Oakland Tech celebrates centennial
on November 17, 2015
This year, Oakland Tech turned 100, and its alums have planned a celebration lasting an entire year.
The Centennial Celebration, organized by staff, students and alumni, included a gala over Memorial Day weekend, a talent show for students and alumni in February, and the creation of a book, video and website commemorating the anniversary. “This centennial was kind of a fun opportunity to show off the school and how well it’s doing, especially to its alumni, who might have become disengaged over the course of the years,” said Dan Williams, a parent of three Oakland Tech alums and a key player in the planning process for the celebration. Williams said his children “were very different, and did different things, academically were in very different places, but all had a great time,” he said. “And as I quickly found out, Tech’s an amazing school with an amazing history.”
The celebration has also inspired a presentation at the main branch of Oakland Public Library, which was put together by the librarians in the History Room using records stashed in the room’s many filing cabinets. “This year marks their centennial, and it is one of Oakland’s chief architectural landmarks,” said Dorothy Lazard, the head librarian in the History Room. “So I wanted to make sure that we honored that in some way.”
Above the library’s mezzanine, the first thing visitors see is a glass case, filled with artifacts that take viewers back 100 years. Entombed beneath the clear casing, black and white photos depict blackboards with cursive scrawls and students in stiff shirts and ruffled dresses. A curriculum list features not only English, Spanish and science classes, but also ones in commercial arithmetic, typewriting, stenography and penmanship. These photos are the first step on a historical journey that tells the story of how Oakland Tech came to be the school it is today.
It took the librarians about three weeks to put together the exhibit, pulling newspaper clippings and photos and yearbooks from their archives, writing captions and creating themes for the different cases. “In this case, we wanted to show the progression from a vocational school to a more comprehensive high school,” said Lazard, “but also show demographic shifts in the neighborhood, political shifts in the student body, also curricular shifts, in the case of Tech.”
Oakland Tech was first established in 1896, when the school was called the Central Grammar School and located at 12th and Market Streets. The school focused on vocational training and Latin until 1900, when the students who chose to take Latin were transferred to Oakland High School due to crowded conditions.
“They started to shift the focus of the school,” said Lazard. “Basically they had sent all of the 9th graders who they felt were more academically-inclined on a liberal arts track to study things like Latin, and sent them to Oakland High.” Lazard saw this as an early form of tracking, a system that groups students based on academic achievement, which has often been criticized for limiting students’ life opportunities at a young age.
In 1901, the school board was on the verge of closing the school, but then-principal Philip M. Fisher, along with students and parents, fought successfully to keep it open. The name changed to Polytechnic High School.
The school experienced both growth and transient conditions in the following years. The 1906 earthquake caused students from San Francisco to ferry over to Oakland schools, and many chose Polytechnic. This onslaught of students forced the school to use makeshift shacks as classroom, and led to the need for a new site for the vocational school. Officially renamed Oakland Technical High School, the school relocated in July 1915 to its current 42nd and Broadway address, and opened the following January.
The building used by Oakland Tech today was designed by the architect J. J. Donovan. The inside was divided into wings, according to the Oakland Tech Centennial website: “an academic study wing, a home economics area, and drafting rooms for mechanical, architectural, and free-hand drawing.” Outside, in separate buildings, students participated in shops, including machine, forge, foundry, electrical, carpentry, plumbing and metalworking. Though the structure of the school underwent significant construction in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to make it more seismically safe, outwardly, the main building has not changed much over the course of the century. In 1985, the school achieved landmark status, an honor held by just over 2,500 sites nationwide.
At Tech, the student body population has fluctuated over the years, but overall has only increased from 1,450 students in 1915 to a little over 2,000 students today. The school is known for its rigorous academics and is a popular high school choice for parents and students in Oakland. In 2015, the composite average of ACT score—originally standing for the American College Test, a national college admissions examination—for Tech juniors was 22.1, just under the California composite average of 22.5. The school offers 14 Advanced Placement classes and eight academies, “schools within a school” that allow students to focus on career-oriented topics like health, engineering, computers, performing arts and fashion. Most require an application and interview to join.
At the library, one case commemorates some notable Tech alums, with photos of Marshawn Lynch in his Seahawks gear and actor Jack Soo, who appeared in films, musicals and series such as M*A*S*H*, Hawaii Five-O and The Flower Drum Song. A book titled American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood sits alongside these photos, honoring the actor and director who graduated in 1949. (On the Oakland Tech Centennial Facebook page, Marilyn Gripp Duarte (’49) recalls going to prom with Eastwood, whom she called “the nicest boy I ever dated.”)
Though he does not make an appearance in the library panel, Frank Oz, the puppeteer and creator of Fozzie Bear on The Muppet Show and Yoda from Star Wars, was also an Tech graduate. After he graduated from Oakland City College, Oz worked at Children’s Fairyland as a puppeteer until he met Jim Henson and began their partnership.
Tay McArthur, a social studies teacher at Oakland Tech from 1963 to 1986, said Tech’s history was intertwined with the history of the city around it. “Tech did not stand in isolation of the activities local, regional, national, and international, activities going on,” said McArthur. “You can’t avoid it.” For example, he refers to a plaque right in the lobby of the school that honors the 11 students who were killed in World War I.
Oakland, like any other city in the United States, was also affected by the Great Depression and World War II. By 1931, enrollment had decreased by 110 students from the previous year, as families moved to other locations due to economic hardship. A story from the WWII period is most poignant to school board vice president Jody London, who is the director of District 1, where Tech is located.
“A number of students from the class of 1942 didn’t get to graduate because they were Japanese-American and they were interned in the middle of their senior year,” said London, who attended several of the centennial events featuring the school’s history. “They were all being held down at Tanforan on the Peninsula. And the day after graduation, the principal and several of the teachers picked all the flowers up from the stage, and they drove to the camp, and they had a graduation.”
Tech students and alums counted among the casualties in World War II. Roger Romine, class of ’38, was one of the first Tuskegee Airman chosen from the Bay Area, and flew with them from 1942 to 1944. He died in a plane crash at age 24, and is now a member of the Oakland Tech Hall of Honor.
World War II also influenced Oakland and Tech demographically. Before the war, 3 percent of Oakland’s population was African-American. But the war brought war-related industries to Oakland—one of the largest being the Kaiser Shipyard, which led to the formation of health insurer and hospital chain Kaiser Permanente. It prompted a large-scale migration of shipyard workers, both white and African-American, from the South to Oakland. The percentage of African-Americans in Oakland grew to 12 percent. This began to change the demographics of Oakland Technical High School, which had previously had very few African-American students. The district implemented an open enrollment policy in the 1960s, and by 1963, half of the school’s population was African American.
Earl Marty Price, class of ’62 and a school administrator until 2005, recalls that there was still prejudice in classes and curriculum in the 60s, even as the school became increasingly racially integrated. “I had a history teacher declare that slavery was beneficial to Africans, because it brought them to freedom,” recalled Price. “He said it brought them to civilization from savagery. I’m raising my hand, kids are waving their hands, and I said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to let me say something here!’” Price said he went on to point out that there were many great civilizations in Africa that had been destroyed by Europeans, at which point he was kicked out of class.
By the late 1960’s and 1970’s, students were joining the larger civil rights movement, protesting injustices present in their school, community and nation. At the library exhibit, one newspaper clipping in the display case, from the S.F. Examiner in 1963, opens its article with: “Interracial violence at Oakland’s Technical High School has forced teachers out of the classrooms for full-time policing duty.” Another article from November 19, 1968, headlined “Tech High Classes to Resume,” recalls the four-day closure of the high school at that time because of “recent outbreaks of violence on the campus.”
“It was what was going on in that community,” said Lazard. “And it certainly impacted the students. It impacted, I’m sure, the teachers, because they were being challenged to change their curriculum, to make it more representative, to stop police harassment, and have a voice, and maybe take a more political or protective stance of the students.”
A book written by Huey Newton also sits next to the newspaper clippings. Newton graduated from Oakland Tech in 1959, and co-founded the Black Panther Party while attending Merritt College.
“There was a teenage grouping at Tech that was tied to the Black Panthers,” said McArthur, “because these were brothers and sisters and relatives. And it came out of Tech.” He noted that this group was “teasingly” referred to as the “Kittens,” not being old enough to be called “Panthers.”
In 1979, McArthur led the class of ‘81, dubbed the “Apollos,” on a lengthy venture to lobby the state of California to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday. He had followed these students beginning their freshman year, teaching them during their 9th, 10th and 11th grades. (His commitment to them showed in his Mercedes at the time, which had a license plate reading: “APOLLOS.”) “In November of ‘79, the King holiday had failed one more time in Congress,” said McArthur. “And [the students] were really pissed. They had had the King holiday in Oakland, because the teachers had negotiated the holiday onto the school calendar in 1971, when I was the president of the teachers’ association. And as a result, they’d grown up with having it.”
But the class was determined that all students in California should celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Initially, 142 students in the class of ’81 volunteered to participate in the project; after three weeks, the number had dwindled to 19. But those 19 remained constant for the next year, as McArthur used the project as a teaching opportunity, connecting it to the lessons he had been teaching in his 11th grade U.S. History course on how a bill becomes a law. The group drove up to Sacramento to lobby and connected with legislators who supported the bill. Ultimately, the California Teachers Association (CTA) asked the Apollos if the association could co-sponsor the bill. This support proved important, as the CTA assigned a lobbyist to help the students pass Assembly Bill 312 (AB 312), or the “Apollo Bill,” as it was called.
In the Assembly, they needed 41 votes out of 80; in the Senate they needed 21 votes out of 40. As they were lobbying, once a legislator gave the students his or her support, they were made honorary members of the Apollo class and given a burgundy and white badge proclaiming their support of the Apollos. “In their last week of school, the Assembly passed the Apollo Bill, and we announced it at graduation to all kind of cheers,” said McArthur. But, he points out, because it still needed to pass in the state senate, “We were only halfway there.” The bill passed the California Senate on August 24, 1981, and was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 3 of that same year. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a federal holiday in 1983.
The Apollos were also active on women’s rights, advocating for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which still has never been passed. “The National Education Association had been a major proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, and they had promoted an equal right movement all over the country,” said McArthur. “And we, the Apollos and myself as a delegate from the Oakland Education Association, took the idea to the National Education Association to have a students petition.”
The Apollos created a petition that was passed out to students across the nation, garnering just under 1 million signatures. These signatures were brought to the legislatures of states that had not ratified the ERA by the 1979 ratification deadline, such as Missouri. “The pitch to the state legislature in Missouri was: These are your children and your grandchildren and they’re asking you to be fair,” said McArthur, recalling the many cartons of signatures that were brought to legislators’ offices.
Susan Drexler taught Social Studies at Tech from 1970 until 1996. She was one of the founders of the Interlinks program at the school in 1985, during the tenure of Principal Dennis Chaconis, who later went on to be the OUSD Superintendent. Interlinks is a program that coordinates English and Social Studies classes with the goal of developing students’ critical thinking skills and preparing students for college.
“It created a thematic approach to learning, in that we exercised critical thinking skills and writing skills,” said Drexler. “And at the same time it gave the students more tools to deal with their environment and their home life.”
She organized this program because she wanted to counter the required uniform curriculum at the time, which is standardized rather than being open-ended; open-ended curriculum would allow teachers to offer individualized instruction.
“All the teachers were very demoralized, so I was very upset about the uniform curriculum,” said Drexler. “I had gone on a sabbatical, and I came back all energized, and decided that I needed to do something different.”
Drexler convinced an English teacher colleague to team teach, so the two of them coordinated their lessons, emphasizing critical thinking skills and investing students in their academic futures. She felt that the best programs at the school had been serving the most advanced students.
“And we wanted to deal with the kids that weren’t making it, to try to get them back on track and excited about learning,” Drexler said. She also aimed for her program “to be very inclusive and very multicultural and very diverse, so that it really spoke to them because it represented who they were and not just the kind of things that—the whitewashed kind of things that you get a lot of in history books.”
After Drexler left Tech in 1996, the Interlinks program was discontinued; but a similar program called Paideia, a rigorous and acclaimed program that also aligns social studies and English curriculum, remained. But it is only available to students by application. “Kids kind of have to be referred into” Paideia, said London. “And they need to expand it—it needs to accessible to more kids.”
Today, Oakland Tech students continue to be actively involved in social movements, like Black Lives Matter and Occupy—during the 2011 Occupy protest, the main camp was at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall.
“My freshman, sophomore year was when the Occupy movement was going on,” said Frances Foley, who graduated from Tech in 2015. “And that was a pretty big factor—there were a couple of walk-outs during school, to show support for it. And it was happening just a couple blocks down from there. So it was a pretty big deal, it really struck home for a lot of students at Tech.”
Students also took part in Black Lives Matter protests last year. One prominent act of support for the movement was a staged “die-in” throughout the school, in support of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American male who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, spurring on the already-existing Black Lives Matter movement.
“All of a sudden, all over the school, all the students in the hallways and in the classrooms were lying on the floor, and for two minutes everyone was completely silent,” recalled Foley. “And even a lot of the teachers did it, which I thought was pretty interesting, because even though they may not show their support verbally, they definitely show it physically and with their beliefs.”
What makes Tech special? Many of the participants in the centennial celebration cite the people who work there together.
“Tech’s a wonderful community in terms of parent involvement, engagement and volunteering,” said celebration organizer Williams.
London especially recalls the work of Jessa Moreno, the school’s Performing Arts and Theater Director who came to Oakland Tech in 2007. “She came in and really just took that drama program up a few notches,” said London. In 2010, “they went to the Fringe Festival in Scotland. They were one of the few public schools to go to the Fringe Festival.” The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the world, showcasing performances from around the world, and Oakland Technical’s Advanced Drama class was one of 50 programs in the United States chosen to perform, winning this opportunity with a video submission of their play, “Oakland: Inside Out.”
London pointed to strong leadership and to the school’s former principal of 10 years, Sheilagh Andujar, as a key to Tech’s success within the district. “She did a really good job of just putting in place systems that worked, and getting a lot of support for what she was doing, and really focusing on what matters, and on getting good outcomes with kids,” said London. London said she also built a good leadership team, including working with former assistant principal Staci Morrison, who is Tech’s principal today.
Jeremy Sutton, an 11th grade English teacher and a member of the Computer Academy, feels that Tech has no problem keeping up with new standards like Common Core which emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving. “There’s no need to even have a conversation around it, that those things are happening,” said Sutton. “And within our Academies, we have excellent teachers. So it’s really happening, and I don’t envision that we’re ever going to have to re-do anything.”
The academies, along with Paideia, prepare students with targeted college and career-oriented classes, he said.
“The mindset behind them is that if you have a team, a cohort of teachers, who work specifically with academy students, with a school as large as ours, that we’re able to better get to know the students and the families, and provide adequate support to ensure their success,” said Sutton.
Foley said she hopes that Tech can make programs like the academies and Paideia more accessible to a greater population of students, “so that students are getting the same kind of education, and they have a better chance of getting into really good colleges, and they have better writing skills, and they’re writing really good college essays that will help them.”
Sutton lauded the administration for the support he feels as a teacher, and for treating him as a professional. “I’m given the freedom that I need and support that I need, to be successful with an extremely diverse student population,” said Sutton. “I have students who live literally, live on the streets of Broadway, right in front of us. And then kids who come from $2 million dollar homes in Rockridge. So it’s not an easy gig, but the administration allows me to approach my job with whatever angle is going to work best for my students.”
In a way, a review of Tech’s history over the last 100 years is also a review of Oakland’s and the nation’s history. Tech’s legacy is linked to that of the community, affected by outside events and an active participant in socio-political movements throughout the last century.
“Tech is such a great example or illustration of kind of American history and society over the last 100 years, and how things have changed,” said Williams. “And Oakland in general and Oakland Tech specifically have seen so many changes, social, demographic, cultural changes over the course of the years. And it’s still happening.”
More information about Oakland Technical’s centennial celebration can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/281685768586348/. The display at the library’s History Room will be on display until December 4.
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