A Catalyst for quality school options in San Leandro

San Leandro families living in the Bay Fair area near East Oakland have a great need for quality public schools that prepare students to succeed in college and beyond. Only 14 percent of African American public school students are on grade level for math, and just 29 percent are reading on grade level. For Latino/a students, the numbers aren’t much better: 20 percent are proficient in math and 35 percent are reading on grade level.

“This encapsulates why there is a strong case for additional options for families to choose for their child,” said Nicki Fox, the Lead Founder of San Leandro Catalyst Collegiate (SLCC), a proposed TK-5 public charter school that would open in San Leandro fall of 2021. On May 26, SLCC goes before the Alameda County Board of Education for a hearing on its charter petition. 

Precious Watson is a founding parent of SLCC. She said she wants her daughter, Paradise, to have more support and a better education than she received. 

“To be honest I didn’t know a school like San Leandro Catalyst Collegiate could exist,” Watson said. “I don’t remember having nothing like that. I feel that this school can really give kids an opportunity to extend their minds and their thinking, and get an opportunity to experience something new, a better way to receive education.”

Fox is a former teacher at Leadership Public Schools Oakland R&D and administrator at Oakland Unity High School and Impact Academy of Arts & Technology, and she knows first-hand how life changing a quality school can be for a student. San Leandro currently does not have any charter schools. Fox became aware of San Leandro parents’ need for quality school options when she was working at LPS Oakland R&D. 

“We had a handful of families living in San Leandro but were attending our school in East Oakland,” Fox said. “Families were making this choice because San Leandro doesn’t have any charter schools and they didn’t think that San Leandro High School was a good fit for their child.”

Fox now works with some of those former students, who still live in San Leandro and now have children of their own. “They’re looking for a high-quality public elementary school for their children that will be providing a different experience, perhaps a better experience, than the one that’s in their neighborhood,” she said. 

Ana Villavicencio, also a founding parent of SLCC, said she knows families who commute to schools all the way in Downtown Oakland. She said her neighborhood school isn’t serving Latino/a students well, and she is looking for a better option for her son. 

“San Leandro Catalyst is set to fill many of the gaps that public schools in San Leandro are currently leaving for students and their families,” she said. “Our children deserve more attention and having two adults per classroom is a good proposal. The extended instruction schedule is also another feature that will benefit my kids because they will have more learning time and parents who do not have access to childcare.”

SLCC’s model is centered around providing students with agency: “intellectual agency” and thinking for themselves; a focus on oral discussion and embedded thinking routines for all classes; a focus on literacy. Fox said she anticipates the school will enroll a lot of bilingual students since San Leandro’s population of English Language Learners has increased in recent years. 

Part of the school day will focus on “moral agency” and character development, Fox said, with circles at the beginning and end of the day. Fox said she’s particularly excited about “creative agency” and helping students develop design thinking.

“When students believe and internalize that they have the power to create,” she said, “they’ll have the critical lens to look through systems and design, and start to think about ‘who is this system designed to benefit.’ Who is it designed by and designed for?

“These are questions we want our students to think about as they think about creating their own future.”

Even with the high need and parent demand for a quality charter school in San Leandro, and a strong, research-backed petition from SLCC, the San Leandro school board swiftly denied its petition in April. The board voted 7-0 to deny without any discussion or questions. “Maybe they don’t see the need,” Fox said. “The data says differently.”

Many SLCC families gave testimonials during the online hearing. For many, this was the first time they’d publicly engaged in a political process. Afterward, many felt disappointed and unheard; that they’d done a lot of work and had emotionally invested in something that was for naught. But they were also galvanized and eager to appeal to the county board of education. 

“They felt powerful, because they were able to use their voices,” Fox said of the SLCC families. “Continuing to be in this process allows our families, more and more, to understand what it means to be a part of this country and make change in this way. We had conversations afterward where they said, ‘We remember what you said: this is part of it, and we’re still with you.”

The SLCC families are invested in the school because they helped design it. Fox said that parent input was a key component in the school’s design because the SLCC exists to fill needs San Leandro parents have been asking for. Georjinia Barajas, another founding parent, said, “I have supported San Leandro Catalyst Collegiate since day one because I believe in it. One thing that made me believe this is the level of communication that we as families have with the school. My input as a parent is always acknowledged and I love that. I think it’s great that families are part of making our school.”

“It’s exciting and humbling to ask families, to ask the community, for their input and their insight,” Fox said. “The more the voice of the community shows up within a school, the more it truly becomes a school for the community, designed by the community. That is something that can’t be overlooked or understated.”

The SLCC team will take their appeal to the ACOE trustees to consider the need for San Leandro’s families to have a new public school option on Tuesday, May 26. You can tune in to watch their public hearing on Zoom at the ACOE website.

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