Two Westlake Middle School staff members started a hunger strike at midnight on February 1 and say they’ll continue to refuse food until the Oakland Unified School District and school board stops all plans to close or merge schools.
“I’m willing to put my life on the line because I love these kids,” said hunger striker Maurice Andre San-Chez, who’s taught at Westlake for five years, directs the school’s choir, and heads its Gender and Sexuality Alliance group. “I love this school and the community we’ve built here.”
But the future of Westlake, as well as 13 other schools, is unclear. During a meeting on January 12, Oakland’s school board voted on a resolution put forth by Board President Shanthi Gonzales and Board Director Gary Yee which directed OUSD’s administration to create a plan to closure and merge schools. Board Directors Mike Hutchinson and VanCedric Williams voted against the resolution, but the other five board members voted in favor of it and it passed. OUSD then created a plan that, if fully approved by the board, will close six schools, and merge four schools by this upcoming June. By June of 2023, four additional schools would also be closed and/or merged.
For Westlake students and staff, the implementation of these plans would cause them to lose their current campus, which sits near Lake Merritt and one block from Whole Foods Market. The school would then merge with West Oakland Middle School starting next school year.
In school board meetings that occurred on Zoom on January 26 and 31, hundreds of parents, teachers and students both spoke out against the proposed closures and mergers and said the plans would disproportionately affect Black and Brown students. Data from the California Department of Education show that of the 14 schools slated for closure or merging, six of these schools enroll a majority of students who are Black, another six enroll a majority of students who are Latinx, and all 14 enroll a significant majority of combined Black and Latinx students.
Moses Omolade, who’s worked as an administrator at Westlake for six years and is the school’s Community Schools Program Manager, is also hunger striking. The desire to strike first came to him after he attended the January 26 board meeting. It left him unhappy with how he felt the school community was being treated as they spoke to the board about the possible closures and mergers.
“I was sick to my stomach,” said Omolade, “from witnessing how human beings that were pleading and begging to be heard were being treated.”
Omolade felt that, as a whole, the board and the district conducted the meeting in a robotic manner that wasn’t respectful of the sadness and anger that students, teachers, and parents were expressing while addressing the possibility of losing their schools and/or school campuses. Community members were cut off mid-sentence at the exact moment they reached the one minute limit allowed for public speaking.
“At that point I felt like: how do we inject humanity back into what I just witnessed?” said Omolade, who then began to consider a hunger strike as a means to “appeal to the moral deficit” he was witnessing.
San-Chez attended the meeting as well and, like Omolade, was outraged. Before they became aware of Omolade’s idea, they also were thinking of hunger striking in response to the situation. The next day, when Omolade told San-Chez of his plans, San-Chez laughed, both surprised Omolade had also thought to strike and happy to have a collaborator.
On February 8, the board is set to vote on how to proceed with the proposed closure/merger plans. San-Chez and Omolade’s hunger strike could possibly end that night if the board rejects all school closures and mergers. But so far this year, only Board Directors Hutchinson and VanCedric have taken a stand against closures and mergers.
Board President Shanthi Gonzales did not respond to a request to comment on this article, but on January 26, she posted a statement on her website under the headline “Why We Need to Reduce the Number of Schools we Operate.” In it, she wrote that maintaining all 81 of the current OUSD schools “is not serving either the fiscal health of the school district…the academic needs of our students…or the financial needs of our staff.” She points out that enrollment has lowered in the last twenty years, and since some district funding is based on attendance, the lowered enrollment reduces the funding available to maintain sites and pay staff competitive wages. According to Gonzales, by cutting sites and the staff, the district can save money to better maintain sites and pay better wages.
“I know that this process is painful and impacts the Black and Brown students in underenrolled schools,” Gonzales wrote in the statement. “If I believed there was another way, I would pursue that avenue.”
Omolade said the board should “get creative and figure out another way” to address fiscal challenges. He wishes the district would help attract students to Westlake to increase enrollment, which he says they haven’t attempted to do. San-Chez said they feel it’s unethical to attempt to fix the district’s problems “on the backs of Black scholars.”
In an email, district spokesperson John Sasaki stated that OUSD’s enrollment team sends regular emails to families with 5th grade students about the enrollment period and also helps these families submit applications. Addressing the hunger strike, Sasaki wrote “The District cares deeply about the health and well-being of our staff, and hopes that any staff member who is considering a hunger strike explores other means of protest that don’t involve harming themselves.”
In a fiscal analysis report presented at the January 26 board meeting, OUSD estimated that their closure and merger plan would save the district between $4.1 and $14.7 million dollars. These estimated savings would represent between .5% to 2% of the total revenues of $748 million the district reported in its first interim budget report for the 2021–22 school year.
San-Chez, Omolade, and other Westlake educators have been using the present moment to teach students about activism and history. On January 31, Westlake students, teachers, and staff went to the front lawn of the school to practice call in response protest chanting, and some students gave speeches. That same day, Genya Rocca-Owodunni, an art teacher at the school, worked with students and staff to recreate Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” Rockwell’s painting depicts Ruby Bridges in November of 1960, at the age of six, becoming the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in the United States South by attending William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Westlake posted the recreation to its instagram page.
“Now why are we re-creating this painting?” reads text from the instagram post. “It is because our fight is a continuation of [Bridges’ fight].”
On February 1, hundreds of students, staff and parents from Westlake, MetWest High School, Dewey Academy, and La Escuelita Elementary School, marched from their school campuses to OUSD’s central offices while chanting and holding signs denouncing school closures and mergers. Members of the crowd then spoke on a microphone about fighting against the closures. Timothy Killings, who’s a school Case Manager at Westlake and an OUSD parent, helped organize the sound system and informed speakers that, unlike at school board meetings, there was no one minute limit and they could speak as long as they wanted.
“I think this is a good way for us to show that we’re not going to stop doing what we’re doing until they agree to keep our schools open,” said Ayanna, an 8th grade Westlake student, at the march.
After rallying outside OUSD’s central offices, the crowd then marched to West Oakland Middle School, and students at that school joined the rally. For Westlake students, the route covered about two miles one way.
In the evening of February 1, San-Chez and Omolade set up tents outside of OUSD’s central offices at 1000 Broadway in order to publicly display their hunger strike to the district. They say they are fighting not just for Westlake, but to stop all school closures, and will live there while refusing to eat until their demands are met.
“To the board, this is all an abstract concept,” said San-Chez. “So we’re actually putting lives on the line. There’s a possibility of death. Malnutrition is real. But I’m all in because this is serious.”
Notes: A shorter version of this story will appear in print soon in The Oakland Post. A similar version will also appear on The Post News Group’s website. This story was updated about five hours after its publication to include OUSD Spokesperson John Sasaki’s comments.