Oakland Tech kicks off new Green Academy

on September 4, 2009

Five years ago, Oakland Technical High School  teacher Deirdre Snyder wrote some notes at a teacher meeting where the teachers were imagining a new kind of academy within Tech–a program that might help teach students how to make careers out of protecting the environment.

At the kickoff celebration last night for Tech’s new Green Technology Academy, Snyder–who teaches Spanish and Environmental Studies, and who will now help head the new Tech program–said, “We need to do this, because without it there is no future for mankind,” Snyder said in a celebration at the high school’s library.  With the 28 sophomores who make up the charter class, political and business leaders took turns congratulating Tech on the program’s opening week.

“I was thrilled when it turned out there were teachers at Oakland Technical High School who were already thinking about doing this and wanted to do it, so they jumped right in with their administration and got them to apply,” said State Senator Loni Hancock, who is the author of 2008 legislation that supports the creation of California Partnership Academies focused on teaching “environmentally sounds practices in design and construction skills.”

At a training for people who wanted to apply for the funding February 2008, Snyder approached Senator Hancock and said, “We have teachers at Tech who are ready to do this.”  Snyder and Tech math teacher David Laub, together with their administrators, then applied for a $42,000 start-up grant to run a program that will allow students to “study all aspects of energy production, especially green energy,” and to “think critically about choices of renewable energy sources,” according to the school’s pamphlet on the academy.

Like all the other students at Oakland Tech, Green Tech’s students will take English, history, and math classes.  They will also take a special Academy class in environmental studies, and their science requirement for the year is Biology.  They will continue to take Academy-specific classes focused on environmental issues and hands-on experiences like visits to green building job sites and renewable energy research laboratories.  Green Tech’s science requirements are heavy, and the coursework is intended to prepare a student for many options upon graduation: a technical career path right after high school, a two- year certificate from a community college, or a four-year degree at a UC or other four year institution.

Haida Scott, 15, speaks on behalf of her fellow students, the incoming class at Oakland Tech's new Green Academy.

Haida Scott, 15, speaks on behalf of her fellow students, the incoming class at Oakland Tech's new Green Academy.

“You young people that are in this class are thinking in way that we are not as older adults,” Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith told the students last night  “You’re going to take responsibility for changing the conditions and making it a better world and do it in a way that we as adults couldn’t.”

Student speaker Hadia Scott, 15, a short, cinnamon-skinned girl wearing a dozen strings of beaded necklaces, seemed to have a firm grasp on the impact  she and her classmates could have. “Some people think I’m a little crazy to obsess over the little things, ” Hadia said, after encouraging the crowd to pick up their trash, turn off electronics when they leave the room, and take cooler, shorter showers. “But it’s the little things that set off bigger things.  And bigger things cause problems.”

Green Tech–like Health, Engineering, Computers, and Biotech–a is one of five California Partnership Academies run out of Oakland Tech. The academy model is generally described as “a school-within-a-school,” and is one version of the idea that smaller learning communities foster more confident and excited learners.  California Partnership Academies is a state-run program that offers grants to schools whose administrators want to set up a career academy within their larger high school structure.  These academies focus on training students in a particular area in addition to the regular high school subjects.

Not all Tech students are in one of these specific academies, but those who are add their academy classes to the high school’s regularly required subjects.

Like the other CA Partnership Academies run out of Oakland Tech, this one has developed partnerships with businesspeople who will help with student internships and jobs both during school and after graduation.  Green Tech boasts 13 partnerships with local businesses and organizations, including, among others, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, AC Transit, East Bay Green tours, and Rising Sun Energy Center.

Parent Richard McNeal, a well-built man with dreads, said was pleased that his son, Richard Jr, 16, had chosen to be a part of Green Tech.   McNeal, a mortgage broker, said he sees “a lot going into this area,” and feels that getting the technical education that Green Tech offers will put his son “ahead of the curve.”   He said he wants his son to pursue a college education, as he did.  But  mostly, McNeal said, he hopes that the expertise his son will gain at Green Tech – students are taught energy audit techniques, lab skills, and are encouraged to gain on-the-job experience – will give him more options when he graduates.

For his part, Richard Jr, who sported a buzz cut and an easy smile, said he joined Green, “because I wanted to learn more about saving our environment.  I didn’t want ‘2012’ to happen.”  Richard Jr wasn’t the only student to reference a major motion picture like “2012” as one of the reasons for his decision.  Dzenajla Velic, 15, told about watching “An Inconvenient Truth” in eighth grade.  Another 15-year-old cited the TV show “Animal Planet” as an influence.

Hancock said the funding stream for this program and others like it receives extra protection from state budget cuts because of work done a few years ago to separate these monies from the rest of the budget.   Nevertheless, Hancock said, “We should take nothing for granted..People have to be vigilant and fight fiercely to protect kids and schools and their communities.”

At the end of the evening, teachers Snyder and Laub –who together will lead Green Tech–gathered parents and students to give everyone details about what to expect in the upcoming school year.   The students will be working on complex assignments in science, math, English, and the ways those subject relate to environmental sustainability.  But coming to the event was their homework last night.

Minor corrections were made to this article on 9/7/09.  Thanks to Deirdre Snyder for her vigilant editing! -LRM

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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