as any physical changes to the schools, white flight, violence, and disciplining, among others. For the most part, the commission didn’t find tangible effects for most of these issues—the number of white families in the district remained largely equal after integration, some physical improvements were made to the school buildings, and overall there were few complaints about racial violence.

The major problems that came up were related to the quality of the schools’ curriculum. While the report stated that the test scores for all student groups had improved after desegregation, it also pointed out that some parents expressed concern over the achievement levels of different racial and ethnic groups. “Some minority parents criticized the placement of minorities in low tracks; others complained that white teachers had low expectations of the capabilities of minority students,” the report stated.

The disparities in academic achievement are still evident in current data. Black students in BUSD are, on average, 4.7 grades behind white students and Hispanic students are 3.6 grades behind white students, according to a database complied by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica that combines data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Common Core of Data, and Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. The report also shows that white high school students in Berkeley are 1.7 times more likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as black students and 1.2 times as likely as Hispanic students.

Though there are several problems that arise, Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and longtime expert on school segregation, says integration works at creating a better school environment for kids who previously lacked opportunity.

“For privileged kids, the home influence outweighs the school influence,” he said. “For poor kids, school influence is much more critical.”

In his work, he’s found that for the most part, kids from more affluent backgrounds don’t suffer after integration. They actually tend to benefit from the experience. But, he said, it’s hard to make that case to parents.

So, should Oakland desegregate?

The conversations around segregation often focus on black and Latinx students being allowed to attend schools where white students are the majority. But Janelle Scott, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley, argues that this isn’t what Brown v. Board of Education meant to do. “The plaintiffs in Brown never said, ‘We would like to go where they are,’” she said. “They wanted full citizenship, which means access to all the institutions.”

Scott said the implementation of those policies, at the state and district level, led to the inequity that many minority students face when integrating schools. Part of this issue arises in how students are disciplined. In the 1977 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on Berkeley, commission staff members wrote that they heard from multiple people at schools that “some white teachers tend to handle discipline along racial lines.” They would either be too intimidated or hesitant to discipline black students or would be more lenient in their demands for them because their expectations were lower.

While this problem does occur, the much more common problem is that teachers over-discipline black and Latinx students. In her research, Scott has seen this happening to children as young as 3 or 4 years old. “It starts to happen in preschool where normal developmental issues around impulse control and communication are perceived differently and as pathological,” she said.

In OUSD, the solution to over-policing students of color has been to implement a Restorative Justice model of discipline. This change has resulted in an overall drop in the number of suspensions for black and Latinx students. This past school year, 3.3 percent of students were suspended, compared to 7.4 percent in 2011, when the program began.

But Scott doesn’t see restorative justice as the ultimate solution. It’s a good start, she says, but the problems that arise after integration require more than just one answer. “We didn’t create the segregation that we live with,” she said. “It has a deep history that has multiple tentacles and roots and requires multiple interventions.”

Scott argues that the lack of cultural competency is what leads to harsher punishments for students of color.

Oakland school board member Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, who is African American and represents schools in West Oakland and downtown, says she’s hesitant to fully support desegregation efforts because of the over-disciplining problems that students of color face. To her, the system is built so that minority students typically move into schools with a dominant culture, often white and affluent, and are expected to assimilate. “It’s not always a given that a black child who is middle class will do well in that particular environment,” she said. “They have a way of learning and a way of being, and that has to actually be embraced inside of any school.”

Hinton-Hodge said teachers need to confront their own biases and attend more extensive multicultural training, but the issue ultimately comes down to who the district is hiring.

In OUSD, white teachers make up over 52 percent of the teaching force, while black teachers represent about 20 percent, and Hispanic teachers, 10 percent—even though nearly half of the students who attend district schools are Hispanic.

Orfield said teacher recruitment has been a huge failure in California. “You can’t have a really successful diverse school without a diverse faculty with mutual respect and where the kids get models of different racial backgrounds,” he said.

While it’s true that diversity among teachers is a way to create more inclusive school environments, students also run the risk of falling into tokenism, or segregating within the school. Scott said she saw this firsthand when she was a teacher at Manzanita Community School in Fruitvale in the early 1990s. She was a young teacher at the time and remembers a diverse but segregated school. Because teachers needed a certain language certification in order to teach students from different ethnicities, the school would concentrate students according to what languages they spoke at home.

“There was the Southeast-Asian track; there was the black track; there was the Latinx track,” she said. “That’s what students called it.”

While this kind of self-segregation may be common among social groups, Scott said it was hurting students. They wanted to know more about each other, she said, but didn’t have the opportunity. At the time Manzanita was overcrowded, so they split the kids off into different tracks that would come to school at different times during the year. This meant that there was little to no interaction between those groups—which mystified both students and teachers.

The history of segregation is too engrained and too vast for OUSD to ignore.

Hinton-Hodge said that although OUSD has implemented several equity and diversity initiatives, the school district is just on the precipice of the conversation. “It looks like we’re doing the absolute correct thing to do, but it doesn’t create a certain kind of tension around real change,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily challenge the paradigm.”

Because there’s never been a strong movement in Oakland toward desegregation, parents are often left to carry that burden for the district—by trying through the lottery system to get their kids into higher-performing schools. Or, like Young and the parents involved in The Oakland Reach are doing, by engaging other parents and holding the district accountable.

“The Oakland Reach parents are the folks that get left behind,” she said. “It’s our kids that when decisions are made and we’re not at the table, get the shortest end of the stick.”

She’s heard from parents she works with that there’s an assumption that parents in underperforming, often low-income communities don’t care about their child’s education or don’t understand how their school or the district works.

“Some parents will talk to us like it feels like life is happening to them,” she said. But she wants the district to start engaging those parents and partner with them to change the dynamics of an unequal district.

“If you engage them on your biggest problems,” Young said, “they’ll help you solve your biggest problems.”

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.


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