Published in Oakland Tribune, May 29, 2012
OAKLAND — East Oakland’s Fremont High School campus is undergoing a transformation this year — the second major reform effort in a decade. Its three small schools, created in 2003 with millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are combining back into one: a “full-service community school” that promises to focus on students’ overall health and well-being.
In an attempt to shore up Fremont’s teaching force and curb its 33 percent dropout rate, Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith created a new kind of teaching position for the school-in-the-making, with a longer work year and higher pay. Of the 53 teachers at Fremont this year, 43 applied for the job; 35 have been accepted.
But parents, students and teachers say that for the school to truly turn around, something must be done about the violence on the streets outside the school, the fights on campus and the lack of student motivation — as evidenced in groups of students who cut class to smoke marijuana and drink. More than 20 percent of students on the East Oakland campus missed 18 days of school or more in 2009-10.
“Our students can’t learn if the school isn’t safe,” Eneyda Melendez, a Fremont parent, told a panel of police officers and school and city officials Tuesday, speaking in Spanish. “Our students can’t learn if they’re intoxicated by alcohol and drugs.”
In one recent shootout near campus, a bullet hit the side of a classroom, said Daniel Hurst, the school principal. In another incident, on April 17, a gunman who wasn’t a student began shooting, apparently aiming at no one in particular, just as students poured out of school at the end of the day.
“It is only crazy good luck that no one was hurt,” Hurst said. “There were hundreds of kids on the streets at that time.”
Hurst spoke at a meeting convened by Oakland Community Organizations. For years, the group has used parent involvement to affect change in schools in the city’s low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Azel Grasty, whose son is a sophomore, led the meeting.
“Fremont is a great school,” Grasty said, praising the dedication of many of its teachers and other employees. “The problem is we’re not working together.”
On the stage of the Fremont High auditorium, parents, teachers and students sat at one table, sharing their perspectives and asking questions of the officials sitting a few feet away. Those officials included Oakland police Capt. Brian Medeiros, who oversees operations in much of East Oakland; Oakland schools police Chief James Williams; City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente; and Oakland school board member and City Council candidate Noel Gallo.
After the testimonials came the promises. When pressed, De La Fuente committed to installing more high-resolution cameras on the streets near the school, though he hedged on whether the city should pay the full cost. Williams said there was enough money in the overtime budget for an OUSD officer to police the periphery of the school from 4 to 6 p.m. — at least through the end of the year. Gallo said the district’s master plan would allocate $87 million to improve the school’s decaying facilities; the school board will discuss the plan at a Wednesday night meeting.
On May 15, the school advocates will meet again with city and school officials to discuss how to coordinate services and discipline for students who are caught drinking or doing drugs at school.
Despite widespread agreement that action must be taken to improve the school, not everyone agrees on the remedy. Jameela Rougeau, a senior, said she thinks more police officers and tighter security are necessary. Dajanique White, a junior, said students need to be protected from adults who come onto the campus to start fights.
But Roy Ramos, a junior, said a stronger police presence won’t motivate students to learn or keep them in school if they don’t find the curriculum relevant to their lives, or if they’re treated with suspicion by the authorities. Most of the people who cause trouble in the community, he noted, are no longer in school at all.
“Don’t just fix cameras, fix books, fix classrooms,” he said. “Bring what’s needed for us to be successful, for us to have a middle-class life, to go to a four-year college.”