Alternative School in Oakland Raps to Tap Students' Potential

Associated Press Writer

It's just another day at the School of Social Justice and Community Development.

In culture and resistance class, the assignment is to compose a rap about an important issue in the city of Oakland, a proposal to add 100 police officers to the city's force.

"I can't rap," says Antoine Henderson, surveying the lyrics on his paper:

Why they want to bring more police in the town

Just for them to attack the black and brown.

But his teacher offers a bit of encouragement.

"A lot of the rappers that are out now, they can't write anything like this," says Boots Riley, himself a rapper. "This sounds good." Antoine beams.

The scene is just one example of the unusual curriculum at Social Justice, a new public school in a tough section of Oakland that recruited about half its 124-member student body from group homes and juvenile halls, and by allowing dropouts from other public schools to re-enroll. (The rest of the students graduated from district middle schools.)

Administrators have a simple goal:

"The intent is to educate, and this is a method in which we believe and have had some experience at -- reaching students who normally don't get reached," said Kali Akuno-Williams, the school's co-director.

"We're trying to engage them with education that's relevant to their direct lives, what they experience day to day."

In the end, school officials want their students to be able to succeed in college.

That means classes and assignments that might raise eyebrows elsewhere. But this is a place and a student body facing challenges that aren't issues elsewhere, administrators say. About a fifth of the city's more than 100 homicides this year have occurred within a mile of the school.

The school may also have escaped notice because it is small and new, having opened in September. But "Oakland has never been a district to shy away from having controversial issues discussed," Assistant Supt. Lewis Cohen said.

On a recent school day, Sarah Fuchs' English and social studies class talked about patriarchy and sexism, and discussed an essay assignment on how colonialism affected Africa.

It was part of a lesson plan covering "systems of oppression," including capitalism and white supremacy. Another section of the plan called for discussing "tools for liberation."

Biology teacher Omar Hunter taught his class about the periodic table, then gave them an assignment: Write a ransom letter to President Bush. Students were to pretend that they were holding an element for ransom, listing its physical and chemical properties, and why it is crucial, along with their demands, he said.

Riley's course, where students composed the raps, is one of Antoine's favorites.

"I've never seen a school with a rap class," the 17-year-old junior said. "That kind of caught my attention."

When Riley's students finished their writing session, they attended a news conference held at the school opposing the proposal for 100 new police officers. A few students spoke, as did former Black Panther Bobby Seale and Principal Wilson Riles Jr., a former mayoral candidate. After school, about 45 students and teachers protested alleged police brutality.

Students say they like the school's activist approach.

"We get to experience the world," Korin Merle, 16, said as she marched alongside protesters. "This is what is in our society."

Social Justice is a part of the Oakland Unified School District, but opened under the district's new autonomous schools policy. It is one of seven small schools that must meet district and state standards, but which control their own budgets, instruction and curriculum.

What many Social Justice students say they like best is the school's size -- the average class has about 20 students -- and the individualized attention that teachers provide.

"The teachers here really care about you and your well-being," said Trinette Henry, 16. At her old high school, she said, teachers would put a book in front of you and start talking. "Here, they explain it to you."

Rasaun Jones, 17, said his teachers call to make sure he's doing his homework and to update his mother on his progress. "I love it," he said.

Rasaun dropped out of the sixth and seventh grades, then went to jail several times for offenses including robbery and petty theft, he said. Now his goal is to attend college, take business courses and eventually run his own record label.

"If you aren't going to school, you aren't going to do anything in your life," he said.

Parents voluntarily send their children to the school and attend a mandatory orientation on its programs.

"I could see that it would teach my kids how to stand up for their rights and how to advocate not just for themselves, but for others," said Priscilla Merle, Korin's mother.

Parents, teachers and students who founded the school say it was a reaction against overcrowded classrooms, indifferent teachers and high dropout rates. In the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent data available, nearly 25% of students who entered Oakland high schools dropped out by the end of 12th grade.

Social Justice tries to tailor its curriculum to reflect its student body, which is mostly black and Hispanic. The social activism is in the tradition of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a 1960s civil rights group, Akuno-Williams said.

Nationally, the move toward small schools has been under way since at least the 1980s, and many of them are organized around themes. But for the most part, they try to stay politically neutral, said Judith Warren Little, a professor who specializes in high school reform and policy at the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley.

Social Justice's approach of "building a whole school on that premise is uncommon," Little said. "The way this school stands out is actually promoting social activism on the part of the kids."

So far, Social Justice is on target to reach its goal of 90% attendance, although it's still working on other details. It's leasing temporary space at a church and is searching for a new site that will allow it to enroll up to 400 students.

Students and parents hope that it will be around a long time.

"They're giving us another chance to make our lives better," 10th-grader Carmalita George said. "I hope the teachers stick to what they're trying to do."

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