News & Opinion » Feature

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.



Page 4 of 5

Preston Thomas. - PHOTO BY D. ROSS CAMERON
  • Photo by D. Ross Cameron
  • Preston Thomas.

Thomas, who heads the district’s Linked Learning Pathways initiative, argued that the Health Academy wasn’t trying to harm Paideia when it decided to not let its students attend the program, but rather it wanted to create its own high-quality humanities program and build a more tight-knit community within its academy. He also contends that Tech’s other high-achieving programs don’t get enough credit.

“There isn’t some evil agenda or anything like that,” he said. “There are very different viewpoints on how to get to the same goal, which is helping every student succeed. And I think that’s getting lost is there is an amazing story about all the programs at Oakland Tech. And sometimes I think that gets masked by just having Paideia as defined as ‘quality,’ and I hope we move past that soon.”

Paul Koh, executive director of instruction for Oakland Unified high schools, pointed to the changeover to wall-to-wall pathways, in which all Oakland students must attend a pathway — or academy — by the 10th grade, as the cause of worry among parents and teachers. “When schools go through change processes, oftentimes there’s this initial stage of people feeling the way they’ve been doing things is under attack,” he said. “That’s actually not the case, but it’s more like some shifts have to be made so that the equity piece is true. We’re saying that Paideia is a model of excellence at Oakland Tech, and we want all the programs at Oakland Tech to be that excellent.”

David de Leeuw, a Health Academy teacher and former director of the program, said the main reason his academy decided to not allow its 10th graders to be in Paideia this fall is that Paideia’s long-standing priority in the school’s master schedule was creating racial imbalances in the classes in his program.

De Leeuw explained that, traditionally, under Tech’s master school schedule, students who are in Paideia and the Health Academy (or any other academy) take their English and history classes together. That means they also end up in the same Health Academy classes. Those health classes, as a result, have tended to be predominantly white and Asian in recent years because Paideia is predominantly white and Asian. In addition, the Health Academy classes that have no Paideia students in them have tended be mostly African-American and Latino — just like the non-Paideia English and history classes.

“So, one of the blocks of classes would be mostly all honors students and mostly white and Asian,” he said. “And the other two blocks would have all the other kids. And once you create those blocks, they are not balanced, then those kids go through their whole day with the other kids in that block. They don’t have many of those other classes with other kids in Tech. And that was just unacceptable for our program — that’s just not what we set out to be.”

He said that because classes had become too segregated, the Health Academy teachers decided to create their own humanities program that would serve all of the academy’s students. “Our staff said the only way to defend ourselves is to say for 10th grade, all of our students have to be in our English and social studies class,” he said. “And, really, we wanted that anyway to help form a closer-knit community among our students.”

Tech co-principals Diaz and Ross-Morrison both said Ms. Wolfe’s departure was a great loss. They also said they had hoped she would have stayed around to teach other teachers how to carry the torch of Paideia — the way that Parker Merrill, the former Engineering Academy director, did as that academy overhauled its student-selection criteria.

“We could have done better, but we’ve said it over and over, “We’re not killing your program,” said Ross-Morrison, referring to assurances she said she and Diaz gave to Wolfe about Paideia’s future. She said they told Wolfe, ‘“We want to engage in a conversation about how can we bring you along with the school’s changes, and how can we bring this about in a way that doesn’t hurt your program?’ So to hear that we’re trying to destroy your program is hurtful, because that’s not our intent.”

Ross-Morrison also said they didn’t intend to send conflicting messages to parents and students about what they planned to do. Rather, the school district was still figuring out its next steps, Diaz said.

“We threw a lot of options out there on the table to make it work, but we hadn’t settled on any,” Ross-Morrison explained. “We want to have a conversation with our community before making any final decisions, because it’s never been top down at Oakland Tech.”

Diaz also said Paideia alumni were not invited to speak because it would have been too late in the school year to include them in informational sessions that had already been planned. He also said they didn’t allow Paideia leaders to recruit during ninth-grade classes because ninth-grade teachers — not the administration — resisted the idea. Those teachers didn’t want to miss out on valuable instruction time, and some said it would be unfair if teachers from other AP and honors offerings weren’t also provided equal time to present in the same classes, he said.

“We’re real sensitive to anything that might give a message that these Paideia classes are better and more important than other classes,” Ross-Morrison said. “This is coming from our teachers, where they are saying when you do this, it makes us feel less than, and we have great teachers throughout.”

Some students
who aren’t in Paideia end up feeling like they’re second-rate because of Paideia’s reputation for being the best program at Tech, said a student who is also a founding member of a club called Supporting People of Color Now. He asked that the magazine not use his name. The club formed a couple of years ago to support students of color in Paideia, AP, and honors classes, where they often report feeling isolated and misrepresented, he said.

“Also, there’s sort of a myth or legend that if you are not in Paideia, that the English and history department isn’t going to help you, or that the teachers who are not Paideia are subpar, but that’s absolutely not true,” said an African-American student who used to be in Paideia, but he opted out his senior year. “That might have been true in a different era, but right now, at this school, we have an excellent English and history department that is not part of Paideia. The teachers are amazing and the students certainly feel they are prepared.”