The Media is the Message 

Ken Ikeda has his own solution for the chronically underperforming students at Oakland's McClymonds High School: Give them a camera.

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."

They are also motivated to teach. One of the first projects to come out of Youth Sounds was a documentary intended to contradict the negative image of their school in the larger community. In a short film called Life Behind the Walls, the students interviewed kids and teachers about life at McClymonds. "Even though much of what we heard was predictable," says the film's narrator, "some of it was surprising: [We heard about] happiness and pride, as well as lack of materials and poor teaching. The truth is somewhere in between, and the reality of McClymonds is far beneath the surface."

"That's the thing," says Ikeda. "There's a real commitment to West Oakland here, because these kids are so used to being maligned. The people who show up here have intense pride; it's interesting to see. This is a small, collective school."

Jacobi is a senior who is also working on a documentary about his community. Upbeat, polite, and baby-faced, with tight braids crisscrossing his head, he is the kind of student that Ikeda could only hope for. Jacobi is one of four student managers, a paid position. He is motivated, reliable, and steadily learning and improving. When he first walked into Youth Sounds loft, Ikeda says, Jacobi wouldn't speak at all. "I had to sit across from him, lean in, and say, 'You need to talk to me.'"

Jacobi asks a visiting reporter, "You know what the cover for your story on Mack should have on it? Me." After bouncing from foster home to foster home for most of his life, Jacobi currently lives with his nineteen-year-old brother. "As long as I graduate and go to college," he says, "I'll be happy. I never thought I was going to graduate, but things are looking up. I'm in here every day."

The Youth Sounds program is in its infancy, and many of its features are still a dream. Though the first broadcast of the radio station is due any day, the recording studio has yet to be built; there are currently fifty students waiting to tackle projects. One student wants to make a two-hour movie, another wants to host a teen-oriented radio talk show. A student named Kevin wants to make a documentary about his friend who was killed on the McClymonds campus in August of 2000. He was leaning against a wall on his bike when he was shot in the back of his head. He had just graduated.

"Kevin's an interesting case," says Ikeda. "He's kind of an adult kid. He's got a child and a partner." Slim, with gold teeth, Kevin usually wears a knit hat. He looks hardened, and speaks with deep Oakland slang, each sentence ending with "You know what I'm sayin'?" He says he is very motivated to make his movie. "I'm tired of seeing pictures of my [dead] friends on a T-shirt," he says. He seems to know all the ins and outs of the neighborhood, all the players; everyone waves at him when they go by. "If it weren't for God," he says, "I'd be going down the wrong road. I done did things. I'm not saying that I was the best person. I done did things that you wouldn't think other people would do."

Although he's only been in the program for three weeks, Kevin has brought his grades up. He walks around with a red folder of clippings about his friend, and has completed a storyboard for his documentary, which will mix interviews with dramatic reenactments. He definitely seems ready to work. "I think that my message is that youngsters gotta wake up. Too many youngsters is droppin' over something that don't really mean nothing. The world ain't doing nothing but spinning, time is just tickin', so you gotta get your mind right. Get it into focus. Because you are here one day and then gone the next. That's the name of my movie. I want people to know that a young boy's life was taken, and for something that could've been avoided.

"He wasn't in a gang. I mean, he sold drugs, but he made it. He stuck through school and graduated. How many drug dealers do you know that was selling drugs and actually came to school and did the work and graduated? You can't knock him for that. Nobody deserves to die." The emotion is stuck in his throat.

"We need to wake up. We got some smart kids in this school, but it's just that we don't get any recognition of the things that we do that's good. They only target us for things that's bad. I think people need to stop putting us down, give us a little more of a lift, try and help us. Make us feel like something instead of just putting us down. How you expect some kids to come to school, when you talking bad on the school, tellin' them how low the test scores is? Why come to school? They telling me that the school can't do nothing for me."

Besides the four student managers, Youth Sounds' only other employee is Chris Pendergraft, the techie hired on by the district as a consultant. He also runs Vulcan Radio in Oakland, a streaming-audio station known for its offbeat programming. He's definitely Ikeda's right-hand man, assisting with teaching and mentoring.

"We've reached the point where we are going to have to set up criteria that I know Ken doesn't necessarily want to establish," he says. "We need criteria about who gets into the program and who doesn't. What if there's a student that might be the next George Lucas, but right now he's so unmotivated by school and his environment is so hectic, that he doesn't have the grades to make it into our program even though he could take off as a filmmaker? We're going to have to establish whether or not [entrance will] be based on his emotional state, his grades, or what."

In fact, Ikeda isn't at all blind to the necessity to set standards. "The biggest thing is that we have to be tough about who we let in and who we don't," he says. "You always think that that if you reach one kid, then that's great. But I think it's an absolute tragedy if you reach one kid and that one kid wastes or ruins the experience of thirty other kids." Like most things in the program, though, Ikeda would ideally like to leave the decision in the hands of the students. "An indicator of how successful we will be is that kids will monitor this space and experience for us. They won't allow in someone who isn't willing to be cooperative, isn't willing to participate in the program. They'll self-select."

If the slow pace at which the program seems to be moving forward irks Ikeda, it doesn't show. "We're going to graduate some students with the skills to edit video. We can actually hand off cameras to kids, and the worst that can happen is we lose a camera."

Actually, losing their cameras could be catastrophic at this point. With all the expensive computers and equipment they have, if they lose either of their two Sony Mac-compatible cameras, they have no funds to replace them, and no means to broadcast or make films. "If we lost those," says Chris Pendergraft, "our program would be down. So that's what I'm saying. Ken is well-intentioned. He's got what it takes: perseverance, steadfastness, and sacrifice. He's not receiving one cent in this. He's not on salary; he's doing this out of his heart. But there's a lot of well-intentioned people out there who can't pay the rent. I think we need fiscal strength as well. Just so we can have a base to work with."

In Life Behind the Walls, a slender woman sits casually in a chair in a classroom and says how proud she is of McClymonds High School. The woman is Lynn Haines Dodd, the principal. "Ninety-nine percent of people," she says into the camera, "once they enter the campus, their perception is changed one hundred percent." Now in her third year as principal, Dodd brings both strict discipline and high expectations to her job, her coworkers say. Sitting down with a reporter in a teacher's meeting room, she is inviting and nondefensive, but she's obviously also quite accustomed to the task of defending the performance of her school to members of the press.

"McClymonds is a unique school. It's one of the oldest high schools in Oakland. It has a rich heritage of outstanding athletes; there are scholars that have graduated from McClymonds that have gone on to establish themselves throughout the world. Unfortunately, McClymonds is usually written off. We are one of the high schools in the Oakland unified school district that has scored at the bottom of the academic performance index. In fact, we are at number one, which is probably about as low as you can go. But our students have definitely been shortchanged along the way. We fight for almost everything that happens at McClymonds. We fight for our AP [advanced placement] classes, we fight for our honors classes. We even fight to maintain our status as a comprehensive high school, because our enrollment is so low."

Since the school has such a small student body (fewer than 750 kids are enrolled, and even fewer than that show up), Dodd knows each student, if not by name then at least by sight. "It's a family atmosphere here," she says. "A lot of people think there is not a lot going on during the course of a school day here other than fighting, and students walking the halls, but that's not us. It's an unfortunate perception that many Oaklanders and other people in the Bay Area have."

Dodd is a strong believer in after-school programs, having coordinated many before her appointment as principal of McClymonds. "Our students come to school every day with life circumstances that you wouldn't even believe. This becomes a home to them; this becomes a safe haven. This is an environment where they know they can stay until six or seven o'clock at night. The doors stay open, so they are here. If they are not involved in athletics, they're involved in cultural activities or tutoring. Or they will go in the library and just hang. You'll see them reading a book or working on a computer."

Like most of Oakland's schools since the arrival of School Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, McClymonds is undergoing a massive overhaul, a reform initiative that Dodd hopes will be given enough time to work. Unfortunately, the latest test scores are not encouraging. Last year, only seven percent of McClymonds' students were reading at the national average, a three percentage point drop from the year before. "We are the new McClymonds," Dodd insists, echoing the refrain so often heard from the students in Youth Sounds. "We have some of the brightest students on the face of the earth. They just need a challenge. They have not been put into situations where they face high expectations throughout the course of their day in school. They've been passed over on way too many occasions."

Does Dodd believe that a program aimed at training kids to record their own music or make a video will help them sharpen up their test scores? "Anytime we create an environment that extends beyond the academic, but that bridges academics with whatever students are doing in their outside lives, then I say, 'Go for it.' There's a student who is now with Youth Sounds, that I and a lot of other people might have written off. Now he's got something to hold on to. He knows that in order to participate in the program, he has to maintain good grades, meaning at least a 'C.' Last year and the year before, he was a student that probably had a GPA of .25. But now he's hustling to do what he needs to do to stay in Youth Sounds. He's still struggling -- there's a lot of peer pressure from the streets pulling him in another direction -- but the effect of that peer pressure on him is slowly but surely diminishing. He knows, that is, 'You want to do a documentary on one of your best friends, you've gotta go to class. You've gotta pull in grades.'"

As for Ikeda, he has no worries about handing a camera to a struggling student. "There is always a more correct way of presenting a story or an experience," he says. "I think when something comes out exactly the way they would say it, as if they were saying it to someone close to them [instead of, say, a teacher], I think it's great. I think it has an impact when they can craft something and people respond to it, and it's theirs."

If there is one place that the students and faculty of Mack can anchor their school pride, it is in their athletics program; many McClymonds students go on to college scholarships and even the pros. Characteristically, a recent football game at Oakland High brought out most of the school community, and there were far more orange-and-black-clad McClymonds fans in the bleachers than those who had come out to watch the home team. Current and former Mack students bring out their whole families, sometimes with noisemakers and even a big bass drum. It is, to quote a student, "off tha hook."

Jacobi and Kevin have come to the game to film some bits for a sports montage that eventually will be a part of a school pride video. Ikeda and a Berkeley undergrad who volunteers with the program carry in the camera and equipment, and sit down at the bottom of the bleachers in front of the cheerleaders ("It's on, it's black, it's Mack!" they chant). Police tape is set up between both groups of fans in an effort to quell any fights or epithets (after all, the motto of the school used to be, "If you can't beat 'em, beat 'em").

"I can't just hand them the camera," Ikeda says. "I have to wait for them to come pick it up themselves." He sits patiently, eyeballing the kids and tracking their positions. Kevin is hanging with a group of guys with seemingly no intention of working. Jacobi keeps to himself and makes no effort to set up.

Finally, halfway through the first half, the boys come over and begin to set up their rig. They walk over to the opposing team and, with Kevin holding the camera, Jacobi speaks into the mike and interviews a player. "Good, Jacobi," Ikeda mutters under his breath with the same intense concentration some parents have for their kids on the field. "Good, good, good." The pair go on to interview Mack players and fans, Oakland High fans, even a referee. At one point the camera veers too far away because Kevin is checking out the Oakland High cheerleaders' routine. One interview is accidentally done without the benefit of audio. But the footage will work. McClymonds, meanwhile, beat Oakland High 64-zip.

Several days later, back at Youth Sounds, Jacobi sits in front of a Mac and edits his footage, cutting in a hip-hop soundtrack and some special effects. The phrase "We gonna kick they ass!" is tastefully edited down to "We gonna kick they a--." Jacobi proves to be an accomplished interviewer, asking follow-up questions and making asides. The finished product, complete with edits and cuts, makes McClymonds seem like an exciting, fun, family place.

"Guess what?" says Jacobi as he works. "I'm on the honor roll." Ken Ikeda offers congratulations, but he doesn't go overboard. He knew that Jacobi could do it.

"This is my spiel on schools and teaching," Ikeda says later. "The system has to allow people to work creatively and to challenge themselves. That's what I love about after-school programs: It's all on you. If you say you are going to do something, you have to go do it. That's the challenge that comes with some freedom and autonomy."

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