A visitor driving onto the campus of McClymonds High School for the first time is not really sure what to expect. Located in the heart of gritty, industrial West Oakland, the worst-performing school in a chronically challenged school system, Mack, as the students call it, must surely be something out of the movie Dangerous Minds: eerie, drug-infested, graffiti-festooned. But the surprising view from the central parking lot is of a clean and orderly school. A big mural is painted on one wall, boosting the home team, the Warriors, and featuring depictions of Aztec, ancient Japanese, Native American, and African fighters. On any given day, JROTC students might be lined up on the basketball court for drill. The undefeated football team could be running sprints as young women in hip-huggers walk by, holding their books and giggling to each other.
But if the school appears to be a high school like any other, the problems of the surrounding neighborhoods are never far away. More than three-quarters of all the residents of West Oakland live in poverty, and the area has the highest rate of infant mortality (16.5 percent) in all of Oakland. Gunplay and gangs are ubiquitous. A few years back, only blocks from the McClymonds campus, a van was surround by four masked gunman who pounded it with bullets. One female student was killed. Drugs are everywhere, prostitutes work San Pablo Avenue, and vast public housing tracts are punctuated by tenant hotels and vacant lots.
Though McClymonds High is one of the oldest high schools in the city, it is also one of the least known; the adversity that shapes the daily life of its students has produced a tight-knit, insular community within its walls, a community most of Oakland has never seen. But now a new program at Mack hopes to break down that insularity and give a face and voice to its students.
Youth Sounds is an after-school program run from an expansive, industrial, high-ceilinged loft on the McClymonds campus. Across the door, the word "ELECTRONICS" is painted in big beige letters, the sole remainder of an older job-training model. Now, rather than television repair, these kids are learning how to create their own video documentaries, how to produce Webcast radio broadcasts, and how to create their own publications using desktop computer programs. On the right of the room are two state-of-the-art Macintosh G4 computers, to the left is a row of PCs wired into the Internet. Construction has begun on a recording studio in the back. Eventually, students will be able to produce broadcasts on TV, radio, and the Web (on youthsounds.org) as well as print media.
At the center of all this -- though he tries not to let it show -- is a young volunteer named Ken Ikeda. Though it's Ikeda's job, as the project's coordinator, to bring the whole shebang together, it is, he insists, a student-run operation. "I don't want this to be adult-driven," he says firmly. "I think one of the things that we will be struggling with is making sure that it is peer-driven. The whole idea is that we want to provide resources and structure and guidance, but not directions."
He's almost a cliché: the young, eager do-gooder, not yet burned out, who decides to work in an inner-city school and really shake things up only to find himself fighting the same battle his students have been in for most of their lives. Like most do-gooders, Ikeda has an unflagging belief in the potential of the students of Mack. Give the kids cameras, he says, let them be their own bosses, and then stand back and watch them blossom. Sounds good, but isn't that asking a lot of students who read far below their grade level, who consistently underperform on standardized tests, and who are attending a school that is on academic probation and in danger of closing down due to its poor performance? If Ken Ikeda's program is idealistic, so is the belief that Youth Sounds and other after-school programs might just save McClymonds High.
Students like to joke that Ken Ikeda looks like he should be in a Gap commercial. At 29, he is handsome in a casual way, with a George Clooney haircut and square-toed loafers. But a swingin' bachelor he ain't -- at least not these days. He lives just blocks from McClymonds, and when he's not there (before 8 a.m. or after 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday), he does consulting work for nonprofits to pay the rent (he's taking a year off from his PhD program in linguistics at Stanford, and has a stipend that barely covers his food). On the weekend he really lets his hair down -- and spends hours writing grant proposals. "It always bums me out when somebody asks me what I do in my free time," he laughs, though he swears that he does go out for beers with his friends -- sometimes. He's driven and focused, but not intense. Students seem to know that he is watching but not judging.
"I guess I understand a lot of the ways in which youth and institutions interact, because I went through a lot of that," he says. Ikeda's parents were among the first generation of Japanese immigrants to arrive in St. Louis, and he has firsthand experience of the constantly negotiated relationship youth of color have with the institutions around them whether it's school, the police, or a shopping mall. His dissertation is on immigrant groups in East Oakland's Fruitvale district, and their efforts to be understood in their interaction with each other and the institutions that govern their lives. "I'm looking at a community organizing group that is training immigrant parents to be more active leaders in the community. Most of these parents barely speak English, but they are organizing around school issues, basic rights, things like that."
With Youth Sounds, Ikeda has consciously tried to create an anti-institution, something that will enrich the school but at the same time defy its rigid hierarchy. "There really is no structure [at Youth Sounds]," he says. "We hand the tools to kids and we don't tell them what's right or wrong, what's good or bad. We just sort of give them the tools and basic training, and then give them guidance." He knows the educational enrichment model he's pursuing has critics (why teach a kid interpretive dance when they can't even write a sentence?), but insists that he is not competing with school. "The number one challenge for West Oakland is engagement. You can borrow from a lot of sayings; you know: 'You can't teach them if they are not in their seats.' They are going to learn the most when they are self-selecting, when they are motivated to learn."
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