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As a junior at Oakland High School two years ago, Gildardo Berrospe and his classmates planned a litter march through downtown Oakland. On the route from Lake Merritt to City Hall, the group of about two dozen students picked up trash and encouraged other passersby to join them. At the end of the march, Berrospe admired the work they’d been able to accomplish.
“With that, it sparked an inspiration for me to do something like this in college,” said Berrospe, now a freshman at Sacramento State. “I want to help the environment. I want to tell people about how we need to make change. Just that one little event that I planned, I really felt like we did something in Oakland.”
The project was part of the environmental science academy at Oakland High School, one of five career pathways at the school that are supported by Measure N, a 2014 parcel tax that raises about $12 million a year for high schools in Oakland. At 26 schools across Oakland, including nine charter schools, career pathways offer learning applicable to more than a dozen industries, including agriculture, business, education, health care, and public service. When the measure was proposed to voters, the goal was to expand these “linked learning pathways” and enroll all 10th to 12th grade students in a career track. District officials believed that the program would lead to lower drop out rates, increased graduation rates, and would prepare students for college or careers after graduation.
After seven years, the results are promising: the dropout rate in OUSD has decreased by about half, from 24% to 13% since 2014, and the graduation rate has increased from 61% to 72%. The percentage of students who meet academic requirements for admission to California’s state universities upon graduation has gone up from 28% to 42%.
“The people of Oakland, by opening up their checkbooks, are helping school leaders to build better schools,” said David Kakishiba, a former member of the Oakland Unified School District board and former chair of the Measure N Commission, which oversees how the district uses the tax revenue.
With Measure N, property owners in Oakland pay a flat tax of $120 per parcel, in addition to traditional property taxes, which take into account the value of the property. Low-income owners and seniors are exempted from paying the tax.
The linked learning programs begin for students at the end of their freshman year, when they choose a pathway to enroll in classes with their cohort and the same group of teachers for the next three years. They take field trips and visit colleges, shadow workers at their jobs, learn from professionals who speak to their classes, and complete internships. Measure N supports all these activities, along with contracts with local agencies and community groups to provide job training, and the hiring of more college and career counselors, internship coordinators, and other positions that strengthen the programs.
“[Students’] willingness to stay connected to school, stay connected to performing well academically, has a lot to do with the relationships that students have with staff,” said Matin Abdel-Qawi, who oversees OUSD’s high schools as the district’s high school network superintendent. “All students are connected to, all students are loved, in a way that makes them feel that they have some ownership and a connection to their school.”
Abdel-Qawi served as principal of Oakland High School for more than seven years, and oversaw the transformation of the school after Measure N funds were distributed. Prior to the parcel tax the school had three pathways, including environmental science, public health, and visual arts. But less than half of the school’s students were enrolled in one of these options, and enrollment wasn’t equitable across racial and ethnic groups: In the 2013-2014 school year, pathway enrollment ranged from less than 40% of the school’s Black students, to about 62% of the school’s Filipino students. The parcel tax funding allowed the existing programs to expand and the school added two new tracks: engineering and law and social justice.
Since then, more Oakland High School students of all backgrounds have been enrolled in a pathway: This year, nearly 98% of students overall are part of a pathway, and all racial groups are above 92% enrollment. Before Measure N, two-thirds of Oakland High School students graduated. Last year, the graduation rate was 85%. Black students’ graduation rates improved from 58% in 2014 to 90% last year.
The goal at Oakland High, and at all 26 high schools that receive Measure N funding, is for “wall-to-wall” enrollment, or 100% of students in a career pathway. This year, about 88% of high schoolers across the district are part of a pathway, up from 44% during the 2013-2014 school year. Some schools like Life Academy and Madison Park Academy, have reached 100%, while at Oakland Technical High School, about 79% of students are.
Beyond that, there’s an emphasis to make sure that the pathways are equitably enrolled across demographics, Abdel-Qawi said.
“Some of the pathways have demographics that don’t reflect the demographics of the school. So they may have systems or barriers in place that need to be removed so all students have access to all pathways, regardless of prior academic performance, or GPA,” he said. “There should be absolutely zero pre-requisites in order for our scholars to get into any pathway they have interest in.”
The academies offer students opportunities to get out of the classroom and go out into the real world to apply their skills, and answers the perennial question students demand of teachers across subjects every year: When am I going to use this in the real world?
Berrospe, the Sacramento State freshman, knew as a high schooler that he disliked learning in the traditional way: in the classroom, watching a teacher write on the whiteboard or lecture the class. He’d rather be outside, enjoying his hometown of Oakland. So when he learned that the school’s environmental science academy took weekly field trips to Lake Merritt and did weekend camping trips with students, he “fell in love.”
“We went to study some of the sea lions by Monterey Bay. Instead of watching videos of sea lions in a classroom, we were there,” he said.
Aniyah Story, a junior at Oakland High, is enrolled in the school’s newest pathway, law and social justice because it didn’t seem that closely tied to a specific career.
“Social justice is something that we’re seeing all the time, especially right now. It seemed like something I could apply to every aspect of my life,” she said.
As a sophomore, she took one of the pathway’s electives called “Youth and the Law,” and learned about her rights as a minor, how to handle police interactions, and how youth can make social change. She took those lessons and planned a Black Lives Matter protest last summer in Dublin during the George Floyd uprisings. This year, Story is taking a “Development of American Justice” class and she and her classmates collaborated with Oakland City councilmembers Nikki Fortunado Bas and Loren Taylor on the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. They designed surveys, talked to community members, and researched the differences between abolishing, defunding, and reforming the police.
She was also appointed to Oakland’s Youth Advisory Commission last year and helped to coordinate candidate forums with school board and city council candidates in the fall, another activity where she was able to strengthen the advocacy skills she learned in class.
The pandemic and distance learning have caused some problems for pathway cohorts this year. Since students have been learning remotely, they haven’t been able to go on field trips or have other in-person experiences that are crucial for helping students in the same pathway bond with each other. Teachers have also had a harder time building relationships with their students, which are instrumental in keeping students motivated.
“The amount of trauma, anxiety, stress, and grief that our students and teachers are experiencing, we don’t have tools yet to measure that,” Abdel-Qawi said. “And so when we get back in the fall, a big part of what we’ll do is reconnecting and getting to know each other in ways that we haven’t been able to do for the last 13 months.”
The pathway programs still have room to grow. Not all 10th to 12th graders across the district are enrolled in an academy, and Abdel-Qawi said one of his more immediate goals is to get the graduation rate to 90% for all student groups.
But the biggest hurdle of all may be figuring out how to maintain the Measure N funding. It was approved by voters in 2014 for 10 years, which means it will run out in 2024. The board of education could put it on the ballot again, and will have to decide if they want to raise the tax or ask for a longer commitment. And if it does go on the ballot again, should the district place it on the 2022 ballot, to make sure they’ll have another chance in case it fails, or wait until 2024?
“The challenge is that many adults, the residents who don’t have kids in the schools, are not necessarily aware that the transformation of the high schools is actually occurring,” said Gary Yee, a current board member who championed linked learning pathways when he was interim superintendent from 2013 to 2014. “It will involve a certain re-education and reminder to folks that the schools are actually performing pretty well.”
Yee added that while graduation rates have seen improvements, he also wants to see that students are matriculating and staying in college after they graduate from OUSD. “They have to go to college and stay for at least two years for us to know that high school reform made a difference,” he said.
Another, more radical solution would be for the district to reallocate money from OUSD’s existing budget, most of which comes from the state, so that the programs don’t have to rely on local taxpayers. Kakishiba, the former Measure N commission chair, wants the school district to take that route.
“I call on the school district leaders, the school board, superintendent, everybody, to take a hard look at this work and do more. Invest more money and talent, and determination, to do better in all of our schools,” Kakishiba said. “In terms of a special parcel tax, I don’t think it should rely on that.”
Berrospe, the Oakland High School alumnus, is currently studying environmental science at Sacramento State and wants to become a wildlife biologist. If his high school experience had been a more traditional one, without the environmental science academy, he would feel aimless, he said.
“If it didn’t exist, I’d be like, ‘What am I going to do next? What am I going to major in? What’s my goal?’” he said. “The environmental science academy and the pathways at Oakland High gave me options. I love the environment and I want to do something about it.”