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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Adult education finds home at a closed elementary school

Left Oakland Adult Education Center Principal and Right Kim Jones Oakland Adult Education Center Super visor
Left Oakland Adult Education Center Principal and Right Kim Jones Oakland Adult Education Center Super visor

This story aired on the June 4, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents, click the play button above to listen.

California schools are closing. For reasons like drop in enrollment and major budget cuts. Just last month SFUSD announced it will merge and close schools. Yet one of the most memorable Bay Area school closures happened two years ago. That’s when Oakland Unified School District announced it was permanently closing seven schools by the end of 2022. Parker Elementary was one of them. And the aftermath made national headlines.

Azalena Tambu, remembers the day Parker Elementary School closed, like it was yesterday.

"February 9th, out of nowhere, they announced that the school is closed, and then on May 25th, it was really gone. Our kids just walked the stage. We're never going to see these people again," said Tambu.

At the time Azalena had two daughters at Parker Nasaira & Samira. She had lived in East Oakland just a couple blocks away from the school for 15 years.

"They loved it. Was their school. That was their home base, their security, their sanctuary, their happy place," said Tambu.

But when the district announced they were shutting it down, along with 6 other schools. Azalena and the community were not happy. This was their school. They were worried about things like gentrification and privatization. She said students would have to rely on longer commutes just to get to school. Azalena's main concern was about safety.

"If that school sat empty, and that building sat empty, that the amount of violence on that corner of Ritchie and Nay would increase," said Tambu.

Up until this point, she had zero experience in being an organizer. She had never attended a school board meeting.

“But when Parker closed, I knew I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what I was going to do," said Tambu.

That's when she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Azaelna refused to leave the school after her daughter's 5th-grade graduation. She brought along teachers, parents, kids, and organizers. They called themselves Parker Liberation.

They camped out in the school, living and sleeping inside the classrooms for 125 days. They hosted daily classes in music, math, science, reading, and political science.

Outside of Oakland Adult Career Education formally known as Parker Elementary
Jason Puerto
Outside of Oakland Adult Career Education formally known as Parker Elementary

"I knew I was that I was ten toes down all the way in. Nobody was going to take me out of the school," Tambu said.

There were months of intense school board meetings, clashes with security, and persistence to keep the school alive.

Ultimately the school district won. The elementary school was shut down.

What about Azalena's fears? They didn't necessarily come true.

Colorful pictures hang up on the wall
Steffi Puerto
Colorful pictures hang up on the wall

I am inside Oakland Adult Career Education Center, formerly known as Parker Elementary. The hallways look and sound the same with bright artwork on the walls and classes in session.

I peek into a former 4th-grade classroom, where there's a free ESL class taking place. Maria Suarez is playing an English comprehension game.

"No nunca tuve dudas. Yo siempre quise aprender Inglés," said Suarez.

Maria is originally from Michoacán, Mexico. She moved to East Oakland 24 years ago. Learning English is something she’s wanted to accomplish since she got to this country. So when she saw her neighbors taking classes, she knew she had to do it.

"Dijo mi hija, oh, mami, ya entendí todo lo que dijiste y este y pues eso me dió gusto," said Suarez .

Her goal is to be fluent in English in the next five years. But for Maria, this is more than just fluency. It’s an opportunity to be included in everyday life from reading restaurant menus to making doctor appointments.

"Y aparte, pues con los compañeros, también me siento segura," said Suarez.

Maria feels safe in class and enjoys interacting with her classmates. They're all different ages and from different cultures. But the collective goal is to help one another learn English.

Students in Advance English Learning Class
Steffi Puerto
Students in Advance English Learning Class

The Oakland Adult Education Center offers more than just ESL classes. There’s a variety of courses like GED, computer literacy, career employability, and life skills.

I poke my head inside another classroom where a few students are taking a GED class. There, I speak to Sheron Fernandez. She has been working toward her high school diploma here for over 4 months.

"I feel happy to be here. Ms. Linda is a very great teacher she like motivates us to continue to do our GED," said Fernandez.

Sharon dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. She needed to work to help out her single mom. Now, she’s back, 12 years later, picking up where she left off.

"I wanted to start because I wanted a better future for myself. And my parents brought me here, so I want them to be proud of me and a better future for my daughter," said Fernandez.

For Sharon, her GED is the first step in one day becoming a nurse.

She has two more tests to go before she completes her GED. But getting here wasn’t easy.

Left Kim Jones & right Michelle Deiro walk inside Oakland Adult and Career Education Community Resource
Steffi Puerto
Left Kim Jones & right Michelle Deiro walk inside Oakland Adult and Career Education Community Resource

"We're asking adult students to not go to work. To leave their kids to come and intake Uh, come and take part in a system that's already betrayed you. We have already let you down. And we're saying come back so that we can help you now. Come trust us again," said Kim.

Kim Jones is the Director of Oakland Career & Adult Education. His passion for adult education comes from personal experience. He dropped out of high school at age 18 and during his adolescence, he dealt with homelessness, incarceration, and drug use.

"I used the adult ed system, the workforce development system. I went to community college, to university. So I went through these systems," said Kim.

He says the fact that Parker Elementary is the new home of the Adult Education Center, is more important than you might think. Before this, there wasn’t a dedicated adult education school in East Oakland. The closest option was all across town in West Oakland, over 12 miles away.

"And it's where our Black and Brown people have been concentrated. Right. It's where there is the most poverty in the, in the, in the most economic disadvantage and the lowest education levels and all that stuff that happens when people are disenfranchised over generations," said Kim.

Historically East Oakland has struggled with a bad reputation in education, crime, and violence. The high school dropout rate in East Oakland Is around 40%

Kim says Parker’s location means people who never imagined being able to go back to school or get job training now have access to resources in their own neighborhood. Here’s Kim’s colleague Michelle Diero. She’s the principal at the Adult Career Education Center.

"So many students were like, Oh, I just live right across the street. I live two blocks away. Oh, I'm so glad you're here. So the word is starting to get out that Parker Elementary, you know, is closed, unfortunately. But we are here in this location. We're thriving and we're here to serve you," said Diero.

Students are facing the board in an advance ESL class
Steffi Puerto
Left Oakland Adult Education Center Principal and Right Kim Jones Oakland Adult Education Center Director of Oakland Adult Career Education

But for parents, like Azalena Tambu, who fought against the closure, the benefits don’t always seem like enough.

"There's nothing that outweighs the decision to close down Parker. That was like a staple of our community. That was what we needed was a K-8 school and a safe place where kids could go and also utilize the yard and play," said Tambu.

Azalena isn’t the only one who’s struggled with the closure of Parker. Her daughters have had difficulty adjusting to their new schools.

"This is not unique or unique to our family. Many of the children who went to Parker are having difficult times and are bouncing back and forth from school to school or are having major conflicts at the school that they're at now," said Tambu.

Still, Azalena has seen former Parker parents use the Adult services here.

"I'm seeing people from the community utilizing it. I just hope to see more, but I know that'll take time," said Azalena.

But for now, Parker will continue to serve its greater community, even if the classrooms don’t sound that different from its days as an elementary school.

Crosscurrents CrosscurrentsEducationAudio AcademyAudio Academy 2024
What's up! My name is Steffi Puerto (She/Her/Ella).
I was born and raised in East Oakland. I have a passion for community journalism, storytelling, and multimedia. I am excited to be a part of the KALW Radio Academy!