Are Oakland Students Ready for the World?
By Dirk Tillotson
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 to 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 Learning 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 the 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.
Dirk Tillotson is the Interim Executive Director at Oakland Families for Quality Schools.