Rumi Koshino is an artist and teacher. For three years she has been teaching at Oakland High, where the teachers are probably going to strike this February. I called her a few nights ago and asked how she’s doing.

“Oh my god. It’s crazy. Exhausting. It’s all messed up. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m hearing it’s not new. I’m learning all of this as a new-ish teacher.”

I have never known her to be this excited, and I have known Rumi for years - first as a fan of her art, and later as a collaborator and friend. She is calm, caring, steady and buoyant; she doesn’t dramatize things.

Rumi's students participating in a march at Oakland City Hall.

Rumi feels lucky to be at Oakland High. She works in a big, bright classroom with large windows. Oakland High is on a “block schedule”, which means she gets to teach three long classes each day instead of, say, five short classes. Her colleagues “are focused on equity and social justice” and she said, “It’s rare to have such a good relationship between staff and teachers. The principal is calm, grounded and available. He know’s what’s happening, he’s there for us. And the assistant principals work hard.”

Currently living in San Francisco, Rumi has been on the west coast for over ten years, but she grew up in Japan, “where everyone was Japanese.” Rumi’s students are from every corner of the globe. She told me, “It’s such a privilege to have this diversity. My students are all kids of color. They come from Yemen, Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador, China, mixed races and Oakland kids who only know Oakland. I tell them, ‘You don’t even know how lucky you are! This is like the United Nations.’”

"Snow," by Walter Maldonado Macario, Oakland High student

Her students run the gamut of typical teenage demeanors: they are awkward, passionate, engaged, annoying, funny, active, heartbroken, in-love, sensitive, brilliant, curious, etc. Unlike kids at some other schools where Rumi previously worked, “students who were only 15-years-old had already learned to kiss the teacher’s ass for grades.” In comparison, she says, “Oakland kids, they’re so honest. They speak their mind and that allows me to be honest. To be myself.’

Rumi is honest too: “If I didn’t like my school and my situation, I would teach in San Francisco and GET PAID.”

Oakland schools are experiencing a teacher retention crisis. The district is deeply in debt and teachers have been without a contract for the past year. In negotiation with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), teachers are asking for:

  1. Smaller class sizes and lower Special Education case loads
  2. More student support, like librarians, counselors, psychologists and restorative justice coordinators
  3. A living wage (12% raise)

Rumi's student participating in a march at City Hall in Oakland.

As for how this can be paid for, Rumi said,“The OUSD admin give themselves a lot of money but then they say there is a budget crisis. They could solve the crisis if they cut their salaries. They spend a huge amount of money on consultancies. And a lot of the money goes to lawyers to cover their own backs. But teachers get lower than a living wage and can’t afford to live in Oakland. There is a teacher retention crisis.”

All January, Oakland teachers have been mobilizing. Rumi explained, “It’s energizing and exhausting at the same time. We teach all day, and after we go to meetings about strikes and the school board meetings. It’s like going to night school. I’m learning all these new things, like how it works and how it’s totally messed up.”

"The Midnight," by Ricardo Pablo-Matias, Oakland High student

One thing that is “totally messed up” is the OUSD’s threat to close 1/3 of its non-charter public schools. Last summer, the OUSD board passed The Community of Schools Policy, which will close as many as 24 public schools in the next 5 years. Luckily, Rumi’s school, Oakland High, is not on that list. However, all of the schools slated to be closed are in East Oakland and West Oakland, serving poc and low-income communities. All schools located in the hills, that serve financially stable communities, and that have more white students, are safe from the shut-down.

The charter school industry has been working on Oakland as a “portfolio district” for over 20 years. The OUSD Board has been collaborating with the charter school lobby. Starting with the poorest neighborhoods, they destabilize existing public schools, force school shut-downs and replace them with charter schools. The objective of the “portfolio district” blueprint is to privatize education by converting public schools into investment portfolio products.

The meetings Rumi has been going to have been a crash course in this fraught history; it’s like OUSD 101. She says, “It’s a lot! But we’re doing it for our work and our students. I see the school children coming together and speaking up for themselves: it’s energizing and empowering to see.”

ROOTS International Academy students speaking in defense of their school.

On January 23, the OUSD board voted to close ROOTS International Academy in East Oakland. Rumi said, “The students, parents and teachers spoke at the OUSD board meeting. They are so good at articulating what they want with the facts to back it up. I would hope to be able to speak with such heartfelt passion to really move people!” However, the board sat stone-faced, showing no signs of interest or concern. It is hard to keep going when the school board makes big decisions without showing any consideration for community input.

Rumi shifts between feeling inspired, resilient and at times defeated. She told me, “Negotiation. Communication. Those words! I feel like it’s not working. Who are the board getting money from? Our school board member, Aimee Eng, gave us the run around.’

ROOTS Academy students, families and teachers organizing and speaking on what they need for their childrens' education.

“After the ROOTS vote it just felt hopeless. All the schools they close are in underserved neighborhoods. Like ROOTS is at International and 60th in East Oakland. ROOTS is really thriving! Small schools like ROOTS are important to the neighborhood. Now kids have to walk 35 blocks to get to class. It’s very unsafe, a human trafficking hub. Kids are afraid to be on the street. All except one member on the OUSD board voted to close the school.”

Future Oakland student.

It’s impossible to not feel distracted by the the apparent corruption behind the board’s baffling decisions. The OUSD administration and the charter school lobby have leveraged hard to peddle this idea that keeping schools open creates financial loss, when in fact enrollment funding is their prime source of revenue.

For the past year and a half, Rumi and her colleagues have been in the process of negotiating with the OUSD through their union rep. It is a process of voting, sending the vote to the district, waiting and voting again. Rumi just sent me an email saying, “Our strike vote will be counted tomorrow. I’ll let you know what the result will be as soon as I find out!” Tomorrow is Saturday, February 2, 2019. I will update this article when I hear back.

Monday, 2/4/2019 UPDATE: I just received this from Rumi: “95 % of teachers voted YES to strike!!!”

"The Barber," by Sanaa Murn, Oakland High student