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If You're Black and Low-Income in Oakland, You Have to Fight for the Right to a Good School

Every family should have the right to a good school for their kids. But it turns out that if you’re Black and low-income in Oakland, you have to organize and fight for that right. That’s what I learned as I tried to find a decent school for my son. It’s a lesson that made me part of a movement of parents determined not to be bounced around from one bad school to another, and to improve the State of Black Education in Oakland (SoBEO) for good. My struggle began in 2013, when I began to suspect something wasn’t right in the education of my oldest son, who was then 9 years old. He was earning fair grades—a mix of A’s, B’s and C’s—but he wasn’t ever bringing home any homework. When I asked the teacher about it, she said I could solve the problem myself, with trips to the library and lessons on the internet. That answer might have worked for someone, but not for a struggling single mom, which I was at the time. I didn’t have internet, or even a computer, and definitely not time or a way to get to the library. I made the decision—the most painful of my life—to send him to live with his grandparents in Louisiana, hoping he would get a better education there while I looked for work in Oakland. But it didn’t work out that way, and being separated from him was killing me. I brought him back to Oakland in time for middle school. I enrolled him in my neighborhood school. But, the school was low-performing and I saw him falling behind again. During this time, I joined a parent-led group called The Oakland REACH, where I participated in a fellowship where we learned about the Oakland public school system, and how to better advocate for our children and other parents’ children. One day we toured quality schools in Oakland, and I had an opportunity to visit Acorn Woodland, a quality district school, and Lighthouse, a quality public charter school in East Oakland with a long waitlist. Charter or district didn’t matter to me—these were finally good schools. I chose to apply to Lighthouse because my son was already in middle school and I wanted a K-12 school for him and for my two other children about to enter kindergarten and first grade. When we started at Lighthouse, they confirmed my worst fears about the education of my son, now in eighth grade. They told me that he probably wouldn’t be ready to move on to ninth grade by the end of the year because he was so far behind. I already knew this. But they also offered him extra help and after-school reading classes, and he got caught up. He’s now in ninth grade and doing much better and he is feeling better about his future. I am feeling better about his future, too.

What Oakland REACH Is All About

It took three long years of looking to find a good school for my son, three years he can’t get back. Black boys can’t afford not to get a good education. This struggle taught me that a good education doesn’t get handed to you—we have to demand it. And that is what The Oakland REACH is all about! We’re all about making the powerless parent powerful by demanding a seat at the table where decisions are being made. And as Oakland faces hard decisions because of its budget crisis, we plan to use that power to make sure low-income parents don’t get the short end of the stick. Because that’s what happens. When there’s change— school closures, mergers, consolidations, or whatever they want to call it—it’s parents like me that get bounced around because we are the last to know about what’s going down and how it will impact us the most. That don’t make no sense. We’re not about to let that happen. That’s why SoBEO and parents of The Oakland REACH are coming together this week to present the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) with a proposal for an Opportunity Ticket. One of four improvements proposed by the community, the Opportunity Ticket would provide our most vulnerable students—students like my son—higher preference for enrolling in quality schools. Specifically, it would allow students who are attending closing schools the first opportunity to enroll in the school of their choice. It would require OUSD and charter schools to make changes to the admissions preferences throughout the enrollment process. This is the way we can ensure every family has the right to a decent school for their kids. We will be a movement of parents and allies today, wearing yellow to show support for the Opportunity Ticket. It’s about time and we ain’t going nowhere. To learn more about our work and to get involved, please visit us at www.oaklandreach.org.
Photo courtesy of The Oakland Reach.
Tenisa Lyles is a single mother of three children, living in deep East Oakland. She was one of the founding members of The Oakland REACH, a parent-led group focused on making the powerless parent powerful.

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