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Betsy Rubio is seven years old, and lives on Macarthur and 77th in the Castlemont neighborhood of East Oakland. But she attends Urban Montessori school, about 30 minutes away by bus. She told me about her first week of second grade. “First we go to morning circle, to figure out some rules. And then something called read aloud, where the teacher reads and we draw.”
Her mom, Yolanda Castillo, chose to send her daughters to charter schools that aren’t walking distance from their house for a couple reasons. First, she likes the freedom that charter schools have when it comes to hiring teachers. Second, she wants a safe place. “I remember taking my oldest daughter to enroll at a local school, and on the first day there was a shooting. And I decided that was not the best school for my daughter and I didn’t want her to be around that,” said Castillo.
When Yolanda heard that Youth UpRising, a youth community center in her neighborhood, was petitioning to launch two new charter schools, she was excited.
“I appreciate the control charters have… The reason why my daughters are in charters and they’re far away is because we don’t have one close to home,” she said.
Youth UpRising has drafted petitions for two charter schools: Castlemont Primary Academy and Castlemont Junior Academy. The primary academy opens its doors next fall, and the other is pending school board approval.
Olis Simmons, the President and CEO of Youth UpRising, said that the impetus for launching the charter schools grew out of seeing young people in the neighborhood make self-destructive choices — that she attributes to a failed educational experience.
“Young people say things like, ‘The teachers don’t care about me. They’re here for a paycheck. They talk to me crazy.’ … And how that translates is, I don’t think that my teacher has the skills they need to manage the classroom and to be dynamic and engaging,” said Simmons.
Academically, Simmons said that the Castlemont academies will be inquiry-driven. What does that look like? One example that Simmons gives is that each student will come up with a question, do research, collect data and present their findings at the end of the year. Students will consider questions like how to transform their neighborhood, and improve the health and economy of where they live. This kind of focus on real-life issues in the community is the difficult part of Simmons’ vision because she also hopes the school will provide a refuge.
“Is there food at home, what their parents got going on, who’s crashing at the house. No matter what, to bring them into school and hold a space… for them to ground themselves in the day,” she said.
But Oakland school board member Jody London, says adding schools is not a solution she supports. She’s one of the two representatives that voted against granting the Youth UpRising primary school charter.
“In my opinion, we are at the point in Oakland where we’re just poaching students from one another… The 100 Black Men school, we approved with great fanfare, and it lasted 18 months, they closed in January and left the kids stranded, had to scramble to find new schools for those boys and that was really hard,” said London.
London makes it a personal obligation to think carefully about the finances of the school district.
“We merged seven schools and we closed five schools. So that was in 2011. In the summer of 2013 we were given applications for five new charter schools. There’s no way we can manage our finances when we continue to have no control over the number of schools we operate,” she said.
For Simmons, it’s not about finances, but the educational opportunity for kids. But beyond improving the k-12 experience, Simmons said that her goal is to re-brand the neighborhood.
“[East Oakland] — It’s beautiful … but the dropout rate is staggering, the literacy rate is staggering…. East Oakland will gentrify and change… the question is whether we’ll still be there.…So we want the kids that live there to … stay in your neighborhood,” she said.
For now, the Youth UpRising team will be busy recruiting students for the Primary Academy, as well as hiring administrative staff and looking for teachers. A school board vote on the Junior Academy for middle school-aged kids is expected soon. If approved, Youth Uprising will also launch a 6th grade class of 100 students next fall.