Opinion: “Common Enrollment” Is a Misfit for the Problems That Plague Oakland Schools


By Roseann Torres


As a Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Education member for the past three years representing District 5, I have remained committed to the basic reason I ran for the board in the first place: to improve educational outcomes for ALL students.


First and foremost, I am committed to improving low performing schools, followed by strengthening the rest. How do we do that? We hire and retain the best people, and we promote from within.


The right leadership at schools makes all the difference to retain teachers, allowing us to adequately serve students with high needs. A highly effective principal supports and trains teachers, promotes the school in the community, and respectfully serves the vast array of children and families, many of whom are struggling to survive in expensive Bay Area.


Our teacher turnover rate is an embarrassment, as is the revolving door for principals. This is not serving our children.


While OUSD’s enrollment policies are anything but perfect, the proposed new system, “common enrollment,” is the wrong policy at the wrong time.


As a school board member, I have learned of numerous more pressing issues that the district needs to address with a sense of urgency.


One is special education, which for years had not been made a priority. Ineffective leadership led to lack of staff training, lack of transparency, and lack of data to inform how we can improve our services.


The result of this neglect has led to persistent violations of students’ rights and lawsuits costing the district millions of dollars each year to settle. We are bleeding valuable resources that could be better spent improving our schools and pay to be competitive.


Another area of great concern is the lack of policies that promote retention of teachers and principals. With an ever growing student population of newcomers, (over 500 so far this year) and an overwhelming majority of children living in poverty, the best means of combatting failure is highly qualified and experienced teachers alongside stable leadership in the school.


Lastly, more than anything, hundreds of district staff have confided in me that their working condition are unnecessarily stressful and unstable, related to the frequent turnover of superintendent.


Oakland has always attracted superintendents who want to bring in “new ideas” and make seismic changes to feel a sense of accomplishment, often throwing out the new ideas that had been adopted with fanfare only a year to two before.


Many staff feel burnt out, confused, and angry simply wanting to be heard, respected, and supported where they are so they can adequately serve all students. It is now January, almost half way through the school year and I hear these complaints from staff and teachers that little has changed in their experience at low performing schools and this concerns me greatly.


What hasn’t helped OUSD is the creation of distrust based on a significant amount of outsiders brought in to “lead the change” without deep ties to the people in our schools, no relationship to the community, no alliances, and little understanding of our district’s uniqueness. It is as if, people are expected to make a sharp left turn while driving 200 MPH, without crashing of course.


In the past few months, I have researched common enrollment in the US and learned it is not a proven strategy for improving enrollment issues. In fact, in Denver where it was adopted, it has done nothing to create more engagement with inactive parents prone to last minute and late enrollment of their children.


White and affluent parents have benefitted the most from common enrollment, having successfully enrolled in schools with the least diversity as the data shows they prefer.


In New Orleans and Newark, New Jersey, common enrollment has led to mixed results. Parents complain of children being enrolled in schools with no special education program.


Families also experienced being enrolled in schools several miles from home yet their first choice was a neighborhood school. And families without cars and multiple children to drop off faced conditions that were intolerable.


Furthermore, what I have heard from parents in Oakland is they distrust common enrollment which uses an algorithm to generate student placement “based on school ranking” parents select. This system was created by the Walmart empire, Walton Foundation to be exact. Inevitably this could lead to reduced enrollment as distraught parents give up on OUSD altogether if they do not like their assigned school. As a district, reduced enrollment might force us to close schools, sadly teacher and staff layoffs would follow.


To deal with problems in the enrollment system, I feel we need to look at revising our Enrollment Options program that allows parents to leave neighborhood schools, and we are preparing to provide regional centers for enrollment across the city of Oakland which is no small task to unveil. We also need to prevent parents from “gaming the system” as they hold multiple spots to hedge their chances of getting into an allegedly better school. These issues we can address without common enrollment no doubt.


At this stage, without all the answers provided to the board about whether common enrollment will lead to reduced enrollment in OUSD schools and how exactly it will fix the biggest problems, I cannot support such an overhaul.


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