In a crowded meeting hall in Oakland’s Preservation Park on a recent Wednesday, five teenage girls are about to receive their high school diplomas from a new program called EMERGE.
Balloons and confetti are everywhere, and a buffet table at the back room beckons with catered platters of barbequed chicken, candied yams, and greens.
“We want everybody to feel nourished and feel full. So please help yourself to some food,” the evening’s emcee tells families and friends here to see the girls receive their high school diplomas.
Up until now, these girls’ experiences with school have been fraught. Nearly all the teens who come to EMERGE have suffered trauma on the streets or at home. Many have cycled in and out of juvenile hall or the foster care system.
“A number of the girls are commercially sexually exploited or at risk of being that,” says Celsa Snead, executive director of The Mentoring Center, the nonprofit that runs EMERGE day-to-day. “A lot of the girls have difficult family circumstances. A lot of them can’t go home or don’t have a home to go to.”
We’ve all heard about the struggles that many African American boys face nationwide: Getting suspended and expelled from school, losing faith in themselves and winding up in trouble. It’s known as the school to prison pipeline.
But here at EMERGE, these girls are starting to get the kind of targeted attention that advocates say they need to believe in themselves and thrive.
So tonight’s a big deal. It’s the third graduation for this small program that is poised for expansion.
Before she makes herself a plate, 16-year-old Florida explains what got her here, and how EMERGE has transformed her future. She’s beaming in her black cap and gown, with a colorful flower lei around her neck.
(We’re only using Florida’s first name because she’s involved in the legal system.)
“I was in and out of jail. So my grandma wouldn’t have thought this day would really come.” she says. “I just feel so proud of myself because I done been through so much.”
Florida came to EMERGE this past February. And for the first time in years, she excelled at school. She’s only 16, but she finished all the graduation requirements in a matter of months. She wants to go to a four-year college. But first, she’ll take next year off to work, help her grandmother who raised her, and get ready for the SATs.
Her GPA used to be a abysmally low. But she’s boosted it to a 3.97. Her favorite subject is history. And she’s got big plans.
“My grandma said I was 7 when I started telling her I wanted to become a lawyer, going to the library, getting the biggest books,” she says. “I want to help kids, like an attorney, but working with kids.”
To understand Florida’s transformation, it helps to know a bit about her difficult relationship with school.
Before she even got to first grade, her teachers crafted a special education plan for her — but it wasn’t for a learning disability. It was for emotional disturbance, because her behavior was so disruptive.
That plan was supposed to get Florida the support she needed. But school was a disaster.
“They didn’t have patience for me,” she says. “They thought that I was a bad kid, a bad person.”
Florida was expelled from 8th grade — and it wasn’t the first time. At the next school, things just got worse. She says she felt disrespected and misunderstood.
And she acted out, big time.
“I wouldn’t do my work. I would walk out of class,” she says, pausing. “It got to the point, when I started throwing their computers outside the window. I just got so angry ‘cause like, I have not learned anything. I feel like my brain is more fried than it was before.”
Florida hated school. She says she was running with a rough crowd. At first it was about fun. But it landed her in trouble.
“I don’t know as a young female, nowadays, all that matters is boys, money, drugs, you know?” she says. “That’s all that matters to females nowadays.”
So far, students in the program have all been black and Latina, though it’s open to everyone.
The goal of EMERGE, says Snead, is to create a healing learning environment with tons of support. Being away from boys helps the girls let their guard down.
Snead and a small group of advocates created the program to respond to the needs of girls of color. Education researcher Monique Morris was among them.
Morris is co-founder of the Berkeley-based National Black Women’s Justice Institute. She interviewed girls in juvenile hall for her book — Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.
And she was convinced: the whole approach at schools was pretty much upside down.
“Often times as educators we’ll enter the classroom and say, ‘These are my rules, deal with it,’ instead of saying, ‘OK, what do you need to be present today?’” Morris told KALW’s Your Call two years ago. “I have found that when we do that, particularly with girls, with Black girls, they respond because they feel that you see them.”
Federal statistics show that compared to other groups of girls, African American girls are disproportionately punished the most in school — suspended, expelled, and referred to law enforcement.
And Morris says it’s not necessarily because they’re bad kids. Many girls she interviewed at juvenile hall told her they got in trouble just for asking questions.
“They were seen as being disruptive, called annoying,” she said, ”Their act of critical thinking was viewed as an affront to the educator.”
Monroe instantly got on board. But instead of crafting a program for them in juvenile hall — where the girls tend to remain for only one-to-three weeks — she suggested creating a program to reach them on the outside.
Recidivism rates for these girls are about 70 percent, she said. The goal was to help them believe in themselves, so they wouldn’t return.
“To know who they are as individuals, not just as objects or caregivers or a girlfriend or what the media says that they should be, takes a significant amount of investment,” Monroe said in an interview.
The relationship with the county office of education enables the girls to receive high school diplomas, not just a GED. With funding from the state, Monroe’s office also provides the teacher, who works with the girls and young women once a week.
EMERGE program coordinator Randa Powell — who works for The Mentoring Center — is with them all week, helping them master the material. She often takes calls from the girls after-hours when they have a problem or just need to talk.
The program launched in February 2016 and bounced around in borrowed space. But the classrooms were run-down and felt institutional, Monroe said.
Then, last December, EMERGE was welcomed into the bright downtown Oakland building that belongs to Girls Inc. of Alameda County. It’s a big modern space with enormous windows. The students partake in all that Girls Inc. has to offer: mental health services, after-school leadership and college prep programs, a yoga studio, and a kitchen.
But when Florida first got to EMERGE, she was not thrilled.
“I didn’t like it because it was like, it was all females, it was nothing to do,” she recalls. “You know, it wasn’t like a school where it’s noise and crowds and everything jumping, it was just quiet.”
It was everything that school had never been for Florida. But soon, she grew to love it there.
“As I started going, there were cooking classes and field trips and just all these adventures,” she says.
Her teacher, she added, “she’s just awesome ... The vibes in there are just comfortable, it’s just respect, getting told good morning everyday, quiet for me to get my work done. I just started feeling comfortable and when I feel comfortable, it makes me want to stay.”
Florida still has a lot of healing to do.
“It’s like I got a lot buried, a lot, lot buried deep down inside me,” she says — and some of it, she’s just not ready to talk about.
Some of it she can. Her dad died when she was just one. And her mom hasn’t been in the picture much.
“And me being on my own,” she adds softly, almost as an after-thought. “Me having to be on my own for a year.”
That was last year, because Florida’s grandmother lost her apartment. They became homeless and split up for much of that time. Florida says it was really rough. But just before last Christmas, her grandma found a new place. And thanks to EMERGE, Florida’s whole outlook is changing.
“To be honest, I thought I was gonna be dead before I really hit my future,” she says. “That’s real talk. I didn’t even think I was gonna pass 17, 18, just because of the things I was doing back then.”
And now, she’s determined to be a lawyer.
“That’s what I am gonna be,” she says. “That’s what I will become.”
When the ceremony starts, Florida is first to receive her diploma. Before she strides up to the stage, Powell, the EMERGE program coordinator, tells the cheering crowd about the teen.
“I don’t know who named her Florida, but she’s sunshine, honey, let me tell you,” Powell says.
She recalls getting a thick intake file on Florida detailing her every mistake and behavioral incident. But she didn’t let it get in the way of knowing the real girl.
“I didn’t read it. No, I didn’t read it!” she says to shouts of affirmation from the adults in the room. “I skimmed through it a little bit. But that doesn’t have anything to do with who she is.”
Florida’s grandmother is there snapping pictures and cheering. So are Florida’s sisters and cousins and her boyfriend. And when Florida stands up to talk she’s elated.
“I might not be proud of myself for making the decisions that I have made but … I will be proud of myself for becoming and overcoming and bettering myself,” she says.
Then she gives up on her written comments and ad-libs it with a huge smile on her face.
“I’m just proud of myself, you know?”
EMERGE plans to stick with Florida next year to make sure she gets into college. She’ll be plugged into to college prep courses and get some hand-holding from a college readiness program at Girls Inc.
EMERGE is in the final year of a three-year pilot program. Among its key partners are Monique Morris’ National Black Women’s Justice Institute.
Morris has been studying the program and plans to soon release her findings. She, Snead, and Karen Monroe, the Alameda County Office of Education superintendent, then hope to scale the program up — and push to replicate it in other parts of the state and nation.
The goal: to get to truly know and educate many more teens like Florida.