Monday, September 8, 2008

Old dogs and new tricks vs. seeing the light

Recently, my neighborhood’s community newspaper published a booster piece I wrote about the local public elementary school, Laurel Elementary. In the article I urge my fellow middle-class/educated neighborhood parents (typically White) to embrace this school and use it – something this group hasn’t done for well over twenty years.

My older neighbors all sent their children to this school and have told me that “Laurel used to be a wonderful little school.” Of course, this was in the 1950’s and 1960’s before white flight, and before the community was damaged when a sizable swath of the established neighborhood was demolished to make way for the construction of I-580. As children from different cultures, lower income groups, and distant neighborhoods filtered in to fill the school's vacancies, many of the remaining local White middle-class families started to shun the school. The demographic changes made them nervous and uncomfortable, and over time they abandoned the school altogether.

Today certain neighborhood families avoid Laurel Elementary School like the plague. Mostly young professionals, they have spent $450-600K on their small 2 or 3 bedroom, eighty-year old homes and then bemoan the fact that their kids “can’t go” to the local public school. Typically, they undertake an enormous body of school research and experience a great deal of anxiety, including sleepless nights, as they try to figure out where they should send their children to school.

In the end, some will decide to move to the suburbs. For those who
remain in Oakland, most will select a private school or a public school out of their neighborhood. Then the whining starts. They'll whine about the inconveniences being caused by their decision, such as how much time it takes for them to transport their children to and fro a distant school, and how much money the private school tuition is sucking out of their budgets. They are in a hole they have dug for themselves.

Today, Laurel Elementary School’s demographics look like this:
  • African American - 38%
  • Asian - 38%
  • Latino - 15%
  • White - 3%
  • Free/Reduced Price Lunch (low income) - 61%
  • English learners - 31%
  • Average parent educational level - 2.30 (where 2 means a high school graduate and 3 means some college)
It’s easy to see why White, educated, middle-class families wouldn’t feel comfortable sending their five-year-old to a school where he or she would be a minority; no one wants their child to be an outsider.

My husband and I felt the same way 15 years ago when it came time for us to send our daughter to kindergarten. When it dawned on us that none of the other parents in our immediate neighborhood were sending their kids to Laurel Elementary, we obtained a transfer to a hills public school. Afterward, we learned just how many families near us had done the exact same thing. There were four or five families on the street below us and two families on the street above us. During the elementary school years, all of us served our adopted school’s PTA, became helpful classroom parents, and advocated for our kids and our school. Those activities come naturally to us because that's the type of parents we are.

My husband and I also knew three or four other immediate neighborhood families who had transferred into a different hills public school, or who had “gone private.” We knew only one family brave enough to try Laurel; both parents were native Oaklanders who had attended the public schools themselves. Incidentally, their son has turned out fine. He graduated at the top of his class at Skyline High School and will be starting at UCLA soon. Obviously his public elementary school experience didn’t damage him too much.

Most of the families I am talking about are perfectly comfortable sending their kids to a public elementary school that has demographics like these:

The ever popular Redwood Heights…
  • African American - 26%
  • Asian - 13%
  • Latino - 16%
  • White – 43%
  • Free/Reduced Price Lunch (low income) - 21%
  • English learners - 5%
  • Average parent educational level – 3.66 (where 3 means some college and 4 means college graduate)
…and Kaiser Elementary, another popular hills school.
  • African American - 51%
  • Asian - 10%
  • Latino - 5%
  • White – 30%
  • Free/Reduced Price Lunch (low income) - 24%
  • English learners - 2%
  • Average parent educational level – 3.74 (where 3 means some college and 4 means college graduate)
Not surprisingly, the level of comfort seems mostly connected to social class and the number of other White kids.

My point is that Laurel Elementary would have become a completely different school years ago if all of the parents who were living in my immediate neighborhood, including us, had simply decided to send our children there. And if all of the other families in our peer group who were living in the school’s attendance area had decided to do the same, the school would be much more acceptable to other local families today and our neighborhood would be that much stronger. Maybe things can still change.

Having lived in this neighborhood for a long time and getting to know it so well, I can easily predict what would happen if families could find out about each other and enroll their children at Laurel Elementary en mass. The school’s demographics would immediately change to a pleasant balance, and it would likely become a school that would make them feel confident, comfortable and happy.

Here are some of the huge benefits that would result if neighborhood families embraced this local school:
  • Reduced costs in dollars and time (daily transportation, school events, trips to friends' houses, etc.)
  • Tens of thousands of dollars saved by not having to pay private school tuitions
  • The building of a more cohesive neighborhood (people would get to know one another)
  • A reduction of local traffic and an increase in affection for the community (because non-neighborhood families would be eliminated)
  • More natural exercise for the kids (they could walk to school)
  • More local friends for kids to play with (because they would actually know each other)
  • Wouldn't have to falsify your address (this sets a bad example for your kids!)
  • Neighbor children wouldn't be isolated from each other (activities like walking home from school and trick-or-treating would be a lot more fun)
  • Higher property values (good schools make the homes more desirable)
For this particular neighborhood, embracing Laurel Elementary School just makes sense. Hopefully some interest will get stirred and some of the sharp, savvy young parents in my neighborhood will decide to get the ball rolling.

Anyway, here's the article:

Neighborhood Schools on the Upswing

With escalating gas prices, high mortgage payments, economic uncertainty, strains on family time, rising private school tuitions, the interest in several Oakland public schools has started to emerge once again.

Over the past several years, the popularity of Peralta and Glenview elementary schools has soared. For decades many neighborhood families would not even consider these schools. Efforts by both the parents and the school have caused a major shift in how these non-hills schools are perceived, and many local parents are now eagerly enrolling their children.

Closer to home, the Sequoia Elementary neighborhood community is getting stronger, too. Young families have connected with each other and word is getting out that the school is on its way up. Recently, one parent of an incoming kindergartener happily reported that she already knows at least 25 other incoming neighborhood families.

Sequoia families recognized their school’s potential and wanted to change how it was perceived by neighborhood parents. They started a Yahoo group and now invite the wider community to attend school events, neighborhood barbecues, parent panels for Q and A, school tours, and even monthly pre-K play dates.

As for Laurel Elementary, there are certainly enough children living in its attendance area to fill many classroom seats. The school's boundaries generally run from Maple to High, and Redding to Carlsen/Victor. Unfortunately, many local parents have not viewed the school as an option for years. Misinformation circulates, such as the impression that Laurel is a “failing school.” This simply is not true.

In fact, Laurel Elementary has surpassed the federal goals every year since the beginning of No Child Left Behind. With a 2007 schoolwide Academic Performance Index (API) of 778, it is close to the statewide performance target of 800. Two of Laurel’s primary subgroups, Asian students and English learners, exceeded the state API target by earning 874 and 822 respectively.

After just two years of leadership from its dynamic new principal, Ron Smith, Laurel is undergoing a series of invigorating changes. New instructional programs and professional development are being carried out at each grade level. An exciting “can-do” spirit pervades the school community, and enrollment is on the upswing.

With this accurate information revealed, perhaps neighborhood parents will begin to connect with each other as they give Laurel Elementary a second thought.

Maps of school boundaries are on the OUSD web site at Listen in and participate in conversations about the public schools by joining the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group at Keep up to date with issues in the schools by reading the Oakland Tribune’s Education Report and its reader comments at

Sharon Higgins has lived with her family in the Laurel District for 20 years. She occasionally writes about education issues and posts at

MacArthur Metro, September 2008


The Perimeter Primate said...

This message was sent to me by the Sequoia parent who I referred to in the article:

"Great article. It is really amazing how much a school can change in just a couple of years. My son's kindergarten teacher is overwhelmed by the parent involvement this year. It's pretty great."

It looks like that elementary school may finally feel embraced by its neighborhood. It's a totally cute school.

caroline said...

The whole neighborhood school issue is different in my district, San Francisco Unified. We have a districtwide school choice system, with a slight advantage for nearby residents in most cases.

Some parents fervently want guaranteed access to their neighborhood school, and some fervently want districtwide choice. It's a little dismaying that people are so often blind beyond their own self-interest, because consistently the opinion depends on whether they live near a popular school or not.
And the enrollment process is famously nightmarish.

But the good news is that an ever-increasing number of schools are becoming popular and sought-after, and it appears that the trend of middle-class families' automatically thinking "must go private" first is losing strength.