By Barbara Grady
The quiet young woman studying alone in a Laney College classroom one recent afternoon is, these days, the quintessential serious student.
She sought out the empty room to read and get ahead in her coursework. When asked, Jocelyn Wallace tells about her goals to complete college and enter law or politics.
But such determination was not always easy for her to find.
"I went to ninth grade three years in a row at Oakland Tech," and didn’t pass, she said. "A good friend of mine was murdered and that messed me up. I couldn’t emotionally deal with it."
Trauma so extreme seems above and beyond the dramas most teenagers have to deal with to persevere through high school. But in parts of East and West Oakland, it’s not. Many teenagers here face gun violence or homicide, or conditions of homelessness and hunger while also trying to figure out math homework and do research papers.
Such severe challenges are a large part of why Oakland Unified School District has a high drop out rate - 34.8 percent as revised last week for the most recent year data collected (for 2009-10).
A look at California Department of Education data shows an unmistakable correlation between drop out rates and neighborhoods of poverty and violence. In deep East Oakland, the Leadership Preparatory High School had a dropout rate of 50.9 percent in 2009-10, while Business Information Technology High School had 55.6 percent. In West Oakland, the former Business Entrepreneurial School of Technology had a 47.7 percent drop out in 2009-10. It has since been folded into McClymonds High.
"We are in a triage situation in this district with the severity of the dropouts and social issues," Alison McDonald, Network Executive Officer of a network of high schools within OUSD, said. "There are multiple points where society has failed these children," she added, naming dysfunctional families, neighborhood influences of gangs and drugs, too few recreational spots and too few grocery stores. She also listed inadequate investment in public school education.
OUSD, recognizing the life challenges students face outside of school, has launched the creation of Full Service Community Schools around the district, joining with non-profit agencies to deliver health care, food assistance, recreation and mentoring to both students and families in nearby communities. The first of these at the high school level, the McClymonds High School Youth and Family Center will open this Thursday at McClymonds on Myrtle Street, with a 9 to 10 a.m. grand opening celebration.
Educators say students first need the basic necessities anyone does to thrive in an environment: adequate food, shelter and safety. After those three, students need support.
Hattie Tate, OUSD's administrator of the Full Service Community Schools department, said that safety and support are particularly important to girls. Feeling unsafe or not personally and individually valued prove to be common reasons girls give up on academics, she said.
"Girls need a lot of attention, help with just being sure and confident about who they are," she said. "There is an identify or self image crisis where girls are involved," she said. But it's very possible to rescue girls with mentoring and individual attention. Tate often helps girls at risk of dropping out with creating plans for how they can continue.
Jocelyn, whose world was shattered when her friend was murdered, is a case in point.
"I had no one to support me," she said, explaining that her home life was chaotic and neither parent available but that a school counselor and then a principal helped her figure out next steps.
Alarms have been sounding about Oakland’s male drop out rate - measured initially at 41 percent and now revised to 38.2 of boys in the 2009-10 academic year - but also alarming is that nearly one in three girls dropped out of OUSD high schools in 2009-10, too. The female drop out rate was 31.3 percent in that year.
Moreover, when girls drop out of high school their futures turn particularly bleak, according to national statistics gathered by the National Women’s Law Center. Poverty, unemployment, disease all occur at higher rates among women who dropped out of high school than for men who dropped out or women who finished school. Other findings include in the report "When Girls Don't Graduate We All Fail":
In many corners of Oakland, however, young girls are aware of the choices in front of them. At McCLymonds, which is in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, four out of five girls randomly interviewed as they came out of school at the end of the day said they were determined to graduate from school and that they liked school.
For Gerurekar Price, a junior whose favorite subject is chemistry and who plans to go to college, her biggest motivational force comes from seeing the down-and-out around her neighborhood.
"When I see bums," she said when asked what motivates her. "They had a chance to go to school and they blew it."
"You laugh, but I mean it," Gerurekar then said to schoolmates who chuckled at her response. She added she likes the teachers and counselors at her school and said they make a big difference in her life.
For ninth-graders Teanna Tucker and Alexis Smith, motivation comes from following a ritual of doing homework first and seeing the fruits of that work. Both said they are doing well in school.
"Most days I go home and do homework," Teanna said. "I finish my homework before doing other things."
"It's a cool school. If you want, you can learn," said Quilliecha Robinson whose favorite subjects are biology and English. "Some kids just won't apply themselves."
The reality is often more complicated.
Anthony Flores, director of the Gateway to College at Laney College, which rescues kids who are dropping out by offering them a chance to take college courses while finishing high school classes, said girls in inner-city Oakland face lots of pressure and responsibilities.
"Many of our young ladies have great responsibilities at home," Flores said. "Among many Latino families, there are cultural expectations that they help out at home. They are expected to take care of siblings or they may be pressured to work." These responsibilities can interfere with getting to class or even getting to school some days.
Teenage girls also need basic emotional support during this time in their life. Raye Mitchell - the Oakland award-winning social entrepreneur and founder of G.U.R.L.S. Rock - has focused her career on helping girls receive this support, while assisting them in finishing high school.
"I tell girls that staying in school is the key competitive advantage they will have," Mitchell said. "Finishing high school sets them up for the next step, which is the biggest game changer in life.
"The big problem for our young girls is that cultural message is that they don’t have value," she added, referring to the message they get from music, television and the Internet. "Their value, as they see it, is based on size or beauty."
Mitchell said she wants school districts to help young girls get connected to programs that help them see their opportunities.
"The school district, with its limited resources and budget, can engage businesses and other creative people that want to partner with the school district. They can set up programs for coaches and trainers to come to school more often than just career day," Mitchell suggested. "I'd like the school district to become an innovation platform where community leaders, business, etc., come and consider what we can explore doing without turning to money."