The Redwood City School District superintendent’s letter to parents of Fair Oaks Elementary school came in late March. The school, he wrote, was facing near certain closure.
The reason? Declining enrollment. The district was projecting only 146 students for this coming fall, down from nearly 500 a decade ago.
Though the matter had not yet gone to a vote before the district’s board of trustees, Superintendent John Baker told them the district’s plan was to shutter the school by June, and transfer remaining students to one of three other district schools nearby.
Fair Oaks Elementary serves an almost entirely Spanish-speaking neighborhood, and more than 80 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged. As a community school, it provides all kinds of services to families such as English language classes, career support and a food pantry, so the news pretty much stunned the whole neighborhood.
Two days later, families streamed into a San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting. The board has no authority over the school district, but the parents come anyway, to beg for help. They make it clear that they plan to fight.
The thought of having to start all over, at a strange school, really upset Jessica McDonald, who has a special-needs child.
“It’s just really stressful trying to get to know new other staff members and letting them know about our kids’ conditions,” she told the board between sobs. “You guys should know the stressfulness of trying to find another school, a perfect fit for them.”
Then, a parent who’s volunteered at Fair Oaks for a decade stepped up to the dais. In her hand, Gloria Rangel held loose leaf sheets of paper.
“The superintendent wants to close this school based on the numbers,” she said in Spanish, as a translator relays her comment. “But in just one day we’ve gathered a list of names of parents who said they do plan to enroll for fall, they just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I have more signatures here than the total number he’s using.”
Gloria and most other parents live close to Fair Oaks. It’s a community gathering spot where they feel safe.
“If Fair Oaks school is the community’s school,” she asked, “why kick out the community to make room for kids who don’t go there now?”
Competition from charter schools
Some families have left Redwood City due to steep housing costs, but data show that over the past four years, competition from independent charter schools has been the biggest contributor to the district’s loss of enrollment.
Like most districts, Redwood City School District survives on state funding that’s tied to student attendance — but it doesn’t get that money for kids who leave for charter schools. They take that allotment with them. So as more families pull their kids out of Redwood City district schools in favor of local charters, the district finds itself in a budget crunch.
That part’s not unusual. Many districts have struggled with what their board of education say are steep losses that impact their ability to serve remaining students.
A recent report by the nonprofit In The Public Interest sought to quantify those for three districts — Oakland, San Diego Unified and San Jose’s East Side Union — and found the three lost $142.5 million due to departures to privately managed charter schools in the last school year.
But the Fair Oaks parents organized.
A week after the Board of Supervisors meeting, parents and kids marched two miles to the district board meeting, chanting “Don’t close this school.”
They held hand-made signs and banners. Some kids were so distraught, their moms said, that they hadn’t been attending school.
“It’s not fair to us that overnight, they’re telling us they’re going to close the school,” one mom told a local Telemundo reporter.
He asked her if she had anything to say to the superintendent.
“Oh my God,” she answered, “You had no idea who you were messing with.”
That school board meeting on April 4 didn’t go well for anyone, really.
Parents asked: Is the decision final or is there room to fight together? The decision has been made, was the reply.
The parents walked out in protest. The board delayed the vote for three weeks, until April 25.
But once that next meeting got started, something unexpected happened.
Superintendent John Baker said he and several board members had been meeting with the Fair Oaks parents who are fighting the closure. He said he finally understood just how much is at stake for them.
“The families care about Fair Oaks,” he said to some shouts of affirmation from the packed auditorium. “This is a hub for them where they can go to get some other emotional physical needs met.”
He also admitted the parents were blindsided.
Compromise and competition
Then, he offered a surprising compromise. The school will stay open next year, he said, if the parents can do some fast recruiting, and ensure that at least 200 students enroll for fall by May 15.
Parents, he said, have to stay involved with the school, and help boost attendance, which is the lowest in the district, and they have to sign agreements promising to help their kids with schoolwork, “so that we can make sure that we are going to have children make academic gains at our schools.”
That’s because test scores at Fair Oaks have been the lowest in the district, too.
Gloria Rangel, the mom who waved those sheets of parent signatures at county supervisors in late March, has been leading the parent committee fighting the Fair Oaks closure.
Even she didn’t see this compromise from the district coming.
Stepping up to the microphone, she ditched her prepared comments and thanked Baker and school board members.
“For the first time,” she said, “I feel heard. And we were not feeling heard.”
Gloria and the other parents got 20 days to meet that enrollment goal. They’re optimistic. Just outside the buzzing auditorium lobby, parent organizer Lily Silva said: “The same way the independent charter schools do their propaganda, we’re doing to do our marketing the same way to promote our school and our district.”
But there are reasons why parents have switched their kids over to charters. The one that’s growing the fastest here is called KIPP Excelencia, which rents space from the district at two separate schools. The superintendent’s plan — the one that might get put on hold — actually calls for KIPP to consolidate and move onto the Fair Oaks campus.
Over at a KIPP campus, Jessica Rodriguez is one of the parents dropping their kids off. Every day, she ferries six kids to and from KIPP Excelencia schools.
“It’s my sister’s kids, my kids and my other brother’s kids,” she said as her SUV idles in the school parking lot.
Jessica said she took her daughters out of other district schools — though not Fair Oaks.
The youngest, in second grade, “she didn’t know anything, like no ABCs, no numbers,” she explained. “When I transferred her here to a charter school when I heard about KIPP, they started teaching her everything. We all get together with the teachers, the parents, put a plan together for the student, and ... make decisions based on what their needs are.”
Fair Oaks parents step up
Over at Fair Oaks, large vinyl signs announce that new student registration is now open, a hand-lettered sign in Spanish reads: “Save Our School.”
Many parents work multiple jobs. The moms who don’t are de facto child-care workers, babysitting their neighbors’ kids along with their own. Two of them rolled their strollers past the school office while chatting.
A three-year-old boy squeals in Spanish, “I want to go to Fair Oaks!”
Then, Gloria Rangel, the parent leader, shows up
A staff member lets us into Room 20, where Gloria’s been helping to sign up families. A rotating crew of parents has been helping. Today a mom and a teacher pop in to chat. Gloria tells them how stressed she’s been, but last night, she says, she finally slept well.
That’s because the parents hit their mark.
They’ve already gotten signed commitments for about 220 students. These parents are some of the most vulnerable in the district. Many work multiple jobs and don’t have the time to sit with their kids and do homework. Plenty don’t drive.
Gloria says those who are undocumented have been worried that if they had to walk to a more distant school, they’d be more likely to get snatched up in an immigration raid, and separated from their children.
“Here,” she says, “they feel safe knowing that they can just dash across the street and be inside the school.”
Gloria says she just found out the district can offer a workshop about how to prepare for potential deportation, and district staff have offered to help Gloria teach a class to other parents about how to get more involved in their kids’ schooling and boost their reading levels.
That partnership, she says, is long overdue. All four of her kids have attended Fair Oaks. Her daughter still does.
But Gloria has felt the decline. Art and sports programs disappeared. Teachers left. So did families. Though she’s grateful for the chance to save the school, she puts a lot of blame on the district.
She says the quality of the school “dropped and dropped and they never focused on why. They completely abandoned the school”
“That we have to step up and work with them is clear,” Gloria says. “But they need to put a little more into doing their part, too.”
A Redwood City School District said the district is committed to helping parents meet the conditions of the compromise. The Superintendent Baker wasn’t available for an interview, but in a letter to parents four days before the May 15 deadline, he expressed his gratitude.
“I write to congratulate you and to thank you for the role that you have recently taken as the biggest cheerleaders and leaders for Fair Oaks Community School,” he wrote. “You have proven to the world that you care, believe, and will continue to work very hard for the success of Fair Oaks.”
Baker in his letter said both student enthusiasm and activist parents were making a difference. He wrote that, on a recent day, Fair Oaks had 99.5 percent attendance. Only one student was missing, an accomplishment Baker calls “astounding.”
“We thank parent leader Gloria Rangel,” he added, “and all of you who support her in her work.”
The next major hurdle may come at the start of the coming school year, this August. All those kids who signed up must be in their seats for the first ten days of the school year, because the number of attending students is what translates into state funding.