Are Oakland Students Ready for the World?

On Tuesday in Oakland, the school script was flipped. Gathered around bright tables in the atrium of MetWest High School, dozens of high schoolers and recent graduates confidently and openly reflected on if and how Oakland public schools prepared them for college and careers; while dozens of adults including the new Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Oakland Board of Education member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, school administrators and teachers, listened with rapt attention.

The youth-led discussion forum, called ‘Ready for the World’, was hopefully the first in a series of forums. Our education system is built for students; we adults are the hired help. In order to do our jobs right, we need to listen better.

To that end, Tuesday’s forum included Oakland students candidly discussing four themes – Leadership, Expression, Equity, and Real World Opportunities – to inform school leaders working towards better outcomes for future graduates.



 Several young people discussed equity issues and struggles related to the lack of resources in their schools and in Oakland, such as not having a girls’ basketball team and wearing old jerseys on another team.  As one young woman said, “our school may not have the same resources as others… it gets in my head.”

Students also candidly acknowledged racial, ethnic, gender, sexual identity and class tensions in their schools, and expressed their strong support for diversity and equality.

 When one recent graduate expressed the need for more teachers of color with cultural competency in Oakland schools to work with students of color, an OUSD Administrator asked her, “would you consider going into education?” Her unequivocal answer: “I would.”

Another student expressed her distaste for the term ‘continuation,’ saying, “I don’t like that title because it makes me feel like it’s not a real high school.” She shared how the school’s smaller size and community she’s found there have benefited her education, and called for greater equity between alternative and traditional school models in Oakland. 


 Another thought-provoking discussion was about how students react when they feel unheard in their schools.  Several young people emphasized the need for meaningful engagement by adults in their schools to counteract pervasive problems like disengagement, low test scores, apathy and tardiness. One student said, “when you know your school is not out the help you, you’re not going to show up.”

Another student shared her experience, saying, “a lot goes on, and teachers don’t see that. They just say, oh you have an attitude, what’s wrong with you.  But I could’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed. I could’ve gotten some terrible news. [Teachers should] know what someone is going through instead of jumping to conclusions.”

A third student explained, “teachers that come to school need to be able to relate with what the kids are going through so they can have a voice in the situation.”

This discussion underscored the need for adults to ask ourselves, how much attention do we give to students’ personal well-being and development, not just academic achievement?




 Other discussions centered on how Oakland students seized opportunities to lead and succeed, pushing the boundaries of adult expectations. Students shared inspiring anecdotes about sticking their necks out and motivating others to care about critical issues in their schools and communities.

As one student shared her involvement in Youth Together, saying “I’m a lead student organizer and I was able to learn about the Black Panther Party and other movements that opened my eyes to the fact that students are at the forefront of everything.  [So] no matter how hard it is, I have to be at the forefront to advocate for those who can’t.”

“I feel like I can make a change, even as a 16-year-old” said an Oakland Unity High School student, who advised OUSD on its sexual harassment policy.

 Real World Opportunities 

At another table, students discussed the value that internships, extracurricular programs, vocational training, experiential learning, field trips, and travel opportunities added to their Oakland school experiences. The overwhelming consensus was that access to experiences outside the classroom enriches student learning and opens students’ eyes to new opportunities.

“I was an intern for Californians for Justice, it was really comprehensive and I had a lot of hands on opportunities to get to see what it’s like being a person of color in 2017,” noted one student.

Another student described her involvement at Facebook’s Emotional Leaning Summit, saying, “what I learned from it was how valuable the opportunity to fail is.  If we aren’t given the opportunity to mess up that means adults are too involved.”

At the conclusion of the forum on Tuesday, the adults in the room were clearly moved by powerful student stories they had heard.

Superintendent Johnson-Trammell said, “our core mission is quality education… [so] we all need to be working together.”

Allowing students to have their own voices in improving their schools is critical. This forum was only the first step in a longer journey.

Watch These Oakland Students Tell Us How to Understand and End Gun Violence

About the Author: Sophia Sobko is a former teacher and current graduate student at UC Berkeley.

​Last Friday evening E14 Gallery in Downtown Oakland buzzed as 7th and 8th graders from Lighthouse Community Charter School shared their research, artwork, and writing on gun-related violence in Oakland. The exhibit was the culmination of a year of research and creative production exploring the causes, consequences, and potential solutions of gun violence in their community and beyond.

Student ambassadors spread across the spacious gallery, leading visitors through the exhibit’s many stations: research and data, history of the 2nd amendment, narratives, art campaigns, potential solutions, and participant response. Student speakers moved between English and Spanish, sharing statistics and personal stories about gun violence with one goal: to educate others and move them to action.

Fair Pay for More Work- What is Oakland’s Superintendent Worth?

Oakland should have a new superintendent.  We should offer her a competitive contract and hold her accountable to that.  Her contract is up for vote at the board meeting.  I was disappointed to hear that the usual suspects were coming to protest the superintendent’s new contract.

Please don’t, please stay home.

Are we going to start with this shite again?  Never-ending board meetings that repel any sane person and make a mockery of the “publickness” of it.  Name calling, delays, and the parents that have to get home to their kids are waiting four hours to give a 2 minute statement that the board can’t even answer.

The cost of not having a superintendent, or driving one away through foolishness is higher than any marginal difference between her salary and that of other superintendents.  And from the recent analysis of superintendent pay by Educate 78, she is getting a fair salary

Oakland is harder, we have real strategic challenges; issues with achievement and achievement gaps, schools are underfunded, a bottoming out teacher market, and flat future funding amidst spiking costs of living.

And you are inheriting a structural deficit, debt to the state from the last takeover, and some tough and unpopular decisions will have to be made.

It’s not really a superintendent’s buyer’s market, not a ton of great candidates still looking for a job that can step in and hit the ground running.  She seems like she can.  But not if folks are trying to trip her up rather than help her build.

Don’t come to the meeting, don’t waste the community’s time, and don’t waste your breath.  Give this Sister a fair chance, despite what you may tell yourself, you are not helping.

Why I Re-joined the NAACP; Confessions from a Prodigal Son

Black folks are still catching hell.  At district schools, charters, private schools, in the Flatlands and the Hills, we are catching hell.    It may be a different hell, “the sunken place” where we see our children’s ambitions die a slow death by a thousand sleights, checking their identity at the schoolhouse door or fighting against the tide to maintain it inside.

It’s not always so bleak, but many of us see a slow grinding process, with lower expectations, higher punishment and subtle and not so subtle reminders of the American dilemma.   Parents worry about leaving their children at school, and what unscripted lessons they are learning when the classroom door closes.

I hear it from parents everywhere, in every sector, it will break your heart, to hear how the system breaks our children or tries to.  And as a community we need to get together and have some honest conversations.

Three out of Four Black boys don’t meet reading standards in California.

So, I re-joined the NAACP.

I had always admired the work of the NAACP.  As a kid, it’s funny I remember my mom saying how Reagan didn’t speak in front of the NAACP, and I was pissed off, hated him for that, felt like he had turned his back on us.  Not that he had to show us any love, but he didn’t even show us respect.  And US was the NAACP.

And as an aspiring civil rights lawyer I idolized Thurgood Marshall and the legal fight for rights, at least the way I understood it at the time.  Derrick Bell and “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” changed some of that thinking but Thurgood Marshall was, and still is, a hero to me.

Over the years though, my confidence had slipped.  The NAACP seemed out of touch; over spending, the whole Rachel Dolezal thing, payoffs around discrimination and the sham charter school hearings.  I wondered where the substance of the organization was, as it seemed mired in muck, and not speaking to what Black folks that I hear from need or want.

Back to the roots

I had one of those parents catching hell stories cross my desk—well several.    I reached out to the Oakland NAACP for help and they were there.  In the way that I remember them being there, listening to the real concerns of families and supporting them.  I charged my card the membership fee.

In 2015-16 23.6% of African American students in OUSD graduated with the courses to apply to UC or CSU, the A-G requirements, the rate was 76.5% for White students.

So I re-joined the NAACP.

The barriers facing our children and families have no sector—they are the American problem, and we need honest internal debates, not shows put on for the outside or for sponsors, on either “side.”  I hope we can start to have those real honest debates about the state of education for our children here, what is working, what is not working, and how we make things better.

We have enough sideshows in Oakland if you get me.

We still are catching hell everywhere we go, not every day, and not in the same way, but I hear the stories and know they are true.  Damn, even with my own schools when we pull the data apart, we see the same patterns.

And if you don’t believe the stories, the numbers are undeniable.

Check your school or your district, or any school, or any district and the disparities exist.  The Times looked at the numbers nationwide and with a depressing graph telling the tale.  I challenge anyone to find a district without a racial achievement or disciplinary gap.

So again, this is an American problem.  I hope that over these next years we can come together as a community to discuss, understand and address the problems, rather than splintering into factions of blame or seeing this as a charter versus district thing.

That may make for good theater.  But we need good dialogue, and I hope that the NAACP, at least locally, will help provide that.  I am all in.


Jordan 4s: A Trip to a Better Me

By Ashley Mendez

Back to El Salvador 

I made my way to the hammock that had all of the colors of the rainbow on it. I laid down on it and saw the branches of the coconut trees dancing back and forth from the breeze that moved west. The cows were mooing and the birds were whistling. I felt lighter than a plastic bag because the weight of my daily responsibilities back home weren’t on my shoulders anymore.

I closed my eyes halfway, and thoughts started to roam through my head.  “What are my friends doing? Are they going to Mariela’s quince?” All I wanted to do was catch up with my friends. I was desperate to get Wi-Fi and get on social media. I slowly opened my eyes as I stood up to kill my boredom and explore the rest of the area around my grandma’s house. This was my first time back in El Salvador since I was a kid.

The first thing I saw was a man in a green cap and rainboots who blended right in with the corn crops. He pushed his way out of the compact space and walked toward the wired fence to take a sip of water. It was my uncle Milton who worked in weather that felt like 200 degrees. “How does he do it?” I thought. All I wanted to do all morning was to dive into a bucket of ice and now he was out in the heat with long sleeves on. I guessed that it was to protect his arms from the pesticides and beaming sun.

Balls vs. Bottle Caps  

I made my way back to the house and smelled the burnt wood coming from my grandma’s kitchen. Grandma didn’t have a stove so she had to use her resources to prepare meals. “Vente a comer, mija,” she demanded in her soft sweet voice. My grandma was always on time with meals and always served more than we could eat. The fried plantains with sour cream satisfied my hunger and attracted flies to the table. I was waving them away when my grandma said, “Vamos a la tienda.” I immediately went back inside to change. I left the tank top that I had on and changed into shorts.

“Should I wear my sandals or my Jordans?” I thought to myself.

I brought five pairs of shoes with me to El Salvador. With this small portion of my collection in front of me, I felt as if picking the right pair was the most crucial decision ever. After going with my white Jordan 4s, I hopped into the back of my Tio’s red pickup truck on our way to the city.

I held on tightly as the hot wind blew my hair away from my face. I awed at the volcanoes. El Salvador was dipped in green. Tall trees, grass and crops.  We passed by the monument of San Vicente. The bells from the church were ringing because the clock reached 12pm.

We drove for about a minute or two before the car made a complete stop. We parked in front of a school where I saw kids playing soccer with plastic water bottle caps during recess.

Their celebrations were the same as mine whenever I scored a goal, even though they didn’t have a real soccer ball. The whistle blew near my ears, leaving me deaf for about a minute till I was able to hear properly again. The kids paused to hear the screechy directions given from the megaphone. They ran inside, like birds in a flock.

My uncle helped my grandma down the truck and said he was going to stay and watch the car. My parents’ old stomping grounds were filled with gang violence so I made sure to turn my head and watch my back every once in awhile.

The Boy Without Shoes

After walking through a long line of vendors selling shampoo, vegetables, and soda in plastic bags, we made a short stop. “Me da una libra de queso por favor,” my grandma said. I looked down at my shoes and noticed a small dirt stain on the midsole. I licked my finger and raised my foot to clean them. Even though I scrubbed the living life out of the shoe, the chocolate colored spot remained.

I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and saw an underfed six year old who held a transparent bag full of tomatoes.

“Compreme una corra,” he pleaded.

I examined him up and down and noticed that he had no shoes on.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Earlier, I couldn’t even enjoy my time to relax, while this minor skipped school to be able to survive. Earlier, I was cleaning my two hundred dollar shoes when somebody else didn’t even own socks. This couldn’t be true.

I was always too materialistic and had not considered that people had it worse. After seeing my blank stare, he walked away and went about his day. I wanted to help the young boy, but I knew that giving him money wasn’t going to better the situation. I also knew that the slim face I saw could have been me.

I still think about this trip a lot. My grandma, my uncle, the little boy with no shoes. I have become more observant. Recently I saw a mom with a little girl selling strawberries and cherries on the street and was reminded of the struggles my people face. Sometimes I lose my motivation, but then I am reminded that this is why I keep going. I have to take advantage of the opportunities I have and to offer a voice for those who are unheard.

About the Author

My name is Ashley Mendez and I am a junior at Lighthouse Community Charter School. I want to attend a prestigious university like UC Berkeley. I have never published my writing before so this is brand new to me. I hope that my writing encourages you to reflect on your personal life and goals. Sometimes we get  so caught up in our daily responsibilities that we forget how to enjoy life. Sometimes we are too concerned over materialistic things that we forget that others lack basic necessities. Follow me on the journey that has allowed me to grow as an individual and be centered on my goal of giving back to others.