What’s it like to work at the school you grew up attending? At Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Sobrante Park, East Oakland, there are a number of alums now on staff.
For these educators, connections to the school and community run family-level deep. There’s a feeling that the trajectory of their lives, and often of their families’ lives, was forever positively altered by what they gained at Lionel Wilson.
They’re back because, in a way, they never left — they live in the same neighborhood, and see students around at the grocery store or church. They keep coming back because of their love for the students, and a belief that they can change students’ lives in the same way theirs were changed.
Here’s what the Lionel Wilson Alumni had to say.
Ernesto Diaz is a founding student who graduated in 2009. He came back to work at Lionel Wilson in 2012 as an after school educator. He’s now the School Support Manager.
Juan Bolanos graduated in 2010. He started working at Lionel Wilson in 2014, first as an AmeriCorps member before joining the after school team in 2016. He’s now a college academic counselor.
Andy Cruz graduated in 2010. He’s been working at Lionel Wilson longer than the other alums — he started in 2011 as an after school educator. Now he’s the After School Director.
Terralynn Mosby is a founding student who graduated in 2006. She started working at Lionel Wilson in 2016 as an after school educator. She now serves as the Student Activities Coordinator.
Santiago Franco graduated in 2011. Two years later, he was a high school soccer coach, followed by after school educator. He’s now a physical education teacher and Athletic Director, and coaches boys and girls soccer.
Why did you decide to work at the school you attended growing up?
Ernesto: We’re like a family. When I started as a sixth grader, that was the first year the school had opened. Our principal at the time, Troyvoi Hicks, he really made sure we were a community. We were always tight knit. I remember a bonding retreat, that really helped us connect with each other and feel like a family.
Terralynn: For me being back at Lionel Wilson, it’s a blessing just based off where I came from. Lionel Wilson was one of the reasons why I did go to college. I was one of the founding students, as well as Ernesto, and I was a ninth grader when the school first started. So just to be back in this atmosphere is a beautiful feeling, because I was one of those students that I didn’t think was gonna make it out of Oakland. I didn’t think I’d become someone that students will look up to. It just feels good to be back where someone showed me love, and I can give love back.
Andy: I was only there for three years in high school, but as soon as I got there, what I saw and liked about the school was just how involved the teachers were. All the staff, actually. They all took an interest in you, some more than others. Everyone at least had one adult that had your back and was looking out for you. It could have been anyone — advisor, teacher, administrator. They wanted to make sure you were on the right track. Having that experience while I was there, I’m now trying to be one of those adults that helped the kids.
Juan: I started there the second semester of eighth grade. I was on the waiting list for two-and-a-half years, so I had to go to middle school somewhere else. When I first started at Lionel, one of the first things that caught my eye was the idea that Lionel was a family. Whenever there was a school fight, we would always have an assembly, which we called town halls. It was just this idea of, ‘Why would you fight with your family?’ Even now, as an adult, I may not know the names of alumni that graduated before me, but if I see them around, I recognize their faces. There’s always that little connection when you see someone that also graduated from Lionel.
Santiago: There are a lot of teachers that impacted me. It’s very, very tough for a person of color who comes from Oakland to strive to go to college, especially if you’re a first-time high school graduate in your family. A lot of people have the idea that higher education isn’t an option for them, but there were a lot of teachers that believed in us and basically told us, ‘If you want to go to college, you can set yourself up for that.’ A lot of us went through things growing up, and we felt like Lionel was like our safeguard where we can go and we can interact with people who are like us and show interest in us. As alumni, we just want to give a little something back.
How do you connect with the current students?
Andy: Based on who we are and what we look like, we create like a buffer for families. A lot of the teachers and administrators don’t look like the students. I feel like families feel a lot more comfortable speaking to us about either their problems, or if they need any help, or if they just have any questions about the school. When parents come in late, they’ll skip administrators and come straight to me with questions. I’ve seen that happen to Juan, Ernie, Terralynn, Santi — they want to talk to one of us, because that’s who their kids feel comfortable with. I’ve gone to family parties in the past and I’ve seen students there. And I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ They’ll be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m related to so-and-so.’ It’s like this because we’re all from the same area. Oakland is not that small, but we don’t really leave the same area that much — especially the kids.”
Juan: We still live in the same neighborhoods that they do. When we were students, we really wouldn’t see our teachers outside of school. Now, we shop in the same grocery stores. We’re going to the same Walmart, the same Target. I think that adds a whole different perspective for them. It makes the trust and unity a lot stronger. I had really strong relationships with my teachers, but I would never see them on like, Saturday or Sunday. Now we see them in church, gas stations. It’s a bond that goes beyond Monday through Friday.
Terralynn: I think everyone can agree that Sobrante Park was a little bit harsher when we were students, compared to what the students have to go through now. It seemed like every weekend, we was saying RIP to somebody on the corner. It was very rough for us to walk past that, but we knew that when we got into the gates, we were safe. That’s what we do for our students as well — no matter what’s going on outside of the gates, when you are on the inside, you’re safe. They feel comfortable coming to alumni. We can honestly say that when it comes to gaining respect from students, we get it first because we actually have walked in their shoes. They can’t say we don’t know what it’s like to wear uniforms or wear a hot vest on a Wednesday.
Ernesto: I’m not a savior. But it just feels great to be able to support and provide what you can to people you see going through similar things that you did growing up. It’s definitely easier for (alumni) to connect with our students than it is for other teachers that didn’t grow up in that community. So we are very visible. And we know how to connect and interact with students. We don’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality, we know each student needs a different approach. That has helped a lot with making connections with students and being trusted more, as well.
Santiago: The family piece is really important at Lionel Wilson. My cousins, my older siblings, my younger siblings, they all attended Lionel Wilson. I’m sure that is true for a lot of us. We connect with alumni who graduated years ahead of us, and now we get to interact with their kids. And we connect very well with our students and create really good connections with them.
Why are you able to build close bonds with Lionel Wilson students and families?
Santiago: When I came in, I didn’t know how long I was going to stay. It was more so a time for me to have a part-time job while I go to college. I graduated with a major in criminology. Coming up in Oakland and living in Oakland, I thought what I wanted to do was join the police force and really deter crime and make it a better place. But interacting with the kids, I’m impacting them in ways that Lionel Wilson impacted my family. And that’s mainly because Lionel Wilson has given us an opportunity to go to college. Many of us have parents who migrated here, and our parents didn’t have the childhood that we had, they didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. So thankfully, through Lionel Wilson that was a reality for us. I think, in our minds, every generation that comes in, every student that comes in, every kid that we interact with, we can help support and impact what their life looks like 10 years from now.
Juan: I guess the only way to really put it is Lionel Wilson changed my life, and my family’s lives. I remember growing up, we never had very much. I remember when I filed my first FAFSA, and realizing that my parents really don’t make much. Lionel Wilson got me through college, and my sister and my wife as well. My wife has a masters. Now we make significantly more than what my parents were able to give us. I have a two-year-old. And as I’m looking at it, I know that he is going to have an even better education than I had. In 10 years, Lionel Wilson has changed my family’s trajectory.
Ernesto: I want to give students the experience that I was given. What keeps me there is just being able to give that experience that I was given as a student — being there for students that feel that they don’t really have anyone. There are a lot of students who just need someone to lead them. The reality is that we’re not going to be able to help every single student, but we are able to help as many as we can.
Terralynn: What keeps us coming back, and what keeps us hopeful for better days — because every school is not perfect, let’s be very clear, right? — and what keeps us grounded, is the foundation that we grew up on. It was like, ‘think you can, work hard, get smart.’ That’s what has us coming back. We want those students to get the same love and care, and actually affection, that we got. I remember my teachers really letting me cry. Like, it was OK for them to be that family member, for a moment.
Andy: The after school program is supposed to be enrichment for the students, but I know that for close to 100 percent of the families, it’s mainly child care because they work. They need that help, and the students have nowhere else to go. At first, it might be that the students may not want to be there. But I think over time, usually towards the end of the year, I have students who show up even on days where we don’t have a program. I’m there, I’ll stay anyways, and then I’ll end up hanging out with some of them until their parents pick them up. It’s giving them a space. It’s giving them somewhere to be, something to do, somewhere they’re safe. We still have some students who are just out and about after school, we’ll see them cruising down the street on their bike. And then you’re like, ‘Why aren’t you home?’ ‘No one’s home anyway, so why am I gonna stay?’ This gives an opportunity to have somewhere where at least they have some kind of supervision, but also have the ability to do activities outside instead of just hanging out.
That’s where I come in. And that’s where Santi comes in with athletics. Juan stays after school, helping students past regular school hours. Ernie has volunteered for basketball, and that small time where we were doing flag football. I don’t know why Terralynn stays so late, but she’s always there. She does cheerleading after school, she’s done the Black Student Union. She’s there more after school than she is during the day, honestly. That’s when we interact with the kids the most, in a non-academic way. It’s a more relaxed environment.