North Oakland School Reconstruction Gets Under Way

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday June 26, 2007

The Oakland Unified School District state administrator’s office is reporting this week that political intervention by State Senator Don Perata and State Superintendent Jack O’Connell with the state architect’s office has speeded up approval of construction plans for the partially burned Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland. 

Last week, OUSD State Administrator Kim Stathan announced that construction has begun on the Peralta campus, with completion scheduled within 60 days. 

But with construction always subject to possible delays, that may not be fast enough to stave off a possible joint habitation of North Oakland’s Carter Middle School by Peralta and the newly formed Oakland International High School in the fall, an arrangement that some Peralta parents have said will cause them to pull their children out of the Oakland school district completely. 

If there is such a joint school arrangement at Carter “the result will be that a handful of the parents will be there . . . to make it work,” said Peralta parent activist Christopher Waters by telephone, “but the district will also lose several families. That’s not a threat. That’s just a reality.”  

Waters said that Peralta administrators have already been notified by Oakland International High School officials that Oakland International will begin moving into portions of the Carter Middle School space within two weeks. 

Several Peralta parents told Stathan at an OUSD administrator board meeting earlier this month that housing high school and elementary school students together was “inappropriate,” and they would pull their children out of Peralta if that occurred. 

In an emotional address, one parent said, “Can you imagine what these high school boys would be saying to some of these 6th grade girls? Can you imagine the effect on them?” 

A portion of Peralta’s 63rd Street and Telegraph Avenue campus was destroyed in an arson fire last March, and since that time the school has been occupying space at the site formerly housing the defunct Carter Middle School at 45th Street and Webster. Oakland International is a newly formed school in the district affiliated with the Internationals Network for Public Schools. 

According to the network’s website, the Internationals Network for Public Schools is “a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and support of the network of International High Schools that serve late-entry immigrant English Language Learners.” 

“If it’s just not possible to move back into the Peralta site by the beginning of the fall school term, we’ll just have to figure out how to share the Carter campus with the high school,” OUSD spokesperson Alex Katz said by telephone last week. 

However that admission—that the joint Peralta/Oakland International occupation of Carter in the fall is still on the table—is contrary to what Waters says district officials said immediately after the fire and have been saying in recent days.  

Waters said that at a meeting between Peralta parents and Stathan a week after the March fire, “she told us under no circumstances would we have to share the Carter site with International High School.” 

But after district officials indicated that they were, in fact, contemplating a cohabitation arrangement after approval of the Peralta construction stalled over the spring and threatened a possible fall reopening, Waters said that parents met with several local political leaders about the situation at the school, including Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan, Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner (who represents the district in which Peralta is located), and representatives of the office of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. He said that following those meetings, Jordan contacted him last week and said that OUSD state administrator Kim Stathan had “promised me that there would be no co-location at Carter.”  

Peralta parents pressed their case personally to State Superintendent O’Connell when O’Connell visited Carter Middle School earlier this month (“He slipped out the side door without telling us anything,” according to Waters), and have been coordinating efforts to speed up construction with the office of State Senator Perata. 

Meanwhile, a letter sent out this week to “Peralta Elementary Families & Staff” by Stathan updating the construction project did not mention the possible relocation controversy. Stathan only wrote that she was “very pleased that our plans were approved in record time and that we were able to start a 60-day reconstruction project a few days ahead of schedule. With work now underway, I am optimistic that we will be able to bring Peralta home before the first day of school on August 27. Throughout this project, I have promised that OUSD would do everything in its power to make the 63rd Street campus ready for students by the end of August—even if that means moving before offices and other repairs outside of classrooms are completely finalized. We will continue to direct all available resources to rebuilding Peralta. However, school construction is a complex business, and we must make sure that work meets the highest standards for teaching, learning and safety.” 

Katz said that construction at Peralta would begin with the damaged classrooms and then move to non-classroom space, with the idea that if possible, students might be able to occupy the classrooms at the beginning of the fall term while construction on other parts of the building were still ongoing. One scenario might have some administrative and non-classroom activity housed in temporary buildings on the site. 

Besides the classrooms, the damaged portions of the school include the front office, the library, and the teacher’s lunchroom. 

Waters said by telephone that he believes that the district is doing its best to complete the construction before the beginning of the fall term. Waters also said that the parents have no complaints about International High School itself, but only with the idea of housing elementary students with high school students. 

“We love International High School,” Waters said. “We’re excited about it. But it’s inappropriate for us to share the site with them. This is not the time for us to embrace a new challenge or foist a big change on us. We’re tired and we’re overwhelmed.”