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OAKLAND — After fifth grade, one of every four students in the Oakland Unified School District leaves for a charter, private school, or a campus in another city, often because their parents aren’t satisfied with the quality of education. Some parents opt for home schooling.

This year, OUSD opened its first public school in more than a decade to give more families a good reason to stay. Tucked away in the flatlands near the Coliseum, Oakland School of Language (SOL) is the first stand-alone dual-immersion middle school in the district. There are 53 sixth-graders enrolled, with plans to add seventh and eight graders in the next two years. The students include English learners and native English speakers.

Most of the students at the new school came from the district’s dual-immersion K-5 programs. Previously, students finishing fifth grade often discovered there was no room for them at Melrose Leadership Academy, the only Spanish and English bilingual program in the district that extends to the eighth grade. So parents, students, educators and organizers with Oakland Community Organizations banded together to create a school to fill the bilingual education gap.

After more than three-year planning process, Oakland SOL has opened its doors. It is getting off the ground at a time when the district is facing major fiscal challenges, in part because there are too many schools for too few students. Given that fact, OUSD network superintendent Sara Stone said that on paper it might seem odd for the district to be opening another campus. Yet she says Oakland School of Language is part of a larger plan to create quality programs that help the district retain families.
“I know some of the students attending had been in schools outside OUSD and they came back into the system go to SOL,” Stone said. “And a lot of the families who were working on creating the school were going to choose to go out of Oakland if it didn’t open.”

Che Abram, one of the founding parents, had a son at Manzanita Seed, a public K-5 dual immersion program. She wanted him to continue learning Spanish.

“We didn’t have anything like this in Oakland and so designing this school was the only option,” Abram said. “I know that in the long run it will help to give him great career readiness.”

Abram’s son Naasir Abram, 11, was part of the school planning process.

“I was really excited about going to a dual language elementary school and I wanted to keep learning in middle school and high school,” he said.

All of the students take Spanish lessons. The instructors who are teaching subjects in English such as math, science, and humanities, incorporate the language into their classes as well.
“Our science teacher for instance is teaching a weekly lesson entirely in Spanish that integrates art,” Principal Katherine Carter said. “We’re also looking for every opportunity that we can find for the kids to use Spanish in the outside world.”

On a recent afternoon math teacher Marlene Castro worked with students on a project making rectangles. She was teaching in English but every so often shifted into Spanish. Her students responded in kind, then reverted back to English. Classroom walls are covered with lessons that stress the school’s mission to teach “academics, bilingualism, cultural humility and social and emotional literacy.”

One lesson read: “How to create a safe space in which participants are safe to be their most authentic self without judgment.” Then the translation: “para crear un espacio donde los participantes se sienten seguros de ser autenticos, sin ser juzgado.”

Student Mayra Rodriguez, 10, said her parents are natives of Mexico and don’t speak much English. The family speaks Spanish at home, but when she was attending regular public school, she found herself forgetting her Spanish.

“I was starting to have trouble communicating with my parents,” she said. “My Spanish is better again now.”

In addition to strengthening language skills, the school’s goal is to expose kids to their peers from other backgrounds and teach them respect for other cultures.

That mission resonated so much with Kavitha Kasargod-Staub that she uprooted her family from Washington D.C. to teach humanities at SOL. She enrolled her daughter in an OUSD K-5 dual-immersion program.

“There’s so much going on right now that is scary in the world and a lot of it is the inability of people to communicate,” Kasargod-Staub said.

Gloria Lee, the founder of Oakland Educate78, says that while it’s true Oakland has too many schools, it doesn’t have enough quality schools, especially in flatland neighborhoods.

“I think it’s significant that there are families who are excited to have a promising new school in their neighborhood that draws from across the city,” said Lee, whose nonprofit provided a planning grant. “But one of the hard things is the district doesn’t provide transportation so wherever it’s located its (difficult) for some families to get there.”

Unlike many dual-immersion programs, SOL students include several Latinos and African-Americans.

“I am happy to see them intentionally reflecting the diversity of our city,” said OUSD school board member Shanthi Gonzales, whose district includes SOL. “The long-term hope is it will thrive and expand to 6th to 12th grade.”