Latino parent leaders have been fighting the Oakland Unified School District for the past five months to preserve the only three classes that offer instruction and support for children in Spanish at Garfield Elementary School in the Fruitvale District that is largely Latino and serves a number of newly arrived Spanish-speaking immigrants.
According to current district data, 196 of Garfield Elementary’s 588 students are Spanish-language English Learners. The school is located at 1640 22nd Ave. near San Antonio Park.
Parent leaders began meeting with the school’s principal and started pushing for meetings with district administrators as soon as they learned in January that the district was planning to terminate the school’s only Kindergarten Spanish bilingual class next year as a step toward gradually phasing out the entire K through second-grade program.
At one of the first meetings, “We asked why do you guys want to remove the program? Our kids need the program,” said parent leader Gloria Chavez.
“They listened to us, they paid attention to us. At the end of the meeting, nothing was resolved,” she said.
“We have met five times with different people in the district. We don’t see any support for what we are fighting for,” said Pedro Topete, another of the parent leaders
The parents, Topete, Chavez and Nancy Sanchez, are officers of the school’s English Learner Advisory Committee, which according to the district website, serves to ensure that the needs of English Learners are addressed and as a way for families for whom English is a second language to get in contact and stay involved with the school.
The parent leaders met repeatedly with Principal Nima Tahai; Tahai’s boss Network Supt. Sondra Aguilera; and Nicole Knight, executive director of the English Learner and Multilingual Achievement Office.
Also attending several of the meetings were Boardmembers Roseanne Torres and Aimee Eng.
The last meeting was on April 13 between 50 to 60 parents at the school and Allen Smith, Chief of Schools and part of Supt. Antwan Wilson’s inner circle.
In a letter dated two days after the meeting, April 15, Smith wrote:
“After reviewing all of the information and listening to families at our meeting on April 13, 2015, we have decided not to offer a Kindergarten Spanish Bilingual class this upcoming school year, 2015-2016 at Garfield. We understand that this decision is hard for the families that have been involved in advocating for the program.”
“Although we believe in offering Spanish Bilingual programs in our district, we do not believe that offering a program at every single school is sustainable,” according to Smith.
The district’s rationale for terminating the program constantly changed during the months of meetings with different officials. The parents said that though the argument may have changed, the goal of shutting down their classes has remained constant, making them believe the district is not telling them the truth and is betraying their trust.
At the first meetings, the parents said they were told that the classes were under-enrolled, and they were accused of selfishly wanting something for their children that resulted in larger classes for other students and teachers.
But, under-enrollment turned out not to be the issue. The parents soon learned that staff in the school’s office had been instructed to tell parents who wanted to enroll their children in the classes that they were already full.
Topete contacted 24 parents who wanted to enroll in the program and submitted the list to the district. In response, district staff contracted the people on the list to tell them they could go to another school if they wanted a class with a Spanish-speaking instructor.
These parents were offered the right to transfer to Manzanita Community School, International Community School or an East Oakland charter school.
A number of parents felt that they were being intimidated by the district with threats that they would have to move to another school if they want a teacher who can explain homework and assignments to children in Spanish.
They also said that many of the parents, perhaps most, do not have access to cars. They cannot arrange for their children to arrive on time at different schools.
They say they like Garfield. They are part of a family there, and they contribute to the school. For some parents, these are the only people they know in this country.
According to Smith’s letter, a bilingual K-2 program is not as academically effective as a K-5 program offered at other schools. “Principal Tahai will continue to work with individual families to make the best choice between staying at Garfield or transferring to a Spanish bilingual program,” he said.
Smith did not say which of Garfield’s English Learner students would be eligible to transfer to a bilingual Spanish program and which of those would achieve better academically if they had bilingual instructors – only the parent leaders at Garfield or all of the school’s 196 English Learner students.
Latino educators point out that the student population of OUSD is over 40 percent Latino and growing. The refusal to offer these students appropriate instruction at their neighborhood school, they say, seems to what happens to poor children and immigrant students in the flatlands.
The needs and wishes of affluent parents and their children at hill schools are not dismissed in the same way, according to these longtime educators in Oakland.
The Garfield parent leaders sent a request two weeks ago to meet with Supt. Wilson but have not heard from him.
“There’s a growing feeling of intimidation from the principal and the district,” said parent leader Sanchez. “Parents feel (officials) are retaliating against those who are asking for their rights. So many parents are already holding back from making comments because they are afraid something will happen to their kids.”
Refusing to be intimidated, the parent leaders say they have already filed a discrimination complaint with the district and are making a complaint to the state.
“We are hoping to hear from other parents who are going through similar experiences,” said Sanchez. “We are willing to get together with them and give them support.”
The Garfield parents can be reached by email at [email protected].