On January 25, 2022, Maurice André San-Chez, a chorus teacher at Westlake Middle School, awoke to a list leaked by Mike Hutchinson, School Board District 5 Director. This list included the schools that the Oakland Unified School Board (OUSD) intended to close or merge. The announcement sparked outrage throughout the Oakland community. “At this time, my whole body was inclined and eager to do something big,” San-Chez stated in an interview with the Jacket. “I needed to make an impact; I needed to make a change.”
San-Chez and Moses Omolade, also a Westlake educator, began a 20 day hunger strike, surviving only on water and liquid electrolytes, in protest of the school closures.
The list provided by Hutchinson on January 26 included a proposed 13 schools to be closed by the end of the 2022-23 school year. These schools are predominantly low-income, and will affect mainly Black and brown elementary and middle school students.
“There is no coincidence that it is about race, that it is about class, that it is about disability, and about anybody who will not come forward to this structure of mass education that throws away our children,” a local parent shouted at a protest at the Cesar Chavez Education Center (CCEC), on March 5. “So I do urge you and call on you to lift the voices of our disabled students, our Black and brown students, and our educators.”
Despite school closures being considered disruptive to learning, this isn’t the first time closures have been proposed in Oakland.
Between 2004 and 2019, Oakland closed 19 public schools, 16 of them largely occupied by Black and Latinx students. “This dates back to when they closed down Roots [an Oakland middle school closed in 2019], and the other schools. There was community outrage, there was community tears, and [the school board] just sat there,” stated San-Chez. Many of the proposed school closure plans have been abandoned due to pushback. During the 2011-12 school year, the district was seeking to close 25 to 30 schools, but ultimately only closed 5 due to intense community resistance.
The Oakland Board of Education’s recent attempt at closures incited serious opposition from Oakland schools inhabitants. The board representatives proposed a special meeting to be held on February 8, 2022. Members would hear a proposal presentation, and vote on the consolidation plan.
Within OUSD, there are 80 schools, 40 of which were built more recently after reports of overcrowding. OUSD District 4 Director and School Board President Gary Yee, said that having these smaller schools is not financially achievable anymore, instigating rounds of school closures over the years. On the contrary, Mike Hutchinson, another board member, said, “We need to be quickly organizing to fight these immediate closures.” The Jacket reached out to Yee for commentary, but received no response.
After two weeks of strikes, protests, and marches, a modified plan to close two schools this school year and five in the next was decided. The meeting saw four hours of public comment, made by students, teachers, and Oakland residents.
The decided vote dismayed many anti-closure activists who spoke at the meetings, and protest continued. Parents of students that were attending or had attended closed and soon-to-be closed schools gave testimonials. “If it wasn’t for Brookfield [an elementary school proposed to close by the end of the 2023 school year], my son would not be so friendly. My son would not be able to talk. My son would not have so many friends. My son is special needs. They want to take that space from my kid? No, the f**k they won’t,” a parent tearfully exclaimed to a crowd at the CCEC. “I’m not going to back down. I’m going to fight ‘till the end, I’m going to fight until my feet get tired.”
Meanwhile, the teachers continued their hunger strike. San-Chez described their experience, saying, “In that time, I learned the power of community, and what community love and activism looks like.” Omolade was hospitalized, and both educators had a considerable health decline, but remained in high spirits.
Following the strike, San-Chez and Omolade continue to protest and show up for their students. Recently, at a march on Saturday, March 5, San-Chez rallied with other educators and locals. There, they urged everyone to take action, especially students. “My advocacy is for all students. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” They said, “My job is to teach students how to use their voice. Not just the ‘do-re-mi’s,’ but also speaking out on social wrongdoings.”
“In whatever way that you can speak out: do. It takes everybody,” San-Chez said. San-Chez spoke of what students, specifically from Berkeley High, can do. “The bottom line is, we need bodies; we need people — students — showing up and showing out. Being a voice, and an advocate, for others that are in need.”