At 8:45 on the last Tuesday of August, laughter and shrieks of greeting waft up from the downstairs lobby of Oakland's Life Academy High School. But here in the classroom of Chris Harrison, where there are far more seats and tables than students, the mood is restrained. "Welcome to your first day of high school," Harrison says, towering over a small knot of ninth graders with his rugby player's build. "We're going to spend the next two and a half hours in here. I know that's a long time. Trust me. I'll make sure it's not boring."
Barely a minute into his orientation, a Southeast Asian man in his twenties knocks tentatively on the door. Standing at his side is his younger brother, who achieves that teenage trick of looking speechless, stylish, and hopeless all at once. "He'll be just fine," Harrison assures the man, who is nonetheless reluctant to leave. Addressing the boy, the teacher adds, "Come on in. Take a seat." The man watches from the hall as his brother sits as far back in the room as he can get, then moves closer under Harrison's gentle urging. Finally the older brother lifts a hand in farewell and disappears.
"I've worked a lot with teens," Harrison tells his eight charges, pacing the length of the classroom in six or seven strides, his dashiki hanging loosely from his broad shoulders. The four boys and four girls in Harrison's advisory group follow him warily with their eyes. "I know teens like choices, so I'll try to offer you choices as much as possible. For instance, you can call me Mr. Chris or Mr. Harrison. It's up to you." Harrison then explains that at eleven o'clock, some juniors will come in to answer questions about the school. "Think about what you want to know," he suggests. The students seem shell-shocked; it's hard to imagine them curious about anything besides where to hide.
Just as Harrison begins talking about himself, he's interrupted again, this time by a father and his daughter, the latter dressed in an ankle-length Middle Eastern skirt, her head covered with a scarf. Her father needs even more reassurance than the older brother, and he hovers anxiously in the hall for several minutes.
In spite of the interruptions, Harrison soon has the class divided into groups, with each student interviewing his partner about favorite movies, career goals, and which languages are spoken at home. The students then introduce each other: The class is primarily Hispanic, with a sprinkling of Asians and the Arabic girl. The girls want to be nurses, except for one would-be pediatrician. The boys want to be chefs, stuntmen, basketball players.
As the students talk, Harrison notes who has trouble reading, who's not paying attention, whose English is poor. After he has them write down what each wants from his class, he gets them up to stretch. While they're still standing, he quickly moves two students away from chatty seatmates. He does it with no rancor, and nobody acts up. Then he collects the sheets and reads aloud what each student hopes to achieve. Their goals are remarkably similar: To learn more math. To read more. Help me with homework. Help me get into college. Help me with algebra. Advise me on college. Help with my future.
"Well," he says, a broad smile on his face, "y'all get together on this?" Tense faces relax into answering grins, and a sense of belonging settles over the classroom like a warm cloak.
Nine kids to one teacher, family members in the hall, two-and-a-half-hour classes -- these are just a few of the surprises in store for these Life Academy freshmen. Others include kayaking and judo for PE, paid work-study at area health clinics and hospitals, and a three-week "intersession" between semesters in which students might study portraiture, make a video, or go camping in the Sierra. And they'll have plenty of time to choose between Mr. Harrison and Mr. Chris -- the adviser who doubles as a math teacher will spend three days a week with these students. During that time, he should get to know each of them very well.
Life Academy is neither a private school nor a charter: It's a public high school in the much-maligned Oakland Unified School District, one of three new small autonomous secondary schools begun in the past two years. The schools vary widely -- Life Academy jumped in headfirst, opening its doors last year to grades nine through twelve and a full complement of 250 students. The School of Social Justice and Community Development, also in East Oakland, began this September with 120 kids and plans to add grades and students as it goes. Met West -- based on the Met, a small school in Providence, Rhode Island that offers an individualized program and internship to each student -- started this year in a building on the Laney campus with a class of 30 ninth graders.
Unlike Met West, Life Academy and Social Justice were spawned by existing Oakland high schools. Life Academy, with its emphasis on health and bioscience, grew out of Fremont High's Health and Bioscience Academy, one of several specialized "career academies" students can choose to enter in the tenth grade. The new school took up residence in an old Red Cross building at 21st Avenue and International Boulevard. The School of Social Justice was born when parents and students at Castlemont High convinced a coalition of faculty members and community organizers to start a new small school. As can be gleaned from its name, Social Justice is committed to community activism; its "Founding Principles of Unity" begin by embracing revolution, not "reform from within."
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