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Oakland high school just trying to survive

29 August 2008 No Comment

By: Linsay Rousseau Burnett

“This was a great week,” exclaimed Thomas Hardy, Vice Principal at Ralph Bunche Continuation School in Oakland, “Kids showed up.” Designed for students who have flunked out of other Oakland high schools, the continuation school employs an expedited curriculum to help the 250 16 to 18-year-olds obtain the necessary credits to graduate.

Bunche is not a neighborhood school. Located in the remote West Oakland warehouse district, students travel from across the city, through gang-ridden neighborhoods, to attend. Despite their different backgrounds, the predominately Latino and African American students share similar problems. As a result, Hardy said, “the school’s faculty is responsible for caring for the students’ educational and emotional well-being.” Teacher turnover rate is high at the school, but morale is up this year said Hardy.

Even though security is tight, with towering fences, iron gates and security guards, the atmosphere is relaxed. Students wear baseball caps and listen to iPods. They use profanity around teachers and occasionally attempt to bribe them to let them leave. Not one student was spotted with a backpack or book and several just wandered in and out of class. “It’s not that we don’t adhere to the rules,” says Hardy, “but we have to adjust so we don’t alienate them. The school has become a safe haven for these kids, an embassy within West Oakland.”

Bunche is more like a fortified embassy within a war zone and does not receive many visitors. Marcus Douglas has been the physical education teacher at Bunche for five years, longer than any other teacher. “Since I’ve been here, not a single Superintendent or School Board member has visited,” he remarked.

With a population comprised of students on parole, on welfare, pregnant and with alcohol and drug addictions, Bunche has become the bastard child of the school district. Troy Flint, spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District, said Bunche “doesn’t represent the OUSD. It’s not a normal school. It’s an at-risk school. The students have a reputation.” It is this reputation that the teachers and staff at Bunche are working so hard to erase. Hardy stressed, “It’s about equity here. We try to make the kids feel like they’re as a good as everyone else.”

Their good intentions may not be enough to keep kids in the classroom. According to Flint, last year, 42 students missed between five and nine days of school and 76 missed over ten. Teresa Drenick, the Deputy District Attorney for the Alameda County Truancy Unit, said, “it’s really hard to do anything when the kids are this old.” She went on to say that truancy cases can only begin with a formal procedure through the Board of Education. If the Board does not pursue the issue it never reaches Drenick’s desk. Even if every case was reported, it is unlikely that much progress would be made. With over 200 cases at any given time, Drenick said the biggest obstacle for combating truancy is the lack of manpower.

Even with these odds mounted against them, those working at Bunche continue to press on. While other schools may focus on standardized tests, No Child Left Behind, or the California Distinguished School Award, Bunche does not measure success through test scores. According to Hardy, “If a kid gets up and gets ready, makes a conscious effort to go to school, that speaks volumes.”

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