On a hot day in the middle of summer, 40 Oaklanders—students from 12-18 years old, teachers, OUSD Board members, community groups, and union members—went to Sacramento to urge the State Board of Education (SBE) to vote NO on the proposed new charter school Latitude 37.8.
The coalition was led by the students and staff of Fremont High who feared that the approval of Latitude, an Education for Change (EFC) charter, would adversely affect their school, forcing even more draconian cuts to Fremont’s budget than it has already sustained.
The State Board approved Latitude, but a question remains: was this the defeat it appeared to be?
Over months the coalition had developed a strong message, asking our elected officials to strengthen OUSD’s existing schools, not undermine them by adding another charter school, especially after a study earlier in the year found that charter schools are costing OUSD $57 million each year.
They also pointed out the weaknesses of the charter’s petition, including the charter organization’s failure to enroll African-American students at comparable rates to the District, their system-wide failure to serve the highest-needs Special Education students, and troubling academic and financial trends inside Education for Change’s schools.
The organizing was successful in convincing both OUSD and the county board of education to reject the petition.
After being denied by the District and County boards, the charter organization appealed to the appointed, not elected, State Board of Education. As people gathered for the hearing Gema Quetzal, a OUSD student board director said, “I was shocked at how many people showed up—how much our community cared. There were not only people from District 5, but Life Academy and Castlemont, as well as parents and elders.”
Students implored the State Board to vote no, explaining that Latitude would be opened at their school’s expense.
Juan Matias Pablo, an 11th grader at Fremont High born in Guatemala said, “I love Fremont High, it’s like a second family to me. I learned English at Fremont. If Latitude is approved, it will mean cuts to Fremont. Programs like the one where I learned English might be cut.”
Renee Swayne, a retired teacher, observed, “The students were extremely articulate. They were committed and informed. They made everyone proud.”
The vote, as expected, was in favor of Latitude 7-1-1. Expected because the State Board of Education has a history of rubber stamping most charters that come before them. Yet, despite this vote, it felt like a victory.
One victory was that Glen Price, California’s Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, spoke of the need to change charter law, which doesn’t allow authorizers to consider the financial impact of a new charter on a district.
“There’s no other area of …local planning where we would even consider not taking important financial impact for the public…into consideration,” he said.
Essai Taleb, a senior at Fremont High who was born in Yemen, had a reaction to the vote that was typical of many students. “At first I was sad, afraid that Fremont might close, but when we had a debrief I realized that people were going to keep fighting, that students actually care about the school.”
The youngest participant, 12-year-old Vida Quetzal, said, “It was exciting to have a voice in the community.”
Fremont High Vice Principal Nidya Baez noted, “The effect on students is that they gained confidence and pride in Fremont High and its diversity, including the Newcomer and Special Education programs. Now they feel more empathy for other students and it has created connections across boundaries. Baez felt inspired to “move from defense to offense,” that is, from defending Fremont High to changing charter law.
Students and others left the debrief with Gema’s words ringing in their ears, “Even though today it may seem that we lost at the State Board, we still won. Because, at the end of the day, The Town is still gonna keep fighting.”
Shelly Weintraub and Emily Filloy are members of the coalition and were at the State Board of Education meeting. Gema Quetzal was the student member of the Oakland school board and is the new student board member on the State Board.