skyline student working with think college now student on laptop
Skyline senior Gabriella Griffiths works with a first-grade student using Zearn, a math app.

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When in-person learning resumed last fall at Think College Now, an elementary school in Fruitvale, it didn’t take Principal Ana Vasquez long to see that she would need to hire some reading tutors. 

After more than a year of mostly distance learning, it was evident that many of the school’s students had fallen behind. In one first-grade class, about half of the students who arrived on the first day of school didn’t know their alphabet, teacher Julie Dulay said—more than she’d ever had in one class at that grade level. 

Dulay’s class was not an outlier. According to district data, about 72% of elementary school students at OUSD tested below their grade level in reading last fall. But with Oakland facing a teacher shortage like other districts in California during the pandemic, Vasquez struggled to find literacy aides.  

A first-year principal, Vasquez thought back on her prior years as a high school administrator, and about OUSD’s academic pathway programs—specialized academies at district high schools tailored to specific industries, with opportunities for internships in those fields. Vasquez reached out to a colleague at Skyline, one of two OUSD schools with an education-focused pathway, who put her touch with a teacher there, Monica Vu. As luck would have it, Vu, who directs Skyline’s education and community health pathway, had also been thinking about ways her students could get real-world experience in the classroom. 

“My vision has always been to see if we can develop a teacher pipeline, starting at the high school level and getting students into the classroom to experience what it’s like to be an educator,” said Vu. “It was so magical how organically it fell into place.” 

The two educators began brainstorming and quickly created a pilot internship program, where this semester four students at Skyline with an interest in education have had the opportunity to spend several hours a week in a classroom at Think College Now. The interns work one-on-one with students, help teachers lead science and art projects, and may even teach a lesson themselves. As the program grows, it could expand to other schools and serve as a training ground for budding Oakland educators. 

Building a teacher workforce that reflects the OUSD student body

Developing a more diverse educator workforce is one of the focus areas in OUSD’s two-year strategic plan. The district is pursuing that goal through various initiatives, like establishing partnerships with local community colleges, developing pipelines for non-teaching staff to become credentialed teachers and administrators, and expanding OUSD’s existing academic pathways to include opportunities for students to begin a career in education. 

District leaders want the numbers of Black and Latino educators to at least match the proportions of Black and Latino students in OUSD. This year, about 22% of teachers in the district are Black, roughly equivalent to the Black student population (20%). But while Latinos make up 45% of all students, they comprise only about 18% of the district’s teachers. The retention rate for Black and Latino teachers has increased over the past several years, from 73% and 77% in 2017 to 86% and 85%, respectively, in 2021. Part of those efforts include encouraging students to return to work in the schools they were educated in. 

“We wanted to create a pathway into the world of education, with kids that are from Oakland, that look like our kids and can come back into elementary school to serve students,” Vasquez said. 

A mural by artist Xochitl N. Guerrea portraying the international community hangs in a hallway on the Think College Now campus. Credit: Amir Aziz

For many of Dulay’s first-graders, this school year has been their first in-person learning experience. Beyond academics, students also had to learn some of the basic social skills that they couldn’t learn last year in virtual kindergarten, like sharing, waiting in line, and taking turns. 

“It was really challenging at the beginning of the year,” said Dulay, a veteran teacher who has been at Think College Now since 2007. “When Ms. Vasquez offered me the opportunity to have a high school intern, I jumped at the chance.”

Gabriella Griffiths, a senior at Skyline, has spent Thursday afternoons for the past four months working with Dulay and her first-graders. Her day may include helping students who didn’t finish their homework, leading a small reading group, working with Legos to help students build motor skills, or handing out materials during an art lesson. Seeing how students’ capabilities have grown over the semester has been one of the more rewarding aspects of the internship, Griffiths said.

“It’s really affirming that they see me as a teacher even though I’m only here once a week,” she said. “Seeing their eyes light up when they run in the door and see me there is really great.” 

Gabriella Griffiths spends Thursday afternoons at Think College Now Elementary, working with first graders on reading and math skills. Credit: Amir Aziz

Now at the end of the year, all of Dulay’s students know their letters—a kindergarten learning standard—and can read, and many have made more than a year’s worth of academic growth, she said. Students who worked with Griffiths saw their self-confidence get a boost and are less avoidant when they’re faced with a concept they don’t understand. 

Griffiths is planning to attend UCLA in the fall to study psychology. When she shared the news with her young students, they learned how to read the letters, “UCLA.”

“Our school is called Think College Now, but a lot of students don’t make that connection in first grade of what that actually means,” Dulay said. “It’s been exciting for them to meet a teenager who’s from Oakland who’s going on to college.”

Vu and Vasquez plan to interview the teachers and students who participated in the pilot internship this year to learn how they can improve and possibly expand it in the fall. Vu wants to recruit more Spanish-speaking interns, and one of Vasquez’s goals is to establish professional development sessions for the interns in early literacy and restorative justice. 

“I hope that we can continue the high school internship program because until every student in my class is reading at grade level, we need the support,” Dulay said. “It’s always amazing for kids to see an inspirational peer who looks like them and is from their community succeeding in high school and college.” 

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.