How improving public school enrollment is breaking down lines of segregation in Oakland

By Dirk Tillotson

It’s no secret that America is deeply divided by an uneven distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities.

Centuries of systemic and institutionalized racism have impacted one of the most critical and transformative facets of our society: the classroom. To many, education is seen as the great equalizer, the ladder of upward mobility that can lead those who apply themselves to success and prosperity. For this vision to be a reality, however, students must have access to high-caliber schools that have both the resources to meet their individualized needs and the capacity to foster their continued growth.

In far too many neighborhoods, the shameful legacy of discrimination has drawn an insurmountable barrier between students and their academic potential. Using zip codes to determine school enrollment reinforces the lines of segregation. The students who most urgently require a great public education are the least likely to receive one.

To finally break down the barriers of segregation, we need excellent public schools in every neighborhood and we need a way for all families to access those schools.

In an attempt to reverse the harms of segregation in public education, the Oakland Unified School District became a “choice district” many years ago. This means that every Oakland public school is open to all families in the city.

Oakland is home to a number of diverse and excellent public schools at every grade level. But the ability of families to choose among their options is meaningless if they do not have the information and resources they need to learn about and select the public school that best meets their needs.

Where others are paralyzed by problems, Oakland came up with solutions. Getting the right school for your child is one of the most important decisions a parent can make, and also one of the most inequitably distributed decisions. Privilege and disadvantage are amplified in this process usually rather than reduced.

This year, the Oakland Unified School District and Enroll Oakland Charters joined together to launch a new Oakland School Finder, a user-friendly tool that provides detailed, comparable information about every public school in the city. Enroll Oakland Charters also launched a new website, EnrollOak.org, where families can enroll in nearly all of their charter public school options through a single online form. OUSD unveiled a parallel online resource for enrolling in district-run public schools.

The enrollment resources are part of an effort to improve an outdated enrollment system which, according to many families, took too much time and was difficult to navigate. Families reported spending hours driving around town learning about their school options, filling out multiple applications and managing to many different deadlines. The time-intensive process was especially difficult for working families from underserved communities.

Together, the Oakland School Finder and new enrollment websites are helping level the playing field, allowing more families to access and connect with all of their public school options with increased ease. From an early look at enrollment data for the next school year, it is clear these resources are proving to be popular and useful for many Oakland families. 2,000 families used the Oakland School Finder. More than more 10,000 applications for charter public schools were submitted through EnrollOak.org with the majority of applicants coming from East or West Oakland, where too many families have historically been left out of the school choice process and where Enroll Oakland Charters’ community outreach efforts were focused.

By providing such useful resources for families, the public school community in Oakland is proactively taking steps to break down some of the long-standing elements of segregation’s pervasive history, propelling our community towards a more inclusive and open educational system that works to the benefit of all Oakland students. Allowing families of every background to explore and select the school options that work for them is a form of empowerment everyone deserves and one that will enrich the experience of all students. We look forward to continued progress in the movement towards an equitable and just public education system for all in Oakland. Improving the enrollment process and making it more equitable is a good first step.


Dirk Tillotson is the Interim Executive Director at Oakland Families for Quality Schools.