At a small brick building near 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, where tire marks line the intersection and a liquor store operates next door, the Homies Empowerment team is working to create an “oasis” for young people in East Oakland.
In the fall, the grassroots organization is planning to open a small independent high school at the site, which was previously occupied by other community groups like the Black Organizing Project and Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency. The building will serve as the school’s headquarters, but many of the classes will take place off campus at locations that Homies Empowerment co-founder César Cruz describes as “jewels of East Oakland.”
Students at the Homies Empowerment Freedom School, he said, will travel to Chabot Space and Science Center once a week for science classes and to use the center’s “maker space,” an area where students are encouraged to tinker with technology, machines, and art. They’ll learn about agriculture and horticulture at the Freedom Farm, a plot of land the group recently acquired at MacArthur Boulevard and 106th Avenue that will eventually become a community garden. On Fridays, students will travel to Merritt College, where they’ll attend an introductory psychology course for college credits. The organization also has a partnership with Planet Fitness, where students will receive their physical education. Other classes at the Freedom School will include math, ethnic studies, and physiology.
“A lot of times we center education or learning within the walls of a school and think that’s the only way that education happens,” said Jazmín Preciado, a Homies Empowerment board member. “And we know that is absolutely not correct.”
The goal is to create an alternative school, but one that families can opt into. Typically, students are sent to alternative schools once they’ve been expelled from traditional school, but the Freedom School will be an option for any family that wants to apply.
The Homies Empowerment team began serious planning for the school in 2018, with the aim of working with students who haven’t been served well in traditional school environments. The organization had been involved in Oakland schools since its founding in 2009 through after-school programs and teaching leadership classes for students.
“In many other schools, the kids who are gang-impacted or have had ‘behavior problems’ are placed to the side. They’re dealt with rather than given the pathway that will lead them to engagement in the classroom,” said Rev. Harry Williams, also a board member and an urban minister. “Freedom High School is a school that’s not only going to tolerate these young people, but embrace them, seek them out, and give them an education that will engage them.”
By design, the school won’t be part of Oakland Unified School District. Nor will it be a charter school, or charge tuition for families. In creating the school independently, the Homies Empowerment team will have autonomy over its budget, hiring, and curriculum. Much of the school’s current funding comes from philanthropy, like the NACA Inspired Schools Network and the Samueli Foundation, Cruz said.
“It’s a lot of foundations and philanthropy that have taken notice, small and big and in between,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean we have it all funded.”
While planning for the school began several years ago, the Oakland teachers’ strike in 2019 and the pandemic caused its opening to be delayed; the group was busy providing meals and supplies to teachers during the strike, and created the Freedom Store during the pandemic to give away food and toiletries to East Oakland families.
The school is starting out small on purpose, said Cruz—it will welcome 30 ninth-grade students this fall—so that the faculty can truly engage and meet the needs of every student. The organization is also asking the teachers it hires to make a four-year commitment so that students can have stability.
Inside the building at 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, a lobby will welcome families, and down the hall are a few small rooms that will be used for counseling or small group sessions. The team knocked down a wall between two small classrooms to make one larger space for Socratic seminars—group discussions to deepen understanding of specific topics—and the building also has one room for larger assemblies with a stage underneath skylights. There is also a backyard with a swing set, where students can take breaks.
The school’s logo is painted on the building’s exterior: a fist holding a diploma, laid on top of a modified Native American medicine wheel with red, black, brown, and yellow triangles. Beneath the medicine wheel, a phoenix spreads its wings. The logo symbolizes the different labels that students bring with them to the school: warrior, healer, scholar, and hustler.
“Having a school like this in deep East Oakland is so important to the people here. Because it allows us to embody these four healing languages and also allows our young people to see that love, change, and education can be revolutionary,” said Brandon Ros, who leads the Homies Empowerment Dream Arts and Activism class.
The group is currently trying to acquire vans to transport students to their classes, and is still hiring teachers. They’re accepting applications for students until June 1, and the first day of school is planned for Sept. 11, 2023. But what the group wants most from the community is permission.
“We’re going to need folks to take a leap of faith with us, to give us a chance to work it out and try things,” said Preciado. “It will work if folks stick with it, but if you don’t give a chance to new things, then you’re going to be stuck in old ways that you already know don’t work or don’t work for everyone.”