School Segregation In Oakland: A History

In this section, we address key events that have directly or indirectly contributed to the segregated school system we now have in Oakland. Practices and policies that have shaped Oakland school demographics are often a reaction to national and state-wide trends. What might be less understood is how Oakland is unique and why it looks different than its neighbors.

The summary and timeline are by no means meant to serve as an official history or a complete understanding of segregation in Oakland. We hope it starts a conversation around why segregation in both schools and neighborhoods has persisted for so long, why it is so harmful, and what policy changes from a historical perspective might reverse it.

Please send comments and suggestions. We seek to continuously learn about and share this history with the hope of using Oakland's past as a reference guide to integrating schools now and in the future. 


Highlights and Key Events


Shifting demographics after World War II

Oakland, and California more broadly, took marginal steps to reduce racial discrimination in schools leading up to World War II. Oakland was still a city with over 85% White people in 1950, however, so its willingness to accept a multi-racial population was not exactly preordained. Changing demographics, restrictive housing policies, and newly formed school attendance boundaries in the 1950's accelerated segregation at both the neighborhood and school level. These divisions influenced racial inequities in schooling that persist today.

Open Enrollment and missed opportunities post-Brown

As a result of Brown vs. Board, as well as state leadership, many cities in California faced the prospect of desegregation orders throughout the 1960's. Berkeley and San Francisco ultimately implemented desegregation plans while other cities, like LA, San Diego, and Oakland, took little corrective action. Oakland officials cited fears of driving Whites out of the city as well the "infeasability" of transporting students between the hills and flat lands. By the mid-60's Oakland had adopted an "open enrollment" policy that, much like today, allowed students to enroll in any school in which space was available, but offered no busing options. The policy ultimately reinforced neighborhood boundaries and increased school segregation.

"Glaring" segregation in the 1980's

Civil Rights reports in the 1980s chronicled increasing segregation in Oakland schools as well as a failure to properly serve non-English speaking students. A committee sanctioned by Superintendent David Bowick declared, in 1985, that the best way to improve schools in the flatlands would be to redraw attendance boundaries and eliminate open enrollment. This was met with significant pushback and, while Bowick and Joe Coto, his successor, both made attempts to address segregation, nothing developed on a large scale.

1990 through today

In the past 30 years, Oakland has seen a dizzying series of policy changes that have included small schools ,community schools, and charter schools, among other models, all the while perennially grappling with budget issues and school closures. School segregation has not been meaningfully challenged since the 1980's but its consequences are as striking as ever, presenting opportunities for current advocates and policy-makers.


Learn More

Go visit the timeline and send us feedback and thoughts around other key events related to school segregation in Oakland.


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