By Coron Brinson
My Connection to Roberta Parker
It is my great pleasure to introduce you to a long-time Oakland educator, Ms. Roberta Parker. I had the honor of meeting Ms. Parker back in 2016 when I was a 2nd grade teacher at Sankofa Academy (now Sankofa United). She was the Science prep, TK, and 2nd grade teacher for our elementary school during the time I was there.
To understand how important Ms. Parker is to me, you have to understand where I was when I met her. I had taken a six year hiatus from the classroom, due to the level of stress the profession caused, but I decided to come back after being a Parent Organizer here in Oakland.
I visited Roberta on a typical breezy and sunny afternoon in Oakland where she was resting at home as she recently retired from a 26 year career at OUSD. Ms. Parker, originally from Virginia, moved from Dallas to Oakland as a single mother eager to switch careers, away from the private sector. She was always a lover of children so naturally, she was led to teaching.
Roberta’s Leap into Education
Her time with OUSD started as an instructional aide at Kaiser Elementary as a paraprofessional. While at Kaiser, she worked with mentally challenged students, some who were non-verbal. Inspired by her experience working in the classroom, she went on to teach at Webster Academy (now East Oakland Pride), which was predominantly attended by African American students.
Navigating school closures
With an emergency teaching credential, her second long term teaching position was at Marcus Foster Elementary School. It was a majority African American school where she met hardworking and intelligent teachers that cared deeply about their students. It was later closed and shut down due to low enrollment and below-grade level test scores.
From there Ms. Parker began her first position as a fully credentialed teacher at Sante Fe Elementary School, where she served for five years, before it was also shut down due to decreasing enrollment and lack of parental involvement. She recounts that Sante Fe was a very close knit family where most teachers built their careers over many years. Ms. Parker finally felt that she had found a teaching home, a place she could grow and learn as an educator. However, when the school was slated for closure, the community, parents, teachers, and students were all surprised and upset when they were notified they were on the list of OUSD’s school closures.
Having been a teacher, instructional coach and currently the Dean of Instruction for over a decade, I know what good teaching looks like and I also know that it can improve with regular coaching conversations, observations, feedback, and student data analysis. Knowing these things, I was curious to find out what type of coaching and mentorship Ms. Parker received while at Sante Fe Elementary. Her mentor/BTSA coach was a seasoned Black educator who showered Roberta with valuable tools, offered her feedback through observations, coaching conversations, and good ole’ advice she could utilize in her classroom.
Gentrification & School Closures
Roberta witnessed the early onslaught of gentrification and saw the dramatic change of the Sante Fe neighborhood after 2009. Students began to leave as many of their parents utilized Section 8 and were priced out. Most moved to areas like Antioch and Pittsburg as home values in Oakland and around the immediate Bay Area skyrocketed. Once again, Black students and Black teachers were told there is no home for you here anymore.
After Sante Fe’s closure, she remained in the North Oakland area where she got a teaching job at Sankofa Academy. She stayed there for 6 years, right before it was merged with Kaiser Elementary to form Sankofa United.
This is where I met Roberta when she served as my BTSA coach and influential mentor. We reminisced on the first night we met, which was at Back to School Night in September, 2016. From that night on, our bond was cemented. I saw her as an older sister who was there to give me feedback and advice without sugarcoating any of it! I stayed there for two years, before moving onto other educational ventures.
Roberta’s unique (or not) story of multiple school closures led me to ask, “Are there any common signs you’ve noticed right before a school is about to close?” It appears that the main characteristics of an impending school closure are changing and unstable school leadership, inconsistent communication, and unfair discipline practices which, in turn, cause parents to become frustrated with the quality of education their child(ren) receive. These conditions create chaos, uncertainty, and lack of hope that permeate the walls of the school.
Every Child Deserves a Black Teacher
Her reason for being a teacher was because of the influences from the Black teachers she had as a young child. Her mother died at an early age, so she was left without a mother figure in her home. That’s when her 3rd and 4th grade teacher, Ms. Green was there to fill in the gap: at school, church, and in the community. She grew up in a community where teachers knew they were there to give kids the love and care they needed outside of the classroom as well. This is the foundation of the phrase coined by the Black Teacher Project, — “Every child deserves a Black teacher”.
Upon leaving Sankofa Academy, Roberta taught TK for two years at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School before making the decision to retire from OUSD after 26 years of service. She credits Principal Zarina Ahmad for being an exceptional leader. Piedmont Avenue Elementary is one of the few that has both the African Male Achievement and African American Female Excellence instructors onsite as well as a group of diverse and dedicated teaching staff. These are some of the bright spots in Oakland education for Black teachers and students. Piedmont Avenue Elementary demands notice. The stability with leadership helps the school make substantial gains in student success. Along with stable leadership, what else can we do to disrupt this vicious cycle of school closures?
What is missing from Oakland schools?
I posed the question, What are the resources that are missing in our schools? “From what I’ve experienced in my 26 year career,” replied Ms. Parker, “schools are successful because of the dedicated staff, parental involvement, and a supportive community. This helps to mold the vision and mission of the school, thus creating culture that’s ripe for student success.” Our schools also need more mental health counselors that have trauma- informed training. Teachers also need access to therapists and counselors for their own self care and well being.
What are your thoughts?
Roberta Parker is a true educational hero for our students of Oakland. I know she will continue to have a great impact on students, parents, and future leaders of Oakland. Let’s keep the conversation going, what do you think is missing from our schools? Please feel free to add comments to our blog post!