‘Not Just a Teacher Issue’: Oakland Students Stage Sickout Over School Woes

Hundreds of Oakland students from high schools across the city skipped class Friday morning to march from Oakland Technical High School to the school district’s downtown headquarters in a spirited show of support for their teachers, who are threatening to strike amid tense contract negotiations.

“I’m here to support our teachers, to fight for things that I want in our schools and show that this is not just a teacher issue. It’s a schoolwide, community issue,” said Avelina Rivezzo-Weber, a junior at Skyline High School, who helped organize students from her school.

Teens gathered on the plaza in front of Oakland Tech before the start of the school day, where student organizers discussed how to demonstrate safely and then led the crowd down Broadway.

Waving signs and banners, students chanted, “1-2-3-4, pay our Oakland teachers more!” and “We won’t stop! Chop from the top!”

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Now chanting “1-2-3-4, pay our Oakland teachers more”

“Students are primarily the people that are affected the most by educational issues,” said Samuel Getachew, a junior at Oakland Tech, who helped organize the march. “I think too often our power and our voice is disregarded, and we’re not included in the conversations we should be included in.”

In a mass email sent to fellow students earlier this week, student organizers said: “Our goal is to put pressure on the district to meet the teachers’ demands.”

Three weeks ago, teachers from many of the same schools staged a similar event, marching from Oakland Tech to Oakland Unified School District’s downtown headquarters, stopping traffic along the way.

OUSD teachers, who have been working without a contract since 2017, are demanding a 12 percent raise over three years, reduced class sizes and more school counselors and nurses. Following months of failed negotiations with the district, the Oakland Education Association, the union representing teachers, on Monday announced that the roughly 2,300 teachers it represents had voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike if their demands are not met. If the union and the district don’t agree on the recommendations of a neutral third party, expected by next Friday, the union is likely to call a strike.

The impasse comes as the district scrambles to chip away at a massive budget deficit of up to $30 million. Among other measures, it recently proposed closing up to 24 under-enrolled schools, a plan the union staunchly opposes.

Clyde Nichols, a junior at Oakland Technical High School, leads a group of students and volunteers down Broadway in downtown Oakland during the student sickout on Friday Feb. 8, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Lauren Kahn, an Oakland Tech senior who helped organize the rally, said her teachers were very supportive of the unsanctioned walkout.

“We emailed over 200 teachers, telling them of our plans and we got very positive responses back, encouraging us and thanking us for our work,” Kahn said.

Monica Lam@monicazlam

students gather to discuss safety during today’s planned march and

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District officials did not share the same enthusiasm.

In a prerecorded call and email to parents on Thursday, OUSD spokesman John Sasaki said that while the district supported students’ First Amendment rights, it still strongly encouraged them to attend school on Friday.

In his message, Sasaki emphasized the importance of tests and especially called attention to a recruiting event for historically black colleges and universities, where “students will find on-site admissions opportunities and millions of dollars of scholarships.”

Carlita Landrum, a junior at Skyline High School, chants into a bullhorn while marching with other students down Broadway.Carlita Landrum, a junior at Skyline High School, chants into a bullhorn while marching with other students down Broadway. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

The district receives funding from the state based on student attendance, although Sasaki said he couldn’t yet confirm the cost impact of today’s event.

“This is an action that will hopefully lose [the district] a lot of money,” Getachew said. “And through that, make them realize that not only are students willing to participate in these conversations, we want to so badly that we’re willing to do anything it takes.”

A handful of parents could also be spotted in the sea of marching students.

“I think it’s so exciting to watch these students speak their mind, support their teachers, support public education, be out there talking about what matters to them and be engaging in civic action,” said Bridget Rivezzo, the mother of Avelina Rivezzo-Weber, one of the student organizers. “I’m so proud of them and of my daughter.”