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.

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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.

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