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Oakland high school students head out of the classroom to solve neighborhood problems

It’s a Friday afternoon at the MetWest High School gymnasium. Over a hundred students and faculty are gathered for the school’s weekly town hall meeting.

Senior Jose Gomez is at the front of the gym. He’s proposing his thesis project: “So the issue I’m focusing on is many Latino families have a lack of communication between each other. I’m trying to get them strengthened,” says Gomez.

A senior thesis project is mandatory to graduate from MetWest. But it’s not strictly academic: MetWest students actually go out and work in their communities to identify a problem within a neighborhood. Then the student develops a project to address the issue, and carries the project out. Gomez plans to work on teen parent communication at his old middle school, Urban Promise Academy, located in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.

“So my target community is Latino Families. I am a member of this community. I am a Latino and I have experience with lack of communication with my parents,” explains Gomez. “And I want to make a difference in my family and my community.”

Gomez’ project is accepted by the school. He’ll be spending the rest of his semester planning and developing communication workshops for Latino families.

MetWest high school was founded in 2002. It’s an alternative public school that follows a philosophy called “big picture learning.” Students get real world experience while making valuable connections outside of school.

“What we have are young people out there with few or no relationships, real meaningful relationships with adults right in the time in their life where it is most important,” says Greg Cluster, internship coordinator at MetWest. “Because they are about to become an adult and so I really think we need to think about how we structure students time during their high school years.”

Every year, students at MetWest work with mentors, advisors, and even peers to create their individualized learning plans. Students go to class three days a week. And the other two days are spent at internships. Cluster says, “we surveyed the students last month and 99 percent said they liked or loved their internship and at the end of the year we always do a mentor satisfaction survey in which its usually 95 percent internships and mentorships said they’d like to be an internship mentor again with the right students.”

MetWest has over 500 organizations in the Bay Area for students to choose from – and they are encouraged to explore their interests.

“I explored that medical field and had the experience to see doctors and what do they do and I decided I don’t want to be a doctor,” says Gomez.

That was Gomez’ freshman year. He also “interned at the physical therapist department and I said the work is fun but it seems like a lot of work.”

Gomez realized that science was not his thing, “so from hospital I went to cooking. So I went to intern at a Japanese restaurant and I learned cooking skills! And I actually got to prepare my first full meal” says Gomez.

But cooking didn’t stick for Gomez either. This year, he chose to intern at Oakland Parents Together.

Henry Hitz is the executive director of Oakland Parents Together, which provides tutoring as well as parent education classes. Hitz says he’s been impressed by the MetWest philosophy and Gomez’ work as an intern: “So he came to us and thought it was a pretty good fit” says Hitz.

Parents come together once a week to talk – the idea is to improve communication and strengthen Oakland families. Gomez frequently translates for the predominantly Spanish-speaking group.

“We try to have bilingual discussions at every table so he does a lot of help with that, he does a lot of the written translation,” says Hitz, “And well, you know of course what he is learning to do is facilitate workshops so he can do his own workshops.”

This is what Gomez’s senior thesis project is all about. At first, Hitz was skeptical about how Gomez would engage middle schoolers ­­– until he witnessed Gomez in action at MetWest.

“I saw what he did with his high peers and he asks, ‘What do you hate about your parents?’ They were engaged they were completely engaged,” says Hitz.

Gomez is leading his first workshop, all on his own. Ten parents of middle school students at Urban Promise Academy are sitting around a few tables in a small room. Gomez gives them the first topic of the day: how does your culture influence the parent you are now?

“So basically I told them to partner up with someone. So for three minutes one parent’s gonna talk and answer the question, the other will have to listen and not talk at all, then they’ll switch,” explains Gomez.

They do this for the next two hours on a range of questions. As the workshop goes on, you can see the parents opening up, more and more. Parents who were quiet at first are now having lively discussions. And at the workshop next week, the parents hope to do the same thing with their kids. At the end of the workshop, Maria Torres tells me Gomez made them comfortable: “There’s something about him that caught the attention of the parents. So the way he presents himself, talks, the way he attracts them to be able to speak up,” says Torres.

The experience has made Gomez more confident, too. He says the practical experience he’s gained throughout his internship has given him the ability to succeed after high school as well.

“I got accepted to CSU LA and CSU East Bay. I want to study psychology and computer science,” says Gomez of his options for next year.

Seventy four percent of MetWest students enroll in college within one year of graduating – it is a graduation requirement to apply. Gomez is enrolling at Cal State East Bay. He says MetWest has given him more than just his education.

“We have the experience to explore and yeah to explore our interests and just learn the skills of when you are finding a job how to do a professional interview how to ask good questions,” says Gomez. “I think besides what we learn in school with English math science and all those subjects, we also learn the kind of skills that we are gonna need in life.”

Lizzy Schultz is a journalism student at Mills College.