Facing closure, Community Day School staff speak out

Zack Haber
7 min readFeb 17, 2022

Oakland’s school board has scheduled Community Day School for closure at the end of this year. It’s the only school OUSD students can attend as they work to clear their expulsions. Staff and a student spoke out about the school and what could be lost if it closes.

Teachers Elisabeth Bailey Barnett (left) and Vernon “Trey” Keeve III (right) stand with School Therapist Rachel Machtinger (center) in front of a mural at Community Day School on February 15. Photo by Zack Haber.

After Oakland Unified School District’s school board voted to shut down Community Day School at the end of the instructional year during a meeting on February 8 and 9, the site’s staff and students are praising their school and speaking out against its closure.

“Just the site alone is so healing,” said Administrative Assistant Sandra Backer as she sat at a table surrounded by trees and near colorful murals. “You can feel it.”

Backer has worked at Community Day School since shortly after it opened in 2004. Since then, the small campus that sits in a densely forrested area of East Oakland has served as a temporary learning environment for middle and high schoolers who’ve been expelled from other schools. According to Backer, most students who attend Community Day are able to clear their expulsion with OUSD and return to a traditional or continuation school.

Community Day’s mission statement says they use a “therapeutic approach” by supporting students “academically, socially, and emotionally” both individually and in small groups through “instruction, counseling and career exploration.” Enrollment depends on expulsion rates, and has been low lately. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school had 39 students. But during last school year, when OUSD students were almost entirely in distance learning, the district issued no expulsions, and the school now enrolls around 15 students, which allows for more individualized attention.

“You get more help here compared to a regular school,” said Luis Martinez, a Community Day student. “It’s calmer. You get away from big crowds of people and everyone gets along.”

The name “Luis Martinez” is a pseudonym as this reporter is granting this student anonymity due to his status as a minor navigating a school discipline process.

“Coming to Community Day and experiencing this small class size is sometimes the first step in our students seeing they can be successful in school,” said English Teacher Vernon ‘Trey’ Keeve III. “We’re also a staff that is constantly experimenting with new ways to get our students to express themselves.”

As Keeve discussed Community Day, they sat in their classroom that had colorful student-made posters tapped along walls with information and drawings about authors whose books students were reading. Keeve, a writer themself, said they thought it was important for students to “know who they are reading,” in part because such knowledge could serve as inspiration.

Choosing books students can relate to and providing supplemental information to make connections to students’ lives is crucial to Keeve. Recently, some students read There There, by Tommy Orange, which takes place in Oakland. Currently, some students are reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, whose narrative travels back and forth through time to address slavery in the United States. To connect Kindred to the present day, Keeve has been teaching students about how origins of modern day policing can be traced back to slave patrols.

Community Day School’s campus in Oakland as photograped by Sandra Backer on December 7, 2021.

Community Day has an onsite therapist, Rachel Machtinger, through the Seneca Family of Agencies non-profit, who students can voluntarily meet with. Seneca collaborates with the school beyond just Machtinger’s role by putting on events and shared meals at least once a month and creating behavioral reward systems instead of using punishment.

“Community Day School students have histories of being excluded and pushed out of schools which are supposed to be welcoming of all kids,” said Machtinger. “We try to repair that by embracing students, loving them fully, and seeing their potential.”

News of the school’s scheduled closure came suddenly, upsetting staff and students. Community Day is one of just four schools remaining from an initial consolidation plan OUSD presented to the board on January 26 that had included 15 school closures and mergers. This happened after the board agreed to direct OUSD to create such a closure plan in a 5–2 vote on January 12. VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson were the only board directors to vote against the creation of a closure plan. After thousands of people participated in protests and/or spoke out in school board meetings against the proposed closures and their disproportionate effect on schools with majority Black and Latinx students, and two OUSD staff started a hunger strike, which is still occurring, Directors Sam Davis and Amy Eng proposed an amended resolution to the original plan that removed most schools from closure or merger this year. But Community Day School, whose students are currently entirely Black and Latinx, remained on the closure list. In the 4–2 vote early on February 9, with Director Clifford Thompson abstaining and Directors Williams and Hutchinson voting against the plan, the amended resolution passed.

This reporter emailed all the directors who voted in favor of Community Day Schools closure to ask for comment, but only heard back from Director Davis, who attributed the closure to declining enrollment.

“The superintendent’s recommendation was to close Community Day because the program was created years ago when there were a large number of expelled students,” Davis wrote in an email. “But in recent years OUSD has successfully reduced that number very significantly to just a handful.”

When asked about where Community Day students could go after a closure, Davis pointed to a program run by Alameda County in Hayward, which he described as “far from an ideal option due to its location.” The Hayward school is about about a 15 mile drive away from Community Day School. He also wrote “There are still several months to develop an alternative model…ideally here in Oakland.”

In an email, OUSD Director of Communications John Sasaki wrote that Community Day students would attend a program called Quest that is “housed in Oakland.” The program’s website, however, describes itself as an “independent study,” and “an alternative to classroom instruction.” Sasaki also shared a page from a slideshow made by OUSD indicating a financial analysis estimated Community Day School’s closure would save the district $740,436.

When asked about the possibility of attending an independent study program like Quest, Martinez said “that doesn’t sound like school.”

Backer said she was worried that if Community Day School closed a lot of students would drop out of school and expressed disappointment that board members who voted for the school’s closure had never visited.

“They haven’t even come to our site,” she said. “They don’t know who we are or what we do.”

Board Director Hutchinson thinks Community Day School can and should remain open.

“What we need right now is for two other school board members to change their vote and join me and Director Williams,” said Hutchinson in an interview.

Hutchinson plans to introduce a resolution to the board to push back considering any school closures and mergers for another year. Such a plan, if approved, would see Community Day still open next year. While the district and board members have stressed financial vitality as a reason for school closures and mergers, Hutchinson questions why, if that’s true, the vast majority of schools could be suddenly removed from the original closure/merger proposal at the last minute. He also wonders why, especially given its unique status, Community Day remains scheduled for closure.

“Community Day is different than any other schools on the closure list,” he said. “This is a moral decision. How dare we attack our last chance school for expelled students?”

Years before Community Day’s scheduled closure was announced, Keeve had been working with a fellowship they are part of called Agency by Design, to create a “maker’s center” onsite for students to explore their creativity. There would be arts and crafts supplies, but students could also tinker, and tear broken appliances apart to see how they work. The maker’s center was set to be opened next school year. Math Teacher Elisabeth Bailey Barnett was inspired by the possibility of it opening.

“It would be a space to say ‘yes’ more to kids,” said Barnett, “a space that has things that spark thoughts that they didn’t know they had.

Barnett became more excited about the space when she saw a student taking an old phone apart and wondered what drove them to do it.

“When I see stuff like that,” she said, “I want to ask, ‘what did you learn?’ We need to unlearn this pattern of telling kids ‘no’ just because we can’t fathom what they’re doing.”

It’s unclear, however, what will become of a maker’s space or Community Day School, and if the board will reverse its decision and allow the school to remain open.

In interviews, staff emphasized that Community Day has an environment of inclusivity. No one is ever barred from participating in any events on campus. They plan to continue to maintain such a place as long as possible.

“There’s a threshold of inclusivity here,” said Barnett. “No one gets excluded.”

Notes: A similar version of this story is scheduled to appear in The Oakland Post tomorrow, and to appear soon on the Post News Group’s website.

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