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The Wrong Path?

Paideia helped turn Oakland Tech into the best public high school in the city. But some teachers and parents are worried about the future of the acclaimed humanities program.



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  • Photo by D. Ross Cameron
  • Maryanne Wolfe

Founded in 1914
, Oakland Technical High School on Broadway in North Oakland has a storied history. Its notable alumni include former longtime Congressman Ron Dellums, Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton, Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood, baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, and NFL legend Marshawn Lynch.

But when Maryann Wolfe arrived in 1986 to launch Paideia, Oakland Tech was known more for violence and rock-bottom test scores than its famous graduates. In fact, the year that Paideia began, an Oakland Tech custodian was found lying in a pool of blood on campus, after being stabbed fatally in a quarrel with a one-time friend, according to the Los Angeles Times. Six months earlier, a 17-year-old Tech student lost a fistfight to another student in the school’s main corridor, pulled a gun on another youth, and shot the second youth to death.

“The school’s nickname was ‘Murder High,’ and it was about eight blocks from the epicenter of Oakland’s crack epidemic,” recalled David de Leeuw, former director of Tech’s Health Academy, which started around the same time as Paideia.

“It was an academic wasteland,” Wolfe added. “The school had a horrible reputation. The school only had one honors class, in which they read one book a year, and no AP [Advanced Placement] classes, not at the school or anywhere else in Oakland.”

Wolfe was recruited to Tech by then-principal Dennis Chaconas — who would later become superintendent of Oakland public schools — to help turn around the school. Wolfe brought on a former Fremont High colleague, Marietta Joe, to co-run Paideia. Joe still teaches Paideia classes at Tech.

Wolfe said she still recalls talking to a Stanford recruiter, who said that whenever the university received applications from students from Oakland’s public schools, they would just toss them in the trash. “So, it’s been kind of a challenge all these years to take a school with a bad reputation and that had no kids who were going to any important universities in this country, including those in California, and turn it around. But today, they are everywhere. They are at Harvard, Yale, and one of my Latinas this year got into Stanford. But that’s what we try to do — give them rigorous curriculum to prepare them for success.”

During the past three decades, Oakland Tech’s enrollment has ballooned from about 1,400 students to over 2,000. Many North Oakland families who can afford private school now send their kids to Tech instead.

The school’s success has prompted a seismic shift in its demographic makeup. The increasing number of white and Asian students who have enrolled in the past few years have pushed African-American and Latino students out of the highly selective Paideia program.

Critics have chastised Paideia for failing to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the school, which is very much like the city as a whole. Tech’s student body is currently about 32 percent Black, 24 percent white, 20 percent Asian, and 16 percent Latino. But according to the school’s Equity Team, Black students currently make up just 11 percent of Paideia’s enrollment, and Latinos, only 9 percent. By comparison, 49 percent of the program’s students are white and 23 percent are Asian.

Wolfe acknowledges that Paideia could do a better job of reflecting the racial and ethnic makeup of the entire school. “But all of our recent efforts to change that imbalance have been stymied,” she said, referring, in part, to the school’s decision last year to block Paideia teachers from recruiting students to the program.

Paideia also doesn’t fit cleanly into the school district’s major overhaul of its high schools. In an effort to increase graduation rates, reduce the dropout rate, improve academic achievement, and better train students for jobs after they graduate, Oakland plans to require all high school students to enroll in a so-called “Linked Learning Pathway” or “career pathway” by the 10th grade next fall. Ironically, the sweeping new initiative is based, in part, on Tech’s existing successful academies, including its Engineering and Health academies (which Tech is now renaming “pathways”).

Paideia was never an academy; rather, it’s a program that has traditionally included students from all the school’s academies. They take their academy classes together and then go to Paideia for English and history classes. Wolfe and other Paideia supporters believe that Paideia could become a casualty of the new pathways system.

Last year, Tech administrators rejected a proposal by Wolfe and other Paideia teachers to be considered a career pathway, because they said the program must serve at least 50 percent or more at-risk kids, Wolfe said. That’s led to fears that the school will require Paideia to reduce its admission standards or that its philosophy of teaching with rigor and to the highest standards will be lost to future generations of students.

“What Paideia provides is equity, in that we enable students of all races the opportunity to thrive at the highest level so they might truly be competitive at the university and in the workplace,” Wolfe said. “We do not ‘dummy down’ curriculum … We want of our students to reach their highest potential.”

During the past year, many Paideia alumni have made it clear that they’d be happy to talk to the school’s youth of color to extol the program’s virtues. Among them is Daniel Hutchinson, an African-American attorney at the prestigious law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein who specializes in consumer protection and class action cases in the public interest. Hutchinson and a group of former Paideia alumni — many of whom are African American or Latino, attended top-rated colleges, and have inspiring careers serving the public good — went to a PTA meeting in January to voice support for Paideia and Wolfe and talk about how the program changed their lives.