The Great School Scramble

After Lum Elementary closed in June because of earthquake risks, Alameda parents have been hustling to find new schools for their kids this fall.


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Illustration by Gillian Dreher

Living just a short walk from Lum Elementary always had its perks, Pat Hoag recalled. Walking her two boys to school every day was a joy, and it often gave her peace of mind to just know her two young boys were just steps away in case of an emergency.

But these days, she wonders what it’ll take to get that feeling of calm and comfort back.

The school campus at the end of her block lies quiet and vacant this school year. The horde of bustling, happy kids that once enlivened the entire neighborhood is gone. And the question of whether Lum Elementary will ever open up again, after the school board voted in May to indefinitely close the school, due to fears that it was unsafe in an earthquake, is still unknown. The closure is indefinite but not permanent.

This fall, Hoag’s older son, Conrad, 11, will be attending Bay Farm Elementary, while her younger son, Nathan, 8, was reassigned to Haight Elementary. Each school is a drive from her home, but in opposite directions, she said.

“They loved the school and the teachers,” she said of her sons’ experience at Lum. “My older son cried so much, and he’s afraid that the school will be closed, and it will be destroyed. It was a great place, and I hope they will be able to open up again later.”

Like so many of Lum’s nearly 500 students, Hoag’s sons have been reassigned to one of the city’s nine other elementary schools this year, after parents waged a bitter monthlong fight with school district to keep the school open at the end of the school year—and lost. The school board voted unanimously in May to close the school, scattering all of Lum’s students among the city’s other elementary schools, and setting up a district advisory council over the next year that will decide the long-term fate of the school.

All of Lum’s students were notified in June by letter where they’d be assigned for next year, said Susan Davis, an Alameda school district spokesperson. Initially, students were scattered across seven of the city’s elementary schools, with about 100 students each assigned to Haight and Paden elementary schools. The district also divvied up smaller numbers of Lum students at Edison, Earhart, Maya Lin, and Otis Elementary schools. In addition, about 170 fourth- and fifth-graders were assigned to nearby Wood Middle School, which will offer temporary classrooms separate from the middle school classrooms.

And that seemed to be an attractive option for many families, especially for parents who already have older kids at nearby Wood, which is just a baseball field away from Lum, said Joe Keiser, head of the Lum District Advisory Committee, a grassroots group of families that argued fervently for the school to remain open. They still believe, with the backing of some Bay Area structural engineers, that the threat of Lum being unsafe in an earthquake was exaggerated and that a more thorough structural evaluation of Lum’s building should have been done before closing it.

In the meantime, his son, Toby, 9, will be attending Wood, where his older sister, Madeleine, 11, also goes to school. Since most Lum students end up going to Wood when they graduate, the plan alleviates the stress of another school move in a couple of years again, he said. Still, his and many families’ trust in the district at this point is broken, he said.

“My son is hurt, and we know a lot of families that are sad and hurt,” he said. “It’s really deeply upsetting; the community we had at Lum was a living breathing thing, and there were a lot of families that put a lot of energy and time into it. And the district essentially killed that thing.“

But Alameda school board trustee Gray Harris said she could “not unknow” what she now knows about Lum’s earthquake’s risks. “I have to do as much as I can to keep students safe. And this is a risk I don’t want to take with students’ safety,” she said. (The district’s engineers strongly recommended the school’s closure.) “We get that this is a big thing for families, and I think if we felt like we had any other choice, we wouldn’t have done it.”

District-provided data indicates that a substantial number of Lum families haven’t been pleased with the schools to which they’ve been reassigned. As of Aug. 1, parents had made about 280 requests to change to a different public elementary school than originally assigned. However, the district has only granted 93 of the requests because of space constraints at the various schools, Davis said.

Most of the requests for transfers were from Haight Elementary, while others came from the families of fourth-graders, assigned to Wood, who asked to be transferred to elementary schools instead. As a result, Wood will be getting only 91 students this year, instead of the more than 170 it had planned for, she said. Many requests were for East End schools, such as Earhart and Edison and Bay Farm, while others were for Franklin and Ruby Bridges, the last three of which were not part of the original reassignment plan, due to their distance from Lum or lack of space.

But unfortunately, many of families who requested those schools were not scheduled to find out until two to three weeks after the Aug. 21 start of school, if the school of their choice can take them, because enrollment is in flux, said Kelly Scott, former Lum Parent Teacher Association president. “And that’s a lot of chaos, and that’s a lot of stress for families who are trying to still figure out their afterschool and before-school child care and transportation arrangements,” she said.

Several families, who were likely leaning toward it already, have decided to move out of Alameda or are leaving California entirely, said Lum parent Steve Mack. He said he also knows some parents have decided to send their kids to the city’s private schools, like St. Joseph’s and St. Philip Neri, or have signed up for waiting lists at the city’s charter schools, like the Academy of Alameda and the Nea Community Learning Center, he said.

But Scott said, by and large, most parents have decided to stay in the school district. Many families have even attended welcoming events, play dates, and barbecues held at their new schools over the summer and gotten excited once they learned what the other schools have to offer, she said. 

“But our frustration isn’t with the other schools or because we don’t like them,” she said. “They’ve been great. It’s with the fact we worked very hard to build a school community now that’s getting all broken up.”

Rob Dekker, who campaigned against the closure of Lum, said that after weighing his options, he finally decided to homeschool his daughter, Ivonne, 6, and his son, Chris, 9, this school year. “But we’ve been thinking about homeschooling for a long time,” Dekker acknowledged, explaining that his son has a form of muscular dystrophy that would make it hard for him to climb up stairs at Haight Elementary, where he was reassigned. The condition also makes it difficult for his son to blend into the school community, which is why his family was so saddened to hear that Lum would be shuttered, especially since they’d moved to the area during the 2016-17 school year and already felt so welcomed there.

“We had been searching for three years, just looking for the right house, and Lum school was one of the main reasons we moved there in the first place,” he said. “It was a shock, and we were very happy at Lum.”

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