Assistant Principal Nidya Baez speaks with students about class changes on campus. Credit: Amir Aziz

Walk into Assistant Principal Nidya Baez’s office at Fremont High School and you’ll be greeted by a ceramic tiger on her desk and a Spider-Man poster on the wall carrying the message, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” 

Those items showcase her pride for Fremont, her alma mater, and serve as a reminder of her duties. Whether she’s making her rounds and visiting classes on the school’s newly renovated campus, or teaching a student-leadership class, Baez is well aware of her role in shaping students’ lives and futures. This summer, she’ll begin a new role: principal. 

It’s an accomplishment 20 years in the making. Baez graduated from Fremont High School in 2003, months before the school—overcrowded at the time—was split into several smaller schools on the same campus.

When Baez was a ninth-grader, the school had more than 2,000 students, and she was one of 700 in her graduating class. Teachers shared classrooms, and classes often spilled over into portables, she said. 

“I had a sub all year for a class, I don’t think I really knew who was in charge, and I didn’t really meet with my counselor,” Baez said about her early years at Fremont. “There was just a lot of confusion as a student, and I think it was really easy to drift and do whatever we wanted and not really be focused on academics.”

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Assistant Principal Nidya Baez in her office taking phone calls and working with visiting staff. Credit: Amir Aziz

Because of her experiences as a student, Baez now works to make Fremont the kind of school that she would have liked to have had: one with robust career and technical education (CTE) classes, opportunities for students to get involved, and a place with a strong sense of community. Baez started at Fremont as a teacher in 2011 and has spent the last 11 years there. Her ascension to principal embodies one of Oakland Unified School District’s goals of developing and retaining more Black and Latino educators, especially those who attended Oakland schools themselves. 

“It’s a privilege to lead in my community,” she said. “I don’t pretend to understand every single student at our school just because I’m from Oakland, or because I grew up in the community, or low-income, or all the variables I share with our students. So I always have something to learn.”

Strengthening Fremont’s career and technical education classes

During her high school years, taking classes in the school’s business academy gave Baez the direction she was looking for. She participated in business competitions against other schools in California and gained skills in entrepreneurship. Baez and her peers launched a food cart on campus, during a time when the school cafeteria was at its limit during lunchtime. 

Emiliano Sanchez, currently OUSD’s director of CTE trades and apprenticeships, graduated from Fremont in 1980 and returned to teach in the early 2000s when Baez was a student. Although he didn’t have her in class, she stood out amongst her peers, he said. 

“We had over 2,000 students there, with a cafeteria that could deal with 600 to 700 max,” said Sanchez, who also served as Fremont’s principal from 2013 to 2015. “[Baez and other students in the business academy] had vendors come in with pizza and burritos, so students wouldn’t have to leave campus. That showed her drive and motivation to improve the student experience.” 

Today, one of Baez’s passions is promoting Fremont’s media and architecture academies. On a recent Tuesday morning, the architecture students worked with students from Castlemont High School’s sustainable urban design academy to help redesign Castlemont’s outdoor farm and classroom. Students were divided into groups and the one with the winning design will get a cash prize and have their ideas incorporated when the farm is reconstructed. 

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Baez visits a classroom in the media academy at Fremont High School. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Unified’s linked learning pathways, or academies, allow students to take classes aligned with a particular industry and get experience in those fields through internships. The district’s high school academies include the two at Fremont, and others offering engineering, fashion, health care, hospitality, public service, and more. 

“All of our career and technical education work needs to be more public. There’s a lot of stereotypes about Oakland youth, but when you walk into a classroom like that, you’re like, ‘These kids are amazing,’” Baez said. “They should be recognized for that and hired for those skills.”

The school’s media and architecture academies boast brand new labs and learning spaces that came from Measure J, a 2012 ballot measure that raised millions for facilities upgrades at OUSD schools. About $133 million went to Fremont to build a new academic building, upgrade the gym and athletic facilities, and construct a new entrance, which for years students had described as looking similar to a jail. Baez was instrumental in advocating for additional Measure J funding when some of it was diverted to other projects. 

The newly built Tiger Stadium at Fremont High School. Credit: Pete Rosos

The construction was completed last year and in time to welcome students back en masse in the fall, when schools fully reopened. 

“When she sees students walk into the new CTE spaces, walk into the new gym, play their first game on the new field, she just glows,” said Tom Skjervheim, the current co-principal at Fremont who will be stepping down this year. “It’s been a dream for her to have those facilities for our students for a decade. It’s those moments that make everything worthwhile for her.”

Building community among Fremont’s diverse student body

Born in Mexico, Baez grew up in Oakland and attended Whittier Elementary, which is now Greenleaf K-8. Her father worked as an ice cream vendor during the day, and a custodian at night. When Baez was 8 years old, a young person shot her father while he was on his ice cream route, she said. He survived, but that experience also drives Baez as an educator. 

“That’s shaped so much of how I want young people to have really good choices in front of them because they’re going to have some bad things in front of them too,” she said. “And I hope that they choose something that’s good for them and good for the community.”

Violence isn’t unfamiliar to Fremont students. In October, Fremont junior Shamara Young was shot and killed in a road rage incident. In 2020, the school lost six former or current students, mainly to street violence.   

As a school leader, one of Baez’s priorities is building community among students and with the surrounding neighborhood. All freshmen spend 12 weeks in a restorative justice unit where they lead peer mediation circles, listening to one another and learning how to address harm in ways that aren’t punitive. Baez also spearheads many of the school’s cultural events throughout the year that showcase the diversity of the student body, like the annual Black history assembly, a Yemeni culture show, and days to celebrate Polynesian and Latino culture. About 30% of Fremont students are also newcomers, Baez said, which means they’ve immigrated to the U.S. within the last three years.

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Baez’s office is decorated with photos and artwork from former students. Credit: Amir Aziz

The aim of the community events is for students to get to know one another and see each other as human beings, which could interrupt future violence, and make students comfortable enough to support each other when there is a loss, Baez said.

“You can’t just have a vigil or a space to come together if you’ve never even had it when things were good,” Baez said. “I believe that the more young people meet each other and know each other, they’re less likely to harm each other. And I feel that ultimately, we can eradicate violence in the community.”

With Fremont’s gleaming new facilities, another one of Baez’s goals is to increase enrollment at the school. The campus was bursting with students when she attended, but enrollment dropped in the mid-2000s after Fremont, along with OUSD’s other comprehensive high schools, was split into several smaller schools. In 2011, the three small schools were merged into the singular Fremont High School, but with significantly fewer students than it had before. 

Between 2012 and 2018, enrollment at Fremont hovered at around 800 students. But enrollment has been growing since 2018, an uncommon trend among OUSD schools. This year, the school has just over 1,000 students and next year is projected to have between 1,150 and 1,200. Skjervheim, the current principal, credits Baez with strengthening their relationships with middle school counselors, coordinating school tours, and supporting families through the enrollment process. 

Another of Baez’s goals as principal will be to continue increasing the school’s graduation rate. When Baez graduated in 2003, Fremont’s graduation rate was 34%. By the 2011-2012 school year, when Baez began working at Fremont, it had risen to 54%. Last year, 72% of students there graduated, which is close to the district-wide rate. 

Baez will also continue looking at ways Fremont can benefit the entire community, not just students. Early last year, Baez got in touch with a fellow Fremont alumna who worked at the Alameda County Public Health Department about hosting a vaccine clinic on campus. At the time, OUSD students were still in distance learning, and Fremont had a spacious, brand new gymnasium that could be put to use. In February, a vaccine hub opened at Fremont for the surrounding zip codes, which had been some of the hardest hit by COVID-19. Twenty-seven thousand people were vaccinated in Fremont’s gym over five months, Baez said.

COVID-19 vaccine site at Fremont High School.
The COVID-19 vaccine site at Fremont High School opened to serve community members in East Oakland who are considered high risk for COVID-19. Credit: Amir Aziz

Overall, Baez is dedicated to improving the community that she grew up in and making it a place that youth can be proud of, and not a place to escape from.

“There’s this idea that poor people, or youth of color, get degrees and they have to get out of their community to be better. Or that you’ve become rich and you have to get the heck out of wherever you’re from,” she said. “That works for some people. I also think that the only way we’re going to make things more accessible and equitable for people of color here, is by working with people who are from here to work on those solutions.”

Inspiring student leaders to improve their school

Getting involved in school leadership and the student council was the other turning point for Baez in high school, and a way for her to improve other students’ school experiences.

Jaliza Collins, Fremont’s college and career-readiness specialist, was a freshman at the school when Baez, then a senior, approached her about coming to the school’s leadership class. 

“I was just walking through the gate one morning, waiting for the bell to ring for class, and this person walked up to me and said, “You look like you’d be perfect for leadership. Come join our meeting,” Collins said. “I was like, “Who is this chick?’”

Collins initially attended the meeting for the doughnuts and other snacks she could take back to her friends, but she later got involved in real ways: She became involved in student government and was elected class president her sophomore, junior, and senior years, joined the newspaper staff and prom committees, and served on the accreditation committee for her small school, Media College Prep. Today, Collins also serves as Fremont’s site technology lead and provides academic support for athletes. 

Collins and Baez reunited in 2013 when Collins launched the college and career center on campus. They’ve bonded over their love of working with youth and encouraging their students to return to work in the schools that taught them—something that Collins and Baez both exemplify in their own lives.

“We cannot ask our students to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves. We always tell our students, ‘You can be anything. We want you to take our jobs one day,’” Collins said. “Our babies come back to Fremont for a plethora of reasons, but one of those reasons is her.”

During the years when Baez wasn’t at Fremont, she didn’t go far. As a senior in high school she helped to start Youth Empowerment School (YES), one of the small schools that grew out of Fremont’s downsizing. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2007, she was a substitute and eventually a full-time teacher at YES until it closed in 2011. Then, she started as a teacher at the reconstituted Fremont High School. In 2012, she became the community school manager, and in 2016 became assistant principal. 

Because of how pivotal the student leadership class was for her, Baez continues to teach it every year at Fremont. The class, which is open to students in all grades, encourages teens to take on projects to promote school spirit, plan cultural events, and make the school a more welcoming place.

Baez has a particular eye for spotting student leaders who may not initially show traditional leadership qualities, like being outspoken or popular.

“You’ve got her being a mom to hundreds of kids, while doing her job, creating leaders, and picking kids to be leaders that you don’t think to pick,” said Roseann Torres, an attorney who represented Fremont’s District 5 on the OUSD board from 2013 to 2020. “I don’t think she has a bone in her body that believes a student isn’t capable of success.”

One of those students was Norma Pablo Calmo. Calmo wanted to attend Oakland High School, but there wasn’t enough space, she said. A self-described introvert, she didn’t have high hopes for Fremont, where she started as a freshman in 2014. 

“For my first year, I didn’t really do anything. I always kept to myself, I didn’t really have any friends, and I excluded myself,” she said.

Norma Pablo Calmo (front row, left) poses with Assistant Principal Nidya Baez (front row, second from left) and her class in 2017. Courtesy Norma Pablo Calmo.

In her third year, Calmo enrolled in the leadership class, and was immediately taken by how much Baez cared about her students and encouraged them to go out of their comfort zones. When Baez asked the class how they could make Fremont a more inclusive place, Calmo had the idea of doing the morning and afternoon announcements in multiple languages for Fremont’s diverse student community. Baez encouraged Calmo to do it herself.

Calmo, whose family is from Guatemala, mumbled her way through the announcements the first time she tried it, but eventually got the hang of it and could share school events and other information with students in English, Spanish, and Mam, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. 

Baez also encouraged Calmo to participate in a multicultural event to showcase Guatemalan culture, and Calmo was able to recruit eight other girls to perform with her during a multicultural day on campus, she said. 

Calmo is graduating from UC Davis this year, where she majored in sociology and Chicano studies. After graduation, she plans to return to Fremont as a leader in the afterschool program. 

“She really did empower me to be a little bit more outspoken, to be out in the world and not secluding myself inside my own shadow,” Calmo said. “She showed me that I can have my own voice, and not just benefit myself.”

Baez never really envisioned herself as principal of her own alma mater. When she was pursuing her credential to become an administrator, she was open to working at any school in California. 

But Fremont drew her back.

“I want students to have more than I did so that they can make better choices and ultimately improve our community,” she said. “Schools are the heart of a neighborhood. And the more stable and cohesive we are, the more the neighborhood and the community can improve and do good things.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.