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Oakland Parents Say The Pandemic Helped To Get Learning Concerns Addressed


A lot of people are eager for K-12 schools to get back to normal. But a group of parents in Oakland, Calif., say normal wasn't cutting it for their children. Now, thanks in part to the upheaval of the pandemic, school officials are starting to listen. Vanessa Rancaño from member station KQED reports.

VANESSA RANCAÑO, BYLINE: There are only two students in Irene Segura's online class.


IRENE SEGURA: I'm going to tell you to say a word, and then I want you to sound it out.

RANCAÑO: It's late spring, and first-graders Ashley Preciado Miguel and Am’Briyah Taylor already had a full day of distance learning. They meet with Segura in the evening two days a week to work on their reading.


SEGURA: Here we go. Say mute.


SEGURA: What's the first sound? Mute.

RANCAÑO: The intensive literacy course is part of a program the parent advocacy group Oakland REACH launched during the pandemic.

LAKISHA YOUNG: It's created by parents for parents.

RANCAÑO: Oakland REACH co-founder Lakisha Young.

YOUNG: Immediately when COVID hit, you heard so many people saying, like, oh, my gosh; it's going to get worse for Black and brown kids. It's just going to get worse. And well, then what are you going to do about it?

RANCAÑO: The program is designed to respond to the needs of students who've had the fewest opportunities. Oakland schools have a history of segregation, and that continues today. Students of color are more likely to attend under-resourced schools, and those schools are more likely to report lower reading levels for Black and Latino students.

YOUNG: Less than 30% of our kids reading on grade level - so we have no interest in continuing the learning that our children are getting.

RANCAÑO: For years, Oakland REACH has been demanding the district do better. Now, thanks in part to the pandemic, the two groups are working together in a whole new way, bringing Oakland REACH's program to six elementary schools this fall.


KYLA JOHNSON-TRAMMELL: The brilliance of this moment is we all had to stretch and do something different out of necessity.

RANCAÑO: That's Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell at a national education conference in May. Johnson-Trammell has acknowledged that the district has to do more to get kids reading at grade level and to prepare them for college.


JOHNSON-TRAMMELL: It comes down to taking some risks. It comes down to pointing people back to, do you really think where we are now is good enough?

RANCAÑO: If the answer is no, she said, then it's time to do things differently. That's where Oakland REACH comes in. In addition to intensive reading classes, REACH offers the kind of enrichment activities that more affluent families might take for granted. There's art, science, music, cooking and tutoring - plus support for parents.

YOUNG: It is the educational tool that our families have always wanted, the quality that they wanted.

RANCAÑO: That's Lakisha Young again. Johnson-Trammell admitted that teaming up hasn't always been easy.


JOHNSON-TRAMMELL: There have been many touchy, uncomfortable conversations that Lakisha and I have had in terms of, this isn't working. But to me, that is the work.

RANCAÑO: Parent Leonard Taylor is glad to hear the district is working with Oakland REACH. He says REACH has already made a difference for his daughter, Am'Briyah, one of the students in that intensive literacy class. She was falling behind in distance learning.

LEONARD TAYLOR: Actually, she's above her reading level. I feel better now because she's in tuned. She show interest, you know? She don't even want to go to her regular school class. The Oakland REACH program, she's ready.

RANCAÑO: Though the new partnership is starting small, Lakisha Young says the goal is to enroll another 500 students this fall. She wants to help district leaders expand the program and eventually hand it over to them completely.

For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Rancaño in Oakland.