Dewey Academy in Danger of Displacement:
Gentrification and the Oakland Unified School District
By Aram Mendoza and N. Finch in collaboration with Dewey teachers
Displacement of long-time, low-income residents due to gentrification has been an all too common story in the Bay Area recently. Now the same insidious process is targeting some of the most “at-risk” students in Oakland. Over the past two weeks, in the end of school rush, the Oakland Unified School District’s administration revealed they have been in close discussions with gentrifying developers that puts Dewey Academy, one of the public continuation high schools in the OUSD, in the cross-hairs of real estate agents and developers. The developers are already planning a 24 story luxury condo building overshadowing Dewey and now want to add Dewey and the old OUSD headquarters to the project. What follows is an overview of the situation, why it’s problematic, how it’s situated in the context of gentrification in the Bay Area, and what those of us opposed to the displacement of Dewey and the gentrification of Oakland can do about it.
“Surplus Property” and “Surplus Populations”
On Monday, June 10th, an OUSD-initiated group named the “7-11 Committee” (the name stems from the requirement that the committee have at least 7, and not more than 11, people on it) met for the second time. The Committee was composed of various real estate attorneys, members of charter school boards of directors, and a couple community members. Not a single active OUSD teacher or student was on the committee – the only current educator on the committee was the current principal of Dewey Academy. They were charged with “advising” the school board as to the status of the OUSD property located on 2nd Avenue, east of the lake between E. 10th and E. 12th streets. This property currently houses the former OUSD administration building, which was mysteriously flooded last year, as well as Dewey Academy. The question set before the Committee was to determine whether or not the parcel of land housing both the former OUSD admin building and Dewey Academy was “surplus property.”
Surplus property is defined as property that is retained by the school district but is not currently being used. How can anyone imagine that an actual school – Dewey Academy – that has just graduated about 130 students in the past weeks, and that houses a GED program for community members could ever be considered “surplus”? During the first 7-11 committee, one of the OUSD’s attorneys referred to the “surplussing” of Dewey – that is, using the word “surplus” as a verb – and described the way that the OUSD and developers could actively convert Dewey into “surplus property” in order to make it open for development. (1)
The surplus property category is being used as a means to displace Dewey students and treat them as a surplus population. It has nothing to do with Dewey actually being property that’s considered “surplus.” This mirrors the treatment of Oakland’s youth in the broader society. Seen as an expendable, incarcerable, and unemployable “surplus population,” Oakland’s youth are those who should be pushed to the margins in order to make way for more desirable occupants of land – those that can afford the lakeside view from the window of their 10th floor condominium. This is the opposite of how they are treated at Dewey Academy where educators and community members work hard to support students who are missing credits needed to graduate, impacted by gangs and who might otherwise slip through the cracks of other OUSD schools.
Against the Displacement of Dewey Academy
“The safest place for Dewey to be [for the students] is right where it is . . . “ - Dewey High School alum
There are at least three central reasons that highlight how problematic and oppressive the move to displace Dewey and the OUSD Administration building are.
First of all, Dewey’s current location is next to the Youth Heart Health Center, a student centered free health clinic that Dewey students helped design, in collaboration with OUSD employees and MetWest High School students. What sense does it make to take our highest risk, highest need students away from a health center that they helped design? While the OUSD has committed in rhetoric to prioritizing the social/emotional needs of Oakland youth, this move by the administration directly goes against the social/emotional needs of Dewey students and, by extension, all youth who access the health center. These students helped shape the YHHC with the understanding that they would be able to access the medical services there. Since its opening, Dewey students have made up the highest percentage of youth who have accessed the clinic. Without these young people being in close proximity to the YHHC, the center’s numbers may decline and put them at risk of budget cuts and layoffs, causing further harm to all students who access the center – including those from MetWest and La Escuelita.
Additionally, many students at Dewey are gang-impacted, and the location of Dewey in an accessible and relatively neutral territory by the lake means that students can come to school and be in a safer space than they would be if they had to attend another school in another neighborhood. The informally discussed alternative locations of Fremont High School in East Oakland, Santa Fe elementary in North Oakland and Lakeview campus north of the lake are all either unsafe for gang impacted students or inappropriately far, especially for youth who are already struggling with truancy. This proposed displacement will only further the alienation and marginalization that these young people face by destabilizing what is perhaps one of the most stable institutions in their lives. If Dewey did not exist and function as it is, and where it is, many of these students would not have the opportunity to recover credits in a safer space and eventually graduate with a high school diploma.
Lastly, the decision making process behind Dewey’s forced displacement has been incredibly undemocratic and marginalizing of youth, educator and community voices. The committee that is advising the school board on whether or not Dewey is “surplus property” includes real estate lawyers that represent condominium developers and charter school board members. This is unacceptable and disrespectful – nobody should decide the fate of a school but the students, educators and staff who make the school run on a daily basis. The fact that this committee was appointed by the superintendent without any meaningful engagement with the school community is a slap in the face to a community of students and educators who have worked hard to make Dewey one of the safest campuses for struggling students in Oakland.
All of these problematics surrounding the seemingly forced displacement of Dewey lead us to the question: why is this displacement being pushed forward in such a rushed way?