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Charter school offers alternative approach to education in Oakland


Oakland Unified School District has the largest enrollment of any district in Alameda County, with 136 schools and over 46,000 students. Within OUSD, about 25 percent are charter schools and this number keeps growing.

Arise High School, a charter, is inside the Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland. The plaza looks hip and newly built. There’s a bank, senior center and a dentist’s office – not the typical setting for a high school with over 200 students. G. Reyes, one of the school’s co-principals, says Arise created a unique approach to learning.

Most of Arise students are teenagers who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Many transferred from more traditional public schools, where they weren’t often successful.  Yet here at Arise, Co-Principal Reyes expects students to do more work, not less.

“Our school has more requirements than any other Oakland Unified school,” Reyes says, “So we just want students to know that you come here you may have to do more.”

Students who attend Arise start school at 8:45am and don’t leave until 4:30 pm – almost a full eight-hour day. To top it off, some classes are over two hours long.

“We have way more homework which is weird but I guess I get way more engaged in class,” says Senior Aracely Flores. She says she didn’t feel challenged at her former school, but Arise has helped her focus on academics. “The teachers here help me a lot.”

“At Arise, caring about students is critical,” Co-Principal Reyes says. “We confront the questions of substance abuse, domestic violence, gang violence that is happening in their neighborhoods and we offer support in that sense.”

Charter schools have more flexibility to do this type of intensive teaching. They can be smaller and more creative than many larger traditional schools.  But, they are controversial. Many charter schools in large cities like Oakland are set up with a more scripted learning model that teachers are meant to enforce and students are meant to follow.

“We’ve really seen a growth an expansion of charter schools over the last decade,” says Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, the Director of the Center for Urban Schools and Partnerships at Mills College. She says charters are popular in Oakland because parents wanted alternatives. 

“This idea of trying to say, ‘Let’s do things differently, let’s either fund our schools differently, let’s organize our schools differently, let’s teach differently, let’s teach different groups of students.’ So charters have been one way to use public dollars to try to provide a public education for students that in a way that is counter to or an alternative to the typical traditional school,” says Seyer-Ochi.

And why does OUSD need to do things so differently and allow schools like Arise? The answer has many parts, but one of them is the large number of students dropping out. In the 2009-2010 school year there were about 40,000 Hispanic dropouts in the state of California and a large concentration of them came from Oakland.

“Oakland has large populations of students that are very poor and live in neighborhoods that face unbelievable poverty, that have very limited economic opportunity,” says Seyer-Ochi. “So I think we have to look at the range of disparities and the range of opportunities or constraints on young people’s lives to understand why it might be that they would be dropping out in large numbers.”

Seyer-Ochi also says that Arise is having success with certain young people, in part because the staff understands the challenges these teens face. “And also I am always struck when I visit Arise that this is a school that is infused with what I think of what is kind of an ethic or a culture of care,” says Seyer-Ochi.

This culture of care is evident at Arise. Even when students aren’t doing their best or behaving their best, principal Reyes says all of the adults at Arise look at how problems can be solved, not just dealt with.

“Schools traditionally had this framework of discipline that was about punishment. You do this you get suspended, you do this you get detention, if you do this, you get expelled and so on and so on,” says Reyes. “And there’s never any kind of reflection, any kind of service back to the community any kind of healing that is done in that practice. As a matter of fact it contributes to more trauma.”

That’s why, at Arise, when students skip class, miss assignments, or get into fights, they are not expelled. In fact, no student has ever been expelled from Arise since the school opened five years ago. So far, 100 percent of Arise graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. That track record is only two years old, but it’s still an impressive statistic for any public school. Even though Arise has been only around for a short while, its unique approach to education has so far been a success.

This story originally aired on May 23, 2012.