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School closures in Oakland, Calif., may impact Black children with disabilities

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Large urban school districts are cutting costs and closing schools because of declining enrollment. But whose schools are closed raises questions about racial equity. Parents in Oakland, Calif., say their district is targeting schools that serve Black children with disabilities. KQED's Julia McEvoy has the story.

JULIA MCEVOY, BYLINE: Nine-year-old Dalaine Whaley was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and seizures at four weeks. Hospital staff told her mom she wouldn't walk or talk.

JOLANDA MURPHY: That basically she would be wheelchair-bound. But I told them that I serve a God who is going to do bigger and better things for her.

MCEVOY: By 16 months, Dalaine was crawling. At age 4, she walked into preschool.

MURPHY: And her teacher cried. She knew how much I wanted Dalaine to walk. What's the matter? I'm not talking about you in a bad way - a good way.

MCEVOY: Murphy has always fought for Dalaine, and she found a small public school a few miles from home that educates her with the conviction that she can learn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, Lainey (ph).

MCEVOY: Carl B. Munck Elementary is one of two small majority-Black primary schools high in the exclusive Oakland Hills. This is an area of affluent families where discriminatory housing policies denied Black families from buying homes and attending schools for decades. When Murphy learned the district was closing her school, she was stunned.

MURPHY: I felt disrespected.

MCEVOY: Munck Elementary serves more than three times as many students with disabilities as other small, predominantly white schools in the Oakland Hills. Those other schools are not being closed by the district.

JENNIFER BLAKE: I mean, in a dream world scenario, we would have adequate base funding and adequate special education funding at both the federal and state level.

MCEVOY: Jennifer Blake heads special education for the district. She agrees Munck is a model, but she says the district operates too many under-enrolled small schools, which is costly.

BLAKE: I know there was no intention to be able to target students with disabilities exclusively.

DENISE BURROUGHS: It feels like you want to erase these kids.

MCEVOY: For nearly 20 years, Principal Denise Burroughs has heard from white families who won't send their children here.

BURROUGHS: Unfortunately, over the years, I've actually had people say things like, well, I like this school, but I just feel like my child would be in a minority here because there were so many children of African descent and color here.

MCEVOY: Parents of children with disabilities have sent letters to state and county officials accusing the district of negligent treatment of Black children with disabilities. The ACLU has asked California's attorney general to investigate whether the district took racial equity into account in its closure plans.

LINNEA NELSON: The school district, by its own admission, has a history of chronically underfunding historically Black schools.

MCEVOY: ACLU staff attorney Linnea Nelson says that underfunding has led to under enrollment at these schools.

NELSON: The very conditions that it's now citing to justify disrupting tightknit school communities and displacing literally hundreds of Black students.

MCEVOY: It's rare to find a school where neurotypical children accept kids with disabilities like Dalaine. Her mom, Jolanda Murphy, says it creates a profound experience for everyone.

MURPHY: I'm just not going to send my kids to some school just because that's the neighborhood. I'm going to make sure it's right. And I feel that a lot of the special needs parents make sure that it's right.

MCEVOY: Murphy says she wants to know how the district could do something so wrong. For NPR News, I'm Julia McEvoy in Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia McEvoy