Will Alameda Consolidate Its Two High Schools?
A discussion about consolidating Alameda and Encinal high schools has revived old questions of inequity in the Island’s school system.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
There has long been a scholastic and athletic rivalry between the Alameda Hornets and the Encinal Jets. And the Island’s two high schools have also symbolized the historic social and economic divides between Alameda’s wealthy East End and its traditionally blue-collar West End. Now, some local educational leaders believe a commission studying the feasibility of consolidating the two high school at the Alameda High campus on the East End is reopening old wounds — and creating new ones.
The issue of whether the Island’s two high schools should consolidate waxes and wanes in roughly every decade, or so. The current push, though, is budget-related. Last year, the school board slashed the district’s budget by $3.5 million, while Alameda teachers continue to be among the lowest paid in Alameda County.
A letter signed by 37 teachers at Encinal High last March helped set in motion the latest discussion over consolidation. In order to save the school district money and increase teachers’ salaries, the letter posed, why not explore consolidation?
“Our own site — Encinal — is about to embark on a construction project that will cost nearly $40 million. We cannot help but wonder why our 65-year-old classrooms are being patched up, when the district is simultaneously building new rooms for 1,000 invisible high school students just down the street,” the teachers wrote. “If the work being done to historic Alameda High would indeed make it possible to consolidate our high schools and save the district millions each year, why is this not even being discussed?”
At the direction of the school district administration, a committee to study consolidation formed in June and has held six public meetings since early September. The committee is scheduled to issue a report in January. But some committee members said consolidating the two campuses has plenty of downsides and has revived old questions of inequity in Alameda’s school system.
Mia Bonta, the committee’s chairperson, said the issue was destined to divide the community. “We asked a really challenging question involving West End-East End dynamics from the get-go that really didn’t set us up to be successful for every single student and parent,” she said.
Lily Conable, an Encinal High senior who serves as a student representative on the Alameda Unified School District school board, said the district needs a better vision for education before tackling consolidation. “We didn’t really come at it at the right angle,” she said. “We should have been asking, ‘What is our strategic plan here in Alameda for our schools,’ and that comes along with ‘what do we want our students to graduate with?’ We have equity issues in our high schools. We have funding issues. But we should be looking at this with a student-first perspective.”
Experts estimate consolidating the two campuses would put — by 2022 — an estimated 3,200 Alameda students onto the 12-acre space on Central Avenue and Oak Street.
Critics of consolidation also point to the potential hardship for students in the West End who would have to travel farther to get to school. An estimated 1,000 students would be outside of the so-called “walk zone,” if consolidation were to occur, according to a report offered to the committee.
Conable now drives herself to school, but before that, she took a daily 15-minute bike ride that felt unsafe to her. “It’s actually really scary. If you’ve ever gone during rush hour to either of the schools — pedestrian traffic, cars, buses — it’s already intense. I worry about kids who live in the Alameda Point Collaborative. I’m fortunate because I have a car, but what about those kids whose parents can’t drive them to school?”
Taking AC Transit to Alameda High would also be inconvenient for many West End students, said Conable. “If you’ve ever tried to get anywhere past Webster via bus, you know that it’s one of the hardest things to do. We have two buses that comes at the beginning and end of the school day. That’s it. You can’t stay after school for tutoring. You can’t take advantage of the algebra boot camp we have at Encinal because you have to get home. I only see these issues compounding with a consolidated campus.”
Chuck Kapelke, an Alameda parent and member of the committee studying consolidation, also believes the longer distances for some West End students will exacerbate historic inequities.
“If you have students on one end of the Island with students at the lower socio-economic traveling farther in order to get to school, you might see other factors arise like a rise in absenteeism and tardiness,” he said.
Rasheed Shabazz, an Alameda historian and journalist who has studied the Island’s racial and economic history, said it’s an urban legend that Encinal was built to keep “project kids” out of Alameda High School. He’s found no historical documentation that supports this conclusion.
The narrative, though, of an island city of haves on the more affluent East End and have nots on the West End began after World War II and persists in some ways today, with the two high schools acting as a historical proxy. However, in recent decades, Alameda has become far more ethnically and racially diverse — a virtue many residents have come to celebrate.
But Encinal High is more diverse than Alameda High, noted Shabazz, who is also an Encinal alum. “If the schools combined, Encinal students will experience a less diverse population. The diversity Alameda has come to appreciate is a result of racial segregation and exclusionary housing, which is ironic to me.”
Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be much of a community appetite for consolidation despite its comeback in civic discourse. Community support for consolidation in the recent past has also been tepid. A survey conducted by the school district in 2014 found 84 percent of 1,164 respondents preferred two high schools. This came at a time when the discussion was not only consolidation, but building an entirely new campus in Alameda.
Aside from funding and equity issues, opposition to consolidation is also hardened by nostalgia and loyalty. Former Jets and Hornets alumni, unsurprisingly, are true to their schools and don’t want either to lose its identity.
The role of the committee is not to offer a recommendation to the school district, but to provide pros and cons on the issue of consolidation and other alternative scenarios. Kapelke said that based on the committee’s early sessions, the final report is expected to have a much longer list of cons.