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Mark the Anniversary of Brown by Envisioning Equitable Enrollment Policies in Oakland: Part 1

Updated: May 24, 2021

Later this week, in honor of the 67th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, I’m releasing new analyses and an interactive web application that will provide insight into alternative student assignment policies in Oakland. My hope is that these tools will demonstrate the inequitable aspects of our current system and help us envision future policy changes.

Leading up to this, I’ll briefly review how school segregation is maintained by current policies in Oakland. We’ll look at student attendance boundaries today, followed by open enrollment on Thursday, and a review of some alternative models next week.

OUSD Attendance Boundaries Largely Replicate Neighborhood Racial Segregation

Largest racial group and corresponding percentages in each OUSD elementary neighborhood attendance boundary across the past three years.

Over the past three years, based on where public school-attending students live, the probability of a Black or Latino student (of any grade level) interacting with a White student was about 6%. For White students, this was 38%. This isolation is purely a result of traditional neighborhood segregation patterns.

OUSD attendance boundaries largely mirror these numbers. If all students attended school within their boundary, the numbers above would increase slightly to 7% for Black or Latino students, and 46% for White students.

OUSD high school attendance areas and “priority” census block groups in yellow

A similar pattern exists for socioeconomic measures. By OUSD’s calculations, approximately 64% of students live in a designated income “priority” area (these low-income census block groups are used for a few purposes, including giving priority to families in the enrollment pilots).

Across all attendance boundaries, however, only nine boundaries were within plus or minus 10% of this level in 2019-2020 (see below). Concentrating a disproportionately high numbers of students from these priority areas potentially strains resources for the very students who need them the most.

The number of attendance areas with % students living in a “priority” census block group, 2019-2020

Underlying Student Counts Also Create Challenges

Oakland needs to meaningfully grapple with the idea of adjusting boundaries to improve diversity, but their construction is problematic for another reason: attendance boundaries sometimes serve a vastly different number of students. This makes sense when an attendance boundary contains multiple schools, or school capacity varies from site to site. After taking these factors into consideration, however, disparities still exist.

Over 20% of all attendance boundaries don’t have enough students to reach even 75% of their schools’ three-year average enrollment. Simultaneously, another 20% have at least twice the number of students than their potential capacity. Frick Middle School alone has had over six times as many students in its attendance area compared to those that typically enroll at the school.

Interestingly, there is a clear racial pattern to this. Of those attendance areas that don’t make up at least 100% of their average school enrollment, the median percentage of White students is 29%. For all the others, it’s 5%.

The three-year average potential enrollment as a % of school capacity compared to the neighborhood’s percentage of White students.

We know that school demand varies across schools; White families live in less densely populated areas of the city; and a share (about 30%) of public school students attend charter schools, especially in many flatland neighborhoods. That should not excuse Oakland from monitoring enrollment patterns and demographic trends to ensure attendance areas serve a population close to their schools’ enrollment capacity.

By not doing so, the district has tethered neighborhood attendance to open enrollment: some neighborhoods depend on students coming in, others depend on students leaving. Alarmingly, there is implicit racial messaging around this. For those that can afford it, you are far more likely to get a school seat in the less populated White neighborhoods. In Black and Brown neighborhoods, many of you will need to leave because there is inherently less room. What does this say about how much we value neighborhood priority? And for whom does it really apply?

The current shape of attendance areas creates an incredibly tenuous situation for OUSD, relying on individual choices to maintain balanced enrollment. Next time we’ll see why the district shouldn't do so while examining open enrollment and its own impact on school segregation.

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