From charters to school closures to school board races, there’s plenty that Oaklanders disagree on when it comes to how public schools should be run. But in recent years, one initiative has cut through the differences and maintained widespread support—and it appears to be improving outcomes for local high schoolers.
The College and Career for All initiative was first passed by Oakland voters in 2014 as Measure N, a parcel tax that raises about $12 million per year to support Oakland public high schools—both district and charter—with career and technical education, and college readiness programs. Last November, voters approved another measure to extend the tax through 2037. A citizen commission has oversight over how the tax revenue gets spent and evaluates plans at individual schools.
During a celebration at Fremont High School last Thursday, students, teachers, and district officials praised Measure N for improving graduation and college-going rates over the past eight years.
“The way that we’re organizing our high schools gives kids agency over their education, for them to be able to set goals in terms of the pathways they want to be in, the types of internships, and having the academics follow their passions,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, addressing an assembly in Fremont’s architecture shop. “That’s where that money is going, to create that environment at each and every one of our high schools.”
In 2022, nearly 75% of OUSD high school students graduated, an increase of almost 3% over the previous year, and up 10% since the 2014-2015 school year. The graduation rate for Black students rose even more—from 61% during the 2014-2015 school year to nearly 82% last year. Black boys specifically made a significant leap in one year, from 68% graduating in 2021 to 78% in 2022. But, as Johnson-Trammell told the crowd on Thursday, the work isn’t finished until 100% of students are graduating each year.
School leaders are also working towards a goal of having 100% of OUSD high school students enrolled in a pathway. Pathway enrollment across OUSD schools rose from about 48% in 2014 to nearly 88% in 2021.
Career pathways like health science, law and social justice, engineering, visual arts and more, have been around in some Oakland schools for decades. But the parcel tax has allowed the programs to expand, hire more instructors and counselors, include student field trips, and place students in paid internships. Students generally choose their pathways early in high school, and take courses in that subject area over the next few years alongside their general education classes.
With 14 more years of guaranteed funding, school leaders are also considering how to introduce career conversations in earlier grades.
“If a student gets to ninth grade and has it in their mind that STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] is not for me, we can disrupt that in elementary and middle school,” Johnson-Trammell told The Oaklandside. “Exploration at that age is more about expanding kids’ minds about what they can do.”
The programs also encourage outside companies to partner with schools to provide career opportunities and internships to students.
“It’s always a challenge to connect effectively with foster youth, homeless, and special needs populations,” said Barry Scott, who chairs OUSD’s career and technical education committee. “That’s why we’re launching a program for job shadowing opportunities with PG&E mentors and the young adult program.”
OUSD’s Young Adult Program helps 18 to 22 year olds with disabilities as they transition to adulthood and become independent.
The College and Career For All initiative supports all public schools, at a time when conversations about charter and district schools can sometimes lead to fierce disagreements. Rodolfo Ornelas, the high school principal at East Bay Innovation Academy, said the funding provides his students with opportunities and resources they otherwise would not have at the small, independent 6-12 charter school.
“This year, we were able to expand our college and career readiness team so that every student who started falling off track, from ninth grade, had someone right there to get them back on track,” he said. “As our attendance was dwindling, and we continued to expand this program, with all these new gadgets or types of learning, kids started coming back and we started seeing attendance rise.”
At Castlemont High School on MacArthur Boulevard and 86th Avenue, Marvin Boomer works as a pathway coach, supporting the teachers in the school’s two academies: community health equity and sustainable urban design. Last year, health students planned and put on a community health fair, and students in the sustainable urban design academy worked with architecture students at Fremont High School on Foothill Boulevard and High Street to design and build planter boxes for the MacArthur Apartments, an affordable housing complex a few blocks from Castlemont.
“I would love to see young people choosing Castlemont because of the pathways. I would love to see some people saying, ‘I want to go there because I want to be a designer, or a community health worker, or a social worker,” Boomer said. “I would love to see folks intentionally choosing Castlemont for the strength of its pathways.”
Arnetta Olden graduated from Coliseum College Prep Academy in 2019. She was in the computer science pathway, which helped her secure an internship with LinkedIn as a junior in high school.
“It was hard at first because I didn’t see one person who looked like me. And it’s a little bit intimidating when you’re the only person that sees the world differently. It’s a little bit harder to get other people to understand,” she said.
Today, Olden is studying computer science at City College of San Francisco. She’s also back in the classroom at her alma mater, teaching students on the computer science pathway.
Having relatable mentors in the tech industry, she said, “is something I wish I had—especially for the Black students.”