- Photo by D. Ross Cameron
Maryann Wolfe intended to return this fall for her 32nd year of teaching at Oakland Technical High School. But the co-founder of the acclaimed Paideia program, which was instrumental in turning Tech into the best public high school in Oakland, said she became overwhelmed by frustration during the summer. Paideia, a rigorous humanities program that serves students in 10th through 12th grades and has sent many of its graduates to Ivy League schools, has been increasingly “under attack,” she said.
Fed up, she decided to resign in protest before the school year began in August.
“The decision to resign was one of the toughest I’ve ever made,” said Wolfe, a Berkeley resident whom NPR once named one of the nation’s 50 best teachers. “The Paideia program that brought Tech out of the ashes in the late 1980s and helped to make Tech the ‘it’ school of Oakland has been under assault. And I did not feel I could stay another year at Tech only to see the demolition train finish its job. I felt powerless to stop it.”
Over the past year, Wolfe had become convinced that Oakland Tech administrators and school district leaders wanted to dismantle Paideia, despite its considerable success. When she launched the program in the mid-1980s, Tech was one of the lowest-performing high schools in the region. But during the past three decades, Paideia and the school’s other well-regarded programs, particularly the Engineering Academy, have transformed Tech into one of the most highly sought after public schools in the East Bay. Now, Tech routinely has a waiting list for applicants each year, and students who live outside the school’s North Oakland boundaries often have trouble gaining admission.
Through the years, Paideia has attained something akin to celebrity status for many of Oakland’s most academically ambitious families. Steeped in the Socratic method, the program famously immerses high schoolers in college-level debate and discussion of the great works of literature, history, and political theory, ranging from Montesquieu and Machiavelli and Aristotle and Plato to Shakespeare, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and other notable writers, thinkers, and political philosophers.
The program features honors-level classes in English and world literature and U.S. and world history and has helped students from all backgrounds gain acceptance to the nation’s most prestigious colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown, MIT, and UC Berkeley. And supporters of the program say it has helped transform youth into critical thinkers and changemakers in the community. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recently lauded Wolfe for her role in inspiring hundreds of Oakland students in the program.
But over the years, as Tech became more popular with middle- and upper-income families, thanks largely to Paideia, the program has switched from serving mostly African-American students from low-income families to white and Asian students from the surrounding Temescal, Rockridge, and Upper Rockridge neighborhoods. Paideia’s demographic makeover, as a result, has engendered a backlash from some Tech faculty and students who think the program has become “elitist” and “racist” and has fostered a tiered academic system at the school.
“Paideia classes get recognized more than other classes at the school, and ‘elitism’ is definitely a word that’s commonly applied to certain aspects of the program,” said Chris, an African-American student who asked that the magazine not use his real name. He used to be in Paideia but opted out last year. “And I think there is a perception in the students who aren’t in Paideia that they aren’t good enough. So, if you’re not in Paideia, students start to believe this idea that they are underachieving. But the program only has a limited number of students who can be involved in it.”
At Oakland Tech, students, beginning in the 10th grade, can choose an area of study to concentrate on by joining one of a number of academies at the school, such as those in engineering, health, and computer science. Paideia, by contrast, is an honors program in humanities that has traditionally accepted students from any of the other academies.
But this fall, for the first time, Tech’s largest academy — Health — refused to allow its students to enroll in Paideia. During public meetings last year, the Health Academy’s leaders cited Paideia’s lack of diversity for their decision.
Tech administrators also refused to allow Wolfe and other Paideia teachers to visit ninth-grade classrooms to recruit students of color last spring to make the program more diverse, nor would they let Paideia teachers present their program to parents and students during the school’s well-attended Academy Night. In addition, for a time last school year, Tech’s leaders considered eliminating all of Paideia’s 10th-grade classes this fall — until parents showed up in large numbers to complain loudly at a series of raucous public meetings at the school.
In recent interviews, Tech’s co-principals, Josue Diaz and Staci Ross-Morrison, and Preston Thomas, the High School Network superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, adamantly denied that they plan to eliminate Paideia. But they acknowledged that they’re still figuring out the best path forward for Tech’s academic programs. They also said they were sad that Wolfe decided to leave rather than stay and help forge a solution.
Wolfe, however, said she felt she had to resign to protest how school administrators blocked Paideia’s ability to recruit minority students, while at the same attacking its lack of diversity. She also argues that the school, by isolating Paideia and prohibiting hundreds of Health Academy students from enrolling in it, risks making Paideia even less diverse than it is now. And if parents conclude that Paideia’s days are numbered, they could end up pulling their kids out of Tech.
“I didn’t think I would end my career like this,” Wolfe said. “There are so many parents that come to Oakland Tech to send their kids to this program. But now, those same parents have been saying, ‘We’re not bringing our younger kids to Tech because of all the uncertainty surrounding Paideia’s future.’
“What this administration has done is that they have made us persona non grata,” she added. “They attack Paideia for being ‘elitist,’ and the subtext is, it’s ‘racist.’
“But for the first 10 years of the program when it started in the 1980s, there weren’t any kids other than the Black kids, and all my students were African American, and my African-American male students are the ones that scored the best on the AP tests, despite those that said they weren’t capable of such high-demanding work,” continued Wolfe, who takes pride in the fact that an Oakland law firm awards a $16,000 scholarship in her name every year to an African-American female student.
“But that’s kind of been my whole life — is kind of pushing back on all these people who think these kids can’t go to Harvard,” she added. “So, it’s like a stabbing. It’s like, ‘How could you call me a racist?’
“That hits the hardest of all.”