A large crowd of people gather for the Teachers Strike at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. (Special to/ Amanda Peterson

Oakland teachers rallied together for a strike Thursday morning, demanding higher wages, smaller classes and increased support for public schools.

Thousands of organizers gathered at Oakland City Hall before they marched toward the Oakland Unified School District Office to protest low pay, inadequate services and school closures. Among them was Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown, a former middle school teacher who said he was overwhelmed by the support the strike received from the community.

A large crowd of people gather for the Teachers Strike at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif.
Photo by Amanda Peterson

“This is a historic day in Oakland because together we are saying the time is now to make our students a priority. The message is loud and clear,” Brown told the Xpress.

Oakland teachers formed picket lines outside of their schools, chanted protest songs on the streets of downtown Oakland and planned to continue striking until the school district reached an agreement with them.

Some of the strike supporters came from as far as Los Angeles in addition to nearby school districts, according to Fremont Unified School District teacher Megan Savage.

“We want this to be a short strike,” Brown said. “This was a strong presence in downtown Oakland and I hope our superintendent and school board is listening.”

With a starting salary of $46,570 a year for Oakland K-12 teachers, the strikers said they would like to see the school district pay increased by 12 percent over the next three years to keep up with rising living expenses. Oakland Unified School District teachers are among the lowest paid in the Bay Area, according to EdSource.

Donna Salonga, a teacher raises her fist in support the Teachers Strike (day one) at Frank Ogawa Plaza, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. (Special to/Amanda Peterson)

The cost of living contributed to the departure of approximately 600 Oakland teachers last year, according to the Oakland Teachers Strike website.

Brown said the district’s proposal to close 24 schools will hurt low-income communities of color in Oakland and would give charter schools the advantage.

“For years we’ve gone to school board meetings pleading to keep our schools open,” Brown said. “They forced us to strike to ensure education outcomes for our students dramatically improve.”

Gina Shepard holds a sign that reads: “We Support Our Teachers” with her grandson at the Teachers Strike (day one) march, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. (Special to/Amanda Peterson)

Oakland public schools serve approximately 36,286 students, while district-authorized charter schools serve 13,791. Brown said the growth of the charter school system takes $57 million away annually from underfunded district-run schools.

“We have many members of our school board funded by outside billionaires. They represent an agenda of privatization, of cutting resources away from students,” Brown said.

Oakland school Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell released an online statement on Feb. 15, which claimed the city was waiting on the teacher’s union to reach an agreement.

Shortly after on Feb. 18, the Oakland Education Association referred to the statement as “spin” and said the school district has been delaying its new contract for the past two years.

For Oakland school employee and Service Employees International Union 1st Vice President Melvin Phillips, the strike is about more than improving labor conditions.

“The main thing we want for our students is to get a quality education. We never want to close down schools,” Phillips said.

Oakland resident Tara Batts said she attended the teacher strike on behalf of her children.

“We need our teachers,” Batts said. “The most important thing is for them [the school district] to put more money into the schools and open the programs they used to have so that kids can have outlets and things to do.”