Last fall, the Oakland Unified School District school board held meetings punctuated by public dissent, protests and even a little profanity. After a particularly tense public comments session at one meeting in October, board director Darius Aikens noted the statements made by a few members of the public. “I just want everyone to be mindful, that people have hearts, people have experiences, and just be conscious of what you say, especially in front of young people, because you do have an influence on the lives of young people,” said Aikens. He knows this well. He’s a young person, too.
“I’m 17. You know what? I’m losing my mind. I’m 16,” said Aikens in a recent interview at Oakland High School, where he is currently a junior. (He’ll turn 17 in March.)
He and Bianca Ramirez, a sophomore at Fremont High School, are student directors for the school board for the 2015-2016 school year. They attend all board meetings, many of which can stretch into the wee hours of the evening, and act as intermediaries between the board and the All City Council, the district-wide student union.
The student director position exists to help bridge the gap in communication between the board of education and the larger OUSD student body. “Students always lean on me to lead on small scales. I felt that if I could do it on a small scale, I could do it district-wide,” said Aikens.
Ramirez became a member of Alternatives in Action (AIA) a program that helps develop the leadership potential of high school students, by taking part in a summer program led by upperclassmen that the organization provides for incoming freshmen. While attending the program, Ramirez was appointed to the leadership class. She now leads afterschool programs and provides academic mentoring for current freshmen. Through the leadership class at Fremont, she became involved with All City Council and was elected to the student director position last April.
Aikens grew up attending school in Hayward, but said he didn’t really tap into his leadership potential until he became a student at Oakland High School.
“There is a complete difference between Hayward and Oakland. Hayward is not really a city of activism, you know. And Oakland is a city that’s diverse,” said Aikens. By becoming a member of the NAACP (he’s now the vice president of the local student chapter) he began to realize that potential.
As directors, it is their job to open up communication between students and the board. Ramirez holds regular meetings with high school students while Aikens meets with middle school students to hear their concerns.
According to both of them, one issue arises regularly at both meetings:
“A lot of students are concerned, and they have a valid reason to be concerned, about food,” said Aikens.
“The quality of food, whether cafeterias run out of food, whether the meat is not well-cooked,” is a problem, said Ramirez. “I’ve been to a school where the milk was spoiled for two weeks.”
Ramirez is also concerned about the satellite schools that serve pre-packaged lunches rather than fresh food, an issue that the school district is attempting to address as it builds a new central kitchen in West Oakland. With the kitchen slated to open in May, 2017, the district will seek to eliminate 80 percent of prepackaged food and provide fresher meals for students.
Many students have called for off-campus lunches, being allowed to leave campus to buy their own food at neighboring restaurants. But Aikens told his fellow students that he doesn’t believe that’s a solution. “I had to explain to them that if we provide off-campus lunch, then students who do not have money will still be subject to eating food that is not appetizing, and so there would still be inequities in terms of food that is being served to students,” he said.
Food isn’t the only concern. Both Aikens and Ramirez cited classroom culture as an issue of importance to Oakland students, particularly the relationship between students and teachers. “When students come to school they should feel welcome. It shouldn’t be the first thing the teacher says to them is ‘Put your phone away.’ It should be ‘Hello. Good morning, how are you? I’m glad to see you this morning,’” said Aikens.
OUSD students do not currently participate in the teacher evaluation process, which is done by administrators. Aikens says a key to building better relationships between students and teachers would be allowing students to have a voice in the process. “I think that when we do that, schools can be learning facilities instead of dropout factories,” he said.
According to Aikens, a revamp of the evaluation system should not just be for teachers, but for administrators and other staff members. For example, he said, “I think that if it’s embedded in a culture, you can just leave a note in the drop box and say ‘Hey, for counselors, can you be in your office a little more frequently? Because every time I come you’re not here.’”
Ramirez thinks school culture will improve if students feel safe on campus. “There have been a lot of conflicts between Fremont, Skyline, and Oakland High,” said Ramirez, and she said many students feel authority figures could be better equipped to deal with that conflict. She said she needs to do further research to understand training policies for school security officers and administrators, but suggests, “If there is training on how to handle a fight, instead of it being optional, why not mandatory?”
OUSD police do not receive specific training for breaking up fights, but all SSO are required to complete Department of Justice training as well as restorative justice training.
Ramirez agrees with Aikens that the general interactions between student and staff could improve. “The students give back the energy they receive,” says Ramirez. This, she argues, could help improve the safety of schools. “Fremont is like a second home,” says Ramirez. “It’s the place where most of our life is spent, so how can we not feel safe?”
In his free time—of which he has very little—Aikens goes to church. He has a part-time job at a In-N-Out, and he enjoys spending time with his friends, “like-minded people” as he puts it, and going to the movies. After he graduates from high school, he plans to attend UC Berkeley, and ultimately wants to become the mayor of Oakland.
Ramirez loves animated movies like Minions and Ice Age, and reads in her spare time. “Sometimes I’ll just read the newspaper on my phone—the electronic newspaper, nowadays. You know, 21st Century,” she said. She also likes to cook, although she likes baking a little more.
When asked what she plans to do after graduation, she responds: “OK, are you ready for this?” She wants to study forensic psychology in college in order to become a profiler in the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI, and ultimately become the first female Mexican-American president of the United States.
Aikens looks up to his fellow board member Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3). This fall Hinton-Hodge, who represents West Oakland, supported the central kitchen project, district-wide incorporation of an ethnic studies curriculum, and a restorative justice programs that seek to offset the disproportionate punishment of African American males in schools. “I just learned from her presence that sometimes conversations are uncomfortable but sometimes they’re necessary,” said Aikens. He said he and Hinton-Hodge have at least one thing in common: “We make facial expressions and we both have to work on our non-verbal communication.”
Ramirez admires Director Roseann Torres (District 5), the representative for her school’s district. Representing East Oakland, Torres is very focused on reducing the dropout rate and restorative justice programs. Her words of wisdom at a school board meeting in August—“There’s never a dull moment”—resonate with Ramirez. “It made me think: ‘What is life without trauma, right?” asked Ramirez. “If we bring things up that are of concern to us and we’re not afraid to speak up for ourselves, then that’s a good thing.”
Many people have been speaking up at the board meetings this year, particularly in regard to including special education students in general education classrooms. This led to protests and disruptions that have, on occasion, caused meetings to go into recess. With tension between the board and members of the public often coming to a head at meetings, Aikens and Ramirez think about both to how they communicate with the public and how they inform themselves.
“Even in church, too often people rely on one person or one organization for information,” said Aikens. “I just think that people should read and look up things for themselves.”
“Before I was a board member I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s only one side of the story,” says Ramirez. “I want to be clear and transparent to avoid any miscommunications.”