OAKLAND -- On Monday, tens of thousands of Oakland children and teachers head back to school. A year of school closings and mergers, charter school approvals and other decisions has changed the landscape of the district; more children than usual will be acclimating to new schools, as will teachers.
In the case of La Escuelita Elementary, that change is welcome. The school, which for decades consisted only of portable classrooms, is now a large, stand-alone building with countless windows, solar panels, a playground and fresh air circulation. Not to mention hallways.
Friday was a flurry of activity: workers doing last-minute finishes, families registering, teachers unpacking the boxes in their classrooms and volunteers setting up the school library, into which natural light streams from a huge wall of windows.
The new, $80 million building across from the school district headquarters is designed to generate all of the energy it uses. The structure is more than a decade in the making; long before the groundbreaking in 2011, teachers and community activists called on the district to build a school. And in 2006, the fate of the diverse, high-performing school was up in air. That summer, state education officials then in charge of the district proposed selling a swath of land to help Oakland Unified pay down its massive state debt. Teachers and families from La Escuelita and other schools on the property rallied to oppose the plan to turn the
Marlene Gutierrez, a first-grade bilingual teacher who's been at the school since 2000, was at some of those heated meetings. After all of the ups and downs, she said, it's hard to believe that she's starting the year in "a real, built school."
"It's almost surreal that we are here -- that this is an actual school, that it's beautiful," she said.
Tim White, the district's assistant superintendent for facilities, said for five years, he has tried to get funding from the state for the project, which was funded from bond measure revenues; he recently learned the state had approved $25 million for it.
Students from West Oakland Middle School and KIPP Bridge Charter School, which share the former Lowell middle school campus, will return to $14 million in building improvements, including a refurbished gymnasium and an artificial turf field. Sankofa Academy in North Oakland has a new play yard, and a new, two-story building now sits on East Oakland's Highland campus, which is home to New Highland and RISE elementary schools.
Next up? A new bioscience building for Life Academy, which is on the Calvin Simmons campus, and a new building for Metwest High School.
The Oakland school district will be highlighting these improvements this fall when it asks voters to approve another locally funded bond measure for capital improvements.
Charter school update: This year, 39 charter schools will be operating in Oakland -- some, overseen by the district and others authorized by the Alameda County Office of Education.
ASCEND and Learning Without Limits left the district to operate independently as publicly funded charters, as did Lazear Elementary School, which was one of the five elementary schools slated for closure. Leadership Public Schools Oakland R&D, which aims to use technology to boost the achievement of struggling high school students, will open in East Oakland. Urban Montessori, an arts-integrated school with mixed-age grades, opens in the San Antonio neighborhood, beginning with grades k-2, and will eventually add grades 3 to 8. The 100 Black Men Community School, whose mission is to improve the educational achievement and leadership of African-American boys with an emphasis in science, math and engineering, will open on Malcolm Avenue, near the San Leandro border, with grades k-1 and 4-6.
Teacher reassignments and special education: By now, teachers have returned to work. Some have had a more complicated and stressful week than expected. ¿Last weekend, dozens of special education resource teachers received letters telling them they'd been assigned to new schools in response to changing student numbers. The news prompted an outcry, and some teachers have since been reinstated to their original schools -- nine, as of Wednesday night.
The district has more students with severe disabilities than ever -- nearly 200 more than last year alone, a 9 percent increase, the administration reports. This has required the district to establish 10 more classes for those students.
The Community Advisory Committee for Special Education is putting pressure on the district to reverse the entire decision, which comes just months after another controversial proposal to reorganize the department. That proposal was put on hold by the school board at the end of the school year.
Staffing update: Substitute teachers used to say, half-jokingly, that they were never without work on the first day of school in Oakland. That's changed, for the most part. This year, district staff members say they expect general education classes to be fully staffed on Day 1. Special education program staffing is about 98 percent complete, the district reported Friday afternoon, adding that that might improve over the weekend. In all, Oakland Unified has hired more than 160 new teachers.
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