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

Maryann Wolfe

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.”

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.”

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