House Calls 

Channing Woodsum drops in unannounced at the homes of underperforming students. What he learns is eye-opening.

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According to the 2000 Census, 26 percent of East Oakland's population lives below the poverty line. Of Oakland's 127 homicides in 2007, more than half occurred in this part of the city. Media Academy is one of four small schools that make up the Fremont Federation. The fenced-in campus on High Street and Foothill Boulevard sits at the base of the Oakland Hills, less than a mile down the slope from some of the most opulent houses in the region. It's a hub of rival gangs posturing for turf. The school's buildings are routinely sprayed with tags, which the district spends thousands of dollars annually to paint over. Nearly every year, at least one student is shot and killed, often within blocks of campus.

Media Academy's roughly 400-member student body is incredibly diverse (with the notable absence of white kids, who comprise less than 1 percent). According to district records, the student body is roughly half Latino, with a significant number of first-generation English language learners. About a third of the students are African American. South Asians, Pacific Islanders, and a handful of Middle Eastern students make up the remaining students. The number of students living at or below the poverty line is high, and more than half qualify for free lunch.

Last year's graduation rate at Media Academy was just over 50 percent and only a fifth of students fulfilled the requirements to attend a four-year California college. Due to consistently falling test scores over the last few years, the school was recently branded with a red stamp. Under the gun, it now has up to four years to significantly improve its scores. Failing to do so could result in the state intervening, firing the principal, and replacing teachers. In the worst case scenario, the school could be shut down.

"The district looks at numbers, but it's not just the district, it's the state and the federal government too," said Media Academy Principal Ben Schmookler, a strong proponent of Woodsum's visits. "It's all based on how students do on tests." It is shortsighted, he believes, to evaluate academic performance without thinking about the environment students live in. "They don't take other factors into consideration. ... The problems we have are a direct extension of the problems (students) are facing."

While most of the parents Woodsum speaks with seem genuinely concerned, most are also woefully unaware of their child's performance before he fills them in. Schmookler finds that frustrating. "How did you not know that your student has missed 75 classes?" he asked. So along with hiring Woodsum, he has implemented several other programs to increase parental participation and establish a stronger link between the school and its community, including student exhibition nights and a community week. "If parents aren't going to come to us, we'll go to them," Schmookler said. "It's a really good opportunity to not only let parents know how their kid is doing, but also let us know how the student is living."

Several years ago, Schmookler himself paid a visit to an angry female student who had been having consistent outbursts in class and overwhelming her teachers, who were at a loss for how to manage her. Schmookler later informed his staff of the visit, describing the girl's neighborhood as a war zone. Her house was a disaster, the front door was kicked in, and a sock took the place of her broken-off door knob. Although he was not certain how the teachers would use that information, he says he felt it important for them to be aware of — information that could potentially reshape their perspective.

"Basically, what we're really trying to do is identify students who need help," Schmookler explained. "If anything, it's just a way of understanding." If a student has really bad behavior, he adds, a home visit might shed light on where it stems from. "It gives you an idea of why they're so angry ... and it helps you realize it's not their fault."

The surprise visits also serve to update the school's often inaccurate student contact information. Many students frequently move, don't live with their parents, or have had phone lines cancelled — all further hurdles to keeping parents in the loop. It's not uncommon for Woodsum, who seems to enjoy the thrill of the chase, to assume the role of detective, at times spending a good part of an evening just tracking down the house of a single student. On one attempted visit, he arrived at the listed address only to talk to a man who, a few minutes into the conversation, confessed he'd never heard of the student in question. Woodsum later discovered that the girl had indeed lived there at one time, but had since moved to her aunt's house outside of Oakland. Not surprisingly, he believes, the perennial lack of permanency and stability common among many students has a direct impact on their performance in school.

Media Academy senior Elizabeth Rodriguez, whose mother received a visit from Woodsum last year due to her poor attendance and a sluggish GPA, said it was the push she needed to get in gear. "When Mr. Woodsum came, it made me realize it's important to go to school everyday because colleges look at that," said the seventeen-year-old, who is now the news editor of the school paper. "I knew my teachers asked for him to come because they cared about me."

Rodriguez wrote an article about the visits for her paper. "I interviewed a girl who was mad and other students didn't think it was cool," she says. "Most thought it was bad, but they also knew it would help them."

Throughout his teaching career, Woodsum has embraced opportunities to connect with his students in a manner more personal than many of his colleagues have felt comfortable with, including taking a number of them on weekend trips to a ranch he owns in Mendocino County. "Some teachers don't even want to know their students," he said. "They don't want to know anything about them. Part of it is fear, like they're letting their guard down."

It's around 8 p.m. and Woodsum is doing his final visits of the evening. He knocks on the door of a compact two-story house in an attractive, new development on 65th Avenue. A woman answers from the second floor. Woodsum calls up to her, asking if it would be okay to take ten minutes of her time. A moment later, the woman appears at the door, looking displeased. "Not really," she said. "I wasn't expecting anyone. I'm here by myself and I'm not expecting no man in my house."

Woodsum explains that he wants to discuss her son, a ninth grader who is failing nearly all of his classes, and she agrees to talk at the door, but doesn't let him in. He hands her a card, which she tucks into her shirt top.

As Woodsum reads through the less-than-complementary figures and comments, the mother looks increasingly defeated. "I don't know if this is puberty or something else he's going through," she says. "He's being hard-headed."

"If he doesn't shape up, he's headed for the streets," Woodsum tells her. The mother nods. "I don't know what's going on or where he is," she responds. "I don't have a male figure. No uncles. I'm trying to do my best."

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