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Gambling for one of Oakland’s small schools

on February 24, 2009

Tamara Arroyo, a young woman with her hair in a ponytail, pulled up the corners of the two cards she’d been dealt, an ace and a jack, and then looked at her dwindling pile of chips. With a gleam in her eyes and a slight smile, she obviously did not know the meaning of a poker face. On the table lay two jacks, a queen, and a king. The dealer dealt the final card-an ace. She cleaned up.

Arroyo once spent a decade as a public school teacher and now works for Teach for America. Last Saturday night she was playing poker at Leona Lodge, a rental space run by the City of Oakland, to help raise money for Elmhurst Community Prep Middle School, a small public school in East Oakland. “I’m here to support a public school that I know is doing really good work in a community where children need a safe, stable and healthy place to go,” she said.

Green felt lined the poker tables with built-in cupholders that were spread across Leona Lodge’s hardwood floor. Elmhurst teachers passed out cheat sheets on the rules of poker and worked the improvised bar, stocked with two kegs and all types of liquor.

A $50 buy-in got the players a home-cooked enchilada dinner and a Ziploc baggie full of poker chips. The game of the night was “No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em,” which meant people could bet every chip they had. At the beginning of each game, a quote from the movie “Rounders” played over the loud speakers: “Texas Hold ‘Em is the Cadillac of poker.”

Fifty people signed up to play; throughout the night the crowd would be whittled down to one final winner who would take home the $400 cash prize.

“I’d love to make $3,000 [for the school] tonight,” said Jessica Eastman, the head of operations and development at Elmhurst, as she flagged down people coming through the front door to pay up and get their chips. “This money will be for the extras that are not covered by the school district.”

These extras include things like giving a trophy to kids with 4.0 GPAs, or bringing in one-on-one tutors for those who are struggling. Every year the school takes incoming sixth graders to Vida Verde Nature Center in Half Moon Bay for three days to give them an outdoor experience they wouldn’t normally have-this is also considered an “extra.”

Elmhurst is in the heart of East Oakland and has predominantly Hispanic and African-American students. Before 2003, when principal Matt Duffy took over, Elmhurst had almost 1,000 students. In 2006, he and another principal divided it into two separate smaller schools; now his school has just 360 students. Since then, it’s had a major boost in student achievement. Last year, Elmhurst ranked the second highest middle school in the district on the Academic Performance Index, which is a state ranking of all public schools.

Duffy believes that in order for a school to do well, students need to have specialized attention. Having a smaller school helps, but it also means less money for the school. The Oakland Unified School District funds schools by giving them money based on how many students are enrolled. As a result, smaller schools get less money overall, which is why outside fundraising is crucial.  “It’s absolutely clear we are working with less and less money every year. This fundraiser is for the extra things we can’t afford like buses and field trips,” said Duffy.

Even worse, with the California state budget finally signed last week, education is taking serious cuts. Over the next two years, state spending on kindergarten through 12th grade will be decreased by $8.4 billion. “Increasingly, having less money is becoming part of the landscape for all public schools,” said Duffy.

A winning hand

A winning hand

Elmhurst’s night of Texas Hold ‘Em was run by Beau Bautista, the owner of Blue Dog Events. His business raises money for charities through poker games; they’ve also done events for the Special Olympics, Children’s Hospital Oakland, and for causes like cystic fibrosis. Last year, the company helped non-profits raise a total of $500,000. “We run it like Vegas, so it’s fun for people who play poker,” said Bautista. “But we also put out cheat sheets so people who have never played can have a good time too.”

Projected on the wall of Leona Lodge was a slide show of kids dissecting frogs, playing basketball and doing dance routines, reminding the poker players why they were placing bets. Winners spontaneously jumped up and clapped while others cheered them on. Although people eventually ran out of chips, there were no gloomy feelings as the games continued without them.

“I hear the librarian is just cleaning up,” said a friend of an Elmhurst teacher, Dave Kuhlmann, as he stood on the sidelines. He had lost every hand he went for-ending his game early in the evening. “I don’t care about losing,” he said. “It’s money going to a good cause.”

Arroyo’s beginners’ luck also didn’t last long; pretty soon she was sitting next to Laura Townsend, a woman who wore a continuous smile despite the fact that she was wearing a t-shirt that said “Neighborhood Witch.” Townsend is a long-time resident of East Oakland and has worked at Elmhurst for nearly twenty years, first as a sixth grade English teacher, now as the librarian, and as Kuhlmann reported, she had indeed had a winning night. In high-spirits, during the tournament intermission she topped all other donors and wrote a check to the school for $1,000.

After almost all the players were picked off, the final eight sat down to play their last hands. Townsend was out, but she joined the crowd of people closely surrounding the table, intently watching the cards being dealt.

Dealing up Texas Hold 'Em

Dealing up Texas Hold ‘Em

Bit by bit, it got down to the final two. Darrell Chow, the father-in-law of a teacher, who had bet down to his last chip more times than any player of the night, systematically worked his way back, gathering every chip in the house and winning the pot. Second place winner, Brian Bell, an Elmhurst teacher’s friend, admiringly said it was “One of the best comebacks at a final table that I’ve ever seen.”

By the end of the night, Elmhurst had raised $2,800. To even the tally and accomplish the school’s goal of raising $3,000, Bell donated his $200 second place cash prize. “The whole point of the tournament was to raise money for the school,” he said as he handed over his winnings.

Elmhurst is hosting a Jazz night fundraiser at the Oakland Museum on March 22nd at 5pm, for more information e-mail Jessica Eastman at For more information on how to donate to Elmhurst and other small public schools in Oakland, go to


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  2. […] Published February 24, 2009 at Oakland North […]

  3. Duffy fans blog on April 9, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Rockferry – Duffy…

    The disc art and video for the title track were captured on and near the Ffestiniog Railway in Porthmadog, which was named ‘Rockferry’ after for the occasion….

  4. Johan on April 14, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I am new to your blog and I do like to read it!

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