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CLASS WARFARE: Scenes from the life and death of a small school.

BEHIND THE cheerful faces in these photos is a bitter reality. The life and death of Roots International Academy are in many ways the story of how Oakland, California, reached what education historian Diane Ravitch calls its "inflection point," a moment when its school system hovers between a vision of education as a public good and one of education as a commodity. "It's either going to be destroyed by charters," Ravitch told me, "or the parents and teachers there are going to recover a public school system."

Born in 2006 during a nationwide "small schools" boom, this public middle school in the East Oakland flatlands shut its doors for good at the end of this past school year, the first closure in a series of controversial changes planned for the district. Roots had been opened in the name of reform. It would now be sacrificed in the name of reform as well.

I spent some time at Roots in the last few weeks of its existence. It was strange to see so much joy and warmth in a school that had been deemed part of a failed experiment--Roots didn't feel like a failure. At the school's end-ofyear promotion ceremony, eighth grade valedictorian Ernesto Galaviz asked his classmates to remember Roots. "For it is in these walls that we got what we have right now: friends, family, brotherhood. Some of us found love here. I personally haven't," he said to laughter. His parting words echoed the school's motto: "Never forget where you come from."

In part, Roots had come from parents and organizers who wanted their black and brown children to get the personalized attention that students receive in Oakland's affluent hills. At the same time, the school reform movement had seized on small schools as the latest cure for the country's educational ills. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent $2 billion to start small schools throughout the country; Oakland received $24 million from Gates, and other private funders jumped in the ring.

The city sorely needed the money. Its school district was broke, having racked up tens of millions of dollars in debt. Charter schools were expanding while enrollment in traditional public schools was dropping--meaning less state money to the district. Oakland shuttered around a dozen large schools between 2003 and 2007. Flush with foundation cash, the city by 2008 had created 49 small schools--among them Roots, a school of 223 students on the reconfigured campus of a middle school that had once served more than 700. "Oakland had the perfect storm," said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies philanthropy in education. "It had a lot of charter schools. It was already in a fiscally challenging situation. It had all the small schools. And it had that bubble of foundation money that made it seem like they had the extra money for a period of time."

This wasn't a cheap experiment, and it tied a great deal of Oakland's school system to the whims of its private financial backers. When the Gates Foundation's attention wandered to "teacher accountability" and Common Core, its money followed. By 2009, Oakland was left with its new schools, many once funded by Gates, and an unresolved budget crisis. "Painful decisions" would have to be made, as an Alameda County grand jury report later put it.

When Roots' closure was announced early this year, it became a rallying cry for the city's striking teachers. "These closures are a tactic to create more opportunities to create privatization on the backs of communities of color," Quinn Ranahan, who taught math at Roots, told reporters.

She had a point. Between 2000 and 2019, enrollment in the city's traditional public schools dropped by more than 17,000 students while enrollment in charters rose from about 1,000 to 16,900. Twenty-seven percent of Oakland students now attend charter schools, a higher proportion than any other California district. Whatever the intentions of the small-school reformers, their experiment had opened the gates even wider to charterization. "The education reform movement has been a disruption movement," Ravitch said. "They've been successful at disrupting Oakland without improving it."

Emma Paulino, an organizer at Oakland Community Organizations, doesn't regret her group's push for small schools. Over a three-year period, students in Oakland's small schools outperformed students in larger schools, and between 2004 and 2009, the district recorded the state's biggest jump in Academic Performance Index scores. Still, the city had problems that small schools couldn't solve. "There's nothing wrong with smaller schools," Paulino said. "It's around giving what they need to sustain what they have done."

What killed Roots? I put that question to the school's principal, Geoff Vu, a boyish 32-year-old. "It's a byproduct of the same challenges that our district faces and that education is facing across the country," he said. Many national reformers had seen in Oakland schools a series of discrete problems unconnected to the life of the city. Vu's perspective was anything but academic. The culprit behind Roots' failure, he said, is "poverty and racism and all the intersections of injustice and oppression that we have to face. Our children are where we interact with it."

Caption: Previous spread: Destiny Sousa celebrates the next-to-last day of school at Roots International Academy.

Caption: Top: Alejandra Martinez, a Roots alum who returned to teach. "I know you think that Roots is a low-quality school," she told the Oakland Board of Education before it voted to close the school, "but they produce high-quality students."

Caption: Left: Principal Geoff Vu with eighth grader Alejandro Garcia Cabrera after Roots' final promotion ceremony

Caption: Left: Robyn McWilliams (center) gets her shirt signed by Amazing Herbert (left) and Kaveena San (right).

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Title Annotation:DISMISSED; Roots International Academy
Author:Rios, Edwin
Publication:Mother Jones
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 1, 2019
Previous Article:GUT INSTINCTS.

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