Why Oakland, Calif., Parents Rally Behind Teachers' Strike

EVERY nook and cranny of Fruitvale Presbyterian Church is filled with children, some playing, some studying, others tugging at a passing adult in urgent search of an answer.

For many of Oakland's 52,000 public-school students, this is typical of what passes for school these days. California's sixth-largest school district is locked in a bitter strike that is heading into its fifth week with prospects for a settlement still dim.

In an attempt to deal with the stranded children, parents and striking teachers have organized more than 100 such ''strike schools'' in church basements, libraries, recreational centers, and homes. The effect of their solidarity is evident up the road at Sequoia Elementary School, where only a few dozen children have shown up to be taught by substitute teachers.

The strong community backing for the teachers union flows from a widespread sense of crisis over the condition of public schools in this Bay Area urban center. Oakland's schools share the problems of most inner-city school systems - whites have fled to the suburbs or to private schools, while teachers and administrators struggle to deal with growing social problems within a continually shrinking resource base.

The Oakland Education Association, the union representing 3,500 teachers, counselors, psychologists, and substitutes, is seeking not only pay raises but also reductions in class size. In addition, it is asking for resources to be shifted from the administrative bureaucracy to the classrooms. Those demands resonate with many parents.

''Personally, I'm getting very tired of all the work,'' says haggard parent Laurel Dost, who is running the Sequoia strike school. ''But I feel it's a real opportunity for Oakland to stand up and tell the whole state that we need to commit resources to our urban areas.''

Angry parents are also joining with the union to try to oust several members of the school board, which faces a vote in the March 26 California primary. Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris on Wednesday offered his own proposals in an attempt to bring the strike to a close. At press time, negotiations were continuing.

Meanwhile, signs are growing that parents are being worn thin by a month of juggling demands of their work and children at home. ''I'm frustrated,'' says Marnum Green, who works nights at a nursing home, then comes to the strike school in the morning to help out. ''My kids want to go back to school so bad.''

In poorer, inner sections of Oakland, larger numbers of students and teachers have returned to schools, unable to cope with the strike's burdens. Other parents are pulling their kids out of the public schools and enrolling them in private schools, or seeking transfers to other school districts.

MANY of the problems on the table in this strike are common to California's beleaguered public-school system, though to some degree worse. Oakland's teachers, along with other employees, have not received a wage hike for five years because of cuts in state funding. But pay levels here are significantly below similar systems in the state.

Average class sizes are more than 30 students - and far larger in some cases. High school chemistry teacher Janice Lord-Walker was faced with 60 students this year, whittled down to 45, with only 100 textbooks to share among five such classes. ''Would that even happen in a place like Orinda?'' she says, referring to a nearby affluent suburb. ''People are so fed up with doing with so little.''

This strike - the fourth in 20 years - also reflects a difficult relationship between the teachers and the Oakland administration. Associate superintendent Terry Mazany calls it a ''history of lack of trust.'' Teachers have been working without a contract for almost two years, and union officials say serious bargaining didn't begin until after the strike.

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