A look at the Oakland community's early learning efforts


Oakland is one of California’s largest cities. The birthplace of the Black Panthers and one of the nation’s African American centers for over a century, issues of race and equality are still very present here. Today, Oakland is home to middle-class and working-class black families and an immigrant community from Asia and Latin America; more than 80 languages are spoken throughout the city. There is a 15- year difference in life expectancy between a white child born in the city's affluent Oakland Hills and an African American child born in the low-income neighborhoods in East Oakland. The city boasts an activist population and a strong connection to labor unions, and real progressive change, say those who know the city well, must come from the ground up.

In the past few years, new tech companies like Pandora and Uber and their workers have begun to relocate across the bay from San Francisco and Silicon Valley into less expensive Oakland. This has caused rents to rise rapidly, displacing many of the city’s poor and working-class residents. Teachers are in short supply and the school district is considering a plan to build below-market rental housing for city teachers. Educators and care providers in Oakland have struggled for years to adequately serve the large number of young children who are living in poverty, as evidenced by the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program, started in 1969.

Child care centers fought to keep their doors open during the Great Recession, when state budget cuts reduced the number of subsidized child care and pre-K slots by nearly one-quarter. For years, the early childhood program within the Oakland Unified School District functioned as an “island,” separate from the rest of OUSD, and was known as the weak link in the city’s early childhood programming.

In 2009, after years of state control and struggle, the school board regained its power. And with new local leadership it embarked on a robust community engagement process. A new strategic plan includes a cradle-to-career vision and lays out early childhood as a key component of the district’s future priorities. OUSD has become a full-service community school district with an emphasis on partnering across systems and organizations in the city to provide wrap-around services for Oakland’s children in order to address multiple needs and deep disparities.

And more change is coming. With new investments from the Packard Foundation that build on these partnerships, and national attention on the state of the early childhood workforce brought by the landmark Transforming the Workforce study from the Institutes of Medicine, Oakland has begun a ten-year strategy that aims to create universal access to high-quality early learning for children throughout the city. The school district hired a deputy chief of early learning, a new position. And leaders have created a collaborative structure to enable cross-sector participation, including funders, advocates, service providers, and OUSD district staff, all of whom are working together to develop a system of care for children who live in Oakland.


The video below highlights the school district's work to partner with those who care for children before they enter school: families, friends and neighbors.