Superintendent hints enrollment drop could

Tony Smith, the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, continues to say that the district needs to close 20 or more schools to save money.

With their dropping enrollment rates, could the schools at Fremont Federation of High Schools be three of them?

In a town meeting on Sept. 28, Smith didn’t directly answer the Green & Gold’s question of whether Fremont will merge back into one school, but he did say that it would need to be “on the table” as an option due to the financial situation the district is in.

Smith called a meeting with the three Fremont principals and his entire cabinet on Oct. 14 to discuss the state of the schools.

Principal Benjamin Schmookler of Media Academy said the principals were told that they needed to improve their enrollment numbers and market their schools.

He said the superintendent said several times that the three schools need to become “quality” schools and that he was leaving it up to the schools to figure out how to do that.

Smith’s spokesman, Troy Flint, addressed the possibility of a merge of the Fremont schools in an interview with the Green & Gold newspaper.

“There is no immediate danger of Fremont closing, but it is clear that the district [has] too many schools,” said Flint. “We have 99 schools which are about twice as many as (a similar) school district normally has.” 

Although Flint said danger of schools closing or combining wasn’t immediate, an eventual merging of the three schools is something the district will be “considering and discussing.”

The enrollment on the Fremont campus has decreased more than 50 percent since 2003, the last year the school was Fremont High School. In 2003, the enrollment was 1,862. Now it is about 900 students.

The decline appears to have nothing to do with test scores because the average score on the Academic Performance Index for Fremont has grown from 444 in 2003 to 588 thiespite having the highest test scores at Fremont, Media Academy has the lowest enrollment.

Freshman Classes Small: This year, the freshman classes are small: 59 at Media, 89 at Architecture and 78 at Mandela. In 2003-04, there were 147 freshmen at Media, 103 at Architecture and 118 at Mandela.

At the town meeting, Smith said that parents say they don’t consider Fremont a safe school and that the transportation to and from school wasn’t safe either. He said they felt that Skyline and Oakland Tech seemed safer.

Mandela counselor Ana Vazquez said she thinks the decreasing enrollment has one main reason: “I believe Fremont still [has] a reputation of not [being] the best school to go to.”

Fremont students also think their schools suffer from an erroneous reputation – but not necessarily about safety.

 “They (students at other schools) think this school doesn’t have enough money like … so they think it’s not as fun,” said Media Academy junior Christina Nguyen.

Open Enrollment Blamed: Schmookler blames the low enrollment on the district’s open enrollment policy, which lets students choose any high school in Oakland as long as there is space available.

“There are over 600 kids living in the Fremont area that are going to other schools, and that’s what’s causing our enrollments to go down,” he said.

Schmookler’s solution “Close it [open enrollment] and say that only kids living in the Fremont area have to go to Fremont High School.”

He said the popular schools in Oakland also are Program Improvement schools so it makes no sense for the district to let students transfer out of their neighborhood.

Unlike Schmookler, Flint thinks open enrollment is beneficial.

“Giving parents options about where their children attend school is not granting them a special privilege,” Flint wrote in an e-mail. “It is a simple recognition that their kids, like those of other, perhaps wealthier families, are entitled to the same chance at happiness and prosperity regardless of their background or ZIP code.”

Sophomores Take Action: Some students at Media Academy who want to keep their small school have started a Public Relations Club.

“We are going to middle schools to advertise Media, to talk about how we have high test scores, and why they should come to our school,” said President Jenny Saechao.

Vice President Laura Lem said the goal wouldn’t be to just advertise Media Academy but to tell them why any of the small schools at Fremont would be a better choice than to go to a big high school outside their neighborhood.

Lem should know. She attended Oakland High her freshman year.

“Media has less drama and feels more like a family,” she said.