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
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.”
Other minority students have spoken out about their dissatisfactions about Paideia. At a community-input event that the school puts on called “a fishbowl,” a number of former students shared their negative experiences.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
“I know one young lady shared about being one of the only girls of color that were in Paideia for a few years and how she had a problem with the word ‘nigger’ being said over and over in class, when discussing slave narratives …,” Ross-Morrison said. “And I asked her, ‘Well, is it in the book?’ and asked her to find a way for her not to be angry about it. But at the same time, it’s how she feels.”
Another student, who is Japanese American, said she didn’t like being put on the spot in a similar way when the class discussed the Japanese internment, said Antonio Calbo-Jackson, who is African American and graduated last year from the Paideia program. He was one of two African-Americans males in the senior class of Paideia, which had about 64 students.
“Her grandmother had been interned, and she did not want to talk about it, and she said that was too much for her, which I could totally understand,” he said. “She felt, ‘Why I am being used to explain my culture to these people?’”
He also remembers at times feeling awkward moments in class, such as during discussions of Frederick Douglass’ slave narratives, when he and the other students of color were asked to explain their culture and how they felt about it, he said.
“There definitely were some people who thought the program was too white — that was probably the only way to say it,” he said, explaining that he is half white and half black. “And it was definitely fairly white. There was no way around it, and it would kind of put off a weird vibe at times.”
Calbo-Jackson also said it was clear that Wolfe had her favorites — students she would call on the most often. There was also a group of white males in his junior year class that often did distracting things in class that felt culturally insensitive, he said, adding that the group seemed to act like it owned the school and made it harder for others to not see Paideia as elitist.
“People would call it an ‘elitist program,’ ” he said. “And I agree. It was elitist. And it was super-white, but I would say just hating it because there’s a lot of white people in it, isn’t for the right reasons.
“You’re not going to fix a problem of lack of diversity by just saying there’s bad diversity,” he continued. “You have to actually get involved. By actually participating in it, it’s going to get a lot better.”
Wolfe said she helped to increase access to Paideia by creating a ninth-grade California history curriculum for all students, with similar Paideia-inspired techniques, to prepare all students to the rigors of Paideia. Also Paideia’s ability to expand has been limited by the number of teachers willing to put in the extra hours to teach the course, she said. “Not every student gets in to Paideia, but the numbers of those not getting in haven’t been large — usually less than 10,” she said.
Randolph Li, who has been co-director of the Engineering Academy for the past three years, said it has recently been criticized for not requiring applicants to get the top scores on a geometry test this year, and instead only mandated they get the best scores on an algebra test. The academy changed its admission standards in order to make the selection process fairer, he said, because many students are not eligible for geometry in ninth grade due to the fact that their middle schools don’t offer algebra in eighth grade. “If there are students who have been underserved by our school district and school system, we want to be sure we do not perpetuate those issues,” he said.
But Li also feels that too much blame has been placed on Paideia. “There’s no question, that in the Paideia program, the students are not an exact reflection of our student body, but I think where the fight comes in there are some people who are chalking that up to racism, favoritism, or a rigged system,” he said.
Engineering, he added, gets some of the same complaints — with people blaming teachers for the fact that it’s not as diverse as the rest of the school. “Some people will say, ‘There are students in Oakland who can’t qualify for your program, so what are you doing for them?’ ” he said. “And we want to do what we can, but there is only so much we can do.
“There is some responsibility elsewhere out there in this whole global system,” he continued. “And I don’t think it helps to say, ‘It’s this person’s fault; it’s that person’s fault.’ Especially when we’re all trying to get at the same thing. We want our students to be successful — all of our students to be successful. But there is only so much that any one program can do to change the status quo of all of Oakland.
“We still have so many different inequities in education and our system—besides just race and Paideia or something like that,” he continued. “And I don’t want us to lose sight of that as a community.”
Disclosure: The editor of this story, Robert Gammon, is a Paideia parent.