Saying Fremont High School in East Oakland serves a high-needs student population is a severe understatement. That was true before COVID-19 exacerbated inequities and made life that much more difficult for students, and educating them that much more challenging for their teachers.
“You have kids who are homeless, you have kids who are unaccompanied minors, I have students who are in jail and group homes,” said Kehinde Salter, the performing arts Instructor at Fremont. “I have kids who live with somebody, not really a relative, but they’re not adopted or in foster care. There are a lot of kids who are in unstable situations.
“There are a lot of kids who are with their families but right now both parents aren’t working, so they have nothing. There’s a lot of kids whose parents are working but they’re still living in poverty. Because of that, it’s difficult to get them to engage, even when they are on campus.”
Salter is a veteran educator who has taught at Fremont the past four years. She’s from Oakland and has seen it drastically change from a Black city to one that is rapidly gentrifying. She’s a passionate and energetic person, she calls herself “dramatic.” She’s someone who voices her opinions while aware that when she does, she can be perceived as “an angry Black woman.” When engaging in difficult conversations she knows that often “my Blackness precedes me.”
She cares deeply about her students. She holds them to high standards because she cares about their future. But instructing students, even just keeping tabs on them now, is “exponentially more difficult,” she said.
“I have been going roster by roster, dialing phone numbers that are disconnected, I’m calling admin, going ‘what other phone numbers do you have,’ calling four or five phone numbers to reach a parent,” Salter said. “I’m using Talking Points, I’m using Google Classroom, I’m text messaging, email, I’m calling friends, I’m trying to find their handles on Instagram. I have been trying to contact every individual student, every individual parent.
“I got through my rosters last night and closed my computer and was like, ‘I’m over it’ and gave everybody my phone number. And then kids are texting me all night, ‘What do I do, how do I do this, I don’t understand. And that’s how it is.’”
When shelter in place shut down schools, Fremont was one of the first OUSD schools to distribute computers to students. Salter said that 100 percent of students at the school now have a device at home. The issue that remains is connectivity: only 75 percent of students can access the internet from their living situation.
It’s a maddening and frustrating problem for Fremont educators. Salter is fighting hard to not just keep in touch with students, but keep them connected to instruction. She knows the pandemic is affecting people around the world, with no end in sight. She doesn’t want to shortchange her students — many who were already several grades behind — by just giving them a pass. That’s not how life works. She is against just giving every student a passing grade because she believes this is detrimental to their future.
“Why are we still teaching online if we’re just going to pass everybody? Why did we pass out devices?” she said. “Why am I spinning my wheels making sure kids have access to the internet?”
Making sure every student had access to a device was difficult and took “an awesome team effort” from Fremont staff to make it happen, Salter said. But then came the challenge of helping connect families to the internet.
“Trying to get wifi has been extremely difficult,” Salter said. “There have been all these organizations that said they were going to provide free wifi, Comcast was one of them. Then when parents would contact them, they’d have to jump through hoops. So 25 percent of the student body can’t access anything, and that’s been a whole bigger issue. If we were able to provide wifi like we did devices, then all students would have it. But that’s been out of our hands. That’s been very stressful.”
Salter said she doesn’t think students who don’t have access to the internet should fail, and she has taken matters into her own hands. When Salter was going through her list of students and identifying students who are failing, she started to wonder if they were failing other classes as well. That made her realize it was likely an access issue.
Recently, she called a student and asked why she was failing. The student told Salter she didn’t have the internet at home. Salter asked if the student had communicated this to other instructors, and asked the student why Salter was just finding this out a week and a half before the end of the school year. The student said she told her advisor months ago, but that information got lost in the shuffle and the instructors weren’t contacted.
“I’m trying to go back and cross my t’s and dot my i’s and make sure students who are failing because of lack of access don’t fail,” she said. “But students who do have access are held accountable for doing the work. And it’s stressful.”
Salter isn’t giving up just because the school year is almost over. She’s been in touch with TechExchange, sending emails to teachers and administrators, trying to work together during a time when teachers can’t gather together on campus to brainstorm problems together.
“The struggle continues,” she said. “It’s something we need to continue to work on. I’ve been trying to reach out to all my co-workers to update these lists because some families still don’t have access. I was hoping to have some resolution before the end of the year, but that’s not going to happen. So now it’s maybe we can figure it out for summer, and if we can’t figure it out for summer, I’ll still be working on it for the next school year.
“That’s where it is right now: a never-ending thing until it actually happens.”