civicorps academy sign
Civicorps Academy, located on Myrtle Street in West Oakland, has seen its enrollment decline by half since 2010. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When Esmeralda Ramirez returned to the U.S. in 2017, she knew she had left something unfinished: her high school diploma. 

Although she was born in Guatemala, Ramirez came to the United States as an infant and grew up in Oakland as an undocumented immigrant. In 2012, when she was a sophomore at Oakland High School, her parents returned to Guatemala and Ramirez had no choice but to go with them. After five years, at the age of 20, Ramirez re-entered the United States legally.

“When I came back, I saw it as an opportunity for me to finish where I left off,” said Ramirez. 

It took a few years for her to find the program that best fit her needs—one that offered a high school diploma to an adult, and not a GED. Last year, Ramirez enrolled in Civicorps Academy, an adult education charter school in West Oakland, and is set to graduate this summer. 

But Ramirez will be a member of the Civicorps Academy’s final graduating class before July 1, when a new operator will take over the campus at 101 Myrtle Street.

When it was first granted a charter in 1995, Civicorps Academy was the only high school diploma program for young adults in Oakland, according to Tessa Nicholas, Civicorps’ executive director. This gave it a special place in the local education system and its services were in high demand for many years. But over the past decade, declining enrollment compounded budget shortfalls that threatened the school’s viability. Earlier this year, Civicorps leaders made a decision to partner with another charter operator, Opportunity Academy, to handle the school enterprise. Civicorps will continue to operate its job training center and offer support services to students. 

While the organization’s leaders are optimistic that the transition will go smoothly and that bringing in new school management is the best solution, some students, like Ramirez, and many of Civicorps’ current teachers are concerned that the change could ruin what students found most valuable about it.

“We’re really losing a unique, successful program,” said Michelle Cascio, the school’s math teacher. “It’s not bringing in money because education’s not geared to bring in money. If we stop looking at education as a commodity then we can really do our young people right.”

Founded in 1983 as the East Bay Conservation Corps, Civicorps offers job training and internships in environmental fields for 18 to 26-year-olds, like recycling and waste management. In its early years, the school helped young adults earn their GED, a certification equivalent to a high school diploma. In 1995, the academy was established as a charter school to offer adults a high school diploma, in response to more students wanting that option.

While Ramirez, now 23, enrolled at Civicorps last year to earn her high school diploma, she gained a support system that opened even more doors for her, she said. She shared with her social studies teacher, Avery Moore, that she had a passion for immigration issues. Moore connected her with an immigration attorney in San Francisco, who then recommended Ramirez to East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a Berkeley nonprofit that provides legal services and support for low-income immigrants. Now, Ramirez works as a paralegal for East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. 

Mo Ward, another student graduating this summer, echoed Ramirez’s appreciation for the support Civicorps provided beyond education. When her wallet was stolen two weeks ago, Ward was able to pick up groceries from Civicorps for herself and her kids.  

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to eat with my kids,” said Ward, 27. “I would’ve had to do who-knows-what. I’m really glad to have them in my corner.”

In math, a subject that many Civicorps students gave up on years ago, Cascio builds up a level of trust with her students who have been pushed out of the traditional education system and made to feel like they can’t learn certain subjects. That gives her students more comfort in approaching mathematics.

“They’ll say things like, ‘I used to hate math, but now I love it,’” Cascio said. “That’s like music to my ears as a teacher.”

But over the past several years, changes in Oakland’s education landscape have impacted the organization’s recruitment efforts. When the Civicorps high school diploma program was established, there were few other options for adult students to obtain that credential. Then, others began establishing themselves in Oakland: Five Keys, which was founded in 2003 in San Francisco County jails and expanded to other locations in 2008, has an office a few blocks away from Civicorps in West Oakland. Peralta Community College District launched an adult education program in 2009, and Alameda County’s Opportunity Academy was established in 2017, and currently runs five other adult education programs in the county.

And in 2015, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed a law suspending the California high school exit exam, which students were required to pass to graduate. Without that barrier, many more students have been able to obtain their high school diploma. 

“We were serving a lot of young people who couldn’t get past that high school exit exam,” said Nicholas, who was head of the school for 12 years. “I think that factored in, as well as the other programs [being established].”

School leadership and the Civicorps board tried different approaches to be more appealing. They allowed corps members to enroll just in the academy, instead of having to complete classes and job training concurrently. They also tried to make the schedule more flexible: Instead of requiring students to be in class for a full day, five days a week, students were offered a part-time course load. But enrollments kept falling.

In 2010, the school served 104 students. This year, the school has an enrollment of 51. The average daily attendance, which determines how much state funding the school gets, declined from 91 in 2012 to 43 in 2020, according to Civicorps data. During the same time period, more corps members chose to join the job training program without being enrolled in the diploma program. 

Running a single-site charter school also began to take a toll, Nicholas said. Larger charter management operators have more resources to dedicate to the documentation, compliance, and other processes that charter schools must provide. Last summer, the board created a committee to explore bringing in a larger charter school group to run the academy.

“We are no longer an education expert because it’s gotten so complicated over the years,” Nicholas said. “At this point, we need to just recognize that and focus on what we’re good at, which is the conservation corps, and let an education expert, who has the economy of scale, come in and handle all the compliance.”

The committee recommended Opportunity Academy, which runs several adult education programs in San Leandro, Hayward, and Oakland. Nita Kirby, the board chair and member of the ad-hoc committee, said they chose Opportunity Academy because it’s local and has experience working with similar students that Civicorps Academy serves, who mainly come from Alameda County. 

Opportunity Academy, which is operated by the Alameda County Office of Education, will take over on July 1. Most of the Civicorps Academy teachers, like Cascio and Moore, will be laid off. Some students and teachers are concerned that bringing in new teachers, along with Opportunity Academy’s independent study model replacing the classroom-based instruction, will make it more difficult for students to form the bonds with their teachers that they valued about Civicorps Academy. 

“The main takeaway, especially for me as a teacher who’s been there a long time, is the resources that are going to be lost,” said Moore, who has worked at Civicorps since 2012. “We had some dynamic, classroom, hands-on programming that really helped students, especially students who had been unsuccessful with traditional schooling.”

Nicholas, the executive director, maintains that the staff who provided much of the student support, like the dean of students, the case counselors and specialists, along with academic coaches, will still provide the same level of support once Opportunity Academy takes over. They’ll also offer tutoring, peer support groups, and some classroom instruction.

“Sometimes it’s not enough to be a good school that serves its students well,” Nicholas said. “Here we are at this moment, where we’re questioning how we stay relevant, continue to stay viable and meet the needs of the community in a meaningful way.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.