Navigating the system: Oakland

Looking for a school in Oakland? Let us help by giving you the inside scoop.

By Hank Pellissier

Gertrude Stein's statement "there's no there there" describes Oakland's sprawling, decentralized, and paradoxical environment — there are many lakes, hills, flatlands, ethnicities, languages, and cultures, with contrasting areas of luxurious wealth and dire poverty. Parents also confront a confusing mixture of options in seeking the right school for their child, due to the dizzying assortment of more than 150 public, private, charter, independent, parochial, immersion, military, and vocational schools.

The good news? Student achievement in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has grown twice as fast as the state average, and for seven consecutive years it has been proclaimed the most improved urban district in the state. Many schools here are state leaders in achievement and innovation, meriting California Distinguished School awards and Blue Ribbon School honors at all levels. There is a sense of excitement in the city, as a revitalization effort has launched a number of new businesses, eclectic restaurants, and a thriving arts scene.

The bad news?  the Oakland school district earns a GreatSchools Rating of 4 due to poor test scores — in 2012 only 23 percent of 8th graders scored proficient or better in algebra — and abysmal graduation rates. One-third of the city's school libraries are closed; another one-third have reduced hours.

Getting started

Your very first step: visit the user-friendly Oakland Unified School District website and thoroughly acquaint yourself with its contents. You can also drop by the district's new offices at 746 Grand Avenue (across from the historic Grand Lake Theater, pictured above), or call the office at 510-273-1600, or email enroll@ousd.k12.ca.us.

Oakland Unified has a complicated, equitable lottery system that permits everyone to apply to any school in the district. This guarantees all children a fair chance of enrolling in a high-performing school. Oakland public school application instructions can be found here, or download Oakland Unified's elementary school Enrollment Options booklet.

On the application, you can list any six schools you want. If the school you want has enough spaces, all applicants are enrolled. If applicants outnumber spaces  — a scenario at the most popular schools —  children in the following categories receive priority:

1) Siblings. Any child who has an older brother or sister at the school goes to the front of the line.

2) Neighborhoods. If you live inside a school's boundary, you get nudged ahead of those who live outside it. Where are Oakland's school boundaries? Check them here.

3) Priority is given to students living in “Program Improvement school neighborhoods” — i.e. neighborhoods with schools that have not met adequate yearly progress on test scores for two consecutive years.

4) Open lottery.

In the zone

Don't assume that you're in the zone of your geographically closest school. Danine Manette, an Oakland mother of a prospective kindergartner, was surprised to discover that her daughter would not be placed in nearby Chabot (GreatSchools Rating 10), but was instead sent to the less highly rated Kaiser Elementary (GreatSchools Rating 7), which is .3 miles farther away. Danine says, "I called OUSD to beg, plead, or bribe someone into letting my child attend Chabot but was told, 'nope.'" To make sure this doesn't happen to you, double check the boundaries of your favorite schools.

Oakland has several top-ranked public elementary schools, but the majority are situated in just a few areas. Montclair, Thornhill, and Hillcrest, all rated 10 by GreatSchools, are located — as their names imply — in higher-elevation zones. Chabot and Peralta (GreatSchools Rating 10) are near the Berkeley border, and Cleveland (GreatSchools Rating 9) and Crocker Highlands (GreatSchools Rating 10) are near lovely Lake Merritt. Outside of these zones, the schools are nowhere near as exemplary. If you can afford it, rent or buy a home near one of the top-rated schools, so your children can use location as a priority that works for (not against) them.

One popular strategy is to include one or two top-notch schools in the six slots available (even if they're outside your area), while also listing acceptable local schools where your child has a higher chance of getting in.

Nitty gritty details

Be sure to carefully complete your application, (otherwise, it won't get processed) and don't miss the deadline — usually in January for the following school year.  When you turn in your form, be sure to bring three documents verifying your Oakland address, your child's birth certificate, guardianship documentation (if applicable), and your child's immunizations record. To avoid common mistakes, remember that:

1) If used to verify your address, your utilities bill needs to be less than 45 days old.

2) If used to verify your address, your lease agreement needs to have your landlord's signature.

3) Auto registration and auto insurance combined provide only one form of proof.

4) All documents must be original — no photocopies!

Find the best fit

Oakland offers a wide variety of excellent charter, private, and religious schools in the middle and high school grades. So many, in fact, that picking one can be stressful.

In her quest to find the best fit, Danine enrolled her three children in nearly every category of Oakland school. Her oldest son, Cedric, first attended a Christian school — Zion Lutheran (in nearby Piedmont, a tiny enclave entirely surrounded by Oakland). Zion Lutheran provided Cedric with small classrooms and a structured environment, "which he really needs," Danine says. Later, he moved to Oakland Military Institute (GreatSchools Rating 5), a charter school that Danine recommends as "a public school with a private school 'feel.' The halls are clean, the students are disciplined, there are never budget shortages, there is a lot of school spirit, it's free, and they don’t push the military on the students."

When Cedric was a high school junior, he transferred to MetWest High School (GreatSchools Rating 2) near Lake Merritt because he wanted to play baseball. (Oakland Military Academy or OMI doesn't have a team). MetWest is a small autonomous school with an innovative program that offers internships with local agencies. It's been successful at producing college-bound graduates, but Danine reports that transferring her son there, "turned out to be a horrible decision... the amount of homework dumped upon the children was ridiculous. My son was buried in papers, tests, novel reading, and presentations every night." After one semester there, she says, "We ran back to OMI."

Danine's second son, Ryan, also attended Zion Lutheran as a youngster. She realized, however, that he needed an academic challenge in middle school, and that, "he might not be a good fit socially for a public school environment." He transferred, and thrived, at Head-Royce, a private school with demanding scholastics. He has also — just for fun! — taken physics classes at the Lawrence Hall of Science, in Berkeley.

More school choices

Oakland's charter schools are often flash-in-the-pans; in the last two decades more than 20 have been closed, abandoned, non-renewed, or revoked. In 2014, more may be shuttered: the three American Indian Public Charter schools (GreatSchools Ratings 9, 10, and 10) are facing closure for financial improprieties.

If you're considering a charter school, remember that every school has its own, specific application process. Application forms are available on each school's website.

Don't assume that charter schools all have the same application deadlines or  requirements. Lighthouse Community Charter (GreatSchools Rating 4) had its first enrollment meeting of the year on January 18, with gatherings scheduled through May 22. Other charters don't have the same flexibility: North Oakland Community Charter (GreatSchools Rating 8) closed its enrollment on February 8. Many charters — like Lighthouse — require that you attend an orientation; others do not.

Private schools and religious schools also need to be approached on their own terms. The application procedure for these institutions can be arduous, with essays and interviews usually required for both the parents and the child — and occasionally tests for the child. The effort can be worth it, though, because Oakland has many desirable private and parochial choices, such as Julia Morgan School for Girls, Head-Royce, Beacon Day School (an innovative, year-round school), Holy Names (an all-girls Catholic high school with a 5.5-1 teacher-student ratio), and Bishop O'Dowd (a Catholic high school with strong sports and community service programs).

A word to the wise: the separate application requirements for charters, privates, and parochials can be time-consuming and organizationally difficult. Don't overextend yourself by applying to too many or you'll be faced with the enormous task and stress of scheduling and attending myriad interviews, tours, meetings, open houses, "tea times," and other events. You'll also face a dizzying number of testing, essay, and paperwork deadlines. Do as much research as possible in advance so you're not wasting hours — and application fees — applying to schools that aren’t a good fit for your family.

If you're not happy with your child’s public school assignment, you can appeal. Even if you don’t get your first choice, or you’re not happy once you get there, remember that Oakland has many education options to choose from. When it comes to education in Oakland, it turns out that there’s a lot of there there — but it may take some time to figure out which direction you want to go.

Still confused? Don't worry, the Berkeley Parents Network has a fabulous forum on education in Oakland.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the author of  Brighter Brains: 225 Ways to Elevate or Injure Intelligence. He is also a SAT and SSAT tutor and director of the Brighter Brains Institute

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