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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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Like other Paideia alumni, Hutchinson also appealed to school administrators not to lower Paideia’s academic standards or eliminate the program. They also repeatedly offered to help personally recruit students of color to Paideia and mentor them, but the school’s administration never followed up with them, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson graduated from Tech in 1995, and when he attended the school, it was overwhelmingly made up of students of color — as was Paideia. There were four white male students in the entire graduating class, he said.

“It reset my baseline for what was possible,” he said of Paideia. “Without it, I would not have become who I am today.

“So, it’s strange to me that Paideia is being attacked for being too white and not having enough African Americans in it,” he continued. “If you had told me at the time that the problem at Tech, 20 to 25 years down the road, would be too many white folks, I don’t know what I would have thought.”

Hutchinson said the recent changes to Paideia’s demographic composition shouldn’t detract from the fact that, throughout most of its history, it served students of color. He also argued forcefully that Wolfe and other Paideia teachers have never sought to exclude students based on race. “To hear anyone say that the program might do something that is exclusionary on the basis of race doesn’t pass the smell test with me,” he said. “These teachers have dedicated their lives to serving whatever students have come before them, and I believe those students have been overwhelmingly people of color over the past 30 years. I don’t think there’s any question that they’ve served that population.”

When Hutchinson attended Tech, anyone could get into Paideia, as long as they were willing to put in the extra work. But after the program’s popularity rose, it established admission requirements. Nowadays, a ninth-grade student needs a teacher’s recommendation and well-written essay to get in.

Hutchinson is also worried that Tech might make the curriculum less rigorous to try to ensure that Paideia is more diverse. “It’s sad to me that there is this great thing there at the school, and they want do something else that is less tested and less effective,” he said. “You don’t help anyone by giving them lower expectations. You don’t help anyone by taking a phenomenal program and replicating some of its elements to dumb it down for folks. I come from the school that you show you care about people by holding them to high expectations.”

And if Paideia ceases to exist, it won’t be the privileged kids who’ll be harmed the most, he said. “They’ll just go a private school somewhere, and they’ll just be just fine,” he said. “It’s not the white kids that’ll miss out. It’s the students of color that are going to miss out, because they will not be getting to attend a diverse school.”

Kulwa Apara, who is also African American and who graduated from the program in the mid-2000s, said Paideia saved her life. She said she was raised by her mom and that her dad was addicted to crack cocaine when she was in high school. “Ms. Wolfe fought for my twin sister and me, and we both got into UC Berkeley because of her,” she said. “But she did not hold back any punches. We definitely both got our fair share of bad grades, and when we were writing essays, she was really hard on us. She made us step up our game, and she prepared us for the real world.”

Apara said Wolfe also changed her perceptions about race. “Just knowing that Ms. Wolfe was a white woman, it helped me to realize that even though we really didn’t see white people much in Oakland, that there are really good humans out there that loved me regardless of my skin color,” she said.

Today, Apara is a childhood mental health consultant to many Oakland students. She works with a lot of Black and Brown middle schoolers from low-income neighborhoods whom she helps to get into Oakland Tech because of the Paideia program, she said.

“Paideia is amazing,” she said. “It has to stay in Oakland. It cannot be forced out. It needs to be supported. I just know that it would be devastating for Oakland kids to not have Paideia as an option.”

Many parents
who support Paideia say they’ve been made to feel that they don’t care about the school’s diversity, when that’s not the case.

“Tech is a unique and vibrant school, because it is a place where Oakland’s diverse communities meet,” said Karen Fiss, a Paideia parent and member of the Equity Team, which is working with parents and teachers to help students of all backgrounds achieve their potential. “You don’t send your kids to Tech because you don’t want to have a diverse experience. You send you kids to Tech because you want them to be part of this community and this world.”

Other parents say that they fear the uncertainty surrounding Paideia could result in many affluent families that can afford private schools, sending their kids elsewhere. “This program is one of the things that makes Oakland Tech special, so what are they thinking? Why are they going after what seems like one of the best things at the school?” said a parent whose two children attend Paideia, echoing the concerns of hundreds of parents who showed up to meetings last year, worried about Paideia’s future.

Some parents also noted that the school’s finances could be impacted severely if too many Rockridge and Temescal families leave. California public schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis. And middle- and upper-income families often provide additional funds to Tech through donations to the PTA.

Preston Thomas, High School Network superintendent of Oakland Unified, believes that some teachers and parents are overreacting and said that no one is calling for Paideia’s destruction. “I want to emphatically say that I think there’s the perception that we’re trying to close the Paideia program, and that is absolutely false,” he said. “What we are trying to do is integrate that quality programming into the new programming that is happening at Oakland Tech.”