A New Charter School Teaches Kids in Class and in the Garden

Nonprofit group hopes innovative program will teach young children sommunity values

Things got started a bit slowly in the upstairs room of the Oakland Public Library’s Rockridge branch last Saturday morning. Rows of chairs had been set up, neat rows of brochures and pamphlets had been stacked on a table by the door, charts were hung on the walls, and there were coloring books and toys over in a far corner. John Oubre and an assistant were on hand to make their pitch for the East Bay Conservation Corps’ new charter school. But when I got there, about half an hour into the session, only one set of parents, along with their energetic four-year-old twin daughters, had shown up.No matter. Oubre, the EBCC school’s dean of students, cheerfully explained its curriculum and philosophy, and patiently answered the parents’ questions. The school will start out teaching students from the kindergarten through the fourth grade, and is looking to sign up 200 children, he told them. In the future, it could be expanded to the middle-school and even high-school level, he added. The parents, Oakland residents Kathy Burns and Tony Rossman, were favorably impressed, saying they liked the fact that their daughters would be able to attend the same school until the fourth grade. They already knew several people connected with the corps and had followed the school’s development. “A lot of thought has gone into this,” Burns told me.

As Burns and Rossman left, two other couples, with progeny in tow, arrived to hear what Oubre had to say. They quizzed him about teachers, school uniforms, and other matters for a good half hour before heading for the door. On the way out, one of them paused to ask a final question. “Just to confirm,” she said. “You do have a site secured?” Oubre raised his hands high into the air. “Yay!” he exclaimed happily. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t.”

It took Oubre and his colleagues months to find, but they are more than happy with their school site on Alcatraz Avenue in Oakland. For decades, the 1920s-era building housed the St. Columba Elementary School, operated by the nearby Roman Catholic parish of the same name. There are eight classrooms linked to a central corridor; they’re big rooms, with huge blackboards taking up almost an entire wall, cloakrooms, and plenty of built-in storage cabinets. Best of all, Oubre tells me as he guides me through the school, are the huge windows. “That was the first thing that struck our staff–look at the light in here.”

He heads downstairs into the basement. There’s a large assembly room equipped with two pianos, a grand and an upright. “One of our goals is to get those tuned up,” Oubre says. “We want to use them.” There’s a computer room and a library. He ducks into one of the bathrooms –equipped with marble stalls–and checks the plumbing. It works, giving the school an advantage over some other Oakland educational facilities.

Finding a building for a charter school isn’t easy. Other new charter schools have had to improvise when it came to finding space, and some have been forced to locate in storefronts or other marginally suitable venues, notes EBCC development director Bill Lerrigo. “This looks like a school my mother or grandmother might have gone to,” he says. It’s in a prime location, he adds–“a safe, neutral neighborhood” with convenient access to Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley.

But as wonderful as the building may be, it could also serve as a warning. Its last tenant was the ill-fated New Village school, which, like a number of other new charter schools, started out with high ideals but quickly ran into insurmountable problems. After the parish closed St. Columba (merging it with another nearby Catholic school), the building was taken over by New Village in 1997. Its founders tried to use innovative programs to teach racial and class tolerance to the students, almost a hundred of whom signed up in the school’s first year. The kids may have gotten along, but bickering among the adults involved quickly grew, along with increasing financial and administrative problems. Enrollment dropped to just 62 at one point. A year ago, the entire staff resigned, and the New Village charter was revoked by the Alameda County Board of Education.

Charter schools are often started by ad-hoc groups of parents who are long on desire to improve their children’s education, but short on experience and time. They have to find a building, hire teachers and other staff, enroll students, and keep the place running on a day-to-day basis. Money is a major ongoing headache: Students pay no tuition. The state and federal governments provide about $4,500 per student per year (the same amount they give to district-operated schools), but that is rarely enough to pay for staff, building maintenance, and other expenses, so fund-raising becomes a big chore.

Oubre points out that the EBCC startup will have several important advantages. “We’ve been in existence for eighteen years, so we have a strong infrastructure,” he says. “We already have a finance department and a development department set up.” Lerrigo adds that the state and federal money will probably cover about two-thirds of the school’s annual budget, which he estimates will run about $2 million a year. The corps has already secured several grants from corporations and foundations, and is working on building a stable, long-term donor base.

In fact, the corps already has considerable experience running a school. Since 1996 it has operated a charter school for high-school dropouts aged eighteen to 24. This school uses a concept known as “service learning,” which integrates community work with academics. The students work during the day, running a recycling center and helping with projects in the local parks and schools (when I visited, a group of them was sorting through the rubble in the St. Columba building, readying it for the fall opening). They also attend classes and have the opportunity to earn either a high-school diploma or a general education degree.

The K-4 school will integrate the same concepts, albeit on a different scale. Obviously, teachers won’t be sending seven-year-olds into the hills to clear brush, but the kids will work on other projects, such as helping to plant a community garden in a nearby neighborhood. Lerrigo says that students will be able to apply their classroom learning as they work. The junior gardeners might use their math to calculate the amount of soil needed for a garden plot, or they could discuss biology and nutrition as it relates to the vegetable seeds they have just put into the ground. “It becomes a project with many teaching opportunities,” he says.

Oubre points to a large retirement home located next-door to the school. He hopes that the kids will have an opportunity to interact with the seniors. They could help the old folks out in some way, or the seniors might end up volunteering to come over and talk about their own younger days. The children could then write essays based on the stories. “We saw the senior center and said, ‘There’s a real source of people who can become involved,'” he says.

The school will integrate progressive notions like environmental stewardship and spiritual and ethical development into its curriculum, but Oubre promises that there will be a strong emphasis on the basics: reading and writing. “We know literacy will be a big piece of what we have to do,” he says. “If a student doesn’t have that, the project-based kind of teaching doesn’t have any value.” The school also plans to integrate Spanish language and culture classes into its teaching at all grade levels.

While the corps’ high school is aimed mainly at helping dropouts and disadvantaged students who have had troubles in the regular system, that won’t be the case with the new elementary school, which will be open to any kids from Oakland and the surrounding communities (if more than two hundred applications come in, a lottery will be held to determine placement). The new school will have a separate name and different goals, but Oubre says that in a way it has been inspired by the corps’ older students. “Starting this new charter school has been informed by what we’ve already done,” he says. Most of the high schoolers had become “disconnected” from their education in grade school, and many hadn’t even mastered basic reading and math skills, Oubre explains; he hopes that the new school will help its students to avoid those problems. As he sees it, our public education is like a river: Too many students fall into the water at an early age before they can even learn to swim.

“Right now we’re downstream, pulling people out of the river,” he says. “How many of them are drowning?”

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