Revolution at Oakland Unified

Life Academy and the School of Social Justice are radically different high schools. But are they different enough to reverse Oakland Unified's decades-long slide into failure?

At 8:45 on the last Tuesday of August, laughter and shrieks of greeting waft up from the downstairs lobby of Oakland’s Life Academy High School. But here in the classroom of Chris Harrison, where there are far more seats and tables than students, the mood is restrained. “Welcome to your first day of high school,” Harrison says, towering over a small knot of ninth graders with his rugby player’s build. “We’re going to spend the next two and a half hours in here. I know that’s a long time. Trust me. I’ll make sure it’s not boring.”

Barely a minute into his orientation, a Southeast Asian man in his twenties knocks tentatively on the door. Standing at his side is his younger brother, who achieves that teenage trick of looking speechless, stylish, and hopeless all at once. “He’ll be just fine,” Harrison assures the man, who is nonetheless reluctant to leave. Addressing the boy, the teacher adds, “Come on in. Take a seat.” The man watches from the hall as his brother sits as far back in the room as he can get, then moves closer under Harrison’s gentle urging. Finally the older brother lifts a hand in farewell and disappears.

“I’ve worked a lot with teens,” Harrison tells his eight charges, pacing the length of the classroom in six or seven strides, his dashiki hanging loosely from his broad shoulders. The four boys and four girls in Harrison’s advisory group follow him warily with their eyes. “I know teens like choices, so I’ll try to offer you choices as much as possible. For instance, you can call me Mr. Chris or Mr. Harrison. It’s up to you.” Harrison then explains that at eleven o’clock, some juniors will come in to answer questions about the school. “Think about what you want to know,” he suggests. The students seem shell-shocked; it’s hard to imagine them curious about anything besides where to hide.

Just as Harrison begins talking about himself, he’s interrupted again, this time by a father and his daughter, the latter dressed in an ankle-length Middle Eastern skirt, her head covered with a scarf. Her father needs even more reassurance than the older brother, and he hovers anxiously in the hall for several minutes.

In spite of the interruptions, Harrison soon has the class divided into groups, with each student interviewing his partner about favorite movies, career goals, and which languages are spoken at home. The students then introduce each other: The class is primarily Hispanic, with a sprinkling of Asians and the Arabic girl. The girls want to be nurses, except for one would-be pediatrician. The boys want to be chefs, stuntmen, basketball players.

As the students talk, Harrison notes who has trouble reading, who’s not paying attention, whose English is poor. After he has them write down what each wants from his class, he gets them up to stretch. While they’re still standing, he quickly moves two students away from chatty seatmates. He does it with no rancor, and nobody acts up. Then he collects the sheets and reads aloud what each student hopes to achieve. Their goals are remarkably similar: To learn more math. To read more. Help me with homework. Help me get into college. Help me with algebra. Advise me on college. Help with my future.

“Well,” he says, a broad smile on his face, “y’all get together on this?” Tense faces relax into answering grins, and a sense of belonging settles over the classroom like a warm cloak.

Nine kids to one teacher, family members in the hall, two-and-a-half-hour classes — these are just a few of the surprises in store for these Life Academy freshmen. Others include kayaking and judo for PE, paid work-study at area health clinics and hospitals, and a three-week “intersession” between semesters in which students might study portraiture, make a video, or go camping in the Sierra. And they’ll have plenty of time to choose between Mr. Harrison and Mr. Chris — the adviser who doubles as a math teacher will spend three days a week with these students. During that time, he should get to know each of them very well.

Life Academy is neither a private school nor a charter: It’s a public high school in the much-maligned Oakland Unified School District, one of three new small autonomous secondary schools begun in the past two years. The schools vary widely — Life Academy jumped in headfirst, opening its doors last year to grades nine through twelve and a full complement of 250 students. The School of Social Justice and Community Development, also in East Oakland, began this September with 120 kids and plans to add grades and students as it goes. Met West — based on the Met, a small school in Providence, Rhode Island that offers an individualized program and internship to each student — started this year in a building on the Laney campus with a class of 30 ninth graders.

Unlike Met West, Life Academy and Social Justice were spawned by existing Oakland high schools. Life Academy, with its emphasis on health and bioscience, grew out of Fremont High’s Health and Bioscience Academy, one of several specialized “career academies” students can choose to enter in the tenth grade. The new school took up residence in an old Red Cross building at 21st Avenue and International Boulevard. The School of Social Justice was born when parents and students at Castlemont High convinced a coalition of faculty members and community organizers to start a new small school. As can be gleaned from its name, Social Justice is committed to community activism; its “Founding Principles of Unity” begin by embracing revolution, not “reform from within.”

The most radical element of each of these schools, however, is their shared goal: to graduate every student who enrolls, and to send the vast majority of those graduates on to four-year colleges. This in Oakland Unified, which only manages to graduate 87 percent of its twelfth-graders, those who have survived the winnowing of ninth and tenth grades, when the district loses an average of 7 percent of each class. In 2000, 14 percent of Castlemont’s total enrollment dropped out. Of those students who managed to graduate, only 20 percent of Fremont High graduates in 2001 were eligible for four-year colleges, while 25 percent of Castlemont graduates qualified.

Neither Life nor Social Justice is trying to achieve its goal by stacking the deck. Life Academy didn’t waltz off with Fremont High’s top achievers: Its kids came in with grade point averages similar to those of other East Oakland students. The students also match the neighborhood’s demographics — about half Latino, a quarter African American, and close to a quarter Asian. Most are poor enough to qualify for the district’s free meals and bus passes. Social Justice, meanwhile, targeted students who had either dropped out or were considered at academic risk. Yet students at both schools have a much better chance to succeed, because they have chosen to go to schools significantly smaller than a shopping mall.

In May 2000, the Oakland School Board and Oakland Unified Superintendent Dennis Chaconas threw their full support behind the district’s adoption of the small-schools model, with the hope that schools like Life Academy and Social Justice would emerge to educate this generation of Oakland’s children. The goal is to have twenty percent of all Oakland students enrolled in small schools by the end of 2005.

While it’s still too early to measure the program’s academic success, the new experiment has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams when it comes to recruiting teachers. Dozens of talented teachers from across the country have come to Oakland to design and plan ambitious programs for the city’s most disadvantaged kids. Top-notch teachers and administrators are critical to fulfilling the very large demands of a small school, where almost everyone serves multiple roles out of necessity. This influx of creative minds is unprecedented: The district has not recruited effectively for decades.

A confluence of events propelled Oakland Unified out of its low-achieving orbit to become a destination for Harvard and Yale graduates. Responsibility for much of the change can be traced to the Herculean efforts of parents who just wouldn’t take it anymore. The Ebonics debacle of ’96 was only the high-profile tip of Oakland Unified’s melting iceberg. To relieve overcrowding, some flatlands children were attending schools in broken-down buildings on year-round schedules of 28 days on, 28 days off. It was a nightmare for any parent, but for working parents with young children, the schedule itself encouraged truancy. Nor did things improve in middle and high school; that’s when dropouts began to accelerate, until sixty percent of Oakland’s students were failing. Many graduates moved on without gaining the skills they needed to find jobs or attend college.

Distraught parents came together through Oakland Community Organizations, an East Oakland community group that draws from a base of 35 churches. The parents passed around copies of The Power of Their Ideas, a book in which Central Park East principal Deborah Meier described how she set up two small district schools in Manhattan to serve inner-city children in East Harlem. A quarter century later, ninety percent of Central Park East students graduate, and ninety percent of the graduates go on to college, in comparison with a city graduation rate of fifty percent.

The growing interest in small schools coalesced into a national movement following the 1984 publication of another book, Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Sizer, who had been dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and headmaster of Andover’s Phillips Academy, traveled to high schools across the United States, finding bored students and despairing teachers in every setting. “Some will say that high schools for the affluent appear to ‘work’; the graduates get into college,” he writes. “Why change anything? … And if schools for the affluent are okay, the political will to address the schools for everyone else is weak.” In a preface to the ’92 edition, Sizer described the core problems: “The rushed procession of 52-minute classes; the jumble of ‘subjects,’ none either thoroughly defined or related well to any other, leaving even the ablest and most devoted students in a swamp of intellectual confusion; the predominance of teacher-talk and student-listen, with its attendant docility … and the procession of mindless, brief tests.”

Sizer went on to found the Coalition of Essential Schools to train leaders and design small schools intimately connected with parents and the community. When he left a teaching post at Brown University to return to Cambridge in 1995, the coalition left as well, setting up its national office in Oakland.

By that time, public-school parents here needed only look as far as the trashed playgrounds and buildings of their schools to understand that their children didn’t count. In the fall of 1998, a group of parents funded by Oakland Community Organizations went to New York to visit several small schools, including Central Park East. They returned with a commitment to find a partner that could help them design small schools. They found that partner in the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, one of nineteen regional offshoots of Sizer’s group. Oakland Unified soon found itself at the forefront of a nationwide movement.

In November 2000, the Bay Area Coalition was awarded $15.7 million in small-schools funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with $8 million earmarked for Oakland Unified. Due to the years of planning by parents and Oakland Community Organizations, and strong support from the district, several schools, including Life Academy, were able to enroll students just a few months later. Other proposed schools also were fast-tracked. Castlemont offered small learning communities of around twenty students to its ninth graders in 2001, resulting in a seventeen percent attendance jump and a greater percentage of freshmen continuing on to sophomore year than at any time in the school’s history. Fremont will institute its own small communities this January. “There’s a moment in time when the window is wide open,” says Joel Baum, a curriculum coach for the Bay Area Coalition. “We’re at one of those moments in Oakland.”

The irony is that Oakland is now ahead because it was so very far behind.

Ten minutes before the juniors arrive to answer the ninth graders’ questions, Chris Harrison reminds his class that it’s time to come up with a list of what they’d like to know. As if to underscore how different this school is, he tells the students “You can do it on your own,” then retires to a chair in the corner. There is a long moment of shocked silence while everyone looks to each other, then Harrison, for guidance. When he does not react, perplexity mounts until, finally, the girl who wants to be a pediatrician stands up and walks to the board. She picks up a marking pen, writes a big number 1, and then gazes out at the class, her face impassive. Two Hispanic boys instantly raise their hands. Cousins, they have shed their initial reticence and now fire off question after question as the rest of the class remains silent. Harrison does not intervene, but as the juniors begin to parade into the room, he comments: “If you let other people do your talking, you better be satisfied with what they say.”

Nearly twenty juniors file in, all members of Principal Laura Flaxman’s advisory class. Their racial breakdown mimics that of Life Academy itself, but style trumps ethnicity. The boys dress in loose clothes and the girls in tight, and they drape themselves across chairs, against walls, and over file cabinets with the insouciance of models.

Although they look languid, the juniors are quick to respond to questions. Yes, there is a lot of homework — expect it every night and on weekends. You can get PE credit between semesters, or you can take dance or jujitsu. You get paid for your second year of hospital work; the first year you volunteer. You read a lot. Don’t get behind with your reading, or you’ll really mess up. We can eat lunch off-campus unless you guys come back late, so don’t. You can’t cut classes ’cause everybody knows who you are, and before you even get home they’ve called your folks.

“I heard it’s a cool school,” says one of the talkative cousins.

“It is a cool school,” responds a good-looking junior who has spent the last five minutes teasing his girlfriend. A natural leader who takes charge once he tunes in, he answers the questions with an easy frankness. “It’s a great opportunity, but it’s hard — you gotta work.”

“I also heard it’s a weak school,” charges Mr. Talky, intent on stirring something up.

The junior doesn’t take the bait. “It’s a weak school if you’re weak,” he says with a shrug. “If you’re lazy, it’s a weak school.”

At lunch, Harrison, an Oakland High graduate who attended Morehouse College and worked as an adviser at Holy Names before deciding on a teaching career, is still shaking his head. “I can’t believe what I heard in there. I’ve never heard kids talk like that about school.” The teacher pauses, then shakes his head again. “This must be a really good school.”

In the small-school model, students explore their own interests guided by teacher-mentors and other adults. By junior and senior year, those interests should have blossomed into complex, demanding long-term projects that are evaluated by a graduation committee. Nobody graduates by maintaining a certain grade-point average or acing an exam.

Yet increasingly, curriculums in elementary and secondary schools are subsumed by the necessity to teach to district- and state-mandated tests. Small schools are trying to survive with an uneasy compromise between a philosophy that fosters an ability to think critically and a standardized measurement system that rewards rote memorization. So two weeks before school starts, Life Academy principal Laura Flaxman sat at a round table on the second floor of the Jack London Aquatic Center, analyzing her teachers’ curriculums for the coming year. Life Academy’s instructors had been formulating course designs all summer, making sure they satisfied state and district standards while also conforming to stringent state university guidelines. The district’s very optimistic goal is to prepare ninety percent of all its graduates for four-year colleges by 2004, but even 4.0 students might not qualify for UC Berkeley if their courses don’t meet university standards. Consequently, the fifteen teachers at Life Academy face a considerable challenge in creating courses that can simultaneously please the state, its universities, and their school district, plus Flaxman and, of course, the students themselves.

Flaxman is the vision-holder: Part of her job is keeping the forest in view amid the trees. She came to Oakland specifically to help create a small school, taking a job as assistant principal at Fremont High while burning the midnight oil as part of the team that created Life Academy.

At the curriculum-review meeting, she discussed how the state’s new exit exams will affect the school’s commitment to graduate every student. “Our kids aren’t motivated by grades,” she told one of her new math teachers, gazing intently at him with her otherworldly blue eyes. “How do you communicate ownership to students?” she asked. “How do you set it up so there isn’t failure?”

Student ownership of the classroom is a small-school maxim, as important as administrative autonomy and graduation by demonstrating mastery of skills. But starting with the class of 2004, every high-school student in California must also pass a reading and a math test before graduating. Flaxman noted that 81 percent of Oakland Unified’s incoming juniors have so far failed the math segment of the exam. Yes, they’ll have other chances, but students who never pass will probably leave school without a diploma.

Although a few more Life Academy students passed the test on their first try, more than three-quarters of the school’s juniors still need to elevate their scores. If they don’t buy into doing the work, how will they ever pass? “It’s clear we need to target math skills across the entire curriculum if we’re going to get everyone to graduate,” she told the math teacher.

“Well, I think you have to be realistic,” he responded. “Some kids won’t graduate. And some won’t go to college, and that’s a reasonable thing. We think there’s something wrong with working at McDonald’s. We need to accept that it’s okay.”

Flaxman realized she had her own teaching to do and leaned forward. “It’s hard to want something without ever seeing it,” she said. “If no one in your family has ever gone to college, it’s not modeled for you. That’s our job — to model a different outcome.”

“But some kids really won’t graduate,” he objected mildly.

Can our kids graduate?” she asked. For Flaxman, that answer is unequivocal. “Yes, they can. And if we don’t expect that each and every one of our kids can do it, then it can’t happen. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that some will fail.”

The principles that small schoolers live by seem both obvious and too easy. Who wouldn’t support personalized teaching and learning? Yet for decades schools have marched stolidly in the opposite direction. During the ’50s and ’60s, educators argued that high schools needed to be large enough to offer high-level math and science courses so we could keep up with the Russians. According to “Big Trouble: Solving Education Problems Means Rethinking Super-Size Districts and Schools,” a report prepared by Utah Representative David N. Cox for the nonprofit Sutherland Institute, between 1930 and the present, 128,000 US school districts were pared down to fewer than 15,000. Since district size tends to dictate school size, about seventy percent of US high school students now go to schools of more than 1,000 students, with the urban poor often attending schools of 2,000 or more. Oakland fits right in: Last year the district enrolled 54,863 students, with 1,768 students attending Castlemont and 1,720 students at Fremont.

That small schools work better than large ones has been proven so many times and in so many ways it may be education’s only certainty. In the report “School Size,” Karen Irmsher reports that “Large schools have lower grade averages and standardized test scores coupled with higher dropout rates and more problems with violence, security, and drug abuse.” In a 1992 study, researchers Jean Stockard and Maralee Mayberry write, “Behavior problems are so much greater in larger schools that any possible virtue of larger size is canceled out by the difficulties of maintaining an orderly learning environment.”

Small schools eliminate students’ hourly class-to-class commuting, believing that real learning takes concentrated blocks of time. Teachers are responsible for about forty kids, as opposed to 120 or more, and supervised fieldwork is a component of many programs. The emphasis is on learning to think, not regurgitating soon-forgotten facts on a soon-forgotten quiz. Teachers have time to talk to one another about how their courses fit together or which kid isn’t paying attention — and why. Parents are an integral part of the schools: They serve on oversight boards, and families can call the adviser or teachers at any time. An incoming ninth grader suddenly has a whole new family, a close-knit community of adults and peers.

Another important facet — and often a source of controversy — is the amount of autonomy the schools are granted. Small-school literature demonstrates that the greatest gains come from schools that make their own hiring and firing decisions and are free to develop their own curriculum. When teachers and administrators are in control of their own programs, the argument goes, accountability is your own face in the mirror. When someone else has control, a troubled student is someone else’s problem, and everyone ends up suffering — the child, the resentful teacher, the faceless bureaucracy, the entire community.

Still, there are trade-offs. Small schools eliminate choices taken for granted at larger ones. “The successful autonomous schools tend to offer one course of study with only a handful of options,” says Steve Jubb, director of the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools. “You can’t offer nine varieties of mathematics. … Kids do more self-directed learning, so there’s pressure on earlier grades to get kids ready for that. The dark side of heterogeneity is that you can end up with chaos if the kids are too divergent. … There are lots of challenges.”

Although the success of small schools is now well-established, considerable faith is required to believe that they alone can reverse Oakland’s decades-long slide into failure. How can you expect every student to graduate in a district whose eleventh graders most recently scored an average of 23 percent on reading and 39 percent on math in standardized tests? Here in East Oakland, the numbers are even worse: Castlemont eleventh graders scored 13 percent in reading and 23 percent in math, while Fremont juniors tested out at 18 and 36 percent. This test, the SAT-9, ranks students against each other, meaning that Castlemont juniors only read as well as the lowest-performing 13 percent of juniors nationwide. On the more difficult California Standards Test, which tests students’ mastery of particular skills rather than comparing them to each other, only 5 percent of Castlemont juniors got passing English scores, while 7 percent of Fremont students managed to pass. And these test-takers are the success stories, the ones who survived their freshman and sophomore years. Yet these are precisely the students that small schools help most: underprivileged inner-city youth who flourish with intense interaction.

Social Justice targets students in danger of leaving school, or those who have already left. Teacher Sarah Fuchs, who graduated from Berkeley High in ’91, and who taught at Castlemont for five years before spending the past year visiting small schools around the country, says: “We believe that some kids who ‘drop out’ are in reality pushed out. Kids who dress a certain way or look a certain way get the message early on that they’re inappropriate for school and that school is inappropriate for them.”

At Social Justice, administrator Kali Akuno-Williams, who has contacts in the criminal justice system, signed up dropouts who were motivated to get back in and graduate. He estimates that between 25 to 35 percent of Social Justice students had dropped out or were severely at risk. “Our goal is to graduate every kid,” Akuno-Williams says. We’ve set measurable goals. We want seventy percent of the first graduating class to be accepted to college. Our primary focus is UC, the state colleges, and the historically black colleges. We hope to raise that figure by ten percent every year.”

Assisting in this venture is a star-studded roster of talented teachers, starting with Principal Wilson Riles, Jr., last seen scoring debate points off Jerry Brown in a losing mayoral bid. In June, Riles heard Social Justice was looking for math teachers. For Riles, teaching math at a school with an emphasis on social justice seemed to sum up his career: “I started out as a teacher; I taught math in Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps, and I taught in a middle school in Oakland in the early ’70s.” But Fuchs and Akuno-Williams convinced him to take on the larger role, and the relief among the faculty about Riles’ administrative abilities and leadership is palpable.

Ninety of the 120 students at Social Justice are ninth graders, along with a small core of juniors, some of whom are repeating a year. Due to a delay in its opening, the very students who helped create the school –members of a group called Youth Against Community Injustice Nia (Nia means “for a purpose” in Swahili) — would not have been able to attend it since it wasn’t enrolling seniors in its first year. As a result, some of the thirty juniors concluded that spending an extra year at Social Justice would increase their chances at college. By adding a hundred students a year, the school will eventually reach four hundred students. There already is a waiting list to attend.

The ninth graders were admitted first-come, first-served. At interviews in August, juniors often asked questions after Akuno-Williams explained the school’s first task — creating a Code of Cultural Agreements that would define group expectations. “What brought you here?” a junior asked one ninth-grade girl, who seemed small in comparison to the juniors.

“I don’t like the peer pressure in a large school, and I don’t like all the lecturing,” she said.

Her mother explained that her daughter had spent months researching small schools and was adamant about not going to Castlemont. Frankly, the mother had her doubts. She didn’t see anything wrong with a large high school, and believed her daughter might miss out on important milestones. But her daughter had spent half the summer gathering arguments in support of small schools at Mills and Merritt colleges. By that point, the mother had consented, if this was what her daughter really wanted.

Almost all the other students came in similarly, of their own volition.

On the first day of instruction at Social Justice, teacher Kafi Payne’s room is decorated with butcher-paper lists created at last week’s orientation. Printed neatly under the heading “In Our Community,” are the positives: “I know everybody,” “At night the lights work,” “People wash your car for two or three dollars,” “There are a lot of jobs in Oakland.” But the negatives are longer and more encompassing: “Violence,” “People take bikes,” “Not enough trees,” “Police ask you a lot of questions,” “People get robbed and killed on 82nd and 83rd.” Another sheet tallies “Suggestions for Change,” including: “Houses will be painted,” “More trees will be planted,” “The block would stay clean,” “There will be no more drugs,” “Take away Fremont High and put a mall and a McD.”

Payne asks her eleven students to write in their journals about their responsibilities at home, school, and work. This exercise will fuel the discussion of the Code of Cultural Agreements. One boy keeps talking, practically to himself, in a steady monotone that occasionally rises in volume; Payne sees he has no pen and gives him one, though this doesn’t stop his mumbling. A girl nearby, her head nearly hidden in the hood of her sweatshirt, whispers to a reporter that she didn’t want to come to Social Justice but she didn’t want to go to Castlemont either. Reading the reporter’s upside-down notes, “Too much chaos, talking,” she nods and adds her own two cents: “Too much cursing.” She went to Bunche, she says, which is a special school for those who did not pass the eighth grade. It’s hard to imagine how this girl, reading bad handwriting upside down and carrying around a novel as if it’s a security blanket, ever flunked anything.

The next class is far more crowded — 27 kids jockey around U-shaped tables. Yale grad and biology teacher Syrena McKenzie has everyone make a nametag and then partner up. One boy, sitting at a table with four girls, has no partner. Resigned, he sinks back into the hood of his sweatshirt as the girls ignore him. Most of the students work well, talking to each other about the reading McKenzie passes out, but it’s hard not to notice the boy, who continues to sit passively waiting for class to end. As the class files out, the Bunche girl flips over her nametag, which is decorated at each corner with the word “BORED.”

In the next class, even more crowded than the last, Fuchs starts out by asking the kids for their best work: “We work to the fullest potential at the School of Social Justice and Community Development.” She passes out paper and asks them to write about the meaning of the quote “Knowledge is power.”

“What is the purpose of education?” she asks. “Could education ever be harmful to a person or people? Explain.”

This time, when the kids partner up, Fuchs insists they swing around and face each other so she can see if someone needs a partner. The boy with the hood again sits still, practically disappearing into the depths of his sweatshirt, but Fuchs spots him, and makes him move closer to a girl who also has no partner. They still don’t talk to each other, but the boy begins paying attention.

Fuchs passes out photocopied pages from Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember — An Oral History. She explains that language has changed since the days before the Civil War, and that some words won’t be familiar. This doesn’t stop anyone from reading the passages quickly, picking their favorites, and explaining why. Even the boy with the hood reads his sheets and then twists around so he can listen to the discussion. Every few minutes Fuchs insists they go deeper in interpreting the material: “This is a college prep course. This is what you do — you cite evidence, you make connections, you determine the perspective of the speaker.” Each time she says it, the students tune in a little more. “You have a lot of knowledge, but some of what you think you know is the result of miseducation,” she tells them. “Who’s heard the word ‘miseducation’?”

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” someone says.

“That’s right. Lauryn Hill got the title of her CD from Carter G. Woodson’s Miseducation of the Negro. She writes a Woodson quote on the board: “When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

By now, the class is hooked, and the partnered discussions demonstrate both comprehension and fascination. Even though a couple boys clown around, they clown with the material; one boy informs Fuchs that another boy is “just fucking with you” with his questions. Fuchs manages to correct the first boy’s language while acknowledging the second boy’s remarks by showing that while he “is messing with me, he’s actually saying something here.” She passes out homework while everyone groans, which occasions a lecture: “This is a college prep class. You will have homework every single night.” Afterward, Fuchs explains: “We did a lot of our recruitment at schools where kids were repeating a grade. Some people ask if we’re a continuation school. But we’re not. We’re a college-prep school for kids who might not think they’re college-prep material.”

Can a school simply insist that kids work to their fullest potential when that potential has been untapped for years? Reformers have long believed that low expectations kill children’s native curiosity, and thus their ability to progress. “Assuming that kids are never going to be prepared for college is unacceptable,” says Jubb from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools. “I’ve heard we need vocational tracks, but I think there are a lot of people who don’t realize things have changed. The jobs those kids were preparing for have disappeared. The gap between a high school and college education is wider than it’s ever been.”

The kids most likely to wink out — the unchallenged ones and the hiders — need to buy into the promise that school can work for them. Small schools are most able to create that kind of belief: Once the fieldwork and independent projects kick in, teachers can identify what individual kids need to keep them motivated. A committed staff could tip the balance toward success. Many adults still remember the one teacher who turned them around. It’s easy to imagine that teacher emerging for many students at these schools.

But it won’t be Chris Harrison — at least not this year. In the third week of September, Life Academy unhappily discovered the limits of its autonomy: Harrison, who had taken a credentialing program at Mills College, was deemed unqualified to teach because he hadn’t yet passed a state-mandated test. “I am so frustrated with California credentialing standards,” Flaxman complains. “If he hadn’t taken the Mills program, he would have been fine teaching here — he could have qualified as a pre-intern. But because he invested a year of his time, he can no longer be an intern, so he’s worse off. Here is someone we sought out and hired, someone from the community who is wonderful with the kids.” Harrison will spend the year substituting, retake the test, and come back next year — perhaps at Life Academy, perhaps at Social Justice. But his students will miss him this year. Flaxman, who describes losing Harrison as “a terrible process,” assigned his advisory duties to two teachers, hoping that the ninth graders would bond with at least one of his replacements.

Harrison’s abrupt departure illustrates the chief concern expressed by Deborah Meier in her book In Schools We Trust. “The dominant American attitude toward schooling these days … is a fundamentally new level of distrust … which plays itself out … in draconian attempts to ‘restore accountability’ through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.” School districts, determined to prove they’re providing a quality education, publish charts of how many teachers are credentialed. States audit the district to make certain its standards are being met. “In the name of having a qualified person,” says Flaxman, “the kids lose a good teacher.”

Integrating new teachers and new forms of instruction into a preexisting educational system is but one of the long-term challenges to the movement. How small schools will adapt to high-stakes testing also is unclear. Although their own goals are different, the success of these schools ultimately will be measured primarily through test scores, particularly the SAT-9. “We’ll be judged on other easily quantifiable measures,” Flaxman says, citing attendance, retention of students, graduation, and the number of kids going on to college. “I’m not a fan of norm-referenced tests, but we should be able to raise those scores.”

Assistant Principal Erik Rice believes Life Academy is up to the task. “The SAT-9 tells us what we already know — that our kids have low-level reading, writing, and math skills,” he says. “We think what we’re doing should be making a difference, and not because we’re teaching to the test. A fair assessment would give us three to five years to be up and running, and we believe we’ll be able to show quantifiable results. But anybody who walks in our building right now can verbalize qualitative results.”

And if test scores are one external scorecard, costs are another, particularly in a district whose troubled finances were just taken over by the county. Small schools cost more — although the added costs are less than one might imagine. The district’s average cost per student is $4,100 per year. The operating cost at Life Academy is only $4,700 per child, although the up-front administrative costs, which were covered by the Gates Foundation funding, were considerable. “I like to refer to the New York experience: Small schools cost more per student but actually cost less per graduate because the retention rate is so much higher,” says Flaxman, who previously taught in New York and once worked in the Brooklyn high school that was the nation’s first to install metal detectors. “Which would you rather invest in?”

District Superintendent Dennis Chaconas believes that while support for small schools is broad-based, higher cost will always be an issue. Chaconas, like Flaxman, works out the math by comparison: In small schools, high student attendance and low teacher absenteeism combine to bring costs down, in line with the district average.

And then there are the politics. Small schools are somewhat like collectives — the culture is intense, personal, and people wearing multiple hats can quickly get testy. Can Oakland parents withstand a major disagreement at one of the schools? For that matter, what if Dennis Chaconas leaves or the political climate changes? Just as students, teachers, and administrators need to buy into the promise of small schools, so does the community. Jubb thinks this is the greatest danger. “There are a lot of people whose hearts and minds are open to do this, but if we continue to not put serious time and energy into improving the resources for schools, we won’t have people’s goodwill behind it. To be honest, despite Dennis’ courage and inventiveness and ability to take on all established interests, it’s going to need a lot more people than him.”

Consider the community involvement needed to launch the School of Social Justice and Community Development. Initially, the school was supposed to be housed in portables on the Castlemont campus, but that idea was nixed by school administrators. When the district started looking for property elsewhere, it had a hard time finding an affordable location. “Every time a landlord found out it was the district paying, the price shot way up,” Akuno-Williams recalls. Finally, once Pastor J. Alfred Smith Sr. learned that the school was in danger of not being able to open for a second year running because the district still had not found a site, he approached the district with an offer. Social Justice now has a two-year lease on the classrooms at his Allen Temple Baptist Church while the district continues to search for a permanent home.

“Few people realize how difficult it is to start up a new school in an urban environment,” Jubb notes. “Education in this country is resource-starved, and tough decisions have to be made. Oftentimes in urban situations, no one wants to make those tough decisions, and instead they promise everything. Then you end up in a situation where no one trusts anyone.”

Life Academy Assistant Principal Erik Rice starts every class by walking from student to student, shaking hands with each one. It’s both formal and warm, and sends a message of equality and trust. It’s the second week of school, the first block of the day, and Rice’s ninth-grade humanities class, eighteen strong, settles in quietly. When a girl in a wheelchair comes in a couple minutes late, those closest to the door quickly rearrange their chairs to accommodate her.

Rice has an ambitious curriculum for this group — he will start his inquiry with people’s relationship to themselves, then expand to family and peers, and finally move to a person’s relationship to his community. Each juncture requires readings, essays, journal-writing, and introspection. “Our first major question for this term is ‘What makes me me,'” he tells his students. “What influences you? Who has influence on who you are?”

“Everybody,” says one boy.

“All of us affect each other. And we affect each other in this class. Who’s been in a class that’s out of control?” Every hand shoots up. “Who’s been in a class where you feel good about everybody in it?” Only four hands go up, and even they waver.

“I want you to create a list of expectations. What do you expect of people so you can feel safe in this class? This is not stuff coming from the big teacher. This is something everybody agrees to, things we all agree we expect of each other. This is your first group challenge.”

Rice sits down at the back of the class, amid laughter. Finally one girl goes to the board and writes, “Respect each other.” A buzz of conversation follows. Another girl writes, “Helping each other.” One boy writes, “No profanity.” A girl with a long braid wants student property to be respected. A boy wants “fun in some moments.” A girl is far more emphatic: “NO putdowns toward anyone!” Rice himself writes, “What is said in this room stays in this room.”

The subsequent discussion is heated. One boy wants to change “no profanity” to “minimize profanity.” The class keeps the ban absolute, knowing it probably won’t work. A girl offers to write the agreements on a big sheet so everyone can sign it.

Rice goes back to the board, telling the class that short readings will be assigned every week. One boy moans. “Reading hurts,” he says. Rice raises his eyebrows and hands out photocopies of his own written response to last week’s reading. He explains how the reading responses will be graded, and asks them to read and then grade his response according to a specific guide. “All three humanities teachers are doing this,” he says, while the students pore over his paper and the grading rules. “One thing we most wanted to improve from last year was giving explicit directions and modeling what we want to see.”

The students tease Rice a bit about his paper, but grade it accurately, recognizing where he fell short and where he exceeded expectations. In the few minutes left before the end of the block, Rice passes out a poem by Bettie B. Youngs called “Paint Brush.” “I keep my paint brush with me/Wherever I may go/In case I need to cover up/So the real me won’t show.” The students are getting restless, reaching under the table for their bags.

The boy who protested that “reading hurts” suddenly raises his hand. “It’s like a gun,” he says.

Everyone stops to blink.

Rice, too, is startled for a second but catches himself: “In what way?” he asks.

“Well, you keep a gun with you. And it’s for protection.” The boy studies the poem a little more, then says, “But it isn’t really you. And when it’s gone you’re still there.”

Rice grins and shakes his head, while students around him gather their book bags to go on to the next class block. “Well, Mr. Hurts-to-Read, looks like you’ve just cracked the code.” The boy’s answering smile is as brilliant as sunlight.

Previous articleGeek Chic
Next articleCuban Mojito Crisis

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

broken clouds
59 ° F
68 °
51 °
63 %
75 %
62 °
58 °
61 °
61 °
58 °
Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate