Running to Washington, DC

Teachers, students, and complete strangers are participating in the Oakland Running Festival to raise funds for a Fruitvale middle school's trip to the nation's capital.

On any given school day, the walkie-talkie on Dennis Guikema’s belt crackles relentlessly. He briskly walks through the halls, energetic blue eyes darting into classrooms and looking into problems. As an assistant principal at Urban Promise Academy, a public middle school in Oakland, Guikema is a man of endurance.

At forty years old, he is tall and thin, a self-assured triathlete and former elite cyclist. But when Guikema heard that Oakland will host its first marathon in 25 years, he thought the race could be more than just another notch on his belt.

Guikema had recently learned that federal funding for his school’s student trip to Washington, DC had been slashed. He didn’t want to cancel the trip. It was too important for his students who rarely have the means to travel. So Urban Promise Academy would have to raise at least $6,000 to take eleven students to the nation’s capital.

Maybe, Guikema thought, the Oakland marathon could help fill the funding gap. If marathons can drum up donations for organizations like the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, why not for a small school in Oakland, too?

On a recent afternoon, Guikema beamed as he pointed to a classroom of seventh graders who had just performed higher on math testing than any other public school in the city, even better than wealthy hills schools. Urban Promise Academy, known as UPA or “OOH-pah,” also faces different challenges than the typical public school. It doesn’t have a track or a gym and only recently installed a small patch of artificial turf. A multipurpose facility is under construction, but for now, students exercise at a local park.

UPA is in the heart of Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and four out of five students are Latino. It was founded nine years ago in a grassroots movement to break up large, under-performing schools and create smaller schools where, as Guikema explains, “every kid is known by adults who are invested in their success.”

At UPA, that idea has worked. Since 2005, its score in the state’s Academic Performance Index score jumped 68 points to 694, placing it in the top third of non-charter middle schools in the city.

But despite academic success, small schools like UPA just can’t afford what other public schools have. They receive the same per-student funding from the state, but the overhead costs — ranging from maintenance to security — are spread out across fewer kids. Add in budget cuts — Oakland Unified had to trim $70 million this year alone — and outside fund-raising has become essential. “We would never be able to find a penny in our budget for this trip,” Guikema said. “We basically have to hustle.”

At UPA, where more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, the Washington, DC trip is a particularly big deal. Students must be nominated by a teacher, fill out an application, write an essay, and finally be interviewed to get one of the coveted eleven spots. Those students participate in special events leading up to the trip, like meeting Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums earlier this month.

UPA sent students to Washington, DC for the first time last year, and they covered many of the key sites, from the national Air and Space Museum to the Capitol building. “My favorite was the Holocaust Museum,” said Kim Alvarez, a smiling ninth grader in hip glasses. She liked how the museum explained the Holocaust through the perspective of a young boy. “We were walking through his steps,” she said.

At the top of Alejandra Santamaria’s list is the Supreme Court. The eighth-grader admires the success of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “I think it’s kinda hard to get there,” Santamaria said. Still, she’s aiming high. “I’m looking for a scholarship from Yale or Harvard or a pretty high-standard university,” she said. Other students anticipate seeing the White House, knowing the first black president is inside, and looking out at the National Mall from where Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the Lincoln Memorial.

Funding for last year’s trip came almost entirely from the Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit that runs student trips in the capital. But this year, the federal Department of Education cut funding for the Close Up Foundation, which in turn halved the amount it provides for each student. UPA would have to come up with $6,000. A plea to family and friends raised a few thousand dollars last year, but now with such a large sum, Guikema knew they needed to do something more.

Then came the marathon announcement. Most of the faculty members at UPA are young and active, so Guikema asked around to see who might be interested in running to raise funds. Teachers and their friends started signing up for the marathon and the companion half-marathon. With a core group of committed runners, the Oakland Running Festival listed UPA on its web site, and the school’s team grew from there. Eventually, seven strangers, who had no prior involvement in the school, committed to the effort.

The school also found ways for students to participate in the running festival. UPA’s soccer team is training for the 5K race, and families will staff an aid station along the route, offering cheers and water to runners on race day.

On a recent Wednesday night, under the lights of the Piedmont High School track, a half-dozen UPA runners ran lap after lap after lap. Some were fast, like running coach Claire Blaney or school algebra teacher Christian Kearney. Others took their time, like textbook marketer Talia Wise, who’s running her first half-marathon to celebrate turning forty. Wise said that her own middle-school trip to Washington, DC had been transformative, so once she saw UPA mentioned on the marathon’s website, she took “maybe three seconds” to decide to support the cause.

Wiping sweat off his brow after the training run, Guikema had big news to report. UPA had more than twenty runners supporting the school, and even better, they had already raised $8,000 — way more than the $6,000 goal for the trip. And, in the coming weeks, they’d hope to reach $10,000. The extra donations, he said, will support other programs, like student trips to college campuses across the state.

As they stretched at the end of the night, the UPA runners were tired from the laps but encouraged by the success of their efforts. Eventually, they packed up their bags and headed off in the night, with more fund-raising and miles of training left before the big race.


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