OAKLAND -- Last fall, the Oakland school board voted to close Lazear Elementary School. In a sense, it did. The charter school that opened last week on the same campus, by the same name, hardly resembles the institution that came before it.
It's not just the new paint job -- the orange-red, periwinkle-blue and mustard yellow bright enough to catch the attention of the motorists cruising along Interstate 880. All but one of the 13 teachers are new to the school, and nearly half of the students are new, too, according to early estimates. Unlike their predecessors, the teachers do not belong to a union.
"Overall, it's a different kind of feel because I'm the only returning staff member," said Maria Martinez, a fifth-grade teacher.
Martinez noted another striking difference: Last year, when Oakland Unified ran Lazear, she had 32 students in her classroom. This year, she has 23. Class sizes for the older elementary schoolchildren are capped at 26, said Lazear's principal, Andy West.
And then there's the daily Zumba class for parents, already packed on the second day of school, organized by the school's parent group; the planters installed on the blacktop outside the portable classrooms; the salad bar that appeared in the lunchroom for the first time.
"It's not quite like the same school," said Daniel Gonzalez, 10.
The new Lazear is run by Education For Change, an Oakland-based charter management nonprofit that operates a
Although the engineering lessons have yet to begin, Abbatantuono has taken to wearing a shop coat and safety goggles around campus to get the students' attention.
Daniel said he was ready for those classes to start. "My favorite subject is science and, well, I just like building things," he said.
His mother, Rocio Gonzalez, was one of the parents who led a strike in 2010 to protest the slow process of removing a teacher whom they described as lousy and abusive. But it wasn't a problem with union rules that drove parent leaders to push for a charter school the following year. For them, the charter route was simply a way to keep Lazear open after the board voted in October to close it.
Gonzalez and other parents sat through a series of late-night meetings, their children in tow, as they waited to make their case to the Oakland school board -- and, later, the Alameda County Office of Education, which approved their petition in June, on appeal. They argued that the school had improved dramatically under the leadership of Kareem Weaver, their then-principal, and that there wasn't enough space in schools within walking distance to accommodate all of their children.
It wasn't until June 24, after the families had dispersed for the summer, that Lazear supporters learned the school would be able to stay open, and in the same location.
Gonzalez and another mother went door-to-door to recruit families and tell them the news. As of Tuesday, the school had 290 children enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grade, about 70 students shy of the first-year enrollment goal. Lazear added a sixth grade this year, but most of last year's fifth-graders went on to other, more established schools, said Hae-Sin Kim Thomas, a former Oakland school district administrator who directs Education For Change.
Gonzalez said the first day of school brought mixed emotions. "It was sad and happy because you had to let go of the old Lazear," she said. On the other hand, she said, "We came to the new Lazear with new paint and a lot of new stuff. For me, it was like a dream."