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Oakland Parents Occupy Elementary School to Prevent Its Closure

“We fight for our kids until they fight for themselves,” said one parent.

Oakland Unified School District educators, students, and families participate in a rally against the possible closure of 16 schools in Oakland, California, on February 4, 2022.

On the last day of school at Parker Elementary, following tearful moving up ceremonies for fifth and eighth grades, one group of mothers — frustrated over a decision to permanently shutter the school — refused to leave.

Over 50 days later, they’re still there, occupying the school alongside a network of community activists and other supporters. In the meantime, they’ve started “Parker Community School,” which offers free summer programming for schoolchildren and adults. Even as the next school year approaches, they’re refusing to back down, with plans to expand their efforts as part of a broader fight against educational racism and inequity in Oakland and across the country.

“Our kids are important to us — and that’s the reason why this has to happen,” said Misty Cross, a mother of two in the district who has been one of several parents sleeping at the school. “When we keep seeing closures every year, those are entire communities that are at stake.”

In February, the Oakland Unified School District approved plans to close, merge or shrink 11 schools in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in the district, including Parker, which has served children in grades K-8 for 96 years. While officials say the closures are necessary to address budget shortfalls, families, teachers and students in the district’s close-knit schools have expressed widespread and impassioned opposition.

The Oakland Education Association teachers union held a one-day strike and filed an unfair labor charge over the plan. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general on behalf of the Justice for Oakland Students coalition, urging an investigation into the closures’ disproportionate impact on Black students. In February, Maurice André San-Chez, an educator in the district, was hospitalized after hunger striking for 20 days to protest the closures alongside school administrator Moses Omolade.

Black students make up 22 percent of the district’s total enrollees, but accounted for roughly 43 percent of students at the schools slated for closure under the school board’s initial plan. The closures have been driven in part because Oakland students attend charter schools at more than double the rate of other children across the state, leading to declining enrollment in the district.

“This matters not just for these children, but for all children,” Cross said. “And, all Black and Brown communities who have been going through closures.”

Cross is also a co-founder of the Oakland activist group Moms 4 Housing, a collective of unhoused working mothers who successfully occupied and ultimately reclaimed an empty home owned by speculators in 2020. She’s been applying the strategies she learned through Moms 4 Housing to build support for the sit-in at Parker.

On Tuesday, Cross and her seven-year-old daughter went on a field trip to the East Oakland Collective as part of the occupation’s on-site programming, where they viewed an exhibit on the Black Panthers, who once operated a network of liberation schools and community care programs across the country.

The Parker Community School also features poetry nights, Narcan trainings, current event discussions, and other programming facilitated by parents, teachers and community members that Cross says shows “what a community school really looks like.”

“When we keep the community in the school, it keeps those families together,” said Cross, who fears what plans the district might have for selling the school building. “It is so important that this building stays in the community. And, that the land is not given to privatizers or changed into a charter school, or sold off to a billionaire to create market rate housing.”

For now, Cross says the parents and activists occupying Parker have big plans in anticipation of next school year, including bringing on other parents affected by closures. The district plans to close five more elementary schools at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

“The neglect has gone way too far,” Cross said, emphasizing that working parents were leading the struggle out of necessity in light of the district’s failures. “We fight for our kids until they fight for themselves.”