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.


Zach Bell, left, and Ron Towns started Camp Common Ground to disrupt racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Lakisha Young’s grandmother was 22 when she decided to move with her four children from Mississippi to San Francisco in 1964 to provide a better life for her kids. Young’s mother also had hopes and expectations for her children to go beyond her own achievements. Young went on to college, the second in her family to do so, and eventually earned her master’s degree in educational technology.

“I’m a firm believer that no matter where you grow up, education is a game-changer,” said Young, who is now the executive director of The Oakland Reach, an organization that aims to empower parents in underperforming schools to advocate for their children.

Young points to the differences between parents in the Oakland hills and those in the flatlands as the primary example of disparities within the Oakland Unified School District, or OUSD. Parents in the hills generally have more money, more time to be involved in their kids’ schools, and more influence in the district, she noted. And over the years, Oakland hills have been home to some of the highest performing public schools in the region, while flatlands schools have struggled.

Oakland, in other words, has long had a separate and unequal educational system within its public school district, with students receiving disparate opportunities depending on the zip codes in which they live. The stark differences have also historically broken along racial lines.

Many white families in Oakland have long avoided the public school system altogether, choosing to send their children to private schools. But even the white families that do enroll their kids in OUSD tend to do so in segregated schools.

Overall, Oakland’s population is 27.3 percent white, 26.7 Latinx, and 24.7 percent black, according to 2017 U.S. Census estimates. Yet OUSD’s student population is about 9.6 percent white, 44.5 percent Latinx, and 25.7 percent black. Moreover, the typical white student who goes to an Oakland public school goes to one that is 45.2 percent black and Latinx. By contrast, black students in Oakland public schools attend schools that are 74.8 percent black and Latinx, and Latinx students attend schools that are 82.9 percent black and Latinx.

In short, white students in Oakland are concentrated in a few schools throughout the district, including charter schools, where they are the majority.

Yet despite Oakland’s highly segregated school system and the city’s progressive politics, OUSD has never embarked on a full-fledged effort to desegregate. By contrast, Berkeley Unified has had a desegregation plan in place for more than 40 years. Originally implemented in 1964, Berkeley’s program has been touted by academics and advocates alike.

Is it time for Oakland to finally copy its neighbor to the north?

Ron Towns and Zach Bell founded Camp Common Ground with the explicit goal of disrupting the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation in Oakland. The camp, aimed at middle-schoolers, is a two-week program during which students identify a person or group of people who they see as isolated or underserved by their community. The kids then create a “plan for disruption” to take back into their schools and attempt to make a change. The goal is to reach a new generation of Oakland residents to fight segregation and change the dynamics of the city.

Towns said the skills they teach their students at the camp are directly related to the skills that are necessary to make real change. To him, that change happens when the kids can identify their differences and the perspectives that stem from those differences, and not isolate those other groups.

“It’s about having the skills to ask questions of people to understand their perspective and being able to critically listen to that and not just trying to push your opinion,” said Towns.

Towns and Bell are teachers in the Bay Area. Towns is a sixth-grade instructor at Gateway Public Schools, a group of charter schools in San Francisco, and Bell works at the Oakland School of Language, a dual-language middle school. Throughout his 10-year teaching career, Towns has witnessed rifts in gentrifying neighborhoods. He says the camp has also tried to address distrust that develops among racial groups.

Such rifts often come up during enrollment. OUSD has a lottery-style system of enrollment that was adopted about 15 years ago and is designed to allow low-income students to attend higher-performing schools but has largely failed. Charles Wilson, director of enrollment in the district, explained that the system requires parents to rank schools that they would like their child to attend. If the child has a sibling already attending a school, then they get first priority at that campus. Second priority goes to students who live in the school’s designated attendance zone. Children who do not live in the neighborhood or have no siblings in the school have the lowest priority for attending the school of their choice.

Typically, the lottery system only comes into play for schools in high demand—like Montclair and Thornhill elementary schools in the Montclair district and Chabot Elementary and Hillcrest elementary and middle schools in Rockridge. At those campuses, there are usually far more applicants than the school has room for.

Wilson has found that this system, which was designed to help diversify Oakland schools, hasn’t worked as planned. Most students remain locked out of the higher-performing schools because they don’t live within their attendance zones and don’t have siblings who attend those schools. And because Oakland neighborhoods tend to be segregated, the school attendance zones just serve to reinforce segregation in the city.

“If you were to take a redlining map from the 1930s and overlay over boundaries, they’d be almost identical,” Wilson said of the district’s attendance boundaries. Redlining was the racist practice by banks and the federal government that blocked people of color from living in certain neighborhoods.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 was designed to address segregation in the nation’s schools. But it was mostly directed toward the 17 states that had laws at the time mandating the segregation of African Americans. California and other states that were not required by the Supreme Court to take immediate action were left largely unaffected by the ruling.

Ten years after Brown, Berkeley Unified School District implemented one of the first voluntary desegregation plans in the nation. Though it’s been repeatedly challenged in court over the years, the plan has remained one of the most successful integration models in the country.

BUSD’s desegregation plan is now in its third iteration, and the district has consistently kept up with changing laws and anti-integration efforts. The original 1964 plan focused on desegregating the junior high schools. It turned the three schools into one ninth-grade campus and two seventh- and eighth-grade schools. The district split the city into two zones that included equal proportions of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In 1968, the plan expanded to include the city’s elementary schools. The new plan was more complex. At the time, the district had 14 elementary schools—four of those schools were in the city’s flatlands, six were in the Berkeley hills, and the other four were toward the middle of the city and were already somewhat integrated.

To desegregate, the district divided the city into four zones, each spanning from the hills to the flatlands. In each zone, one of the four flatland schools was designated for grades four through six, and at least two schools located mid-city and in the hills were designated for kindergarten through third grades.

This plan required extensive busing with 3,500 out of 9,000 elementary students required to be bused, according to a 1977 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The plan continued until 1993 when the district decided to switch to its first “controlled choice” integration plan. The new plan divided the district into three elementary school zones: northwest, central, and southeast—again running from the hills and flatlands. The district was then split into 445 “planning areas,” which were each about four to eight city blocks. Using census data, each area was then analyzed by race and ethnicity. This was done so each elementary school reflected the racial and ethnic distribution of the surrounding planning area, according to a 2009 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. In 2004, the district implemented a revised “controlled choice” plan that included socioeconomic status as a measure.

The school district categorizes each zone on a scale of one to three based on demographic data. “If in a particular school zone, 50 percent of the neighborhoods are category three, then roughly 50 percent of the students should be category three,” explained Ty Alper, BUSD school board director.

The plan was challenged several times after California passed Proposition 209, which prohibits discriminatory or preferential use of race or ethnicity in public education. In 2003, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation sued Berkeley, alleging that the plan violated Prop. 209. But an Alameda County Superior Court judge disagreed, ruling that Berkeley’s desegregation program was legal because race was just one of several factors considered, and it was not used to grant any preferential or discriminatory treatment.

Alper said he’s proud of Berkeley’s current plan and how it’s ensured socioeconomic and racial diversity that’s been upheld by the courts. But he acknowledges that there are always challenges with integration that are difficult to resolve.

“There’s de-facto segregation and social segregation that we’ve tried to address,” he said. “That is a real concern that’s difficult to figure out how to resolve.”

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.

photo courtesy lakisha young

Lakisha Young (right) of The Oakland Reach believes education is a game-changer.

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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