Oakland community gathers at education summit to brainstorm ideas for dropout prevention

on November 24, 2009

Wesly Sims dropped out of high school after joining a gang. But during his month-long absence, he received a month’s worth of phone calls from a teacher, Mr. Littles, until finally, Sims returned. Speaking in a booming voice to a crowd at the Castlemont Community of Small Schools auditorium last weekend, Sims said he was “inspired by how much [Mr. Littles] cared.” Now an honor roll student with a 4.0 grade point average, Sims said his disruptive behavior was his way of “crying out for help.”

Sims spoke as part of Oakland’s Promise Alliance Dropout Prevention Summit, where Oakland students, parents, community members, teachers and other district employees came together to exchange ideas about how to slash the district’s 31 percent dropout rate.

“We all came [here] for a noble cause: to keep our kids in school and make sure they graduate,” said Lane Hyde, the event’s emcee. “While the Oakland’s Promise Alliance has been able to enhance the life of Oakland youngsters in meaningful ways, there is much more work to be done.”

The summit was one of 55 sponsored nationwide by the youth-focused nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance. Oakland’s Promise Alliance, a collaboration among America’s Promise, the City of Oakland, and other member organizations, aims to enhance the educational experience for the city’s students and cut the dropout rate in half by 2018.

Betty Olson Jones, the president of the Oakland Education Association, argued that “students aren’t dropping out as much as they are being pushed out.” A gross underfunding of Oakland’s schools has led to unsatisfactory learning environments that lack personal attention, qualified teachers and basic infrastructural resources, she said. Five years prior, for example, the Castlemont library was closed and subdivided into offices, Jones said, leaving the library with a quarter of its former space, one-tenth of its shelf-space and a “textbook clerk” in the place of a librarian.

Kitty Epstein, Oakland’s Director of Education, attributed Oakland’s struggle in part to federal and state policies, such as the overuse of testing. “A lot of restraints are at another level,” Epstein said. “I feel pretty good about what is happening in Oakland.”

As of last October, the city has implemented or is working on implementing more than half the recommendations of education task forces initiated by Mayor Ron Dellums in 2006, according to the forces’ preliminary report.  The services underway, according to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), include an almost six-fold increase in after-school programs, the creation of school-based health centers, and the formation of the All City Council, a panel of students who weigh in on education issues with the city’s school board, district administrators and local organizations.

Sagnicthe Salazar, a Skyline High School graduate now attending San Francisco University, said she teetered on the edge of dropping out. She worked on the school-based health centers with a local youth group, Youth Together. Salazar attributed her own academic rebound to her involvement with Youth Together, where student leaders were held to high expectations, a motivating force Salazar said she experienced at her all-Latino elementary school but lacked at Skyline.

The turning point for Salazar came in an ultimatum from a Youth Together coordinator, who caught wind of Salazar’s subpar grades. “‘You can’t call yourself a student leader and go to the principal’s office and go to the school board members and tell them you want a better education but you aren’t even going to class,’” Salazar said she was told. “‘Don’t even come to me and tell me you are a student leader until you have a 4.0’ So, the next marking period, I had a 4.0,” she said. “I knew I had a responsibility to my community to succeed.”

Salazar wore the event’s signature plastic green wristband, which read “Oakland’s Promise is to help all students graduate” and which, at the start of his speech, Sims asked members of the audience to remove if they weren’t going to help fulfill the promise.

“Save a child from dropping out by caring,” Sims said.  “When you start caring about students, they start caring about themselves.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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